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Socks and Robbers: David Lilley, Kel Webster and AJ Stevenson on the Groundbreaking New Nottingham Short Film

10 June 19 interview: Ashley Carter
photos: Fabrice Gagos

After over two years in production, the highly anticipated Socks and Robbers, a Notts’ short film about a gang of sock-headed bank robbers, is almost ready to be released into the world. We caught up with director David Lilley, producer Kel Webster and actor AJ Stevenson to find out how they managed to pull it all off…

For the uninitiated, what is Socks and Robbers about?
David: It’s a short film about a gang of notorious sock-headed criminals committing the biggest bank heist of their careers. But things start to fall apart when they find out an undercover cop has infiltrated their ranks. It’s a black comedy with lots of different elements to it, and pays homage to the crime films of the seventies, eighties and nineties.

Was the concept hard to sell to people?
Kel: Our Crowdfund campaign helped. After that, everyone seemed to know about us.
David: We shot a lot of test footage in the run up to that, and designed the sock puppet masks quite early. There was a lot of passion for the project from the team we were assembling, so it wasn’t really a tough sell. I think I got the script pretty bang on, so that helped.

How did your Crowdfund campaign go?
David: I did a lot of research beforehand but, to be honest, it was pretty horrendous. We really struggled to get the money together. I don’t know why, but there was just something about the campaign that wasn’t quite right, and at several points we thought about just canning the whole project. I think one of the biggest problems we had was with the rewards - I was just thinking about getting the film out to people, and didn’t really consider making any physical rewards like t-shirts or DVDs, which are the things that really appeal to people. We got there in the end, but it was a real struggle to get over the line.

When did the actors first get involved?
AJ: I’d seen the proof of concept videos on social media and Jenn Day, the other producer of the film, had been in touch with me. At that stage, the film had already been cast, but changes in their schedule meant that it opened up to re-casting.
Kel: Yeah, that rescheduling meant that loads of people that were free were now busy on other projects, so we had to replace almost the entire cast and crew. It wasn’t through choice, just through circumstance.
AJ: I really wanted to be involved. Out of all the local short films being made, this one really stood out as being the most stylised and having the strongest sense of itself. It was like a whole little world that people could buy in to, and the script was wicked. Even on first reading it, you could tell that it was a real testament to what you can achieve in the short film format. It had an amazing pace, and I loved the idea of the audience just being dropped in the middle of the action.

Did you have any preconceptions before you started filming?
AJ: One thing I was excited about was the use of green screen. I'm quite a physical performer and I'm used to doing theatre. I loved the challenge of not just the dialogue, but also what do you do when you've got a sock on your head and you have to walk around. There were points where we couldn't see what was going on because of the sock masks. I really enjoyed that, because we were basically doing it all blind.
Kel: I remember walking on set and seeing you do that with your eyes closed, practising.
AJ: Everyone was wondering what I was doing, and I was like, “Just give me two minutes, and I'll get it in one take!”

Were the sock puppet masks a big issue during filming?
Kel: From a production point of view, it provided a lot of health and safety problems. All of the actors were just walking around blind, and we had one runner on set whose only job was to make sure they were ok. It was really hot in the sock puppet masks, and they couldn’t breathe…
David: The sock heads had to evolve out of practicality. The initial concept was to do it all digitally, and we stuck to that throughout all of pre-production. But the closer we got shooting, the more I started to get concerned about the time and delivery, as I had a very specific look that I wanted.
Kel: We thought about that a lot. We were asking the costume department if we could get eyeholes, but the masks were so close to the actors’ faces. I think one actor could see his feet, but everyone else was basically blind.

David: I’d been testing the masks at home, but I hadn’t factored in that David Shabeaux, who plays the character Sniffer, has a much bigger head than me. His head ended up getting wedged in the mask, and trying to get it off was probably one of the biggest challenges of the whole shoot. We ended up having to cut it apart.
Kel: All of the actors were struggling; as soon as Dave called “cut”, masks came off and people were around to fan them and get them water. Some of them were looking pretty rough!

 

AJ: It was pretty full on. I don’t think us actors had really factored it in. For a lot of film work, you sign up on the basis that the focus of the camera is mostly going to be on your face and voice, whereas this was the exact opposite – it was everything but that. It was all physical bodywork. One of the actors, Pete Bennett (2006 Big Brother winner), was pretty much rooted to one spot, but the rest of us were moving all over the place without being able to see where we were going. But we worked together really well as a team, and eventually figured out a system of solving the problems the masks presented.

