‘Tandem’ dir. John & Tom Turrell

Estranged siblings Paul & Joan set off on a personal journey, by tandem bike, to visit their father’s grave.

Country: UK
Year: 2008
Directors: John and Tom Turrell
Writers: John and Tom Turrell
Producer: Rachel Dargavel
Key Cast: Rebecca Palmer, Ryan Pope

C8:  ‘Tandem’ really plays into the strengths of the short form – it’s singular and focused and looks at a small but important moment in the life of a character. Was the story always so focused or did you strip it down over time?

J&T: Our intention was always to write something set over the course of one day. The aim was to build a series of moments throughout Paul and Joan’s journey which would hopefully amount to some cumulative power come the end. The difficulty came in focusing what should happen along the way and trying to figure out what scenes would best distil the essence of their relationship without being over-explanatory. We went through many many drafts figuring out what should happen on that bike ride! For example, in some earlier versions we tried to incorporate a third character who disrupts the journey and dredges up dirt, leading to an episode of violence. But in the end it seemed too obvious a device, so we decided to stick to just Paul and Joan and make it this simple contained duet.

C8: Alcoholism in film is usually reserved for slightly older characters, so it is interesting to see it treated through a younger character, especially at a time when youth alcoholism is on the rise. Was this something you had to research?

J&T: We didn’t research as such, only called upon our own personal experiences with alcoholics. The character of Paul is certainly an amalgam of people we know closely — all of whom are relatively young. Some of his ‘hijinks’ are directly taken from things we’ve seen in life. It’s that sense of unpredictability you get with certain people; the threat of inappropriate and violent behaviour that that is both disturbing yet darkly humourous (at least to us!).

C8: You instill the film with a realist honesty: there a sense of circularity for the main character – that tomorrow might bring more of the same for him - but that he’s reached a new level of understanding with his sister. How long did it take to crack your ending?

J&T: Almost from the beginning we had this ambiguous end image in our heads of them embracing in the darkness. We knew we wanted to infer a reconciliation and a sense of them finally accepting why things are the way they are; a kind of tough catharsis for them both. After such a taxing journey, we felt that seeing them embrace would be a fitting, albeit bittersweet, reward.  It was important to allude to (as you say) a sense of Paul’s circularity, their ongoing struggle to understand one another, and, ultimately, an optimism for the future. At the end of the day nothing has been remedied as such, but their understanding of one another has deepened. The Japanese term ‘mono no aware’ seems fitting and was something that John had thought about whilst developing the story.

C8: The broader family is often hinted at as the cause of some of the underlying emotional problems the characters are wrestling with, but this is never addressed explicitly - was it difficult working out how much or how little of this element to include?

J&T: Throughout the writing period we wanted to avoid being too on-the-nose with exposition and to tread a subtle line in what to include. We tried our best to pepper the narrative with just enough familial breadcrumbs to keep things turning over in the back of the viewers mind about the past. It was a case of trial and error from draft to draft, particularly in the insinuations of how close Paul and Joan really are, and the continuing influence of their parents. Since Tandem we’ve come to realise these are recurring themes in our work: sibling dependency and absent parents!

In post-production, we did take out some of the scripted performance which we felt was too obvious. The scene when Paul and Joan are at the grave site for example was much longer. In the end we decided that only a few lines of detail were appropriate. Another scene where they visit the dilapidated house of their mother was also cut as it felt too much.

C8: The performing dynamic is really well worked – restrained but slowly changing over the course of the film. How much time did you spend in rehearsal with the actors?

J&T: The only time we got to properly rehearse with Ryan and Rebecca was for two hours the day before shooting, discounting the auditions. It would’ve been great to have had more time with them as we really enjoyed the process of working with professionals, but things didn’t work out. Still, it was fun turning things up and down during shooting.

C8: The pacing of the film is also spot on with the tension simmering away and slowly building  - we’re you conscious of building in certain plot points as you worked your way towards an emotional climax.

J&T: We always wanted the film to hinge on this point of tension: is Paul going to completely fall a part? Paul is clipping the heels of indecency all the way, provoking Joan, and we wanted that to feel dangerous. We were conscious of having these intermittent moments — within long stretches of relative quiet — where things threaten to bubble over, but never quite do. We always tried to keep the last embrace in sight though, and for that to be the strange climax of the film.

C8: What were the biggest challenges during physical production?

J&T: Locations! There were many, most off the beaten path and far apart from each other. Al Mackay did a great job in pulling them all together. Also, at one point our only tandem bike broke which at the time felt like a complete disaster. Also, Simon Hedges (1st AD) is one of funniest people we’ve ever met so it proved genuinely difficult to keep a straight face at times.

C8: You write and direct as a duo, how do you divide the labour in both areas?

J&T: At the time of writing Tandem it was all about constantly talking ideas and then honing in on things that excited us both. Since then we’ve worked quite differently, separating when it comes to developing ideas, even writing them separately, and then coming together later on to discuss. Directing-wise, John has always worked closely with actors — a naturally better performer. Likewise, Tom with the camera side of things. These lines nearly always end up blurred though, with us both equally chipping in. We don’t set out to control different aspects of labour, it kind of naturally happens. It’s a tough, at times aggressive working relationship we have!

C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?

J&T: We reckon a good collaboration should all be about getting each others gists on things, rather than demanding fine detail from one another. It’s that old thing of having a gut instinct for something, ‘getting’ it, rather than having to explain the complex machinations of whatever you’re trying to create.  Also, we think it helps if you share a similar sense of humour with your collaborator(s)!

C8: What’s next on the horizon for John and Tom Turrell?

J&T: Currently, we’re writing a new short film, another two-hander, but stylistically quite a departure from the other ‘realist’ dramas we’ve made in the past. Also, amassing ideas for a feature project too and really hope to shoot something in the next year or so. And we’ve recently reached a final cut of a 40 minute short we shot on a shoe string called ‘Tummy Bug’ about a young man who falls pregnant.

Aside from that, it’s always been important for us to pursue our next-to-no-budget “pet” projects. Recently we’ve gone back to basics and started filming again with the first camera we ever used as kids. There’s been something so liberating and exciting in returning to it, an antidote to HD. Nothing is clear through the viewfinder and the peripheries are blurred. It’s the closest thing to a dream aesthetic we’ve ever got to before, sort of Murnau-esque!