‘Fire’ dir. Chanya Button

On 3rd September 1860 Charles Dickens built a bonfire in the garden of his country home, and threw on it all the letters he had ever received. Thousands of pages of correspondence were burnt, an archive of Dickens’ personal life that he deliberately destroyed, forever lost. ‘Fire’ takes place on the night of 3rd September 1860, and asks the question of what motivated Dickens to destroy so much of his own history, and references events in Dickens’ private and literary life at the time.

Director: Chanya Button
Writer: Sian Robins-Grace
Producers: Tom Hawkins & Chanya Button
DOP: Carlos De Carvalho
Key Cast: Richard Lintern, Victoria Ross, Charlotte Randle

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Fire’ come from? What made you want to direct Sian Robins-Grace’s script?

CB: Sian, who is a fantastic writer and script editor, is one of my oldest friends and creative collaborators. We had worked together many times before when Producer Thomas Hawkins approached us with the prospect of this commission from Film London. They were looking for emerging filmmakers to make a short inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens for the Bicentenary. From the get-go we knew we’d premiere at the BFI, so that was a wonderful incentive. It’s incredibly rare to know you’ll have such a high profile platform from which to launch a short film.

We were fascinated by Ternan’s story as Dickens’ forgotten mistress. We wanted to give a powerful voice to this woman ignored by history, and explore female sexuality as a historical reality. Women didn’t just start loving sex when ‘Sex and the City’ was aired.  Victorian ladies needed some too.

C8: You shot ‘Fire’ on 16mm film. What considerations did you have to make?

CB: ‘Fire’ is a historical fantasy. The task we set ourselves was to give an empowered voice to a woman history had forgotten; a woman with whom Charles Dickens was feverishly obsessed.  The visuals depict the night in 1860 that Dickens attempted to burn every letter he’d ever been sent, apparently as a statement against prying journalists of the day. But we’re suggesting that night was about more than just an early protest against the prying eyes of the press. It was about Nelly Ternan.

We chose to shoot on a format that would root the audience in the genre, because we were being so bold with the structure and language. Something about the film had to feel germane to period drama but the grainy quality also speaks to the sexualised, dream quality of the film.

C8: What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers who want to shot on 16mm film?

CB: Shooting on film means you have to be incredibly well prepared, and in total synchronicity with your DOP. You have a finite amount of film to shoot on; I tend to even calculate how many feet of film each shot is worth! Digital and DSLR workflow has democratised filmmaking, and that’s brilliant, but the discipline demanded when of shooting on film is incredibly good practise. A massive memory card gives you the option to be a too relaxed about your prep. With film you have no excuses.

C8: How did you work with Director of Photography Carlos De Carvalho to achieve your vision?

CB: Carlos and I always work together from an early stage of script development, as I do with all my heads of department. We work hard to have a shared understanding of each character and each scene. Investing this kind of time empowers him to suggest shots and perspectives that only his extensive experience as a DOP could come up with. We watched a lot of classic period drama from ‘Barry Lyndon’ to Merchant Ivory films and tried to mix that with a contemporary editing style. We also loved, and actively searched for, the imperfections that the film itself threw up. Grain, scratches, flares – the lot.

C8: The location adds to the atmosphere of the film. How did you come across it?

CB: I’ve worked extensively on larger scale features from the ‘Harry Potter’ films to ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and more recently ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ so I’ve been exposed to how a considered chosen location choice can both lift the production value of a film immeasurably, and shore up your creative vision. Having studied images of Dickens’ home at Gads Hill in Kent, my Production Designer (Sarah Prentice) and I felt this location both bore a resemblance to his real home, and had something of a the bleak, isolated quality the surroundings needed to support the characters’ respective experiences in the film.

C8: ‘Fire’ has played at the BFI London Film Festival, TIFF and several other festivals. What has the reaction been like to the film?

CB: Rather overwhelmingly positive! Of course I’m confident in, and proud of the film itself but I have to say it really does make a difference when you’re commissioned by a body like Film London. It offers additional validation to the film to have their stamp on it, and gives confidence to festival programmers. That’s not necessarily the way it should be but I have to say it seemed to help a lot.

‘Fire’ toured internationally with the British Council, premiered at the BFI, featured at London Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Dinard Film Festival alongside many others. It also rather wonderfully got me selected for the Director’s Guild of America’s New Director’s Showcase in NYC. It feels great for your work to have that long of a life.

C8: Did the historical background of ‘Fire’ alter your preparation as a Director at all?

CB: I had a detailed knowledge of Dickens’ life and work going in to the project, as I’d studied his work whilst at Oxford. It was the first film I made that helped me dovetail my passion for filmmaking and my love of literature – so it really didn’t involve any extra prep going in. This freed me up to think about character, and work closely with Victoria Ross, the wonderful actress who portrayed Nelly Ternan. Ternan was a fascinating woman: being an actress at the time, you were oddly more empowered than any other woman in society. You could travel, socialise with men outside your family circle, and earn an independent living.

C8: What are the films and who are the filmmakers that made you want to get into directing?

CB: I started working on the floor of feature films from a crazy early age. In my school and university vacations I’d work as a runner and assistant director so I’ve watched some formidable minds at work and learned as much as I could from any member of a film crew. Watching Alfonso Cuaron direct ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ was a pretty rare experience as his enthusiasm is infectious. Experiencing how decisive Guy Ritchie is on set and how well prepared he is has been a great influence. And working for Chris McQuarrie learning from his charm and collaborative spirit, and seeing how that always dovetails with a razor sharp intelligence and confidence in his script and vision.

My top tip for how to work with actors is to train your eye on the Hair and Make Up Department though! I’ve worked a lot around Lisa Tomblin and Amanda Knight (who were Oscar nominated for ‘Harry Potter’). I remember them telling me from a young age, how crucial it is to be respectful and gentle with an actor’s space. They made me fully appreciate that it’s an actor’s body on which a vast number of crewmembers’ work comes together, and how overwhelming that might be. That lesson has really influenced the way I try to take responsibility for my cast and their well being on set.