Lessons in Turning Commercial Constraints into Artistic Successes
With The Help of Some Big Name Talent
It seems inevitable now that a short film starring Sally Hawkins (2017 Oscar nominee) and Jim Broadbendt (Oscar winner) would become a festival hit and and eventual Oscar winner for the Best Live Action Short Film. Yet, co-writers James Lucas and Mat Kirkby (also the director) went through years of rejection and false starts to even get the film into production. Even withthe big names attached, the film had a hard go of it at first. Thankfully, the gods at Tribeca found it proper to bestow upon the film the top Narrative Short Film prize.
Here are just a few ways in which The Phone Call used the constraints of small-budget filmmaking around A-list talent to create a moving final product.
Sometimes Less Really is More
When director Mat Kirkby found out he’d get Sally Hawkins for two days only, the locations and visual style had to then be catered to those two days. However, in watching the final film, one would be hard pressed to realize the short film had been given such restraints.
This is in large part due to the choices made by Kirkby and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland in the crisis hotline telephone room, where the majority of the film takes place. With just Sally Hawkins and a phone as their main subjects, these two collaborators find interesting ways to create dynamic shots out of an otherwise inert environment.
The dynamic shot selection is established in the openings credits, where a tracking shot across a sharply-focused desk alludes to the haunting emptiness of the Jim Broadbendt character. It also establishes a most melancholic mood.
Once Sally Hawkins’ Heather first gets on the phone with Broadbendt’s Stanley, the camera takes a painfully slow crawl to the desk and our bewildered subject. The nearly imperceptible movement foregrounds the uncomfortable conversation taking place without letting its audience shake off the feeling the encounter will only turn for the worse.
For contrast, the camera cuts to close-ups of Heather’s notepad throughout. We feel the pain and futility of Heather’s strategy here; words on paper have never felt like such a tragically hopeless cause.
Absence is Presence
No, we’re not talking about Deconstructionist philosophy. We’re talking about the fact that The Phone Call makes the gutsy decision to never let us see Broadbendt, but only hear his voice.
It seems wild, even foolish, to seemingly diminish a marquee name in a short film; after all, short films are usually meant as vehicles for high-profile actors and actresses who desire more intriguing and challenging work. Yet, only giving Broadbendt’s audio turns out to be the most powerful decision in the script.
First off, it should seem no surprise that Broadbendt can create a third-dimensional character in minutes with only his voice. He goes quickly from laughter to bouts of weeping to sad modulations of despair and hopelessness with scary accuracy. Lizzy Graham, the film’s editor, complements this performance perfectly by cutting to objects (particularly the clock, a major motif) in the room Stanley is talking from, without ever showing Stanley.
The audio seamlessly cuts too, from Stanley’s crackled, distant voice on the phone to a frighteningly clear, airless voice whenever the film cuts back to Stanley’s house. In a way, Stanley’s presence takes on more power when it is made manifest in the clock on the mantelpiece. As is discovered at the end of the film, Stanley represents time: both time lost and time regained.
The Ear is The Window To The Imagination
Because of The Phone Call’s tight budget (a standard dilemma for short films), audio loops are often exaggerated so as to carry a dramatic effect more palpable than the film’s modest locations could offer. For example, tracks of heart beats and ticking clocks are featured early in the film, before the audience even understands the important of a beating heart and a ticking clock in the actual plot of the film. Like all talented filmmakers, Kirkby knew that to make one believe in the film’s message, one must feel it before they are asked to understand it.
A mournful and striving saxophone solo at the film’s beginning seems like nothing more than a mood-setter. Little does the audience know that a saxophone becomes the catalyst for a major emotional moment late in the film. In fact, a jazz club is the final location of the film, offering a hopeful, cathartic coda to the otherwise, tense and somber piece.
It seems amazing to believe, but there is a world out there in which a film with a much higher budget, featuring both Hawkins and Broadbendt (both in person), in a high-concept script with sexy locales, would still have made for a worse piece of artistry.
Never is the truism about constraints creating the most artistic freedom more realized than on the set of a short film.