Filmmaker Sophie Black is the founder of the United Kingdom-based production company Triskelle Pictures.
MissCareer/Less interviewed Black about her 2013 short film release “Ashes” which is a fictional piece that explores a woman’s emotional response within an abusive relationship and that runs at the Festigious Film Festival this year. Black shared the inspiration, the process and the challenges of creating such an emotionally charged film. But we also spoke about her progress as a filmmaker and being a female filmmaker within an often male-dominated industry.
Kimberly Cecchini for MCL: Within its 6 minutes, “Ashes” intensely looks at the dynamics of an abusive relationship; a victim who wants to ignore the warning signs that her partner is abusive. How did you think of the idea?
Sophie Black: When I’m writing a film, I always try and put part of myself into it, so that I can in some way relate to them and understand the directions they need to go. I’ve had relationships in the past – as most people have – which have had bad elements in them, so I took the bad memories from here and there and merged them into a fictional account of the moment love turns sour.
But of course, while this is definitely a fictional story with made-up characters, sexual abuse is a very real terror which men and women face across the world every day. I started writing Ashes as a story for me alone, and the first script was generally disliked and rejected, so I put it on the shelf for years. But slowly, one by one, women started contacting me, telling me how much they related to the script, and thanking me for writing it. This particularly increased when I put the word out for cast and crew because part of the script was online then. Many women (and some men) got in touch and told me their stories, and a lot of it was heartbreaking. But it gave me a drive to make the film; the subject matter was bigger than myself – bigger than everyone involved – so I made it for them, the people who related to the story and wanted me to make it, more than for myself.
MCL: The film shows the relationship from the main character’s emotional viewpoint by weaving in dramatic, surrealistic images into the realistic scenes. Can you discuss some of your choices in terms of their symbolism (i.e. hands lined up under bed)?
SB: All the surreal scenes were designed to represent what’s happening in Sarah’s mind at that point in the story. What’s happening to her is so horrible that she retreats inside her own mind. She’s not ready to face reality, because reality is so horrific. When she faces the truth, she needs to end the relationship that she’s previously cherished. So we’re watching her hiding inside her own thoughts while she gathers the strength to face the situation – hence the messages from her subconscious, telling her things such as “don’t open your eyes.” Just to give you one example in detail:
The first time we go into one of these ‘alternative reality‘ scenes is actually when Sarah’s asleep and dreaming. We see the way that she sees her relationship before it’s broken – so it’s a Hollywood-perfect vision of warm candlelight and roses. Director of Photography Neil Oseman actually shot that scene through a pair of tights, because that’s a technique filmmakers used to use to make women look so dreamily beautiful, back in the days of Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. It’s a method that smooths out imperfections – which is perfect for when Sarah is glossing over the truth.
Then in the next scenes as she begins to doubt Mark, she reverts to a sort of child-like uncertainty – which is why she’s dressed like a doll. And the final ‘mind’ scene is when she knows what Mark is going to do to her, but she’s trapped – physically by Mark, and mentally because she doesn’t want to lose the happy life she had before. And the hands under the bed represent the awful reality of unwanted hands all over her body.
MCL: What emotional challenges presented themselves for either you, the crew or the cast during production or pre-production?
SB: Making Ashes was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, not just because of the stories I’d heard from genuine victims in pre-production or because of the difficulties we had in securing funding and a location. Watching the scenes play out before my eyes on set and having to coax the actor’s performances in these scenes, was physically and mentally draining. We had long hours on set, and I had to work with the actors to, essentially, get them at breaking point; they were living in their characters, the abuser and the abusee, and they had to go through those characters’ emotions on the shoot days.
It was difficult on all of us. Particularly since Adam and Sarah had worked for months to build up an incredibly strong bond (which they needed to do to be so comfortable with each other on set, and to enable such a strong level of trust), but they then had to act out scenes where one character hurts the other, and both lose the life they once loved. I really can’t believe what they gave to this film. They are the heart of the film, to me.
After filming wrapped I remember hugging my 1st AD and my cast, then my brain pretty much crashed, and I had one of the longest sleep I can remember!
MCL: How was it welcomed on its premier?
SB: Everyone wanted to do the subject matter justice, but particularly the cast; when we had the film’s premiere, we invited members of War On Rape as well as some real-life victims. After we showed the film, one of them told me that we got it ‘just right – just like it is’. When I told this to Adam, he said that hearing that was the most rewarding part of the whole production. He wanted to get it right for them.
MCL: Some of the film’s profit goes to Wan2talk.org, an online resource for abuse victims, and the production of “Ashes” was supervised by representatives from the organization because of the difficult subject matter. What are the qualifications of these representatives?
SB: I brought Wan2Talk onto the project shortly after victims contacted me regarding the script, as a lot of what I’d heard was distressing. I really wanted someone with experience working with victims of sexual and domestic abuse to monitor the production – basically so that what we said in the film was right. I didn’t want any of it to be offensive to victims, and I didn’t want any of it to be over-exaggerated for visual purposes without being true to the subject matter.
