February 28, 2019
in theaters

Oscar-Nominated Directors on How Their Shorts Opened the Door to Hollywood

The four Academy Award-Nominated Live-Action Shorts directors discuss production challenges, new opportunities, and more.

Most years, it's hard to find a through line in the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts. This year, however, the thematic similarities were almost unprecedented. It was as if the Academy nominations were not the result of the vagaries of a voting body, but a programmer's keen eye for films that congealed into a clean festival block.

Each film, in its own way, is a coming-of-age story. Canada's Fauve, directed by Jérémy Comte, centers around two young boys whose rural adventure turns perilous, resulting in a major loss of innocence. The British film Detainment, from Vincent Lambe, dramatizes elements from the harrowing murder case of James Bulger, a toddler who was kidnapped and brutally assaulted by two ten-year-old boys. The film, which is based on the boys' initial police interrogation tapes, sees the story from their point of view. The Spanish film Mother, directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen, also foregrounds a loss of innocence, albeit through the eyes of a parent. Filmed mostly in single takes, Mother depicts a terrifying phone call that a single mother receives from her young son, in which the kid describes having been abandoned by his father in a remote, undisclosed location. Finally, Marguerite, directed by Marianne Farley, also from Canada, tells a different kind of coming-of-age story—a sexual awakening that occurs in an elderly woman's twilight years. Upon discovering pretty live-in nurse is gay, the older woman considers how restrictive social norms prevented her from living her romantic life truthfully.

No Film School caught up with the Oscar-nominated shorts directors Comte, Lambe, Farley, and the producer of Mother, Eduardo Villanueva, to discuss how they brought their films to life, and the seismic shifts that have occurred for their careers since being nominated for an Academy Award.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Guy Nattiv, the director of the Oscar-winning short Skin, this week on NFS.

"It is important to be patient and always try to understand your priorities on set. Sometimes I really fought for things." —Jeremy Comte

No Film School: What inspired this film?

Jeremy Comte (Fauve): The inspiration for my film comes from childhood nightmares. When I was a boy, I used to dream about sinking in quicksand. This feeling of anxiety and feeling trapped fascinated me. Later on in my life, those dreams came back to me.

I grew up in the countryside. I was very immersed in nature and I used to take long walks with my best friend. We used to pull pranks on each other a lot. I wanted to explore that machismo--that toxic masculinity where, as boys, sometimes we want to feel so tough and cannot show emotions. We push each other into all sorts of dangerous things. I wanted to bring it to the extreme: What if these pranks had turned terrible at the hands of nature?

Eduardo Villanueva (Mother): Rodrigo wrote the story nine years ago. He and I have been friends for a long time and we partnered up to create our own company with two other friends. At that time, we didn't know very well how to produce a movie, and he wrote Mother and tried to raise the funding for it, but we were unable to do it, so we let it sleep for a while. And then, two years ago, when Rodrigo was in between two features, we found the perfect timing for it. By that point, we had learned a lot!

Farley (Marguerite): My grandmother inspired me in a direct way. She was born into a society where women had to marry and have kids. She didn't have the freedoms that I have. So, I always kind of wondered what it would have been like for a woman of her generation if she had fallen in love with a woman.

Lambe (Detainment): The [James Bulger] case is something I've grown up with. I was 12 when it happened, and I could never understand how these two 10-year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime. At the time, people always just told me that it was because they were evil. That's still the popular opinion today. But I just wanted to learn more about it. I started reading everything I could find on the case, and I got to the interview transcripts, and I was amazed that the boys' story hadn't been told before. These transcripts have been public record now for 26 years. But it's also just a hugely sensitive case. There has been a lot of controversy in the U.K.

NFS: How did you finance the short?

Comte (Fauve): Well, in Quebec [Canada], we have access to public grants. But it's very competitive. There's a very, very tiny percentage of people who apply who get the money. It depends so much on the judges and stuff.

I knew I needed that amount of money, because I couldn't do the camera stuff I wanted without money. It took me a long time to find financing. I had to apply many times. It took me 4 years. And I had to save a lot of my money too, for just going to scout and stuff. The grant I finally got was SODEC and CALQ, they were called.

Villanueva (Mother): Well, we found two partners—two production companies—who wanted to get involved. And then we teamed up with a television platform here in Spain, and also got some government funding. All of the financing was [in place] in two months. It wasn't hard!

