Intelligent Life is a film about hope, scepticism and growing up in a Somerset town. We caught up with director Paddy Earle to ask what attracted him to looking for extra terrestrials in the South West
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D&CFilm: Intelligent Life is a sci-fi comedy which follows Cybil and Hammond in their pursuit for the extra terrestrial. Plenty of creative endevours take their inspiration from the contemporary world – was this the case with Intelligent Life, and if not where did the idea come from?
Paddy Earle: I wish that I could say that it’s some super nifty social allegory but I don’t think I’m clever enough to come up with something like that.
I grew up on a steady diet of Spielberg movies as so many of us do. I’d spend most of my time ingesting films like E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters or the Indiana Jones series and then go and replicating those adventures with my sisters and chums out in the Somerset countryside. Whether that be climbing trees, building dens or chucking algae at each other in the local stream.
All these movies are, at their heart, deeply personal films but told with the scope and scale of a blockbuster. So I wanted to try and see if I could achieve something similar with a tiny budget. A story about a pair of siblings dealing with what, as a kid, always felt like life’s biggest threat: having to “grow up”.
All the while, this grand extra-terrestrial backdrop just looms over the benign Somerset countryside.
D&CFilm: What other films would you compare Intelligent Life from – where do you get your cinematic comedy cues from?
Paddy Earle: It’s almost become a cliché to be a young filmmaker and reference Edgar Wright as an influence but it’d simply be a lie to not do so.
Editing is such a crucial element of comedy filmmaking, never more so than in his Cornetto Trilogy, so when I wrote the script I made sure that even the transitions (e.g. Hammond’s groan into cow moo) and title card placement squeezed a gag out somehow. Whether they all work is another question but there’s no harm in trying, is there?
It’s also kind of impossible to have a comedy that takes place in the West Country and not think of Hot Fuzz.
When I wrote and shot the film though, I wasn’t trying to directly replicate anyone else’s brand of comedy. I just did what I thought was funny and hopefully began to carve out my own comedic voice but, of course, you can’t help but learn from other movies and TV shows what exactly it is that makes you chuckle.
D&CFilm: What difficulties did you face creating the world of Intelligent Life and making the film – I’m thinking mostly about the alien?
Paddy Earle: Surprisingly, the Alien wasn’t the toughest part. The Production Designer, Ines Sena, designed the most beautiful creature for the film and amazingly we were able to replicate it practically via a friend I’d worked with on a previous short, Theo Salisbury. He created a latex mask and full body suit that was then glued and painted onto the face of our extremely patient actor, Mike Davies, before we shoved him out into the cold in what was essentially just his pants. Poor chap.
We had planned the shoot so thoroughly beforehand that the actual logistics of it were pre-handled by our Producer whizz, Carolina Felix, as to avoid any hiccups or setbacks on set.
Obviously you can’t plan for everything but looking back on the shoot, the biggest hardship was dealing with the intense cold! We shot during what happened to be the coldest week of the year. Lugging equipment up and down Burrow Hill and across muddy country fields day and night against primetime a-hole, Jack Frost, was not fun. Although, aside from my flimsy immune system slacking off meaning I got the flu on the first day, the cast and crew all dealt with it brilliantly.
Though I can’t help reflecting and asking “Why oh why did you decide to write so many exterior scenes for a film you knew we’d shoot in February, you absolute plum!?”.
D&CFilm: You mention the film is by ‘Paddy and friends’, how did you come across your team – cast and crew?
Paddy Earle: I met all the crew through university. I’d collaborated with the two cinematographers, Alia El Sewedy and Elyssa Tawil, before a few times so we already had a good working relationship, but the rest of the crew I’d never worked with.
However, I’d loved their previous work and was lucky enough that they liked the script and agreed to come aboard. It was such a massive bonus that everyone got on well with one another, creating the best on set atmosphere I’d experienced.
The actors who played the Mother and Keith Farrow (Liz Whiting and Malcolm Ward) were old friends of my Mum. I knew Mike Davies (Alien) from a previous short we’d made and I’d seen Anna Wheatley and Jim Rastall who played Cybil and Hammond in stage productions that my cousin Emma Earle had directed, so got in contact with them once the script was polished.
Luckily, Anna and Jim knew each other prior to the film so already had that sibling chemistry which meant their comedic patter was always on the same natural rhythm that you only really experience with your close family. They had the whole crew cracking up constantly. There’s actually an improvised take we never used where Cybil pushes Hammond over on the Hill and he struggles to get up due to his oversized rucksack. It was one of the best bits of physical comedy I’d seen in a while. He dragged it out perfectly from “it’s funny” to “now it’s not” to “oh no, wait, yes it is!”. I was in hysterics in the edit.
D&CFilm: This is your third production – tell us about the other two.
Paddy Earle: I made a short documentary a few years ago (with the same cinematographers as Intelligent Life in fact) called Dead Girl. It was an exploration of taxiderimst Tonja Grung’s relationship to her craft, life, death etc.
I’d never really known about taxidermy as an art form, much less heard about it from someone who properly adores it, so it was truly an enlightening filmmaking experience for me. But definitely not for the squeamish. Very proud of that little film.
The other production was for another sci-fi comedy I wrote called STEP, about a hapless employee who works, somewhat unsuccessfully, for a dodgy time-travel organisation. Currently in the process of expanding that into a series so I shan’t spill too many beans.
D&CFilm: You’ve already picked up a highest commendation from the London-Worldwide Comedy Short Film Festival and you’ve got a screening at Two Short Nights, what do you plan for the film?
Paddy Earle: Just hope to pinball it around more festivals, get more people to see it, do some sweet, sweet networking and see where on earth that takes me! Driving with my trusty friend ‘post-graduation blind optimism’ in the driver’s seat there.
D&CFilm: Intelligent Life was your graduation film – what’s next for you, too?
Paddy Earle: I have a gaggle of scripts that I’m working on which I hope to get made soon, so I can get out from behind my laptop screen and back behind the camera. Expect to see some desperate crowdfunding noise echoing from my direction…
Intelligent Life is at the Local Talent screening at the Exeter Phoenix during the Two Short Nights fest . (Tickets for the local talent screening have sold out but you can be added to a wait list if you call the box office 01392 667080).