Featured Filmmaker: Andy Lambert

Featured Filmmaker: Andy Lambert

No Dialogue will regularly run a featured filmmaker article where we get to know a filmmaker who we believe is offering something different from the usual guff.

First up we have London based Andy Lambert – director/creator of the Mute Series and co-founder of Riposte Pictures.

ND

Tell us about the Mute Series

A

Basically I make a living out of directing commercials – I did originally make documentaries and then some short films that were funded by the BFI and FILM LONDON – and I was always on a commercial shoot saying ‘oh we should shoot a short film’ because although a commercial can be fun when the scripts are good, they’re not always the most creative. There never was any time until I was on a shoot in Barcelona and the schedules got confused and I knew that we going to finish early on the third day.

So we were going to end at 4pm and the crew were on the clock for at least another hour and a half and I thought ‘oh yeah we really should make a short film’ but because it was such a common refrain of mine everyone thought I was joking and so did I really. Then I started looking around at what we had, there were a lot of extras that day, we had a lead actor and the funniest thing we had was this sousaphone/marching band tuba. I thought there must be something I can think of with this tuba so I kind of came up with this idea literally on the spur of the moment and shot two takes of it.

We didn’t have any sound so I knew I couldn’t have dialogue and I didn’t really have time to do any more than one shot and I didn’t know if it was going to work or not so I just shot it to see if it looked good when I got back to England.

Back home I thought it was kind of funny so I pieced all the sound together; it was quite complicated to make it sound realistic. But then people liked it and it was like ‘well that was funny and it was worth doing’ and then on the next commercial shoot it happened again, we had time left over.

It was a yellow themed ad so it was quite good production value because I had 50 extras dressed in yellow so I thought I’ve gotta use them but everyone was into it because they knew I’d done one and I was a bit more organised and adamant that we were going to do it and the agency were fine with it – they all thought it was quite good fun.

So that was the yellow one and I just had to get an egg ready and cast the extras but they were really good, that was shot in Lisbon. I only did two takes because we were running out of light and again we didn’t have sound. I spent a long time trying to move the camera on that one, thinking maybe we could do a slow track in or we could do two shots but then nothing really seemed to work other than just a locked off camera and so we just did it exactly the same again.

So then I had two films that were the same style, they were just one shot, there was no dialogue and the camera didn’t move and I thought something’s coming out of this so I decided to go with those rules which really came about through necessity and make them into fixed rules. I then made some more when I got back to London and then did some more this year.

So it was the aesthetics of necessity but I like that. Are you familiar with the filmmaker Jean rouch? A sort of anthropological, ethnographic filmmaker filmmaker from the 50s, french guy who’s a bit of a cult figure in anthropology circles…

ND

No but I’ll check him out

A

He did a brilliant film in paris called Chronicle of A Summer that’s an anthropological study of France in the early 60s but he’s credited with almost inventing hand-held photography in documentaries. The reason was that he was going up the river somewhere in Africa and the tripod fell off the boat and he saw it sinking down to the bottom of the river. He decided to just carry on and shoot the rest of the film handheld. I like these kind of ‘happy accidents’ and you can make an aesthetic out of the situation that you’re in.

ND

This makes me think of Herzog, who’s dramas feel like documentary and he likes to not re-frame or re-create things…

A

Yeah yeah, exactly. I think the other thing that dawned on me (and this was an unconscious thing) was that the aesthetic was almost the opposite of what I was doing in ads and actually in my other short films. My other short films were quite frenetic, cutty and loud or whatever and my ads, you know like most ads they’re kind of… unlike Roy Andersson ads which are quite unusual. So I think it was something that appealed to me because it was an antidote to that.

ND

Earlier you said it was a common refrain of yours to say ‘lets make a short film’. Why did you want to make a short film?

A

Because I just wanted to do something creative you know. Not that the ads weren’t, some of them were nice and creative but it’s not the same as making a film, there’s always someone behind you, an agency has written the script and there’s a client behind them so that’s a different kind of filmmaking you know. When I made my bigger short films that was a completely different feeling when you’re on the shoot because there is nothing behind you and if you’ve written the script you always have this feeling that you can change the script – even on the shoot – at any time. You know, ‘shit is this the best script or the best line’, whatever. It’s a more scary feeling but it’s more exhilarating.

ND

Celebrating the unknown?

A

Yeah exactly. With commercials you can always blame someone else, the agency wrote a crap script or the client ruined it and then it’s nothing to do with me but if you make a film that’s just yours and you wrote the script, well… that’s it you haven’t got anyone else to blame. But that makes it exciting and I guess I just wanted to do something like that. Creative.

ND

So you enjoyed being able to work intuitively?

