‘Stop’ dir. Paul Murphy

A chance bus stop encounter between Karen, a shy, introverted woman and Niki, a loud, over-confident teenage girl takes a deeper turn, when personal secrets are inadvertently revealed, and confessions take the place of pleasantries.

Writer-Director: Paul Murphy
Producer: Mark Downes
DOP: Tim Sidell
Key Cast: Lisa Kay, Tahirah Sharif

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Stop’ come from?

PM: ‘Stop’ came from a period of my life when I had done a lot of self-development work and met people who had been the victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. In the work they had learned to complete the past, take responsibility for their actions, ask for and be forgiven, and create and choose a new future.

I found this really powerful, and I was very interested in telling a story about the effects of domestic abuse on a woman who blames herself for it and lies to herself pretending everything is fine. As a result she is distant and isolated from family and friends and it is only when she meets a wise beyond her years teenage girl, that she can finally open up and begin to tell the truth to herself.

I also wanted to tell a story about choice and how, even in the worst circumstances possible, we are still free to choose our lives, we just live under a self imposed fallacy that we can’t or don’t have a choice.

Making a choice that will affect and alter our lives is a very scary, confronting thing. As humans we rarely make the choices we need to make, so I wanted to explore this very human trait with a woman who’s choice would seem very obvious to us.

C8: How did you go about writing the script? Did you consult anyone while writing it?

PM: I got the idea for ‘Stop’ from a short film I had watched about a drug dealer selling his stash in a local park and was impressed how a seemingly simple story could be so profound. So I knew I wanted ‘Stop’ to be a film where, on the surface, physically, not much happens, but underneath it all, in the characters inner lives, everything happens.

Making the characters believable and their motivations truthful was very important for me. I used examples of people around me to flesh out the characters; Karen came from the women I had met and became friends with on the courses, and Niki from Hackney school kids I used to teach filmmaking to.

We submitted the script to the 2012 Film London/Eastern Edge Film Fund, were successful and received funding and support to make the film. The script really expanded and transformed through a rigorous script development process with executive producer Anton Califano and script consultant Eamon McDonnell constantly demanding more from the script, getting me to tell the story as dramatically and succinctly as possible. In fact the script I submitted and the final shooting script were two extremely different beasts, in essence the same story was there, but the characterization, action and visual storytelling was much more refined as a result.

C8: How did you go about casting the film? What were you looking for in your actors?

PM: I tried to get the film off the ground in 2010 and back then we held open castings off Spotlight, which was a great experience, and we saw a lot of talented actresses. That was when I met Tahirah Sharif, and instantly thought she was perfect for the role of Niki. She played her hard, cocky, yet quite soft and was vulnerable too. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the way, the film got shelved through lack of time, resources and money.

So when we came round to cast again I knew that casting was the most important part of the film for me, and I was aware there are a lot of great actresses out there I don’t know about, so getting a casting director was a key part of the puzzle for me.

Briony Barnett came onboard, helped me hone down who I saw in the role, and what qualities were essential for the characters, and then she made some great recommendations. We wanted to get a name for the role of Karen, so offered it to many well known actresses, who all loved the script but for various reasons couldn’t do it. This all took a lot of time, waiting for big names to get back to us.

So three days before the shoot we still didn’t have a Karen, a little bit of a panic set in, and we had a casting on the Wednesday. As soon as Lisa Kay came in she was perfect, the best possible actress we could have found. She had a real fragility, understanding and empathy for the character, and knew exactly the kind of lies Karen was telling herself.

We also saw Tahirah again, and cast her almost immediately. It was serendipity. Both actresses got the characters, had the naturalness, look and feel I was looking for, and were simply the best possible actors for those parts. They bough brought so much to their roles. They are both absolutely amazing actresses, very astute and aware and also very subtle and simple in their craft.

C8: What are your thoughts on working with actors? How did you achieve the performances you wanted?

PM: For me, working with the actors is the most important part of my job as a director. Casting is key and it makes my job that much more easier and satisfying. I love working with really strong, fearless and determined actors and both Lisa and Tahirah were superb in bring all they had to the roles. The films I want to make are all about what it means to be a human being, so I require empathetic, and naturally curious actors to help me ask that question.

Both asked the right questions of the script, determining why their characters did they things they did, what made them tick and what they wanted now, in the present. They made the characters their own, and once they did that, I felt like Karen and Niki weren’t my characters anymore, they now belonged to Lisa and Tahirah.

I made sure we had a half days rehearsal before the shoot, where we went through the script, talked motivations, desires and backstory and rehearsed the key scenes. That day was invaluable as it really rooted us all in the characters and let me trust that both Lisa and Tahirah got it, so I could let them free to be the characters and I would only have to gently shape and mould their performances on the day.

In essence I think it all came down to trust. I trusted them to be truthful moment by moment and they trusted me to be there for them, as it was quite an emotionally draining experience, both in the rehearsal and the two-day shoot. They did an amazing job and I’m so proud and honoured to have worked with them.

C8: How did you prepare for the shoot? Do you storyboard meticulously or improvise on the day?

PM: There’s an old saying, “Fail to plan, plan to fail” and as an ex-1st AD I live by those words. Turning up on set and winging it can only spell disaster. There is already so much that can go wrong on a film set, so much outside of your control, so you want to be as prepared as possible. Preparation is key, and in that space, happy accidents, new ideas, spontaneity and magic can happen.

So we rehearsed with the cast the day before, did costume fittings with the wonderful Miss Molly on that day too, and also did a tech recce with HoDs the week before also. Tim Sidell, the marvelously talented and enthusiastic DOP who shot it, and I went to the location a few times, talked shots, camera placement and psychology of framing.

