Filmmaker Sean Ellis is ready to bust out. With a background in short films and photography, his feature debut, 2006’s Cashback, was an expansion of his Oscar nominated short film of the same name, which won numerous awards at festivals worldwide. He followed that up in 2008 with a cerebral psychological thriller called The Broken, before finding further international acclaim for his gutsy and powerful dramatic thriller Metro Manila, which was released in 2013, winning awards on the festival circuit and quickly acquiring a devoted following. In 2016, he released his most ambitious project to date, the tense and terrific WWII action thriller Anthropoid, which is now available on Blu-ray/DVD and via various streaming providers. Podcasting Them Softly is proud to present a 15 QUESTIONS interview with Sean, as he discusses his career, inspirations, and the future. He even presents his personal “watch list” from 2016!
(This interview was conducted via email and was edited by Nick Clement.)
(Director Sean Ellis, Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, Anthropoid)
HOW DID YOU GET INTO FILMMAKING?
I got into filmmaking through photography. I became obsessed with photography from the age of 11. It was the idea that you could use the camera to create an image you might have in your head – like a technical pencil you could draw with. I would drive my parents crazy by setting fire to my action figures and photograph them burning. I’m inspired by many people and things, not just film makers. When I was younger I gravitated towards many films and filmmakers, because when you’re young, you’re still trying to figure out what you like and what you have to say and the way you would like to say it. It takes time to develop creatively as you need to have seen a little bit of the world, and know a little bit about what makes us tick. I think filmmakers start hitting their stride in their forties but obviously there are directors that blow this theory out of the water. Steven Spielberg was 28 when he made Jaws. I think Steven is the modern day film equivalent of Mozart. There are some directors that are just playing at a different level than everyone else, like a grand-master chess player. It’s like any other art-form; you have to work at it every day and get into that head-space that allows ideas to flow freely. The problem with the medium of film is that it’s so closely linked to the commercial aspects, both in making and in the end result. There are filmmakers that bridge these two worlds incredibly well and I find that inspiring.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE FILMS, OR FILMS THAT CONTINUE TO INSPIRE YOU?
I have so many favorites! I’m still a filmmaker that loves watching films. I believe you have to see as much as possible to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the art-form that you work in. How can you comment if you don’t? People want to learn from people that know more than them, correct? So you better make something that does that, and that means you should be learning ALL the time about the process of filmmaking and life in general. For a number of years now I have written down all the films I have seen in a given year, so here is everything I have seen in 2016. I’ve only included Anthropoid once but I probably watched it 20 times at different screenings through 2016. An (R) indicates that I have seen the film before and it’s a re-watch.
Anthropoid, We are Many (Doc), Suffragette, Carol, The Program, Woman in Gold, Infinitely Polar Bear, The Hateful Eight, He Named Me Malala (Doc), Joy, The Lobster, Ant-Man, Room, Timbuktu, Beasts of No Nation, Truth, Black Mass.
Fear the Walking Dead – Season 1, Hard to be a God (2013), Macbeth (2015), Mad Men – Final season, Shackleton (2002), No Country for Old Men (R)
Everest, La French (The Connection), Midnight Special, Son of Saul, Game of Thrones – Season 5, Listen to me Marlon (doc), Guardians of the Galaxy.
45 Years, The Endurance (2000 Doc), Singing in the Rain, The Artist (R), By the Sea, 2001 A Space Odyssey (R), Interstellar (R), Short Term 12
Everything or Nothing (Doc), Palio (Doc), Big Hero Six (R), It’s a Beautiful Life, My Nazi Legacy (Doc), Bird (R), Brave (R), Bolshoi Babylon (Doc), Marshland, 99 Holmes.
Suite Francaise, Southpaw, Crazy Heart (R), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Doc), Tracks, A War, The Past, Le Doulos, Closely Observed Trains, The Singing Detective (TV), Pennies from Heaven (TV), The Assassin.
The Lure, Intimate Lighting (1965), Grandma, Demain (Doc), Populaire, How I Live Now, Lost in Munich, Tina – What’s Love Got to Do With It, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Ray, Beyond the Sea, De-Lovely, Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line, Sweet Dreams, Tender Mercies, Theeb, Stop Loss, The Red Violin.