A

Yeah but it was more that my other funded films had been a completely different aesthetic being fast and frenetic, they were comedies and they shared an ironic sensibility but they were maybe trying a bit too hard – I mean I like them and I’m proud of them but I was getting interested in a more understated aesthetic. I wasn’t thinking consciously that I’m going to make a Roy Andersson kind of film but I was getting more interested in those kind of directors in terms of where I was thinking I could go. So I think it just came out sort of unconsciously when I did that first one, in terms of the pacing and everything you know. I just somehow knew I wanted it to be slow. I had no idea how long any of them were going to turn out to be but they all turned out to be between one and two minutes. They’ve all got this certain kind of pace which I like. I think it was because I was getting into those directors at the time, Jim Jarmusch, whatever. That kind of sensibility.

ND

You mentioned piecing the sound together in post, did that change the possibilities you saw with sound, being given nothing at the beginning?

A

I’ve always quite liked sound and I’ve done a lot of editing. When I first started doing ads I used to cut them myself to save money and I’ve cut quite a few things for other people and I enjoyed cutting the sound. I always like sound that appears to be realistic but there are elements of it that are a little bit heightened without going crazy. Although, having said that, with the yellow one I did because I hadn’t really established the style at that point it’s almost got a musical kinda thing and these voices that increase the suspense and that kinda worked but I haven’t done that again since then. I do like to keep the sound interesting and help to tell the story without it going un-naturalistic completely. On all the other ones I recorded sound but it’s never just that sound, it’s always enhanced or added.

ND

Do you think the sound situation in the first two films influenced how you approached the mix in the subsequent films?

A

Yeah, I mean I always thought I could enhance things with sound. So an example would be Cover Story there are birds tweeting off-screen for the first half but once they realise they are reading opposite books, the birds stop tweeting as they go off so it’s not completely unbelievable and most people probably don’t notice it but if you do notice it’s obviously very stylised but not so stylised that it feels crazy.

ND

So you’re using the diegetic sound to get into the headspace of the characters a little?

A

Exactly.

The other one that’s got slightly weird sound I suppose is Auto Exposure, I don’t even know why I put all that sound in there, it just looked a bit like under a bridge so I thought that would add to the slightly alienating experience of the whole thing so I just piled up loads of different train sounds and city sounds or whatever. I thought the location was quite nice but that sound really added to it. In fact some people mention ‘that film set in a train station’, it’s clearly not in a train station but the sound made people think it was. But it could have been sound from there. Who knows.

ND

You created a ‘world’ with the off-screen sound which is what sound designers often do. The classic scene being The Godfather where Michael Corleone kills the police captain in the restaurant.

A

Exactly

ND

It’s shot in a studio but you’ve got the sound of the L-train representing his adrenaline whilst also creating a plausible world beyond the frame

A

And trains do make you kind of feel tense. In that same film (Auto Exposure) I added the sound of the pigeons. I actually pinched the pigeons from other takes – that’s the advantage of doing a lock-off –  I could pinch little elements because they were just in the corner and I could just do some simple post production. It really helped having the sound of the flapping wings because your eye went to them. It was a nice little addition.

So I love sound. I get off on that stuff. I love adding all the footsteps because often you don’t hear them even when you record. I think footsteps are great. I do like the old European films from the 50s where they did all the sound in post production and I don’t know if they were a bit lazy or stylistic or whatever but there would be some guy running down the street and all you can hear is footsteps and breathing and almost nothing else. It’s very evocative.

ND

Slightly other-worldly, yeah. I thought the sound brought out some of the details because of the limitation of the fixed shots, particularly on Goal Attainment

A

That was the hardest one of all though. I should have gone along to a football game and recorded the sound but in the end I just pieced the sound from youtube films but it was really difficult and probably I didn’t do a very good job

ND

I think it works really well and you build up a picture of the game off-screen but you also pick out the details in the frame that aren’t necessarily relevant to what’s going on but feel important, like the train going past.

A

Oh yeah and the seagulls because I really like seeing seagulls in London, it always feels like ‘what the hell are seagulls doing in London’ but they’re here scavenging or whatever so I always think they make a really good, incongruent but believable sound in a London setting.

ND

The opportunity with ‘no dialogue’ is that by taking away the foreground details your audience starts look for and analyse background details that normally go unnoticed. Details like the sound of the train in Goal Attainment started to feel like it was significant and added a sense of anticipation.

A

Yeah, totally. I think not having sound is not what people expect so it makes things strange. When I was at film school we learnt about making strange which the Russian constructivists tried to do with their photographs. You expect someone to talk and you get 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds into it and you suddenly realise no one is going to talk and then you start watching it differently. I do think that it makes you see the world in a new way and that’s what appeals.

