Art, the new short from writer director Ben Kernow, celebrates creativity, resilience and the way Cornwall inspires “through inspiration from its landscapes, people, culture, or through necessity”. Ben told us what inspired the film and how it was made
You say Art is “a homage to the eccentric and quirky side of Cornwall that has fuelled its creative sector and culture for generations”. How did you succeed in doing that, and how much is it a homage to the creative process itself?
The film is loosely based on the tale of Alfred Wallis, a St Ives fisherman, turned painter. He never saw critical or financial success in his lifetime, so I wanted to create a story where our protagonist saw success. In Art, our protagonist, Biddy, finds herself struggling to makes ends meet as a fishmonger, so she turns herself to painting in the hope of making some extra money. In truth what follows is a newfound belief in herself, and in the idea that with a little determination few things can’t be overcome.
Cornwall, as I know it, has always had an eccentricity about it. People have done bold, crazy, and mindbogglingly stupendous things, and these in turn have shaped Cornwall into the unique place it is today. There is no denying that Cornwall has always enticed people to think outside the box in creative ways, be it through inspiration from its landscapes, people, culture, or through necessity. I wanted the film to be a homage to that way of thinking, as I intrinsically believe everyone is creative. We just sometimes don’t allow ourselves that!
In terms of the creative process, the film does have a slightly heightened style to it. An awareness of form if you will. We wanted to create a sense of artistic flair within the film, whilst keeping a core truth to the characters and world. It all wraps round to creating a film which felt a little of the wall, whilst at the same time still true to a side of Cornwall that will resonate with people.
Filming began in early 2023. How was the creative process and what is it like being able to share the film and its themes?
The entire process for Art felt at times both incredibly quick and slow. I hadn’t started writing the script until April 2022, yet we had the funding secured by June which felt incredibly quick, and I won’t lie rather nice! However pre-production was long, for various reasons, predominantly works schedules, so it felt like we spent a long time getting all the stars to align to enable us to shoot.
Then as most filmmakers know, after months of prep what ensues is a couple of days of intense, and fun, shooting. It definitely felt like a more pressured shoot. Two days of exteriors at the start of January was very much a gamble, that didn’t entirely pay off, meaning we had to adapt and work around the weather and limited daylight hours. Add into the mix several locations and you can suddenly feel the ground moving beneath your feet as you rush to keep up. However, I think I was always going to feel this, given my first short was shot on the long summers days of June in predominantly one location, it felt more like a jolly than work!
Postproduction went swiftly for Art, helped again by working with some lovely familiar faces. We went through several edits of the film, and I always enjoy the process. Charlie Thorne, our editor, has a great knack of turning things on their head, which I love. You go in thinking you’ve got one thing only to find you have several and then like a kid in a sweet shop you get to pick and mix.
Now being on the other end I can’t deny that I’m incredibly proud of Art, and the work everyone has achieved. It’s great to see it resonating with so many people, and it’s particularly great to see it going down well with people who don’t speak Cornish, and in many cases didn’t know it even existed. I think that’s a testament to the work everyone has put in, of which I will take a small bit of credit!
How did you find your cast and crew?
Most of the crew for Art had all worked on my first short, Sensibility. There were a few new additions, which was great, but overall, it was a case of getting the band back together so to speak. In terms of casting, it’s usually a mixture of going through my own lists and contacts, alongside a casting call on Spotlight.
Mike Fenner, who plays Rob, had auditioned for Sensibility, and whilst he wasn’t right for that role he had stuck in my head. Fast forward a year and I found myself going “aha!” I should email Mike. Soo Drouet, who plays Sarah, is a good friend who worked on our first Christmas show back in 2018. I’ll be honest any excuse to work with her is one I’ll take! She’s phenomenal, and one of the loveliest people to work with so it was a no brainer for me. The last two principal roles were more challenging. Luckily Susannah May self-taped for the role of Mrs Liran and just hit the nail on the head. She encapsulated that character, who is semi-autobiographical to me, with such charm and character. It’s very easy for the part to be read as just a snooty art dealer, but Susannah made her far more interesting and real, whilst keeping a wink and a nod to the world she represents.
The final, and crucially, most important piece of the jigsaw left was Janet Amsden, as our lead Biddy. I think the casting process for this role spanned around 3 months. We saw a lot of people, but I wasn’t ever completely happy. Biddy is a very strong character in my head. Then one day a face popped up as a submission on Spotlight. It was a face I knew. Janet had taught at my drama school, and whilst she never taught me, I had known of her. She sent in a self-tape, then followed a Zoom reading, and finally I breathed a heavy sigh of relief knowing we had found Biddy. Janet brought an incredible energy to the role, she eked out the humour whilst always ensuring she felt grounded and real. On top of this Janet is incredibly generous on set, and a perfectionist. She knew what she wanted to do, and it was a joy to see her shape Biddy into something greater than I had written.
Susannah May, who plays Mrs Liran, talks about Cornish being a warm language. How was it finding the cast and what was it like filming in Cornish?
Oddly it was incredibly easy, which feels slightly odd as I’m sure the assumption would be that it would be a vast challenge. In truth the support from Mark Trevethan, the Cornish Language Office and some incredible speakers of the language made the entire process not only seamless but fun. They provided us with translations, both written and oral, alongside one-to-one support both before the shoot and during. The level of support is in truth what made the filming of it in Cornish feel easy.
In terms of the cast Mike Fenner luckily speaks Cornish. It was always great having someone on set who had such a familiarity with the language. As for everyone else they were complete newcomers to it all, however, they took to it like ducks to water. I think the key thing is that they all were incredibly keen to learn it, and they drilled themselves. That level of care and detail ultimately pays dividends as not only is their Cornish flawless in the film, they’ve all mastered the art of acting in a second language which is a rather amazing feat!
On the actual shoot days we ensured there was time to play the scenes in English as well as Cornish, so the cast, and also crew, had a firm grasp of what each scene was about. This in turn made shooting in Cornish again that little more comfortable.
What was being a recipient of FylmK commission from Screen Cornwall, the Cornish Language Office and Falmouth University’s Sound/Image Cinema Lab (SICL) like and what did it add to the filmmaking process?
The film would not have been possible without FylmK. In truth, I had written it specifically for the commission. Laura at Screen Cornwall had mentioned about me submitting another film I was working on, but it didn’t feel right for the brief, so I went to work on creating something which felt uniquely Cornish.
Obviously the injection of funds is one of the first key benefits to receiving the commission, alongside support in kind of equipment from Falmouth University. However, in truth some of the greatest advantages and take aways from the commission were getting to work alongside Laura Giles, Denzil Monk and Mark Trevethan.
As exec producers it was great to be able to call upon them to help in shaping this film. It can be a somewhat intangible thing, but that chance to work, skill share and expand your connections as a filmmaker is something I think vital. That is one of the big takeaways from the entire scheme. I now feel I have a far greater confidence in my work as a filmmaker and importantly how I can communicate it with others and subsequently work with them on realising it.
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