I contacted some of the larger charities at first, and they were supportive but generally very busy, and my film was kind-of under the radar at that time. Wan2Talk was suggested to me by a member of the crew who knew them personally; the founding member, Carol Phillips (then Maggs) is an incredibly strong human being. She was sexually assaulted, out of the blue, as a young woman, and her court case went on to change the definition of rape in this country. She’s since dedicated her life to supporting people who went through what she went through – which is why she founded Wan2Talk – a safe, private voice for victims online.
MCL: What type of concerns arose during production and what was the feedback of Wan2talk?
SB: For a long time, it felt as though Ashes was a film that didn’t want to get made. We had so many obstacles to overcome! We struggled for months to raise enough funds to make the film, and we lost not one but two locations, which led to shooting days being cancelled and delayed. Luckily I managed to keep my amazing cast (Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon) on board through all those months of challenges! But of course, those are general hurdles which appear for most independent projects.
One of the biggest challenges of the script was writing the part of the boyfriend – Mark. I wasn’t able to put myself in his shoes; I couldn’t imagine what would make someone hurt the person they’re supposed to love. So I kept the part fairly open to interpretation and did the casting call with the intention of finding an actor who could help me develop the character. Adam Lannon took on both the performance and the development; we spent many meetings discussing the character – who he was and why he does the things that he does. We researched sexual addiction and the way it tears relationships apart. We’ll still never understand what makes someone an abuser, but we were able to develop the character enough for Adam to give a strong, believable performance, I think.
MCL: What changes did you make in response to this feedback?
SB: Because I was so cautious with the subject matter, Wan2Talk didn’t have much negative feedback at all. They were very supportive of everything we were doing, which gave us confidence that we were making the right decisions. The only thing that Carol insisted on was the disclaimer at the start, warning people to not watch the film unless they felt ‘ready‘, because she said that victims struggle to see any representation of abuse in films or on television for a long time after their attack.
MCL: What is your hope with “Ashes”?
SB: We’ve finished our festival run now, so I don’t expect too much from the film in the future – but what a journey it’s had! We struggled to get into festivals for over a year, which was so crushing after everyone had put in so much effort. We had a little success early on, when local press featured Ashes in articles on television and radio – and around that time, we took the film to Cannes Film Festival, where it had some distribution offers (none of which came to anything, but they were still a boost to hear!).
After that, it took as a long time to start building up our festival laurels. But we had a bit of a last-minute flourish, and a handful of acceptances right when we’d all given up. The reviews have been mostly positive, which helped me to keep faith in the project even when we kept receiving rejections.
I hope the film will have a new life now that it’s online. I want people to see it for two main reasons – because of the actors’ incredible performances, and because of the importance of the subject matter. I hope that any victims who see it will know that they’re not alone, that other people have felt what they’ve felt, and I hope that they’ll be encouraged to talk to someone about their problems – someone such as Wan2Talk.
(‘Ashes’ was accepted by Festigious Film Festival Directed by Roy Zafrani – e.d.)
MCL: Your focus in schools was Production Design and not writing; what was your inspiration to evolve into a writer and a director?
SB: I’d always wanted to direct; I spent my spare time in high school directing amateur
theatre groups. The same with writing; I used to write all the time, from a very young age. But I wanted to find something I could have a career in; so many filmmakers start out wanting to be directors, but if you don’t study another part of filmmaking, you won’t be able to work your way up – and you won’t understand what you’re asking of your crew.
I’ve always enjoyed making things; I come from a creative family and I did Theatre Design and Textiles during my A-Levels, so I focused on the Art Department side of things after my first year at University. I developed a core set of practical skills and used them to apply for film jobs after I graduated. It took a while – I had to take a lot of unpaid placements for the first couple of years, as most filmmakers do – but luckily there weren’t many Production & Costume Designers in my area at that time, so I didn’t have much competition.
It’s because I did those unpaid jobs that I met all the contacts I regularly work with now; I’d beavered away quietly in the art department of their films for years, so when the time came for me to admit that I wanted to direct films, that I wanted to get back to my first love, the general response from most of them was “you helped me – how can I help you?” That’s how Ashes came about, and that’s where my crew came from – some of who are now members of Triskelle Pictures.
MCL: What led you to develop Triskelle Pictures?
SB: Every young filmmaker imagines what their ‘studio name‘ would be, when they’re growing up and dreaming of being Ridley Scott! When I was a student, I hardly knew anyone who didn’t put a studio name on the end of their films. But a lot of people just did it as a bit of fun and then went on to be freelancers, traveling with their name rather than a self-penned studio name.
That’s all Triskelle Pictures was, to begin with. Just a little moniker to put on the end of my films. I’m so lucky that it’s grown into a limited company with people other than myself under its roof. We’re not big by any means, but we have a few lovely followers online, and I think they can see the reoccurring styles throughout our work – be it our fiction pieces or our commercials and music videos for clients.
MCL: Why “Triskelle”?
