‘Stained’ dir. Lewis Arnold

A prison officer struggles to switch off and leave his personal life at the gate, as a heinous convict climbs inside his troubled mind.

Director: Lewis Arnold
Writers: Ronnie Thompson & Colin Butts
Producer: Tom Knight
DOP: Graeme Dunn
Key Cast: Ricci Harnett, Craig Conway

C8: How did you come across the script by Ronnie Thompson and Colin Butts and what made you want to direct ‘Stained’?

LA: I had been trying to develop a film about a prison officer for a while after meeting and spending time with an ex-officer turned plasterer. I was just so intrigued how a job could change and mould an individual so much, due to the intense nature of the working environment.

A friend who knew I was developing the project had just read Thompsons’ book ‘Screwed’. They passed it onto me as a point of reference but I immediately jumped on the lead and contacted Ronnie, knowing that he could be a way to help me unlock the issues I was having with the project.

It turned out Ronnie had just reopened a project he had been working on for a while with writer Colin Butts called ‘Stained’. I read it and saw huge potential in the material and the book as a whole, so after a long chat we agreed to develop it together whilst Tom Knight (Producer) and myself secured the money and backing of Screen West Midlands.

It was one of those things that felt very much like fate, as it all just feel into place quickly and conveniently.

C8: ‘Stained’ is taken from the experiences of ex-prison officer Ronnie Thompson. How involved was Ronnie with the production of the film?

LA: Ronnie was heavily involved in the production and was an incredible resource for the actors and myself due to his own experiences as an officer. Although the book itself was a great reference, I’d much prefer to have long conversations with Ronnie, who loves a good old chat. These conversations helped inform me for example about the blocking of a particular scene, so much so, that in the end we felt it was important that he was with us in Scarborough during the shoot, so we could discuss and run ideas by him. This was because we really wanted to create something as authentic as possible.

C8: How did you go about casting the film? Were you looking for any particular traits in your actors?

LA: We had a great casting director called Nicci Topping and we did a lot of auditions at first, which led to the castings of our Northern based talent. With the main three roles however we all thought long and hard about each character and came up with the names of the actors we felt were right for the character and put offers forward directly to their agents.

For example in the case of Truman I had seen Craig Conway in Geoff Thompsons’ ‘Romans 12:20’ and just knew he was the perfect fit for Truman, an actor with huge on screen presence and yet he went completely against the media portrait of a paedophile, which was important for the role.

C8: Can you explain your process of working with actors? Do you give lots of direction or provide a lot of freedom on set?

LA: I suppose it varies depending on the job but I believe that most of the work is done in the casting and if you get that right your job on the floor becomes easier and you do less directing and note giving.

I always try to trust the instincts of the actors and allow them room to work. I think it’s important to also create a safe environment in which people feel they can put creative ideas forward.

I still do a lot of pre production and block out scenes as much as possible so I feel prepared, but I’m always happy to throw this stuff away when I start rehearsing on the floor with the cast.

C8: You directed and produced the film. What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers attempting to do the same?

LA: I was only the director on ‘Stained’, once again teaming up with my friend and fellow university graduate Tom Knight, who produced the film. We had previously made a film the year before through the UKFC digital shorts scheme and we’ve continued to build on our relationship, with Tom recently signing me to promo company Rokkit.

I would say that like Tom and myself, young film makers should make sure they develop their creative relationships and not try to do everything themselves. I’m always surprised when you see the credits for a short film and the director is also the writer, producer, editor and DOP. One of the most important parts of directing is letting go and handing over parts of the process to other talented people, so you can keep a level of objectivity throughout the process.

C8: If you did the whole process again, is there anything you would do differently?

LA: Lots, but I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a finished creative project and been 100 per cent happy. Usually I can just see all of the flaws and things I wished I had done differently but you just sit, hope and pray that the audience doesn’t pick up on them too.

C8: You’ve worked with Ricci Harnett (Jamie) on several of your shorts. Are there several cast and crew you often work with?

LA: I love working with Ricci and think he is an incredibly natural and gifted actor. We did a music video recently and we were able to push each other further,  with time we’ve built confidence in our relationship and I trust his instincts as much as he trusted certain decisions I made. That’s what’s great about continuing to work with people over time, the trust and respect you have for each other gives you the power to push and challenge each other creatively.

There are a few people I have this with, most notably a DOP I meet at film school called Alfie Biddle. He shot my latest two short films ‘Echo’ and ‘Charlie Says’ as well as The Futureheads and Little Friend music videos. I love Alfie’s work and he is someone I hope to continue working with as long as I make films.

There is also one actor who has been with me and Tom since the start called Nicholas Keith who pops up a lot in my stuff and is brilliant. You can see him in ‘Stained’ playing the character Ali.

C8: You’ve directed music videos and commercials. How do these differ from directing a narrative short?

LA: I try not to treat them any differently, always coming to each project from the point of view of the story, what is the story? How do I emphasize the story or the themes visually?

I think that’s why I always end up making narrative based music videos,  what interests me most is story and character, I try to keep the same approach to film making for everything I do, which is one of intense preparation. I love feeling prepared for a job so then you have the luxury of throwing it all away on the day.

C8: If you could give young filmmakers a piece of advice what would it be?

LA: This is a tough question, but I think the key thing I would advise young filmmakers is to keep on making films. With every project, every film, you learn and improve so much more than by reading a book or watching a behind the scenes DVD. With this in mind, I think it’s also important for young filmmakers to get themselves on set as much as possible.

I was fortunate enough to spend a few years working as a 1st A.D after making ‘Stained’ and being on set every week was such a huge and steep learning curve, but it’s important to understand everyone’s roles and responsibilities within a film unit.

C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?

LA: This is another tough question and I’m not entirely sure how to approach it, but I suppose there are a lot of factors that make for a good collaboration. For me, it helps when you respect the people you’re working with, as you can really push and challenge each other creatively to be better. In this industry, and as a director, good communication between collaborators is key too.

C8: What’s next for you? Any plans for future projects?

LA: I’m currently directing two episodes of the final series of Misfits for Clerkenwell Films and I’m a huge fan of current British television drama with cinematic shows finding their way onto our screens all the time.

Funnily enough, I’m also currently about to start working with Ronnie Thompson again on a new project, which we’re both excited about.