new filmmaker Simon Ellis: “Soft” & “Who killed Deon?”

Simon Ellis“Soft”
maja_bogaczewicz@tnf: What was your inspiration for “Soft”? Certainly, this film was done for a deep, honest purpose – was there also any personal reason behind it?

Simon Ellis:
There’s no personal reason behind it other than the interest I have in perceived masculinity, particularly its perception by men.

maja@tnf:The striking “realism” of some scenes from “Soft” (especially those intended to look like shot by an amateur filmmaker) makes me think of documentary filmmaking. Are there any pure documentary moments in the film? Please, tell us something more about your approach to choosing & directing actors, the shooting process and the post production for “Soft”.

Simon Ellis:The 35mm scenes were too costly to shoot anything other than carefully planned scenes. The footage of the gang messing around was a little looser, but not documentary. There was originally supposed to be a scene of them playing with a firework but, for health and safety complications, we had to change it to a balloon at the last moment. With the exception of the balloon being burst at the end, there was no specific direction for this scene other than “mess about with the balloon”, so when it drifts up high and the boy is trying to get it back, that’s about as documentary as it gets.

maja@tnf:The mastery your film “Soft” involuntarily draws the spectator into experiencing anger and fear driving the father’s character is deeply impressing. Particularly those moments, when driven by anger, he starts putting his tie off, and later when, while struggling with fear, he hardly manages to leave the house. In the second, the father decides to go out and face the gang, the spectator can really perceive, the character is being blinded by a strong, overwhelming fright. Probably this effect is so intense due to the film editing. How did you imagine shooting those moments while preparing the screenplay? Was is something very clear to you from the very beginning or it came up during the cutting?

Simon Ellis: Thank you. Of all my films, this is the one where I didn’t have to cut corners or make compromises (apart from the aforementioned firework), and I managed to shoot as per the script without having to drastically change things.
The scene that you mention was very much visualized in advance. For instance, I knew I was going to change the audio and go with a super wide lens to highlight the almost surreal quality of high adrenalin, and the cinematographer sourced a very specific lens for that one shot.
One great thing that Jonny Phillips (the actor who plays the father) brought to the scene, was this idea of holding onto his tie when he goes outside, almost representing a flaccid, ineffectual weapon.
With regard to the editing, it was also a very pre-planned affair, simply because of the cost of shooting 35mm. The sound design plays a big part in this moment. Nothing was left to chance in the edit and it was an extremely fast process for me.
The only scene I had to work several times was the father’s journey to the shop, and how it cuts with footage of the gang, and back again. I did some very specific sound design there too, where the peal of a church bell gradually features in both elements as the father gets closer to the gang. I stole that idea from the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, where the sound of the generator on the farm acts like an audio beacon to inform the audience of a character’s proximity to danger.

maja@tnf: “Soft” plays with the archetype of masculinity, questioning its very foundation in a clever and genuine way. The spectator is witnessing the son disappointed not even by the father himself but further more by the recognition their relationship was based on a lie. The son’s action could be interpreted as an unconscious expression of his loss of faith, which is here the real reason for his aggression getting so strong. It’s hatred-love towards the one he loves-hates, who was his icon but failed, that moves him. This aggression, he is actually directing towards himself in an act of self destruction.
The real drama emerges, when it becomes clear the son’s realization doesn’t but solve the main problem – we still live in a world ruled by the ideology of power, surrounded by its fanatics. Essential for modern society struggle to redefine the gender roles very often ends up in a shift of those roles. We find females becoming more “male” and men being more “female”. Is there any solution to this problem (“not to get into fights but be able to fight back”) in your opinion?

Simon Ellis: You are quite right to suggest that the son’s reaction is an ‘unconscious expression of his loss of faith’. His counter is more an act of adrenal desperation than courage. I’m not clear about the relevance of gender-merge but it was always going to be a very different film if a mother/wife character was present. Where she would be much more pragmatic and simply call the police, or even go outside and shout at the gang, the father is unable simply because of his pride disintegrating in front of his son.
The issue of whether to fight or not is something that most of us choose to ignore until a situation presents itself. Adrenalin has an incredibly powerful chemical effect on the body and reason often doesn’t get a chance to inform the decision until you are able to step away, as the father does in the film. Instinct has become irrelevant and he is hijacked by his latent emotions.

Simon Ellis“Who Killed Deon”
maja@tnf: You are an experienced young filmmaker, who tried out many film forms, among them are feature films, music videos, comedies, TV films and so on. I can imagine you want to maintain your artistic freedom & avoid being pigeonholed, but on the other hand, I also wonder if you aren’t sometimes afraid of being accused of acting as a filmmaker who avoids balancing on the knife’s blade to go for his vision? Is there any topic or idea you find worthy exploring for a longer time and/or in many future films of yours?

