The Mancunion

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The creative space: Subterranean Thoughts with Tom Roberts

September creative space winner Tom Roberts, working on the new film ‘Subterranean Thoughts’ talks to Ellie Tivey about creating “micro-budget” films, university experience and breaking into the industry

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Sat cross-legged on New Wakefield Street at 11 pm was not the setting I initially imagined for my first Mancunion interview. But there I was, laptop precariously balanced on my knees, with Tom Roberts. Fresh from filming a scene in the Thirsty Scholar, Tom had found time in between their intense filming schedule to talk to me, and what a wonderful welcome to the world of investigative journalism it was.

Tom, who graduated from the University of Manchester last year, is now the assistant director of the up and coming film, Subterranean Thoughts created through the production company Odds On, which consists of three University of Manchester alumni and also Dylan Zarella, the director of Subterranean Thoughts.

Subterranean Thoughts is a full-length feature film following the life of troubled introvert, Allen Ward — portrayed by Corin Silva. As Tom describes it: “Throughout the course of the film, things start happening to him, people come into his life and it becomes very difficult to tell if he is off and the world is kind of normal, or if the world is going crazy and he’s the only sane one in it.”

As a result, we see Allen’s “downward spiral into this never-ending pit of despair.” No doubt you can tell, and as Tom admitted with a playful smile, “it’s a bit of a bleak movie.”

Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts

As someone utterly baffled by the process of creating a full-length movie, let alone making one with what he aptly named a “micro-budget”, one thing I was keen to ask Tom about was how he and Dylan were keeping production expenditure low.

We both agreed that money, or lack thereof, can be the determining factor in many people’s decision to walk away from the creative industry.

Odds On, the aforementioned production company of which Tom is a founder, have put out four projects now, all of which have been funded in different ways.

Everything from audience donations and outside investment to directors working jobs to cover production costs themselves. As Tom says: “Right there you have fundraising options for creating something with absolutely nothing, and all of those are very real and achievable options if you want it.”

The key to creating something on a low budget is being inventive and open-minded. The filming process of Subterranean Thoughts displays this imagination at every step.

They have explored all the beauty that Manchester has to offer in search of filming locations and have been using their contacts in the University of Manchester’s drama society for volunteers for extra roles.

Tom and Dylan’s links to the University of Manchester have been a huge help in the production of Subterranean Thoughts.

With Manchester students Stella Ryley and Sarah Teale managing their costume department as just one example. Tom describes the drama faculty and society at the university as a sort of “melting pot” of talented and passionate artists who “are not working professionally or for money yet, but are still all prepared to put the hours in.”

It’s this shared passion that creates what he calls a kind of “fringe society” that has been the University of Manchester’s most valuable contribution to his efforts to break into the film industry.

This led me to ask him what else, in a more general sense, had his Drama and English Literature degree contributed. “What the course did fantastically”, he says, “and what I’ll always be grateful for, was how they nurture the intellectual side of this kind of area. They will teach you about the people who have gone before you, what they did and how they did it”.

While this education is key to holding your own as a young professional in such a competitive industry, he concedes that “in terms of the doing it yourself, the practical side, that’s not what you should expect from this course, that’s not what you’re going to get”.

One thing Tom cannot emphasise enough is how integral it is that you have a real passion and determination to break into the creative industry.

Thankfully, Tom possesses this determination in abundance; it’s a passion and zeal that drips off of every word he says about his experience as a creator so far. Despite professing he is absolutely not wise enough to offer advice to anyone leaving university with dreams of becoming something within the arts, he aptly refers to the story behind his favourite film Fitzcarraldo for inspiration.

The film, set in the Amazon rainforest, focuses on an opera-obsessed man who wants to drag a ship up a mountain. It’s ever-so-slightly mad director, Werner Herzog, was adamant that they don’t use special effects so he dragged an actual ship up an actual mountain.

It’s this dedication that Tom says is essential. “If you want it enough, you will take it. And if you settle you’ll be thinking about that for an awfully long time”.

Subterranean Thoughts comes out in January when it will also be circulating the film festival circuit. Be sure to keep an eye out for it and also its sister film Hilda, which the two other quarters of Odds On (Michael Honnah and Rishi Pelham) are currently creating. Until then, to Tom and Dylan, happy filming!