The Night Of – Season 1, The Affair – Season 1
Mr. Robot – Season 1, The Americans – Season 1
Jane Got A Gun, Roma, Deadpool, Toni Erdman, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, Hell or High Water, The Americans – Season 2, In the Shadow of the Moon (Doc), Fleabag – Season 1, The Stuntman, The Robber, Born to be Blue, Endurance (1999), Two for the Road, The Athlete, The Godfather (R), The Godfather part II (R), The Godfather part III (R), Personal Best, Prefontaine
McFarland USA, Casablanca, My Way (Korean), Nocturnal Animals, The Walking Dead – Season 6, Running (1979), Saint Ralph, Embrace the Serpent, The Secret Life of Pets, Love, Amadeus (R), Wild (R), Dallas Buyers Club (R), Chariots of Fire (R), The Girl, Marnie (R), Harry and Son, Natalie (R), Sex and Lucia (R), Frida, The Boxer (R), Eyes Wide Shut (R), One More Time with Feeling, Hail, Caesar!
The Omega Man (R), I Am Legend (R), La La Land, Assassin’s Creed, Under the Shadow, Silence (1971), Silence (2016), Rogue One, The Founder, Jackie, Hidden Figures, Shrek (R), Moonlight, Shrek 2 (R), Miss Sloan, Shrek the Third, Hacksaw Ridge, Zootropolis, Mustang, Eye in the Sky, Patterson, Fences, Train to Busan, Loving, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, 13th (Doc), Captain Fantastic, Eddie the Eagle, Sing Street, The Eagle Huntress (doc), Allied, Victoria, Evolution, My Scientology Movie, Deepwater Horizon, Julieta.
(still from Metro Manila)
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITES OR DO YOU HAVE A TOP 10 LIST? I SUBSCRIBE TO THE IDEA OF “FAVORITES” BECAUSE I DON’T THINK IT’S POSSIBLE TO SAY WHAT IS TRULY “BEST” WITH ANY TYPE OF ART FORM.
Don’t ask me to rate my top 10 of the year. It’s like asking what are your favorite paintings from 1765? It has no relevance as only time will tell if a film has longevity, and I believe that’s the only merit there is – wanting to revisit a film 10 or 20 years from now. There are very few films I saw this year that I will revisit in 20 years. Some were just entertainment, and that’s fine. Some were fashionable footnotes and a few were highly over-praised and left me feeling underwhelmed. And there were a couple of small gems that made my life better for seeing them, but it’s all subjective and people place too much importance on what other people are saying about films. If you are serious about film then you have to discover it by yourself, by seeing everything without reading a review or seeing a trailer. There is one critic who uses the tagline “We see all the bad films, so you don’t have to…” You would have to be a pretty arrogant cunt to think you are saving people from films you think are bad, and that people would rather read your ‘bad’ review than have their own opinion. But that is the problem with smart phones – it gives people access to idiots like this, and it takes away the chance of discovering a film. When I was young, I used to pick my films based on the poster artwork alone – the same way most people choose a book – by its cover or the title and the synopsis on the back. If that’s not enough to make you want to see a film then maybe you don’t love film as much as you want people to think you do.
(Cillian Murphy and Anna Geislerová get ready to shoot a scene, Anthropoid)
WHAT SORT OF CHALLENGES COME WITH BEING YOUR OWN CINEMATOGRAPHER, NOT TO MENTION CAMEA OPERATOR, AND HOW HARD IS IT TO SHOOT IN THIS FASHION?
It’s all one job for me. I’m a filmmaker. I make them from the ground up. I come from photography so not having the camera in my hands feels unnatural to me. I work much faster with a camera in my hands as I can make any adjustments on the fly. If you have to stop and explain these adjustments it just takes a lot longer. The last two films I have made have been handheld because I felt the style served the story. Both felt like they need to be in a documentary style to place the audience on the shoulders of the characters. So I would say they are the style of the film and not necessarily my style. It’s just a creative choice. To shoot in this style, I had to prepare for 4 months, with 2 hours of weight training every day. The cameras weigh about 18kg so all the training revolved around lifting, and carrying and running with that kind of weight. You have to be physically fit to run around with the camera on your shoulder for 9 hours a day, 6 days a weeks, and for 8 weeks without getting hurt or too tired to think creatively.
(still from Anthropoid)
WOULD YOU EVER WANT TO COLLABORATE WITH AN OUTSIDE CINEMATOGRAPHER?
Absolutely! There are many fantastic cinematographers whose work I love. I know their work just as well as the directors they work with. A chance to work with one of the greats is never an opportunity that should be missed, as it will only deepen your experience and understanding of the craft.
(Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubiš, Anthropoid)
HOW DID METRO MANILA PREPARE YOU FOR ANTHROPOID?