SB: I was really into Celtic symbols and the concept of magic in my early teens. The Triskele/Triskellion was always my favourite Celtic symbol – initially just because of the shape of it. But it does make a lot of sense as my company’s logo; it represents the ‘balance between the inner conscience and the outer spirit’, and all of our films try to use visuals to represent the characters’ inner thoughts. It’s all about showing what’s on the inside, on the outside. Ashes is an obvious example of that.
And yes, we do spell Triskelle a bit differently to how it should be spelt. This was initially a typo on my part, but it’s helped us stand out on Google!
MCL: What is your long-term goal with Triskelle Picture?
SB: Triskelle Pictures have another two/three short projects in the pipeline, which are at the script stage now but should go into production next year, if possible. I’m down to direct those, but one day I’d like to step away from shorts entirely and act more as an executive producer to other filmmakers under the Triskelle Pictures logo.
Apart from making short films, I’d love for Triskelle Pictures to be a confident, established business that turns its members’ talents to making music videos and commercials for clients. We’re getting there slowly but surely, with the odd commission coming in, but we all have second (and sometimes third) jobs.
That would be the best thing in the world if I could turn to the people who’ve given so much to me and Triskelle over the years and say “we’ve made it – you can all quit your jobs and make art with me for a living!” It’s a dream at the moment, but I’ve recently found a way to live off making films, and I want to help make that happen for more people in the future.
MCL: Who are your greatest influences?
SB: The man who made me want to make films was Peter Jackson. I went to see “The Fellowship of the Ring” in a cinema in 2001, and I was instantly obsessed with it – the scope of the world, contrasting with the quieter moments where we learn who the characters were, and begin to care about them. I loved it, but I was a kid from a small town – I didn’t consider the fact that people actually made films for a living! It wasn’t until I read interviews with Peter Jackson that I realised he had the best job in the world and that I wanted it too!
I still love watching films and learning what I can from them, but to be honest, they’re not my biggest inspiration anymore. The people I meet, work with, and even see in the street influence me more. I love interesting places, art and photography – and ultimately I wouldn’t have my creative style if I hadn’t grown up near the countryside, with a Dad who’d read me fairy stories and show me cheesy 80s fantasy films most days!
MCL: Can you describe your filmmaking style?
It’s quite hard to describe my style. The people I work with could probably define it better than me. But I love symbology, I love beautiful visuals and complex characters and, like I said, I love finding ways to visualise people’s thoughts and emotions. I have a lot of reoccurring images in my films – but in all honesty, the reason for these rarely goes above the fact that I like the look of them!
I love characters, though, and I love working with my actors. That’s equal to my love of visuals, and I really hope it shows, even if one the worlds I create get as big as Tolkein’s and Peter Jackson’s!
MCL: Do you face challenges as a female filmmaker?
SB: I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve always been surrounded with talented, wonderful women as well as men. Often there have been more women working on projects with me than men! It was like that all the way through school and university, so I wasn’t aware of the prejudice until I witnessed it first hand; I went for an art department job when I was 19, but when I met with the filmmakers, they took one look at me and said “we aren’t really looking for someone.”
I didn’t understand because they’d advertised for the role – but of course, it was a group of men. That’s the first time I realised people might judge me by my sex more than my CV. But the prejudice may have been down to my age rather than my sex; people were often put off by how young I was.
“I went for an art department job when I was 19, but when I met with the filmmakers, they took one look at me and said “we aren’t really looking for someone.”
“I went for an art department job when I was 19, but when I met with the filmmakers, they took one look at me and said “we aren’t really looking for someone.”
The main issue I think we face at the moment is the sense of ‘separating‘ the work of male and female filmmakers. I often say to people “don’t call me a female director – just call me a director,” because we’re the same. We do exactly the same job as men. Giving us our own moniker doesn’t help the issue – we should be given the same opportunities as men, and we should be given places in film festivals and distribution deals, but that should be because of the quality of our work. One day I hope people will see the work of male and female filmmakers on the big screen, equally successful, without the gender of the director being an issue.
Sometimes, when I screen films, people can be quite patronising. They say, “it’s amazing, you made a film – and you’re a woman!” They wouldn’t say that to a male director, would they? Making films is a huge challenge, and something to being congratulated, whatever sex you are.
MCL: What are your 3 top pieces of advice for women in the filmmaking industry?
1. Never become a director until you’ve been a member of somebody’s crew because you need to understand what you asking of your team. It’s unfair to ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.
2. Work hard, but don’t forget to take time off for yourself during the week. The best ideas come when you give your thoughts time to breathe – and you can’t do your best work when you’re exhausted!
3. Remember that, although your film might be the only thing on your mind every waking moment, your crew won’t have the same emotional investment. So take the time to me them all feel involved, and don’t forget to lighten the mood and enjoy yourself on set whenever possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Columnist at MissCareerLess
Kimberly Cecchini (@tonightatdawn) lives in the greater New York City area and is a graduate of Rutgers University. She is a freelance writer and photographer for a North Jersey newspaper and the founder of the blog Tonight at Dawn.