Director Fyzal Boulifa on how being nominated for a BAFTA affects the daunting prospect of his first feature and why you should (and shouldn't) fall in love when making a film. He is nominated for his short The Curse alongside producer Gavin Humphries.
I made my first short film around 2005, in a creaky and slightly odd adult education college in the deeper reaches of South London. That course was just a couple of hours a week and I was mostly doing it to feel less unemployed. In just a few days, I'll be attending the BAFTAs where my latest short film The Curse - which I tell people is my third, fifth or ninth, depending on which and how many of those previous I'd rather forget that day - is nominated in the Best Short Film Category.
It is a wonderful feeling to be nominated with what I had always intended to be my last short. It gives me a sense of progression, having gotten stronger, bolder, better. It feels like my graduation. At the same time, I try not to think of it too much as a validation of what I have already done but rather, what might be possible. It's above all hugely encouraging. It makes me want to throw myself into the next thing.
It also provides a fitting time to reflect on the journey so far. With a particular emphasis on the stickier problems faced by the writer-director, below are a few things I might offer to a new generation of filmmakers, perhaps those embarking on their first shorts.
It is also, secretly, a blue-print for the prayerbook I'll be keeping in my breast pocket as I confront the new and slightly terrifying world of feature filmmaking:
Fall in love
The hardest part could be the very beginning - what the hell to make a film about? The best piece of advice I ever got on this is: it doesn't matter. It's not the subject but rather the artist's relationship to the subject that counts. Love or similar extremes of emotion may be helpful. A doorknob, a sleeping kitten, a surgically enhanced blonde with a gun, all are good. The question is: how often does the kitten recur in your worst nightmares? How much does the doorknob turn you on? How far do you see the face of God in those surgical ehancements?
"Ideas develop and strengthen themselves as they pass through people, places and time. Sometimes the best ideas are disguised as mistakes."
Pride is a killer and I've known some of its corpses - incredibly talented people who are too afraid of not being great to even make a start. It's true that some people are effortlessly amazing at things off the bat (I'm not one of them), but you may need the courage to first be bad in order to eventually be good. Short films rarely make money so should be a place for learning, experimentation and risk. Don't be (too) afraid of fucking up - it may be necessary in the bigger picture. You have a right to bad work.
Moreover, we may do our best work when we are not preoccupied with its quality. Not too long ago, when I was half-paralyzed by all sorts of conflicting ideas of what The Feature should be, my agent said to me: write something bad. Surprising, maybe, but more importantly: liberating. The result? Weird, for sure, but undeniably me (i.e. it's 'The Feature').
The (other) best piece of advice I ever had: don't make work that your family would approve of. If you're really following your obsessions, which you should be doing, you might piss people off. Or maybe it will just be icky, uncomfortable and embarassing. Ultimately, though, it's the way to find your own voice - to say what you're saying - and it's going to be The Thing to make you stand out. Are you making a film so people will think you're nice? Try buying them a Cinnabon or 'liking' their Facebook status instead.
On a similar note, you will occasionally have to put the work ahead of maintaining easy personal relationships with your collaborators. It is hard. Steel yourself.
Involve your BFFs
Much of The Curse's success can be put down to the shared experience of the fantastic team I was working alongside - the cornerstones of which are Gavin Humphries (producer) and Taina Galis (cinematographer and editor). We have collaborated over several years, so when we rocked up to the Moroccan desert, we got each other - creatively, professionally and personally. There was a sense, not of obligation and work, but of doing what we really wanted to do, with the people we really wanted to be with. When you're in a strange land, doing something as delicate as telling your mother's story with non-professional child actors, that is truly a blessing.
"Filmmaking, after all, is logistically impossible, emotionally devastating and financially ruinous - so it may need to be the most important thing in your life."
Sometimes thinking is your worst enemy; it's hard to temper the beast before you're even in battle. Ideas develop and strengthen themselves as they pass through people, places and time. Sometimes the best ideas are disguised as mistakes. At some point, perhaps the one at which you feel most confused, you have to dive in, armed only with your instincts. Listen to them and you will find they tell you (almost) everything.
Don't fall in love
On the other hand, falling in love can be distracting, not to mention costly - maxing out your data allowance on Grindr then having to pay-per-megabyte, keeping stocked up on Frownies, saving for that deconstructed leather-trim dress that's going to make him think you're so interesting. Things, other than people, can be seductive too: a stable income, sleeping in, the prospect of watching Mean Girls for the sixth time instead of Werckmeister Harmonies for the first.
The question is, then, how much does it matter to you to see your vision on the big screen? How committed are you to going deep enough to say something that only you would say? What are you willing to sacrifice for that? Filmmaking, after all, is logistically impossible, emotionally devastating and financially ruinous - so it may need to be the most important thing in your life.
This brings me to my final bit of best-advice-I-ever-heard: everyone has talent, what is rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places.