‘Alpha : Omega’ dir. Chanya Button

A ravaged London is in the midst of a civil war in which the battle-line isn’t race or religion: it’s gender. And the resource at stake isn’t land or wealth: it’s reproduction.

Director: Chanya Button
Writer: Sian Robins-Grace
Producers: Tim Phillips & Chanya Button
DOP: Carlos De Carvalho
Key Cast: Sebastian Armesto, Bethan Cullinane, Amanda Hading

C8: How did you come across the script by Sian Robins-Grace and what made you want to direct it?

CB: Sian and I had just finished making a short for Film London, ‘Fire’. At its premiere at the BFI, we were asked a lot about our enthusiasm for “strong female characters”, as the film was a historical fantasy empowering a woman that history had all but forgotten. I remember thinking how hilarious it was that writing complex women, women with humour, with confidence, women addressing the tensions in their lives, women with sexual appetite, was so worthy of comment. As if this isn’t how women are in real life!  Instead of being defensive or humourless about it, we decided to take the questions we were being asked and run with them. So we chose to make a science fiction film about a world in which men and women were in conflict with one another! It allowed us to explore motherhood, sex, the nature of being a woman – but through an entertaining cinematic lens – the science fiction genre.

C8: Did you work with Sian on the script? Were there any elements you were keen to change?

CB: Sian and I worked collaboratively on the script, as we have done with all our previous work. Sian is one of the most robust writers there is, so she confidently welcomed the input. She’s now passed the writer’s role to me for the feature that’s being developed - inspired by the short. That’s what’s been so interesting and organic about the journey with ‘ALPHA : OMEGA’; because we worked so closely on the script for the short – it felt natural to pass the writer’s role to me for the feature. I think having that kind of fluidity and supportive relationship with a colleague so early on in your career is empowering.

C8: How did you cast the project? What were you looking for in your actors?

CB: I work with a fantastic Casting Director - Lucy Rands, who’s working with me on the feature I’m shooting this summer. Lucy and I tend to worth together from an early stage in the development of the script; she comes along to our workshop rehearsals, to get a detailed sense of the characters. The challenge here was finding actors who could confidently work with our stunt co-ordinator. I’m particularly fond of the final fight sequence, the story of that fight was complex. The story very much led the physical side in that sense. It’s a conversation between bodies, brilliantly executed by Michael Thomson and Avigail Tlailim. Michael was somehow able to humanise and speak for the only man you see in the film, showing a more merciful side to a character the audience have spend the entire film feeling alienated from. Michael’s a bit of a wizard. If you cast well, brilliant actors bring a lot for you.

C8: How do you work with actors? Do you set aside time for a rehearsal process?

CB: Always! I love working collaboratively with actors – I think they’re an underused resource in film. From my time training at RADA and working in theatre, I’ve learned that an actor’s input is often integral to the way a piece of new writing is developed. Having also worked extensively in feature film development and production, I have come to think we should involve actors more in developing a script. Actors can tell you what’s right for a character; it’s their job to know your characters better than you do! All it takes is for the Writer and Director to be confident enough in their vision to know how to filter that creative input, and not be overwhelmed by it.

C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

CB: We shot digitally; in fact it was a Red Epic. My DOP Carlos De Carvalho and I have a great relationship with Panavision – who are uniquely supportive of emerging filmmakers – so we were able to spent time testing to find exactly the right look. Camera choice is also often dictated by the practical needs of a challenging shoot like this; where we knew we had to spend a lot of time in flooded subterranean tunnels! We also knew we had to shoot fast, and have a camera that could be dextrously operated for our fight sequences. Carlos and I prioritise our relationship with the cast on set – we wanted to make cinematographic choices that would enable enough time on set to focus on performance.

C8: Are there any influences from film, art, or photography that you had in mind while making the film?

CB: My references tend to be more literary than visual – I read a brilliant collection of essays, ‘The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City’which was a great inspiration for building a believable under-ground community of characters. We were also inspired by the brilliant 1970s writer Shulamith Firestone, and her revolutionary arguments around Feminism and fertility science. I love working within a genre; it offers you a shared language with an audience visually, linguistically and emotionally. I also think the short film format demands you make bolder choices – you only have a limited time to pull your audience into the world of your film – so you have to be confident in your creative choices. We knew we wanted a high contrast look, so we pulled images from ‘The Artist to Sin City’ – but it was really in the grade that we decided on the extreme visual style we settled on.

C8: As a Director how do you prepare for a shoot?

CB: Meticulously. The most important thing is that you are so prepared by the time you get into production, that your mind is actually quite free and open to the challenges thrown up by the shoot. Directing is such a schizophrenic profession; you spend a lot of time on your own incubating your ideas – but the most important skill is collaboration. Choose a brilliant cast and crew, and listen to them. Really listen! It’s an odd job to choose – to place yourself in a position of authority. That kind of pressure can make you behave like a right nightmare. The best Directors I’ve observed work confidently and respectfully, listen to everyone around them, and are still able to know their own mind. Half of it’s psychology I reckon; people management!

C8: You were director and producer on ‘Alpha : Omega’. Do you find it hard wearing different hats on set?

CB: I think the way the industry is moving at the moment, every filmmaker has to be pro-active. I’m a Writer-Director at heart, but I produce for two reasons: because it makes sure my work gets made, and because it makes me a better Director to understand the practical implications of my creative decisions. As I move more into making features – especially for the feature of ‘ALPHA : OMEGA’, I won’t be able to wear both hats! It works at a smaller scale, but not as the projects get larger.

C8: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?

CB: I honestly think it’s incredibly simple. Accept from the outset that making a film is incredibly tough, and beyond that – don’t behave like an idiot. Listen to each other, be kind to one another, be tough when it’s needed. Don’t behave like an idiot. Remember it’s just a film; being healthy, happy and respectful is more important than anything a shoot throws up. Every problem can be managed. Don’t behave like an idiot.

C8: What is next for Chanya Button? Any plans for the future?

CB: I’m shooting a wicked feature film this summer – ‘BURN BURN BURN’. It’s a kind of British ‘Thelma and Louise’ written by the excellent Charlie Covell. I’m also writing the feature script for ‘ALPHA : OMEGA’. Pinewood have been so generous and supportive of ‘ALPHA : OMEGA’ as it’s been developing, so I’m excited to keep momentum going.