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Filmmaker Q&A - Colin Bell & Gregor Barclay on Ribbons

Tartan Features #17 - improvised psychological thriller, Ribbons - got off to a shaky start earlier this year when the shoot schedule was thrown out the window following the Beast From the East.

Starring Robert Jack (BBC's Gary: Tank Commander) and Ali Craig (Outlander, Trust Me and Shetland), Ribbons follows a small group of four very different characters trapped in a confined space - a windowless bunker that pushes relationships to breaking points, and minds to the brink of madness.

We caught up with the filmmakers, Colin Bell and Gregor Barclay to find out more.

How did the idea for Ribbons come about?

It was sort of a back to front approach. We’d been talking for a while about making an improvised feature, similar to the movies that Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers had made, but with more of a genre spin on the idea – those movies tend to be relationship dramas, as that’s the most straightforward way to have actors improv their way through the story, and everyone has the experience of a relationship to draw on – and after talking through a bunch of ideas we landed on the story for Ribbons. Once we’d got the bare bones of the narrative down the ideas around the characters and the situation grew so quickly that we were confident we had something that actors would absolutely love to get their teeth into, and that’s vital for this type of filmmaking.

You both have experience in making shorts and music videos, but this is your first foray into feature filmmaking. How did you know it was time to take that jump? What do you get creatively from a feature that you might not when making a short?

I think we both enjoy the challenges of different types of project, everything we’ve done separately and collectively has been odd, both in terms of the subject matter and the way we work (we don’t tend to make films in a traditional way) but they’d all been successful at that level, and we were keen to take that storytelling style and filmmaking philosophy and tell a story at feature length. It’s the next logical challenge.

How do you plan for something as tight as a 4-day shoot?

It’s tricky, but the nature of the shoot (heavily improvised) really helps, we’re wiring everything for sound, running a couple of cameras and relying on the actors to surprise us, and each other, in the take – the edge that comes from the characters exploring their situation almost in real time is only going to be there in the first couple of takes anyway – and we were confident that the story itself, broken down into beats and sections like a set list - was strong enough to carry the film. Also we’re working with a production team that we really trust, and that makes a huge difference.

The film was due to be shot from March 1-4 until central Scotland was shut down by probably the heaviest snowfall in living must have been gutted! At what point did you take the decision to abandon that week's filming and what had been the impact on the shoot up until then?

We were absolutely gutted, and tried everything to make the shoot happen - rescheduling the order as much as we could, trying to look at ways to compress a four day shoot into three, adding night shoots – eventually we had to have the conversation where we realised that we COULD feasibly do it, but the impact on quality was too severe. Its not enough to just make something, we have to make something to our standards.

How difficult was it to get back on your feet again and get everything reorganised?

Mentally it was pretty tough – you’re psyched up to go through the filmmaking process and then its just gone – but we were lucky enough that our excellent cast and crew were immediately telling us that they were still excited by the project, and raring to go when we had new dates. We’re delighted that we’ve managed to get everyone back for the shoot in June. If it gets snowed off this time then we’re changing careers…

To add to the challenge of being filmed in four days, Ribbons is improvised by the cast. How does this work in practice and why go for improvisation over something fully-scripted? How do you prepare for that with the actors?

We have a pretty solid set list, so all the actors know, beat by beat, what they’re expected to deliver in a scene, and how that scene fits in the larger context of the narrative – they all know where their character has been (we shoot chronologically) and for the most part, where they’re about to go. We work with the actors beforehand as well so they know their characters backstory, and we can find points where the character and the actor themselves can dovetail their personalities to make the interactions completely believable.

We’ve also made the decision to bring in actors who write, direct and create their own work as well – they embrace the challenge of guiding their own characters journey.

Speaking of the actors, you've got some really good names attached - how do you manage that on what is ostensibly a pretty stripped-back production?

We’re very lucky in that we’ve both worked in and around the film and theatre scene for years, and so for the most part the actors know us, know what our work and our style of working is like, and are keen to get on board with that. That works both ways as well – we’ve worked with some of these guys before, and we trust them and what they’ll bring to the role. We’ve been extremely lucky to get a cast as talented as this all at the same time as well.

Your Indiegogo campaign raised just over half of the intended target of £5,300, which - to be fair - is a pretty great feat in itself. Did you have a Plan B for the remainder of the budget?

We had two budgets, one was a little more… stripped back, in terms of how we would fulfill the production. We were absolutely delighted with the response from the Indigogo campaign, not just in terms of fundraising, but also with the people who have approached us throughout to tell us how excited they are by the film, and offering to help where they could. It’s been really heartening to have had that support straight away.

The original plan was to have Ribbons shot, edited and out by the summer. When can we - tentatively - hope to see it now?

Well the film was always designed to have a relatively short post production process, so assuming we don’t get shut down in a freak June blizzard, we should be looking at having it ready to go to festivals etc. around about September.

You can follow updates from Colin, Gregor and Ribbons at @ribbons2018.

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