I think it gave me back my confidence. The making of The Broken was not a pleasant experience for me but I did learn a lot about the sort of filmmaker I wanted to be. I made Metro Manila on my own terms with my own money. It was a huge gamble but the result was a film that I’m very proud of. You take that confidence into the making of your next film and hope it gets you through the day to day process.
(still from Metro Manila)
I WANT TO DISCUSS THE FINAL ACTION SEQUENCE IN ANTHROPOID. WHAT WAS IT LIKE PUTTING THAT TOGETHER ON A LOGISTICAL LVEL, AND DID YOU ACHIEVE WHAT YOU SET OUT TO ACCOMPLISH? IT’S A STUNNING PIECE OF UNRELENTING ACTION THAT RANKS UP THERE WITH SOME OF THE BEST SET-PIECES IN RECENT MEMORY.
Thank you. Logistically it was huge! I always knew it would be. You had to understand emotionally what those men went through, and the courage it took to face their last hours with such a defiant roar. That echo is still felt today in the Czech Republic. Shooting in the real church was not going to be logistically possible except for all the exteriors. The interior of the church was built on a soundstage at Barrandov studios and is a 1:1 replica of the real church made from the original plans. It took 13 weeks to build, as it was a 360 degree set with no green screen anywhere. Morgan Kennedy, my production designer, first built me a 1/6th scale church. I was able to light it and then crawl inside it. Using 12 inch action figures I photographed the sequence frame by frame. To dramatize the action I had the Gestapo reports, the autopsy reports, and the real church where you can still see where the grenades went off. Using all this I pieced together the events in storyboard form. We had a total of 6 days for the church interiors so they were pretty hard and long days. I’m happy with the sequence and I think we accomplished what we set out to achieve.
(Action figure storyboard, Anthropoid. Courtesy of Sean Ellis)
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH CILLIAN MURPHY AND JAMIE DORNAN, AND IN GENERAL, WHAT’S YOUR PROCESS WITH ACTORS?
They were both great! Actors are marvelous creatures! I have no idea how they do what they do, so you have to treat each one differently and ask what they need in order for them to do their job. Cillian and Jamie worked in a similar manner so it was easy for me to slot in and give them what they needed in order to get what I needed. They both hate rehearsal. We would throw the scene ‘up on its feet’ in the morning when would entail walking through the scene, talking the lines but not acting the lines. Here we see any potential blocking issues, and any logic questions normally arise here as well. It was here that myself and Derek Walker, my second camera operator, would watch what the actors were doing and figure out how best to effectively cover the scene. Lines are often changed here too. I’m not precious – it has to work for the actor before it can work for me, but if I disagree, we shoot both ways and choose later. Once happy, I would light the set with my brilliant gaffer, Martin Granilla. I try to light without any lighting stands on the set, as I want the freedom of movement for both myself and my actors. When we are ready we shoot, I often do two or three takes within a slate. Stopping and starting can break concentration so I like to keep the actors working in the moment for as long as possible.
THE BLENDING OF LOCATION SHOOTING AND SOUNDSTAGE WORK IN ANTHROPOID WAS REMARKABLE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE SHOOTING AT BARRANDOV STUDIO IN PRAGUE?
The studio was so good and has such history! We were on the same soundstage as Amadeus, Yentl, and Casino Royale, to name a few! But yes, mixing location shooting and studio shooting should be seamless and Morgan Kennedy and art director Radek Hanak did a fantastic job in bringing that altogether. I hate it when a set looks so obviously like a set, as it just pulls you out of the film!
HOLLYWOOD HAS A LONG TRADITION WITH WWII FILMS. WERE YOU EXCITED TO TAKE ON A PROJECT OF THIS SCALE?
Yes, and scared too! You have to do your homework and see every war film that’s ever been made! There is a lot of preparation. I watched a lot of the BBC TV drama Secret Army and found it had the right tone for what I was looking for. But more than make a war film I really wanted to make a film about the emotional toll on the people involved. If you go into this film thinking it’s a war film you might miss the subtlety of the situations that these people found themselves in.
WHEN CONDUCTING RESEARCH AND TELLING A STORY THAT’S BASED ON TRUE EVENTS, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU TO SICK TO THE FACTS? HOW MUCH ROOM DO YOU ALLOW FOR POETIC LICENSE?
