The Blaine Brothers
Renowned for their award-winning comic short films, the Blaine Brothers are currently in post production on their feature debut “Nina Forever”, a magic realist tale of grief and sex with a darkly comic undertone.
Previously they have featured in Screen International’s “Stars of Tomorrow”, been nominated for a BIFA and at the Edinburgh Film Festival, shortlisted by BAFTA three times, mentored on the prestigious Guiding Lights scheme and the London Short Film Festival has held a retrospective of their work at the ICA.
For more information please visit www.blainebrothers.co.uk or follow @blainebrothers
What is "Nina Forever"?
BEN: Nina Forever is a feature film about a guy called Rob whose dead girlfriend Nina returns from beyond the grave every time he makes love with his new girlfriend Holly; it also follows Holly's attempts to make this unconventional relationship work.
Can people truly "be fixed"?
BEN: Holly hopes so, I think you may have to watch the film to get our opinion.
Would you mind explaining the symbolism behind the film?
BEN: Most things in the story have a symbolic aspect, I guess the biggest one is Nina herself. She appears naked throughout, her body blood splattered and twisted. There are times when this has an erotic element to it but actually, mostly, her bloody physicality is just a massive inconvience for the others. We were keen that Nina embodied an element of chaos which was something we felt was central to the experience of grief. An etheral ghost is quite easy to ignore in a way that a bleeding naked woman isn't, especially when she's also doing her best to wind you up.
As a counterpoint to Nina's messy and persistant presence we also concentrate a lot on empty spaces. It actually proved quite hard when designing the shots to work out the best way of drawing the audience's attention to things that are missing from the frame. A space on a shelf can sing out to you like a missing tooth but an empty chair in a room is often not something you naturally read. The importance of things and people who aren't there is central to the film and it's something we've tried to mirror in the structure of the story as well. Characters go missing at times when normally they wouldn't be allowed to and much of Holly's investigations into Nina end with her actually finding out nothing. With Nina too there's a big missing element, normally with a character like hers there's a reason for the return, a quest or something to resolve but we were keen to create Nina as a character with no goal or story arc. She's dead so she wants nothing and learns nothing. It does make the film feel odd, there are often gaps where you expect story to be but that felt like the right way of expressing the real meaning of the story.
There are also a lot of boxes in the film, but I think that metaphor speaks for itself. Less expected was the adoration of pylons. We kept finding power lines in the locations we were using and kept wanting to use them in shots. They are amazing structures that generally we just ignore. They surround us like steel castles but you just get into the habit of ignoring them. That also felt appropriate for a film about grief. It's a massive distorting ball of emotions but it hangs around for so long you just get used to it, you live around it like it's always been there. We were very keen to set the film in a super normal suburban setting - putting an impossible awful magical thing in the middle of this mundanity felt like that sensation of having to continue your life whilst this raging chaos rattles away in your skull.
How do the character's in the film handle grief?
BEN: By making mistakes. We spend a fair amount of time with Nina's parents, Sally and Dan who are two really heartbreaking characters. They're really lovely people but losing their daughter has left them both exposed and beneath a very normal exterior they're both flailing around in craziness searching for something to make sense of the mess. In different ways they've both latched onto Rob, Nina's boyfriend, for some emotional crutch. All three of them depend heavily on each other, which was probably essential when Nina died but, this far on, is a dependency that is keeping them all locked in their grief. Breaking the bonds between them, good and bad, is a key part of the story of how they all continue living.
So yeah, I think generally speaking they handle their grief badly and messily and by making big bold decisions that they don't mean and can't stick to. Then, just when it seems like this hopelessness is going to destroy them all, well, we hope there's enough of a spark of hope in the end of the film to be true. Grief is something that changes you but it doesn't destroy you. It's just not something you often cope with in the way you imagine you are going to.
What's it like working with your brother?
CHRIS: It's a fairly calm collaboration. We've got our own tastes but a shared central core of stuff we both love that is only enhanced by our differences. We work by thinking about intent - it's not the words on the page or the pixels on the screen that matter, it's what you're hoping they'll do to an audience. As soon as you're thinking about that, it's a lot easier to realise that something isn't working or could be better. In terms of the nuts and bolts, we write, direct and edit together, which means working closely throughout. We use two laptops and share screens so we can both see the words being written at the same time, which usually means one of us can be talking more, thinking more or researching more whilst the other types (and often goes with the flow of creativity that it can bring). On set we don't really delineate our roles but if we're up against it Ben will talk with the actors and Chris will talk with the crew. Usually it's better when we're both closer to everyone, it makes it a much more collaborative and creative process, which is why we like to keep the numbers small if we can. In post we both edit, each taking up the next sequence available when they've finished the previous, then we'll take sections to smooth. Ben does more on the audio side, Chris more on the pictures.
How do you balance your personal and professional lives?
BEN: Making a film like this there is very little balance between the two. You pour yourself into it and just hope that if you give it all honestly then somehow the end result will be honest too. It was tough. There were times when we really went to the bare bones with the cast, sharing the roots of the idea, the deaths we've experienced. That leaves you pretty raw but I think being so close and working on the film together was one of the things that helped us get through it.
But yeah, I don't think there's much of a divide between personal and professional in filmmaking. You can point at things and you always have to be aware of when something is the wrong emotion for the story, but these are fairly flimsy walls. You make a film about sex and death it needs to be personal.
