Sunday, January 12, 2014

Visiting the set of 'Belle': twisted psychological horror courtesy of the JobCentre.

It’s real easy to criticise.  To spend a pleasurable thousand or so words disembowelling the product of gallons of perspiration, innumerable minute artistic decisions and the singular passion of a director or screenwriter who has poured their heart and soul (and often their health) into a piece of cinema.  It's this vague sensation of guilt that ran through my mind as I watched as 10 people moving in silent, practised concert as they filmed a simple shot of a girl looking into the camera and saying “I’m sorry”.  These precious few seconds took 10 minutes to get on film, not taking into account the army of people elsewhere who’d prepared the girl’s makeup, the lighting and set design.  

Signature Pictures' Belle, directed by Jon Max Spatz, is a short film about a fashion magazine editor slowly collapsing into nightmare on the morning of her daughter’s 16th birthday. This is film production at the lower end of the budgetary scale, though a visit to the set was fascinating on a number of levels. I arrived on the final day of a three day shoot which was taking place in the director’s home kitchen.  Having visited and occasionally worked on shoots before I was expecting an atmosphere of frayed, stressed out panic - all exacerbated by this being the last day of filming.  

What I found was an eerie sense of chilled out professionalism.  Weirdly, practically everything seemed to be working right, tempers remained intact and the mood on set was light and chatty.  Considering that there was a dog on set this was nothing short of miraculous. Clearly there’s some kind of weird alchemy afoot, that or an iron fist in scheduling and a healthy dollop of luck.

The friendly, stress-free environment meant that I was able to have a little chat to practically the entire cast and crew.  One of the most enjoyable was a conversation I had Lindsay Readman, who plays ‘Mum’.  Explorations of the turmoil of middle-aged woman are depressingly rare in cinema, especially from young, male directors.  All of Readman's character's fears stem from her fear of aging; her first scene involves the character naked in the shower and hypercritically evaluating her body in the bathroom mirror.  'Mum' is terrorised by her own perceived ugliness, the erosion of time causing her to don a suit of armour forged from cosmetics and clothes to conceal these flaws. But as we'll see in Bellethis armour is crumbling.

Readman’s character operates in the shallow and ephemeral pool of fashion and beauty; time seems to pass at a faster rate in this rarified world, where staying ahead of the shifting aesthetic trends is crucial.  Contrasting this is her second role as a maternal, fixed point of stability for her daughter. Walking the tightrope between these two worlds is a tricky proposition, and one that Readman has personal experience of.  Trying to keep all these plates spinning is next to impossible, a portrait of women trying desperately to embody every aspects of the mother/maiden/crone triple goddess. It is enough to drive a person to madness, and so it does, the tipping point the birthday of her beautiful 16 year old daughter, Belle. And so she slides into insanity, the domestic world twisting into a grotesque, nightmarish caricature.  

As we spoke, the director’s kitchen was busy being transformed into a cross between David Lynch’s Red Room from Twin Peaks and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.  Someone once told that if you don’t have a job to do on set you shouldn’t be there, so with that in mind I tried to stay out of everyone’s way as much as possible.  The house was a humming hive of activity, jobs ranging from the obvious like setting up lighting and sound, to someone frying plate after plate of steaming scrambled eggs (cold eggs look crap on film).  Other tiny jobs were touching up makeup after lotus pollen had gotten on the actor’s noses, or even sitting around inflating balloon after balloon for a birthday party scene.  There was an enthusiasm for the project that tends to bode well.

Having said that I’m not surprised that a large portion of the crew was happy to be on a film set.  This is because, uniquely, the film hired its crew through Jobcentre Plus. Film is a notoriously nepotistic industry, in my experience most people get in by exploiting personal connections. This invisible wall prevents a huge amount of talent from making it anywhere near the industry.  This unlikely partnership between the Jobcentre and a surreal indie short came about partly through budgetary concerns, and partly through philanthropic notions of giving young people with an interest in cinema real experience and something concrete to put on their CV.

I was initially suspicious about idea of using unpaid labour to produce a film (though travel and expenses are covered).  No matter how charitable giving people jobs in film might be, you’re ultimately depriving someone else in the industry of a job.  But after chatting with the 'unemployed trainee' crew it was difficult to maintain this suspicion.  There's a rather depressing stoicism that runs between these people as they outline the godawful jobs they’re generally offered.  One told their advisor that they were an animal lover and were subsequently put forward for a job scraping dead rats from cages in animal testing laboratories.  Turn up with dark hair, eyeliner and tattoos and they’ll mark you down as someone who’d fit right into the vibrant and exciting world of corpse management.

In comparison, working on a film set and gaining experience in a field they’re genuinely interested in is manna from heaven.  I thought there might be a risk of a divide in the crew with the Jobcentre trainees ending up as a tolerated underclass - kept away from any real responsibilities and relegated to fetching cups of coffee.  But no, they integrated seamlessly into the fabric of the crew; working as trainee director, in PR, make up, set design and others - all with a very high level of competence.

So I found myself quite liking this set up; an extremely rare instance of young jobseekers not feeling exploited or treated like chattel.  Without Jobcentre support it looks like it’d have been difficult for the film to be made at all. So in a roundabout way this makes the Job Centre producers on Belle - a rather odd prospect considering the nudity, violence and generally warped tone of this short.  Even more pleasingly, the prospects of the trainees seem pretty rosy, with trainee director Guy Larsen going on to create the short Girls Who Read (with an impressive 3 million hits on YouTube) and subsequently being offered a film-making contract with Google.

With the Coalition government having axed the UK Film Council, (the only non-departmental public body to actually make a profit) working with the Jobcentre therefore becomes a clever way of clawing back a sliver of support for independent British film from public bodies.  It sure beats the current governmental policy of supporting the British Film Industry by giving foreign-based studios massive tax breaks (or as normal folks call them , 'bribes') to shoot in the UK.  Take the new new Star Wars films, with the special arrangement between Disney/Lucasfilm and the government that slices the tax they’ll pay. This is great news for big studios and established production companies, but means very little to a new generation of small, independent filmmakers like Jon Max Spatz.

Belle looks to be an empathetic, socially conscious and elegant short film put together with no small amount of intelligence, technical skill and artistic passion. Thankfully these aren’t things unique to Belle, they're common across independent British film.  What is unique is the Jobcentre apparatus being used to provide a foothold into the closed shop of the film industry.  Considering that at times the Jobcentre feels like a meat grinder processing people into Workfare zombies shuffling across the floors of Poundland, this can only be a step in the right direction.

I hope future films realise that there are armies of incredibly talented young people mouldering away in the doldrums of unemployment, desperate to make their cultural mark on the world, and eager for work.  I also eagerly await the final cut of Belle, which looks very promising. So what next for the Jobcentre's nascent film production role? Splatter zombie flicks?  Girls, guns and bikinis exploitation thrillers?  Only time will tell.

Belle is being screened at the Sigpix Launch at the ICA, 13th January 2013

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