‘Callum’ dir. Michael van der Put

When his first love Joanna is killed at a local train station, average school boy Callum struggles to cope with feelings of guilt, grief and fear. Finding himself increasingly isolated and with the police starting to ask questions, Callum must look for the courage to do the right thing.

Director: Michael van der Put
Writer: Ben Goodman
DOP: Pablo Rojo
Producer: Mark Duffield
Key Cast: James Tarpey, Alex Harding, Robert Glasser

C8: Where was the inspiration for the initial idea behind Callum?  

MVDP: I was in the final year of my Directing course at Drama Centre London and had the option of graduation with a film or theatre piece. Up to that point I’d been committed to the idea of graduating with a film but all of my ideas had fallen through. Some of the other students had already shot their work and it became clear that I had four weeks to come up with something that would make up 65% of my final degree mark. I obviously felt a great deal of fear and anxiety about the situation but in the end I managed to use this to my advantage. I thought back on the last time I really felt afraid for my life and thought back to my years as a secondary school student – those years in which you’re not yet fully independent and there are so many things that are outside of your control. I had the image of a boy curling up into a ball at night and worked backwards from that point to create the story of ‘Callum’.

C8: How did you go about casting the film? Were you looking for something in particular?

MVDP: I recruited all of the young actors in the film straight out of the BRIT School for Performing Arts in Croydon. I was an ex-student and the timing meant that there were a number of students graduating from year thirteen, or finishing the end of year twelve.

We started with a casting for a few of the year twelve students and together with Benjamin O’Mahoney (a trusted acting friend of mine from Drama Centre) it was immediately clear to us that James and Alice would work well together as an on screen couple; we also sensed that James had a vulnerability about him which could possibly be relied upon for the thought driven narrative.

After this Ben and I attended a year 13 showcase which is how we found Rob Glaser. He was perfectly cast in the film as a character we thought everybody would recognise from their secondary school days – the boy in the class who physically matures ahead of everyone else.

The thing I found most rewarding about the casting process was that once we had recruited our three leads, we were able to find roles in the film for nearly everyone from the initial year twelve casting and four more people from the year thirteen showcase.

C8: What did you shoot on and why did you choose that format?

MVDP: We shot ‘Callum’ on a 7D and at the time, given our resources it was the only sensible choice. My degree at Drama Centre London taught me a great deal about storytelling and working with actors, but it was not a technical training in film.

The year previous to ‘Callum’ the school had managed to invest in a Sony EX1, but before that it had been difficult for students at the school to match to match the production values of Film School shorts, without considerable private investment.

The emergence of the 5 & 7D’s changed all that; particularly for me the 7D. People might be used to the look by now, but at the time it really levelled the playing field in terms of visuals, putting the emphasis back on story.

In hindsight, I don’t think we could of made a film like ‘Callum’ in the way we did with a bigger, more cumbersome camera. The biggest compliment I can pay Canon is that everything you see in the final film that was shot at he train station at night (including our crucial running shot) was perfect straight out of the camera, no grading necessary.

C8: How did you work with the cast to achieve the performances you desired?

MVDP: First of all, the attitude of the young cast was amazing. They seemed to be running on rocket fuel and for a director working with that kind of enthusiasm is very infectious.

James and I obviously had quite an intense week – he’s never off the screen – but looking back I think we managed to keep it fairly light and laid back. The lack of a proper monitor meant that we were never 100% sure that what we were getting was on point, but there definitely an inherent trust between us from the first day of shooting.

For the other cast members I tried as much as I could to give them a creative freedom. For some scenes that were written without dialogue we found the need to improvise lines and vice versa, so input from all sides was welcomed.

Crucially I think it’s important to remember that for me it was my first real experience of making my own short film and for many of the young cast it was their first performance on film. For this reason I think we all found ourselves caught up in the same experience for the first time, we were all just a little bit thrilled that we were getting to do it in the first place.

C8: ‘Callum’ is part of a triptych of short films under the banner ‘Broken Hearted Youth’. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

MVDP: Whilst touring with ‘Callum’ on the circuit in 2012 I’d talk to people at length about my one regret being that they didn’t get to see more of the performances that were going on in the background – the film is called ‘Callum’ and so by it’s very nature the camera never veers far from a close up on James.

Towards the middle of 2012 (when we hit the year anniversary of shooting ‘Callum’) it became time for me to think about the next idea and my thoughts naturally returned to those cast members in the background of the film.

I started working with Percelle Ascott and Joivan Wade (who play members of Rory’s gang in ‘Callum’) on an idea based around five-a-side football and through this we recruited two teams through members of the ‘Callum’ cast, as well as actors who came personally recommended.

This process of R&D eventually led to two new scripts being created ‘Angry Face’ and ‘Rage’.

The idea with Broken Hearted Youth is that all three films stand together as a triptych and that each film becomes more than the sum of its parts. The films share common themes but vary in tone, with ‘Angry Face’ being a bittersweet comedy and ‘Rage’ being more political in nature.

