Celine Haddad in Film & TV

19/04/2016

Interview: iShorts Funny Girls Team Talk ‘Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself’

Have you met Sarah Chong? She’s the titular hero of the quirky iShorts ‘Funny Girls’ short ‘Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself’. 

Written by Elaine Gracie, Directed by Ella Jones and Produced by Alexandra Blue, this surrealist workplace comedy is explosive and spans three decades. Impressive stuff. To find out more about the project, its influences and development process, we caught up with all three members of the ‘Sarah Chong’ team. 

Read our mini-interviews with Elaine, Ella and Alex below...

Ella Jones, Director

What parts of Elaine’s script were you intent on capturing within your finished film?

Elaine’s script had such a clear energy, ambition and originality that it practically jumped off the page. Indeed, the hyper-real world she had created was already so clear that it was a dream for me to bring to life. I knew that the story and tone required a strong visual world in which the characters and their mad idiosyncrasies felt credible. I wanted to create a colour-saturated playfulness that complemented the story’s urban fairytale nature, but also to ensure the world had a level of detail that grounded it in some kind of reality, albeit a skewed one. Yet the script was also not without its challenges – and as a result was a fantastic learning experience for all of us. It was important to ensure that a clear, comprehensible narrative ran through this anarchic ensemble piece and indeed, finding the right balance between voice over, visuals and dialogue was an evolving, collaborative process. Hopefully we achieved it!

What advice do you have for directing comedy?

Comedy is made or broken by the performances. I believe very strongly that for anything to be funny, it has to come from a place of truthfulness; however heightened or surreal, it is crucial that the actors play everything for real. If they don’t believe what they’re saying and instead play each line simply ‘for laughs’, then the audience will not believe them either and the humour will feel forced. The most successful comedy, which often has the most ridiculous scenarios, from ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ to ‘The Thick of It’, always has characters that – due to the skill of the actors playing them – are extra-ordinary but just about believable.

How did the support you received from Creative England impact your finished short?

The support we received from Creative England was invaluable for a number of different reasons. Firstly, the financial injection was obviously wonderful, allowing us to build the bold visual world we needed to tell our story and enabling us to amass an incredible cast and crew to bring it to life. Yet Creative England’s input went far beyond this. They were incredibly hands on – at script stage, production and in post – taking great care to help each team make their project the best it could be, whilst giving us the space to be original, creative and to take risks. Moreover, even after the films were finished, the incredible Celine and her brilliant team have been working tirelessly to help us get the films out there and also to put emerging directors such as myself in touch with the right people in the industry. Celine is a huge champion for female talent, and it’s a privilege to have been taken under her wing!

What advice do you have for other directors looking to get their short film off the ground?

Unfortunately the thing holding most short films back is a lack of funding, but thankfully due to crowd-funding and much-needed funding schemes such as Creative England’s iShorts, there are opportunities available – and it’s worth applying to everything because you never know. We didn’t think we stood a chance with our mad, seemingly un-filmable ‘Chong’, but they saw something in it and provided us with the means to make it possible. And indeed, my main advice would be to not hold back on your ambition: don’t be pressured into making a victoria sponge when you want to make a triple-tiered meringue! Because why be safe? Safe doesn’t get you anywhere. And I think it’s something women, particularly, get told a lot – we need to push for the space to be creative and bold.

Alexandra Blue, Producer

Why did Creative England’s Funny Girls appeal to your team - what made you want to apply?

We were immediately excited by the initiative because it supports female creative talent in film, and in particular in comedy - an area in which women are traditionally under represented. The opportunity to work with companies like Big Talk and Baby Cow was also incredibly appealing. There are not many sources of funding for short films, so the chance to secure £10,000 to make a short film was one too good to turn down!

Would you say that your involvement with the scheme has significantly impacted the future of the short, if so - how?

‘Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself’ has absolutely benefited from being involved in this scheme. The support we received from Creative England has been imperative, but also being associated with such a high profile scheme has given the film exposure and publicity. It's also worth mentioning that Celine Haddad from Creative England is a huge champion of talent, so just having her as this amazing cheer squad/coach/ringleader has meant the world to the film and to us.

How useful was the financial support provided by the scheme?

