Originally pinned as a ‘sport noir’, Shuttlecock turned into a character-led exploration of modern masculinity. We chatted to writer director Tommy Gillard about the evolution of the film which bagged the Two Short Nights audience award
D&CFilm: What can you tell us about Shuttlecock?
Tommy Gillard: Shuttlecock follows Carl, who has to question his notion of masculinity when an obsession with a member of his badminton club spirals out of control. It’s a very strange sport film that looks at 21st century masculinity and how that gender stereotype is changing. It’s weird, sweaty and pretty homoerotic, and not something I thought anyone would give me any money to make. But it was very kindly commissioned by Exeter Phoenix with Arts Council England funding in early 2019.
D&CFilm: How did the story of Shuttlecock develop? What attracted you to the story – and what attracts you to any of the films you make?
Tommy Gillard: Shuttlecock ended up being wildly different to what I initially pitched. A while back producer Simeon Costello and I were kicking about ideas for films that had never been done. We thought that a killer genre-mash would be a sport-noir film, and that if we were going to do that you had to move away from sports like boxing and do something weirder… like badminton. So initially Shuttlecock was a noir mystery, still exploring themes of modern masculinity but through a very different style.
I pitched that to the Exeter Phoenix, but through development I realised it wasn’t right for what I wanted to do. There’s a reason nobody has made a badminton noir yet… So all the genre elements got stripped out, although some things remain (like all of the character names, I didn’t think we’d get away with a name like Morgan Silk outside of a noir but here we are).
The story really grew out of criticising the theme over and over again. I wanted the minimum amount of plot that would facilitate what I was trying to say, so it became very simple and character led. It’s really a very quick rise and fall story of one man, so killing all sense of backstory and additional narrative to focus on what was in front of us was really important.
The same thing attracted me to the story of Shuttlecock that attracts me to anything – the characters. Normally I’ll have a very basic premise, but when the characters start coming is when the plot forms. When you get the characters right they’ll write their own story for you.
D&CFilm: You’ve covered such a variety of genres – drama, documentary, comedy – are there any themes or styles that explore throughout your filmmaking?
Tommy Gillard: Lots of people shouting at each other in small contained spaces!
Thematically it’s hard to say, as you’re always aiming to try something new each time. The sort of stuff I like in other peoples work is the inspection of power dynamics, and transfer of control. So I certainly think there’s an element of that in my stuff. But I also just really like people who exist in a moral grey area. I’m not really interested in making anything that has a clear protagonist vs. antagonist at the moment – I find stuff more compelling when you’re spending time with someone you wouldn’t normally root for. So the dilemma of how you feel towards someone you empathise with mirrors whatever dilemma is in the film.
With style, the plan is to let that be informed by the script and not commit to doing anything just because I’m trying to develop a particular aesthetic. Cinematographer Boris Hallvig and I do a lot of prep to try and get the atmosphere of each piece right, but inevitably stuff gets in the way of whatever you’re planning. Shuttlecock‘s style was born more out of practicality than creativity. We wanted to use some Super 16mm lenses we own, but they vignette when shooting digital. That meant we had to shoot in 4:3. The location had the most striking 70s colour palette, so we leant into that. So really, the style has to come out of the substance. I’m addicted to zoom lenses though.
D&CFilm: We’ve had a Vimeo-based retrospective of your films, and certain names and faces reappear. You seem to have a group of people – cast and crew – that you can draw on. How did that develop and how useful is it?
Tommy Gillard: I think the main thing is we’re just a bunch of friends making stuff together. We’re stupidly lucky in the South West, especially in and around Exeter, where there’s a such a close knit community and it’s really easy to meet new people who are interested in film. I met sound recordist Stan White years ago doing a short. As well as being a mate he’s also now a ridiculously talented recordist. Through him I met cinematographer Boris Hallvig who I shoot everything with, Art Director Lyris Richards, and a bunch of other people.
The go-to-crew develops pretty quickly, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We have a good shorthand and having people around you that you trust makes life so much easier on set. It’s also so great to watch people get better and better every time you come around to shooting together. You’re all raising each other’s game. That’s quite special.
With cast it’s mostly a similar thing. I don’t really like doing auditions, I’d prefer to write something with someone in mind, and that’s why you’ll see people keep cropping up in my work. Everyone I’ve cast in stuff has not only been brilliant but also such lovely people, so it’s a no brainer to want to work with them again.
But if you keep doing that you’ll never meet anyone else. I wrote the two lead parts of Shuttlecock to be something very specific, and I didn’t know anyone who’d be able to fit. I saw Tom Greaves, who plays Carl, in a short documentary called “Offline Dating” about 5 years ago. He just plays himself in that, but I remember thinking he had an amazing natural charisma that I had never seen before. Then I saw him in a non-speaking role a year later and sort of kept up with what he was doing (a light professional stalking). I was really thrilled that after telling him that he still agreed to work with me.
