Interview with Stephen Fingleton – Director of SLR

Filmmaker Stephen FingletonPhoto by Luke Bryant

If you haven’t watched Stephen Fingleton’s brilliant short film SLR, now is a good time to right this wrong. And then scroll on down to read our interview with the man.

Where did the idea for SLR come from and how long did it take to write the film?
I read an article about a female journalist who discovered a man had been putting candid pictures of her online. What intrigued me was the male colleague who informed her – he must have been looking up the website. The story itself takes that seed and incubates it in a genre procedural.

In an interview you mentioned that it took 6 years to get SLR financed and that it underwent script changes along the way – what are some of the differences between the original and the final version?
The original was a 10 minute film I wrote for a screenwriting course. They placed a heavy emphasis on keeping films under 15 minutes. Obviously the plot was very truncated and began in the middle of the action. What the added length allowed me to do was tell the whole story and create the character of the daughter much more as a real person. Both are essential – we don’t care about the plot if we don’t care about them as people. Another important element introduced by my producer Matt Wilkinson was the Facebook element and the subplot about Alexa’s ex-boyfriend. That led to numerous scenes of integral importance – the cigarette scene, and it lent the final scene a wonderful perspective change where we kick voyeurism out to the audience.

Liam Cunningham in SLR by Stephen FingletonPhoto by Aidan Monaghan

Liam Cunningham and Amy Wren both give stellar performances – how did you cast them? In the casting process, what led you to believe that they were right for the part?
Liam is represented by my agency so it was a direct approach. I saw it as an opportunity to see him in a lead role and playing against type – he’s frequently cast as intelligent, verbose tough guys – whereas in this he has to be much more silent and soft. At our first meeting that’s what he said his character had to be – he knew what he had to deliver.

Amy was found through auditions run by our wonderful casting director Rose Wicksteed. We saw many talented people but I knew as soon as Amy read she had the role.

The relationship between Elliot and Alexa threatens to veer off into creepy territory, especially considering his private ‘practices’, but you steer clear. How much of that was performance and how much of that was micro-alterations in the editing process?
Entirely intentional in terms of the POV camera and edit, but I wouldn’t want to trespass too much in offering solid interpretations for my performers’ decisions.

Is there anything you would have done differently?
The film is the film I wanted to tell at the time I wrote it, but I am a different filmmaker now so would obviously change things. In that sense I wish Alexa had more agency at the end of the story, particularly given Amy’s performance. I wrote a climax where she makes a final dinner for her father and reveals she has seen what was on the memory card, which leads to a horrendously candid conversation. I found people simply wouldn’t accept it. In retrospect that is because they were hugely uncomfortable with the scene; in the current film people see him as the hero and want him to get away with it, in which case I should have forced them to be in that room. Also, I think the porn could have been a lot harder as I think modern audiences have a high tolerance – but SLR was publicly funded so there were limits on what I could depict. The future of indie cinema is laid out in Nymphomaniac and Blue Is The Warmest Colour – full, adult depictions of sex should be as common as the graphic violence you now see.

My colleague marveled at how in control the filmmaking was, without being showy or gimmicky – could you share a bit about your process as a director?
I have the idea; the idea ferments, sometimes it combines with another. The most urgent and important ones get written down; the ones with stamina make it to drafts I show to my readers. I redraft based on people’s interpretations, have actors readings, and redraft again. When we shoot the film is in my head – the camera positions, the lighting, the way the characters behave. Then there is the negotiation between your team and what you want to achieve. Of late I have moved away from shooting the film in my head and moved towards ‘a remake’ where my cast and crew have much more freedom in recreating the film based on what is truly important about the film in my head. On set I’ll have a portable monitor so I can get in between the actors and the camera – it means I’m able to give them feedback much faster and I can watch them with my naked eye once I’ve checked the shot composition. As long as it’s not a technical sequence involving many setups I’ll give them as many takes as they want, which allows them to experiment and be more relaxed. My editor is Mark Towns, who is my closest collaborator. He will do an assembly that is very different from my intentions on set but reflects the footage – we will then work together to create a new film based on our shared taste, sometimes according to my original plan, sometimes according to the grain of the material. For example, Liam’s performance is quite icy in SLR which meant we had to ensure people had enough clues in the edit to let people know what he was thinking. On other occasions, we felt music and transition sequences would help compliment the delivered performance. The scene with Liam driving around after he’s discovered what’s online was made entirely in the edit. Mark’s background is in documentary so we are often unorthodox about how we appropriate footage.

