Q&A with Toby-Fell Holden

Toby-Fell Holden won the London Calling Plus Award in 2015 with his short film Balcony. Since then, the film has picked up awards at Flickerfest, Calgary Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival and Dinard British Film Festival. With a Crystal Bear win at Berlin, the film has also made the Academy Awards longlist.

He was named as one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow, and was selected to go through the BFI’s ground-breaking NET.WORK@LFF professional development programme.

Tell us about your work/career as a filmmaker before you made a London Calling short.

I had graduated from film school at Columbia a year before applying to London Calling, and was juggling freelance film work alongside a few screenwriting jobs.

Why did you enter London Calling?

I had been sitting on a short script I’d always wanted to make but didn’t have the resources, nor had I yet worked out how to tell the story. It had been many years since I had made a short in the UK and I wanted to set the story in a world I was more familiar with than the USA and start to build relationships back home again.

Tell us about the short film you made and why you wanted to make it?

I had been wanting to tell a story about a character who plays with your perception through voiceover, that explored issues of race and projection onto the ‘other.’ The previous films had touched upon these issues and stylistic approaches, but this script combined what had been building for a while in a way that seemed current and relevant, now seemed like the right time to tackle the material.

How did the development process help you?

It was really useful to hear different viewpoints and sensibilities from the Film London development execs. It helped us balance the tone of the script to give the story more highs and lows for the audience, and through shaping it this way, ultimately made the film much more impactful.

What was the most important thing you learned through the London Calling process?

How the success of the film is really dependent on what takes place before the actual shoot - the development of the script, the casting, finding the right creative collaborators. If you get these elements right, a lot of the work is already done!

Did you have a mentor and how did they help you through the process?

Yes, we had a mentor session with Guy Myhill who gave some really great advice on working with the actors – which made me much more aware of which moments had the greatest tension within a scene. He also made some really helpful suggestions to establish certain visuals early to set the space and geography of the world, and imply tension and danger, before we reached the final scene.

Do you have any favourite moments from the shoot?

There’s a big crowd scene towards the end of the film and we had very little time to catch it before the sun set. I remember there was a rush to grab clean audio of the angry mob’s shouts, so our sound recordist suddenly had them all go nuts screaming every obscenity they could imagine in the centre of a green surrounded by flats. People were watching from their windows wondering what an earth was going on. The roar of the crowd was deafening, much louder than I expected – it was one of those surreal movie moments where you realise what we do can often seem a bit crazy!

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

It’s been an amazing journey with Balcony – it was nominated for a BIFA, which led to me signing with agents at Sayle Screen. It also won a Crystal Bear in Berlin and a few other accolades which has put it on the Academy Award long-list. The awards have helped bring a few directing job offers and opened some exciting doors with development executives in London and the USA.

How has the whole experience helped you as a filmmaker?

Balcony was quite an ambitious short, on a scale I’d not tackled before. Seeing it through has given me the confidence to take on larger projects and to be more bold with the stories I wish to tell.

What advice would you give to anyone making a short film?

See your projects through to the end, regardless of whether you receive additional funding or not. You have to keep making films and getting your work out there, there’s always a way now to make a cheap version. A film like Tangerine is a good example of how great a film can be with almost no budget! It’s inspiring what can be done now.