Over – Interview with Film Director Jorn Threlfall

jorn threlfall
Jörn Threlfall’s latest short film Over has been garnering him immense recognition, proving that the film’s title has nothing to do with describing his filmmaking career. Taking home such prestigious awards as the Grand Jury prize at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, the Best Narrative Short at Hamptons International Film Festival, the Grand Prix at the Odense International Film Festival, and the Best of British Award at Encounters in Bristol, the critical acclaim surrounding the film leaves little surprise to its significant nomination for a European Academy Award. Screen International has even named Jörn Threlfall as one of its ‘Stars of Tomorrow‘, an absolutely exceptional title to be given.
Making a living as a commercials director, he’s been given the opportunity to travel and work with a wide range of wonderful talent. His work has been given many honors globally, and he’s currently working on a feature-length film through his London-based company Lenaray Films.

Despite all of this he’s a man who still finds the time to squeeze in a meaningful and laugh filled chat with me, in between the exciting chaos of his career and a nice evening run to end the day. I catch him via Skype moments after he returns from his run, carrying his device down a dark hallway and into his lit bedroom so we can properly see and introduce ourselves.

Did you have a good run?
You know what? I like running in the rain and it was raining. So yeah I did actually. I could have done it twice. I don’t usually like running…

So we have to start somewhere, so what was the spark that got you started? What got you into directing?
For this particular film?

No in general. 
You know, it happened a long time ago. I think I’ve always been kind of interested in visual arts whether it’s kind of painting, photography, theater, performance. I lived in Berlin for a few years and I joined a theater group and did a bunch of mad weird experimental performance stuff in tights. I studied History of Art as part of my degree with German literature so I studied the art of the Weimar Republic and I wrote my thesis on Caspar David Friedrich who’s a German romantic landscape painter. And you know, studying Weimar and Germany modernist painting, you know those painters moving into filmmaking I think is a real interest there, and early avant-garde cinema, that experimental film sort of thing. It all kind of just happened, I suppose as a big sort of melting pot. And I suppose so many filmmakers say this, picking up a camera. Picking up a camera at an early age was always something I did anyway. A lot of photography as well, always interested in photography, always interested in kind of seeing the world around me in different ways.  The difference between seeing and looking I think always interested me, kind of stopping to look at something you might see in passing every day. Just giving it time, and looking at it, maybe seeing it in a different way or from a different angle or from a different perspective or a different perception, with a different perceptive approach.

Was that something that was kind of introduced to you by your parents? Did they tell you to look at art and go to the theater? 
No, not really actually. My dad was an accountant, my mom’s from east Germany and was a journalist—maybe a little bit actually, we’d go to galleries—another thing that was really important to me actually from really early on from when I was about 12 was music. I got a music scholarship to school, I was an oboist…so I did a lot of kind of classical music, orchestral pieces. So classical music was a big part of my early life. Until I realized that the oboe is a really uncool instrument and I couldn’t flirt using an oboe at all so I quit when I was about 17. But again, music was another thing that fed into this whole shebang.

Did your time studying theater effect how you handle things behind the camera? 
I think definitely yeah, I think not only really understanding actors but also interestingly—I don’t know, I think for me what was quite interesting was when I moved across from theater to film, or maybe go backwards and forwards, what’s specific to filmmaking as opposed to something specific to theater or specific to music or specific to any discipline. That always interested me actually, why are we using film to tell this story rather than a novel or a piece of music or a piece of theater? What specifically makes it cinematic? That always kind of interested me quite a lot actually. That was something that developed out of maybe an interest and exploration of lots of different media and different forms of communication.

When you’re watching film, looking at the films you love, are there elements you find you’re attracted to? And on the opposite side, are there things in film you cannot stand? And are these all things you are weary of when you’re making your own films? 
Yes for sure. Tough question to answer on the spot. I dunno, I’m from London, I’m a European filmmaker. That’s not to say by any means that I have anything against films made outside of Europe, no way that’s not what I’m saying. But I think my heritage and the heritage of European film has been my education in film. I have been interested in slightly less commercial filmmaking. I’ve always been interested in filmmaking that challenges, not experimental films necessarily, but filmmaking that challenges the viewers perception really, that challenges the viewer and asks the viewer to do a little more work than the might otherwise do. I love as much as the next person with a hangover going to the multiplex on a Sunday and just sitting through 2 or 3 great movies with some popcorn. I have to say though that I get most gratification when I’m watching film that properly makes me think, properly moves me, makes me weep, that I think about the next day, the next week. And those films, on the whole, tend to be more human stories that might be pushing boundaries a little bit, might be using duration, in particular, ways, might be using forms of editing or lack of editing, in particular, ways. Certain filmic language that demands a little bit more, a little bit more challenging.