I wanted to stick to the historical facts. I spent 10 years researching this story and spent months in the company of the people in charge of the Anthropoid archives. But there is always someone out there who loves to tell you that you got it wrong and they know more about it from their fourth year history lesson in school. I’m sure there will be someone out there saying “What does he know? He doesn’t even know that Josef is with a ‘Z’ as Jozef”. Well to answer that – he was born Jozef but later changed it to Josef and all the documents I have seen signed by him, were signed Josef. But obviously the main thing about Anthropoid is that there are different accounts based on different testaments. I presented the story knowing all the information and made certain informed guesses as to what testament to believe. The main dramatic license comes with relationships and dialogue. Jan and Josef did not shoot Nazi spies when landing in Czechoslovakia. They were greeted by a man who knew the resistance, but that’s a pretty boring start and also does not tell the audience that there were Nazi spies who were paid to inform on anti-Nazi activity. So this change helped to inform the story as well as opening the film with a set-piece. Also Jan and Josef were shagging everything in Prague! They both had at least three girlfriends each and moved around Prague staying with various different families and single mothers. But that doesn’t help their noble persona and it takes time away from developing the Mrs. Moravec character, played so brilliantly by Alena Mihulova. We also know that the seven men faced the 700 Germans with only hand guns and not Sten guns but this was a creative choice on my part. Also Jan Kubis was killed by a grenade blast and didn’t take his own life. But everything else was drawn from archive documents.
(Action figure storyboard, Anthropoid. Courtesy of Sean Ellis)
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE CURRENT STATE OF FILMMAKING AND DISTRIBUTION MODELS? ARE YOU A FAN OF THE SAME-DAY VOD/THEATRICAL PLATFORM?
It’s a long answer and I’m not even sure I have the right answer. All I know is I’m unhappy with the current situation with cinemas. I’m even unhappier about this attitude that you can illegally download a film for free and that it’s okay. It’s not and it’s hurting the industry but people are no longer educated about this. The industry needs more help to protect the jobs that are lost to illegal downloads. There needs to be a cinema revolution the same way there was a coffee revolution. It’s starting to happen but slowly. I think studios should be allowed to take back the right to own their own cinemas. The monopoly rule is way out of date and the internet threatens the whole industry. For instance, Warner Brothers show a Warners Brother film and the only way to see it is in a Warner Brothers cinema. Force people back into theaters again with the experience of seeing something they can’t see elsewhere. And of the theatrical experience itself – BAN MOBILE FUCKING PHONES IN CINEMAS! One reason I don’t go to public cinemas anymore is the total lack of phone etiquette. People have to treat cinema like live theater. You wouldn’t take a call in the middle watching live theater so why do it in the cinema? I’ve seen people on their fucking laptops in the cinemas. Are you kidding me? Cinemas should just block phone signals to the auditoriums. Just force people to switch off. Cinemas are frightened people won’t come if there is no signal. News flash – people have stopped coming because there is signal. Cinemas use the excuse of needing signals in case of emergencies. That’s rubbish! What about before mobile phones were invented?
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN SEARCHING FOR NEW MATERIAL? ARE YOU ATTRACTED TO PARTICULAR GENRES?
It’s the whole package really. The process is going to take two years of your life minimum so it helps if you really like the material and have a general interest. I can’t work any other way. I have to be obsessed about it, and I have to fall in love with it. But different people work in different ways.
(Director Sean Ellis explains the direction of fire to actor David Bredin, Anthropoid)
DO YOU THINK YOU COULD EVER BRING SOMETHING TO THE TABLE WITH A BIG FRANCHISE SUPERHERO MOVIE? ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THAT STUFF?
Again it depends. If I find something in that situation that I love then yes I would do it. But there seems to be this consensus among some filmmakers that Hollywood is the goal. You make an interesting film, it gets some heat, and then do a big budget studio film. You have to ask yourself why you are doing the studio film. And if the answer is to produce something entertaining with mass appeal that is really your vision, then you are in a great position. But many people take that route because it means access to a bigger budget. Bigger budget doesn’t mean a better film, and if the film then fails at the box office, where does it leave you? Most film makers have spent time in director’s jail at some point or another, and it’s a cold and lonely place.
WHAT’S YOUR NEXT PROJECT? DO YOU DEVELOP MORE THAN ONE FILM AT A TIME? CAN YOU TELL US WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS?
I’m adapting a novel so my day job currently consists of writing. I don’t like the process of writing but I like the fact that it is something that needs to be done every day and over a period of weeks, and you are rewarded by a pile of pages that one day, you hope, will become your film. I rarely work on more than one project at a time. I have various ideas percolating in my head at any given time but when the hard work needs to be done you have to be faithful to the idea you are working on and knuckle down to get it done. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.