Flyotw met Chris Neilan during one of our routined weekly online networking hauls. If I remember rightly, It was a reletively slow and calm morning. The brain hadn’t quite snapped into action yet as the first coffee was sunk - maybe it was the third or fourth I’m not to sure. The email popped up on my screen from Chris, embedded links galore and the ol’ grey matter started to become a bit more lively. I guess it was something about the prospect of watching an unreleased short for the first time. Fresh and stimulating.
“DEMONS” appeared in big bold, red text, full screen. 'Yup, It’s Monday’ I thought to myself.
DEMONS was shot in Itaewon, a multicultural neighbourhood of Seoul, South Korea, using a British crew, a Belarussian actress and a Portugese actor. It made ira festival debut in the Eat My Shorts competition at the Derby Film Festival on May 8th.
We spoke to Chris to find out some more about the short and his background as a film maker.
Tell us about yourself?
I'm a screenwriter and writer-director, originally from Brighton, although I've spent most of the last three years in Thailand and South Korea. I'm working on feature projects in the UK and US as a screenwriter, but I'm keen to establish myself as a writer-director too, and it was for that reason that I self-funded and shot DEMONS last year in Seoul, South Korea. We had a shooting budget of £400, a crew of three (including me) and we shot over one very long night and one very tired morning. A truly independent short. For comparison, the other short that I worked on in 2015 - CIRCLE IN THE ROCK, written by me and directed by my hugely talented US collaborator Ellis Bahl - had a budget of $20,000. I'm very proud of what we managed to do on DEMONS with the minimal resources available. I lit it with a homemade DIY lighting kit, consisting of desk lamps and bounce boards made from cut-up cardboard boxes covered in red & silver wrapping paper, and I think it looks a lot better than a lot of vastly more expensive shorts.
Who were/are your filmmaking inspirations? Were there any particular films?
As a screenwriter my influences are very broad-ranging, from the Coens to Michael Haneke, but as a writer-director I'm largely influenced by lyrical expressionists who blend genre tropes with realism. Jacques Audiard and Lynne Ramsay are particular reference points for me. That might not be immediately obvious from DEMONS as it's working with psychological thriller and horror tropes. But I'm also influenced by the narrative techniques used by Chris Nolan (my almost namesake) in his early films. And the do-it-yourself, kick-down-the-door approach of Ben Wheatley has always appealed to me.
What was the inspiration behind DEMONS?
The piece was written specifically for my two performers, Lia Bulynia (a professional actress from Belarus) and Andre Lopes (her Portugese non-professional partner), so I tried to design something that seemed to make use of their respective characteristics, appearances and abilities. I felt like Lia had a kind of raw emotional vulnerability hidden just below the surface that I wanted to explore, and Andre isn't a trained actor but he's very handsome and I knew he'd photograph really well if I wrote a part that was quiet and stoic and vaguely unsettling. The story is about someone who's been so damaged by past relationships that they end up destroying a good relationship because they see potentially harmful behaviour where there is none, which is something I've seen many times in many different people.
Are the characters based of real people?
I think it's pretty rare for characters to be direct representations of real life people, outside biopics and historical dramas. These characters are composites of various people and various behaviours that I've witnessed.
Tell us about writing the script?
I met Lia in Seoul during my hunt for an actress, and met her partner Andre a while later, and wrote the script specifically for them, limiting the script to a single location (Andre's family home) and to just those two actors to ensure that I could get the thing made as easily as possible. It's super important to be practical when you're self-funding. I tend not to redraft too much on scripts that I'm going to direct, as I iron out most of the issues as I'm writing the first draft. I think I pretty much did one draft of this in fact and maybe a tiny polish. When I'm writing for someone else that's not really practical, but when it's for me I think it's a great way to work. I've always got anywhere from ten to thirty ideas at various stages of development, so the ones that rise to the top of the pile tend to be the strongest, most fully-formed and properly functioning ones, ones that are already pretty close to working once I put them on the page. If I'm working on a commission for someone else then I'll do the usual mountain of outlines, step outlines, draft after draft after draft, which is more of a challenge to your craft skills and problem solving abilities, but probably less creatively satisfying for me.
How did you cast for DEMONS?
