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Playback: Theo Watkins

In the lead up to our next exhibition, Playback, we asked filmmaker Theo Watkins some questions about his film I Saw The Beast and how it was made with the help of Random Acts.

A joint initiative between Arts Council England and Channel 4, Random Acts aims to showcase bold expressions of creativity with the young filmmakers of today. The films created are now included in the touring exhibition Playback which opens at Arnolfini on 18 August.

Filmmaker Theo Watkins tells us how he got involved: 


What prompted you to submit your film idea to Random Acts?

Having always created little films and video projects for absolutely no money, or the money I found down the side of my sofa, the chance to utilise resources, personnel and indeed funding was too good an opportunity to pass up.





Did you have any experience in filmmaking before working on your proposal for Random Acts?

I had completed a film related degree, and made a plethora of short films and music videos. I was able to use that experience, along with drawing upon some of my established collaborators when starting I Saw The Beast. I had also written countless failed proposals and treatments for many other funding opportunities, so I felt like I had some practice in selling my ideas - which is why it was really nice to see one accepted at long last!

 

Film Still - I Saw The Beast 


How did you experience the production of the film? What surprised you the most?

I think it was my project mentor that said to me at the beginning of the production "you can have as much or as little help as you need” - which really was true; when I needed help or advice, it was there, but when I wanted to be free and expressive on my own terms, I was able to. I half expected endless meddling, but that was non-existent. In the end I was able to edit and make the music for my own film, no one discouraged me; which meant I had a nice amount of creative control. I was surprised at how freeing the process was — even though most of the filmmakers for Random Acts are relatively inexperienced, we were treated like proper artists whose visions should be respected. Well impressed. 


Which films have influenced your work, and what are your major sources of inspiration?

For I Saw The Beast, the original concept was a mix of Mike Leigh’s more comedic work fused with a more cinematic Coen Brothers visual sensibility. Interestingly though, this evolved as the project went on, I became more interested in creating a more dreamlike atmosphere with both the look and the soundscape, while maintaining the deadpan, comedic elements. I saw “The Last Picture Show” some time before shooting, which left a huge impression on me; it has such a wistful atmosphere throughout, and some of the visual vocabulary I conceptualised when storyboarding my film was definitely inspired by it. It is also a film set a while before it was made, which it has in common with my film (which is subtly set in the 70’s) — so that idea of looking back at the past, almost as if it was a fading, unreliable memory, became paramount. I think this approach is more true to who I’m becoming as a filmmaker, and as I go on, I feel as if I’m getting to know my filmmaking voice a lot better, which made this Random Acts opportunity such a useful process.

 

Film Still - The Last Picture Show 

 

Generally though, I’m such a fuddy-duddy film buff, to a level that probably goes too far and must bore the pants off the people around me, so I love all kinds of cinema. I find it quite hard to nail down influences, because I like to watch everything and then let it all seep into my work organically. Having said that, here’s one of those dumb lists of some of the filmmakers I seem to return to most in the past few years: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Mike Leigh, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Kelly Reichardt, Robert Bresson, Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento, Yasujirô Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Roman Polanski, Nicholas Roeg, Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and very recently I’ve found myself becoming an out and out proud Brian De Palma fan.


In your opinion, what should be tackled in films of the future generation? Are there any topics and questions that you consider as crucial?

I think there’s a real trend at the moment from filmmakers, especially in the short film world, to make their work so didactic; really wearing their message fully on their sleeve. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of that, but I watch so many short films nowadays and the point that the film is trying to make is so directly conveyed — there’s no subversiveness. How can you get a point across to people if you’re lecturing them? A filmmaker like Rainer Werner Fassbinder often made deeply political films, but they were artfully done; the human story was primary and the political reflections were bubbling under the surface — which actually made them more effective. Ken Loach is very open about his politics and activism, but he makes human stories first and foremost. That’s surely how you convey a message in cinematic terms?

I think it comes down to people trying to find an audience at festivals and on the internet, they pigeon-hole their own work, literally calling it a pro-this film and an anti-that film, which inevitably means that the only people that are going to watch your film are the ones that already agree with you. There’s absolutely a place for this for certain filmmaking — sometimes you need to be specific in what you’re talking about. But on the whole I think filmmakers need to keep caring deeply about the injustices they see and feel, but channel it into an actual film, not a filmed lecture — otherwise its not going to have any lasting effect. 


What are your plans for the future? Are you thinking about a career in film?

Yes, I definitely want to be a filmmaker. I’m always making and doing, but most importantly I love it. Even if I never make any money from it, I’ll keep doing it — probably even if someone tries to physically restrain me, I’d just donk them on the nose and keep filming. I meet so many filmmakers that seem really negative, frustrated, scrapping away at trying to become successful and being down on other people’s work. I just want to ask them sometimes: are you actually enjoying this? Slow down, reach inwards and make the kind of film that would have made you want to become a filmmaker when you were younger. If it doesn’t work, move on to the next one.

But in terms of what I’m doing right now: a daft little web series next month; a music video shot on 16mm hopefully being released in August; a 8mm film that was just screened in London soon to be released onto the internet; just entered Depict! with a little animation; and finally I’m planning on shooting a short film this October. 


Which advice would you give to young people applying for the next round?

Follow your heart and propose something that is true to what you want to make, don’t bother about what’s cool at the moment. Even if what you propose is really out-there and uncool, find a way in your treatment to sell that idea — there’s always a way. Most of the time I can’t find that way when I write proposals, because they get turned down, but I’d rather be true to myself than pander to whatever is trendy in the short film world. Or maybe that’s just an excuse for my rubbish film proposals, who knows.

And if you get through, just go all in and work really hard. It’s such an amazing and unique opportunity, you might not get something like this for a long time so turn it into a goddamn full-time job if you have to. 



See Theo's film and over 200 more at Playback 18 - 28 August at Arnolfini.

16-24 and live in the South West? Want to turn your idea into a film? Apply now for the next round of films to be made with Calling the Shots/Random Acts South West. 

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