A New Way of Doing Things
Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe released their feature debut, Black Pond, and over the
past few months the film has gained critical acclaim, winning several awards and
prestigious festival screenings. We talk with them about their recent success.
It’s only so often that a film comes along and sets itself apart from the crowd. Black Pond is a highly original and poignant narrative, which examines the family dynamic through the eyes of one lonely character and the Thompson family. The Thompsons appear to have it all from the outside. One day, Tom Thompson is out walking his dog when he meets a broken man, Blake, and invites him over for tea. As Blake befriends the family, and they begin to open up to him in ways that they don’t open up to each other, it becomes apparent that no-one’s life is the perfect life. One evening, Blake turns up and dies in the company of the family. They follow his last wish, which eventually leads them to be mistakenly branded “the family of killers.” Bleak, bizarre and in many ways brutally honest, Black Pond is quintessentially a British film. Told in a narrative drama / mockumentary style, the film mixes genres with imagination.
With appearances from Simon Amstell and a host of other well-known names, the film is set to be a cult classic; there are moments that are simply bizarre and laugh-out-loud funny. Completed with a budget of £25,000 and filmed in only three weeks, Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe (26 and 25 respectively) deserve every accolade they have received for the film. Intricate with bags of personality, Black Pond demonstrates the power of narrative intertwined with moments of comedic brilliance. We caught up with Tom and Will to discuss the film in more detail. Black Pond is released on DVD and VOD on 16 April.
Black Pond is an eccentric comedy interwoven with sad and poignant moments. Can you tell me about developing the script for this film?
The film is very loosely based on a play we wrote at university with a couple of friends. We started trying to turn that into a film script, but realised that (what with burning castles and helicopters) it would be far too complicated and expensive for a first foray into directing a feature. So, we decided to take the core characters from the play, strip the whole thing right down and tell a story that was much simpler and easier to shoot. We also found an obituary about a man who secretly crept into people’s gardens to mow their lawns or paint their sheds. We found it funny how he was doing nice things, but in an incredibly creepy way, so that was a strong influence on the character of Blake, who is the stranger that befriends the Thompson family. What we ended up with was quite unexpected in a way. But it’s a funny thing because you don’t actually have much control over how a story plays out. You need to have the discipline to throw away the ideas that are bad or unrealistic, but it’s not like you can force yourself to have a good idea. It’s a pretty simple plot overall: something weird happens to a dysfunctional family, courtesy of a sad man.
You made this film for £25,000 and filmed it in three weeks, which is incredible; can you talk me through this?
The script was written knowing that we wouldn’t have much money to make it. So we confined the story to a couple of houses and some woods – places that are basically free to film in. We had a crew of four, which is unusually small. We used a wheelchair instead of a dolly. We had good prime lenses but no zoom, so we were forced into shooting in a particular way. However, restrictions are always helpful. Apart from the final sound mix, we did all the post ourselves. A lot of the time we had to learn as we did it. Basically we just did most of the jobs ourselves and had a very generous and hard working cast and crew. The film was edited on our laptops, and we’ve been living like students for a couple of years, putting everything we’ve earned from our day jobs into making the film.
You’ve clearly had a successful run on a shoestring. What does this mean for big budgets and distribution companies; how is the industry changing?
Cameras are getting more portable and more affordable. Software is getting easier to use, and again, more affordable. So, practically speaking, more and more people can have the tools to make a full length film with very little money. Big companies that hand out large sums of money to a few lucky filmmakers seem almost to be a throwback to another era of filmmaking. We reckon that the new wave of young and inventive filmmakers will be able to have much more power within the industry – meaning we’ll end up with more interesting and personal films. It feels like filmmaking is becoming more democratic.
Congratulations for being nominated for a BAFTA and winning the ESA’s Best Newcomer Award; this is fantastic, especially considering you self-distributed the film. When and how did it start to gain momentum?
It was a very gradual thing, where one small bit of good news led the way to the next. We had some good reviews when the film premiered at Raindance. Buoyed by that, we sent DVDs to film critics and booked a cinema in Leicester Square for a week. The reviews came out on the day of our first screening. Those reviews then meant we were in a position to book cinemas around the country for the rest of the release. But to be honest that has all been a bonus. It’s great for as many people to see the film as possible, but for us it had worked out after the first screening when we realised we’d managed to make a film.
Black Pond’s filmic style is part narrative drama and part mockumentary – can you tell me about this artistic decision?
The mockumentary footage wasn’t in the original script. After our main shoot, there were some scenes we decided to cut because we didn’t think they had worked out for various reasons. What we were left with didn’t flow as a cohesive “piece”, so we tried to work out how to make the film complete. One idea involved hiring a completely different set of actors and recreating the main events of the film for a sort of Crimewatch thing, but eventually we decided that the simplest approach would be to interview the main actors in character about the events of the film. We re-watched District 9 around the time of editing and I think that reassured us that, so long as you’re telling a good story, it doesn’t matter how you tell it. One thing that we thought the use of different media did add was a sense of breadth to the story. There are a million other off-shoot narratives that we can catch a glimpse of.
Simon Amstell plays Dr Eric Sacks, the pseudo-psychologist, who states “I will cure you.” In many ways he embodies the notion that there is a quick fix for everything, and because he leaks the story to the press, he becomes a character riddled with reference to popular culture. What do you think his character adds to the overall narrative?
If there are references to popular culture, we don’t know what they are! So they’re coincidental. He wasn’t intended to be a comment on pop-psychology; more just another example of a human being who is struggling to find a way of being useful and happy and comfortable in himself. In narrative terms, he is the reason (we assume) that the story of the Thompson family ever became public knowledge. He is clearly a vulnerable person. But there’s something very sinister about the fact that he has the power to impact on a family’s life from the comfort of his own home. We think Simon does an awesome job of being very funny and very creepy.
With Black Pond being called “one of the best British films of the year” by The New Statesman, Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times, how will you follow this film? What are your current projects and future plans?
Our next project is an adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide. It’s an epic adventure comedy about happiness. The constraints we faced in Black Pond meant that we had to make very simple and clear artistic choices – and we want to carry that forward and be careful not to forget the things we learned from making Black Pond.