After seeing the excellent Sci-fi short film White Lily, which had been officially selected to screen at the prestigious HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles in August it was my genuine pleasure this week to another official section of the festival, the incredible NEON. The Festival is an organization devoted to showcasing the best and brightest short films from around the globe, advancing the careers of filmmakers through screenings, networking events, and various panel and forums. The festival showcases the top short films produced in 40-minutes or less. Categories include: Short Animation, Short Live Action, Short Documentary, Music Video, Webisode, Commercials, Youth Film and Digital Microbudget. The annual event is now in its 13th year and was named by Indiewire as “LA’s biggest short film festival.” It is held at the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre and is part of the Official Academy Awards® Qualifying Festival.
NEON is the fantasy story of Elias (Joe Absolom) an enigmatic, disfigured man – and Mary (Kerry Bennett) , the woman he’s in love with. Their relationship exists only online and via telephone conversations, because Elias is forbidden – for reasons unclear to Mary – from experiencing love. So while he’s stalked through the city by two mysterious men, Elias makes the desperate decision to end his own life in order to end his own hopeless suffering, and give Mary a chance at real love.
Now before I go on to talk just a little about this quite remarkable piece of filming (spoiler alert; I think it’s bloody brilliant!) I had the chance a few days ago to fire off a few quick questions to the film’s director Mark J. Blackman, who was at the time at the airport waiting on his flight to L.A (as we in the business say) and which no word of a lie, he very kindly complied his responses there and then on his phone.
“Mark is an award-winning Director of short films, music promos and hundreds of corporates and broadcast promos. He has worked extensively all over Europe, the U.S, Asia and can occasionally be seen filming on the sides of mountains in Nepal. Mark’s films have been praised for their stylized visuals, strong female characters, uncompromising tones and black humour. His works have both screened and sold at film festivals around the world and he has picked up numerous awards from the likes of The New York Festival, Promax and Houston Worldfest amongst others.”
The Interview Bit……….
Q) For those yet to see NEON, how would you describe it?
NEON is a rain-swept kitchen-sink fantasy thriller about the power of love: how it corrupts the soul, leads to madness and – ultimately – can redeem. It’s the story of a disfigured man’s conversation with woman who he keeps at arm’s length despite her clear attraction to him – and the dark history that she does not know they share. As he tries to spare her life from any further heartbreak, two men stalk the city in search for him, armed with a sledgehammer and a pair of bolt cutters.
This is a tough one without giving away any spoilers. I’ve always been fascinated by love stories that deal with the darker side of love: the lengths we go to in order to save or destroy it, knowingly or not. The image of a silhouetted man standing amidst a thunderstorm having made his final heartbreaking choice in life came to me in a dream many years ago, and the idea of exploring a sub-genre that has been handled atrociously over the years with few notable exceptions spurred me on to explore this ultimate lonely heart.
Getting into the spoilers (so don’t read further if you don’t want to know!): the sub genre that’s been so poorly treated over the years is anything to do with angels. With the exception of Wings of Desire and Escaflowne, the approach so many seem to take is this saccharine, winking hopeful approach to the ultimate tortured souls: angels on Earth.
Designing the world and rules of NEON was pretty quick: I’m a stickler for fidelity and wanted the world of NEON to never explicitly mention heaven, hell, angels or even oblivion, but to craft a narrative that rewards repeat viewings where the cryptic becomes clear the more you watch. As such, a film about time – or, more importantly, love and time – was what NEON had to become, leading to its unusual structure: non linear but not just for the sake of it.
Q) How much did the finished film differ, if at all, from the original concept?
In all honesty: not much at all. This was the first film I directed that was “what do I WANT to make?” rather “what CAN I make?” I direct professionally every day and – every day – I am confronted with compromises. NEON was the first film my wonderful producer and I sat down and really said to ourselves “what’s the film we would love to see?” The answer: a bold, stylish and unashamedly romantic thriller with fantasy overtones: Nil by Mouth meets Blade Runner was often how we pitched it to get people’s interest (as well as a glut of concept art, mood boards and more).
The film, as scripted, was dry meticulous: usually I keep dialogue fairly terse to allow for improvisation and workshopping, but the fact that NEON is carefully anchored for the most part by a single phone conversation, it was built VERY specifically in terms of what you see and hear. Every shot was planned right down to duration in order to make things as tight – and as clear – as possible: so important for a narrative that goes back and forth in time at the SAME time.
Having said that, with such a great cast, there were lovely little moments we added in: ELIAS reacting to the crack in the car window allowed me to make a respectful nod to one of my favourite directors, and Kerry’s (Mary) skill on the punch bags added more screen time to her emotionally wrought, rage filled moments. And then there was the club sequence: get me in an environment like that and I cannot stop filming. We only needed a handful of shots for this, but we had a day, I was operating camera and people moving amongst the light and the dark? I just can’t help myself. As such, this did make the edit a long we process but ultimately only added to the film’s finale. Nightclubs are my weakness.
