A woman’s run takes on a dark turn in RUN, a thriller with a powerful social message, supported by the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund. Longlisted for BIFA's Best British Short Award, the film premiered internationally at Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, and nationally at Bristol Encounters Short Film Festival, as well as screening at London Film Festival as part of the London Calling at LFF for Free series.
Film London caught up with the team behind the short, writer/director Ruth Greenberg and producers Helen Gladders and Ivana MacKinnon.
What was your journey into the film industry like?
Ruth Greenberg (Writer/Director) - Very slow and then very fast! I started writing screenplays in my teens but was in my mid-30s when I circulated my first script, The Competitors. From that I got an agent, had another feature project, The Origin, commissioned by Film 4 and The Competitors topped the Brit List 2016. It was during that year that Philippa Tsang and Sam Lavender, my development execs at Film 4, asked me if I wanted to direct. I said no, because I thought I didn’t. I didn’t really know what a director did and I couldn’t see how it would fit into my life as a single parent. I told my best mate and she said if I was a man I’d have just said yes. So I went back and said yes. At that stage I had a very full writing slate and it still took a few years to find the time, team and funding to direct RUN, but it was the right choice as it’s been one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences I’ve had.
Ivana MacKinnon (Producer) - I started working with Christian Colson - my one and only ever boss - in script development, and fell backwards into producing after developing Jack Thorne’s first feature, which I couldn’t bear to let anyone else produce. Then I went out on my own to become an indie producer with my own company, and have recently teamed up with another producer, Emily Leo, to start a company called Wild Swim.
Helen Gladders (Producer) – I started working in Factual Entertainment TV in Brighton before being accepted to the NFTS Producing MA course, which was a brilliant experience and got me back on track to working on scripted projects! I worked as an assistant to Julie Baines at Dan Films for 2 years and then left to set up Gingerbread Pictures on my own in 2016. I made a LOT of short films while at the film school and afterwards, including Rhonna & Donna which was backed by Creative England’s iShorts+ Funny Girls scheme. I’ve been developing a slate of features alongside, and shot my first feature Tuesday with the same Writer / Director Daina O. Pusic this year!
Tell us more about RUN and the inspiration behind it.
RG - I hear a lot that the film is ‘timely’, which is sadly true. But, to be honest, it’s always been timely. I conceived it in 2017, a reaction to #MeToo, as women began to share their stories of the true pandemic of gendered violence that exists at every level of society. I wanted to make an intensely subjective film about the experience of being a woman who is constantly navigating threats as she goes about an everyday activity. It was meant to be a film that represented women, or any person, who has to minute by minute perform risk assessments. The final escalation (without giving spoilers) may not be what happens to most women, but it is something we have all thought about, in moments of fear, so it is still our reality. And finally I wanted to express the rage I feel, and see in others, as we understand how pervasively women are made to feel unsafe through the instances of actual or imagined violence that are perpetrated against us. The idea was to ask the question: what do we do now?
RUN is a thriller that contains scenes of gendered violence. How do you see the film adding to the conversation on this issue, and why do you feel stories like this are important?
RG - First off, I don’t think it’s for everyone. I understand that many will find the content triggering and we’ve always been very open about that in order to enable individuals to make the choice about whether or not they want to watch it. But for me, making this film was a catharsis, and so I hope for many it will be a positive, if tough, viewing experience. There has been so much violence against women on screen but I believe it is essential to make films on this subject from the female gaze, and every part of this film is built to submerge us in our runner’s perspective. I want women who feel angry about this subject matter to also feel seen and represented, rather than isolated by their experiences and the resulting emotions. And if people who haven’t experienced living under threat can use the film to better understand what it feels like, then that’s good, too.
IM - What women (especially) seem to respond to viscerally in this film is the small moments that are so recognisable and familiar to us but that we never see on the screen - the little unconscious things we do every day to make ourselves feel safe that have become part of our lives. These tiny moments are as important as the bigger moments in the film - showing them and giving them importance resonates so strongly with people.
With the ending of the film we want to create debate, and leave an audience with a sense of an interrupted catharsis, and a very real question about what the right response to the world we live in should look like.
HG – The film has had an interesting trajectory over the past year with current events. We were looking to make a film which we hoped many women would relate to, both in terms of the experience of regular micro-aggressions but also that deep rage slowly bubbling beneath the surface. The tragic cases of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa (to name a few) have really brought home how the world unfortunately continues to be a dangerous place for women, and that the default is so often to blame the victims instead of the perpetrators. We shot RUN before these events took place and are only screening it afterwards, which has hopefully made it even more resonant, but also potentially tougher to watch, than we could have anticipated.
What was your creative process; how did you prepare to make the film?
