Superficially, YouTube may seem only a few things. Challenge videos and all-caps click bait, tags and tours, and lots of #spon. There’s a unique and automatic association the public continuously makes with the video-sharing site, one that differs from those made in previous years. But dig a little deeper – just not too far into the many rabbit holes of YouTube’s “dark side” – and you’ll find a kind of magic. A band of massive talent that hasn’t exactly been hiding, but isn’t what the average consumer would expect to find under that aforementioned surface level. There are these content creators that have seen YouTube for what it is at its core: a stage. What people do on that stage, however, varies wildly. Either way a decision swings, YouTube is powerful to its core.
Within that pocket of talent are creatives who’ve honed their skills to near genius. There’s this Breakfast Club of filmmakers, all equal but distinctive in their crafts and visions, that has come forth and thrived. Each have writing, acting and/or directing credits on a laundry list of works, and they’re only getting bigger and better.
Filmmaking in the digital age — especially when distribution is through YouTube — has the opportunity to reach a larger and wider audience. One of its strengths lies in its accessibility; viewers practically have an encyclopedia of films from which to choose, in various different languages made by many different kinds of people. The filmmaking x YouTube collaboration is also just so naturally nuanced. On a platform that has gone through many a metamorphose, it at once seems unexpected and obvious that such talent would co-exist with the well-oiled web-celebs for whom YouTube has become quite known. Though we know it’s out there, we’re still affected, surprised even, when we make such a discovery. It makes us question our own consumption: “What is out there that we aren’t being met with, that isn’t being spotlighted? Can we glean from YouTube deeper substance?”
On YouTube, both filmmaking and the growth of creativity ride a fine line and stand at the edge of a precipice. Each can lend themselves to the other, and I believe that in them, we can find inspired and emotional things.
To discuss YouTube and filmmaking, and to swim the deep of his own works, I “sat down” with Sammy Paul, a common denominator in a web of wonderful short films and one of the many members of a skillful group of young filmmakers.
AJ Caulfield: In a single word or phrase, what does filmmaking mean to you?
Sammy Paul: To me, put simply, film is everything. It’s what I live for.
AJC: Over the years, YouTube’s predominant culture has shifted from a world of bare-bones vlogs and simplistic sketch-style videos to a massive business conglomerate. How do you see YouTube’s future? Do you sense another shift coming?
SP: It’s tough because increasingly YouTube is going back to its grass roots. In many ways, the ‘kid in the bedroom’ is very much a winning formula right now. Only it’s become just that, a formula. A box-ticking exercise. And at least before it really was kids in their bedrooms making creative stuff, unsure exactly what they were getting themselves into. Now it feels a little contrived and calculated. As a website its doing great, as a creative platform less so.
AJC: The platform itself isn’t without its merits, however. What aspects of YouTube do you feel have had the most impact – advantageous or otherwise – on your own work?
SP: Fundamentally, YouTube is a free international distribution platform. That’s a thing no other generation of filmmaker has grown up with. It’s important to remind yourself that it’s done a lot of good for a lot of people despite its flaws.
AJC: How do you view your personal trajectory in terms of filmmaking? What can we expect to see from you in 2016?
SP: I’ve been working on a lot more of my own stuff this year. Namely a New Form Digital short called Friend Like Me. I can’t say much about it, but it involves a Genie. Also there’s a dead fish in it for like a split second so, you know, #hype.
AJC: Do you feel a digital landscape allows for certain freedoms in filmmaking that a traditional environment doesn’t or hasn’t yet?
SP: You’d think/hope that the digital landscape would allow for certain freedoms amongst creators. And whilst there are many people who flourish in the environment, many others play it safe. They keep an eye on views. They monitor what “does well.” They become their own studio executive who tells them not to have fun.
AJC: In terms of the development of each of these films, did they have a distinct inception you can recall? If so, how did the initial inspiration evolve as you spent more time within the film’s story?
SP: I never have a good answer when it comes to the inception of ideas. It’s tough, every idea comes from so many different places and from a mix of different people. I don’t know that I’d really be able to pin down anything I’ve worked on to just one place of origin.
AJC: If funding, resources, and time were of no object to you – you’re given a free rein opportunity to create a total passion project – what would that film entail?
SP: I feel like the most common answer to the “if you had unlimited funding” question tends to focus on scale and production elements. Personally, for where I am right now, I’d love the opportunity to work with more actors that I hugely admire. That’s where I’d put the money. A dark comedy featuring Kevin Spacey, Idris Elba, Emma Stone and Cate Blanchett? Could I make that happen? That would be dope.
Our conversation turns film-specific below.
Rocks That Bleed
AJC: Stylistically, Rocks That Bleed is a dream. When imagining how the film would look, did you have a clear vision on the aesthetics first, or did you focus on the themes and emotions you wished to represent and moved forward from there? How did the two play with one another throughout production?
SP: Bertie and I both excel in very different areas so in many ways Rocks That Bleed was a real combination of our efforts. Aesthetics and tone are very much Bertie’s forte, whilst character and dialogue are mine. That’s not to say we turned a blind eye to the other field, but I think we both enjoyed being able to focus on our strengths knowing the same was true of the other. Jack Howard was also producing, so he was able to keep the balance between the two areas.
AJC: There is a palpable chemistry and emotional presence woven throughout the film’s entirety, but is particularly felt in the heavier scenes between Joe (Jack Howard) and Sidney (Bertie Gilbert). What was your favorite scene to write and to shoot?
SP: Albeit an obvious answer, that final scene was the one I enjoyed directing the most. The energy and atmosphere we created going into that shoot was incredible, everyone in the room could feel it. After we’d rehearsed it a number of times I tried to establish as safe of an environment as I could, and from there it was all on our incredible actors to run with it. Hopefully the end product speaks for itself, but needless to say I felt very proud heading home from set that day.
