Dad Joke came to BFI NETWORK in late 2018, and was commissioned in 2019. It premiered at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, and went on to screen at the London Short Film Festival and British Shorts Berlin. As it makes its online debut, we interviewed the team behind the film — director/co-writer David Abramsky, actor/co-writer Joshua Robertson and producer Poppy Ashton — about their creative process.
What was your journey into the film industry like?
David Abramsky (Director, co-writer): I started working as a runner at 18 — I was lucky enough to work on films by people like Greengrass, Nolan and Spielberg, which taught me a huge amount and also let me see a bit of the world. I moved into editing and then directing documentaries, before teaming up with Joshua to start writing comedy.
Joshua Robertson (co-writer, lead actor): I started working as a standup at 19, and had been on TV a few times before meeting David. David saw me doing standup and asked if I’d like to start writing and acting for film. We started collaborating, and submitted a concept to BFI Network which ultimately became Dad Joke. Since then, I’ve been given a John Brabourne Award to support development of my next projects.
Tell us about your BFI NETWORK-supported film.
David:Dad Joke is a 1-shot comedy-drama loosely based on Joshua’s life. It sees a disabled standup comedian called Joshua Robertson perform a make-or-break gig on the night his first child is born. It was inspired by Joshua’s experiences of the fears and struggles of being an up-and-coming comedian and father. Joshua and his fiancee had their first child 3 years ago — in a weird case of life imitating art, their second child was due to be born the same night that we premiered Dad Joke at LFF. Luckily, she arrived a week late and is now 6 months old.
What was your creative process, how did you get ready to make the film?
Poppy Ashton (producer): Lots and lots of coffees at the Curzon Soho! We’d meet at least twice every week for months to make sure we had the best script, cast and crew options and location possibilities to make sure everything was running as smoothly as possible. A steady constant flow of pre-production with our close-knit team really helped us prepare for the making of the film.
David: The film changed a lot during the development process with BFI — in fact, we completely rewrote it after our first Story Day. It hadn’t been intended as a 1-shot, but being forced to think intensively about what it was really about, we saw that a huge amount of the original script was superfluous. That was a really important process for us, not just on this project but in honing our writing voice in general. Our creative process now is just to have conversations that aren’t too focussed on results — we don’t sit down to write, we just sit down to talk and see what stories emerge and whether they excite us.
Can you talk us through a moment in the film, or do you have any favourite moments from the shoot?
Poppy: A recurring moment on set which made most of the crew pretty speechless was Josh delivering his lines perfect every take. Even if the backdrop would fall halfway through, or there’d be a camera fault, his performance would still be 100% — which is pretty remarkable for a dude who’s never really acted before!
Joshua: I really enjoyed getting notes between each take — finding out how your performance is evolving, and being challenged to give something different each time, is a really exciting experience as a performer.
David: I remember calling cut on the take that I knew was going to be the film. It was one of those weird times where months and years of work come together in a single moment, and all the emotions of that long process wash over you. It was a feeling of pride, excitement and relief.
What was the most challenging element to shoot, can you walk us through how you overcame that?
David: Doing the whole film in one shot, with 50 extras, was a big logistical challenge. You need so many things to go right all in a row, and a single mistake or problem ruins a whole take. One take was very strong, but I didn’t realise til the end that the curtain behind Joshua had slipped down near the beginning. So that take was gone. Another one was perfect right up til the end, when the motor on the Follow Focus died, meaning the very last part was out of focus. The only two ways to overcome that kind of challenge when you have limited resources are: preparation, and an incredible team. We rehearsed the choreography of the camera a lot before the shoot, and ultimately the team just nailed it.
What’s the best thing you did (or thing you wish you did) on the first day of shooting?
David: It sounds really stupid, but one really important thing we did on Day 1 was tear up a piece of the floor. We’d had endless worried talks about ‘the lip’ — the raised border round the central part of the floor. It was potentially going to ruin our dolly shot right in the last moment, making the camera bump. We were anxiously trying to work out if we could get the lip up without destroying it, and the genius grips finally bit the bullet, tore it up, and laid the board that made our shot possible. And we even managed to fix it back afterwards — so no insurance claims!