The films also draw from an ensemble cast, with the conveyor belt system that saw actors in the background of ‘Callum’ step forward for the leads in ‘Rage’, also seeing actors in the background on ‘Rage’, being brought centre stage for the leads in ‘Angry Face’. It’s my hope that this detail in the casting will help to solidify the three films as a singular viewing experience.

C8: What were the biggest challenges during production and how did you overcome them?

MVDP: Perhaps I look back at the process through rose tinted glasses, but as far as I can remember, we managed to get through the filming with a minimum of stress.  We were flexible and able to adapt to situations when perhaps things didn’t go our way. For instance, when ten students turned up for our planned assembly scene, we resorted instead to the sit down in the gym that in the end works a lot better. We also worked well under pressure and were rewarded for our efforts with a good deal of luck. For the crucial running shot I knew that there was only one fast train running through my local station and that it came through at exactly ten past midnight. Considering that this shot was by it’s very nature a one take wonder, the resulting footage is a combination of everyone being ridiculously on point and a great deal of good fortune smiling down upon us all.

C8: If you did the whole process again is there anything you would change?

Perhaps at the time there were things I wished I could have done differently, but sitting here now a number of years on to be honest I’m just very grateful to have the film in my life. Yes, it has it’s flaws, but there are so many things that turned out better than I could ever have expected, that were I given a chance to go back and make it again I’d answer with a resounding no.

It’s worth mentioning as well that during the creation of the film everyone involved worked with an awareness that enabled us to identify and adapt to problems as and when they developed. A good example of this is the ending of the film. The original scripted ending has ‘Callum’ curling up in bed in fear for his life. There was something about this that for me wasn’t quite working as a third act ending and so at the last minute we came up with the idea for the underpass scene and added it to the shooting schedule for day 1 or 2.

We had no idea at the time that this scene would eventually come to serve as our ending, but we were simply giving ourselves options, but it was probably this kind of flexible thinking that served us so well throughout the process.

C8: Where does ‘Callum’ sit in your career? What had you done before it and what have you accomplished since?

MVDP: ‘Callumis my debut short and my current calling card for the world of youth fiction. It’s also become a bit of a rod for me to beat my own back, in as much as I’ve become obsessed with making a ‘better’ second film.

I’m very passionate about Broken Hearted Youth and particularly the young cast I’m working with, but I won’t lie and say that it hasn’t been a struggle – for all involved.

We currently have a kickstarter campaign for ‘Rage’ running at brokenheartedyouth.com and if anyone reading this is able to contribute or spread the word we’d all very much appreciate it.

C8: What is the best piece of advice you have received about filmmaking?

MVDP: It wasn’t about filmmaking but it applies all the same; See more Theatre, Do more Theatre (Di Trevis, former head of Directing at Drama Centre London).

Both theatre and film are often describes as languages and any one looking to start out in either should first look to attain an ear for it. You do this by consuming as much content as possible – this is easy early on, but becomes more difficult as time goes by. Still, for anyone living in London there really is no excuse, go to the BFI, Prince Charles, Riverside Cinema (the list goes on) and see classic films the way they were intended. You’ll see great directors communicating with audiences and after a while you’ll naturally start to assimilate the techniques into your own unique vocabulary. To be clear, I’m not talking about copying, or even necessarily paying homage, but with the understanding that everything has been probably been done before you’ll subconsciously find that you start to draw on your catalogue of references, in essence you’ll start to speak the language, think in film.

C8: Are there any filmmakers or films that inspired your work on ‘Callum’?

MVDP: Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’ served as a creative North Star throughout the process for all involved. The slow motion kiss between Joanna and Callum on the footbridge is my way of paying homage (or ripping off depending on your viewpoint).

Lot’s of other disparate references make it into the film, ranging from ‘Children of Men’ to Michael Hanake’s ‘The White Ribbon’ – but in these examples I had a shared objective that I was trying to achieve (for instance the religious claustrophobia in the dining room scene) so it made sense to revisit these films for guidance.

C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?

MVDP: From a directing viewpoint you have to be open minded, flexible and humble enough to accept that you’ll be wrong. The whole point of collaborating in film is that you let individuals who have dedicated their wholes lives to a particular craft take responsibility for that particular part of your film. It’s okay to overrule or veto an idea, but your argument should always be backed up by the story you are attempting to communicate – if it truly is, your argument is usually infallible.

A week before the shoot I met Kyle Pickford (the sound man for ‘Callum’ and incidentally the greatest soundman in the world) for a coffee in central London. I asked Kyle to talk about the technical aspects of capturing sound for the film and even though I found it hard to follow the specific details and terminology, the passion with which he discussed his profession was enough to set my mind at ease. Here was a man who was going to give 110% to serving a single area of my film in which I had no prior experience. I tell that story all the time because I truly believe that these are the people you need to seek out.

C8: What does the future hold for you? Any projects on the horizon?

Haha… Let’s see how this kickstarter campaign works out.

In the future, beyond Broken Hearted Youth, I hope to focus on making shorter, smaller films but with more regularity. And comedy! Having brought ‘Callum’ into the world I think I owe it myself and others to bring a little laughter into people’s lives. Seems only fair really…