We could not have made this film without the financial support of ‘Funny Girls’. Elaine wrote a screenplay which is set across three time periods (50's, 70's and present day), has around 12 locations, 15 cast members and over 20 supporting artists. It's was a fantastic and original and crazy script which I was immediately in love with - but I also knew that it was going to need a lot of money to make it! This could not have been done as a zero budget short film. We are so grateful that Creative England had faith in us to pull off what was an incredibly ambitious project!

What do you have planned throughout 2016 for ‘Sarah Chong is going to Kill Herself?’

We will be sharing the film with the world! For a short film, film festivals are its primary life, so we are busy submitting and crossing our fingers and toes in the hopes of getting in to some good festivals. Our UK premiere will be at the opening night of LOCO on the 21st of April (whoever is reading this - come along!). As a team we are also developing our next short and have a feature in the early stages. We had such a wonderful time making ‘Sarah Chong’ that we can't wait for the next one. I'm pretty sure whatever comes from Elaine and Ella's brains is bound to be just as unique and insane and beautiful, so I look forward to that challenge!

Elaine Gracie, Writer 

What inspired the story behind ‘Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself’?

That’s a really excellent question, unfortunately it doesn't have the most interesting answer. Truth – I've no idea. I have a bit of an obsession with the 70’s – true, the textures, the colours, the Tupperware – I find it incredibly expressive, and some of it so gauche it’s almost beautiful. It’s also very reminiscent of the house I grew up in, which seems to be in some shape or form an inspiration for everything I do – a kind of warped nostalgia for when living in my head was not only entirely acceptable, but actively encouraged (mainly as it kept me from the Begonias). I also think the 70’s was the last real watershed – looking at societal trends and what was perceived as acceptable back then, the shift forward has been more than dramatic. I suppose I see it as a marker for how far we've come but also illuminating as to how far we have to go. And a lot of it makes me laugh, which is more important than anything else.

What themes did you want to explore with the short?

Again, excellent question – animal sacrifice in the office environment?? I'm told it’s about identity, about discrimination, about a lack of moral absolutes – responsibility ….Mao’s theories on parenting? The themes are very much a by-product of the games I wanted to play, the characters I wanted to explore, the world I wanted to create. Now you could argue that of all stories, but it’s particularly true here – although you’ll have to take my word for it in terms of process. If anything I wanted to see a woman on screen that I recognised. Not as a cypher to someone else’s morality, or looking awesome while naked and pinned up against a wall by some taut, tanned, muscled cop – because that’s not how I perceive myself or women in general. So it’s possible a grenade wielding, tank-top wearer who self identifies as Chinese is slightly more recognisable to me. I mean, it’s not – but the point is, it could be. It’s her choice to be who she is, as well as mine to allow her that. Why not?

How did Creative England support impact your script, from development to final product?

Hugely – this is the first project Alex, Ella and I have worked on together – so in essence we didn't have a process before this. But with creative England’s support we had the framework to develop what is in my opinion a really healthy process, one that I have garnered quite the most faith in and respect for. This was an incredibly ambitious project, from the start – and we were determined not to have that change, even if it aged us horribly. (It didn't). But I was equally as determined not to be indulgent, to tell an original story successfully without compromising on the immersive experience of film.  And there were points where we needed a guiding hand to push us to one more change, to further interrogate one more decision – if we could justify it, then it went in - if we couldn't, why? - and what would that then become? Creative England gave the right amount of focus when it was needed and the correct amount of space when that was needed too. And Celine's a legend. Obviously.

What was the most useful piece of advice you took away from the workshop residential events with Simon Bird, Declan Lowney, Tess Morris and Damon Beesley?

Tess was really honest about her process and the journey towards ‘Man Up’, and I found that really refreshing. It’s good to know that a lot of the quirks of the process are actually commonplace, but that you will also find your own particular way of working. Tess also spoke about how important it is to have a sounding board and a healthy, creative relationship with someone else invested in the project, and that I found to be both very true and extremely useful through-out ‘Chong’. I often found it easier to wade through my own thoughts when I was having to explain them to someone else!

‘Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself’ will screen at LOCO Film Festival 2016 on April 26th. Head here to book tickets.

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