SIMON DENNIS:  THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST Image

Christmas is meant to be a time of giving, which is why five-year-old mute Sam is devastated when her twin sister April is taken from her one Christmas Eve. Sam and her despairing father, who communicate only by sign language, are woken up by an unearthly presence. Does she know where April is???…

“Iota”, a 10-minute 35mm short, is the excellent directorial feature of young up-and-coming top-notch cinematographer Simon Dennis. It’s a wistful, moody, elegiac tone poem with a nicely ambiguous ending that owes a lot to the classic cinema of the 70s. Dennis’s lensman background shines through and he has created a beautiful, haunting work that has played at film festivals the world over this year, from America to Austria to England to Athens, being critically acclaimed wherever it goes. The film has won numerous awards (being nominated for many more), including for Best Cinematography and Best Short, amongst numerous others. We caught up with Simon to have a few words with him about his short and feature work, the Scottish film industry and walking across hot coals…

How did you get into filmmaking?
I’ve always been into movies yet as a kid on leaving school I wanted to be in arts and graphic design. I quickly lost interest and on the end of a course I was on we were asked to shoot a 20 second visual experiment/adaptation based on a passage from a book called “The President’s Daughter”. From that moment I knew I wanted to pursue a career in film.

Who would you say are your directorial and cinematography influences and why?
Sounds odd, but I’m influenced as director through my knowledge and experience as a DOP. I have directors I admire i.e Kubrick and Hitchock yet I find naming my influences as a distraction from my aim to create something new and original and is a part of me. Inspiration is more to do with fuelling my ambition to aspire to be a cinematographer and director.

Basic question: why is the film called “Iota”?
Comes from the phrase “not one iota”.

Where did you get the idea for the plot from?
The underlining message is the impotence of communication within a family unit, no matter how far we are divided in life. That was the core foundation and the story was formed as a metaphor towards that message.

How exactly would you classify the film? Supernatural?
I’m aware it has supernatural themes yet my main aim was to make a natural and humanistic story. The supernatural movie genre follows, like most, a certain formulaic approach which I chose to completely ignore. If you find that supernatural then that sadly is the trappings of that particular genre.

Why did you want to make the ending ambiguous? I personally thought the ending was a happy one, but I can see how some people would see it as a downer too.
The ending is left open to each individual audience member. If you feel there is hope for these characters then it inexplicably links to you being an optimistic person, if you feel they will not be reunited etc you are a pessimistic person. The ending is really a mirror held up to the morals of the audience and that was intentional. Thankfully the audience is smart enough these days to know that and I¹ve had very little questioning on the ending.

Did your excellent reputation as a cinematographer make things easier for you when you came to wanting to direct this short, in funding or equipment or crew areas?
“Iota” would not have been made if not for my experience and contacts as a Dp, full stop. The key problem you have with producing a no budget film is talking key crew members who make it happen on the day into believing in the film for zero pay. By that I mean technicians, gaffers, focus pullers etc, yet because of my work as cinematographer these crew are my trusted friends and it wasn’t hard to convince them they were working on something worth while. “Iota” was made for £2000 (with a crew of just 5) before I received any credible financial help which didn’t come until post-production and the hard part was done. Kodak donated the stock which was the initial reason it came together, then Panavision and Lee Lighting kindly stepped in to donate equipment. In all, I think it took about 8 phone calls over one or two days to pull the film together.

Do you prefer directing over cinematography? Is directing a, er, direction you’d like to move in in the future over cinematography? Or would you prefer to be DoP and director any films you shoot?
I enjoy both equally for very different reasons yet I still very much see myself as a cinematographer who has an ability to direct when needed. The stories I want to tell as a director are often personal to me or have links and as a Cinematographer I strive to work on projects that are visually and emotionally captivating which is often what a director seeks as well. It’s all interrelated on set and directing is another way of gaining that extra knowledge and experience that makes me a better Dp and vice versa. It’s a little like a director trying his hand at acting in a film, to know what an actors goes through an experience make that director a much more insightful artist.

