Last week, we sat down for an interview with writer/director Ben Parker whose debut feature The Chamber was recently acquired by Studiocanal after its world premiere at FrightFest London 2016 and screenings at several other international festivals.
The Chamber is a thriller that plays upon a sense of horror which is invoked by the vast depths of the ocean, the claustrophobic space of a US special ops submarine, and the rising tension and aggression between its four crew members. Screen Daily describes it as “superbly crafted with a killer twist” – and it certainly is. Even though the script was written four years ago – when the current political climate was just a faint echo in the distance – politics and the threat of war-mongering nations like North Korea are a substantial part of the film’s narrative. This is also reflected by the characters that make up the ship’s crew which includes three US military officers (Charlotte Salt, Elliot Levey, and James McArdle), and a Swedish submarine captain (Johannes Kuhnke), a combination which serves to emphasize the contrast between American standpoints and a more European sensibility regarding martial actions.
Shot within less than a month on an innovative but small set that was designed to allow for as many camera angles as possible within the confined space of the submarine, and using equipment like the ARRI Alexa with cooke lenses, a Sony DSLR for aerial shots, and miniature go-pro cameras for some of the exterior underwater shots, The Chamber makes the most of its budget. Thanks to its shooting location just outside of Cardiff this budget was supplemented by Film Wales.
With the impending release of his first feature film, Ben Parker has come a long way from his time as a design student at the Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett University). Thinking back on those times, he points out that film used to be his main focus even back then, “I would hang out at the Northern Film School building next to my university a lot and would design film posters in exchange for getting to use the equipment.” During his time at university he shot many short films and practiced his craft, “I guess, I’m half self-taught,” he says with a little laugh.
When asked about what kindled his desire to become a filmmaker, he promptly replies that he has always been fascinated by the art of storytelling. “I come from a long line of great storytellers,” he remembers fondly, “my Gran used to sit with us and just tell the most amazing stories.” Later, when his parents started to take him to the cinema, he “caught the bug” and knew that he had found something that he wanted to be part of.
Regarding his academic path, Parker reflects on his decision not to go to film school, “I tried doing film in Edinburgh, but they said it was a very strict film course, purely focused on that and theory. If I were to go there today, I would do it and not let this scare me off.”
His first job after graduating was with Bravo TV in London, the plan was to work his way up the career ladder. But he was mainly stuck making tea, a task which he comments drily, “I’m no good at making tea, so I was let go pretty quickly.” After that Parker went on to work for a company that makes posters and trailers for films. According to his own words, he spent the last 10 years “tantalizingly close to the film industry, peering in from the periphery,” while writing and planning his own break into the industry. He describes his situation in those years as “always sort of been in between” – with his job in advertising closely tied to movie marketing and keeping him in touch with the film industry.
In 2011 he made Shifter, which he describes as his first serious short film with an actual crew, real actors, and a budget. Shifter reflects his love for what he calls “elevated genre films.” Among his favorites, he counts John Carpenter’s The Thing, but he also talks about more recent examples like Midnight Special, a film he appreciates because of the way it subtly mixes genre tropes into its plot. One of the issues that he raises is that as soon as a specific genre enters the picture, production costs grow exponentially with every new set piece, stunt, or special effect that is added to a film’s production plan.
Regarding his sci-fi and action driven short Shifter he says, “it was fun trying to get it done. We liked the story, we liked the drama. With Shifter we wrote a high budget film and just wanted to see how far we could get with everything while keeping it under 10k.” He reflects that in the case of a short film it is easy to leave out some stunts or special effects if the money is not going to cover it.
Obviously, shooting The Chamber was a different situation altogether and brought an entirely new level of responsibility with it. “You have to think how to make everything work within a set budget and you have a whole crew relying on you to make it work,” Parker explains. His feature only had a limited budget and he needed to adapt his script and vision to it to make sure that everything could be done within these monetary constraints.
Of course, shooting a film which is set in a submarine came with its own challenges, to which Parker only has to say that he enjoyed and welcomed them, “I found it better to have all those challenges because it makes you think more creatively about how you want to get the story told.”
The film-set itself is a testament to this creative approach. It was designed to come apart in pieces and fully mobile – it could be flipped, filled with water, had removable elements to make filming from the outside possible, but later also allowed to attach a bungee rig to the ceiling and film from within the claustrophobic set for the more dramatic acts of the film.
Working on such a self-contained set comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Parker notes that the main benefit was that it kept the budget down, “but pretty much everything else was a challenge.” The film had to be shot chronologically and Parker and his camera man often filmed from within the submarine set, spending much of the shooting time in tight quarters and partially submerged in water with the actors. But gradually, he went from standing in the middle of the set to sitting behind the monitor and directing from there because he found that he needed more distance from the jumble in order to keep a clear overview towards the end.
Parker stresses that the film was shot at “break-neck speed.” With only 22 days in total, the shooting schedule was extremely condensed – even more so, considering the fact that The Chamber has many scenes which take place inside of a flooded space. He gives much credit to his director of photography, Benjamin Pritchard, who also designed and built special rigs that would allow the crew to get all sorts of shots in and out of the water within the possibilities and time frame they had to work with.
Originally, Parker decided to write a script that takes place on such a small set because according to him,“it is a practical tool for telling a very tense story of a group of people caught in a tiny space.”
The concept was interesting to him as a director because he had three Americans and a civilian “Swedish guy” (convincingly played by Kuhnke who had his international breakthrough in the delightful Swedish comedic drama Force Majeure) confined together with no escape from each other and their differing world views. This, in turn, throws an interesting light on the cause and effect of their actions in the situation they find themselves in.
When asked about what the best moment of shooting his first feature film was, Parker recounts, “the most fulfilling bit is being on set two weeks in, almost at the end of it, and thinking ‘nobody can take this away from me’.” Even though he admits that there were some hard and scary times when issues with production arose in the middle of shooting The Chamber. He hated sometimes feeling like he was losing control – whenever problems arose he knew how to “jump into the challenge of that,” but shooting a feature was still mostly new territory.
Regarding the question of what drives and inspires him as a filmmaker, Parker returns to the storytelling aspect of filmmaking. He surmises that he enjoys “being part of a team, creating something magical on film that then translates to a great story.” He muses that he would have become a musician if film hadn’t worked out for him as it is the only other career that would allow him to “create something that makes people feel.”
When we asked if he has some advice for other independent filmmakers, he laughs and thinks back to the time when he was starting out as a headstrong, young filmmaker with a head full of ideas and a seemingly clear vision of his goals. “I can just imagine myself 10 years ago, thinking ‘what the hell are you talking about,’ whenever somebody tried to give me well-meaning advice.”
However, he also adds, “the fact that cameras today are so good now and that everybody can just go out and shoot a short film is a gift.” He stresses (for those who would like to have some advice) that above all else it is important to hire good actors. Even without much in the way of budget, a short film can be good if the actors are talented. A great script can be destroyed by amateurish acting and half-hearted delivery of the lines.
So what does the future hold for Ben Parker? Up next are two different projects – one of which has been in the works since before The Chamber and its development took precedence over his other scripts. We can’t wait to see more of his work soon.
Watch the trailer here:
In theatres on 10 March 2017.