King Lear meets Waiting for Godot on Dartmoor, that’s the outline for Last Orders, the debut feature from Baobab. And if that’s not enough to get your synapses tingling, then its exploration of power feels completely on target.
Baobab are the creative team of Phil John, Tim McGill and Jason Housecroft. With their roots firmly embedded in theatre, they’ve been branching out into film and so far their shorts have been bearing fruit, in the form of entertaining, thought-provoking pieces of work.
Trust to survive
Their first feature Last Orders is set after some kind of national catastrophe, with two characters outrunning what could be a deadly mist. In the middle of a desolate landscape they must learn to trust each other to survive.
The four years it took to make it might not seem long in feature years, but the world has been Covidified, which has put a sense of longevity onto proceedings. One of the advantages of the indie approach is flexibility: the disadvantages are resources and cash. But it’s that idiosyncratic devising that is a strength of Baobab.
Last Orders started off as a play and the story has changed through conversation and the creative tos and fros the three have developed.
“For me, as a writer, it’s been a very interesting process,” says Phil. “To discuss the film with the director, with the actor and for that to inform the story is a really interesting process.”
The absurdity of power
Though the film has evolved, it keeps at its heart its initial idea, which was the absurdity of power unfolding ‘in the bleakness of Dartmoor’.
There’s a sense of permanence of Dartmoor as a location, and then there’s the transience of these two individuals. In cinematic terms, think the grandness of a John Ford vista with two characters wandering through it at a distance.
“It’s wild up there,” says Phil. “Having these characters play out the drama of their story in this great expanse, means that any human figure that you place within that landscape stands out.”
For a theatre company, it’s that permanence of performance that’s captured on film that has been the biggest difference in their filmmaking. It’s what Tarkovsky calls Sculpting in Time. For Baobab it’s an added responsibility.
Let the lens work
“A good script is a good script, but there are things that you need to be much more economical about, and you need to let the lens and the shot do some of the work for you,” says Phil. Learning what works on screen has been a real eye-opener. There is always a theatricality in what Baobab do in terms of story, characters and references.
Baobab’s first film Made Out Of Meat was adapted from Terry Bisson’s short story. It followed aliens as they reported on the human race with increasing incredulity – they couldn’t get away from the fact they’re made out of meat. Their second film Flies was from a play Phil wrote years before. Time, experience and loss fed into the weightiness and depth of the film. Both take a side-ways look at the word with a gimlet eye on the bemused absurdity of the every day, whether that’s understanding what people are, or exploring grief inside out.
“Jason, Tim and I are white middle-class men, so, what story are we telling? And why would anybody be interested?” asks Phil. But Last Orders is key white middle-class men territory – power.
“We look at the power relationships between these two male characters,” says Phil. “What happens when you give up power or you have power taken from you? And where do you get the power from?” The film also takes a gander at memory and how much we rely on it to ascertain who we are. But ‘our memories are not great to be honest’, says Phil.
“I have always been really influenced by absurdist theatre like Samuel Beckett, and particularly Ionescu.
“We look at the human condition because it’s funny. You’ll find some of that in Lost Orders. You’ll find some of that Absurdism and examination of human character writ large on the dramatic landscape. We make each other laugh quite a lot,” he says.
But a post-apocalyptic environment where two people are relying on fragile memories while escaping from a set of deadly circumstances doesn’t sound like a laugh riot. But amongst that there is the toxicity and pomposity of male power and you get an uneasy familiar tickle.
“Can they find out enough about themselves? And can they work together to escape the circumstances that they’re in?” teases Phil.
So does art help that finding out about ourselves?
“It allows us to view and explore circumstances,” says Phil.
“And it gives us a barrier, and the ability to look at what we do to each other and how we are with each other: the best of us, the worst. But it puts it in a frame of reference to reflect on things. Without reflection, we are just wandering around lumps of meat.
“It’s such an absurd thing to imagine – if we stripped it all out all of our reflective processes, all of our writing or painting, all of our advertising, everything. I have no idea what would that be because we can’t help but do it. It doesn’t have to be highfalutin, it doesn’t have to be grand, it’s part of being human. The purpose of art is the purpose of us.”
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