The sixth annual Winter Film Awards will start on Friday, February 23rd in New York City. The volunteer-led festival will showcase 88 films from around the world competing for 16 awards. I spoke with Alex Hardy, British filmmaker and actor, about his new short film, Soldier Bee. The film stars Shauna MacDonald as an Army vet who returns home from Iraq to contend with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Walter Howard: I saw that you’ve been an actor for a long time. What brought you to filmmaking, and specifically, directing?
Alex Hardy: I was in a T.V soap here in England, and I came out of Drama school and was lucky enough to go straight into T.V acting. I pretty soon realized that I couldn’t do just acting for my whole life, because it became a job. The writing wasn’t particularly good, because it’s a soap, and I didn’t really get any fulfillment from it. One of the directors there I was friendly with let me see how he planned each scene, and how he used the multi-cameras, and I just became really interested. I’d always written stuff before then, and it all just came to me. I took myself to film school when I was 28.
WH: How does your new film, Soldier Bee, compare to your previous works in terms of size of production; cast, crew? You’ve done a 7-minute short as well as a 12-minute short documentary. Did it present any unique challenges?
AH: Well I’d done music promos, I’ve done documentaries. I did a short film, which kind of came out of nowhere. Basically, we were given 650 pounds, and we were told to make something out of this. I did a found footage film called Initiation, and it did really well at festivals. It got into BAFTA screenings, and I was really surprised. From that, I did music promos. All pretty low budget. Soldier Bee was the first film that we actually got a good amount of funding for. That led me to be able to work with Shauna MacDonald, who’s a brilliant actress, and just such a great crew. I guess the difference was we just had more things to play with. I’m not sure whether that’s necessarily a good thing, having more money. Sometimes when you have less money, you just make things work.
WH: I heard a director (Robert Rodriguez) say, “when you have less money than you need, it forces you to be more creative.”
AH: It does. I totally agree. You have to be more creative. The trouble is now though, that we watch so much big budget T.V. You look at Netflix, everything is big budget, that now, when you’re making films, you can tell straightaway, oh, that’s really indie. They haven’t got much. But you know, who cares? As long as the story that you’re trying to communicate works, and you get your theme across. And I know you can do that with no money. I’m shooting stuff at the moment. We’re testing out horror ideas. And we have nothing. We borrowed a camera.
WH: What do you find rewarding about the short film?
AH: The short film is really tough. I have about four feature films that I’m kind of writing at the moment. I find them so much easier. You have so much more time. So much more space. You don’t get many decent short films. I think you’re getting more of them now a days. What’s rewarding for me is seeing the beginning of the film and wrapping it up at the end. Having a conclusion. If you set something up and end it well, that’s super satisfying. I want to effect people. I want to move them.
WH: Often you’ll hear writers say that they create characters and then let the characters determine the story. I imagine that it’s different when creating a short film, and yours had such a definite arc. At the same time, it is a character driven piece. How did you approach expressing Jodie’s story?
AH: So, with music videos, you just kind of write the premise, totally non-character based. With Initiation, totally character based. I wanted to follow one guy, and I wanted to stay with him all the way through. That’s how I wanted to approach Soldier Bee, but actually Soldier Bee was about a male character to begin with. My story idea in the beginning was more horror based. It ended very dark. It was kind of a fantasy. Then I interviewed people with Post-traumatic stress, and I realized I might do them a disservice. I didn’t want to cheapen it I guess. Then I interviewed a female soldier with PTSD, and I hadn’t heard anything about female soldiers suffering from it. When I changed it to a female soldier, it was much more character based. I need to, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m an actor myself, I want to know everything about the character, and the character, as you said, leads the story. I got a girl called Lizzie involved, because I didn’t want it to be a male’s version of a female. We wrote together, and bounced ideas back and forth. We wrote every possibility with this story. We had Jodie seeing herself in the hotel room. So, there were two Jodies. We had a split personality thing, and then we realized the strongest thing was just seeing this woman put herself in this weird situation and relive what’s happened to her. It was so much more interesting. I also wanted to leave it with hope. I wanted to make people’s eyes open to the fact that these people need help sometimes.
WH: You touched on this a bit. I was curious about your collaboration. Was it something you’ve done before? Writing with someone else?
AH: No. I hadn’t done it at all. It was good. It was really good. Lizzie was a friend of mine. She’s quite young. I met her at film school. I was 28 and she must have been only 18 at that point. The stuff that she was writing was so much better than all of the other people there. Her writing was just awesome. We stayed friends, and then, yeah, I hadn’t done it before, but it worked out really nicely. The main thing, she steered my ideas in the right direction, and hopefully made the lead character believable. More believable than if a guy had written it by himself.
