‘Happy Birthday Jim’ dir. Giles Ripley

Ed’s a fun guy. What could be more fun than cancelling Jim’s birthday party, only to invite their friends round to surprise him?

Year: 2011
Country: UK
Director: Giles Ripley
Writer: Giles Ripley
Producers: Christian Gill, Allon Wechsler
Key Cast:  Tom Bennett, James Lance

C8: ‘Happy Birthday Jim’ is every friend’s worst nightmare. Where did the idea come from?

GR: A friend of mine always prefaces our loudspeaker phone conversations with an awkward caution when his wife’s present, and probably with good reason. I liked the idea of raising the stakes of a familiar faux pas to get the worst possible outcome.

C8: The film features an ensemble cast of distinct characters, how did you go about casting the film?

GR: I worked with a great casting director, approached several actors personally and auditioned rigorously. It was by far the most time consuming element of preproduction, but also the most important.

C8: How did you work with the actors to ensure they each delivered a great performance?

GR: I rehearsed with James and Tom before the shoot so we could play about with the gags and develop the dialogue. We held fairly lengthy auditions for the supporting cast members, and when I found someone with potential I pushed them to see how far they could go. I went into the shoot feeling extremely confident in all of them so it was just a case of having a laugh with it on the day. If you’re not having fun while you’re making a film like this then it probably won’t work.

C8: What did you find were the greatest challenges of shooting a single conversation, taking place across several locations?

GR: It was always going to be a fiddly sound issue - getting the right pacing and timed responses while avoiding overlap - there was no ADR budget. We had to split the day to do exteriors in the dark so maintaining energy levels and consistency over a 17 hour shoot was hard work, but I had a great team and they all pulled through.

C8: From start to finish, what did you find to be the most difficult thing about making this film?

CR: Getting the right cast. It may sound shallow, but when your budget limits you to one day you need to know you’ve got a cast that can deliver. Getting established actors gives you that confidence, but that can be easier said than done. We also went through a hell of a lot of auditions for the supporting members. The ability to convey comical reactions with the immediacy the edit required was a hard thing to find, and I think we were extremely lucky to get who we did.

C8: Some of the comedy plays on politically incorrect comments. Did you have second thoughts about any of the jokes? And do you feel comedy is sometimes more able to reflect the world more realistically than other genres?

GR: I once went to see Armando Iannucci talk at the Tate Britain and he said that comedy is, by nature and necessity, irresponsible. I think it’s essential to have a format that’s exempt from the rules of social formality and decency - it provides a platform to discuss anything and everything from a comfortable distance. Comedy also provides a safe haven to lay bare our insecurities and confess our shames; to be honest and frank about ourselves and delight in our shared failings. You’d never hear a mid-coital fart in a melodrama, but it happens - and it’s funny.

C8: You also edited the film. Were there any scenes that you found difficult to cut or anything you didn’t include?

GR: Because of the split shoot I was worried about how the conversation would flow, but it came off well. We tweaked the timing of the “the black line” response endlessly and I went with my own personal taste in the end, for better or for worse. I wish we’d have gotten more out of the character ‘Pete’ on the day. His barely audible response to the barbecue line still cracks me up.

C8: Were there any key references you hand in mind when writing or making this film?

GR: I saw an amazing short by the Duplass brothers years ago called “This Is John” that I can’t find anywhere since. It’s just a guy who comes home and decides he’s going to change his answer machine intro, and has a full on meltdown in the process of trying to rebrand himself. It’s simultaneously hilarious and unsettling, and you can tell they just made it there and then. I always love these kinds of incredibly simple comedy shorts that draw from the recognisable minutia of daily life, and I wanted to try and come up with one myself. In the end it turned out to be a much bigger beast so I guess I failed in that respect.

C8: What do you think is the key to a successful comedy?

GR: Beyond a stupid answer like “It’s got to be funny” I don’t really know. I can’t quote any golden rules, because I don’t always know why I find things funny. Tim and Eric’s work’s hilarious, but I don’t even understand what half of it is. I read a lot of theory on humour for my uni dissertation, but think it only scratches the surface. I guess my suggestion would be if you find something funny then chances are at least one other person will too so you should do something with it.

C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?

GR: Collaboration’s all about trust. I came from a background of doing everything myself in film because everyone else was making sculptures at art school, so I used to find it hard to let go and let others do their jobs. But the better your collaborators are, the easier it is to trust them. A smart man once told me that the key to success is to surround yourself with people who are better than you. By being selective with the people I choose to work with, I’m left with a trustworthy network of support that is essential in the multi-faceted world of film production.

C8: What does the future hold for you?

GR: Happy Birthday Jim is up for Best Short Film, The British Lion Award and Best Supporting Actor at the British Independent Film Festival 2013. My next short, ‘A Kindness’, is currently in development with Collabor8te. As well as being an autonomous film it acts as a mini-pilot for a sitcom and a feature I’m writing with my friend Jonny Ensall. I also just got signed Partizan so this year should be pretty exciting indeed.