Why do you feel stories like this are important?
Joshua: You’re starting to see disability portrayed more, but it’s still very rare to see disabled characters working and starting families on screen. It’s also rare to see disability dealt with in a challenging and comedic way — understandably, people are nervous. But as a disabled comedian and dad, I feel like I have a unique opportunity to tell stories like this, and take audiences through that nervousness and unease into a place where they can laugh and broaden their perspective at the same time.
How are you navigating the Covid situation and keeping engaged and balanced?
Joshua: I’m in the house with my fiancee and two young kids, so Peppa Pig is a key part of my daily routine. David and I do Zoom-writing sessions most days, sometimes also with the producer of our next project Alex Blue, so the process has remained fairly similar even though we can’t be in the same place. It’s difficult to deal with the uncertainty about if and when we’ll get to make our next projects — but filmmakers are generally used to uncertainty around their work, so I think we’re quite well-equipped to deal with that. The most important things are to have projects you’re excited about, and to collaborate with people who challenge you and keep you motivated.
What advice would you give to other filmmakers embarking on making their film right now?
This is a unique moment with unique challenges, but the skills to make it through are the same that filmmakers have always needed. You have to believe in your potential and your project, but not to the exclusion of advice that can make you and it better. You have to find an approach to your work that you genuinely enjoy — if it’s not fun, you won’t be able to persist through the setbacks. And most importantly, you have to work with people who bring out the best in you. Everyone’s got chronic Zoom-fatigue, but we still look forward to our writing calls because we genuinely like working together — and taking the piss out of each other.
A particularly important aspect of this moment is that, in the film industry as in society, Covid will probably most set back the people who were already at the greatest disadvantage — women, BAME people, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, parents, carers and the less well-off and well-connected. As opportunities narrow, probably so will the resources to redress historic imbalances. If you’re strategising on how to fight your way back into this industry and get stuff made again, see if you can make tackling that reality part of your strategy. No one is glad that we have to rebuild — but in the same way that the economy needs to be rebuilt more greenly, the film industry needs to be rebuilt more fairly. Now is a good time to think about how to do that, and to ask other people how to do that and really listen. If anyone reading this has thoughts on that, we’d be really curious to hear them.
Here’s a silly example just for consideration — when we go to film events, there’s usually a bit of networking and drinks afterwards — often the most fun and useful part of the event! But it’s really difficult for Josh to get round a room, even with us helping him, and to casually join different chats going on and introduce himself to people. We often all end up sat in the corner giggling amongst ourselves, with people awkwardly avoiding eye contact. With development schemes and events now running remotely, it’s been really interesting seeing how that dynamic has changed as a result — Josh is no longer at a disadvantage because he can’t physically work a room, or easily nip to the pub round the corner for a drink after.
Are there other ways we can reinvent networking, post-Covid? Other ways we can reinvent pitching, reinvent running a set, reinvent post-production, reinvent distribution? Can our solutions to Covid also be solutions to unfairness?
What happened after you made the film — what kind of response did you get from the festival scene and industry?
The film premiered at London Film Festival alongside other Film London productions, to a sold-out 500-seat NFT1 crowd, which was an amazing experience. Lots of people got in touch through the festival and have become friends and collaborators now. It was also nominated for Best British Short at LSFF. Perhaps the most exciting development was that the TV adaptation of the short, which we’ve been working on since late last year, has been selected for EIFF’s Talent Lab Connects. That’s being run remotely this year by Kate Leys, a brilliant story editor, who is helping us push ourselves and the project to new heights. Especially now, in lockdown, it’s so encouraging to be part of a scheme like that — it gives you belief in your project’s potential and a clear roadmap for how to push it forward, and keeps you connected to your fellow filmmakers.
What’s next for you?
As well as continuing to develop Dad Joke into a series on the Talent Lab, we have started working on a couple of other film and TV projects as a team. Joshua is continuing to go up for acting work and performing comedy, remotely for now.