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“Character driven stories, grounded by authenticity” – we catch up with Paul Holbrook

January 21, 2021

Bristolian filmmaker Paul Holbrook has been gaining steady recognition for his work over the past year. As well as winning the top prize at The Pitch film competition for his short film submission Hollow, his horror short Hungry Joe, co-directed with his cousin Sam Dawe, was selected for a long list of BIFA and BAFTA-qualifying festivals in 2020 including the BFI London Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival (where it won Best Director & Best Horror awards), British Urban Film Fest (where it scooped the Best Short award) and Manchester International Film Festival (which also named it Best Short). Hungry Joe has now been selected for next month’s prestigious 41st London Critics’ Circle Awards.

We caught up with Paul to talk about his work and what’s on the cards for 2021, including his latest projects Shiney, made with backing from the BFI and due for online release this year; Hollow, currently in the latter stages of post-production and Ordinary Joe, a Bristolian comedy now in development with Fudge Park & Super Best Quality Video Productions.

Hungry Joe has done really well on the festival circuit so far. Tell us about the film and the creative process behind making it?

The concept re Hungry Joe was originally inspired by a Napoleonic tale about a guy called “Tarrare” – a true story about a man with an inhuman appetite, a medical oddity whose ailments have grown into monstrous fables embellished online, which took us down an internet rabbit hole of horror and madness. We set out wanting to make a film that felt like a short story belonging to the horror anthologies of the 80s, like Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt etc, the ‘story of the week’ shows of the 90s like The X-Files and The Outer Limits. We knew the concept excited us enough to explore it further.

In developing the idea, we soon realised that although the concept was a fun one, it didn’t really sustain our excitement for turning it into a film, we wanted to make something that connected with us more on a personal level and find some thematic depth to underpin the genre flair we were excited to inject alongside it. We shifted the focus from the ‘monster’ to the mother and as a result started to find personal attachment to the themes that were punching through; poverty, poor-shaming, a pompous and unfair class system, the struggles of growing up on the breadline. How lonely and hopeless that existence can feel and how all those things are amplified when struggling to raise a child alone, especially one with a disability or addiction. Suddenly we felt like we had something to say and a vehicle for us to show that genre, British social-realism and thematic depth can indeed play nicely together.

(Above & top) Laura Bayton in Hungry Joe (Shunk Films)

Stepping away from horror, your latest short Shiney is a coming-of-age drama. How different has the filmmaking process felt for this film, working in a different genre, with financial and creative support from the BFI?  

Shiney couldn’t be more different from Hungry Joe in style and tone, but the development process was actually quite similar. For a while I had wanted to make something that was set in my world, on a typical working-class council estate, that pushed back against the often grey and depressing presentations I’d become bored with in films usually set against this backdrop. I wanted to make something that was light and airy, with a big splash of colour and sunshine. Which makes me a bit of a hypocrite, considering I had just made a very depressing film in Hungry Joe set on my estate. But, the thing is, I’m a lot more comfortable writing darker stuff, stuff that keeps me up at night, internal worries, angers and fears that manifest themselves in story ideas, so I was struggling to find the right project to present my ‘alternate view’ of life on the estates.

Step in, Graeme Willetts, a sound recordist who I had worked with on several projects. Graeme approached me with a short comedy sketch he had written, simply about two kids trying to buy cigarettes from their local newsagent. It wasn’t a story yet, but as soon as I read it, I knew Graeme and I were on the same wavelength, it had a genuine authenticity and nostalgia weaved through it that never felt heavy handed, it just made me smile. So me and Graeme paired up and set about developing what he already had into a narrative that could support a short film.

Once we were at a point where I thought we were ready to start showing it to people, we entered the script into the IMDBScript2Screen Awards and it got a really good reception from a live audience after a script-read, so we felt confident enough to take it to our local BFI NETWORK Talent Executive, Alice Cabanas – who I instantly clicked with. For a while I had felt a bit at odds with the public funding system, I never really felt like I fit in, or ever would, but Alice was so kind, supportive and down-to-earth, for the first time I truly felt comfortable engaging with the funding process and from there we all worked together to bring the film to life. The support I’ve had from both Alice and her counterpart Alix Taylor at the BFI has been really motivating and I can’t thank either of them enough.

You cast unknown child actors from neighbourhoods around where you grew up in Hartcliffe. How important do you think it is to work with raw talent?

Working with the kids on Shiney, through casting and shooting has been one of the happiest times I’ve had making films. I loved every second of it and every single kid we saw had something unique to say, talents in them that came through in so many varied ways. But unfortunately, the majority of them also had a deep rooted lack of self-belief. I’ve said this before, self-confidence and self-belief are not the same thing; these kids were brimming with confidence, ideas, energy, comedy and showmanship, but none had the belief that those attributes could be aimed at a career in the creative industry. The industry is still seen as reserved for ‘other kids’ and this is something I’m really keen to address. I told myself the same thing over and over again growing up and it stings to see not much has changed.

We auditioned 75 kids (ish) in total and I would’ve loved to work with every one of them. We decided to street cast for a few reasons, we wanted to make sure that the opportunity was presented to as many local kids as possible, to demystify the process to kids who might otherwise think the machine is too big and too scary and to find kids that had a genuine connection to the world in which we were setting our little film, kids that looked comfortable on screen and were able to insert their own colourful personalities into the characters. The kids helped with dialogue, action and tone from start to finish, the film belongs to them.