Absolutely, it’s not being spoon fed to you.
I think so, I think so. I think of films like Gaspar Noe’s Irréversible or Michael Haneke or (the) Dardenne brothers, and I think while all these films and filmmakers make very involving human stories that on some level could be deemed commercial—another great part of that filmmaking style or filmmaking tendency (is that it requires) the viewer to fill in gaps, that needs the viewer to participate for the film to have its optimal effect.

Which kind of defines Over pretty well I would say.
You know what, maybe. (He laughs) Funny that. I think so, I think—it’s interesting, Over started with a little newspaper article a year and a half or so ago and I read about, it was a small little article and, it’s actually not something a lot of people know about, funnily enough, but I was just struck by the sheer outlandishness and surrealness of this event within an environment that is so mundane and so normal and so ordinary. And I think that really struck me and stuck with me. And not only that but the utter sadness of the event, really it became a symbol, and an increasing symbol, and now obviously more than ever especially with what we’re experiencing here in Europe with Syrian and Afghanistan, a symbol of desperation for the migrant and the just horrendous, incomprehensible levels of desperation that people will reach and risks that people will take to make a life for themselves and their families. It’s almost too good to be true, dare I say it, it’s such a metaphor for the incomprehensibility of this desperation. Like what makes you think you can get on to an airplane and travel for like 10 hours at 35 thousand feet in an undercarriage and survive? How desperate do you need to be to even begin to do that? So that really was the starting point, and for me then it was just something that stayed with me and I didn’t immediately tackle it. I did a few other little projects, I make commercials for a living, and I wrote a bunch of other things but last summer I was in Michigan…and I suddenly came back to this idea and just one night I was talking to my wife (saying) I don’t want to tell this story in a conventional kind of visceral handheld follow someone at night climbing into a wheel well, sitting in a wheel well, kind of story. Which is probably a great way of telling it I’m sure. It’s a different way of telling it and it’s an equally emotional way of telling it, that kind of being in the fray and being with the person, perhaps the lead up to climbing onto an airplane into the wheel well. And—sorry I’m kind of being long winded about this but everything I’ve said up until now I suppose is leading to this—it just made sense for me to tell this story in an unconventional manner because I wanted the viewer to be involved in a different way with this particular story. I wanted the viewer not to forget this story. I wanted the viewer to participate in the story. And I think for me, using the reverse chronology, using the wide shots, the static camera—you know a quite challenging thing to do really because it could really switch viewers off and I can imagine some of the academy voters kind of looking at it and giving it a minute or two and then thinking, “Next!” It could either turn people off or it could really transfix people and engage people and make people lean forward and want to know what the hell is going on, want to get closer. It’s just a more memorable experience as a result.

It was something that I described as strangely compelling. You don’t really know why you’re choosing to sit and continue to watch this, but there’s just enough each moment that lets you go, “Oh…well, okay so…alright what is going on…what’s going on? I’ll hang on, I’ll stick around.”

And then, in film terms, you do get a great pay off but then you realize that this is something that really happened. I think you were wise in not following the individual through the wheel well and all that because it is more engaging to force the audience into figuring out what the situation is first because then after being given the surprise it allows them to think it all over. “Wow, what do you have to be thinking to do that?”
I think that because of the way I’ve told the story there’s a lot that happens residually for the viewer. I think there’s a lot of retrospective thoughts and I think that’s really important, you’re right, the end result doesn’t wrap the film up and allow us to move on and get on with our lives, the end result opens up a gaping hole and asks the viewer to continue thinking about it.

Which is great cinema. It’s exactly what I love about film. It makes you think, it makes you talk to other people, it opens up a dialogue, and it’s something to talk about. Which is probably why it’s being so well-received, or at least is one of the reasons. 
Great, thank you. Yeah, it’s very exciting for me that it has been so well received. I was telling this to someone at BAFTA over the weekend, of course, it’s very exciting and gratifying to receive awards and kudos and all the rest of it, as a filmmaker of course and as an artist in any medium it’s great, but for me the fact that this particular film and this particular subject told in this particularly challenging way is actually resonating makes me very touched actually, it moves me quite profoundly that this film is resonating so much.

It is fantastic. Do you think this is just the thing that needed to come along at this point in your life? That it just kind of worked out that way with the way things are in the world and what you needed to do? 
On some level yes. Tt’s a very interesting question. There is a serendipity there. It felt right, and it felt strangely effortless. This whole process of writing the film, making the film, editing the film, delivering the film, and talking about the film has all felt oddly as if it was meant to be. And the timing of it, the zeitgeist-ness of it is immense, it’s bizarre actually. I was in Palm Springs, I didn’t know I’d won the Grand Jury Prize as I was doing another production in LA, and I got up on stage and literally the day before on my way to get that award two bodies had fallen in West London again. But of course in a wider context what’s happening in Europe right now and in the world right now, it’s just too weird for words really.

