BFI NETWORK Case Study: Martha

Latest 20 May 2021

News Story

We interviewed the team behind Martha, a short in which a teenager awakes to discover she’s the last person on earth. We caught up with the team to find out more about their creative vision and their filmmaking process. You can watch Martha here.

Follow producer Alexandra Blue (@alexandrablue4) on Twitter for updates on Martha and its distribution.

This case study contains potential spoilers for Martha.

What was your journey into the film industry like?

Christopher Haydon (Director) - I have spent most of my career working as a theatre director. But my interest in film began when my partner (Iona, who wrote Martha!) Went to the National Film and Television School (NFTS) to train as a cinematographer. I learnt so much from her about how movies work – why one shot looks good and another doesn’t – that I developed a strong desire to make my own films. Our first collaboration was on a film called In Wonderland which was funded through London Calling. It was one of the most challenging but exciting things I have done – it feels so different from directing a play! So I completely got the bug.

Alexandra Blue (Producer) - I had always loved film, but never realised it was actually a viable career option for me. I didn’t study film, but discovered the short filmmaking community at university and started volunteering on anything that was going. It’s been a long journey – I started out assistant directing on shorts, before moving into producing my short films. At the same time I was working for a funding body, then worked as a post production producer, before moving into development. Three years ago I left my full time development role to focus on producing my own slate. It’s been a fun ride, and all of my experiences have contributed to making me the best producer I can be.

Iona Firouzabadi (Writer) - When I graduated from uni I got a job as a junior researcher at ITV – so I started out working in factual television. Working in docs had never been an ambition of mine, but it seemed like a way into an industry that otherwise I had no access to. I worked my way up to shooting director and had credits on some serious programmes, but I also spent time working in reality TV, which I ended up hating. A lot of it just felt pointless and morally dirty. So then I went on a bit of a journey. First I set up my own small company shooting and editing promos and art films. Then I realised I might have enough of a showreel to apply to the National Film and Television School – so I went through the X Factor-esque three day workshop to get on to the Cinematography MA and was surprised and excited to be offered a place. What was amazing was how supportive all the applicants were of each other, crewing for each other, giving genuinely helpful advice to make each other’s work stronger. And that was something that followed through to the course itself. It was an intense, fun, often stressful two years with great people. And I learnt so much, not just about Cinematography in isolation, but about film and filmmaking as a whole. After graduating I slowly realised that writing was what I wanted to do, not shooting, and things have gone from there.

Tell us about your BFI NETWORK – supported film.

IF - I always say Martha is the coming of age story of a teenage girl – but not everyone agrees that’s its genre! It’s definitely not a straightforward coming of age drama. It has a large element of reality-bending. It is in part based on a tragic accident that happened in my family back in the 90’s, but it’s also a very image driven film and one of the first images that came into my head when writing it was of a teenager getting ready for her birthday and dancing to 80’s electro, then she goes out into the city and we discover she’s the only person there. And the essence of that image ended up being part of the final film.

CH -Martha is the story of a 17-year-old girl who wakes up one day to discover she is the last person left on earth. It’s a thriller with a melancholic edge and a really compelling, reality-distorting, concept at its heart. We wanted to make a film that went to the heart of one girl’s experience but which was also an exercise in ambitious world building – the creation of a completely empty landscape with a dreamlike aesthetic.

Tell us about your experience with the BFI NETWORK Short Film Team. What did you learn?

AB - For emerging filmmakers, learning how to work with a funding body is a really important experience. The process of taking on board feedback, how to address notes, figuring out what things to fight for and what to compromise on – are all essential skills for moving forward without film careers. It’s great that the BFI NETWORK team was so supportive throughout.

IF - The script development workshops were great! I really enjoyed working with Angeli MacFarlane. But the whole team was warm and great. And I knew Jo Cadoret a bit from London Calling, as I’d had a previous short supported through that Film London programme. At the end of the whole process it was amazing to be offered a showcase at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival – what could be better than screening in such a prestigious place and in your hometown!

CH - This is the second film we have made with the BFI (after In Wonderland). The experience has been a hugely positive one – the workshops we did through London Calling were a real eye opener for me (as I have no formal film training) and the rigorous development process for Martha really gave me the opportunity to explore every aspect of the script and to interrogate every decision.

What was your creative process, how did you get ready to make the film as a Writer/Director/Producer?

IF - Initially my process involved writing and redrafting the script – having people read it and give feedback and then redrafting again. I also like to create very visual treatments – that’s almost part of the writing process for me – and for Martha I also cut a short mood-reel. Once the script and other documents felt complete enough to send out into the world, the next stage was looking for an awesome producer to collaborate with – and luckily we found Alex! Once you have a producer everything gets real. She suggested I cut what was ultimately an unnecessary location and amalgamate some scenes. We then went through the funding application and development process. And once you’re in pre-production, finding locations changes how you imagine some scenes. So the practicality of filmmaking impacts the purely imaginative side of screenwriting. For instance, we changed scenes that happened in a park to happening on a rooftop car park.

