TOM KINGSLEY & WILL SHARPE
By Junsui Films | November 2011
The writer/director team behind BLACK POND talk exclusively to Junsui Films about their debut feature…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background. How did you guys meet and when did you decide to form a creative partnership?
Tom & Will: We met at university, where we wrote and directed lots of plays and comedy shows together. (Tom) then worked his way up to working as a director of music videos and commercials while (Will) started getting work as an actor and writer, but we always knew we wanted to make films.
A couple of years ago, we went to Japan to make a half hour short film called ‘Cockroach’. The idea was to use what we had learned from our day jobs to see what happened if we tried to make a film. No crew. No lights. No anything really. Just a script, a reflector board and a prosumer camera. So, having done that and edited it together, we thought the next step would be to try to make a feature. I think that first endeavour basically just showed us that the only way to learn how to make a film is to make a film.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your collaborative process, starting from when you first break a story…
We talk about everything a lot. With Black Pond we started with just talking. Then we got five huge sheets of paper and wrote out what we thought would be the order of scenes and roughly what was going to happen, plus any jokes we thought might be worth trying to include. Then (Will) goes away to write the script itself, but every draft and every idea goes by (Tom). Then, whatever needs to get done is done by whichever one of us is available at the time.
We wanted to get the grading and special FX done professionally but realised it would cost too much. So (Tom) taught himself to do special FX, for adding rain, snow, cutting out lights, putting rivers on motorways in the dream sequence, while (Will) taught himself how to do colour correction. We just tried to make maximum use of time and whatever skills we had.
JF: Let’s move onto Black Pond. Where did the idea come from?
It came from a few different sources. There was an idea about a family being kidnapped, one about a strange old man who might kidnap them, and then we read a strange blog story about a man who secretly crept into people’s gardens and mowed their lawns or painted their shed. He was meant to be very kind and generous, but it just sounded creepy. Anyway, all those ideas eventually came together to form the story of a family who were befriended by this mysterious stranger.
JF: The film boasts an electric mix of black comedy, drama and tragedy and yet remains distinctively ‘British.’ Where did you draw your influences when making the film?
We watch loads of films and have a very broad taste, but we didn’t set out to make the film in any specific style. Every decision we made was based on the best way to tell the story with the means available to us. If we ran out of time to film a scene, or some equipment broke, or someone came up with a better idea, we’d always try to solve the problem in the most creative and interesting way we could. Basically, if there had been a blueprint, we wouldn’t have been able to follow it anyway.
Tone-wise, again, we didn’t set out to make a comedy. We didn’t set out to make a thriller. We didn’t set out to make a dark film. Nor do we think of Black Pond as any of the above, particularly. There were some funny lines and we had actors who we knew were sensitive to comedy and had good comic instincts but some of the scenes play out funnier than we imagined and others ended up being quite unsettling when, at the time of shooting, we thought they were hilarious. It also depends on who’s watching obviously. We didn’t want to make a this-kind-of-film or that-kind-of-film or even a film-in-the-style-of-anything-in-particular. We just wanted to make a good film.
JF: How did you go about getting the film financed?
A production company had seen Cockroach and offered us £50k to make a feature. So we excitedly started writing the script, developing it and getting a cast and crew together. The funding fell through in the end but by that stage we’d got far enough into the project that we didn’t really want to stop. So we scaled the script down a bit and started to work towards doing it for as little as possible. We’d saved up money from our day jobs to put in ourselves and then we just wrote hundreds of letters and emails trying to raise the rest. We managed to raise the target £20,000. We ended up going over-budget by £5,000, but we had kind of expected that to happen so it was okay.
The main thing to say on that subject is that it was much more about not spending money than it was about getting money together. Between us, we were covering a lot of different roles and we had to keep thinking of inventive ways to get around the budget constraints. We wrote the script for as few locations as possible. We kept the cast relatively small. We used a wheelchair instead of a dolly. We had a crew of four. We had two Canon 7Ds on the go most of the time mopping up extra coverage and we were careful to choose a team of people with good attitudes who understood the nature of the job, and who were just generally great and understanding about how everyone had to muck in a bit to make it happen.
JF: What were the biggest challenges you faced as first time writer/director’s when trying to get your debut feature off the ground?
It wasn’t any single thing. I suppose the hardest thing was to keep going. It was a stamina issue more than anything. Pretty much every day some kind of problem comes up. Directing, in many ways, we found, is basically just a problem solving exercise. But it helped that there were two of us because it meant we could keep each other going.
JF: Let’s talk casting and the somewhat controversial choice of Chris Langham. Was he someone you always envisioned for the role of Tom Thompson?
There were people who warned us that it might be a dangerous decision, but we’re not interested in casting people or not casting people for political reasons, or for tactical reasons. We just wanted to make the best film possible. We cast Chris because he was the best person in the world for the role. He was a theoretical Tom Thompson from very early on and, when we sent him the script and he came on board, we were just delighted. He’s one of the finest comic talents alive today.
If we hadn’t cast him, it would have been for all the wrong reasons. We’d read enough into the story to see that he had been grossly misrepresented by the tabloid media. Chris is a man who made a mistake, who has paid the price and who should be allowed to move on make use of his obvious talents. If there are those in the press who choose to print hysterical lies simply in order to sell papers, then that’s up to them. We can’t allow that kind of small-mindedness to affect our behaviour.
JF: Tell us about the shoot; did anything change during the filming of the movie?
The mockumentary footage wasn’t actually in the original script. There was a lot of stuff we cut because we didn’t think it was good enough and what we were left with didn’t really seem to flow as a cohesive ‘piece’. So we tried to work out how to make the film complete. One idea involved hiring a completely different set of actors and recreating the main events of the film for a sort of Crimewatch thing. But eventually we decided that the simplest approach would be to interview the main actors in character about the events of the film. We re-watched District 9 around the time of editing and I think that reassured us that, so long as you’re telling a good story, it doesn’t matter how you tell it.
JF: How difficult was it securing distribution?
We’ve been distributing the film ourselves. So very easy! We haven’t had any takers yet for Black Pond, but that seems actually not to be too bad a thing. We’ve been advised that for a film on this level the deals are never in your favour anyway, so it’s more work for us but any money we do make goes straight back to the investors. It’s been going alright so far. Every night in London sold out in advance!
JF: Describe the first time you watched the film with an audience.
It was a real sense of relief! We’d been editing the film for so long and fine-tuning and changing things, when an audience finally saw it, it really did feel like the edit phase was over. We edited the film on our laptops at home. So it felt quite amazing to see the film that we’d been working with on a tiny screen suddenly blown up huge and making its own relationship with an audience.
JF: Any future plans you can tell us about?
We probably can’t say too much about it, but we do have something in the pipeline. It’s quite an ambitious project. We’ve been experimenting a lot with miniatures and different ways of filming to see how we can make the script achievable. We’ve got a great producer on board and we’ve been putting together some tests to show how we can do big effects on a relatively tiny budget. More on this next time!