RG - It’s the only short I’ve ever written and essentially it came out in a single draft. If you lay the script next to the film, you’ll see they’re pretty much the same. I write very descriptively in terms of visuals and sound, and the happy discovery in directing was that I never felt out of my depth because so much of my process was the same as my writing process. Being entirely character-centred (served by amazing Niamh), lots of visual/audio references, real focus on locations in particular to create the sense of her being funnelled, with no escape, or in some spaces isolated, to provide the right atmosphere, meticulous planning, especially with our DP, Molly Manning Walker. Molly and I actually shot the whole thing on our locations on an iPhone, just between the two of us, and did a bodge edit so we knew every set up we wanted. Our editor, Stella Heath Keir wasn’t involved at this point but next time I’d definitely want her to be part of the prep stage. Then I’d made this rule that from when the runner went outside, if she was moving, the camera needed to be moving. There are a couple of intentional rule breaks to create the sense of her isolation in the space, but mostly we stuck to it, because we chose the right rig (a Ronin on a rickshaw) and because we’d planned so carefully with every shot. And another rule was to shoot her flat front/behind or in profile to accentuate the sense of her being boxed in, until we went handheld. I also spent a lot of time listening to music to find our tracks, and writing begging letters to female artists so we could afford their songs on our budget. They all said yes. And we had our fourth track, RUN, composed by Guilia Campanella, based on a lot of conversation and comps. Niamh listened to all the music in advance but on shoot she had beep tracks so she could keep to the beat of the song that plays.
IM - Ruth had the whole film in her head! The main part of our job was finding the right collaborators who could really get stuck in and add to that vision, and building in enough time in prep, shoot and post to get it out of her head and onto the screen.
How did you come to form a collaborative team for this project?
RG - I met Ivana in 2016 when she read The Competitors and we developed a really close friendship. We’d been looking for something to work on together so when this came up she was my first choice to EP. I asked her and also suggested Helen to produce, who I had met and clicked with. They were already working together on a feature, Tuesday, so Helen was happy to get involved and Ivana ignored the EP offer and basically just produced alongside Helen. They’re both amazing and I feel very lucky to have worked with them. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is how important it is to work with people you like to spend time with.
IM - Ruth and I had wanted to do something together for ages so it was a real privilege for her to offer to share her first directing experience with me. Helen and I had a project in development together but had never produced together so it seemed sensible to give that a go on a short before we made the feature. And she was brilliant and did 99% of the work and deserves all the credit.
HG – The story has basically been covered above! But yes I was already developing a project with Ivana and hadn’t had the chance to shoot something with her yet, and I’d met Ruth socially a few times over the years. I was very happy to be asked to join the project and support Ruth in making the leap into directing – it was a brilliant experience and I loved working with both of them!
Can you talk us through a scene that was particularly memorable to shoot?
RG - Not so much a scene as a sequence, but the section where we’re on the runner’s face as she spins around was a really interesting learning experience for me as a director. I’d written it very descriptively in the script but it’s amazing how hard it is to get across what’s really in your head. Me and Molly did a lot of spinning each other around to illustrate this. I had a comp from Mean Streets and wanted to use a SnorriCam, that gives a drunken, out of body feel. As soon as I saw Molly wearing it to test I said no. All I could see was how awkward and heavy it was, and the time it would kill to rig it. I wanted something much more organic. And then Molly and her grip, Pete, came up with adding an extra set of bars to the hand held camera for Niamh to hold on to, and they span around together, just like we started out. It was our very last shot, the light was low, it worked beautifully and was an incredible moment and way to end our shoot.
IM - What’s always magic on films is the unexpected and with this film the fog that we ran into when we were shooting the hill sequence was something that was both scary and exciting - we didn’t know if it would work, if it would feel too strange, if we would lose it and have no continuity in the sequence, but Ruth and Molly just committed to it and made it work - and that otherworldly, edge of the universe feel which it gives the film is production value you can’t buy.
HG – We actually shot the film very close to where I live. I’ve walked around the Parkland walk a lot where we shot most of the running sequence and I love seeing it on screen. We weren’t sure for a while how to shoot Niamh running in the way Ruth envisioned without exhausting the grips, so we were so happy to discover Feral’s new rig which was designed to shoot this type of footage. It meant we were able to keep the camera moving and tracking Niamh perfectly and she could focus on performance, I think it worked brilliantly!
What did you learn from making this film that you’re keen to put into action on your next project?
RG - That it brought me joy and I can’t wait to do it again! But, seriously, to work with people you like and respect so you can really invest in your team and there’s no toxicity in the process. We are creating a language together so I think there is great value in building ongoing relationships in filmmaking. Also, my style is to bring together stylisation and realism to create an expression of a character’s internal landscape. I love the technical elements of filmmaking and how they can help you achieve this, but they take a lot of time and focus, and I need to remember not to let it get in the way of the greater point, which is capturing the emotion, however you can do that. And prepare, massively. I did it on RUN and it worked on many levels, not least, keeping me sane during the process.
IM - Yes a positive team and that sense that you are happy and lucky to be making something special together is really to be treasured. I was also inspired by the prep Molly and Ruth put in - Molly shot so much of the film with an iPhone in prep just to see how it would work and check that things would cut together, which I have never seen done before and worked amazingly for the specificity of what Ruth was trying to achieve.
