Interview with Matthew Halsall – Co-Director of If I Had A Heart

On our latest edition of Weekend Watching we featured a short film called If I Had A Heart by the Halsall Brothers. This blistering piece of ‘neon-noir’ is set in South Korea and calls to mind some of the finest Korean movies that have gone on to achieve cult status at home and around the world. The difference in this case is that If I Had A Heart is a 12-minute short film and the directors are young men from the UK. This is a great example of cross-cultural filmmaking.

Check it out below and then scroll on down for our interview with Matthew Halsall – the producer and co-director of If I Had A Heart:

Tell us a little about yourself: how old are you? Who handles what aspect of a project? And how do you agree, or agree to disagree upon a certain creative choice?
I’m 24 and my brother is 23. We are both from London.

I would say that my brother is very subjective during the film making process and is focused very much on the specifics of the moment. I however work from an objective point of view and observe everything from a step back. I am always very focused on the overall arch of the film and where everything is going. However we sometimes contradict this description and embody each others traits. It is all quite fluid.

We have disagreements from time to time whilst we are trying to find the film, however once we have agreed on a solid concept and approach to something, the disagreements end and we get excited at the idea of realising our shared vision.

How did you guys decide to direct a short film set in South Korea: what were the circumstances? And what was the appeal? 
First and foremost we’ve always loved Korean cinema. We both snuck in to a cinema to see Oldboy when we were 14 and 15 respectively – and that blew our minds. Since then I’ve gone on to spend a vast amount of my life importing East Asian DVDs.

The appeal of Korean cinema in particular – over other East Asian films – is that there seems to be an emotional violence to their cinema, unparalleled to anyone else in the world. That was something we’ve always felt drawn to – and something we wanted to dive into with a project of our own.

I ended up teaching in Korea for a year. On a drunken night out I made friends with a local Korean guy who said he was an actor. Fuelled by Soju we exclaimed that one day we would make a film together. Almost a year later my brother had just graduated from film school, so with money he’d saved up over summer he bought a plane ticket and we worked hardcore as soon as he got here. The three of us are now super best friends.

What was your process for writing this film?
Simon arrived here with an entirely different idea he wanted to make. I thought it was terrible so I let him know that. We spent the first week of him being here arguing a lot about what this film was going to be.

Eventually – something that interested us equally was the obvious idea of making a revenge film. So we made the very conscious decision to simplify everything down. We wanted the simple spinal structure of a bare bones revenge story – so that we could then use this narrative vehicle to explore some deeper ideas.

Can you tell us some of the realities associated with the project: How big was your crew? How many days did you shoot for? What camera? How long did it take to edit the film down to its final length?
Most of the time our crew would be about 4-5 people. We didn’t even have a sound recordist for any of the shoot. Luckily our incredibly talented friends – Jake Chilcott, Pete Davis and Charlie Shred managed to not only salvage the film, but go above and beyond to craft a fantastic, immersive and engaging soundscape of Seoul. From a small bedroom in Bethnal Green.

We shot for three days – had a five day break to cut what we had so far, regroup and reassess everything – then shot for a further three days.

Everything was shot on a Canon 5D mkII. We love the 5D cameras. It allowed us to be totally inconspicuous, shoot a lot of coverage and generally run around a lot. We didn’t get permission to shoot anywhere. The whole thing was done completely guerrilla style.

We spent a long time in post. A big reason was because we had to take on jobs to earn some money back again. Nevertheless we did spend a long time readjusting and rethinking everything. We firmly believe that you tend to always rediscover your film in the edit.

Getting the music right also took a while. The right score always becomes almost like the soul of the film and its characters. And for IIHAH to be more than just an exercise in style alone – we needed an amazing score to to give this film the heart it needed.

After working with a few musicians where it wasn’t quite working out, Simon randomly stumbled across Kellen Malloy on Soundcloud. It’s a crime that that man isn’t a huge success yet. He truly deserves to be the next big thing. He lives in LA so we would chat over Skype and then he would send over these beautiful, dark and brilliant pieces of music for us to choose from.

How much of that look did you achieve in post?
We were fortunate enough to work with a fantastic colourist who brought a lot to many of the scenes. However we are proud to say that scenes like him in the car near the end, or when he gets beaten up are pretty much exactly the same as we shot them.

We were also lucky to have a great VFX artist on board who did some great clean up work. This helped in giving a certain focus and finesse to everything.

How challenging was it to achieve what was in your head when you set out to make this film? How close is the final result to the film you had in your heads?
Every film we ever make will always come out being different from how we imagined it, but in the best possible way. Film making is an organic process, we use our vision as a blueprint but the film always changes through the process of production, if it didn’t, film making wouldn’t hold the same appeal.

Upon second viewing the thought that sprung to mind was that you had done so much to convey scale simply through the use of sound. Was this stylistic choice made at the writing stage itself?
Absolutely. Gareth Edwards and his entire approach to making Monsters was consistently a huge inspiration for us. Long before Monsters even came out we could remember seeing an interview where he said “you’ll always forgive a bad image with great sound, but never forgive a great image with bad sound.” And went on to speak about how much of your universe can be painted simply through sound.

We relied heavily on sound – at times because of simple logistics (we couldn’t film a mother abandoning her son in Seoul station during the early 80s, but we could portray that through sparse imagery and a fantastic soundscape) – other times it was a conscious attempt to draw the viewer deeper into the subjective experience of our protagonist.

We re-watched Kill List during the writing stage, and that had a fundamental effect on our approach for everything. But in particular how Kill List drags the viewer into the internal landscape of a man suffering from a deep psychosis – through its use of sound.

What’s next?
Last month we finished shooting our next short. A North Korean revenge film. We are very excited about it. We’re currently in the process of editing it.

We’ve also been developing a couple of feature ideas including a feature length adaptation of this short that we are very excited about. Nothing is set in stone as of yet but we are excited by what the future holds.

Do you plan to continue making movies in Korea, or are other countries/continents on your wishlist as well?
Would love to shoot something in Korea again. Everyone we worked with had such a phenomenal work ethic. It shows by how incredible their films are on a technical level.

Having said that, the day after we finished shooting IIHAH Simon flew to Hong Kong for an editing job. He was blown away by the aesthetics of their alleyways, and they take neon lights to some whole other level there. Would love to make a Shinya Tsukamoto style film in Hong Kong.

We also have an idea for a feature set in Tokyo. The film would follow a serial killer for one night as he embarks on a murderous rampage through the red light district. It would be both controversial and challenging. I would love it if there were someone crazy enough to give us the money to make it happen.

Thinking about it maybe we should just do a trilogy of films set in Seoul, Hong Kong and Tokyo respectively?!

 

Elvis

Independent filmmaker and screenwriter.