BFI NETWORK Case Study: Something in the Closet

Latest 23 Jun 2020

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Something in the Closet, directed by Nosa Eke

The Something in the Closet team were awarded by the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund in 2019, and their short premiered the same year at the BFI London Film Festival. It was one of the British Council’s #FiveFilmsForFreedom, an LGBTQ+ online festival garnering hundreds of thousands of views around the world.
Film London interviewed the team — co-writer/director Nosa Eke, co-writer Alex Kessie and producers Andrew Oldbury and Holly Carrington — about their creative process.
Follow Nosa Eke (@nosaferatu) on Twitter to see where the film is currently being screened online.

What was your journey into the film industry like?

Alex Kessie (writer): I was lucky enough to know early on what I wanted to do, writing. I had no idea how, but I knew I loved watching movies, and i loved reading and imagining my own stories so writing felt like a natural next step at a young age. I did all the conventional things of studying production in college and then again in University which led to opportunities doing work experience and paid freelance jobs after. It really is who you meet because almost every job since has been through someone I knew from the jobs before. If that sounds long, well it’s because it is — to be frank — for most of us, is. But i’m grateful it is because I have so much to do and contribute to this industry.

Nosa Eke (director): I think when you try to get into the industry it’s so easy to become disheartened because you don’t know the gatekeepers who hold the money and an audience to getting your work seen and made. So my philosophy for getting into the industry was to start out making my own things with friends on cameras and programs that were available and free (camera phones, DSLRs, Social media sites like YouTube, and using borrowed versions of Final Cut or Premiere Pro) as I was aware that no one was going to pay me money to anything for a while. I also wanted to mimic the journeys of filmmakers that I looked up like Justin Simien, Lena Waithe and Hiro Murai who all started out making things with their friends and available equipment and then putting their projects out on the internet utilising the fact that they know their audience has an audience. That word of mouth and sharing culture on the internet was one of the best marketing and distribution strategies as it seemed authentic and had industry figures trying to see how they could use The Culture in the same ways to push their shows or films. So I tried to mimic those strategies to drum up interest in the things I’d made and it worked out and allowed me to break into this world with my digital series on YouTube.

Holly Carrington (co-producer): I came from film theory undergraduate course where I could had the option of working with a local production company and my first ever job in film was an art assistant on a very low budget feature film and my only job was to stick posters up on the set..I quickly realised it wasn’t for me and made friends with the production team, quizzed them none stop about what their jobs were and their roles.

I loved the notion that this was the control centre of everything and asked to be considered for future jobs somehow they believed me and gave me a few jobs in production on their other productions. From there I went on to work in freelance production assistant roles learning as I went until I decided I wanted to produce where I applied for my MA in Producing. Alongside the MA I worked freelance as a producer however last year I decided to move away from freelance and set up my own production company aligning myself with filmmakers who’s stories I believe matter.

Andrew Oldbury (co-producer): I had a fairly unusual journey. Like most people I struggled to break in at first, so I actually ended up getting my first breaks by volunteering at film festivals. They were a fantastic way to meet other filmmakers and see first hand how stories were crafted. From there I was able to persuade some of them to let me try being a runner, and quickly found my skills were best described as an “insurance risk”. Fortunately, my next role was as a script researcher on Holby City where I was able to spend my days working with writers. I absolutely loved it, especially the challenge of finding new ways to tell stories when the series had been on air for over a decade by that point. The most important lesson I ever learnt there was that audience’s come to stories to feel emotion, if you aren’t delivering on that then they’ll come away feeling cheated. Since then I’ve gone on to script edit and produce for several films & TV series, but those early lessons in how to craft stories have always stayed with me.

Something in the Closet, directed by Nosa Eke

Tell us about your BFI NETWORK supported film.

Nosa: The quick version is that our film is about a queer teenager who is figuring out her sexuality while being haunted by a eerie force that resides in her closet. The idea was to make it about the personal journey to acknowledging identity and use a genre tone akin to our favourite movies growing up

What was your creative process, how did you get ready to make the film?

