Words and interviews
On a sunny day in Cardiff, 20 people are huddled together in a park, moving cameras and trucks when necessary to make way for bikes and joggers between each take. The quiet micro-community is trying to decipher the conversations taking place five feet away, as Tom Cullen directs a scene for his first feature-length film, Pink Wall, starring Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass. Capturing the fragmented and fluid dynamic of a relationship, the film delves into the raw moments that shape and define a couple over several years.
From a script with no written dialogue, Cullen is shaping the dynamic of the story with his actors through improvisation. Pink Wall is being produced by Jamie Adams, a fellow Welsh filmmaker and improv aficionado. Since directing his Modern Romance trilogy (Benny & Jolene, A Wonderful Christmas Time, Black Mountain Poets), Adams has made three more fully improvised features in the space of a single year (Songbird, Wild Honey Pie!, Bittersweet Symphony). Maybe this promise of spontaneous actorly action is how he convinced Hollywood star Cobie Smulders to shoot a feature film over five days in south Wales.
“Tom conceptualised the story, but really involved Jay [Duplass] and I in creating the characters and finding the right dynamic”, Maslany explains. A week into the shoot, she is enthusiastic about the unconventional practice where dialogue is created in a rehearsal room. “It feels like we’re making the movie with our hands,” she says. “You feel a connection to it personally, just through the process alone.” Improvisation helps Cullen build dialogue and character depth with the actors in rehearsal, which is then channelled into the shoot.
It took the involvement of Adams, Cullen’s longtime collaborator and now producer, to set the ball rolling on Pink Wall. The pair first worked together on Adams’ third feature, Black Mountain Poets, in which Cullen stars alongside bickering sisters played by Dolly Wells and Alice Lowe. It’s an improvised comedy set against the backdrop of a poetry retreat in the Black Mountains in Wales. Where improvisation helps Cullen capture the credibility and strength of sincere emotion for his upcoming drama, Adams uses it to reveal the unpredictable humour and imperfectness of everyday life.
Adams worked with scripts on several projects before realising that something felt wrong. “I wasn’t particularly interested in what was on the page,” he reveals. “To be honest, I don’t remember what was on the page. Reading the lines, blocking – it didn’t feel like film to me.” In letting go of a pinpointed plan imposed by a script, Adams creates an on-set atmosphere that mirrors the humour he sees in his favourite films. “People might call it ‘reckless’, but I think it’s just being in the moment, being actually true to what’s going on around, and that’s what I really like.”
Adams relies on the vulnerability of his actors to create a believable situation that mirrors reality. “The actors don’t have a chance to hide,” he says. “I’ve put them in a ridiculous situation, so something naturally funny will happen.” Casting is especially important in this sense, as Adams explains. “You need a lynchpin: everyone has a lot of freedom, but it all goes back to the lynchpin. The film is seen through their eyes.” Adams’ current anchor is British actor, model and musician, Suki Waterhouse, who leads the cast of Bittersweet Symphony as Iris, a struggling but passionate musician.
When asked what attracted her to the project, Waterhouse instinctively replies: “fear”. Elaborating, she says, “Jamie will create scenarios so that you have no idea what’s going on. You’re so uncomfortable that you’re actually out of your head.” Through improvisation, Adams is giving actors the creative control that some projects on a bigger scale don’t allow for. Each performer is a collaborator, shaping the film and taking as many risks as every other person on set. “Despite there being a lot of limitations, in some weird way you feel incredibly free,” Waterhouse says.
Smulders echoes this sentiment. “It’s terrifying, but it’s also extremely liberating,” she says of her experience playing rock star Joanne in Songbird, which was shot in Porthcawl on a shoestring budget using a skeleton crew and just a basic script outline. “There’s something of a script in place,” she continues, “but everything is up for interpretation. It was such an amazing experience because you very rarely get the freedom to do and say what you want, and to be such a part of the creative process.”
Songbird is available now; Wild Honey Pie! is released in cinemas on 14 June; Bittersweet Symphony is released in cinemas on 28 June.
Published 8 Jun 2019
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