I advertised for actresses on Facebook. I was living in a little town in Chungcheong province in South Korea, and I initially wanted to make a Korean language short. I wrote a script I really liked and got it partly cast, but I couldn't find a bilingual producer who was willing to work for free, so in the end the project crumbled. That was when I turned to some expat filmmaking and casting groups, posted some ads basically just asking for anyone who was up for working on a zero budget short, and met a few actresses. There were actually two really promising actresses who I wanted to work with, Lia and a Dutch actress of Korean ethnicity called Eefje van Gorkum. I wrote scripts for both of them but the script I wrote for Lia was a little easier to execute, and since her partner Andre was up for performing too and he had a beautiful house to use for the location everything just slotted into place for that project. I regret not being able to make a film with Eefje though. She's been in Dutch TV and some interesting stage productions, and I've got a feeling that she might be a bit special. Maybe we'll see more of her in the future...
Is DEMONS a personal project or commission?
100% personal, independent, self-funded and self-executed. It was crewed by my fiance's best-friend's brother and his mate, and the score was done by my brother-in-law. I went to film school and had made student shorts, but not for a while, so a lot of my technical knowledge was out-of-date. I knew that I had to do a lot of the jobs to make this happen, so I taught myself how to use Adobe Premiere, how to use Canon 5 series cameras, how to make and use a DIY lighting kit, how to sound edit. I had a lot of underlying base knowledge, and my experience as a writer was the key ingredient to getting it made and having it not be crap, but there was a lot that I didn't know how to do. I just decided I was going to do it, and then I did it. Having a few hundred quid to spend helped too. Honestly though, the technical information on YouTube is geniunely better than a year at film school, and a lot cheaper.
Is there a key message you wanted to communicate to the audience?
No, not a message as such. I wanted to make something that looked nice, that was interestingly structured, that used genre tropes to explore a recognisably real emotional struggle, and that rewarded repeat viewing.
How much planning is involved when you first set out to start DEMONS?
The vast majority of planning was me researching technical things: which camera to use, which lenses to use, how to use them, how to construct a DIY lighting kit for less than £50 and how to use it, how to edit, how to store my data, etc etc etc. Beyond that it was just logistics: getting everyone in the same place at the same time and so on. Having a cast entirely consisting of one real-life couple and crew of three helped a lot with that. And that's crucial if you're self-funding. You've gotta be small, manageable, swift and committed, or it just won't work. Having a couple helped in many ways actually, one being that I didn't have to rehearse - they rehearsed with each other. I gambled on my instincts that they could do what I was asking of them if I created the right kind of environment for them on-set and let them do their own preparation together, and luckily that paid off. And I had to direct them very little in terms of their performances - Lia in particular nailed almost everything first time. She was really amazing, I think she's a very talented actress. I'm writing a feature for her now and a lot of industry people who've seen DEMONS have been blown away by her. And I found her through Facebook, which is amazing when you think about it.
How do you continue to stay creative and innovative within your art-form?
I think you have to be a critic. I've been contributing film criticism to Film International since 2009, and I contributed to Little White Lies between 2009-2014. Constantly analysing and writing critical analyses keeps you sharp and focused, and connected to the texts, which is crucial, particularly with screenwriting. There's so, so, SO much utter fatuous shit written about the craft of screenwriting, you've really got to keep that connection to the texts sacred, keep it like your umbilical cord, so that when some development pro tells you that your protagonist MUST undergo a profound change through the course of the narrative, you can turn around and say 'well, I've just written an article about Paul Schrader, and he said that his own character, Travis Bickle, doesn't change but is "revealed" through the course of the narrative, and Travis Bickle is one of American cinema's all-time greatest protagonists, and you're a failed screenwriter who got a job in development to pay for their mortgage, so you're talking out of your arse aren't you'.
Can you reveal what kind of projects you have coming up or in the pipeline?
I'm developing two features, one in the UK and one in the US. The UK one is being produced by Samm Haillay at Third Films, the production company part-owned by Duane Hopkins. They're a fantastic little company with a great record at major festivals and me and Samm are in the process of getting a director and star attached. The US one is for my collaborator Ellis Bahl to direct, and it was shortlisted for the 2016 Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In terms of projects for me to direct, I've just finished the first draft of a UK-set feature for Lia to star in, and I've got some interest from a few really good producers that I'm going to be following up on once DEMONS has had its festival run. I'm also a novelist, I'm working on my second novel, which is set in South Korea and uses a series of interlinked stories to explore ideas around history, society and culture and how they impact on and control individuals, for better or worse. I'm reading a lot of David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami and Korean history books!
Lastly, where can our audience find you and your other works?
You can visit my website, www.chrisneilan.com, and you can follow @ChrisNeilan on twitter. And if there are any interesting people who feel like collaborating on something they can reach me through the website. Oh, and definitely check out Ellis's work at ellisbahl.com, everything he's done is ace but his video for Breezeblocks by Alt-J is amazeballs.