Interview with Filmmaker Julia Fullerton-Batten (1814 FROST FAIR)

1814 FROST FAIR played to rave reviews at the July 2020 FEMALE Film Festival.

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?
How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

Julia Fullerton-Batten: I am a fine art photographer shooting story-telling projects on a wide variety of themes. As part of a major project narrating the history, traditions and customs along the Thames River (‘Old Father Thames’) I decided to recreate the 1814 Frost Fair on the Thames in London. This was an occasion when the river froze over completely and Londoners used the opportunity to celebrate on the ice. Over the years, there had been a number of Frost Fairs in the shadow of the Old London Bridge. What was not known at the time was that the 1814 Frost Fair would be the last after a new bridge was built to replace the old structure. Historically, therefore this fair is of particular significance to The River Thames’ and London history. Although brief it was reported as being celebrated exuberantly even to the extent that an elephant was led across the frozen ice.

I was excited with the thought of the project and felt a curious urge to experience the fair for myself. I always endeavour to make the settings, costumes, props, etc for my photoshoots as authentic as possible and always do a lot of research beforehand. The work for this was on an even larger scale than usual. The 1814 Frost Fair occurred prior to the invention of photography so I had to rely on paintings, sketches and newspaper reports.

The cast increased to over forty and included circus performers. I had to research for entertainment tents, costumes and props relevant to the time. Sets were constructed in a large studio in London. Attention to detail was absolutely paramount for me.

I was halfway through planning this already massive, complex stills production when I realised that I just had to film it as well. It was truly the only way to give an audience a real-life experience of the electric atmosphere of what the 1814 Frost Fair must have been like. I embarked on this filming venture with no prior experience of having directed a film of any kind.

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

It took me quite a few months to plan the entire project, both stills and film. There was a lot of additional planning needed for the film. I shot everything in a large drive-in studio and required a day for setting up and preparing the lighting, a second day for shooting the stills and a third for the filming.

On the shoot and filming days over ninety people were involved – actors, circus performers, crew, etc. On our last day we were obliged to clear the studio of all props and lighting. We started very early and didn’t finish until after midnight – all in all it was a super long day of hard but rewarding work.

A fiddle player provides the background music, the tone of the music changes from more or less serious to playful depending on the scene. Everything had to be coordinated to make sense. Although there is a minimum of dialogue there are many different characters involved in shouting, exclaiming, exertions of arm wrestling, selling, gambling, etc. I introduced interactions at all levels – to the different circus performers (sword swallower, fire breather, contortionist, stilt walker, etc.), street events (stealing, prostitution, gambling, etc). I really wanted to bring the Frost Fair atmosphere alive, illustrating also the differences pervading at that time between the wealthy and the poor, beggars and street urchins.

3. How would you describe your short film!?

Fantastical.
Sensational.
Step in time incapsulation
Fun period piece

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

Never directed a short film of any kind before it was a huge learning curve from beginning to end. I am used to working with large crews but not one of nearly 100 people. However, the biggest concerns were the significant financial implications and having enough time on the day itself. I wished that I had at least two days for filming, it would have been less stressful. However, considering all those factors I’m delighted with the end result that I achieved and the resonance that the film has received worldwide since.

I was lucky to have an amazing DOP who brought a super talented crew onboard with him, as well as the support of Big Buoy in London and Eight VFX in LA for the post-production. These factors helped make a huge difference to the final result.

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

The feedback was incredible. The commentators found the settings and costumes to be convincingly authentic. Those comments made my long hours of research and months of searching and hiring activities worthwhile. In all, it seemed as though my efforts to create a vibrant, joyful atmosphere had succeeded.

There were comments that it would be a great setting for a feature film and I was flattered to be compared with the structure and composition of my film with the style of Tim Burton, a director whom I have long admired! There was also a comparison with the film ‘Orlando’, based on a novel by Virginia Woolf, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crip, in which scenes were also set on ice. Another film that I have enjoyed for its settings and lighting.

I was surprised to learn that all admitted to not knowing about the Frost Fairs on the River Thames and that I was able to make them aware of an exciting part of London history and that even an elephant once paraded the ice from bank to bank.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

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

In the Mood for Love, by the Hong Kong Chinese film director Kar-Wai Wong

This is such a simple story, filmed beautifully. Each frame is atmospheric, mostly filmed at night. I get inspiration from films and especially this one. I could spend hours studying each scene, frame by frame, to enjoy the impeccable lighting.

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

I found it great. With one upload of the film it is super easy process to read about the festivals in one place and decide to submit to those most relevant and appealing to the film and the target audience. I was able to do it when travelling and it only takes a few seconds.

The 1814 Frost Fair film already gained many awards internationally. It is so exciting for me to read the messages when they appear in my inbox!

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

Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright. What a classic, beautiful rendition of this wonderful song!

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

I am hooked! I would love to direct more and already have some ideas. Following on to my contact with one of the cast of the 1814 Frost Fair I will soon be shooting a project on young female contortionists and am thinking how I can again combine moving imagery with stills.

It has suddenly become an exciting new world for me. One that I’m going to enjoy exploring!

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