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Filmmaker Series – Part 3 Q&A with Shaun Hughes

We continue our Q&A with the Aesthetica Short Film Competition winners with some insights from filmmaker Shaun Hughes. Shaun’s film, Mother, is an intense and devestating film set in 1970s Scotland. In a remote farmhouse a woman takes her own life, leaving her husband and 12-year-old daughter alone and isolated. As the seasons pass the father’s grief becomes more intense. His daughter tries to relieve his suffering and on the one-year anniversary of the death, and in the wake of their loss, we witness how fully the daughter has fallen into her mother’s role.

To see this film or learn more about the filmmakers read the current issue of Aesthetica Magazine, available online or from a number of stockists worldwide.

The Aesthetica Short Film Competition 2011 is now open for entries and you can find out more here.

How did you begin filmmaking?
I studied painting and went on to do a Masters degree in fine art; through this I was able to focus on expressing ideas through images. My first experiments were more in the realm of video art, striving to express an idea or emotion and my work generally dealt with memory and psychological processes. Through the Fine Art Masters course I started working in narrative film. I believe film is a collaborative medium and continued to work with my friend and collaborator Tim Courtney outside of an educational environment. We formed our small production company Factotum Films, which today consists of me, Tim and Caroline Smith (Co-producer on my short ‘Mother’) as well as our regular collaborators David Falconer and Richard Browne. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to their hard work and commitment to the project.

Who and what are your influences?
I’m interested in modern directors taking genre filmmaking and bringing something new to it, be it a modern take or just an unconventional story. Some films that come to mind are: Paul Thomas Andersons incredibly assured There Will Be Blood, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Duncan Jones’ Moon. I have a wide range of interest in film – commercial, arthouse and world cinema and I’m a huge fan of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker is a favourite) as well as the more obvious references such as Martin Scorsese and Jean Luc Godard.

What do you try to achieve through your filmmaking?
I aim to make thought provoking films with an arthouse aesthetic, European in style and execution. Much of my work leans towards the darker side of human experience. There’s intrigue in the shadows and grey areas and I aim to communicate stories and ideas through images and sound in the most interesting way possible.

Can you tell me about the balance between cinematography and narrative, which takes precedence?
Each is highly important in that you need both to be of a high standard to make a successful film. If either one of these elements is weak the film will suffer. For me cinematography dictates the look and feel of the film and provides the images that you use to tell the story, or drive the narrative. The two are interlinked at the most basic level.

Talk me through the process of making a film – working practice, shooting, collaborations, funding?
It starts with the seed of an idea. I find it good not to become too confined within the one idea. For this reason I always have a number of projects at varying stages of production, and I often work on them simultaneously. I think it was Bunuel who said that creativity is a muscle and must be exercised. I subscribe to this. I’ll often write and rewrite a few drafts until I am relatively happy with the idea. I’ll then send the script to friends and collaborators. Everyone has an opinion, get as many as possible.

Collaboration is key and a good producer will be a godsend. Before shooting everything has to be planned and organised within an inch of its life. I often do my own storyboards and write an incredible amount of notes on my script. While shooting I would say a director should focus mainly on performances and drawing the best from the actors, as the cinematographer should be well versed in the desired look of the film. I always edit my own films as I want to be fully in control of the final product. Once I have a rough draft I’ll take notes from my producers and feedback from anyone with eyes. I’ll then set about refining the film before taking more feedback. This process is repeated many times and editing can take months to get things just right.

My films so far have been self funded. ‘Mother’ was made for around £500. However my cinematographer had a lot of his own equipment.

What was the most challenging aspect of making your film?
The most difficult aspect was getting the balance right in telling a potentially controversial story in a controlled, sensitive manner. It would be easy to really get it wrong but hopefully I have managed to tell the story with a degree of subtlety and accessibility, whilst retaining the darkness of the idea.

How would you define cinema culture today? How easy is it to make a film versus the process involved with screening and distribution?
Almost anyone can make a film; the quality of which will vary greatly, but it is very difficult to get distribution in today’s climate. Especially short films. One of the few routes to take is to aim for success in festivals after which it seems shorts often disappear. There are various forms of web-based distribution from Vimeo channels and YouTube, to sites devoted specifically to short films. I believe filmmakers today can’t afford to ignore the Internet as a distribution tool.

How do you feel short films fit into today’s cinema culture?
Short films are important in today’s cinema culture in the same way as short stories are in literature. It’s rare that a filmmaker will start with a feature. There has to be stepping-stones. Shorts can be used in a number of ways. Some filmmakers will use them for ideas, sketches and exercises, and others will use them to tell fully formed stories. Shorts are very versatile.

How do you make yourself stand out from other filmmakers? What’s your plan for marketing your films?
I try to make original films and develop my craft and practice in a way that reflects my influences and sensibilities while retaining a voice of my own. I try to exhibit my work at every opportunity and submit to short film festivals. I have had an art exhibition of production stills, polaroids and storyboards from the making of Mother while I was in post production on the film. This helped to generate interest in the project.

I have set up a Vimeo channel for the production company that I co-founded called Factotum Films and a Facebook Page.

What are your future plans?
I have recently started a 2 year master’s course in Film Directing in Edinburgh, where I plan to make my next two short films. I am also developing my first feature film.

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