Nosa: I had an idea to use the phrase “come out of the closet” as the narrative device for a queer genre short and wanted to seek out collaborators who I thought would have the same sort of vision and influences. Enter Alex, Andrew, Holly and Anna (cinematographer)!

Once Alex and I had the script down, Holly and Andrew were great at helping us pull together a crew that really believed in the project. I always think it’s important to find collaborators that you would be friends with and hangout with as well as have a great working relationship with. Films are already quite a lot mentally and physically so if you’re choosing your crew, you may as well surround yourself with people you like and respect. Having Anna on board to shoot the film was pretty great, we went through the script and talked about what the emotional intent of the scenes were and how the shots we want can convey this. I did the same with Amy (costume designer) and Danielle (production designer). We had a brilliant Casting Director in Aisha Bywaters, who brought us actors we whittled down to around 20. We brought these actors into her office for group auditions. For myself and Alex, the chemistry between the girls had to be just right. As the group auditions came to an end and the mixing and matching during that casting day had revealed our entire cast apart from our lead, Madi. Alex and I were getting nervous that we wouldn’t find the right girl but Demii Lee Walker was the last to read for Madi and immediately we knew she was our person! The emotions she was able to convey while saying very little was perfect as we could play around with those subtleties on camera. We were closer to getting this film off the ground!

Alex: Nosa came to me with the concept, initial outline, mood board complete with pics of characters and I immediately saw the movie we were going to make in that instant. We vibe so well because of our shared love for genre stories, especially coming of age type movies we loved as kids. But with a non-male gaze. We both work freelance in production, so we were well versed in the importance of prep and knowing exactly what story we wanted to tell early on. We had meetings in cafes, and BFI where it felt legit (lol), where we bashed out rehashed outlines, treatments and beats. Short scenes were next, we had Skype chats and calls and emails and Google docs was a god send. It just meant we could do edits as we went along in one shared document. Constant feedback between us, with out producers and other trusted industry heads. We were lucky to gain a spot with Film London and were able to tap into their resources and knowledge in the development of our film.

Can you talk us through one of the scenes / Do you have any favourite moments from the shoot?

Holly: My favourite parts were honestly moment where I got to watch Demi Lee Walker (Madi) on the screens with the crew. The depth, love and energy she brought to Madi was electric, being able to watch her raw and honest portrayal was something we all felt blessed to see first hand.

Andrew: My favourite scene is all the girls together in the park. Even though it was the first filming day the chemistry between all the cast really shines through.

Nosa: The scene where Madi is seeing the monsters red eyes in the closet for the first time is one of my favourites. It was also shot during our most time poor day as well. Anna and I had a plan of how we wanted to shoot it with a lot of different shots but as time ticked on we just were not going to be able to achieve it. I think one of the best things you can do in prep is to shortlist the way you want to shoot and then have a backup shotlist with your AD that brings out the bare minimum shots you’ll need for the same scene and that conveys the same things but takes less time to shoot. I’m happy with how it all looks now more so than the way we planned for it to look. Anna and I went for a lot of push ins to covey the realisations and the urgency of the moment she’s experiencing and I think it turned out exactly how we imagined. Also hearing the response to it in screenings is quite fun!

Alex: I was on set mainly to show support. It was just a pleasure to see everything we had been talking about for over a year, and working on for months come together in such a collaborative way. Everyone had a job that was so beyond what I did because without them we couldn’t have the final film. I love that. Just standing back hearing the chaos snap into silence, the clapper and the actors read our lines — I’m extremely grateful for that moment.

What was the most challenging scene to shoot, can you walk us through how you overcame that?

Andrew: There were several scenes that had a lot of VFX in them, which can always be tricky and time consuming to film. Luckily we had a phenomenal VFX Supervisor Aleksandra Czenczek involved who was able to break the process down and worked closely with Nosa & our cinematographer Anna to carefully plan each shot.