WH: Did the character of Jodie change at all from the page to the screen?
AH: Shauna’s so professional. She took this character and made it her own. I underestimated how stressful it was going to be for her. For instance, when we were shooting the sex scene in the hotel room, I underestimated how intense that was going to be. I underestimated how long Shauna was going to have to stay in character. I underestimated the power of what that character was going through.
WH: In working with your actress, Shauna MacDonald, did you find it difficult conveying a character that I would say doesn’t understand herself, or her own motivations?
AH: Yeah. We talked. She did loads of research. I pointed her in the right direction of people we were talking to when we were writing it. But it is a hard one. The beauty of having an amazing actress-I’ve never worked with such a good professional actress-I just kind of had to lead her to research that I had been doing, and just leave her to it. When we were shooting it, I would offer very tiny little things to her, but in terms of working with such a great character, she did it. I mean it was amazing.
WH: There’s a sense of violence lingering in the picture with the daughter’s drawings, the character of Lars’ brutish demeanor, and then the buildup in the cross-narrative (or flashback, more precisely) of Jodie as a soldier. When violence finally materializes in our present-day narrative, it partly feels inevitable, but, at the same time, it is still very shocking. How did you go about determining the tone of your picture, and then maintaining it?
AH: I mean the tone is, I think that’s one of my strengths is keeping this tone going. It’s a strength, and an issue sometimes to be fair, because as I said, I underestimated how grueling this film would be to watch. Once I’d written out this horror idea, I knew exactly what tone I wanted. Obviously so much of that is helped with the director of photography. The colors and the tone and the odd shots, the way we stayed behind her and focusing on the hair. I wanted her to be disengaged with life. But I think everything helps the tone. It’s the colors, it’s the lighting, it’s the acting, the score.
WH: Early on, we see this theme of the soldier bee appear, innocuously at first with the lawn decoration, later becoming more sinister with the daughter’s drawings. You use a lot of yellow hues during the film, and there’s a fragmented mirror sequence that resembles a honeycomb. What connected this story for you to this precise theme, and, I would say, ominous conception of the soldier bee?
AH: I forgot to tell you this, the concept of this came, I was reading my niece’s book, she had a book about bees, and it talked about soldier bees. I read a little bit about them. I read that soldier bees would go rogue and attack their own and other hives. I thought that’s really interesting. I wonder, with PTSD, I wonder if it’s linkable to human activity. That’s actually where the story came from. That bee at the beginning, that lawn decoration was just so random. We saw it in the garden of the house we were shooting in and it had a nail driven through the heart of the bee. I was like, “We have to shoot that.” The yellow hue was the most important thing for me in the hotel room. We hid loads of light and it gave it a sort of ominous bit. Yellow, I read a bit about what colors do to you, and yellow is a danger color. It makes you uneasy. I had the idea for that and then the DP and the set designer followed through with it. They did a great job.
WH: There’s a degree to which your female characters are forced to come to terms with violence.
WH: Jodie, obviously, with her experience in Afghanistan. The daughter, with her mother’s wounds corresponding with puberty, and then the prostitute’s witnessing of Lars’ attack. What brought you to this idea?
AH: Once we got our idea, then Lizzie and I went back and forth, we just wrote it how it felt. One thing that I really wanted to make sure we were doing was not putting women in the same box as weak. Always playing love interests.
WH: Do you find it helpful to watch other films in the process of making your own? Are there any films you looked at?
AH:. Definitely. Not so much for the story or the tone, but definitely for the use of camera. I love looking at the use of camera. You know, how did they make me feel this? How did the camera move? The acting. What affects me. I looked at war films. I looked mainly at psychological films. Getting in a character’s head. There’s a specific film called Irreversible. Have you seen it?
WH: Gaspar Noe?
AH: Yeah, there’s a scene in there where a character bashes someone’s head in with a fire extinguisher.
WH: Pretty rough movie.
AH: It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I can’t watch it ever again. I did watch the scene where someone’s face got smashed in, and it’s just so colossally violent, but it fits the film. If we were going to have this violent scene, I needed to put people out of their comfort zone, and that’s what we did with the face smashing scene.
WH: Where did you film the Afghanistan sequence? What was that like?
AH: The Afghanistan sequence, we shot in a place called Bedford, which was a quarry. Luckily, we filmed in June, and, yeah, thankfully we had loads of sun. They shoot loads of stuff there. James Bond, I think Casino Royale. Actually, the best thing about that day was the very end. We were just kind of wrapping up. I looked up, and there was an Apache helicopter, I think it was an Apache helicopter, flying over our head. We just managed to put the camera together super quick, and just managed to get this shot of this helicopter flying over, and that’s made it into the film. A little bit of luck.