York’s Oscar winner premieres her new film in the city after ‘incredible two years’

8 Nov 2018 @ 4.35 pm
| Entertainment

As we welcome the arrival of York’s beloved Aesthetica Short Film Festival with open arms for its eighth year running, the city’s streets are flooded with seasoned filmmakers and fanatics.

Amongst all the commotion, filmmakers Serena Armitage and Shan Christopher Ogilvie return with their first Aesthetica-featured short film since Stutterer graced its screens in 2015.

That film went on to win an Academy Award in 2016 – bringing an Oscar to York – Serena is based in Nun Monkton. She said:

  • What an incredible couple of years this has been.

    First an Oscar for Stutterer, which was beyond my wildest dreams, then the award from the BFI, which allowed me to set up my own independent production company, and now our new film Charlie.

We had the chance to catch up with producer Serena and director Shan to chat about Charlie, ahead of its premier screening at ASFF 2018 on Thursday (November 8).

The pair managed to keep the plot of their latest short film under wraps, so rest assured, there are no spoilers ahead…

Emotional impulse

Charlie is ‘a detached young man’
“It’s a difficult one to talk about without giving too much away,” said Shan, searching for an adequate synopsis which wouldn’t ruin the plot for audiences.

“It’s about an experience of a character who we might not necessarily have thought about how they think and see the world.

“The film sort of presents that experience and puts us in their head and their state of mind.”

Serena describes Charlie as “a detached young man who acts frequently on emotional impulse”.

Charlie’s world is turned upside down when tragedy strikes, and he is moved to live with his uncle Morris in the city. The peaceful calm of the countryside – all Charlie has ever known – is replaced with the chaos of urban life.

The film tackles the pressing issue of mental health, which, as Serena explains, is a subject close to many people’s hearts.

“We all know people who are struggling with their mental health and, significantly Shan, the writer and director of Charlie, has first-hand experience of depression, which gives our film a powerful authenticity and integrity.”

Short form storytelling

The story for Charlie originated from an idea that Stutterer writer and director Ben Cleary had discussed with Serena in the past.

Having worked together previously, the three decided to do it all again – but bigger.

“There was a funding scheme coming up which I wanted to direct something for, so it was just a good fit because we knew that we all worked together well,” said Shan.

“Ben was excited for me to direct a film of my own, so he was happy to let me develop the idea myself and write the screenplay.”

With a run-time of 13 minutes, we can expect to see the same tremendously moving, impactful short form storytelling that we saw in Stutterer – but with a higher budget, courtesy of Film London’s London Calling scheme.

The team have taken a step up and confronted the new challenges that come with a bigger production.

“There were more people, bigger camera teams and a much bigger art department. We had a bit more budget than we did for Stutterer, but it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to manage,” said Serena.

Shan added that the casting process for Charlie was especially difficult. “Casting the main character particularly, and one of the supporting characters because she plays a significant role in the film.

“It’s not necessarily that big in terms of screen time, but it still had to be someone who could do it right.”

Advice for filmmakers

Serena Armitage wins the Oscar for Stutterer as Benjamin Cleary looks on. Photograph: YouTube
Like any successful filmmaker, Shan and Serena had to work their way up from the bottom to get where they are today.

Their reassuringly humble advice for budding filmmakers only emphasises the common belief that passion and hard work are the two most vital elements for success.

Shan stressed the importance of creating for enjoyment rather than aiming for a specific end result, saying that the best approach is to make films “without focusing too much on what the purpose of it is, where it’s going to go or whether it’s going to be a success.

“With Stutterer, we didn’t have any specific aims for it – we just knew we wanted it to go to a festival.

“Because of that, we never overthought it. We just made the film that we wanted to make and we weren’t worrying about other considerations, so I think that’s a better way to go about it when you’re just starting out.”

Film everything

Serena Armitage. Photograph: Geordie Barrie
Serena added that getting practise in anywhere and everywhere possible is hugely important. “We used to do our friends’ wedding films.

“One day I remember hearing there was a Greenpeace protest about Shell. I remember Shan helping me go down to film it, just to actually practise filming and editing something together that felt like a story,” she said.

“Often it feels like you don’t have access to the resources you need, but I think you can do it – you just need to be smart about it and learn however you can.

“Especially now with how good phone quality is, you can actually film something quite decent on a mobile.”

Red Breast’s first feature project Look The Other Way – And Run is currently in post-production.

The company has several projects in funded development including a biopic of the artist Niki De Saint Phalle (being written by Deborah Haywood) and an adaptation of Laura Kaye’s novel English Animals, directed by Claire Oakley.