Nick Rowland is the director of Slap which he co-wrote with Islay Bell-Webb, they met while studying at the National Film and Television School (NFTS). We caught up with them to get the low down on the making of their BAFTA-nominated short.
Islay: The struggle of one young man to construct his own sense of masculinity under circumstances that are rigidly gender-defined. (Also the best thing I've been part of at film school.)
Nick: I guess I would say it’s about coming to terms with your true colours or the price of searching for self-definition.
Islay: I went straight from university to the NFTS to study screenwriting; I had only worked on one short film before this and have thrown myself into collaborations with directors as much as possible as part of that learning process.
Before I started making films I was mostly in my bedroom writing fanfiction. I worked out about half way through university that writing my own stories was satisfying me more than actually consuming the source material that inspired me, and that I wasn't going to be happy until I started creating the source material myself. I had a particular frustration with the (lack of) queer characters and stories out there, and I often felt that what was out there was often stereotypical and regressive. I wanted to get into the industry to do better. I feel a strong sense of duty, both as a story teller and a member of the LGBT community, toward those of us who do not fit into a strictly hetero-normative culture.
Nick: I spent my teenage years trying to carve a career for myself in motorsport as a rally driver; I competed in the Chinese rally championship and the British Rally championship. I loved driving but I was painfully average at it. When I had to quit racing I decided to try filmmaking. I had zero filmmaking experience and didn’t even own a camera, but I thankfully was accepted into the film production course at the Bournemouth Arts University. It was there that I got my first taste of filmmaking and began to discover my huge passion for storytelling.
My graduation film was Dancing in the Ashes which I submitted to the NFTS and thankfully it was enough to get me into the directing course there. The film then went on to win a Royal Television Society Award and was nominated for a BAFTA New Talent award. Since then I have just been keeping my head down and trying to learn as much about the craft of directing and storytelling as possible. Slap was the first film we made at the NFTS and it was really just an opportunity to put all the things we had learnt into practice. I think film school is a great place to make creative partnerships that can last for a lifetime, and it also allows you the space to grow, fail and learn in a safe environment.
Nick: The film was really hard to make in some ways because we only had a budget of £4000 which was funded by the NFTS. We only had 4 days to shoot it, and we could only afford 8 rolls of film stock (one of the school rules was that we had to shoot it on 16mm film) so almost everything was done in 1 take.
I would say the hardest thing was finding the locations and getting permission to use them, and then just making the schedule work in such a short amount of time. We shot the film in High Wycombe for the boxing scenes and Slough for everything else. The film is set in the north of England but for sheer practical reasons it made sense to shoot it closer to the NFTS in Beaconsfield. It was a great experience though as so many locals supported the film and gave us their homes to use as locations for filming. I think making a student film is easier in a lot of ways because people are more willing to lend you help for free, and you have great support from your tutors when developing the film.
Nick: I met Joe at the Watersprite film festival and we briefly exchanged contact details in case there was anything we could work on together. I had seen him in a few other things, it was only a couple of months later that I started to work on Slap and Joe was always in my mind from day 1. Joe was perfect because he had the masculine physicality and the soft and beautiful facial features needed for both sides of the character. It was important to me that the character didn’t look like a joke when he was wearing makeup. He needed to look elegant and beautiful.
We then cast Elliott Tittensor and Sky Lourie later down the line and it was such a joy to get them in a room together for the first day of rehearsal. I remember I had a whole day’s worth of exercises planned but within half an hour they had all blown me away. Their chemistry was just perfect.
Nick: I tend to notice I am attracted to stories about characters that fail to get what they want in some way, stories about loss and characters that are outsiders. The idea for Slap came from thinking about my time with motorsport and growing up in general. It was a very masculine world that I never felt I truly belonged to and I started to think a lot about masculinity and what it really means. Growing up my idols were the likes of Eddie Izzard and David Bowie. I have always admired people who have the courage to express themselves in any way they want without it necessarily having anything to do with their sexuality. I’m interested in how people like to put others in boxes. If someone can’t be put neatly into a certain box, people don’t know how to label you and they freak out.
Nick: We used a lot of social media to promote the film. It was then a case of sending it to as many festivals we could afford. To pick the right ones we used the BAFTA recognized festival list and luckily we had a great premiere in Edinburgh and won the best short film award. Once we got into that festival we found that others started to contact us about screening it. The British Council was also very helpful in promoting the film and they put us in touch with some great festivals that ended up screening the film.
Islay: I am currently developing my first feature script with a couple of my fellow NFTS students which follows a lesbian couple in a car pretty much in real time, driving around Edinburgh; one of the lesbians is dying, though the film is supposed to be a comedy. I'm also developing a three part mini-series with Big Talk Productions, because they picked up one of the pilots in my portfolio and got quite excited by it!
Nick: I have a new short film called Out of Sight that has just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It's a black and white thriller/horror about a recovering drug addict trying to clear a debt with a loan shark. I have also just finished my graduation film from the NFTS. It’s called Group B and is about a rally driver in the 1980s facing his comeback to rally driving competition after a long and troubled absence. And I’ve started developing my debut feature film with DMC Film (Michael Fassbender’s production company); we are adapting an Irish novella called Calm With Horses by Colin Barratt.
Islay: I'm very tempted to show up in my dinosaur onesie with a bag full of comic books, knitting projects and a flask of good coffee - thus paying tribute to exactly the state that I spent the entire writing process of Slap in. Would I be thrown out of the Royal Opera House in disgrace, do you think? Aside from that I might attempt to accomplish my life-long dream and convince a beautiful actress to elope with me.
Nick: My plan for awards night is to simply try to avoid doing anything stupid or embarrassing in front of all of my heros from the film industry.