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TRANSMISSION bubbles. The short film twists you around and gets in your belly as well as your head.
“We wanted to make a film that people wanted to watch again immediately, or at least, never fully forgot.”
I’m talking to the writing/directing duo of Varun Raman and Tom Hancock. The line keeps crackling and cutting out – possibly a portent that is depicted in their film which feels set, almost Max Headroom-like, 20 minutes into the future. What the airwaves can’t disrupt is the enthusiasm and energy of Varun and Tom.
When they wrote the script (back in pre-Brexit land) they imagined the setting to be a world 25 years – not minutes – in the future. The catchline to TRANSMISSION is ‘Welcome To Britannia. Together We Stand Alone’.
“We were writing something that we thought was a reflection of the political landscape at the time, which was basically running on fear and hatred in order to get people to willingly reduce their civil liberties.
“We were writing about a Britain that was becoming increasingly isolated from the world. It was set 25 years into the future, playing with the idea that Britain has built a wall around itself.
“We don’t think things can ever get that bad. It would be nice to be more optimistic, but I guess that’s the reason anyone makes a dystopian film, it’s a reflection of the current times – exaggerated to say that that’s our future if we’re all not careful.”
After a time on radio Tom and Varun decided their future was in film, and cut their teeth on a number of short films before making TRANSMISSION the film on which they’d hang their filmmaking hats. The film took 18 months to make with each location shoot staggered in an attempt to save money and make the most out of their resources. (And along the way they got a commission from Blue Shadow Films for another screenplay.)
It was actor James who mentioned to Tom and Varun an idea that could sum up the film. In one of their first rehearsals he told them of that aphorism that you are only ever two meals away from anarchy.
“If you and your family can’t get lunch and you can’t find dinner, you’ll wake up the next day and you’ll do things that you would never have done the day before.
“It’s really simple and really concisely put – that’s the kind of warning we’re trying to get over to people. And it is very important to really consider the consequences.”
James’ comment also points to one of the beauties of TRANSMISSION – how collaborative the whole process was. How bought-into the project cast and crew became, each bringing their own interpretation and vision of the story.
“We had two different crews, for the interior and exteriors, which were shot six months apart. And it’s reassuring to know that some people know the film inside and out. The actors were massive collaborators as well and gave us big ins on the story.
“In the beginning you don’t know how many interpretations there are so it’s good to get people to help you.”
Varun and Tom first encountered Michael Shon five years ago.
“We met him initially on a small filmmaking course called the National Youth Film Academy in Manchester in 2012. Michael stood out because he had possibly the heaviest set of eyes, as if he was carrying some burden, some sort of pain that had yet to be unleashed.
“James, we got through our associate producer Ian Pons Jewell. He made a music video with James called Disappoint You, where he played a horrible policeman bullying people on an estate in London. James always struck us as a very physical actor, and very playful as well.”
The relationship between the two actors has maintained, with Michael and James working together in other projects, the plays A Lesson from Auschwitz and Magic Circle.
Tom and Varun cast Kelby, as a counterpoint to the Leonard character.
“It was a really important role. She means a lot to Leonard and it changes where the story goes.”
Tom and Varun talk about ‘guardian angels’ when they describe the cast and crew, one of which is associate producer Ian Pons Jewell.
“He’s a big music video director, probably Britain’s biggest at the moment. He turns out interesting music videos and commercials. He’s so generous with his time he got us a lot of trust from a lot of very good crew. And he was excited about the film, which helped.”
While Ian was helping with the shape of Transmission, the look was from DOP Thomas Shawcroft.
“A lot of people say they want to be the best at what they’re doing, but Thomas Shawcroft genuinely does want to be the best. He’s incredibly motivated. He ponders all the different questions you want a good cinematographer to think of. He tests everything, and he’s obsessed with lighting.
“Apart from how professional he is and his incredible approach, he just lights you up as well.”
The pair were lucky enough to firm up that understanding by Thomas living with them during a crucial part of the filming.
“We had a spare room for a little bit because our house was a state and nobody would live with us in that room.”
It worked out, with beautiful, elegant and luscious shots on 35mm.
“In terms of colour palette we wanted harsh blues and greens with an occasional pop of colour – that’s why we went for Fuji film stock – we were shooting on Fuji film that is no longer produced and possibly some of the last of it.”
When you ask about inspirations Tom and Varun reel off a roll call of directors and films, citing what aspect of their work influenced them, some of which include: Kubrick, Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Requiem for a Dream, The Twilight Zone.
“For the editing style we were riffing on a Czechoslovakian film called The Cremator. It had this really crazy way of editing and seamlessly moving from one situation to another.”
They also mention Russian film Come and See “probably the most horrific film we’ve seen on the effects of war. I don’t think I’ve seen anything as horrible as that.”
The pair return to reference David Lynch with their approach to sound, because ‘he likes his films loud’.
“We wanted sound to convey the traumatised perspective of Leonard, the prisoner. It’s a direct link from the subject into the mind of the audience. It was also giving sense of the physical space – we wanted to make it feel as if this was one room of many in the bowels of this building, to make you sense that this is happening on a wider scale.”
“He walked in with a brief and a graph, with all these sounds of canaries and how he’s manipulated the sounds to make it sound like these horrible drones. The book that Dr Sam is holding up, The Day the Canary Stopped Singing, is a bit of a play on words on Canary Wharf and the financial crash and how a lot of things turned upside down.
“The canary itself is a warning sign, and the whole film is supposed to be a warning against complacency and disconnection. The fact that it’s got canary sounds throughout the whole film is hopefully one of the many ways of unsettling the audience.
“We tried to do a lot of things subconsciously and add them all up – the culmination is the aim to leaving audiences questioning their society and how we could avoid getting to a place like that.”
There are two locations in the film. A repressive cell-type room and an open lake and surrounding greenery.
“Naomi and Elliot at Colston Hall were really understanding. It’s a place that soaks up light and you can feel the history of the building – you can feel a lot of pain and sadness.”
It was also ideal in terms of shape and colour, allowing the flexibility to create the a cellar that is the opposite, yet tied to, their external location – Dartmoor’s Burrator.
“In terms of Burrator, we spent months looking for the right lake or reservoir. We lost hope and then we found Burrator, which was perfect for us.”
And, with the help of people from the South West Lakes Trust, they were able to use it and some of its sub locations to ‘let the film breathe a little’. There’s the added bonus of depth to the shots, and a colour scheme which matched that of Room Zero.
Tom and Varun were back in the South West for the Plymouth Film Festival, which they couldn’t praise highly enough in terms of programming and the other filmmakers they met.
Transmission will be making it’s international premiere at one of the biggest genre festivals in the world, Fantasia in Montreal in July.
The pair have plenty of projects and plans for the future, but right now their focus is on Transmission and its ongoing and enduring impact.
“The aim was to try to make a film that lasts a bit longer.”