HG – I agree this project taught us all the importance of having a team who are friendly, supportive and hard working as well as very talented! It could have been a very different experience, but the atmosphere on set was great. Ruth was always incredibly clear and precise with what she wanted to achieve, and I think that was also enormously helpful and surprisingly rare.
RUN has been selected for festivals including Rhode Island, Bristol Encounters, LFF for Free and Aesthetica. What kind of response have you had from the festival scene and industry?
RG - Well we just got longlisted for BIFA’s Best British Short award, which feels both really good and completely surreal, especially because it’s been so hard to have IRL screenings up ‘til this month so you have no idea how people watching it are responding. It was great to have our first festival selections but in the beginning it was all online, so sometimes it felt like it wasn’t really happening. But then we got to watch the film at Rio Dalston as part of an Encounters Roadshow screening, which I am so grateful for because of meeting other filmmakers and getting in person responses. We also had three packed screenings for our cast/crew/friends/family/industry evening in early October and it meant a lot to see people’s faces as they left the cinema because it’s such an immediate response. That’s when I could see how it impacted people and there were a lot of thought-provoking conversations that night, which is exactly why we made it. And then we got our screenings as part of the London Calling strand at LFF. That was a dream for me. As a teenager I got NFT membership as my birthday present every year so (the now) BFI Southbank is where I started one of my lifelong joys - taking myself to the cinema. To have my own film screen there was a special moment. Looking back on all of this, I think we’ve been very lucky, given the times we’re in.
IM - The festival and industry response has been great but what we are talking about now is the best way to get the film out there online to the widest possible audience. It feels important to just share it and have it be something that provokes debate.
HG – We’ve only very recently been able to share the film with a live audience, the first time at a screening organised by Encounters in London, then we were fortunate enough to be chosen to screen at 'LFF for free' alongside London Film Festival. It’s been brilliant watching it with an audience and it’s so far had a really positive response. We also found out we’ve been BIFA longlisted which is incredibly exciting! I think the film stays with people, it’s certainly making an impact and we hope it continues to do so.
What are you currently working on, and how are you navigating the Covid situation and keeping engaged and balanced?
RG - I’ve got a boxing feature, Sugar, in late-stage development with Ivana’s production company, Wild Swim, which I’m seeking to make as first feature. I’ve also got a couple of other things at concept stage that I’d like to write with the intention of directing. And The Competitors is in my back pocket as a second or third feature. Writing wise, my feature, The Origin, has just finished post and is out to festivals. And I’ve got a few other female-driven genre scripts at different stages of development including a Netflix US original slasher feature. I think the industry as a whole is learning to navigate working with Covid but even though things are opening up, the continued lack of in-room meets is tough, creatively. I’m about to go into LFF and can’t wait to spend too much time in a dark room surrounded by other people watching films.
IM - Helen and I just produced a feature with A24/BBC/BFI and Cinereach, called Tuesday, which is currently in post. And with Wild Swim we have a number of films we are putting together for next year. It feels like there is a lot happening in TV and Film but what is only really starting to happen again is actually being in a room with people - and there is no replacement for that. I think everyone is coming blinking into the light trying to figure out exactly what shape the industry is going to take post-covid, which is scary and exciting at the same time. Lots of things feel very challenging but also people have taken opportunities that only come about at times of flux, and we will start seeing the results of that soon.
HG – Yes Ivana and I have our feature Tuesday, written and directed by Daina O. Pusic, in post-production. I found it very challenging producing my first feature during the pandemic; there were so many new considerations to balance on top of the usual steep learning curve! I’ve got a number of projects in development, a couple of which I hope I can pull together to shoot next year. It’s been a really challenging time for production and exhibition but it’s really impressive how the industry has been able to continue in the circumstances. There are some great lessons we can take – on our feature shoot, the covid team ended up dealing with all sorts of crew welfare issues, which made us realise there is definitely an important place for this role going forwards which hasn’t really existed before. So even if we’re able to go back to shooting like we used to in the not too distant future, I hope there will have been some positives to come from it all.
What advice would you give to filmmakers embarking on making their short film right now?
RG - I was very lucky on my route into directing. I know it’s not that easy for most people. But once you’ve got through all the battle of financing my main advice would be: don’t work with a**holes, never forget the privilege in having a team come together to create your film, trust your instincts and enjoy yourself!
IM - Just try and speak with your own voice and remember that the short form is the hardest form there is - it’s insane that we consider short films to be “talent development” when short-form storytelling is so much more difficult than long-form. So if you’re making something people are enjoying you are nailing it!
HG – To echo Ruth and Ivana above, I’d say to be bold and ambitious with your ideas, be truthful to yourself and the stories you want to tell, and remember to enjoy the process. It’s hard to remember sometimes that being a filmmaker is a huge privilege and a very exciting job, so it’s important to have fun with it!
RUN is screening at Aesthetica Short Film Festival in November.