The filmmakers behind Pompeii on the joys of going back to basics and collaborating with friends
With Film4-backed short Pompeii now available to watch on Film4 on All4, we sat down with writers and directors Harry Lighton, Marco Alessi and Matthew Jacobs Morgan, as well as producer Sorcha Bacon to find out more about how they embraced iPhones, collaboration and chaos! By Nicole Davis.
Where did the idea for this short film come from and why did you want to tell this story?
Matthew Jacobs Morgan: We were chatting at the London Film Festival a few years ago and agreed that we all wanted to work on something and from that point it was quite an organic process. Our friend Tam (Otamere Guobadia, who stars in the film) wrote an article that very much inspired the film. It was created in a very non-linear way, we kind of figured it out as we went along.
Harry Lighton: Tam’s article was making a very serious and valid point about divisions within the queer community and door club policies, but we thought it’d be fun to film something that didn’t require any of the usual apparatus of a film set, with our mates and a bunch of iPhones, but which was also fundamentally interesting and a bit different from other shorts out there.
Can you expand on the politics around the door club policy and the controversies that Pompeii explores?
Marco Alessi: Tam’s article in particular was criticising a specific venue in London which I think has now closed down, but is trying to re-open under the guise of being an inclusive place, when in fact it has a door policy that famously refuses entry to men that don’t appear masculine enough by their standards. That might be because you’re wearing a crop top, heels or excessive make-up.
It’s presenting itself as a queer space but has built up its clientele off the back of having a very narrow concept of what it means to be a gay man, and also what is sexually attractive in gay men. And that leads to femme-shaming and also the exclusion of trans people from queer spaces. It’s really sinister. That’s what we were channelling through his character.
You’re dealing with quite a complex, and at times heavy, topic, but there is a thread that runs throughout the film which celebrates queer expression and nightlife. How did you balance those two elements?
HL: What we set out to do was try and build that into the structure of the film, so it begins with a glimpse into the exuberance of going out with a group of mates, but progresses to that group splintering, and then people who are single — which I don’t think is exclusive to the queer community — are often left on their own, as people couple up or head to other venues to try and prolong the night. So the group is distilled down to two people, one of whom can very easily slide into this club which venerates macho, straight-acting guys and one of whom cannot, which allowed us to push it into that more sinister place.
How did having a triptych of directors work? Did you collaborate across all aspects of the filmmaking, or did you each write and direct segments?
Sorcha Bacon: It happened so organically. We made it in sections, so if we tried something out and it wasn’t quite working, we went with something different. Rather than writing a script, we all got involved in telling a story through action and playing around with different scenarios. It evolved as we were making it.
HL: We shot over three separate nights but across a six month timespan. That was probably the most liberating thing about shooting on iPhones, it’s almost budget-less, so it does enable you to shoot something, look at it all together, sit on it for a little bit, rewrite, discuss, argue, rewrite, reshoot, etc. That practical approach really enabled the collaboration.
MJM: One of the other reasons we had time on our side was that we just started making it ourselves, with barely any money. We were very lucky that Film4 came on board and helped us finish the film, but initially there was very little pressure.
On an aesthetic level, what were your influences and references? Did you look to other films that had been shot on iPhone? The obvious one being Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
HL: There’s a film called Cracked Screen (2016) by Trim (the first Snapchat-based film of its kind). Tangerine isn’t shot from the perspective of someone recording selfies, whereas Cracked Screen is told exclusively through a series of Snapchats captured by one individual character. So we saw that and thought it would be interesting to make a film that used multiple perspectives because that reflects how we use Instagram Stories; you’re zipping through lots of different experiences.
SB: We wanted to comment on our generation’s obsession with what you put on the Internet and how people decide what they choose to make public and what they keep to themselves.
MA: It was a massive headache as well to be honest. Everyone had their phones on this night out, and we paid for their entry to a club. We had a vague sense of the story, but within some very loose parameters we very much let them tell their own stories. The first edit we did had no centre and was pure chaos. And then once we started zoning in on Tam, the aesthetic emerged from that, we wanted to be true to the form of Instagram Stories. Julie Buckland, our editor, was incredibly patient with us!
Did all the Instagram Stories recreation happen in post-production?