We didn’t really storyboard, but we did follow our plan, start off wide, distant and observational, and as the story develops, then we come closer, get to know the characters, invade their space, and be another pair of eyes waiting at the bus stop. It was a great experience working with him; he brought an energy, passion and amazing crew with him, so much so that I christened him my DOP for life!

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

PM: We shot on a RED MX ONE, and that was because the exceptional Mark Downes, producer of ‘Stop’, is Head of Production at MPH. They were the production company that produced the film, and they have the RED MX ONE, which was fantastic for us as it was free.

Tim supplemented this with some old 35mm film lenses he had, which had a beautiful soft feel and texture to them, so much so that many people think we shot on film.

Working as a 1st AD I had many bad experiences with the RED, loosing data, crashing, etc, but luckily we only lost one shot, which although not ideal, was better than anticipated. It was quite a robust camera, and Mark and Kelvin Hutchins, the excellent editor, were well used to the RED’s workflow and getting the most out of it in post.

C8: Shooting at a bus stop on the road must have been difficult. How did you work around this?

PM: This was initially my biggest concern as shooting in public at an uncontrollable space is always tough. However we got in touch with Transport for London and they were great at helping us suspend the bus stop for the weekend. It was quite cheap too, at only £200. They put up a temporary bus stop for us down the road and we guided passengers to that.

We chose the location as it was also on a very quiet stretch of road, buses came twice every hour and there was only one bus on the route, which was ideal. Martin Walker the location manager was fantastic at locking down the street and dealing with members of the public whilst we were shooting. It went better than any of us could have expected.

C8: What has the reaction to the film been like from both the general public and domestic abuse organizations?

PM: The reaction to ‘Stop’ has been amazing; we’ve currently screened at 14 international festivals, won three awards and have been up for Best Short over seven times. We won a Special Mention at the Film London ‘Best of Borough’ Awards in 2012 at our first screening, which was great. And with a jury that comprising producer Stephen Wolley, the BFI’s Chris Collins and director Gurinder Chadha, saying that ‘Stop’ was “an impressive production” was really rewarding.

We’ve also played at numerous short film nights around London and people always respond well to the powerful performances, the bold and unflinching subject matter, and the cinematic storytelling.

We’ve also shown the film to many domestic abuse organizations such as Refuge, Women’s Aid and Respect, and they have been really impressed with the film, citing its realism and sensitively handled portrayal of a woman at a crossroads in her life.

We are currently in talks with AVA (Against Abuse and Violence) to give them the film to use in their promotion and awareness campaigns to help educate, inform and stimulate discussion on such a difficult subject.

C8: What lessons did you learn that will stand you in better stead for the future?

PM: I think setting deadlines is key for me as a director. Without a firm date to work towards I sometimes procrastinate and put things on the long finger.

We didn’t have our main actress until three days before the shoot, but rather than be panicked I knew we’d find somebody. We had to; there was no other choice. So in that determined spirit we did and we found the best person possible.

Everything always works out, so I learned to trust my gut and intuition and just do it. Things fall into place once you set your mind to do something. What seemed impossible at first is always doable, you just have to commit, take the first step and trust yourself and the reason you are making the film you want to make.

As Goethe said “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now”, so I have learned to trust myself and take action.

C8: If you did the whole process again what would you do differently?

PM: I wouldn’t change a thing. Every part of my journey as writer/director on this film has been perfect and of its time. I am under no illusions that what was meant to happen has happened and I’ve grown and learned as a director and indeed as a person. I’m exceptionally proud of ‘Stop’, proud of my work on it, and the work of my amazing actresses, and my fantastic crew. Without them I wouldn’t have a film, we worked brilliantly together and I’m honoured and privileged to have collaborated with them.

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

PM: There are so many films and directors who have inspired me to get into the world of cinema, I could name so many. But I think the director who made me want to direct was Hitchcock. As a teenager I remember one Christmas there was a season of his films on BBC 2, so I stayed up late on my own and was mesmerized by them.

The way he told stories, gave information to the audience, set up sequences for maximum suspense, held things back and used humour in the darkest situations, inspired me. I remember at the end of ‘The Birds’ I was gob-smacked that the family just got in the car and left. There was no answer or explanation to what had just happened, he let the audience make up our own mind, and I was thrilled by that.

Recently filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, Steve Mc Queen, Andrea Arnold, Jacques Audiard, Krzysztof Kieslowski and The Dardenne Brothers have inspired me. I love the simplicity and essential humanity in their work, the way their characters are allowed to just be on screen, and react to the life they see around them. I strive to tell human stories, the simplest way I can. You need good stories to tell, but for me it is all about the characters. I want an audience to empathise, care, believe and want to go on a journey with them. And for that, the key to that is working with authentic, brave and talented actors.

C8: What is on the horizon for Paul Murphy? Any exciting projects?

PM: It’s a really exciting time for me, as I’ve made the decision to step away from 1st ADing to concentrate fully on my directing career. I am in talks with numerous producers that I have worked with previously, about directing projects for them, which I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into.

I’m also developing my next short, ‘Selfie’, which is another drama-based film tackling cyber-bullying, so I’ve been sourcing and chatting to charities and schools to help with my research on this.

I suppose what I’m most excited about at the moment is my first feature film, which is in its initial stages of development and deals with the consequences of a drunken hit and run on a dysfunctional family.

I am also looking into other drama directing angles, such as television drama and so am in talks with a few BBC producers about that.

All in all, 2014 is looking to be an eventful year for me.