James Gill Interviews the Northern Lights Director
Director Nicholas Conner came to Lift-Off on Day Two to present his film Northern Lights. Before the showing took place I managed to interview him about his film and his opinions on filmmaking in general. The ‘quick five minute’ interview ended up being a 43 minute conversation about his films, plans for the future and IMDb. If you would like to read my review of the film before reading our conversation then click here.
First of all congratulations for getting your film into lift-off, are you hoping to win an award here?
Thanks! Hopefully, I think it’s all off audience vote and if you do well you’ll go onto a ballot for the next one. We’ve got quite a good turn out so it’ll be nice to see the reactions. That is what it’s all about for me, see how the audience feels about it. The venue (Texture) is a really great space, I’ve not been here before and it’s a different experience to the typical film festival. I would love to have another screening here in the future, it’s perfect for my current film too because of the red brick. It is set in Manchester and all about retaining the traditional lifestyles.
The setup of the festival is really useful for filmmakers, the scorecard the audience fills out along with the notes section must be incredibly useful for you to learn from?
Yeah, it’s quite intimate as well. You don’t often get to sit this close to the audience and be able to see their reactions. I’ve not watched this film (Northern Lights) in a few months now, the last time was probably at the premiere.
So have you been trying to avoid it?
Well I have just finished my next one so the focus has really been on that. Northern Lights has been on the back burner for the moment as a result.
When you rewatch the film are there things you think ‘Oh I should have done that better?’ or vice versa?
Yeah I mean the budget was a lot lower than the film we just finished. So I’ve just been looking at it thinking ‘What could I have done with a bigger budget?’. That said I do like it as it is. There are little things there, things critics have picked up on that I actually really do appreciate that shows they understood the film. I have learnt a lot from this.
There are so many things I wish I could have improved on from Northern Lights. Pacing is a problem I’m sure you’ll spot, the dialogue is also a little long at times. It’s nice because you don’t always expect that they will understand it. As well the audience seemed to understand it which is perfect for me.
I’m happy with the feedback both positive and negative. All I want is a response, if people don’t know how they feel about it then I haven’t made a good film. There is nothing worse than a review that says absolutely nothing either way, it doesn’t help me to progress as a filmmaker.
I agree, a well-writen negative review is preferable over a neutral review as it help you understand what areas you need to work on.
Exactly and I think this (Lift-Off) is a really great platform for that purpose. It doesn’t feel too capitalised, rather it is audience centred which is nice.
I read that you went through over 20 rewrites of the script before you got to the final version, was that difficult for you or was it preferable as you could keep evolving it as you went along?
It was lovely because I got a sense of what I was making through so many drafts. There were characters that were cut. There were whole scenes that were shortened or lengthened. As a result of having such a long preproduction stage which we didn’t have with the film before it, I really benefited from being able to analyse and make the dialogue richer with meaning. It’s something to learn from as well, similar to writing a novel actually because it was more about writing a story than writing a script. It took about five/six months to write the script so kind of a long time I suppose.
How long after the last draft was it before you began filming then?
I think the last draft was about a week before. I’m always in contact with my crew, not so much in my next film but in this one particularly because I was friends with the crew and knew them really well. I would just send them a draft and the communication would be very direct, no going through agents or anything like that. It was a friendly process. There wasn’t really a stress so much as we all want to make a good film with the very short time we had to shoot. I don’t think I’ve heard of a 55 minute film being short being shot in six/seven days before. It was crazy.
Why did you choose 55 minutes as the runtime? It’s half way between a short and a feature length film. Was that purposeful or how it ended up being?
It ended up being that way. I am one of those people that just makes a film the length it should be rather than the length that festival would want. It’s not necessarily a good thing, I should probably be looking at festivals and going ‘this is the time restraint’ but Northern Lights shouldn’t have been any longer. If it had been longer it would have felt too pacy and it already is a little too long. In hindsight I would have cut ten or so minutes. If I had made it longer it wouldn’t have been right for the narrative and if it was shorter I wouldn’t have been able to build up the characters.
I think that is preferable though, making it the length that is right for the story you are telling rather than needlessly adding or cutting from the film.
On other films I’ve had to cut like 37 pages to 30 pages just because of the shooting ratio which is so annoying. You don’t want to cut stuff that is precious. I like to film something anyway and then have the option to cut it in the edit. There has been times where we had to cut something on the set due to time constraints.
Is that painful for you as a director?
It painful but it’s the evolution of making a film. It is never going to go entirely smoothly. You sign up for that at the beginning and you have to understand that it will happen at some point.
The budget of Northern Lights is around £12,000, has the budget of your next film gotten larger as a result of the positive reception of this one?
