Filmmaker Paul Sng recently talked to us about transitioning from documentary to drama and his experience directing his latest short film Folding through Sharp Shorts.
When did your interest in filmmaking start and what were you doing before you became a filmmaker?
My interest in cinema started around my early teenage years when I saw Taxi Driver for the first time. My best friend’s dad, Colin McArthur, was a university lecturer and film aficionado and he opened my eyes to the language of cinema and how films can be viewed from an ideological perspective. I thought about applying to film school but we couldn’t afford it, so the chances of being a filmmaker seemed out of reach. Many years later, I met a band called Sleaford Mods in 2014 and made a documentary about them on a UK tour that was framed against the state of the nation in the run up to the 2015 General Election (Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain). I’d previously worked in shops, pubs and then a series of dead-end admin jobs and was working full-time as a studio manager while I made my first doc. The company I worked for didn’t renew my contract when it ran out. Fortunately, Invisible Britain did OK and I decided to try and make a living from filmmaking.
What made you want to apply for Sharp Shorts?
I’d been thinking about how to transition from documentary to drama for a couple of years. I love making docs, and would never stop making them, but there’s a greater freedom with scripted drama, you’re not bound by the same constraints that exist within documentaries. Sharp Shorts seemed like a good opportunity, not only to get funding but also for the creative support the scheme offers and the collaborative element you get from receiving feedback on your project from fellow filmmakers.
Tell us a bit about your Sharp Shorts-supported film.
It’s called Folding and it’s about Li (Shin-Fei Chen), a vulnerable Taiwanese woman alone and on the run in Leith, who finds refuge and friendship in the home of Errol (Joseph Marcell), a lonely old widower. It also features Paul Donnelly and Andrew John Tait supporting roles. It was produced by Jo Blair for LS Productions and exec produced by Sarah Drummond and Chi Thai. The script was written by Maisie Chan and it was filmed by cinematographer David Lee. Maisie, David and I share a similar ethos and desire to tell inclusive stories on screen that reflect our experience of being British East Asians.
What did you learn through taking part in Sharp Shorts? How was your experience working with the Short Circuit team?
I learned a great deal about screenwriting, not only from the guest speakers, but also from the other filmmaking teams on the scheme. We were encouraged to work together by sharing ideas on one another’s work and that feedback was incredibly helpful. The Short Circuit Talent Executives, Alice Whittemore and Mar Vila Barcelo, were a pleasure to work with: knowledgeable, well organised, friendly and supportive throughout the process. We also had unwavering support and guidance from Brian Coffey, whose encouragement and advice was invaluable.
“Sharp Shorts seemed like a good opportunity, not only to get funding but also for the creative support the scheme offers and the collaborative element you get from receiving feedback on your project from fellow filmmakers.”
What was your creative process? How did you get ready to make your film?
I watched lots of films for inspiration and spoke to a few directors and actors I know for advice on directing drama. I was also fortunate to have a one-to-one mentoring session arranged by Short Circuit with Kevin Macdonald, who provided some brilliant notes on an early draft of the shooting script. Jo, Maisie and I worked closely with Chi to refine the script and then with Sarah and two of the LS team, Sam Barber and Pippa Perriam, on finding locations and planning the shoot. We did three tech reccies with David to work out our shot list, but kept it fairly loose so that we would be able to go with a different approach if it felt right on the day. I was grateful for two days to rehearse and get to know Shin-Fei and Joseph, and that prep time really helped during the shoot, as it meant we were able to get what we wanted with a minimal number of takes.
Why do you feel stories like this are important?
There’s been a shocking increase in race hate crimes against east and south east Asians (BESEAs) since COVID-19, which can be traced back to anti-Asian racism in the last century that has contributed to the way our community are perceived and treated in the UK today. The absence of BESEAs from culture and positions of public influence shows the lack of representation and an absence of opportunities, so it’s vital that we see more stories about BESEAs onscreen that are created by us.
What are you hoping for audiences to get out of your film?
We’re about to start the edit, so it’s too early for me to say what I want audiences to get out of it until we have a finished film. Ultimately, I hope the film finds an audience.
What was the greatest hurdle you encountered whilst shooting, can you tell us how you overcame that?
We shot the film out of sequence and after the first scenes we filmed, our costume supervisor told me that she’d forgotten to dress Shin-Fei’s hand with the bandage that her character is wearing in an earlier scene. We’d all missed it, me, our DOP, the script supervisor, all of us forgot. As we’d already filmed the scenes and were already behind schedule, I decided to rewrite the earlier scenes so that Li is bleeding from the side of her body rather than her hand. In the end, I think it turned out to be a good decision from both a creative and practical perspective.
How easy was it to navigate the COVID-19 situation? What support did you have?
Making the transition from directing documentary to drama was always going to present a challenge, not least at a time when COVID-19 restrictions limited the scope of what it’s possible to do safely on a film set. We had a magnificent cast and crew, who were determined, driven and diligent in testing circumstances. We had a great COVID-19 supervisor, Morgan Marwick, who usually works as an AD, and it helped having someone who understood the filmmaking process and how the limitations can infringe on creativity and worked to keep us all safe without interfering unnecessarily. We also had support from the Short Circuit team throughout the process, who were on hand with advice and arranged group Zoom calls with the other teams on the scheme so we could discuss what others had faced while filming.
What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to apply for Sharp Shorts?
Be original. It may sound obvious, but it helps to have a fresh idea or concept for a short, something that hasn’t been done before. Or if it has, get across how you will do things differently. Tell a story that resonates with you personally, rather than something that you think will get funded. Prioritise what you want to make and don’t try and second guess what funders are looking for. The range of shorts on the scheme we were part of was incredibly eclectic, so be bold in your approach and vision for your film.
Interested in applying for Sharp Shorts? Applications are now open until 10am on Monday 17th May.