Interview with Filmmaker Paul Charisse (UNCLE GRIOT)

UNCLE GRIOT was the winner of BEST CINEMATOGRAPHER at the December 2018 Fantasy/Sci-Fi Festival in Toronto.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Paul Charisse: This short was developed from a feature we are making called “Stina & the Wolf”. It’s developed from a single scene we thought would act well as a vehicle to distill a lot of the ideas we explore in our feature script into a small and affordable format (and also function to help promote our funding of the full feature of course!)

We wanted it to capture the atmosphere and approach we intend for the final feature, as well as hint at some of the main themes the film deals with. Part of our design for the feature and short was to try and find that difficult balance between helping the audience understand ideas we want to explore, but also painting a rich enough palette that they can draw their own conclusions, some of which may not have even occurred to us as filmmakers. I’m a big believer that artists put more ideas into their work than they realise, so particularly in the editing process, we moved things around a lot to create new meanings and juxtapositions in an intuitive and reactive way that I tried not to over analyze. I think this can access deeper, more subconscious meanings, and is very much the working method of my filmmaking heroes such as David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg. I love films that use rich emotive visual and narrative elements to take you into the emotion space of a character, without being overly didactic or literal, giving the audience just enough ingredients to make sense of story elements and visual motifs so they can stitch together things from their own experiences. (This does of course require a certain amount of effort from the audience and challenges expectations, so is not to everyone’s taste!) I’m also a big fan of this magical realism approach in literature, by authors such as the fantastic Kelly Lynch, where meanings are hinted at and stories unfold full of sympathetic resonances and juxtapositions that can draw out different things from different readers.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

The feature has been in development for 6 years. The resulting short took about one and half years to complete.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

magical realism

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

The biggest obstacle was a technical one, getting the right level of detail and realism so that we could create the “hyper realism” we wanted for our aesthetic. The plan was that at moments it looked real and others strange and dream like, with certain visual elements idealised beyond reality. There are no shortcuts to this, and it required a lot of time and effort creating high fidelity facial animation, cloth simulation, grass and tree simulation, motion capture and animation and shader and matte painting. This is easier if you’re working on a multi million pound budget project with a crew of hundreds (I used to work as an animator in Blockbuster VFX) Most of the work on this was done by a small team of about 8 of us, and we made the film in a university with students and myself (a lecturer) Our biggest obstacle for the feature as a whole is getting it funded and finding a producer to help us with this. (Pretty much the same as every filmmaker in history I imagine!)

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was really excited to hear the different interpretations of the film. It’s actually a relief to hear that people are able to accept the level of ambiguity and try and use the elements in the film to make their own meanings, and they came up with so many fantastic ideas! I was really pleased, as this film was partially a test to see if we could capture a snapshot of what we want the feature to be, and see whether it would work with an audience. (although the feature has a much tighter narrative, but we aspire to give it that otherworldly ambiguity. Again another balancing act)

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

The feature (and the short) is inspired by many ideas and many films. I’d say life, death and fate are its core themes, but within that the idea of using storytelling and fantasy as a way of making sense of the apparent chaos and amorality of the natural world plays a big part; also how this relates to the aging process (Stina is very much intended to be idealised youth, where as Griot is the reality of aging: wart, farts, body hair and all!). I love the idea that humans have to wrap everything in a story before they can process it, especially things that are infinite and seem to defy logic, such as death or the physical world beyond our bodies.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

I’d say Mulholland Drive and Paris Texas have both had about the same level of obsessive re-watching. At least twice a year! Very different films, but both have been massive inspirations.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

It’s really accessible and useful. I’d use it again.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

I tend to listen to albums rather than individual songs. The otherworldly and ambient instrumental sides (it’s a double album) of David Sylvian “Gone to Earth” is my my most played. It transports me to another plane, a place beyond language, and I think a place I feel compelled to try and reach through filmmaking for some reason. I love that language is completely incompetent at capturing the experience of music (and film!).

10. What is next for you? A new film?

I’ve been approached about directing an animated feature in America next year, which i can’t talk about yet unfortunately (although hopefully soon) I’ll also be continuing the process of trying to fund our magical realistic feature, which i’m absolutely determined to make. (I’m having to learn to be a producer at the moment, which is definitely not my natural skillset, if any one fancies joining the team! ) Any one interested in learning more about our feature “Stina & the Wolf” should check out: http://www.stinaandthewolf.net

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