Overshadowed by the major Hollywood contenders and the stars involved, the short film categories at the Academy Awards rarely get the attention they deserve. It can be argued that the filmmaking process for these smaller pieces requires a particular set of skills that must abide by the time and financial restraints that apply differently that to feature films. This year’s Live Action Short nominees all come from European filmmakers, but vary in content and scope. British director Mark Gill is among this batch of outstanding creators, his short The Voorman Problem is perhaps the one with the highest profile in the category. Starring Tom Hollander and Martin Freeman the story follows Doctor Williams who is called in to evaluate a prison inmate who maintains he is God. With elements of smart dark humor the filmmaker managed to create something witty, yet disturbingly thought provoking. Gill talked to us about the inspiration, his road to the Oscar nomination, and the incredible approach to get well-known actors to appear on his short film.
This is the first interview in a series of conversations with all five nominees in the category, all of which will appear here on SydneysBuzz this week.
Carlos Aguilar: How did the concept for the film originate?
Mark Gill: The idea is an adaption of a small section of a novel by David Mitchell, who wrote Cloud Atlas, the book is called number9dream. Within that book there is a small vignette, "Panopticon", the main character has a dream where he goes to the cinema and on the screen he can see all he world’s problems.
Aguilar: Since your film is an offbeat comedy combined with various existential elements, how do you think it would have worked as a more serious piece?
Gill: My worry is that when you are tackling something as religious you can start being preachy. Then I wouldn’t see any difference between me and religion, and I think that’s why to tackle religion I used comedy to try to demystify it from my personal standpoint. I think comedy is a great vehicle. It can be subtler like this.
Aguilar: What where the biggest challenges to make this short film given the caliber of talent involved, and with such a particular story?
Gill: The biggest challenge was to coordinate the actors’ schedules. We had a long pre-production period, 6 weeks. During the production process you are always thrown these challenges, or these curveballs and you have to react to them. To me it was just great to have that caliber of cast on board, collaborating with people like that is challenging but it was also a really fantastic moment.
Aguilar: Now that you mention the great actors you had a chance to work with, how difficult was it to get them on board for a short film?
Gill: We were very confident on our script, so we decided to approach some great actors, the first one we approach was Kevin Spacey. We just wrote him a nice letter and he responded very positively saying that he would like to help, he suggested we contacted Tom Hollander directly and not use his agent, which is something you are not supposed to do but it worked for us. Then Tom and I had a conversation and Martin’s name came up and we thought he’d be great. Tom sent Martin’s agent an email with the script, and Martin’s agent said yes. Sounds quite simple, but it really was that easy.
Aguilar: Was there pressure on you as the director having to work with such experienced actors?
Gill: There is always pressure when you are making a film. Simply having these two actors on board just raised everyone’s game, including me. I was just really interested to see what they would bring to it, during the first reading I didn’t offer any direction I just let them bring that they had to bring. Then it was just collaborating, working together, and refining it.
Aguilar: You mention the inspiration for the short was a piece of a novel, but what attracted you to this subject?
Gill: I’ve always been quite interesting in religion; I’m not a religious person. Looking at any religion all the God’s are quite psychotic, I thought it was an interesting concept to play with. Why do we put so much faith in them? That general idea attracted me.
Aguilar: After so many festivals and awards, how has this culminating experience - the Academy Award nomination - been for you?
Gill: It has been good. We were quite confident with what we put together, we knew it would do well but we didn’t think it would do this well. 45 festivals, the nomination for the BAFTA last year, but now the Academy Award, it is just an amazing thing to experience. We are so lucky that the Academy continues to support shot films, that's something that deserves a lot of respect. It is a great way to launch our careers, it is the biggest award in the world, even just to be nominated is a massive thing for us.
Aguilar: What are your future plans? Is there a feature you are working on now?
Gill: We got a feature. I can’t really say too much about that, there are some legal things we need to sign off before we can make any announcement. It has been in development for a couple years, and there are a lot of people invested, the Academy nomination has accelerated their interest, so we got that. I’m also looking at a couple of books to adapt.