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Image of Wren Boys Harry Lighton

London Calling interview with Wren Boys director Harry Lighton

Date posted: 13.02.2018

Created through our London Calling scheme, Wren Boys is a compelling, intimate short film exploring the changing social landscape and tradition of modern Ireland, told through the relationship between a Catholic priest and his nephew. After winning our London Calling Jury Award in September 2017, the film has been nominated for BAFTA and BIFA awards alongside screening in competition at film festivals including Sundance, BFI London Film Festival and Flickerfest. We spoke to director Harry Lighton about the politics and inspiration behind his overnight success of a short film.

Changing tradition

Your film deals with some timely subjects in the current political climate. Could you say more about why you chose these topics, and how you went about approaching them?

It started from wanting to write a film about the rapid remoulding of traditions in Ireland. When I was born, it was still illegal to be gay. In 2015, 23 years later, a public referendum showed overwhelming support for equal marriage.

I read a penal reform report asking whether inmates would be able to openly celebrate the referendum result. The answer in male prisons was no. But I wanted to open the door to this possibility by presenting a maverick gay inmate's marriage being celebrated by the other prisoners.

At the same time, I wanted to temper this optimism. Individuals bite back against the tide of progression. It may be tiny in proportion, but there's a very real, violent pocket of bigots who react to increased tolerance with violence.  A Cumbrian man's just been jailed for taking a machete to a Pride march. Tradition can be cruel, but it isn't by necessity. I started thinking about other outmoded Irish traditions. In bygone St Stephen's Days, local boys would be sent out to kill a wren and the community would then gather to bury it: to bid farewell to the past and beckon in the new year. The tradition continues, but a fake wren has replaced the real bird. It struck me as a good frame for the story of a priest looking at religious tradition critically in the light of a new Ireland, whilst holding on to his personal notion of morality.

Creative influences

What were your influences when creating Wren Boys? Do you tend to seek inspiration more from feature or short films?

The chief inspiration was "The Wren Song" - a live version by the Clancy brothers with this preamble that captured the mixture of fun and cruelty involved in the tradition. Film-wise, we were influenced by features, shorts, music videos - anything from Hunger (Steve McQueen) to Aoife McArdle's "Half-Light" music video.

Wren Boys has a specific, grainy look to its cinematography. How did you achieve this, and did it make the short harder to fund?

We shot on 16mm. We used tungsten stocks without making any compensations with filters to make a cooler look possible in the grade (we were shooting summer-for-winter!). Kodak and Panavision were incredibly generous in their deals, and our DoP (Nick Morris) spent his savings on stock. The processing costs still meant it was more expensive than shooting digital, but it was the ambition from the first conversations we had about the look. We knew the skin-tones and grain would reward honest performances, so Sorcha made it work in the budget!

The Sundance experience

How did you find the experience of screening at Sundance Film Festival?

HL: The audiences don't hold back - we had cackling and gasping in the screening, and hugs/abuse afterwards. It was stunning having audiences react so viscerally to the film. We'd been a bit nervous about how the Cork-accent would go down with a predominantly American ear, but they didn't seem to have a problem. 

Do you have any advice for emerging filmmakers wanting to have a festival/awards impact with their short film?

Make it short - be ruthless about killing moments in the edit if they're not absolutely necessary. Do your research - target festivals you think will be receptive to your short. And in the making of it, always keep an eye on how your film will surprise that programmer watching 1000 shorts a day.

How did you find the process of making Wren Boys through the London Calling scheme?

It was refreshingly rigorous. The whittling down of candidates through the rounds meant I didn't check my emails for 3 months without feeling a bit leafy. But at every step the Film London team pushed us to better define our intentions. They went above-and-beyond in supporting us through the wobbly moments. The scheme gives your short a buzz which is hard to generate independently, and their support continues long after your film's done.       

Looking ahead

Do you think of short filmmaking as a means to working on feature projects, or are you interested in the short form for its own qualities going forward?

At festivals, I reckon the short programmes are the hottest tickets going. I love the form, I've never made a short which I just saw as a block in the wall of a bigger film, and I hope I'll make more in the future. Having said that, our team all wants a career in features, and making a short which does well seems the best route to that career.

What are you working on next? Do you have plans for a feature-length version of Wren Boys?

With Wren Boys there's definitely a bigger story to tell, and I'd love to work with the cast again. But it feels a bit close at the moment. Next up I'm knuckling down to write a different feature which is in development with BBC Films. It's set in Japan and there's a million production challenges, but the idea has me hooked so time to get stuck in!

Where to watch it

Harry Lighton's film is nominated for the British Short Film award at the BAFTAs (announced Sunday 18 February 2018) and is screening as part of the BAFTA Shorts 2018 programme on Curzon's streaming service and at selected Curzon cinemas throughout February.

Wren Boys was made through the London Calling short film scheme from Film London in partnership with BFI NETWORK, with funding through the BFI and Creative Skillset.

Watch the trailer for Wren Boys 

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