Didn’t you find being writer, director, cinematographer and part producer exhausting?
Not really. As I said, most of the elements that make up a film I’m already experienced and (I hope) respected in. The shoot itself was a very easy and freeing experience for me, primarily because I was not needing to confer with and understand a director’s vision as it were. It was all in my head and the film was either going to fly or flop and I only had myself to blame for that.

How long did it take you to shoot the full 10 minutes?
It was shot over a long weekend, so four days.

You shot on 35mm, which is a very expensive medium to shoot in. How did you manage to afford this? I see you thank both Scottish Screen and Hannaywood Studios (Irish production company – Graham) for completion funding. How did you get involved with them?
Well, Hannaywood are a company I’ve shot many films with on 35mm and were incredibly supportive of the project in post enabling me to finish with a 35mm print. Scottish Screen, whom I¹ve shot projects for and know my work, initially stated that they could only help me with a small nominal sum i.e £1000 towards post, yet on seeing a rough cut they bumped that up to £4000, no questions asked. It was as simple as that. 35mm is very expensive medium yet I couldn’t have made the film without Kodak’s donation of stock to kick start the production and Hannaywood and Scottish Screen to see me through to fruition.

Why make a short film as opposed to a feature? Do you have a script for a full length “Iota” if the opportunity to make it ever came along?
I have a few feature length projects I’m working on as writer yet I simply couldn’t afford to go into production on at this stage. With “Iota” I wanted to try my hand at directing again, more so as a cathartic process to know what kind of director I had evolved into since graduating from film school. I’ve directed over 20 shorts mostly on video formats and my last short on 35mm as writer/director, “Fake,” was made as a graduation film and went on to win a few awards, yet it’s a very different film to “Iota” regarding my style of direction. I’ve matured a lot since then and are more aware of the language of cinema as a whole.

Using subtitles and sign language for a plot device is quite unusual. Why did you do this? Did you feel that it makes the viewer pay more attention to the image, as opposed to the sound (the DoP in you coming out)?
Sure, it makes you pay more attention to the image and certainly made it easier for me to curb both directing and Dp duties on the day yet I used sign as I wanted to emphasise the actual concept of ‘communication’ as well as make the film a very peaceful and almost dream-like, a visual lullaby for the audience. A lot of short films today can be quite aggressive and edit heavy and I almost wanted to swim against the tide and produce something that took its time so the audience could appreciate it and by that rational, see beyond what just lies on the surface.

Did you have to teach the actors sign language? If so, how did this go?
No, I brought in the help of a company called Deaf Connection in Glasgow. They were great and altered the script to be more authentic to deaf culture and also provided the actors with video tapings of a tutoring signing the lines of dialogue. That’s what the actors took away to us as reference as opposed to going home to rehearse their lines from paper. I’m told it was a very good experience for both of them.

The little girl was very good. Where did you find her?
Natasha Watson is a fantastic little actress and to this day I found it hard to believe she was 5 years only when she made the film. I had a limited budget which meant a limited audition rate and Stephen McCreadie who plays the father talked his agent into helping us out as they had a few child actors on their books. She came in second of I think five children and, as they say, I knew she was the one! She was the youngest ever nominee for ³Best First Time Performance² at Bafta Scotland which I was so thrilled about seeing as she was up against feature and TV length projects!! I¹ve worked with her again recently when shooting Richard Jobson¹s recent feature ³A Woman In Winter² and Richard, like me, was completely amazed by her abilities and range at such a young age.

The film partly takes place at the beach. You live in Brighton, which has a celebrated sea front. Why did you shoot just outside Edinburgh?
My home town of Sidmouth is on the coast so I’ve always been drawn to the sea. I actually knew that part of Edinburgh (Gullane) well as a good friend of mine lived there. Once I picked out parts I felt suitable for the film I then went back and rewrote the film partially around those locations, an old trick of producing low budget films to your favour.

You have said that “Iota” is a throwback to 70s films like “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “Don’t Look Now” and especially Richard Attenborough’s “Magic”. Were you trying to evoke them directorially, story-wise or in the film’s cinematography?
I meant that in a visual sense, i.e in the costumes and photography. I had Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters” in my head regarding pace verses look and developed it from there. Attenborough’s “Magic”, which is thankfully relatively unknown to most had such an incredible impact on me as a kid, it really haunted me for a long time and from that I drew inspiration for my film’s inner design i.e the mood, acting, tension etc.