Niall Kiely who plays Morgan Silk was the first audition tape we had. We couldn’t believe we had the perfect casting first try, but lo and behold we did. It’s really funny to go back and watch the tape now, and see that the performance didn’t change a whole lot. Niall somehow managed to nail it before we even met.
Really, I just feel blessed that after going through the hell of making a short that people still want to do it all over again together. It’s the only sign of a job well done.
D&CFilm: This may seem a bit out of the blue, but it’s a question we tend to ask: what is the role of the filmmaker / artist in society?
Tommy Gillard: Blimey. Ask me again and you’d definitely get a different answer, but I think the best artists are ones that pose a question. So it’s got to be that – to challenge, and enquire, and offer up a fresh perspective on something. We’d be silly if we thought we weren’t entertainers too. But ask me again down the line and I’m sure my opinion will have changed.
D&CFilm: You use music well – how important is it, especially in short film, and how do you decide what to use?
Tommy Gillard: I’m really lucky to have worked with some fantastic musicians across all of my films. But Shuttlecock is the first time I feel like I’ve used music well as a director.
At the start of the year I entered the straight8 competition, where you shoot a film onto a roll super 8 film (editing in camera), record your music without seeing any footage and someone else will put them together. With this way of working you can’t really shoot any dialogue, which was so liberating for me, not to use music as an underscore. It forced me to put the music written in this case by the brilliant Benjamin Akira Tallamy front and centre.
The right music has enough to say independently of dialogue, and that’s something I carried over to Shuttlecock. Freddy Mercer wrote Shuttlecock‘s score and completely blew me away with what he managed to achieve (even more so considering he did the whole thing in about 10 evenings). I was after something quite specific, taking the influence of Westerns into Shuttlecock‘s music along with 70s prog-rock. But we also wanted to reflect the key theme of the old being usurped by the new. Shuttlecock begins string and woodwind heavy, but after Morgan Silk enters the club the presence of synths start to dominate the film. So right from the script I allowed space for music, and those cues didn’t change all the way through to the final piece.
As far as deciding what to use, it’s something that just evolves with the project. I’ll write to music and that often influences what music ends up in the film. If you can get some original score made up before you even shoot, that’s the Holy Grail for me.
D&CFilm: And location features large – whether on the moor or in a village. What does it mean to you as a filmmaker, both as a resource and an inspiration?
Tommy Gillard: Everything I write has been set in one location really. I like the limitation and freedom setting a story in one place can put upon a script, and when you’re working with the small budgets that I am it’s a huge benefit during production. It’s really easy to underestimate the importance of your location from a creative point of view, but for me it’s what underpins everything in the film. Shuttlecock is a great example of this – the hall in Sidmouth College that we shot in ended up steering the colour palette, soundscape, and of course the visuals. But this all crafted the tone, too. If we had shot anywhere else I think Shuttlecock would’ve ended up feeling like a very different film. Weirdly, it was the only place we looked at – we knew immediately that it was right.
But finding the right place isn’t easy. I’m always location scouting, really every weekend if I can, and just trying to build a mental bank of places that are interesting for some reason. Living in Devon as a filmmaker you’re so blessed with an endless amount of exterior landscapes to choose from, but interiors are a little trickier.
If I can, I like to find somewhere early on so that I can develop the script around the location. But some things you just can’t predict – the last short I did before Shuttlecock we had found the perfect place a year earlier, and lined everything up to shoot there. It was a crumbling mansion on a cliff, and when snow fell two weeks before we were due to shoot the house caved in on itself. We had to rework everything to fit a new location in a fortnight. You have to be flexible with everything and not put all of your eggs in one basket, which I learnt the hard way…
D&CFilm: Shuttlecock went down at storm at the premiere during Two Short Nights at the Exeter Phoenix, picking up the audience award, what plans do you have for the film and where can we catch it?
Tommy Gillard: Premiering at Two Short Nights is awesome. It’s the second of my films to do so and the screenings have such a buzz and atmosphere about them, the whole festival is great. If you’re interested in film and are in Devon I can’t recommend it enough – and doing the whole commission with Exeter Phoenix was great. It’s worth applying for. With Shuttlecock, we’ll try it out at a couple of other festivals to see if there’s anyone else out there who doesn’t mind 13 minutes of sweaty men in tight white shorts. So keep your eyes peeled around the UK (and world!) for it.
D&CFilm: Thanks Tommy!