AB - Chris and Iona approached me with a draft for Martha and a look book – and I was immediately drawn into the world they wanted to create. We did some development work as a team, and then went through the development process with the BFI – until we had a draft we all knew was ready to shoot. I worked with Chris to find our key creative collaborators – our cast, our DP, production designer, costume designer, editor and composer. It was a combination of people we had worked with before, and new relationships – it was important that we found people who shared our passion and vision. I also worked hard to secure the best deals and as many favours as possible to ensure what was on screen looked incredible, for the limited budget we had available.

CH - Iona and I worked very closely together on preparing every aspect of the film. Often, when we would be location scouting in the months before the shoot, we would use that time to keep talking about and honing the script. We workshopped the script with actors – including Shannon (who plays Martha and for whom the script was specifically written). I then worked with my DoP Aaron to do an extensive shot list. I had been keeping a note of all the relevant images/shots/ideas I had seen in any film or TV show that I had been watching in the 18 months running up to the shoot so we had lots of reference points. Of course, when it comes to actually making the film some of these references remain useful while many others get thrown out as you improvise on the day!

Page counts are nonsense. I learnt that prosaic lesson! We had a 14 page script – it was never going to be a 14 minute film.

Iona Firouzabadi (Writer)

MARTHA seems to cover very human experiences of growing up as a teenager, love and then loss. Where did these inspirations come from? What particular areas of the project brought you all on to create the film MARTHA?

IF - As I mentioned, Martha is partly based on something that happened in my own family. But beyond that I’m not sure. I think I just like stories that play with notions of what is real and what is not. I like the ideas in films like 12 Monkeys, La Jetee, Blade Runner and some of Charlie Kaufman’s films – stuff that looks at life and memory. And I love Gregory Crewdson’s large scale, cinematic photos – where you feel something spooky and tragic is either just about to walk into the room or has just left.

AB - I’m very drawn to stories about grief, having lost my Dad when I was young – so the themes Martha explored really connected with me. Short films are an insane amount of work, so I really have to love the story to come on board – and with Martha I knew it was a story I wanted to share with the world.

CH - The story was Iona’s idea – partly inspired by events that had happened to a member of her family. I had worked with Shannon in theatre before and was keen to collaborate with her again – so she was very much an inspiration for the film. I am also a real fan of post-apocalyptic films and so I was excited to tell a story that looked at the world through the prism of one very personal, very private apocalypse.

Why do you feel stories like this are important?

IF - I think Chris and Alex answer this better. What they said.

AB - Stories help us come to terms with our fears, to feel empathy, and to process things that may have happened to us. As Chris says, grief and growing up are universal – and therefore sharing stories about them is important. Martha lets us know that it’s okay to feel grief, and it’s okay to grow up.

CH - The story deals with two key themes: growing up and death. For most people, these two things (fortunately) happen very far apart in their lives. But they book end our whole experience and therefore understanding them is essential to understanding what it is to be human.

What are you hoping for audiences to get out of this film when they watch ‘Martha’?

CH - I hope their reaction will be primarily an emotional one – going from joy to grief. The film has made me reflect on the ways we construct and understand reality around us and so it would be great if it was able to spark similar thoughts in our audience.

AB - I want people to really relish in the mystery of the world, but also to connect with Martha’s emotional journey. I would also like people to be impressed by the lack of cars on the streets, the car crash, and the tracking shots – because these were challenging things to achieve and we worked very hard on them!

IF - I hope they feel like they’ve been on a big journey in a short space of time. I hope they feel the chilly sense of loss, but also a sense of resolution. I hope they enjoy the world we’ve made. (And just to follow up on what Alex says – this was shot before Covid, so empty streets are quite an achievement!)

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

IF - It was lovely seeing certain images come to life – even really simple things like the opening shot of Anastasia Hille sitting in the hospital corridor holding the red balloon. Other small things other people might not notice include the way Julie (editor) constructed the jump-cut dancing sequence from just one take. The way Aaron’s (DP) handheld camera tilts and sits up in bed with Martha when we first see her. The sequin jacket Lex (costume designer) put Martha in for the car park roof scene – it catches the light so well and says stuff about the character. The cars that are no longer there because Dupe VFX removed them!

CH - I love the shot where Martha is running as fast as she can in a panic up the middle of the road and we/the camera zoom off in front of her making it feel like the whole world is expanding around her. It was completely improvised on the day – we had a tracking vehicle for the cycling shots and we decided to use it to get a quick shot of Martha just running into the middle of the street and stopping. When she then started running towards us Aaron told the driver to accelerate and we suddenly got this amazing shot. I wasn’t sure how we would use it initially but my editor Julie did a great job of fitting it in and using the little jump cuts in the shot to get the rhythm just right.