Simon Ellis: I’m not afraid of being accused of anything and until I am at a real risk of losing the roof over my head I will do what I want to do. Nothing bores me more than seeing a filmmaker, or any artist, doing the same thing over and over.
The challenges need constantly refreshing, and I could have easily gone on to direct all manner of similar subject matter to “Soft” after its success, whether it be the feature version (which was the original idea) or scripts that I was sent for both features or television.
My interests are chiefly themes of a) miscommunication, and b) masculinity, not necessarily in that order.

maja@tnf: Making a film promoting an official state campaign against violence (e.g. the two projects you directed :“Who killed Deon” & “Choose a different ending”) is an manifestation of a sincere commitment and reaffirmation of the particular law and state’s policy or, at least, it should be. Aren’t you sometimes afraid of getting into clichés and ethically black & white solutions? I’m saying it as a great admirer of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s oeuvre best represented in his “Decalogue” and “Three colours” film series (dealing with problems of ethics versus morality), as well as in his “Blind Chance” and “The Double Life of Véronique” (dealing with parallel lives and multiple choices).

Simon Ellis: Law aside, both campaigns represent a strong commitment to common sense and not sticking knives into each other. I think notions of cliché (if you choose to see any) are irrelevant when you are trying to stop what is a very real problem, and both “Who Killed Deon?” and “Choose a Different Ending” are very carefully researched, and far from black and white.

maja@tnf: Your film ”Who killed Deon” ends with a black screen displaying the sentence: “if your presence, knowledge or action lead to a murder you’ll be charged with murder under Joint Enterprise”*. I watched this film carefully and many times to make myself sure I understood it fully, but it is still not completely clear to me, why the black haired girl was charged with murder whereas the “friendly” black boy didn’t?

Simon Ellis: The character is Dee and she was charged because she was complicit in taking Deon to the club, knowing that her boyfriend was going to do something. I assume your confusion is because, even though she did lead him to his death, that it somehow shouldn’t count because she was cajoled into it by her boyfriend? It makes no difference, and that is the whole point of Joint Enterprise. She played a key role in luring Deon to a place where he was murdered, and too many youths are being stabbed as a result of situations very similar to these**. Luke (the “friendly” one) had nothing to do with any of it. You would have to ask the writers if you needed it explaining any further.

maja@tnf: Do your films “Soft” and “Who killed Deon” stay in line or are in contradiction with each other, and why?

Simon Ellis: Unless one was to take Soft as pro-violence, which it absolutely isn’t, then there are no contradictions.

maja@tnf: On your web page I watched your film project “Choose a Different Ending” [the second of the two film-projects directed by Simon Ellis and promoting anti-violence campaign in the UK]. After I followed different film paths and got into some troubles, I finally meet the famous rapper, who ensured me what I’d chosen was the right ending. It seems to be, this interactive film attempts at proving that “taking a knife will always end bad to one”. Does taking a knife always end bad in your opinion?

Simon Ellis:Hah, the rapper was something I didn’t really have much say about and I didn’t even see that material until it was on-line. Yes, the point about knives is exactly that. Why would anyone think that taking a knife out to a hostile situation is not a bad thing?!?

maja@tnf: Please, share with us a few details about your forthcoming efforts.

Simon Ellis:I’m afraid I can’t say. I’m superstitious that way.

maja@tnf: Your advice for those starting out with filmmaking:

Simon Ellis: Learning to listen is important, but not as important as learning when not to.

Editor’s footnotes:
* “Joint Enterprise” – the name of a 300-year-old English common law, in recent years re-employed by the UK police to help fighting violence (especially the gang violence). The principle underlying this law, expressed in the formulation “if your presence, knowledge or action lead to a murder you’ll be charged with murder…”, is based upon the idea of common responsibility, which means that every person belonging to a group (a gang) whose members killed somebody, is automatically guilty of murder and will be charged with murder sentence. This rule applies even to those group members who physically didn’t participate in committing the murder.
The re-employment of the “Joint Enterprise” triggered a wide social and political debate. The questions were asked about the relevance of reapplication of the old laws, its limits (e.g. problems with identifying and prosecuting all partly involved into a murder) and about the purpose of the law itself.

** In 2009 a young, 16-year-old girl Samantha Joseph was charged with murder, because she led another boy to a place where he was murdered by others (source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8116380.stm)

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