South Of Devon Films are a collective of independent filmmakers offering a different vision of the South West. It’s a vision that includes folklore, modern life, the mundane and the extraordinary. We caught up with Russel Cleave (Rusty) of South Of Devon Films to talk about their latest film, Whistler, and what excites them as filmmakers
D&CFilm: Tell us about Whistler, how did you come across the story and why did you decide to make it?
Russell Cleave: The folklore part of the film came about as an exercise in breaking a creative block.
My partner Teresa Armstrong who is a fine artist/illustrator/maker uses this technique when she is in a rut.
When she is struggling to come up with imagery to illustrate she will write a short story and the images manifest in her head. One of these stories was the folklore part of Whistler.
The narrative is set in two periods of time The folklore and the modern day.
The folklore is of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, the lighthouse keeper is called away to help rescue some men in danger at sea and never returns, the wife Isobel see’s the incident as her fault after her attempts to light the lighthouse lantern and muster up help from the village fail.
It’s a well-known fable in the modern day village to the extent that they mark it every year with a tradition of closing the windows and turning the lights off for a whole minute at 11pm on a certain night of the year (this is when supposedly Isobel will come back to haunt the village.
The modern day part is of a one parent family, a mother of two boys who lost their dad at sea as a RNLI volunteer. Cathy the mother starts to fall apart while dealing with grief in an unconventional way after her youngest son goes missing after a night camping out on the beach with a friend.
D&CFilm: How well do you feel folklore translates to screen – are there things you need to do to the story to make it feel relevant for the film watching public?
Russell Cleave: I think the key to it is the observation of real life. I’ve always been interested in putting something extraordinary in the middle of something very mundane and everyday. So if you can nail the naturalism and feel of real life then the extraordinary seems way more believable and that’s what I’m always striving to achieve, I’m not sure if I’m getting there yet hahaha.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a prime example, overcast Glasgow with sci fi.
D&CFilm: How did the South of Devon Films collective get together?
Rusty: It started as a couple of us towards the end of our film degree at Plymouth College of Art. It became apparent that a few of us were on the same wavelength and work ethic as one another and we didn’t want to stop working together after the degree had finished and it expanded from there. South of Devon films is driven by myself, but it’s not always the same crew. It changes with people’s availability because everybody works on different projects outside of what we do. Also people’s skill sets vary project to project.
D&CFilm: The South of Devon films collective is made up of crew – do you have go to actors for projects and how easy have you found getting actors and additional crew for projects?
Rusty: We are very lucky in the way that the actors we do work with are super open and good people so if we can’t find anyone to suit the role from them they will help and suggest possible castings through other projects they have worked on. Also to get the naturalisms right it is sometimes worth trying some non actors.
Crew wise there is a pocket of people who have multiple skills for multiple roles, for instance we know some great camera operators who I would also trust 100% to get a very solid location recording if the camera position is filled.
D&CFilm: Do your films have a certain visual style or themes – what can we expect from Whistler?
Rusty: I’m hoping that nobody notices a visual style and that they are fully absorbed in the story telling, but we have planned and made decisions on certain moods for the scenes. The family dynamic drops from jolly to bleak very dramatically so the lighting design and performances follow. When I’m in the DOP role I like to keep it as natural with the lighting as possible, that doesn’t mean to say no lighting at all but the lighting schemes are as convincingly natural as we can get them.
D&CFilm: As filmmakers you’re trying to bust the misrepresentation and stereotypes of the South West – what are the one’s your trying to bust and what do you see as a truer picture of the South West?
Rusty: I think the South West is a very different place from what it was when I was a kid. With the birth of the internet everybody has access to everything. I remember as a kid missing out on live music and even getting cool trainers because they just didn’t stock them anywhere other than the major cities, but now it’s all available. So nobody is really “out on a limb” culturally anymore. It’s difficult when we see mainstream TV shows with scenes set in Cornwall and everybody has a Bristolian accent and on the flip side of that there are a lot of people in Cornwall with 100% neutral accents.
The laid back Cornish stereotype is still alive and kicking, but it doesn’t represent Cornwall as a whole. Also as we know Cornwall has some very rich subculture of it’s own, there is a thriving alternative music scene, the rugged and sometimes dangerous coastlines make for an amazing surf culture that is an antidote to a more sunny California surf stereotype the list goes on.
D&CFilm: South of Devon Films have a passion for people and culture of the South West – that sounds like more than a group of people who want to make films. What is the responsibility of a filmmaker or artist in society?
Rusty: For us some of the best narrative films are the films when you are invested in the characters in the film. I was born in Plymouth but my parents are Cornish and we spent a large portion of our family life in Cornwall hanging out with relatives and as a child those people fascinated me.
These were not the stereotypical straw chewing farmers that I would see on the Two Ronnies. These were really interesting warm people with amazing stories and as a kid I remember feeling as though I wanted to protect that and prove people wrong and the more I spoke to filmmakers and musicians I’d grown up with I realised they felt the same.
It really excited me when Aphex Twin (Redruth native) was revered as a front runner in experimental electronic music because it was like “Yes finally people are recognising”. Aside from that you can just drive around the South West looking out of the car window and the films write themselves.
We just want to tap into those pockets of culture that is left out of most mainstream work based in the South West.
D&CFilm: The South West and Cornwall feel rich in folklore – do you have any favourites, or are there any morals to the stories you enjoy.
Rusty: My dad told me once that in the church graveyard in Altarnun they have a rug draped over a headstone because at certain days of the year the devils face appears on it. No idea what it’s all about but it’s stayed with me hahaha.
D&CFilm: When can we expect Whistler, what’s next and how can we find out more of what you get up to?
Rusty: We are hoping to have it all shot by the end of August/beginning of September then we will be into the edit and sound design. So we are looking at November/December time for completion.
Website: www.southofdevonfilms.com (which will be updates very soon ready for the release of Whistler)
D&CFilm: Thanks Rusty! Looking forward to seeing more!