Definitely! We wanted to step up the actors in terms of the weight behind their names I guess. Getting a great set of people involved and up the ante because we didn’t want restrictions this time. We did have restrictions in terms of days to shoot. I was privileged to have a really beautiful crew where they all understood what I was doing. There is nothing more painful than people not understanding or sharing your vision. It will be about £40 thousand including distribution for this one through the funding of Cherwell Productions which is based in Oldham. They have been funding me personally and I have been very very lucky with that.
If this film you have just finished gets the same positive reception, will you step it up again?
Well I’m currently writing a feature, which will be a feature, it won’t be a 55 minute film. I know that one is going ahead but it depends on the reception of this film how large the funding will be. The future of what I do will always depend on the how well the films do. I just love directing so hopefully with recognition from festivals like this one I can continue to make films. It’s hard to get good actors if they have never seen any of your previous work and when they have seen some of my films it really helps me to boost myself. The script isn’t always enough I don’t think to get someone to sign on.
Is your ultimate goal to become a blockbuster director or do you want to remain an independent film director?
I love making independent films, I don’t think I would ever go into Hollywood. British cinema is my thing. I could potentially see myself making a Hollywood film if it had heart to it. There is something lacking at the moment that I might be able to bring. At the moment I am just loving working with actors who aren’t say Leonardo di Caprio. British actors from the north (of England) is what I am about right now. Most of the actors I cast I’ve sort of nicked from Ken Loach. So like Crissy Rock or Kate Rutter. Great actors, they’re not Hollywood actors. I go for talent over the name power.
If you had the budget to make a biopic on any person of your choosing who would it be?
Can I say two?
You can say as many as you’d like
Well there are two biopics I have always wanted to do.
One is about Florence Lawrence. Not many people know about her. She was the first ever film star and the stardom killed her. She ended up committing suicide. There is a big story there about her and who she is as a person. It’s something I really want to do and it would be set in America in the early stages of Hollywood. It is interesting to look at someone like her and compare her to a modern day movie star and see how stardom begun.
The other biopic that I want to do is that of my Grandad who passed away before I would be able to understand who he was. He has a great war story, I don’t want to give too much away but it would be set in a prisoner-of-war camp and it’s a very touching story that I feel needs to be told. That would be the big budget one.
Touching on the first one, would you shoot that in black and white? Using only the filming technology from the era to make it as real to that period of time as possible?
That is a really great question that I haven’t actually considered. I’ve always wanted to shoot it on 35mm or 16mm, definitely some sort of celluloid. Not sure about black and white but I definitely want that grain structure. I love black and white and I love contrast so I may decide to go with that. I think strong reds come through that pre-depression, pre-Gatsby era. I think it would be interesting to film. But yeah that really is a great idea.
Thank you very much, I’ll be sure to ask for a little thank you in the credits when it is released.
With that film as well I think it would be an independent production. I don’t think I would want any big names…well I say that it would depend. It is definitely a great role for someone. She actually killed herself with ant poison and it was a very horrific event.
Still in the real of fantasy, if you had to pick one or more actor that you really wanted to work with who would it be?
Actor-wise I would probably say Michael Fassbender or Eddie Redmayne. I think both are very diverse and they are just strong yet fragile actors. One second you can see them weep and the next second they are just so strong. There is something really beautiful about that. For women I would say Alicia Vikander or Marion Cotillard.
Marion Cotillard is actually my favourite actress
That is amazing! I just think she is so powerful. The variety of roles she, and Alicia Vikander, can do is just so incredible. Like Rust and Bone is one of my favourite films. Also I didn’t mind her having a french accent in Lady Macbeth, I love that film too and just everything she does really. She is an artist of a actress and you don’t see that often. I’m glad you like her too. All of the actors I mentioned too are all European so maybe there is something currently going on in Europe that has a realistic edge in comparison to Hollywood.
Hollywood at the moment seems more mechanical, churning out very formulaic, similar films. This is the opposite of your films which feel a lot more real.
For me it’s about making real characters with real stories. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose is almost like how I would do Florence Lawrence. It’s a great tragedy. Amy Winehouse as well is a great biopic to do. Her life is almost Shakespearian in ways. I also loved the Steve Jobs biopic.
Which one? As there was two
(Laughs) Not the Ashton Kutcher one. The Fassbender one. Aaron Sorkins way of writing is so Shakespearian, it’s all about fatal flaws. It sounds pretentious but I want to be like him in that way. I feel he’s actually quite European in his style. There is something to be said about realism in cinema. I strive towards realism but it’s a representation of realism.
It’s not about filming a tree and letting the tree’s leaves fall, it’s about watching a tree and making it interesting. I feel as though I need to add a little bit of surreal into my films too to make it interesting for the audience. Full realism can tend to get quite boring unless done by someone who has mastery in that like Ken Loach. I would love to be Ken Loach and Fellini at the same time, merge them both together. Show real stories in new and interesting cinematic ways.
So what would be your top three or five favourite or most influential films? Would Ken Loach feature?
I would actually move away from Ken Loach. For starts I would say Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. There is something so beautiful about this film and Dolan’s cinema. Next I would have to say Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.