AJC: The final scene of Rocks That Bleed carefully balances heart and humor without making the mistake of being too explicit with the audience. What does that scene mean to you within the film’s context?
SP: I love leaving people with something bitter-sweet; it’s my absolute favourite way of ending a story. And I think, for me, it’s that. Yes, it’s the end of the world and everything is about to be consumed by flames, but at least these two brothers have reconnected, that’s something huh? I like to think I tiptoe the line between sentimental and sadistic.
Watch the full film here.
AJC: Throughout pre-production, you held interviews with members of the trans community and involved many trans writers during script development. You continued to be steadfast to the community in auditioning trans men, trans women, and non-binary individuals for the lead. What was the casting process like, and how/when did you know you had found the right person (Poppy Harrold) to play Scarlett Monroe?
SP: The casting for Blue Sushi was unlike anything we’d ever done before. I’ve never held open auditions so that was new for a start. However, more than that, we weren’t even really sure what we wanted the character to be. And so with each audition we had to gauge what that actor’s version of the character would be: how far transitioned they were/ whether they were a trans man, a trans woman, gender neutral, how old they were, etc. I don’t know that there was ever one moment where we were like, “WE HAVE OUR ACTOR,” it was a lengthier process of deciding how the story would be different with each candidate.
AJC: Sammy, you had hinted that the rough inspiration for Blue Sushi came to you after a dream you had in 2013. You woke up muttering, “Huge thighs and blue sushi.” Can you expand upon what that phrase, in retrospect, meant and the way(s) in which it influenced the development and final product of the film?
I just woke up from a dream and said "huge thighs and blue sushi" out loud. I don't know what it means, but I want it as a band name.
— Sammy Paul (@ICOEPR) March 18, 2013
SP: Originally Blue Sushi was only ever going to be the name of the band. We had been using the working title she / her during pre-production. We considered he / him or they / them, but it just didn’t quite have the same ring to it. When we decided on Poppy as our lead, we named the film after the band.
Watch the full film here.
The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright
“Peter Wright was about to bid the world adieu when his best friend and housemate Jenny walked through the door. Awkward.”
AJC: When crafting a film whose primary focus was a deeply complex subject, how did you prevent The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright from being branded with a “That Film About That Thing” description?
SP: I’m honestly not against people thinking of The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright as “that film about that thing.” Cause that’s exactly what it is, I’d be lying if I tried to say otherwise. During the entirety of production it was literally referred to as “the suicide film.” It’s a piece that aims to explore the issues surrounding suicide in an original, honest and unapologetic way.
AJC: Let’s discuss that phenomenal monologue given by Jenny (Alice Ann Stacey). Was the rest of the film’s script molded around it, or did it come along naturally during the writing process?
SP: The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright actually started off as a sketch. Specifically the opening scene. Tim was the one that really pushed for a wider story and found the funding to facilitate this. The end monologue was actually a relatively late addition in the writing process. Although it look a very long time to script edit, the first draft of the monologue was actually very quick to write as all the ideas expressed were ones I’d been holding onto for a long time.
AJC: There have been multiple variations on a fan theory surrounding the film that suggests Jenny may not actually be real, that she is a projection from Peter’s subconscious. What are your thoughts on this? Peter Wright boards a train in the final shot of the film before it cuts to black. Personally, where do you believe he is headed?
SP: I think there are enough clues throughout the film to draw several conclusions in regards to what happens and what it means. It was intentionally written such that there isn’t really a right or wrong answer, it’s utterly down to the individual. I know that’s really wanky response, but when you’re dealing with such a heavy subject matter I’d much rather avoid trying to provide any definitive answers. If anything I’d much rather the film posed questions. The only thing I will say is that the film doesn’t HAVE to be read literally. It can be. But it doesn’t have to be.
Watch the full film here.
“Twenty-five minutes. Seven people. One of them must die.”
AJC: You had mentioned that while SEPTEM is self-contained and that all fan theories are equal in validity, you had imagined that the events seen in the film are part of a televised special that features new twists each year. How did both you and fellow director/writer Hazel Hayes settle on the particular twist we see in SEPTEM?
SP: Hazel had worked through a few different versions of what SEPTEM could be before I became attached to the project. She’d started off with a relatively small story, but over time added in a number of twists (one involving robots). Upon my attachment, I managed to convince her to scale it back down to where the idea had started. I also really pushed for the idea that very little context was given as to what lies outside the room. Of course, we discussed it ourselves (for world-building sake) but were very clear that we never wanted it to be too evident.
AJC: The film has been described as a sugar-spice-everything-nice blend of the novel The Hunger Games, the television program Come Dine with Me, and the film Would You Rather, executed extremely well. What were your inspirations when creating the film’s story?
SP: There have been some who have described SEPTEM as The Hunger Games meets Come Dine With Me meets Exam meets Would You Rather, though I’ve honestly not watched any of those films/programs. As always, ideas come from a huge number different places but I’d certainly say that 12 Angry Men and Black Mirror were amongst the starting points both for tone and structure.
AJC: What was it like to create a film that takes place in a single setting?
SP: Setting an entire film all in one room honestly didn’t phase me at all. I have a background in theatre so telling an story in just one location is absolutely something that I’m used to. If anything, I’m often guilty of trying to tell too much of the story in just one place, so this was actually quite refreshing. What’s more is we rehearsed the film as we would a theatre piece. By the end, the actors could perform the entire thing all in one sitting.
Watch the full film here.
Immense thanks to Sammy Paul for taking the time to speak with me on behalf of the whole TYF team. You can follow Sammy on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to both of his YouTube channels here and here. Be on the look out for his latest film, Friend Like Me, coming in the near future — he’s not one to miss. #hype indeed.