Interview! We talk to London Short Film Festival winner Ruth Paxton

The 8th annual London Short Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, bringing to an end 10 solid days of screenings, networking, showcasing, and other activities indigenous to independent festivals the world over. The awards ceremony, which took place at the Shortwave Cinema in South East London, saw over 200 shorts from London and beyond whittled down to a select, gong-worthy few.

Amongst the filmmakers leaving with a smile on their faces were Michael Cash for You Must Be Joking (Best Comedy), Martin Ginestie for Robin Hood Gardens, Or Every Brutalist Structure For Itself (Best Documentary), Alex Surfit for Bad Penny (Best Music Video), Kiron Hussain for Slick Horsing (Best Experimental Film), and Paul Williams for The Furred Man (Lo-Budget Award).

The festival’s showpiece prize, though, is the UK Film Council Award for Best Film and, with special mentions to Paul Wright (Until The River Runs Red) and Scott Graham (Native Son), the award went to Scottish filmmaker Ruth Paxton for Paris/Sexy, about which the judges – including James Mullighan, new director of the Edinburgh Film Festival – had this to say:

“The film that had the biggest impact on us mixed a creepy surrealism with a believably rendered world as seen through the eyes of Greer, a complex and intriguing lead character that had us talking long after the film had finished. From it’s production design, to the tone shifts leading to its dramatic climax this film is stylish, distinctive, sexy and horrific.”

Having seen Paris/Sexy, I concur (find our review here). It’s a bold, beautiful take on dysfunction and isolation, featuring some stand-out performances. We tracked down the film’s writer/director to hear what she had to say…

Writer-Director Ruth Paxton

Writer-director Ruth Paxton

BFF: Hi Ruth, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. First of all, congratulations on winning for Best Film. You must be thrilled.

Ruth Paxton: Thank you very much! It was a complete shock. I am so happy that the film won, it’s a wonderful feeling and fantastic that the cast and crew all get this kind of recognition. I feel very chuffed to have a trophy…

Tell us how you got the film made. Where did you get the financing, and how?

At the end of 08 I applied to the Scottish Digital Shorts scheme, DigiCult’s call for talent with a seed of an idea for a film about a threesome of characters, and was delighted to be short-listed. It came at a time when I was very ready to take the steps towards a professional film-making career. It felt good.

My producer Rosie Crerar and I developed my script through DigiCult with support from executives and script developers Paul Logue and Paul Welsh. We were then very happy to be commissioned with PARIS/SEXY and went into pre-production in summer 09. We worked with a budget of approx £19,000, some of which was provided in kind; equipment, some aspects of post etc.

The material, while extreme, feels quite intimate, almost personal…

I’m glad about that. I tend to explore fairly heavy emotional content; its what gets me going – as an audience member I love to be pushed and provoked emotionally. But I had to earn my ending; I couldn’t go as far as PARIS/SEXY does without building an emotional landscape for my characters and interlinking them, so I am deserving of the bold dénouement.

The story was initially inspired by vaguely similar personal experiences, and time spent in Paris. I was interested in the dynamic between a complicated couple in a complicated relationship, and an outsider who they welcome in to use and abuse. But, throughout development the setting kind of flipped and tone changed.

It said something to me about nature and nurture, about our places in the world, the risk involved in trying to break free from that. What – if anything – would you like people to take away from it?

I like this. The story is all about Greer needing to separate from Ivan but needing the provocation to do so, and in PARIS/SEXY this comes about as a result of very dramatic circumstances. I hope people understand that Greer and Ivan love each other deeply, despite their bizarre set up. I also hope people appreciate that every character in this film is flawed; each character is selfish in their own way, which makes them human and relatable despite their often quite extreme moral corruptions.

I thought the sound design was really good. The crescendo over the very final shot… Is that a clue as to Greer’s ultimate fate?

Thank you! I find new reasons to enjoy the sound design every time I hear it; there’s a great deal of detail and complexity within the design. Martin Ireland recorded sound on set, while Tim Matthew created and built the design in post. A lot of our discussion surrounded Ivan’s specific design and how we could create something aural to depict his inner Schizophrenic workings. Tim devised the concept of a tornado of disconnected but disturbing sounds encircling Ivan, which travel with him and intensify as the drama heightens. Greer has always had the power to breach the chaos of his mind, we witness her calming him throughout the film. But at the end of the film, when Ivan has acted in an irreversible manner, he has become lost to his confusion, and Greer cannot connect with him. Their connection has been severed.

Additional dialogue recording, and the final mix were created at Spool Post Facilities House in Nottingham; Greg, Ben and Susan were an absolute delight to work with. They were very supportive of me as a first-timer, and our method of working.

I remember seeing Martin Compston in A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and being very struck by his performance, but all three of the leads in this are great. How did you go about casting them?

Martin, Elisa Lasowski and Kim Chapman were all my first choices, and they each had a very individual way of working, which was a great learning experience for me as a director.

I had always hoped I would work with Martin and was totally thrilled when he committed to the project … [He] has a very natural style and delighted me with a mixture of powerful subtleties in his performance, with some really bold free dialogue, which I loved. It felt incredibly fresh when he’d throw something of his own in, and you can see it the reactions from the other actors.

Elisa was an absolute TREAT to work with. She gave a delicate, but potent performance in Françoise and wanted to push herself throughout. I was able to cast her because one of PARIS/SEXY’s producers, Paul Welsh had exec-produced another short with her in it.

Kim is a wonderful actress with whom I have worked repeatedly. I didn’t think of her for Greer at first, I thought I wanted a younger actress, but I soon realized that Greer’s complexity would require the skills and insight of someone older. I knew I could invoke in her, elements of a ‘method’ performance, plus she had a fantastic ‘look’ and physicality for the part.

Finbar Furey, who plays Ivan was a powerhouse. You could feel his energy as Ivan on set. I was very blessed with my cast.

What’s next for you, Ruth? I imagine a few more doors have been nudged open now…

By selecting PARIS/SEXY, plus showcasing other work of mine in a retrospective this year, Philip Ilson and Chloe Roddick of the London Short Film Festival (who have supported my work in the past) have provided me with a unique and quality platform to exhibit my films for the industry and public audiences. I am hugely indebted to them and incredibly thankful.

This year is shaping up to be very busy and productive! I have a couple of narrative shorts in development, which my producer and I hope to see through to production soon, and a mini-drama TV series that I’m writing with my Dad, which I love doing. I am working on a couple of visual arts projects. And I am also very excited to begin research and development on my first feature script.

Finally – Working Title or Film4 or whoever come calling with a blank cheque… what would you like to do, and who with?

I would really like to finance the shorts projects I am currently developing with healthy budgets, and be able to properly pay the very brilliant and talented core team, who I have worked with for years, and who have supported me along the way.

It would also be nice to have the financial assistance to research and write my new projects.

But ultimately, I’d look to write and direct an awesome first feature, which makes waves. That’d be very nice!

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