I think that’s the magic of filmmaking at its finest. And some of us, like yourself, are lucky to have things work together like that.  
Exactly, exactly. Immigration is a theme that, I mean look at the films on the academy long list or the European film academy award list, there are so many films about immigration it’s remarkable. The number of films that touch on immigration, the number of films that touch on lack of communication between cultures, it’s an eternal theme isn’t it? Right now it’s just reached a point where it’s almost surreal.

You see so much of the world is directly involved in these issues and at the same time so much of the world has no idea that this is going on.
Exactly right. And I think and I hope that that my film touches on that because it’s like this very normal suburban mundane environment that goes about with its life and really the only residue is a little bunch of flowers on the side of the road that tell something has happened. The joggers running past, the little girl on the bicycle cycle by, this stuff happens in our midst and we’re not aware of it and we need to be more aware of it.

What can you tell me about your film company LenaRay Films? Is that pretty green still?
It is actually. I started LenarRay Films with my wife actually, she’s a documentary filmmaker, and we’re just kind of feeding little projects into it. We both make commercials, dip into kind of fictions, shorts, I make installations now and again. Just mix it up a bit. LanaRay Films is a way of having an umbrella for that really. I’ve just written my first feature which is with a bunch of people at the moment…and it’s a film that’s been kind of brewing for a year or so with me, it’s pretty different conceptually and contextually from Over, so LenaRay films are providing a platform for that, for the script, for future projects, for stuff that’s going to happen now really. I think Over has certainly opened a lot of doors, you know people always say, “Hey make a short film it’s a great springboard, it’s a great stepping stone,” and my god. (He laughs) I’m always like, “yeah yeah I know,” but really it’s been a good one this one.

Does this feature feel like a natural progression, you’ve done some short films and it’s time to make a feature, or have you run out of ideas that can fit into a shorter time frame? 
Not really. It’s not necessarily a trajectory that I have to take. I think there’s bound to be more shorts in me, you know stories I want to tell with a short sharp burst or a story I want to tell as a phrase rather than the full essay. This film, the feature, is a teenage love story…it’s about two young 13-year-old kids who meet at very critical time in their young lives and it’s about a fumbling, anxious relationship that’s set against some very dark, sinister background of a medical condition. It feels like this story is a bigger story, it warrants a bigger film definitely. That’s why certainly I want to make it as a feature film. I’m bound to shoot another short or two before I make the feature, by the very nature of what a feature is and how long it takes. But certainly I think long-form filmmaking is definitely where I’m going.

Doing commercials and installations for a living, how has that affected the way you approach these more narratively structured films?
I say to people, as a filmmaker, as someone who wants to make narrative fiction films, making commercials is an unbelievably useful thing to do. It keeps the wheels oiled, always keeps the wheels oiled. It’s like you’re constantly on a treadmill, you’re constantly practicing. You’re also distilling, you’re honing a craft by distilling big ideas into little ideas into 30 seconds or 60 seconds. So it’s a very disciplined form of thinking, form of filmmaking, so for me it can only be good because it’s not indulgent really because it requires that process of distillation. So for me making commercials are brilliant because I’m constantly shooting, I’m constantly working with the best crews on the planet whether it’s in LA or in London, DOP’s between features like to make commercials because it’s quick money and a quick job and they don’t have to be away from their families for like 5 months. You work with great people in commercials, it’s just a great field to work in to hone your craft and just keep things moving.

That sounds wonderful.
Yeah. It’s fun as hell man. I get to travel a lot.

This last questions may take a minute as you probably don’t have something in mind immediately but: what’s your biggest mistake you’ve made as a filmmaker and how has it made you a better filmmaker?
Wow, that’s quite a…I think for me it’s not one I’ve—it’s a mistake I’m always making—I’m a purest I think and I think long-windedness is a great sin in my book. Indulgent, long-windedness, saying something with 100 words that could be said in 5. By that, I don’t mean I need to distil the emotional world into something that drains all of the emotion out of it but I just think there are ways of telling emotional stories in succinct involving ways. And I think rambling, overthinking, over indulging filmmaking is something I have to learn not to do. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think for me the process of distillation as a filmmaker is really crucial. It doesn’t mean I’m going to turn out like Tarkovsky and make a film with like 4 shots but there is a purity there and a stillness and a distillation that I think is just pure cinema. And that’s an exciting path I think, to reaching a level of communication that doesn’t require a thousand words. I’m excited by that, by cinema’s ability to do that, to convey feeling and convey stories and to tap into our human consciousness without having to go the commercial route and bombard people with information and story and stuff they don’t really need.

You’re a man after my own heart. 
That was brilliant wasn’t it? I’m talking about distilling in the most long winded version of that you could possibly imagine. I’ve just completely expressed to you what I have to overcome. (He laughs).

Jörn’s work can be found on his website, http://jornthrelfall.com/