Tell us a little about Selfie – the film works perfectly as a stand-alone piece but it also intersects so interestingly with SLR. How did that happen?
We got a grant from the BFI for 37,000 GBP to make SLR. I think the grant I got for a previous short film called Driver was 2000 GBP. So I came up with the idea that you could actually make a film for the price of a line item on our budget and help a fellow filmmaker’s career, while enriching the story world of our film and complimenting the online release. We batted around various ideas – for example, a film from and went to different filmmakers to see if they were interested in making a project like that – a spin-off short to a short. Ben was a longtime filmmaker friend familiar with SLR – he had come to one of my actor readings and saw a test screening. When we gave him the brief he pitched the Trisha story. He had a strong background in online through his Tube Tube series, and I knew he would get great performances. We struggled to get the crossover scene to work in the edit of Ben’s film, but then realised it had to be re-edited to match the tone of his film. So if you compare the scenes, they are quite different – Ben’s is very much from the perspective of Trisha.

What is the single biggest way in which your life has changed since SLR released?
It’s pleasing to have connected with an audience. We have had a very limited festival run but not a single festival in England would screen us. So to reach a massive audience despite the gatekeepers keeping us out is quite satisfying. When SLR exploded, more people were seeing my work in an hour than had seen my entire back catalogue since I began making films.

Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are still trying to figure their way around making this art form a career?
Do your research. Imagine where you want to be and find out how they got there. Look at the steps. Draw a five year plan. Have clear means of feedback to improve your work and judge your ability. Don’t be afraid to change your plans. Know why you want to make films and find out whether you can fulfill those goals in other industries where the odds aren’t stacked against you. If you still want to do it, imagine yourself in ten years in the same place and see if you would still feel that way. That’s a good test.

You’ve had films in festivals and won awards – how does that impact your day-to-day life as a filmmaker? Also, is there any interesting feedback/reaction you’ve got to SLR that you can share with us?
From a career perspective they’re useful to win because they are seen as a qualifier of success. Personally I only really care about the audience’s reaction. The most interesting feedback was the Reddit forum, deliciously snarky but some brilliant insights into the culture around the short.

I know you’re working on a couple of feature film projects – when you embark on a feature film career, will you still continue to make short films?
In truth I think I will continue to make short films because I love the process. But I will more be using them as sketches and a personal jotter to try things out. Up to this point every shot I’ve made has had to be polished and final, whereas now I can make films for recreation.

I’ve just finished shooting what I am describing as my ‘final’ short film called Magpie with Martin McCann, Olivia Williams and Mia Goth. It’s a prequel to my feature film The Survivalist and is being funded by the BFI again and Northern Ireland Screen. Magpie is a post-event survival drama about a man eking out a desperate existence in a forest through murder and theft. He comes across a woman and her daughter and his ‘do anything to survive’ behaviour changes. That’s also more or less what Survivalist is about as well.

If you could “blue sky” it, which filmmaker–living or dead–would you want your career to most resemble? 
Christopher Nolan has an inspirational career. I want to do big films that are smart and at the moment there’s still a few slots a year to do those – hopefully I can get there before the system shuts down. I think my window is about ten years.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s next?
Prepping The Survivalist, shooting in the summer come hell or high water. We’ve got the money raised, we’re just locking down casting – it’s usually the other way around. One of the goals I have is finding actors the audience won’t have pre-conceptions about so we can surprise them. Maybe that means a cast people don’t recognise.

I’m also at script stage with a film for Ridley Scott’s company called Fog and I’m about to deliver a script commissioned by Working Title which I’m going to say very little about, except that it’s film noir.

Elvis