Did you expect the extremely favourable reaction the film has had at the world’s film festivals? What has been your reaction to this? Which festivals have you attended with the film?
Well, it¹s screened at 51 festivals world wide and bagged 14 international awards. I was blown away at first by America’s reaction, who all love it. In fact it’s been accepted into more US festivals than any other continent. It’s not that I didn’t feel they wouldn’t understand it, yet it does have a strong European sensibility to it, yet I guess the widescreen photography and universal message really hit home with them which is great!!

Any favorite films?
The order always changes over the years as I change, yet “Klute”, “The Conversation”,”French Connection” and “All The President’s Men” are always up there. I’m just a pushover for the 70s!!

Do you have any thoughts on the Scottish film scene? How do you think it differs from the rest of the UK? Any areas you think are particularly strong or weak and open to more development? Any qualitative differences between Scotland and England and, indeed, Ireland?
I would say it’s the same pretty much the country over. There will always be a form of frustration for new filmmakers getting into the bigger arena, i.e movies, and no doubt a lot of resentment for funding bodies if rejected. Yet I’m pretty much a head down and keep running kind of guy! You can’t take things personally when it comes to preferences to other directors, scripts or funding. Film-making to me will forever be a democracy held by a committee.

The Scottish film scene seems to be undergoing a growth period recently, with more films than ever before being made. Why do you think this is? Seen any recent Scottish films you’ve liked?
Recently I¹ve only had time to see “16 Years of Alcohol” which I really enjoyed and oddly enough am shooting the directors next project. I think something had to give with Scotland as there was such lull for a long period, sadly I was around when it happened yet it seems to be heating up again and I wish a lot of the films success!!

You shot a film called “The Hunt Feast” which was a Syria-Scottish co-production. How did you get involved with this?
It was decided very early on to shoot “The Hunt Feast” on HD for budgetary reasons yet also for curiously reasons as to what this new format could do for this story! By chance I had shot an HD short for Hannay (the co-funders & producers) a couple months prior to their involvement with “The Hunt Feast” and as it was set in the Middle-East (Lebanon) the original Syrian Dp’s they had in mind had no experience in HD, so they brought me in and offered me the position. That was that.

You shot “The Last Great Wilderness” for David “Young Adam” McKenzie on digital video in Scotland. How did you find working with him? I understand, after all, that he literally made people walk over hot coals…
Ha ha, yes he did. That was a strange night shoot, Well from memory, aside from the foot and mouth crisis where overnight the production lost all of their exterior locations, the shoot for “Last Great Wilderness” went without any hitches. David was very open to ideas and we both ended up creating an organic style to the film which we felt reflected the films narrative tone.

Any directors you¹d like to work with?
Yes, lots. But I wouldn’t want to jinx myself by saying who! I recently worked with the great Brian Cox which was fantastic. “Manhunter” is such an influential film for me.

Do you prefer shooting on film or digital or video, or do you think that it depends on the story (if not the budget) and what look the director is trying to achieve?
These days it’s all relative to the story versus budget. I always prefer film yet it’s not always affordable so I’ve adapted a lot to shoot on every format. To me from MiniDV to Super 35mm is a storytelling format and unlike 5 years ago, there is no in superior format anymore. Also HD is an interesting new medium and a great format to still flex your cinematic muscles as it were. Yet I always go back to film, it’s a primal thing, as a kid I was raised on and influenced by movies, you know, when film was film!

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?
I¹ve shot the coming of age feature project “A MIND OF HER OWN” for Carey Films currently in post, and just completed photography on Richard Jobson¹s third feature “A WOMAN IN WINTER” (seen Screenbiz.co.uk for more info) which is an interesting and challenging project for me as it deals with Love, Quantum Physics & parallel universes! Yet challenges bring out the best in me. General plans for the future…..up I hope.

Visit Simon Dennis at his website.

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