Nosa: We used a mix of practical and VFX throughout the film and so this required quite a bit of choreography between our production designer and her assistant who were sat inside the closet out of view for a large portion of the shoot and were in charge of turning the red eyes on and off in the closet and shaking the closet doors respectively. Even our wonderful 1st AD Ben Hunter chipped in at some points, handling fishing wire to pull the closet doors closed. `

What’s the best thing you did (or thing you wish you did) on the first day of shooting?

Nosa: I made sure to go up to the crew I was working with and tell them that I really appreciated them giving over their time and expertise to make the film we wanted to make. I think cultivating a good environment where people feel comfortable is always super important to me and conducive to a great dialogue between you and your teammates which are the crew. Also one of the best things about day 1 was getting to know our script supervisor Giuditta (Nicknamed The G) who’s personality was a joy for everyone to be around and her eagle eye saved us on many an occasion.

Why do you feel stories like this are important?

Holly: We are still sorely lacking in feel good LGBTQ films at the moment and with Closet we really wanted to portray a young queer black girl who, at the end of her journey, although she doesn’t get her crush, it is a happy ending and she is able to find peace in accepting her sexuality and who she is. Also, we wanted to show a story through a genre that historically was not queer, turn it on its head and have some fun with it.

Andrew: I think Shonda Rhimes explained it best when she said that she isn’t trying to “diversify” the shows she’s writing, but instead normalise the world she see’s every day. LGBTQIA characters have been forgotten about or marginalised in cinema. There’s a worrying habit of reducing LGBTQI characters to stereotypes or something to be feared, and its vital that we reverse this trend by allowing filmmakers who identify as LGBTQI to bring their stories to life in their own voice.

Alex: Everyone deserves to tell stories and have their voices heard, represented and shared. Now more than ever theres a sort of renaissance in who has access and agency over the sort of stories that people want to see. I honestly believe art can change lives and storytelling has done and always will do that. This ticks many boxes, we’re aware of that — we also don’t apologise for it because its been a long time coming — and despite what we’ve been conditioned to believe, there will always be people who want to hear/see them.

Nosa: I wanted to tell a queer story with a WOC but the fact that she’s black was not the focus of the film, as often, as a black filmmaker I feel that talking about race in my films is what is expected of me. I think it’s important to me to show the nuances of being a person of colour and that all stories are valid. I also feel like seeing more POC in genre stories is important as that’s what myself and my friends would have loved to see growing up.

How are you navigating the Covid situation and keeping engaged and balanced?

Holly: It has been a struggle, I was due to shoot a film I have been working on for over a year a week after lockdown was announced but ultimately there isn’t much any of us can do, I try to find some freedom in that, in that this is the best thing for all of us and overall it is a very small period of time to wait really! I have been trying my best to not push or force myself to be creative or productive and let it come naturally, I’ve found that has been the best thing for keeping me balanced and free of guilt!

Andrew: I really struggled in the first few weeks. I’d been due to start filming a TV series the day of lockdown, so suddenly found myself having to change all my plans for the next six months on the spot. What’s really helped me is trying to limit the amount of news I watch each day, taking a break from social media and focusing on looking after myself. It’s really easy to forget that last bit, but even taking a few days out to recharge does wonders for your creativity, rather than constantly trying to force yourself to be productive

Alex: Personally, it’s meant there’s been time to take stock and reevaluate my journey and what’s next. I’ve been kind to myself — delving back into enjoying watching and reading movies and scripts. There’s been a great amount of film industry related webinars too which have been great source of inspiration and motivation. But really just doing bits to remember why I love what I do.

