“My inspiration to make films is my love for saying something to people without using words”: A conversation with student filmmaker Leo Barton

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Collaborating with his filmmaking partner Iman Bahmanabadi, first year film student Leo Barton has created over 30 short films, released through his own production company Thinc. One of the most recent is Cycle, a 10 minute, silent romance which won top honours at the University’s first student film festival (it can be viewed below). Representing The Edge, I talked to him about creative inspiration, finding locations and working with no budget.

 

Did you script and storyboard Cycle rigorously before shooting, or did you take a more intuitive approach?

I scripted the short, and as I’m also the cinematographer I was obviously always thinking about angles and style. After the script I did an extensive shot list, and mapped out the three different stages of evolution the cinematography goes through over the short. I never storyboard personally, don’t find it very helpful as I often am not fully aware of the location until much closer to the shoot.

Cycle has no dialogue and seems heavily reliant on its score to convey emotional and psychological states. Do you have a personal philosophy regarding how music should be used in film?

Music has to fit. It can be used, or not, however someone wants to build a mood, atmosphere or the like. I’ve been wrong in the past thinking some sections of films should have music, when they should stay silent and vice versa. It’s all down to the music itself, and how it intertwines with the image to enhance a scene. Robbie Smith did a great job on Cycle, Christmas Cheer, It Happened Again and Bad Bread for us – I’ve found it’s also important to have a good relationship and communication with the musician so you can make the best combination of the arts.

From the looks of things, Cycle was shot entirely in and around campus. Did you have much of a personal relationship with the locations you used? If so, do you think that having that kind of relationship is significant in informing how you use settings for emotional effect?

Well I suppose I did have a personal connection to them, but the main reason we used those locations as opposed to others was because they were available to us and free – partly done that way because this was a very quick turnover project. I generally find when I’m shooting it’s better not to have a relationship to the place, as it is then more of a wonder and encourages you to really explore the possibilities in angle, location, natural light etc. Although it obviously helps with time if you know the location, as you’ll understand exactly what is and isn’t possible.

How did the idea for the project first come about? Was it from an image, an emotion, a character, or a plot point?

It was in fact originally for a competition where you’d need to make a one minute short. It just kind of spurted up out of that, I remember walking home and just thinking of it, pitched it to Iman, and then developed it. Pretty organic.

Were there any films in particular you watched for reference or had in mind during production?

None at all, at least not consciously – I don’t like drawing too much ‘inspiration’ from other works when I’m making something, or it can very easily end up in making a sub-standard copy.

So, do you consider yourself less of a cinephiliac filmmaker than one who draws more directly from life experiences?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that, I love film to the ends of the earth and am inspired by countless films and filmmakers – I just try and avoid comparing (at least consciously) what I’m making at any moment to existing work, in an attempt to make a more ‘original’ product, if that could ever be made. The only time I really look to other works for inspiration is the editing process, as there are loads of things I’m never brave enough to do – but admire so much in other people’s work!

Cool! That approach seems quite alien to me, as I’ve always thought of myself the sort of director who tries to re-contextualize or react to existing images, rather than striving to create original ones. I guess that’s why my favourite filmmakers are Godard, Rivette and Jean-Marie Straub. Which filmmakers do you consider your primary sources of inspiration?     

Inspiration is a funny word, because it’s always thought of that if you’re inspired by someone you are forever trying to replicate or use their work in yours. I have loads of inspirations but I’ll name a couple. Tarkovsky is a huge inspiration regarding message, meaning, and the capacity of film as art. George Lucas and Coppola are inspirational with regards to film business, and staying independent. The big question of inspirational style is the hardest, Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke have inspired me a lot recently, likewise with Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho. But inspiration can come from anywhere. To answer slightly differently, I suppose my inspiration to make films is mainly my enjoyment of the process – and my love for saying something to people without using words.

You’ve worked on incredibly low budget student films and higher budgeted, more polished productions. Do you find yourself approaching the two in a significantly different way?

Well, ‘higher budgeted’ refers to one of £2000 – but I suppose it is still a pretty big jump! I’d say the biggest difference is the delegation of tasks, and the increase in team-work on the budgeted productions. This is because on the zero-budget films we make we do everything. That means my need to communicate my ideas on shots, lighting, editing, or sound are generally kept internal – or discussed between the pair of us. While on the larger shoot you obviously have to ensure that the corresponding crew member fully understands your vision – which can be a challenge, but ultimately it is such a relief to have someone else not only doing the job but doing it better than you can. It’s difficult to focus on everything at once on an extremely low budget.

I find the cinematographer-director role is the hardest to fill, as when I’m shooting I am very much looking at the shot in terms of composition, light, movement, which makes it very easy to let sound capture or dialogue errors go unnoticed. Essentially it’s easier with a larger crew, but a lot more stressful – especially when you’re the producer!

If you had unlimited access to any resources you wanted, what would be your dream project?

No idea, it’d have to be whatever I was inspired to do at the time – which would undoubtedly take a while to find!

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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