I remember reading quite a few scriptwriting manuals and they all say ‘show don’t tell’ and I specifically remember one from the playwright David Mamet, he said “the ideal script would have no dialogue in it at all” and this is David Mamet whose scripts are the most verbose of all. So everyone always says this thing ‘show dont tell’ and it’s great if you can do it in images and not dialogue but no-one actually does that. All the American TV shows that everyone loves now are really dialogue heavy and it’s feeding back into films and everyone’s doing dialogue. I wouldn’t say it’s easy because writing good dialogue is difficult but it is a very easy way of propelling the story along quite quickly and getting over information. It’s a kind of crutch in a way, it’s like ‘oh thats the quickest way to get from here to there, let’s just have someone say this’. Of course there’s a cleverness and a craft in writing less obvious dialogue but nobody actually does show and not tell.

I really liked that recent film All is Lost with Robert Redford which didn’t have any dialogue. He’s on his own on a boat that gets hit and is sinking and it’s really good because you spend the whole time thinking ‘what is he thinking?’ and he doesn’t do any big reactions, he just see’s his situation getting worse and worse, but it’s really quite gripping.

ND

So it seems by grabbing those first two opportunities to make a film – whilst working on a commercial – you’ve developed a habit of making these short films and something is growing out of it.

A

You’ve got to grab opportunities and you’ll find the aesthetics of necessity then also the aesthetics of practice – you don’t necessarily blueprint everything in advance – actually doing it makes you find what it is you’re doing. Which is why you can’t expect everything to be in a script, you find your way as you film – it feels quite organic.

ND

What was it that interested you in the understated aesthetic?

A

I just like those films I guess. I do like Roy Andersson’s films and I really like Aki Kaurismäki who is not exactly the same as Roy Andersson but does have a very similar Scandinavian dry sense of humour. And I’ve always liked Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati who are more obviously comic and are doing it without words as well. I also like Jim Jarmusch who is not so much physical comedy but he does have long periods where nobody says anything; he’s usually got some deadpan situation… I guess I like deadpan so you can maybe say more with less. I know thats a bit of a cliche but the deadpan sensibility appeals to me.

ND

What do you think audiences get out of your films?

A

Hopefully they find them funny. Funny but with a little bit of truth about them.

It’s quite nice seeing them with an audience because you get a build up of chuckles and then a big laugh at the end (about the Searchers)

ND

As I said in my tweet – I laughed out loud which doesn’t happen very often so well done.

What I found was that once I’d watched and enjoyed a couple of the films, you’d won me over and I was primed to look for details to enjoy in the others…

A

Oh cool. Yeah I think they enhance each other, they almost create a slightly strange world, a collective. Each one is better having seen the other ones.

ND

Yeah I think there are a couple that if I had watched in isolation, I wouldn’t have been willing to invest (time) in them so much but they really work as a collection which is greater than the sum of its parts.

It seems that with so many short films being made as calling cards, a collection or series like this is a nice way for audiences to get something back from short films. It seems like everyone is making short films but regular audiences can’t find good short films to watch in all the noise – a series is a great way to stand out and offer something more.

A

Yeah you’re right. Too many short films are being made as a way of people trying to get work or get hired as a TV director rather than because it’s a great film that they really need to make. I think a lot of young filmmakers would not have made something like the mute series because they would think that they’d never get any work from it because it’s too simple. ’It doesn’t show me off, it doesn’t show my directing skills’ or whatever but what I do think it shows off is your sensibility or your personality which I think is more important than your directing or craft skills because anyone can learn those but your sensibility is what makes you stand out I guess.

ND

With this collection we get a sense of your personality and your voice but more importantly you create a world which is enjoyable for an audience to explore and consume. This is the opportunity that I think is being missed by online film distribution because we all watch TV Series and feature films online but it’s really hard for audiences to find consistently high quality, engaging short form films. As a regular person i.e. non filmmaker where would I go to watch entertaining or interesting short films?

A

Wouldn’t you go to Vimeo Staff picks?

ND

I don’t think so. I struggle to find things on there with any consistency.

A

And do you think it’s just filmmakers that go there?

ND

Yeah.

A

And there’s lots of terribly curated video sites that are really populist and then there are quite a lot of well curated sites that may show a video but are more about the arts and culture in general so they’ll feature lots of other non video stuff. Maybe there’s not anywhere curating good short film?

ND

Non dialogue films often get lost at film festivals. Did you submit to film festivals?

A

I deliberately didn’t really do the film festival circuit… some of them played at the 2015 London Short Film Festival and some of them played at the Web fest in Dublin. I didn’t really want to hold them back so I just decided to put them out there. I don’t know how beneficial it is anyway? I guess it’s ok if you got a calling card and you wanna get a movie made. It’s perhaps a stamp of approval for building your pedigree but I didn’t put anything on my website about where the films had screened.

What does anyone want? People to see their film. More people will see it online.

The Searchers and Auto Exposure will screen at No Dialogue Film Festival in Bristol on Feb 27 2016.