What were some of the other challenges you faced?
Kel: On the run up to the shoot it was definitely finding a location. David really wanted the Council House, but it was difficult to get through to them and explain what we were trying to do. They'd had bad experiences with filmmakers in the past [Editor's note: see page 16]. We all worked hard to put them at ease, and the crew’s professionalism on set was amazing.
David: The other location we wanted was a cool looking diner. We talked to a couple of venues and shot some test footage, but a lot of places had had problems with filmmakers before too. This is the cause of a lot of the issues you have to face – there's always someone that's been there before and messed it up for you. You say you're a filmmaker and they just see arsehole written across your forehead. But we eventually managed to find a great diner that allowed us to film there in exchange for some promo videos.
Kel: Other than that, it was actually a pretty fun shoot!
David: There was no stress, really. It was one of the most fun sets I've ever been on. You'll see from the behind-the-scenes stuff, everyone was just having a laugh constantly, but not at the expense of the film. We were obviously really busy, because me and Alex (Withers, First AD) and Kel made sure it kept moving, but there was enough breathing room for us all to have a right giggle.
AJ: Yeah I’d agree with that – it was one of the best sets I’ve ever been on. It was such a productive atmosphere. There was no faff, and David was really open to hearing people’s ideas.

How important is getting that sense of camaraderie and collaboration on set?
Kel: It’s the most important thing. Even if one person is upset about something, it spreads like wildfire. From my point of view, it's making sure everyone is happy, fed, and watered. That way, everybody can just get on with the job that they’ve been brought in to do. I had crew come up to me and say it was the most fun set to work on; at any given moment they knew what was going on. Sometimes you can be on a set wondering what everyone is waiting for.
David: It's just such a waste of time to have people hanging around unnecessarily. I'd never let that happen. If your job is done, get yourself home. Otherwise, it's just frustrating for everybody. The first thing I'll do on any of my shoots is go round and say good morning to everybody. I've been on sets where the director doesn’t talk to anybody, and that's not how you get the best out of people. Two seconds of “Hey, how are you doing? Thanks for coming. Do you need anything?” goes such a long way. If you feel valued on set, you'll just do a better job.

This is the cause of a lot of the issues you have to face - there's always someone that's been there before and messed it up for you. You say you're a filmmaker and they just see arsehole written across your forehead

How did you all feel once you’d seen the finished film?
David: It was just relief. I remember watching one of the earlier cuts and thinking that it just didn’t work. I didn’t really know what we had until quite late. Even after I showed it to Kel, and she said it was great, I didn’t really believe her. I think the turning point came when we held a cast and crew screening at Broadway Cinema. Screening your film in public lets you know whether what you’ve got is any good or not. Sometimes you get that eerie silence that either means everyone is in awe and thinks you’re a god, or they think what you’ve made isn’t very good and don’t know how to articulate that. In this instance, everyone was coming up and telling me how great they thought it was, and in detail too. That’s when you know you’ve got something.
Kel: There's nothing worse than hearing a half-hearted, “Yeah that was good man, I enjoyed it”. When I first saw it, it just clicked into place.
AJ: It’s hard to watch something objectively when you’re involved with it, but I was able to see this as just a fan. Even when I popped up on screen I just didn’t really take it in.

So what are the next steps for the film?
Kel: I’ve really enjoyed researching film festivals, and visualising how this would look in a festival run down. That’s made me really excited; I can’t wait to see where this film can end up.
David: Early in my filmmaking career I made a load of awful, long and overly-written pieces that just rambled on and didn't go anywhere. With this, I knew that I wanted to make something like Speed that just drops you right in the middle of the action, and doesn’t stop from there. Film festivals are extremely competitive, especially the top tier ones that we’re going to be entering. You have to create five-star films that will appeal to a niche audience. God knows what festival organisers are going to like at any given time because they’re all so different and have their selection process; but I’m hopeful that it will resonate at some big festivals and find its own momentum. We’ve created the best film that we could as a team. I'm very proud of it – I think it’s unique and it’s got a chance. That’s all you can really do, isn’t it?

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