INterview with filmmaker Samuel Abrahams

Filmmaker Samuel Abrahams’s short film Offline Dating is cool and timely in equal measure. In a world where people are increasingly connecting romantically with other online or through apps he challenged a friend to try and find a date in the real world. The film that emerged from their effort has already amassed closed to 150,000 views on Vimeo and it is something you really need to see to understand why it is so cool. So here is the film, and my interview with Samuel follows right afterwards.

Offline Dating seems so timely and relevant to the world we live in, how did you come up with the idea? 
I had been working on a few different feature length ideas that explore similar themes. Hyper-connectivity and the effect this is having on the way in which we communicate in real life is a subject I am drawn to. I find the technology fascinating and incredible, but worry that the way in which we interact with it is having a negative effect on our relationships, with friends and family, but also with ourselves. A couple months ago, Tom and I were living together, in a place near London Fields, we didn’t know each other that well, only properly for about a month and we had talked about potentially making something together, but there wasn’t a strong idea for what that could be. One night we were with a few other guys, all of whom were single. We were chatting about their experiences of Tinder and they were explaining how Happn worked to me – I hadn’t used a dating app before, so wanted to have a play, see how it worked. Tom was downloading Happn and if I remember correctly, he was having a little difficulty setting it up. A few months before this Tom had split up with his girlfriend and was now interested in getting back out there. The next day the idea hit me of making a film about Tom trying to find a date in the real world. I liked the simplicity of it. The tone was very clear in my head from the beginning and that was something that I think a lot of people probably didn’t understand about the film until they saw the end result. My intention was never to tell a story about a lad trying to pull as many girls as possible. The idea was to highlight how important real human interaction is, even with strangers. I hope the film shows that yes, it might be more challenging, but it’s much more fun, more rewarding.

How hard was it for you to convince Tom to be the on-camera subject for this experiment?
As the idea was conceived specifically for Tom, I was pretty confident he’d be interested in collaborating on it. When I told people who knew him the idea of the film, they’d all say, “oh that’s perfect for Tom”. Tom’s an actor, so the only concern I had was that he might not want to be in something where he essentially has to be himself. The advantage of him being an actor meant he was comfortable in front of camera and knew how the filmmaking process worked, even though this had a much more documentary approach.

How long did the process of shooting go on for? How many days did Tom go out there and try to find love, or at least a date?
We shot two days together, over a weekend. One of the days was very very long, where I woke him up with a camera in his face at 8am and we didn’t finish shooting till after midnight at the BBQ. Over the whole weekend, I’d say he must have approached a hundred plus women. If you live in a busy city like London, you are always surrounded by so many new people, everywhere you look. Of course if Tom and I weren’t doing this experiment, then Tom wouldn’t have met any of those women. He might have gone for that same jog, but even if one of those girls took his fancy, he most likely wouldn’t have done anything about it. Speaking to Tom now, really feels like this has changed. He was telling me a story the other day about how he was riding past a girl cycling in the opposite direction. She caught his eye, and he continued down the road, then thought to himself – what have I got to lose. So he changed directions, caught up with her, and started up conversation with her at the traffic lights. Apparently they went for a coffee that same day, then a drink one night that week. People always have these little moments with strangers – this is something I explored in my short film Connect. A little exchange of eye contact, or whatever, but for the most part, you leave without introducing yourself. You’re left asking – what if? So part of the intention was that this film kind of, would act as wish fulfillment, answering that question, what if?

I have to admit that the first time I watched the film I couldn’t help thinking, “there’s no way this is all natural,” so I have to ask, how hard was it to get all those people, all those women, to cooperate with your experiment to the extent that they did?
There was always going to be a lot of rejection. But the thing that really surprised us was how much interest there was. People aren’t used to being approached like this and so it made Tom, and what he was doing, very intriguing. Some women simply wanted to know more and enjoyed the novelty and spontaneity of it. The second and final day of filming was, at so many different points, incredibly life-affirming. When Tom stopped the Italian girl, Micky, in the Costcutter, her reaction was priceless. There isn’t a cut in there. Tom explains what he is trying to do and she just gets it and with an open mind invites him and the camera crew over for her BBQ. And when we got there, everyone was so welcoming. There was a really great atmosphere that whole day and night. It’s my favourite moment in the film when Micky invites Tom over, and then the camera pans back up to Tom who says, “uh – yeah!” It’s spontaneous and open. I hope this feeling really comes across in the film.

I notice that Tom eventually got on best with girls he approached that were in a duo, or group (sounds like a Grammy category doesn’t it?) – were there any solitary women that were open to his advances?
Good question. Off the top of my head I think maybe a few, but I don’t think any of them made it into the film.

People’s time is incredibly valuable to them and most people it seems, in London at least, have their days mapped out. They are meeting their friend for coffee, then a group of them are meeting at so and so pub and then a few of them are peeling off to their work friend’s house party. So if a stranger approaches them and asks if they’d like to scrap their plans and join him for a drink, then it’s hard for some to say yes, because they’ve already got plans, with people they know, they already like. And it’s too much of a risk to waste that time. But the people in groups of friends Tom approached, were already doing the thing they’ve arranged. So Tom could kind of join in.