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

CH - The car crash was probably the most challenging but – it was very time consuming on an already packed day and obviously we had lots of safety things to consider as well as getting the shot and performance right. There was then an extra challenge in that our monitors kept malfunctioning so I couldn’t see what we were recording! I had to watch playback on the camera after each take which slowed things down even more…

Stories help us come to terms with our fears, to feel empathy, and to process things that may have happened to us.

Alexandra Blue (Producer)

What was one lesson you would say you learnt on this particular project?

IF - Page counts are nonsense. I learnt that prosaic lesson! We had a 14 page script – it was never going to be a 14 minute film. We had to cut a lot of Martha’s mother (played by the marvellous Anastasia Hille) from the film to make the story tighter and to make it fit anywhere close to the BFI’s stipulation for duration. When you write a lot of description rather than dialogue (Martha is very light on dialogue – it’s mainly a visually told story) 1 page does not equal 1 minute. Also, the page a minute thing is based on American printing sizes not UK A4 anyway. There are obviously lots of other things I learnt, but this is the first that popped into my head and it’s quite a useful, generally applicable one to mention, so I’m sticking with it!

CH - Don’t try and pack too much into one day! It’s worth raising a bit of extra money to allow for more time so that you don’t end up going completely insane trying to get a million shots in a single day.

AB - I learnt a lot about problem solving and how to manage situations when things go wrong. This was a really ambitious film, and the combination of ambition and small budget always provides challenges. There were a few things that happened during the shoot that really tested me, but having a team around you that trusts you makes all of the difference.

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

IF - Be ambitious. Be imaginative. Write something that is filmic – not something that would be better as a short story or radio play. Tell a story you’re excited by. Remember it’s an amazing thing to get to make a film so enjoy the whole process, even the stressful bits (there will be stressful bits!). As a writer – get on set, get into the edit. See how it all comes together and learn from that. Find a great producer and a director who is collaborative.

CH - Try to develop a really analytical eye with everything you watch. If you see a shot or a sequence that you love then really take the time to find out why it works – perhaps ask a DoP or editor who you know to explain why something works in the way that it does. And there are loads of ways to learn more about the craft – podcasts from The Director’s Guild, Indiewire, Script notes, Roger Deakins and so on are all worth listening to.

AB - Be bold! And try as hard as you can to achieve your vision, even if it’s ambitious. Chris, Iona and I made our lives a lot harder by not backing down on things we wanted for the film – but it is always worth it in the end!

How are you navigating the COVID-19 situation and keeping engaged and balanced?

IF - Haha! I am so bored right now. But, basically I’ve taken this past year to write a TV pilot, two shorts (one of which was shot last summer) and start a feature treatment. And I’ve also been looking after my little boy – the start of Covid overlapped with my maternity leave anyway.

CH - Well, I am the artistic director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, so I have been pretty busy making sure everything keeps ticking over there. But I was also very lucky to shoot a short film in August with students at LAMDA – it was great to actually be able to make something during this awful time.

AB - I have quite strict routines that I’ve developed throughout this time, and oddly that has meant I am actually looking after myself better than I ever have before. I’ve become more protective of my downtime and doing things for me – which ultimately benefits my work – I can be more creative, calm and effective as a producer when I am in a good place physically and emotionally.

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

IF - We got into several great festivals internationally and 2020 started really well for me – I got signed to Independent Talent and I was named in the Evening Standard as a Film London Lodestar. Then of course COVID happened!

AB - It was wonderful to screen at high calibre festivals (as Chris has mentioned). Iona also received a Film London Lodestar award and secured an agent off the back of Martha (Chris was already represented). We are all moving on to work to develop feature and tv projects, and I can’t wait to see what comes to fruition!

CH - We’ve had a great response from festivals and have been selected for about a dozen so far including: LFF, Flickers Road Island, LA Shorts and Foyle. I was also approached about directing a feature film by a producer who saw In Wonderland and Martha – so that is exciting and we are fundraising for that at the moment.

What’s next for you?

IF - Getting my TV pilot out there and hopefully finding development funding for a feature. And just keep writing.

AB - I’m financing two features at the moment, and developing another with BFI. I’ve also started a TV slate, and am co-developing a project with the producers of I May Destroy You. I’m also taking part in the BFI Insight scheme, and have been attending lots of film markets on Zoom – I can’t wait for things to go back to in person so that I can drink rosé in Cannes again and call it work!

CH - As well as the feature I mentioned above, I am working with Iona on a feature project that she is developing as well. And I have a bunch of theatre projects in the works which have been somewhat delayed by COVID!

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