Caleb Stephens in Shiney (Shunk Films)

In saying that, there are lots of working-class actors out there working really hard to make themselves seen, so I think street casting in the name of authenticity can sometimes be a little unfair to those who have fought so hard to punch through or maybe even a little self-serving. So I’m always looking to engage with actors who have rebelliously persevered to carve out a career from my kind of background, but when it comes to kids, I wanted to make sure we inspired as many as we could to follow any dreams they might be harboring quietly.

What was it like filming in your neighbourhood?

I love shooting in my own neighbourhood, growing up in Hartcliffe you’re surrounded by a sense of community, people looking out for each other and championing small successes. I’ve always been very resourceful, you have to be when growing up as an underdog, but I can honestly say that the amount of help I’ve received from friends and family on my estate has been the most humbling thing, I have this sense that we’re all in it together, so making projects close to home amplifies that feeling of community that I like my projects to have under the surface. I like my friends and family close, I like engaging with the local residents and businesses and talking about what we’re doing and just generally being visible to the next generation and indeed their should-be motivators, so maybe a few more kids like me, feel inspired and empowered to push back and make themselves seen and heard in this industry.

What are your hopes for your latest films and when can we see them?

Shiney is still waiting to hear back from a few festivals, but should be landing online mid-part of this year. Hollow is currently at the tail-end of post-production so will be hitting festivals soon. Hungry Joe is currently available online through ALTER and Short of the Week.

What have been the proudest and most challenging moments of your journey as a filmmaker so far?

I kinda struggle to recognise any pride in myself to be honest, maybe I’ll look back when I’m on my last legs and find reason to be proud, but for now I just wanna keep driving forward and working as hard as I can to break through. I have this constant feeling that I’m making up for lost time, so I’m always working and not giving myself time to pat myself on the back, I don’t want to congratulate myself too much and take my eye off the ball.

I do however feel immense pride in the people I work with; watching my cast and crew deliver on their talents always makes me sit back on set and smile, I get a real buzz out of watching people do good work.

Also, I’m not sure if it’s pride yet or still shock, but I still can’t quite believe I won The Pitch. The competition was packed with super talented people and the fact the panel picked me still blows my mind pretty much every day to be honest. It was a very emotional experience too, the team behind the competition really dragged something out of me, through a kindness I’ve never quite been on the end of before, which I’ll forever be grateful for.

Re challenges, the cop out answer is every project is a challenge with there never being enough time or money to truly nail your vision at this level, so it’s a case of working your ass off and doing as much work in pre-production and development as necessary to limit the compromises along the way.

Which filmmakers have inspired you as you’ve developed your own style?

I’m a big fan of Shane Meadows, his films were the first to show me my world on screen, in a way in which I fully related to and that excited me as a kid, I remember the first time I watched Dead Man’s Shoes; ballsy genre on a council estate, it blew my young mind. I’m also a big fan of Scorsese and Tarantino, so I suppose some of that flamboyance tries to creep in now and again too. You can certainly see and hear some of that in A Girl and Her Gun which was an early short film we did.

I just love movies and I’ll never stop making them, so I suppose my style, if I have one, is inspired by cinema full-stop, but I am always looking to set my stories in the real-world with a big commitment to the truth, both internal and external and explored through genre, character driven stories, grounded by authenticity.

What’s in the pipeline, are we likely to see any features soon?

That’s the dream! I have a few feature scripts in the back pocket, bigger budget spec stuff that may never see the light of day; but also a lower budget, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story called Snog which is in the hands of a few select people, which I have always thought would be my first feature – I’ve had a couple bouts of interest here and there, but my reluctance to give up the director’s chair has left it with me up until now.

Myself and Sam Dawe are also developing the feature version of Hungry Joe with the BFI which is going really well and maybe most excitingly, I’m currently working with Fudge Park and Super Best Quality Video Productions on a spec comedy feature called Ordinary Joe, based on the famous Urban Myth around the Bristol Zoo car park attendant. It’s a wholly Bristol-centric, character-driven comedy with a big injection of heart which I’ve been writing with good friends Joe Sims and Amy Trevaskus and that will be going out to the big decision makers soon.

I’m always working on smaller projects too to ensure I’ve always got something to go, should the bigger projects stall. A couple of shorts I’m excited about are The Saturday After which is a spiritual follow up to Shiney that me and Graeme Willetts have been working on together and a 2-hander called Eccles Cake which is a lovely little script written by Laura Bayston. So 2021 is looking busy and fun.

How has Covid-19 affected you – tell us about your lockdown experience?

It’s not been too bad to be honest. I’m office-based so I’ve been hammering away at projects, hidden away from the real-world. We also managed to shoot The Pitch-winning film Hollow in the midst of lockdown. With all thanks to Luke Walton and Jackie Sheppard, the producers of the film, we managed to get through it with minimum disruption to the creative process.

Filmmaking aside, I’m also the director of a care company providing support to disabled children and adults in Bristol and luckily we have a workforce of absolute superhero carers who have selflessly persevered through it all, which has meant the disruption to people in need under our care has been minimal. I’m in complete awe of the work they do.

What do you like about living & working in Bristol, UNESCO City of Film?

I just feel wholly comfortable here. Like I said earlier, I grew up on a small council estate with loads of mates and a massive family, through all the struggles we all faced and still face, I’m constantly inspired by the sense of community around me. It’s what I know and I have no aspirations to do what I do anywhere else. Bristol as a city also bleeds creativity and working with exciting, passionate and talented people inspires me, always.

Hungry Joe was released online on 11 January 2021, you can watch it on online short film channels ALTER and Short of the Week.

For more about Paul’s work visit www.shunkfilms.co.uk.