Q) The performances, particularly from the two leads are fabulous – can you tell us just a little about them?
To say we were lucky to get Joe and Kerry was an understatement. Joe is someone who’d been on my radar for years and we were so lucky he loved a character so out of his usual playing field. Tremendous voice as well.
And Kerry: we met a lot of talent for the part of Mary, but as soon as she began talking about the character during our first meeting I knew she got the level of anger and frustration – as well as hope, buried beneath rage – that Mary needed. Also, her accent – whilst delivering blunt and sometimes profane dialogue – acts as a perfect counter to Joe: softer, warmer.
Plus, like I mentioned – she could smash the crap out of those punch bags.
What was difficult for these two however was the fact that, with one exception, they never share any screen time throughout a story that covers a lot of emotional ground in fifteen minutes. Joe and Kerry worked wonderfully together in this regard however. Whilst a majority of Joe’s scenes see him alone for the most part (and we shot these sequences in a solitary manner) Kerry’s scenes are almost all on the phone with Joe: what was wonderful was Joe agreed to work on her days to feed her lines to react to: a real respect for the craft and knowing what another actor needs to be at their best – even if it did mean him hiding beneath desks to remain out of shot to do so.
Q) Without me hopefully giving anything away, there is definite scope for expanding the story. Any plans for a follow-up etc?
Absolutely. Though this wasn’t always the case. During the shoot, absolutely everyone asked – and hoped – the short was proof of concept for a feature and I was insistent that it was not. After we wrapped, on our final drive home in the kit van, I realised how a feature version would open. Bloody, upsetting, funny and frightening. Then the plot began to fall into place.
As it stands, I’m developing three other features before a NEON feature, all very much in the same tone and aesthetic as NEON, building up in scale towards a feature-length version of it. Without going into the plot, it’s very much an expansion of the world, albeit much more of a road movie in many ways, set across several cities and building up to a climax that’s epic, violent and emotionally electrifying. It also has a tremendous villain: a real one-off.
In terms of who returns from the short: well, all the characters who can, albeit not in a way you’d expect. They’re more of a family unit looking after new children – which in this story focuses on keeping them, and their souls, alive. Someone read the outline and said it felt like Trainspotting meets The Matrix, which is fine by me. Especially considering it features guns. Lots of guns.
Q) Neon is very soon to be featured on the HollyShorts festival. When does it show?
NEON is playing as part of Hollyshorts’ cinematography strand on August 12th at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. I won’t lie – having a film play there has been a dream since I was a kid.
Q) Can you tell us a little about this festival and just how festivals like this can help the profile of a film?
Hollyshorts, for my producer and I, is among the biggest festivals we could have hoped to have gotten into: it’s an Oscar qualifier and you only have to look at the quality of films being shown to see what an honour it is to be in competition.
In terms of profile, it helps open things up to a more international audience and I’ve already had some wonderful – and inspiring – meetings off the back of it as well as work offers. The best bit though: seeing some friends while I’m out there who I have met whilst on the festival scene, as well as helping shout it to some other wonderful films in the line up I have already had the pleasure in seeing.
To be honest, I should probably be shouting out my own film instead of theirs, but fuck it – some amazing talent out there!
Q) Do you have my ticket for the L.A trip to HollyShorts or do I just meet you at the airport to collect it?
Look… a squirrel! (Runs away)
As I mentioned earlier, Neon is a complete Joy, with a run time of under 15 minutes Mark has managed a piece of work that many feature-length films would envy in terms of the ideas, intelligence and emotional narrative throughout. The dialogue between the two main characters crisp and emotive from the start and serves to provide an instant authentic feel to their relationship, and thus creating an immediate empathy for them.
The emotional clout given to the relationship is bolstered by some excellent acting from the two leads with Absolom (yes, he of Eastenders and Doc Martin apparently) incredible as the tortured individual searching for emotional redemption. Kerry Bennett (she of Hollyoaks apparently) not only equals her co-lead with a fine portrayal of a woman both confused and angry with the situation she finds herself in, but she also has a nice line in punching the crap out of punching bags and swearing profusely (my type of gal).
Neon also looks and sounds sublime with some delicious photography thrust by Stil Williams and a beautiful score by Paul O’Brien. Beautiful, just beautiful.
I cannot recommend Neon highly enough so import you to try to see it as it does the festival rounds and beyond. As yet I haven’t managed to speak to Mark regarding the film’s reception at HollyShorts Film Festival but as soon as I do I’ll pass the information on to you good people. I truth-speaking to Mark may be a little problematic because I think that whenever I have communicated with him he has either been in taxi’s on his way to important meetings or at the airport before jetting off to sunny California – either that or he was in a taxi on his way to the pub………just as important methinks!
NEON is currently on the international festival circuit, premiering in London at revered genre festival The Horror Channel’s FrightFest 2016.
You can find out more about Mark J Blackman at his website at http://www.mjblackman.com
You can also follow Mark on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JokersPack