Farley (Marguerite): We're really lucky in Quebec and have government funding agencies, SODEC and Calq. So, we can apply to get grants to produce a film. I'm not saying it's easy, because there are a lot of applications every year. It took two submissions for us to get the funding. We were very fortunate. We have a lot of support from our government when it comes to filmmaking. It is pretty special.

Lambe (Detainment): I self-funded the film. I hope I won't have to do that again!

'Marguerite'

NFS: How did you cast your actors?

Comte (Fauve): We auditioned about 70 boys in Montreal. Then we realized all these actor kids were too clean and too proper, in a sense. I wanted something a little more rough around the edges. So we reached out to the schools around the area where we were shooting.

Felix just came in the room and was so confident had such a strong energy. We just looked at each other, the producer and I, and were like, "Oh my god. This is him, this is really him." Between breaks and auditions and stuff we realized that Felix was always with this other kid, Alex Strong. They were both telling jokes to the other kids in the room and stuff. They were just natural together. Even if they didn't know each other at that time, it just felt like they were best friends in those moments.

I didn't give them scripts. I just fed them lines. They really learned by heart. They just reacted and did it with me. I felt it was more natural.

Villanueva (Mother):  Well, we knew her [Marta Nieto]. Rodrigo had worked with her; he had co-directed a film with her in it. At the time, she was the mother of a six-year-old kid, and Rodrigo had the feeling that that would help her with the part. So even though we had other options, Rodrigo thought that she could be the perfect actress. She did audition—in fact, it was more like a rehearsal, because I think they spent like four or five hours during the casting. And so Rodrigo knew that he could get something really powerful out of her.

Farley (Marguerite): I wrote the part of Rachel for Sandrine Bisson, the actress. She's a close friend of mine and I wanted to see her play this very delicate and compassionate character. She's usually cast to play louder, extroverted characters, and I wanted to see her play something more introverted—a character that's filled with empathy and kindness.

Beatrice [Picard] is a very famous actress in Quebec. She's been around 50 years. She's also a theater actress and she does a lot of comedic work. I wanted to explore how far she could go—how far she could dive into this character. She was so brilliant at it. She was so generous and wonderful.

"I always knew children were capable of doing much more than the scripts that were being written for them, but they really weren't ever given the opportunity." — Vincent Lambe

Lambe (Detainment): Everyone I gave the script to at first would say, "Well, that's a great script, but you're never gonna get kids to be able to play these roles convincingly." And that was one of the biggest challenges. But I had worked in casting for over 12 years, and I worked with an agent for child actors. So I always knew children were capable of doing much more than the scripts that were being written for them, but they really weren't ever given the opportunity.

I thought this would be an amazing opportunity to allow two incredible child actors to reach their potential. At the same time, we had to do a very big casting to find the right boys. But having worked in casting, I wanted to cast it myself. I wanted to meet every single boy that came into the room. I just wouldn't have trusted another casting director. You can dismiss some kids based on a reading, but they could be brilliant at improvising. So the way we did this casting is the same way I do every casting: We got all the boys to prepare one scene, and then we'd start to improvise them immediately afterward. I had an actor in the room who was reading with them. When we'd get to the end of the scene that they'd prepared, we'd start improvising, and then take the scene to a different place. 

In reality, the detectives were very gentle when they questioned the boys, and in the film, that's what you see. But for the purpose of the casting, I told the actor who was improvising with them to scare them a little bit and lose the rag with them, just to see what they do. And they always responded differently. It always took them by surprise. But then suddenly, they weren't acting anymore.

NFS: What was the biggest challenge that you came across in bringing this film to life?

Comte (Fauve): I would say the location itself. It's very far out and it's very hard to bring equipment there. It's also very hard to control. When we found it, it was dried up inside the valley, and it was so good for us. But we had to push the film for a year because we didn't have financing. It was very frustrating. When we came back to the valley, it was filled up with water. We couldn't shoot at all, and we were weeks from the actual shoot! It was very scary. We ended up pumping water out and building roads and it was a huge challenge to be able to shoot there and make it happen.

Villanueva (Mother):  I think the most important challenge was the performance of the actress. Everything depended on that. It was a very complex character and it had to connect with the audience. She had to transmit this vein of fear and panic but also try to stay calm, to be able to calm her kid.

