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Interview: 'Songbird' director Sophie Black

12 September 18 interview: Ashley Carter

We caught up with Night Owls director Sophie Black to talk about her latest short film, Songbird...

Janet Devlin. Photo credit: Dave Mullany

Following the success of her 2015 short film Night Owls, director Sophie Black is back with the fairytale inspired short Songbird. Written by Tommy Draper and starring the X-Factor's Janet Devlin, it tells the story of Jennifer, a young singer on a quest to retrieve her stolen voice from mysterious old woman known as 'The Collector'. 

What is Songbird about?

On the surface, Songbird is essentially a modern day fairytale, set in the world of indie music. There’s a classic hero’s journey, magical elements and a battle against a wicked antagonist (played by the inimitable Therese Collins). On the other hand, it can also be seen as a metaphor for a young woman's quest for confidence. At the start of the film, Jennifer is shy in spite of her clear talent, and doesn’t believe in herself enough to fully pursue her dreams. So the quest to find her voice is both literal and figurative: the monsters she fights are self-doubt as well as a thousand-year-old witch! So whichever way you read it, Songbird really was an unusual and seriously fun project for the crew to work on.

How did the idea come about?

A very basic version of the story had been in writer Tommy Draper's head for a while, but it was never fully fledged, until a night listening to Spotify inspired him to write the script in full. But in general, Tommy and I bounce ideas around a lot, and we’d both wanted to have a crack at a fantasy film for a while, so when Tommy told me about this one I literally begged him to give my studio, Triskelle Pictures, the rights to the script!

Music is obviously very central to the film’s plot - how did Janet Devlin get involved?

When writing all of our short films in recent years, Tommy and I have created music playlists to inspire us (you should see the one for Night Owls – it’s huge!). With this one, Tommy was browsing for new inspiration music when he chanced across Janet Devlin’s cover of Friday I’m in Love on Spotify. He loved the sound of her voice (for those of you who haven’t heard It, it’s a magical voice, very elfin and unique, and she’s mesmerising when she performs live). It inspired Tommy to find out more about Janet, and her challenges on The X Factor, and that's when Songbird properly took shape in his mind. He wrote the script pretty much instantly, without stopping, with Janet in mind for the lead role.

We never expected that Janet would actually accept the role – it was just ‘dream casting’ at the time. But Janet and her agents (and her fans!) have been so supportive of the film. They totally got where we were coming from. Janet could totally relate to Jennifer's story, and she loved the fairytale elements too. It all totally fit with who she was as an artist.

Therese Collins as 'The Collector'. Photo credit: Shelley Richmond

How important was it to get someone who could both act and contribute new, original songs?

When Tommy wrote songs into the script (there weren’t any lyrics – just one title suggestion and the stage direction of singing) we did discuss a few different options. Because the character of Jennifer is in every single scene, she has to carry the film, and a lot of people may have considered opting for a more experienced actor, with a second person singing the songs, and maybe even a third person writing them. But then the performance wouldn't have felt like such a ‘complete package’, in my eyes. We all just really wanted to work with Janet – Tommy, producer Laura C. Cann and I – even without her prior acting experience. Two of my previous shorts featured female leads who had never appeared on film before, and I love working with newcomers, so I knew I could help guide Janet through the process if she needed me – but she didn’t really need me that much at all. She’s a natural performer with a very beguiling screen presence, plus she looks incredible on screen. Of course, Janet jumped at the chance to write the songs for the film. She really enjoyed the challenge of writing ‘in character’. It was all part of the acting process for her. Both songs fit the film perfectly but Chandeliers has proven to be particularly popular, as Janet now includes it in most of her live sets.

Who else was involved with the film?

Apart from the people mentioned above (and all the film’s enthusiastic Twitter supporters, who funded the film!) we had our Director of Photography, Christopher Newman, his Camera Assistant Dave Mullany, the ADs Charlie Clarke & Liam Banks, Production Designer Charlotte Ball, Sound Designer Robert Brown, Composers Ian Algie & Simon Andrews (who makes his own effects pedals, which gave the film's score a unique sound)… we had a really large crew actually, for the size of the film. And most of us had to live in the woods together for 2 out of the 5 filming days, like a proper unit! It was pretty amazing.