MA: Yeah, we had an incredible motion graphics expert called James Malcolm and he whizzed it all up. Once we had finished the edit, we had to really lock it, because James then had to recreate the little bar at the top of Stories and we had to tell him when someone might have skipped the video or when they watched it to the end. It was really tricksy.
Were there any other limitations, or perhaps liberations, you encountered through working with the iPhone?
MJM: One of the liberations was that we had so much footage, so if something wasn’t quite working, we had a lot of other options. You don’t always have the luxury of that much coverage when you’re shooting in a more conventional way.
SB: On the other hand we had one roll of 16mm film to shoot almost a third of the film (for the scenes following Tam on his journey home from the club). We totally overshot on the phones because it’s such a democratic device that anyone can grab and go, but with 16mm it had to be super composed and you can’t mess it up.
HL: It’s also quite hard to film your self in a ‘selfie’ and remain in the moment whilst you’re acting, so it was nice to go back to 16mm and see what was going to be shot.
What did you learn from the experience of making this short?
SB: Working with your friends is really fun and making films should be joyful, which this was. It reignited a drive to make something with nothing. Yes we were lucky to have Film4 onboard, but we had to create something to the point where they wanted to come onboard. It was really exciting to go back to basics.
HL: I learnt about intimacy coordination. I’ve made a lot of films that have had weird sex scenes in them and growing up I had thought that the way to combat the awkwardness and get people into the moment was to narrow the thinking space around it. Like ‘you’ll come in, we’ll just do it without a rehearsal and GO!’ But it was amazing working with an intimacy co-ordinator for this and seeing how that methodical, choreographed process doesn’t suck out energy or vim from the performances, it just makes actor’s much more comfortable and means you can properly discuss those scenes rather than having an ‘ostrich in the sand’ moment.
MJM: It made me realise how much I love 16mm. We were so lucky to have it on this film, and what our DoP Molly Manning Walker shot is absolutely gorgeous. As Sorcha was saying, the process of shooting on 16mm does force you to distil exactly what you want from a shot. I also just love the texture of it and what you can do with colour. I hope it doesn’t fall to the wayside as a medium.
MA: My take home from Pompeii is to approach projects with greater looseness. I think I’ve always been quite rigid in terms of I wanted as a director, but some of the most exciting stuff in this film emerged from this looseness.
Speaking of take homes, is there something you hope audiences glean from their experience of watching the film?
MA: Part of what I love about Tam’s performance is that he’s so glittering and beautiful and loud and fun, and yet he’s still impacted by the various micro-aggressions that are directed towards him. So I hope we can make those more visible or recognisable, when they otherwise might go unnoticed, particularly in the chaos of a night out.
MJM: I guess I hope as well, that there are still inclusive spaces that exist and where people like Tam can be themselves.
SB: For me, I hope that people realise that divides exist in the LGBTQ+ community. It can be easy to put us under one banner but I hope it encourages people to think about nuance and that queer identity isn’t homogenous.
Sorcha Bacon is a BAFTA and BIFA-nominated producer and founder of Try Hard Films. Her short films include Wren Boys (Sundance, SXSW); If You Knew (Sheffield Doc/Fest, BFI London Film Festival) and Pompeii (Critics Circle, BFI London Film Festival). Her work spans documentary and fiction, with features in development with BBC Films including her 2019/2020 iFeatures project, Maggy.
Harry Lighton is a British writer-director currently based in London. His short Wren Boys was nominated for Best British Short at the 2018 BAFTAs. It was also shortlisted for a BIFA and had its US Premiere at Sundance. He is currently developing his first feature with BBC Films and Element.
Marco Alessi is a writer and director based in London. His narrative shorts include Four Quartets (LFF 2018; Berlinale 2019, Crystal Bear Jury Special Mention), Toni_With_An_I, co-written with Mary Antony (BBC/BFI co-production; broadcast on BBC 4), and Pompeii, co-writer/co-director with Harry Lighton and Matthew Jacobs Morgan (Film4; LFF 2019; BIFA longlisted). His next short, The Bower is inspired by Derek Jarman’s canonisation.
Matthew Jacobs Morgan is a writer-director and actor from London. His first feature film Mine is in development with BFI, produced by Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor (Blue Story) and executive produced by Mary Burke (God’s Own Country). Matthew started his career as an actor, with credits including Love, Nina (BBC1), Wasted (E4) and Pure (Channel 4).