Nosa: It’s been hard as I feel like going out into the world was great for getting inspiration and also letting your mind breathe a bit. It’s also easy to feel like because you have all of this time, you should be more focused on coming up with ideas but it’s also having the opposite effect on me some days. To feel more balanced, I’m giving myself a break on days where I feel super unproductive, opting to do something else that is not film or tv related at all. I’ve also been working my way down the watchlist and have just finished DEV’s, which was beautifully shot and mind boggling.

Something in the Closet, directed by Nosa Eke

What advice would you give to other filmmakers embarking on making their film right now?

Holly: Read as many scripts and watch as many films and series as you can, especially the films/series of which you really love. Think about what kind of films you want to make and why, do you love certain genres or is it certain themes you want to explore? Use this time to explore you as a filmmaker and find where that puts you as it’ll help you find collaborators. Do your research, it will help you the most when coming to make your own films too.

Andrew: I know it may feel like a really bleak time at the moment and that things won’t ever return to normal, but this will all pass. Our creativity often responds best to challenge. What’s really exciting is the number of new stories that we have to tell and how the industry as a whole has come together to support one another.

Alex: Even if you cant see the woods for the trees now, keep going. Tap into as many of your resources as possible, friends, family, acquaintances — and just keep it moving. You’re going to have a finished film at the end of it and you’re probably going to hate it by then but before you inevitably get to that point — really get to know and understand what everyone is doing, what you like and don’t like so you can take that on to the next.

Nosa: I also always tell people to approach people they like the work of even if that is to just grab coffee with them and pick their brains. Don’t be shy about it — if you don’t ask, you won’t get! Cultivating relationships with figures in the industry early on is definitely helpful and more often than not senior industry figures are willing to help up and coming talent. Make sure you’re specific about what advice you need from them and your career direction if you’re asking them to carve out some time from their schedules. You can reach out over social media or in person.

What happened after you made the film — what kind of response did you get from the festival scene and industry?

Holly: We received really great response from the all the screenings, a lot from the LGBTQ young audience which was so great to see. We screened at BFI Flare part of the 5 films of Freedom and it was a proud day to be a part of that. We actually have heard from a lot of girls that the film really helped them which, if I’m honest is all you make these kinds of films for really!

Andrew: The film had its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival which was a really special moment for all of us. We’ve all grown up attending the festival, so to have own film shown on the big screen as part of it was something we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. Since then we’ve had a fantastic response from the industry and other festivals. Whilst the corona virus has meant a lot of festivals are questioning whether to go online or postpone for a year, we’re planning to keep supporting the film and helping bring it to audiences around the world.

What’s next for you?

Holly: I’m currently due to shoot a short film when lockdown lifts and working towards my first feature but I’m currently working on a slate of features and TV series at Diploid Productions aiming to get back into production as soon as I can.

Andrew: I’m currently developing several new projects, so can’t wait to get back to filming once the lockdown is lifted.

Alex: Planning my next writing projects with some guidance from some industry colleagues. Think having our short film do the rounds in festivals and be well received has bolstered what I expect from myself. Ultimately that is to keep getting better, keep telling stories and keep working with talented people

Nosa: I’m currently in development on my feature film with the BFI and also writing a choose your own adventure film on social media with a production company.

Behind the Scenes: Notes on the Script

These script images offer a breakdown of how the team worked with notes for Scene 8 (Screenshot №1 & Screenshot №2) after a Film London development session with Angeli Macfarlane (development producer):

The two screenshots show sides from one of the scenes the team ended up amending (pink amends) just before production. They had notes back that they needed to maybe drive home Madi and Camille’s relationship at such a fragile moment for Madi and for the audiences, they could perhaps empathise on a more visceral level because we don’t see what has happened in the scene prior.

The initial version cheated them and Demi who played Madi, from experiencing her fear of feeling ostracised and like an ‘other’. So we added dialogue, mean-spirited, funny dialogue that only Esme could say. But having Camille be part of that was important. We needed to see that she’s still a young teen who makes mistakes and isn’t the perfect vision Madi’s fallen for. We had these circulated to cast and crew before shooting.