A Family Is Torn Apart in Countryside Thriller ‘Ella’

It’s important with a film like Ella not to spoil any of the plot before it’s been watched. Director Dan Gitsham and Producer Sophie Mair have crafted a strong and haunting thriller that cautiously reveals itself through potent imagery and an intricately devised plot structure, with Anthony Head turning in a striking lead-performance. Twelve Cabins spoke with Gitsham and Mair, almost ten years since the film was made, to talk its serendipitous creation and the future of their filmmaking.

How did you initially develop the concept for Ella?

The initial idea was a one or two page sketch set entirely in the forest that follows a man with a gun hunting something unseen. We then fleshed out the idea with co-writer James Driver, Dan’s old pal from University. The setting and initial idea of playing with perspective and who is the villain and who is the victim remained from the beginning.

How much did you and James work on the structure of the short during those stages? Ella works because of when the audience receive certain bits of information, were there points where you considered revealing more or less even about the family’s backstory?

Once we started developing the project with James, and then Digital Shorts, we expanded the idea to include a glimpse of the protagonist’s home. This allowed us to add the dead mother in the kitchen. A lot of the work in development was backstory and history to what we see in the film, we ended up with a short story, five or six pages, which helped everyone understand the characters motivations in the film. This was really useful for the actors, Anthony in particular, to get in to the mind of the character and understand where they came from and where they are going.

We never considered over-explaining the backstory in the film as we really wanted to drop the audience into something that has already begun and let them make up their own minds about what happened and what is going on. We looked at it as a mini-movie that was part of a larger story or world. This approach has had its detractors but others really enjoy filling in the blanks. Since it arrived online it’s been fun reading the comments and theories as to what the film is about. We have our answers, you can have yours. Ultimately, the film is about the destruction of the nuclear family with a heavy nod to Red Riding Hood and Hide and Seek.

It’s a really strong and direct performance from Anthony Head, what does he bring to the filmmaking process?

Wow, Anthony Head, what a guy. We did have another actor signed up but he pulled out a week before the shoot as he’d been offered a feature film. We can’t blame him. There was some mild panic potentially delaying the shoot but we regrouped. Dave Colebrook, who has been our regular sound designer and composer for years, mentioned he saw Anthony in the local cinema and, after some small research, we discovered he was based locally. Luckily for us he was free and into the project and we were shooting a week later.

It was really great working with Anthony. He was super professional and understanding of the low budget and mix of pros, semi-pros and amateurs all working to make a cool film. Having Anthony on set probably helped the vibe as everyone knew his work. It makes a difference having a professional actor backing a small film. It was really impressive seeing how he can turn on the charm in the blink of an eye and his understanding of the camera/sound departments, and hitting marks was a real eye opener. We were very lucky to have him.

How was production? Could you tell us about your choice of location, decisions behind the equipment you used, and how long it all took?

We shot the film over four days in July 2010. It was the first time shooting in 2K, or HD for that matter, with a RED camera and a full camera crew; Director of photography, focus puller, camera assistant, data wrangler, gaffer and grip, and multiple lenses. It felt great.

We are based in Bristol so shot the film in the Mendips in the South West of England. The interior location was owned by the National Trust who allowed us to shoot for very little. This also doubled up as our unit base. The forest was maybe 40 minutes from Bristol and run by the Forestry Commission. That location required a bit negotiating but they were really supportive and let us shoot without interference. We spent a lot of time in preproduction looking for different locations that served the story but fulfilled a logistical element of being near to each other. 

There were the usual ups and downs during production as there is never enough time to shoot what you want. Every film we make has a moment where the shot list gets torn up. On Ella there was a hairy moment when the entire convoy got lost as our phone signal and Sat Navs struggled with the remote locations but we got there in the end, thankfully.

That contrast in visuals between the flashbacks and the present day is really striking, what were you looking to achieve with the colouring?

Ella was the first time we’d shot in 2K and the first time we’d worked with a colourist and a post-production house. The colour contrast was a simple way to signify the difference between flashbacks and present day. The colour contrast helps suggest a rose tinted view of the past.

It won’t be another ten years before your next film, will it?

We recently co-directed a super short three-minute horror entitled Bill, for a couple of hundred pounds. It screened at Encounters Short Film Festival and Mayhem Horror Festival and will be online soon. It’s the second short we have made in our home in the last few years where we’ve utilised a small crew and what we have around us. The first was called And The Baby Screamed and starred our youngest Otto, then six months old. We really like the challenge of writing around what one has to hand and now that we are parents to two little no necks it is important to make films that we can make within our lifestyle, especially when they are self funded.

We are also putting the finishing touches to The Thing That Ate The Birds that we have co-written and directed. It is a twelve minute horror short set on the North Yorkshire Moors, where Sophie is from. The film is co-produced by the awesome Rebecca Wolff (Grasp the Nettle Films) and Jude Golrei (Lunar Lander Films). The film is our most ambitious yet and was a co-financed by ALTER and BFI Network. It is about a gamekeeper whose grouse are turning up dead whilst his relationship with his wife is falling apart, another uplifting yarn from Sketchbook Pictures.

Finally, we are about to start developing a feature treatment with Jude, Rebecca and the BFI Network. It’s another horror set on the North Yorkshire Moors.

If you’d like to either send us your film or contribute some writing to Twelve Cabins, contact info@twelvecabins.com for all the details.

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