Farley (Marguerite): For me, the biggest challenge is definitely the writing. I really wanted to write a story that was subtle. I didn't want to have to over-expose the backstory. I didn't want there to be too much dialogue, either, between the two women. This is something that just happens...it's not about the words. It's about those precious moments of silence and the looks that they give each other. I really wanted to see how far I could take that. 

But, writing is tough. You have this idea in your head but you have to find your way to put it down on paper. So, I would say that was my biggest challenge.

'Fauve'

Lambe (Detainment): Casting. We ultimately found two incredibly talented actors, and they put a huge amount of work into it. We were meeting up every weekend over the summer. We had a couple of months to work on it, and we all became really good friends. But then they were also working with a dialect coach on the accents.

Once we discovered that Ely [Solan] had it in him, where he was able to cry...that happened through improvisation, actually. I mean, Ely did a good reading at the first casting, but it was his improvisation that convinced us. After eight minutes of improvising, he had tears in his eyes. And I think that's when we knew we had found our Jon. But if we had let him go out of the room after just doing a reading of the scene, I think we would never know what he was capable of. And either would he.

That's why I wanted to do the casting myself—to make sure everybody who came in did their absolute best in the audition. And we pushed all of them pretty hard. We did the same thing with everybody, but they all just responded differently. It's amazing what kids are capable of doing, and Ely especially. He's just this extraordinary boy, who's very in touch with his emotions, and he's bright, and he listens. But Leon [Hughes] is also an incredibly talented actor. He initially auditioned for Jon. He was so good, but we didn't think he could play that role. So we brought him back, and he just morphed into the role of Robert. So he's such a versatile actor, and there's a subtlety to his performance.

NFS: Can you talk about your aesthetic choices when it came to the cinematography?

Comte (Fauve): I worked very closely with my buddy. He's one of my favorites. We have such a great collaboration. We tried to capture the essence of nature.

We used an Alexa Mini as a camera, and for the lens, we used Zeiss Super Speeds. We actually had a huge kit of lenses. I wanted the most angles possible. The camera was light and it was usually on a stick in the muddy terrain. We wanted something that was very flexible and easy to work with and that reminded me of film. We really wanted that feeling that the lens was vintage, too. The image was still very sharp so the picture was very warm. I really like how airy and the clouds and stuff looked.

We worked with The Mill and some others for post. I wanted the image to almost like English film from the '90s. We really got the film look. People sometimes ask us if we shot on film.

I wanted to work with natural light and adapt to what it could give us. But it would switch from being very cloudy, to very sunny blue skies, to crazy weather in a couple of hours. We were always changing our approach depending on what the sky looked like.

"With a brilliant team around you, everything else will fall into place, but you need to get the performances right." —Vincent Lambe

Villanueva (Mother): This is more a question more for Rodrigo, of course, as the director, but I know his way of working. He's interested in truth, and making everything look real. So he chose to do one-shots with wide angle lenses. It really [enforces] the connection to the character. It helps the audience not to be separated from the feelings and emotions of the actress, so you feel like you're inside the story. He wanted to show the reality of the action the way it is. I think that was the most powerful choice he made in this short film.

Farley (Marguerite): Well, you know, my previous film was about four boys. The color grading was a lot colder. I really wanted Marguerite to be warm and intimate. It's a film about sensuality and about compassion and about love. In terms of how I shot the film, I wanted to be close to my characters, but I also had many wide shots, because the house is, in a way, the third character. It was really important to me to establish Marguerite's whole existence in this house and also get really close to the characters, so we could feel what they were going through.

We shot with an Alexa. We had many different lenses. We used the 18 quite a bit, because, as I said, I wanted wider shots. But, I think for the closer shots, we probably shot with a 40 and a 75.

Lambe (Detainment): We shot on a Sony F-55. I think we used K-35 lenses. It's a 4K CineAlta camera, with a global shutter. But then we did a really great grade on it as well. So we shot it raw, and then graded it in a post-production house in Dublin, called Screen Scene.

For the whole film, the camera is mobile. Patrick Jordan, the director of photography, has got this really brilliant style—somewhere between Steadicam and handheld. It's trying to put little nervous energy into the film. Almost documentary style, but not quite.

We stayed close on the boys' faces as well. It puts the audience in the room and allows them to experience every moment and every feeling as if it was their own. Then, as the scenes progress and get more and more intense, the framing gets tighter on the boys' faces. Because [a lot of the film takes place in] two interview rooms, you gotta keep changing the angles, and coming up with new ways to show it so that it doesn't drag and feel too boring, or like a repeat of a previous scene.