Fairytales exist as a coping mechanism for humans, to help them process what they’re dealing with in the real world

Are there any specific films or directors that influence the film’s style?

I grew up on old fantasy films – Dragonslayer, Classic Disney Films, Hawk the Slayer, that kind of thing – so of course I revisited lots of those on the run up to making the film. Legend and The Princess Bride, for example, were big influences for the scenes in the woods. But at the same time, we wanted Songbird to have quite a unique look – we didn’t want it to look like a predictable fantasy film. We wanted to clearly establish the ‘real world’, Jennifer’s world, and the music world in particular, before the magical elements intruded on it. Some smaller budget films such as Fish Tank, The Selfish Giant and Picnic at Hanging Rock (‘real-world’ films with some unusual touches in the cinematography) inspired me there, plus we looked at La Vie En Rose and some music videos for the open mic night scenes. Colour was so important – all the sets and locations had to fit the colourful palette we'd set ourselves, so a lot of location scouting took place in Nottingham and Derbyshire! Our DOP Chris helped to come up with an amazing way of bringing the two worlds together. We used classic in-camera techniques such as putting tights over the lens to give the image a soft glow, and we gradually increased that filter/glow effect the closer Jennifer got to the woods, easing it in slowly, so the footage had a really magical, atmospheric appearance by the time Jennifer was amongst the trees.

The film invokes a lot of classic fairy tales – how much were they an influence?

Snow White and Red Riding Hood are obvious influences. I did a lot of research regarding the symbology of the woods and the witch character, in particular - looking at how witches have been portrayed on screen before, and which stereotypes we wanted to keep as well as which ones we wanted to break. There was always the danger of the fantasy scenes going over-the-top in an otherwise subtle film. But producer Laura pointed out that fairytales exist as a coping mechanism for humans, to help them process what they’re dealing with in the real world – and that’s a way of thinking which really sums up our approach to the witch and the other fantasy elements.

Janet Devlin. Photo credit: Shelley Richmond

What has the response been to the film so far?

It’s been incredible – and totally unexpected. We had a small number of supporters from our previous projects, but nowhere near as many as we’ve gained since we started work on Songbird (and when we announced Janet's involvement, in particular). The film's fans are very enthusiastic – they contact us pretty much every day, asking how the film’s doing, asking if we plan on selling the film on DVD, or even just saying “good morning” to Tommy! We’ve never had that sort of public demand before, and it’s really wonderful. We're very lucky.

What are your plans with Songbird? Are you entering into festivals?

We have started the film’s festival run, with three screenings under our belt already, with the latest being at The Short Cinema in Leicester on the 25 August. We’ve got a team of qualified festival doctors – ‘Festival Formula’ - on board to push the film’s festival submissions on our behalf, and we're still waiting to hear if we’ve been accepted into numerous worldwide festivals, so hopefully we'll have more screening dates to share soon.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently in post-production on a fan film for the Batman character ‘Poison Ivy’. That production was done on a much, much smaller scale than Songbird, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, so it’s been a pleasure to work on. And Tommy is about to crowdfund for a new short film called ‘Keep Breathing’, which is definitely worth supporting, as it highlights the importance of sexual consent in a new way. Looking ahead, the main goal for me is to get the feature-length version of Night Owls (Night Owls & Early Birds) off the ground. It’s something Tommy and I have been pushing for years, and we're still working on the script and meeting with potential sales agents. Hopefully one of them will bite soon. But I do have a couple more shorts under my hat in the meantime. I plan on entering the 2019 Sci-fi London 48hr film challenge; and I’m also in pre-production on a fantasy thriller about a multi-dimensional building which forces people to face their fears, with a new threat hiding behind every door. That film is currently called The Barn (working title) and it should also go into production in 2019/2020 – all being well!

To find out more about Songbird, or to keep up to date with Sophie's latest projects, visit the Triskelle Pictures website

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