Isn’t there a poster for Cinema Paradiso in your film?
Yes! Also there is a poster for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which is another of my favourite films.
I saw that as well on the IMDb connections page too. It is surprising how much detail there was about the film, was that done by you?
That was done by me. IMDb is actually one of the things that got me into film. I was honoured the other day to have met Col Needham the founder and I completely fanboy’d and went up to him saying ‘Can I show you how many films I have rated on your site?’.
How many may I ask?
1301 I think. It is such an amazing platform for filmmakers. I used it for casting mostly and showing the audience connections in my films that they may have missed. I literally almost cried when I met him and he’s from Manchester too it’s crazy. Sorry for going on another tangent but I just love IMDb.
On the topic of IMDb, I’ll keep it over here, the page for Northern Lights mentions two goofs. One was a visible microphone and the other was a script on the bed. How do you feel about those mistakes?
I think it is very hard not to have mistakes in a film. The general audience can’t tell that it’s a script on the bed but I can tell it is. As it was a rushed filming period these things will happen, it’s part of my journey as a filmmaker. I have learned to be careful. Even in major films like The Godfather I think you can see the DoP’s (director of photography) eyes reflected in a scene. I love mistakes like that, it reminds the viewer that this is a film. I don’t think any film should be perfect, too crisp digital annoys me, I like to soften my images a bit. For the film I just finished I shot a scene on 35mm which I was very lucky to do.
What is your next film about?
So it is called Cotton Wool and it’s about this young boy who’s suffers a stroke and he has no help especially from his sister who should be helping him. He has to take the role of a child carer at the age of seven. The actor, Max Vento is fantastic. He questions everything and he is only seven. it’s an emotional film with a heartbreaking story inspired by lots of real life stories.
We had a wonderful crew too including a BAFTA winning cinematographer shooting the film. It was a big step up from Northern Lights and I will never forget the people that got me who helped me on this film. It was such a group effort to make it.
What are some of the difficulties working with an actor who is only seven?
I don’t mind it, in fact I loved it. There is a little bit of me inside which is still a child so I can relate to why he says some things or worried about some things. I find easier working with child actors sometimes because they do question things and they ask stupid questions.
Stupid questions usually cover the things that matter though. I worked with another child actor on Northern Lights called Megan Grady who was also fantastic. It’s a comedic role for the most part but at the end of the film she cries her heart out in a tragic scene. She was just so diverse. Sorry I went off on a tangent again, I love tangents.
What is the length of the new film?
It is about 30 minutes, so a normal short’s length. We are trying to put it into BAFTA qualifying because Leanne Best’s performance as the mother is in my opinion Oscar worthy. That isn’t anything to do with my directing I want to make that clear she was just phenomenal. That’s why we are trying to push it.
We also made the film in relation with the Stroke Association to make it as accurate as possible. Child carers is a topic that isn’t really seen on film which is surprising as there are around 250,000 child carers in the UK. I’m hoping it will get onto television at some point. Festivals first of course, would love to come back to Lift-Off and have another screening here.
Going back to the hypothetical, what is your dream festival to be accepted into?
I love Edinburgh, went there once and it was beautiful. BFI of course. I do love Cannes. What is the one I keep aiming for? Oh Leeds. I got into Leeds Young Film Festival.
I saw you won an award there in your ‘written by yourself anonymously’ IMDb biography section.
(laughs) It’s terrible. I think it’s quite important to push myself in that way to get myself out there and known. I haven’t written everything about myself and my films but most I have.
I think you know you’ve become popular when other people begin to write about you.
It’s weird that with critics. When you didn’t know that they have written a review or an article about you. I love critics even if they are horrible.
What current film critic would you like to review your films? Whether they would like it or not
I would say Mark Kermode, I really respect his opinion. There is a YouTube called Grace or Beyond The Trailer who I like a lot too. I do like Robbie Collin and Peter Bradshaw as well. Mark Cousins is kind of a critic and he gave me a short opinion on Northern Lights and he was my idol.
Was it positive?
Yeah it was. He said ‘Touching and Moving’, something like that. We used that on one of the advertising poster.
Taking it back to Northern Lights, what is the meaning behind the title? Obviously it’s set in the north so that is part of it
Chris Cyprus is a pretty well known painter and he paints the north using the orange glow of streetlights. They’ve recently changed to LED’s now which is a sterile colour. He used the orange glow of the old style to give light his paintings and called it the Northern Lights. He inspired me to use that in my film. It’s a play on words a little bit.
Some people have come up to me and said the northern lights, aurora borealis, are boring. I tell them they should look at the streetlights in Manchester. It’s a film about the mundane, everyday life and people. About looking at something you wouldn’t even consider and making it magical. That’s what I love about cinema.
Well we should probably wrap it up there are your film is about to start but thank you very much for this and I can’t wait to watch this film and Cotton Wool as well.