This post was written by Sparky Tehnsuko.

You may have seen my name in the credits of some very big movies lately. Not as a writer or director, mind–in the end crawls of such films as 1917 and The Little Mermaid, you’ll find me listed as I.T. & Networking Coordinator. It’s not very creative, but I’ve personally fixed Kenneth Branagh’s office printer on several occasions.

This studio-bound crew work has paid bills and made a lot of industry friends for both myself and my producer, Sej Davé, but it’s also kept us from making any short films of our own since 2014. Up to that point, we had prolifically (and cheaply) knocked out dramatic shorts, a web series, some music videos, and occasional corporate videos–and in the years since, I’d saved money and spent evenings and weekends writing all manner of scripts with the idea that, one day, we might once again be able to make one of them.

Sparky Tehnsuko directing Bella Ramsey and Isla Gie on a set with fire in 'Villain'Credit: Sparky Tehnsuko

Villain is a film I never thought I’d be able to make. The screenplay for the short was written in 2019 as pure catharsis, to fictionalize a personal event and hide it behind metaphors of dragons and fire, before being quickly shelved in the pile of scripts and marked as "just a writing exercise."

Then, the pandemic happened.

Between completing 1000-piece puzzles, customizing face mask designs, and binging Tiger King, the realization began to set in that there was now time to properly and patiently develop a new film project. I looked through my archives and rediscovered Villain, full to the brim of practical fire, prosthetic makeup, bespoke costume design, computer-animated dragons, and other elements Sej and I had little to no experience in from our previous shorts. But now we had time to learn and all-too-available industry contacts who could teach us.

Once I’d hastily drawn a small tree’s worth of storyboards, we began to reach out to department heads over Zoom and asked, “How do we do this?” and “Do you know anyone who’d do this for super-duper cheap?” only to be floored with a chorus of extremely talented people responding with, “I’m bored as hell and this looks like a fun project; I’ll do it!”

Our patience and collaborations in the industry had truly paid off. It’s pretty universal advice: put in the work to be somebody for whom people want to do favors.

The production was full of firsts–one of which was, instead of advertising online for actors, hiring an actual casting director. They put together a list of potential actors for the lead character with Bella Ramsey’s name at the top, and suddenly we didn’t even want to consider anyone else. I’d seen Bella in Game of Thrones and Resistance and had been awed. So, we sent Bella the script with a bit of information about the project and ourselves and were ecstatic to hear that they were excited and wanted to be involved.

BTS on 'Villain'Credit: Sparky Tehnsuko

Similarly, we were presented with a lot of self-taped auditions of younger actors for the role of Sabra but made a very quick decision once we’d seen newcomer Isla Gie completely nail it. I sent both a list of revenge movies that I’d been using as inspiration, then edited them into a more sensible sizzle reel after being told by their parents and agents that it’s frowned upon to ask children to watch You Were Never Really Here.

As the national lockdown tapered to an end, all our discussions, meetings, and video-call rehearsals gave way to physically creating everything we’d talked about. Shooting dates were set for a single weekend and all that had been words became tangible, including the budget.

All the one-time favors we’d discussed as money-saving efforts were called in: a skeleton art crew utilised a disused farmyard barn as our stage, and dressed the picturesque land right beside it for exteriors; unused rigging and drapes were borrowed from empty stages at Pinewood Studios; location amenities, SFX equipment and a huge VFX lens grid were graciously loaned to us for free by old colleagues; every equipment hire discount under the sun was gotten through friends of friends. Sej and I took turns sleeping in a car on location so we could save on security costs for the night before the shoot, and I painstakingly attached the set drapes to the rigging myself for a couple of hours around midnight.

We finished the first day’s filming by fully burning down the exterior set as Bella stood before it and reacted with fear and dismay, and we started the next day with the same set’s smoking remains as a backdrop to Bella’s simmering fury. Any time a tear fell during a take, Bella would flash a smile at the camera the second we yelled, “Cut!” Inside the stage, our AD stood in as an eye-line reference for the dragon; Bella’s stunt double fell in slow-motion on huge mats in front of a borrowed blue screen; Bella themself opted to perform another stunt, jumping at a flamethrower as I yelled “anger anger anger, death death death!” Then, it was all in the can.

Except for the dragon.

A still from 'Villain' short film'Villain'Credit: Cowboy Funfair Productions

I sent the storyboarded dragon shots to our VFX Supervisor and was utterly shattered when the first quote came back at a cost of over £200,000. Thankfully, though, they weren’t our only option: we discovered a pair of experienced artists who’d just started a new company right before the world shut down and were eager to create a textured, animated creature for their portfolio. We came to an agreement that would let us pay with our patience–as well as a fraction of their regular rates–so long as they could prioritize other post-lockdown work and get the shots back to us, “When they’re done.”

It took almost two years and was worth every second. The film has screened to audiences all over the globe and, thanks largely to Bella’s rising star, has already amassed quite a fanbase.

And I’m eagerly awaiting all that may come next.

This post was written by Sparky Tehnsuko.