What was the casting process like?
BEN: Rigorous. There are no easy parts in the film and we've been very lucky that even the minor characters are played by some pretty superb actors. There's a guy called David who's in one scene dumping Holly. He's just a kid in a car trying to end a relationship but it's the third scene in the film and it tells you a lot about her as a character. It's also quite a specific character, he's sort of a bad kid but no where near as bad as he thinks he is and we had a very specific voice in mind when we wrote him. Javan Hirst who plays him actually auditioned for the lead and he was amazing but way too young for the part but it's great that he was so into the project he was happy to come and be in a single scene.
But yeah, the leads were hard. They are three difficult parts and they need to work together as a three as well. We worked with a superb casting director, Emily Tillelli and she was amazing. She was fearless in approaching actors of all standing within the industry, no small thing with a budget as small as ours, but never blind to new talent. She also really encouraged us to run the auditions like part of a rehearsal process. Sometimes it can be an awful cattle call but with Emily it was always the first steps in helping the actor find the character.
So yeah, it took a long time but the real key was when Fiona O'Shaughnessy came on board. Nina is a very difficult part to play and she knew that and was actually quite scared initially. Emily had seen her in Utopia on Channel 4 and thought she'd be perfect as Nina and made the approach and at first Fiona turned it down. Then Emily convinced her to have a phone cal with us so we talked through her concerns about the project and we all seemed to get on so she jumped on a plane from Dublin and came and auditioned. She was perfect, I think having those fears about the part was key actually - she really understood what the role required and we were so lucky that she was brave enough to comit to it and go there. Once we had Fiona the others fell into place. Cian and Abi had auditioned before her but we felt like we couldn't make a decision until we knew who Nina was. That's probably self delusion to be honest as, looking back, all that happened was that we cast the two people we wanted to cast anyway but with the best will in the world you don't aways see the blindingly obvious til its over.
Interestingly they're very different performers though. Emily knew nothing about Abi and just called her in after getting a good feeling about her headshot. She's a very instinctive performer and was just so perfect for Holly, I remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up the moment she started her audition. That said, though she seems so natural and always in the moment we found out later how hard she worked to get there. She used to read the script in full every day and was always comma perfect.
Cian was Emily's first suggestion for the role of Rob and his first audition was amazing but he's a different sort of actor to Abi. He's nothing like Rob in real life and in his recall he was much more relaxed. We were expecting this brooding troubled guy that we met in the first audition but instead this delightful puppy bounded into the room. He's hilarious and charming and he stays himself until the camera rolls. First couple of scenes that was quite scary, you'd be setting for this shot and thinking "what the hell is he doing?" and then you'd call action and suddenly this performance would appear.
We've been very lucky.
What is the key to a successful crowdfunding campaign?
BEN: Engagement and passion are essential. You have to be able to convey why you want to make the film. It's also good to show the world that you're not expecting them to do the hard bit for you. In our case we raised £18k which was mainly just to shoot a specific sequence in the film that was, on its own, way too expensive for our budget. This felt good as it meant we weren't saying "oh please we'd like to make a film can you fund it for us…" we were saying "we're making a film, come and join in."
The real turning point for us though was when we released the teaser. I think this worked on two levels. We'd cut a couple of minutes of footage from film to a track by Amanda Palmer and asked her if we could use the track for the duration of the Kickstarter campaign. She saw it, loved it, said yes and began tweeting about it. Obviously when someone with her online following starts pointing eyeballs towards your work that has a great impact. We raised £7k in the final three days, all after the teaser was released. What's great about this though is that, when you look at the stats, this wasn't just Amanda's fan base getting involved, the money came from all over the place - a lot of it was people who'd been following the campaign from the start but hadn't felt convinced by us talking about the project. As a filmmaker it's great to find that people respond better to seeing a bit of the film than they do to hearing you talk about it!
It's another reason why I think our approach of not trying to fund the entire project paid off. Being able to actually show people what their money was going into was the real turning point for us.
What is the indie film scene like where you live?
CHRIS: Mostly we think of films in Britain working in a system of patronage. You go cap in hand to one of a few sources of money and the chosen few get to make their films. There are obviously lots of folks trying for this so its easy to become not one of the chosen ones as there's only a small pot of money there. And if you don't get money from one of the BFI, FIlm4 or BBC Films then you're dead in the water. That's the story that puts a downer on everything. However there's lots of money sloshing around London and ways of finding investors. There's a burgeoning number of exciting films being made for not very much money, though if these can be a source of a continuing income is to be seen - people like Ben Wheatley are making it work, which is very inspiring to see.
When I think of an indie film scene I always think of filmmakers all working together, critiquing each other's work and working on each other's films when they happen, drinking and watching films together and talking into the wee hours in coffee shops. This isn't necessarily how life is in London, I don't know. There are definitely signs of it - we are in a great scriptwriting group with some brilliant writers, we know a lot of folks who have just made or are about to make their first feature, and we love to help others with their projects in whatever way we can. However we're also not the most sociable - we like to work (hence the writing, directing, editing) which doesn't leave much time for hanging with the cool kids.
Thanks for doing the interview guys. I wish you all the best with "Nina Forever" and future projects. If your ever in Boston, let me know. Maybe we can talk indie film.