CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE PROJECT?
When I was 8yrs old, I came home one Saturday afternoon and found an inconsolable young man being comforted by my Dad. I was completely struck by this image because it was the first time I’d ever seen a man cry. The reason he was upset was that he had given his friend a ticket to watch Liverpool FC’s match at Hillsborough, and his friend was one of the 96 fans who never came home. This image is still something I can remember vividly to this day, and so the story is largely inspired from this memory.
Drama is based on conflict. Yet with a subject like Hillsborough the emotion is already so high that it didn’t require over-dramatisation. So the first decision I made was to really simplify the narrative. I wanted the story to resonate with the audience regardless of their knowledge of Hillsborough. At its heart the film focuses on an ordinary family dealing with a disaster they have no control over, a theme that could also resonate with those affected by 9/11, or the London bombings in 2005.
On a practical level I always write with specific locations in mind. This helps to establish the films geography – which is very important to me – and define the narrative structure. The film opens with a flash-forward to the film’s ending to immediately engage the audience and pose questions that will be answered as the narrative unfolds; so that we understand what will happen, but don’t know how or why.
WHERE DID YOU FIND THE MONEY TO FINANCE THE FILM?
At the start of 2013 the project was selected for Nisi Masa’s European Script Pitch. After intensively developing the script, I pitched the project in Luxembourg to a room of European filmmakers and SATURDAY was awarded a top prize. This generated a lot of interest and enabled me to find my producer, Jessica Levick.
After the UK government slashed public arts funding, it is increasingly difficult to fund ambitious short film productions. However due to the nature of the story we were confident that there was a community of passionate supporters who understood the importance of this film and would help bring it to a wider audience.
We turned to Kickstarter not just as a means to raise the finance, but also to build a following and audience for the project who understood the importance of the subject matter. However, although we had identified our potential audience, the real hard work was raising our projects profile so we could engage them. To add further pressure, Kickstarter is ‘all or nothing’, so the campaign proved to be a lot more intensive then we had anticipated! However we kept our self-belief and thankfully we were successful in achieving our fundraising goal, thanks to the support of backers the world over.
HOW DO YOU BEGIN YOUR CASTING PROCESS?
My scripts are designed to act as comprehensive blueprints for action, containing all the necessary drama but allowing space for improvisation and characterisation. This approach allows for spontaneity and encourages the cast to inform the construction of the characters. But obviously the script goes before me – so if people don’t like what I’ve written then I don’t get the chance to talk to them!
For this short, our main criteria was to find actors with strong connections to Liverpool. Knowing that Lizzie Berrington has repeatedly worked with Mike Leigh, and regularly works with people like Ralph Fiennes and David Morrissey was a little intimidating. Yet from our first meeting she was constantly asking the right questions (about Hillsborough) and her understanding of the disaster shines through in her portrayal.
Although Neil Fitzmaurice is very well known UK actor, not many people are aware that he is a Hillsborough survivor. He survived the same event that claimed the lives of the 96 Liverpool fans. So asking him to take part in many ways was a test of the project’s credibility. Knowing what he had experienced meant I was placing him in a situation that had a real emotional resonance with his life – suffice to say, we didn’t need to discuss the emotions of his character.
HOW DID YOU APPROACH WORKING WITH THE YOUNG ACTORS?
My experience working with kids is that it is counterproductive to try and impose your ideas upon them. It is far more interesting to allow them to feel their way into the role, as their intuition will be more real than anything you can write. Ideally if you create the right environment on set they will completely forget about the camera – and as a film fan, I just find these kind of performances utterly compelling.
Kids tend to put more trust in you as a director because they don’t fully understand the process. Prior to the shoot I spent time with Harrison Vaughan blocking certain scenes and discussing the film, and this allowed me to really get to know him on a personal level. Building up this mutual trust enabled me to understand how I would direct him on set. Then once Harrison was onboard, I made the decision to find the other young members of the cast from his own group of friends. This encouraged their natural relationships to become a factor within the film, and helped remove some of the artifice of the shoot.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE FILM’S VISUAL STYLE?
I always try to communicate the story as visually as possible. As this was my childhood memory of Hillsborough, it was important the audience understood the events through the prism of Liam’s experience. However it was vital to infuse the film with references to Hillsborough throughout; the first audience in my mind is the Liverpool fans and families still affected by the tragedy and I want them to feel that the film is true to their emotions.
The imagery has also been specifically written to signal that this is a symbolic exploration of the Hillsborough disaster rather than a factual representation. The scenes of overcrowding, or the ‘crushing’, all reference documented events that took place inside the stadium, and these images are designed to disrupt the emotional spell of the narrative and challenge the audience to think about their wider meaning.
This use of symbolism will gain clarity by the end of the film, when the events are relayed via the TV news report. As a filmmaker I strongly feel you must respect your audience, and hope they engage with these moments and understand the bigger picture of how the film is trying to communicate with you.
WHY THIS STORY? WHY MAKE A NARRATIVE SHORT FILM?
Although the loss of life at Hillsborough has been well documented, people often overlook the fact that 24,000 Liverpool fans were in that stadium. Our main drive to tell this story is to help people understand that the immediate impact of the disaster was felt much wider than the families of the 96 fans who lost their lives. Our story is about how Hillsborough spilled into the homes of every family across the nation who knew supporters at that match, who watched helplessly in collective anticipation as the disaster unfolded on TV. By setting the film in Liverpool – away from the scene of the disaster – and focusing on the immediate impact on families back home, I hope we’ve approached this story from a fresh perspective.
I believe fiction has the unique potential to create a more intense form of communication then documentary. Choosing to dramatise a real event – and therefore subjectively filtering the truth of that situation – creates a connection between the audience and your characters that increases their understanding of that given story or situation. If harnessed correctly this can be very powerful, so it is also vital to understand exactly what your film is saying: what’s the implication of the film? What’s the subtext? Is it authentic? Is it open to misinterpretation?
Hillsborough is an incredibly sensitive topic. We are really proud to say that our project was encouraged by both the Hillsborough support groups, who really got behind the idea and agreed that we were dealing with an aspect of the disaster that is often overlooked. Their only real guidance was that we approach the subject matter with truth and sensitivity.
For all those connected to the city, Hillsborough was the defining moment of our generation; everyone remembers where they were, and what they were doing when they heard the news. I believe it is vitally important to keep Hillsborough in the public eye and hopefully this film may help in some small part. Thanks to years of tireless campaigning a lot of the truth the disaster has finally been revealed but there is still work to do help more people understand.
At the time of writing, the Inquests that were reopened in 2014, almost 26 years on, are ongoing and the verdicts are expected sometime in 2015.