'Mother'

NFS: Did you learn anything new about directing from making this film?

Comte (Fauve): The biggest lesson was to not rush things. At first, I had to push for a year to shoot, and I was so frustrated. I really wanted to shoot right now. But it ended up being the best decision because I rewrote the story a lot, and made it so much better.

Then, I learned about working with nonactors. Other people were like, "You're crazy to work with nonactors." It's not going to work out. I had some doubts, but finally, I went for it. It was the most fulfilling decision. Those boys were so open and cooperative. They taught me so much about being open and flexible and working with your strengths. 

It is important to be patient and always try to understand your priorities on set. Sometimes I really fought for things. For example, there's this sequence in the film that's really abstract, of nature. In this sequence, Tyler feels completely overwhelmed and anxious. I just wanted to express that through the visuals. That was from the original script. When we were prepping with my team, they said, "If we have time, we're going to shoot that, but it's not a priority." I was like, "No, guys this so important." Now, every week I receive an email from someone telling me how they got so inspired by that sequence in particular. 

I think as a director the thing that you need to be flexible and look at your priorities. When something is very important to you, you need to fight for it. You have to always have the story in mind.

Villanueva (Mother): I clearly remember the first time I saw a cut of the film. Even though, of course, I had read the script [so many] times, I clearly remember when I saw the first cut, I felt really shocked. I really got into it. After I exited the theater, I felt the need to call my wife and ask to speak with my children and see if everything was okay. It was so powerful. Even though I knew the story so well, and I had been a part of it, I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. It was the most significant part of the filmmaking process for me. 

Farley (Marguerite): I sort of regretted not being in the moment. I didn't enjoy the production as much as I should have. You know, when you're on set, you're always worried about time. You're worried whether things are going to work or not. I think what I learned is just to trust my intuition more and to enjoy the process—not to put so much pressure on myself. 

Lambe (Detainment): This was definitely the most difficult film I've ever done. It was a big challenge to get it right.

I think I've learned to trust everybody around me a lot more. If you hire a brilliant director of photography, which we did, and you can have a great production designer, great sound designers, and everything, you don't really need to focus too much on those things. I think as a director, the most important thing is to focus on the performances of the actors. That's where I put all my energy. With a brilliant team around you, everything else will fall into place, but you need to get the performances right.

NFS: What new opportunities or avenues have opened themselves up to you now that your film has received an Oscar nomination?

Comte (Fauve): It's crazy. The film really opened up so many opportunities for me. I met with agents and managers and I got to form my team in LA that would represent me. From there, there's been a bunch of offers and opportunities.

The Oscar nomination itself, I think, just created a stronger fan base around me. I think the bigger breakthrough was actually Sundance for me. Everybody is there, industry-wise. It's like a huge market.

But as far as the nomination, my credibility as a filmmaker is stronger.

Villanueva (Mother): Yes. We have. Mostly in the Spanish market, of course, but also in the US market. We have been in America for promotion and for this Oscar campaign, and we have found a lot of production companies interested in knowing a little bit more about us and our featured projects and what we're going to do next. 

Also, we have produced a feature based on the short film. Being nominated to the Oscars is a great hook for the feature. So it's been really helpful.

Farley (Marguerite): Being nominated for an Oscar has opened doors. You have meetings to get representation—managers and agents. People have been sending me scripts to read. It gives you some kind of credibility in the industry. It's pretty amazing. I think this is the best thing that can happen to any director.

Lambe (Detainment): Well, today, for example, you've caught me just between meetings. I've just finished one, and now I'm going to another one. I'm meeting with all the top agencies and production companies here in L.A., and it's busy. But it's great that they all want to meet with me.

I'm hoping it'll be easier to make my next film. L.A. is such a positive town. But being from Dublin, I'm also quite realistic about it. I mean, you'd love to believe everything everyone is telling you, but whoever you are, it's still gonna be difficult to make it as a director. And it hasn't been easy getting this far. I think there's still a lot of work to do before I get to make a feature, but I'm happy to do it.

This film is a good calling card, but that's not the only reason I made it. I still love to think it's an important contribution to the [James Bulger] case, and I would hope that it might even affect social change in the U.K.

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