With awards season well underway it's easy to forget about what a great year it's been for low-budget indie film as the barrage of studio releases hit the multiplexes. So we sat down with one of 2015's most talented indie film break-outs, a real winner for us - Oliver Nias, director of The Return, nominated for Best UK Film at Raindance Film Festival and the Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards.
It's not hard to see why The Return stood out from the pack for Raindance programmers and BIFA voters; aside from being an incredibly accomplished first feature by Nias, whose prior experience consisted largely of music videos and a short film made in the first year of an English Literature degree at UCL (incidentally the same course and university as Raindance alumnus Chris Nolan) – it's a contemporary, London-set, black & white neo-noir shot on 35mm film. But don't be fooled, there's nothing gimmicky about it.
"I'd been looking for a way to make a high-concept, low-budget movie for a long time" says Oliver, "and opting for black and white gave us a way of transporting the audience into the world of the film. It was a way of delivering something on our humble means and resources that people would want to go and see on the big screen. Black and white gave us a look and a world for the film"
Drawing on the great Golden Age noirs like The Third Man, The Return wears its inspirations on its sleeve without emulating them – and the result is unique and contemporary. Oliver points out that the original noirs had a similar model to his own: maximum entertainment for minimum budget. "I wanted to make a Movie (capital M), not a film." Although a dictionary will throw out identical definitions for these two terms, we know exactly what he means - a transportive, cinematic experience, a throwback to the days when going to the cinema was an event in and of itself.
And what about shooting on 35mm? It’s a fairly unusual move for a filmmaker emerging in the age of accessible digital technology, let alone a debut feature. “In terms of the calibre of crew and decision-making that it led to, 35mm was absolutely cheaper than film” Oliver goes on to explain that when approaching the crew he wanted to bring on to the film, his decision to go down the 35mm route proved to be an indication of his commitment to the project; the message it sent out was that he wasn’t a young guy with a DSLR, but a serious filmmaker.
"What 35mm really did for the whole production was to provide a statement of intent. When you're 26 and you're sitting in front of people asking them to give you a month of their time for very little money and you say you have 24,000 feet of film sitting at home, they know you're not in a position to screw up."
But it’s not for everyone, he acknowledges. “I’m not a baggy director. We had a shooting ratio of 4:1.” In the hands of a more trigger-happy director, the bill for shooting on film could have been much higher, but knowing his directorial style made the decision to shoot 35mm even easier.
“To understand the quantitative savings of shooting The Return on film (i.e. financial), you have to take into account the qualitative uplift it afforded” What Oliver means by this, he explains, is that the crew and the way of working were more focussed because they had to be, particularly given the film’s budget, which led to sharper decision-making and an end product that would have cost a lot more to produce in digital given the level of skill involved.
Is shooting on 35mm a realistic option for new and emerging filmmakers today? “Yes”, Oliver confidently replies, “but for the right type of production.” 35mm not only lent itself well to The Return’s tight shoot, but to the style, tone and experience of the film.
“Everyone, film-goers, can emotionally understand 35mm, but not everyone can emotionally digest the digital image,” Oliver says, echoing the sentiments of other directors including Tarantino, Spielberg and Scorsese who all champion celluloid’s “warmth”, which has failed to translate to digital.
When we ask if he’d purposely choose his future projects around be able to shoot on film, Oliver quickly replies, “I’m not a purist, the story absolutely comes first.” The choice whether to go digital or celluloid all depends on the story, the project and the production for him. “But I’ll always make the case for film where I can. It’s much more than a format – it gave us our production model for The Return.”
If he had to name just two advantages and disadvantages of shooting on 35mm film, what would they be, we ask. Having already listed a fair few advantages already, Oliver considers the question for a moment. He reiterates the collective focus it instilled in the crew, “most of the finished film is first takes”, before adding “film shortened the distance between saying ‘cut’, and that image being ready for the cinema screen – the footage already looked largely how we wanted it to look.”
And any disadvantages? “Surprisingly few” he notes. “We couldn’t review the footage we’d shot that day on set – we could only do it at the end of each week” he adds after thinking for a few seconds, “and camera noise – we shot in some claustrophobic spaces and had to clean up a couple of scenes, sound-wise.”
Following a much shorter list of negatives than we were expecting, Oliver quickly adds “but it’s hard to call these disadvantages because the film had been planned around shooting on 35mm so the disadvantages never felt like disadvantages because they’d been prepared for. Any disadvantages of celluloid in the ‘celluloid vs. digital’ debate were ironed out in pre-production.”
“It’s all won or lost in pre-production. We were ready. We were really ready. When you’re employing 35 people for a month, you’d better be ready.”
Because they were so prepared going in to production, it meant there were none of those notorious 14-hour days on set. Preparation afforded them an easy ride (comparatively).
And did shooting on 35mm change his approach to directing compared to previous experience shooting digital? “No” Oliver answers, “I’m only ever focussed on the audience and their cinematic experience.”
Since The Return premiered at Raindance in September and was nominated for the BIFA Discovery Award in December, it’s been submitted to selected festivals in the States, which Oliver is waiting to hear back on.
“We’ve had offers for distribution, but we’ve turned them down because they haven’t been right for us and the film. But whatever happens, The Return will always have a home online.”
“We’ve always tried to match whatever we’ve been given. When we were nominated for Raindance, that raised the bar for us, so we upped our efforts to meet it - for example, getting professional photos of the cast. When we got nominated at BIFA that raised the bar again for us, so again we upped what we were doing to meet it.” We can tell what he’s talking about – the website for The Return is slick and professional, and it has an active social media presence. It’s a shame when filmmakers put so much time, care and attention into their film but neglect their marketing, we say - Oliver agrees.
“I’d never been to a film festival before taking The Return to Raindance. I’d never been in a room where I could have a passionate conversations with every person in the room about a movie – it developed a film community for me.”
Aside from having written, directed and produced an accomplished feature, let alone the fact it’s a debut, Oliver Nias is a film festival’s dream filmmaker – he’s actively involved in getting the most out of the festival experience, making it easy for the festival team to do their job. He says he’s proud to be part of Raindance’s record-breaking box office day in 2015. And we were proud to have him.
Find out more about The Return at thereturnmovie.co.uk