I noticed that the long-haired man with the tattoos got pretty aggressive, were there other people who were even worse than that?
Let’s just say, chatting up someone else’s girlfriend is one thing. Doing it with a camera is another.

Were there any really good bits that you were unable to include in the film because you couldn’t secure releases?
Not really. There were a lot of lovely, funny moments that had to be cut, just to keep the story moving. Quite a few moments I really miss, but they messed with the tone or slowed the story down, and ultimately that is the most important thing – telling a story.

Another reason I had difficulty believing this was documentary is because of the sound and imagery: how were you able to capture such clean audio?
My first job out of university was freelancing shooting observational documentaries, where you are responsible for both the camera and the sound. So I took this same approach. On the first day it was just Tom and I so I mic’d up Tom with a hidden radio mic, so he doesn’t look like a journalist. And that audio recorded straight onto the camera. The second day I had two assistants helping out. I still had Tom mic’d up, but one of the assistants recorded additional sound with a boom mic, focussing on picking up what everyone other than Tom was saying. When you’re shooting docs the sound is so important. You’re really having to multitask: watching and listening. For me, listening is the absolute key to shooting and directing a doc. If you are listening in to everything that is not only being said, but also the subtext of what is going on then you can predict where things are going, what certain reaction will be and therefore what you need to do with the camera.

I shot this on a Blackmagic Cinema camera. The first time I had used a camera like that. I don’t really shoot the films I direct. Most of the time that would never even be an option. My other shorts and all my commercials are shot on film or on the Alexa or maybe the Red. But that’s when working with professional DOPs. My skill set behind the camera is documentary shooting, you know, handheld with available light. One thing I’ll say is, shooting this gave me even more respect for focus pullers. It’s easy to give them a hard time on a shoot if you’re getting the performance but missing the focus. There is a lot of pressure on that job. The best ones kind of go unnoticed, and really shouldn’t because depending on the circumstances it can be so difficult. You know, if one of them is having a bad day, missing the focus on a couple consecutive takes, everyone on set will be staring at them.

When I’m making documentaries I feel like I never have enough cameras covering a scene. How many cameras did you have on any given scene?
Just one. It was just me, filming Tom. It’s more personal and immersive that way. I only ever shot docs with one camera so I am used to that approach. It also is less intimidating for people. And means I have control of shooting any angle I want. And because it’s handheld, I can move the camera into each new position immediately. When you’re filming actuality, you need to be quick. Things don’t really happen twice. So you need to predict what’s gonna happen, and quickly get all the shots you need to tell the story.

You received a BAFTA nomination for your fiction short film Connect – what was that experience like?
That was an incredible experience. I am very proud of Connect. It was the first time I made something that really felt like it was coming from me. When you are less experienced, you tend to make work that is quite derivative, and affected. After one or two screenings I realised that no matter what the film went on to achieve, that was always going to be the thing I was most happy with. That I felt like it was mine. The fact it got the recognition from the industry that it did, was fantastic. I felt we were very lucky, because we were the only short that was truly independent that was nominated. All the other shorts were through schemes at the BFI for example. So they already had that industry backing. People already knew about those other films. Whereas Connect came out of nowhere.

How did you get into filmmaking: if you had to chart your journey to where you are today, what would the steps be? 
From say 13 or 14 I always knew I wanted to make things, and it wasn’t till my foundation course when I was 18 where I first made a film, or rather a video. I had been focusing on photography at that point. But once I made one video that was it really. I have been pretty single-minded since making that video 15 years ago now. I studied Fine Art at Chelsea Art School here in London, knowing that I wanted to make films in more of an art context, rather than a film school one. Then a producer saw my graduation film and hired me to shoot a TV doc series for him. I was terrible, but I learnt very quickly, and ended up doing a few series, then directing a couple too. During that time I came up with an idea to make a fake home movie with my mates, which ended up getting commissioned by Channel 4. I self-shot our original pilot Documates. We then made a broadcast TV pilot called Hung Out, but it didn’t turn out the way we expected. So I took what I learnt from that experience and set out to make a short film that really represented what kind of stories I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell them. That was Connect, which got me signed to a production company for commercials in London, who helped me build my commercial showreel for a few years before I signed with Blink. I’ve kept myself busy shooting commercials, making shorts like Hold On Me, and of course Offline Dating, whilst developing a few feature projects.

Could you imagine Offline Dating becoming a feature-length project at some point?
There is an idea, yes, but I can’t say much more than that.

We watched a lot of your work on Vimeo and the underlying theme appears to be one of connection. Are we projecting, or is it something you’re actively exploring through film?
That’s absolutely correct. It’s something I am undeniably drawn to.

What’s next for you, career wise?
I’d love to continue directing commercials whilst getting my first feature off the ground. I have a few different TV and feature ideas I’m working on, one of which being inspired by Offline Dating.

Related Links:
Official Website
Blink Productions
Samuel on Vimeo