This is a project that I wanted to make to prove to myself that I can write and direct to someone else’s brief. My entire career as a writer/director, I have only written and directed my own stuff. The next step for me was to have the confidence to work the other way around therefore it can feel more like a proper job in a way.
The project came to me initially from my actor colleague Ndongo Faye who I worked with in my previous project Café Mirage. Ndongo played Gustave, the head chef, one of the main supporting roles. He had written a monologue and sent it to me for feedback. At the time I wasn’t planning on doing any big projects like another feature for instance, Café Mirage was a long project and took it out of me. I was toying with the idea of moving into the branding world and creating little fiction videos for companies, unfortunately nothing came of it. So along came Ndongo’s monologue and I fancied a short film, to keep me active, growing, learning, not too long and to have more content out in the world to keep me relevant.
I read the monologue and after the second read I immediately saw it as a short film, shot in black and white, silent movie with a spoken word narration on top, being the monologue itself. As a director, it is their job to “know what to do” with a project, the angle they will attack it from, and ultimately what the director’s vision will be for it. After seeing the excellent film Gone Girl which I love, I had been toying with this style for while, coming up with short film ideas to shoot in this way. Nothing materialised, I didn’t find an angle so I forgot about it. And then Ndongo’s monologue arrived and it gelled, the time was now.
The monologue was originally titled Black Love, a beautiful title for the project. When I drafted the script (incorporating the monologue as a narration over the scenes) I changed the title to Fade. This can be interpreted in a few ways, mostly when something fades black, but the main interpretation is the fading out process of a relationship. Because the monologue is about the struggles in a relationship, my angle for the piece was to be about a couple slowly fading apart. That was the hook and as the director you must choose one, stick with it and follow it through. Also I wanted to change the title because the main characters are black and due to the ultra sensitive, politically correct world we now live in, I didn’t want this film to be a stereotype of black relationships.
So Ndongo and I were the first to board the project, the next step was to find an actress to play the female lead. I was very lucky with talent for this project. Ndongo recommended Belinda Kizza, an actress that is on the same talent agency as he. I met with Belinda, researched her and trusted she could play the wife of Ndongo’s character convincingly. She is a strong performer and has BBC project pedigree. But the most important thing above all else was she embodied the character perfectly and the chemistry between her and Ndongo’s character was all there. Characters can fall flat, won’t mean a thing if there is no chemistry. I was blessed to have Ndongo and Belinda as the leads. The actor I needed to actively go out and look for was the third character, the mistress to Ndongo’s character. I did some searching online and found Parvinder. It was one of those instances where no audition was required, it was simply the look on the headshots, and then the gold: showreels and previous works. Sometimes that is all you need. Actors like Parvinder, Ndongo and Belinda, you know they can bring the stuff and more, as a director you are safe in that respect. The only mandatory stage after that is the crucial online meet, not even an interview really. I just need to meet the person, see how they are and if we can gel. Then done. I came to learn Parvinder was a busy in demand actor, but I knew she would be invested in the project and I was really happy I secured her. Like Belinda, she had done BBC stuff which would only help Fade and add a lot more value to the end product.
On the production side, I had been trying to work with my producer friend Oliver Woodward again for a while, since my short film Paradis back in 2016. He wasn’t able to board Café Mirage. When that film was completed the pandemic hit and new productions for me were put on hold. We did however keep in communication, he was the person I bounced ideas with to create branded videos. We would merge our two production companies and produce the content 50/50. As I mentioned those branding videos didn’t come to fruition, but situations aligned to make Fade, so we were finally working together again.
In terms of funding, the project was going to be fully funded by Pattern Maker Films. At the time of pre production the company was granted the cultural test certificate from the BFI for Café Mirage, therefore the company could apply for a tax relief on the film’s budget. A part of that relief would go into this project, along with the hard earned money from Neilson’s own passionate filmmaking pockets. For me it is always worth it. I was financially all in on my own on this one after a bunch of time wasting, wannabe financiers ghosting the project when it mattered. What the company needs now going forward is larger funding channels, the scale of the projects must go up a level, this will be the next phase of the company.
After working with such an amazing team on Café Mirage, collaborating with them again was a straight forward decision. In my opinion forming a team of regular collaborators is how you build a style, a bond, it is absolutely necessary. I had Ariel my DOP, Timi my editor, Rupert my composer, Oliver of course producing and Lauren this time taking on the production design role. I had confidence in Lauren for this role because of her creativity for production design on her own short film we are working on together. Rupert has become a regular collaborator, our third time, the same with Timi my editor and Ariel my DOP. I really am lucky to have found these professionals, we gel and I definitely see my directors style becoming more distinct with their collaboration.
One of the key elements to this entire project was the location. It was probably the most vital part during pre production. I had known Robert Bruh for about 7 years, communicating back and forth for him to become an investor in my projects, which didn’t come to fruition. He did however let us shoot in his house in Hampstead which was an amazing gesture and I am entirely grateful for. The first time I visited the house it reminded me of the house in the movie Parasite. A good start as its eery quietness and openness fitted the tone of the project perfectly. We had the entire house to ourselves which was outstanding, we were very, very lucky. Renting this type of house on location agency would cost a daily rate of 3k per day upwards, at least. Once again, we were lucky and grateful, the house was tonally sound for the project to live in.
With the location in place, a great relationship with Robert in place, logistics and insurances secured, it was all about tying up the loose ends. Production gets extremely busy towards the final week or two before the shoot. At stages early on in pre-production you get doubts about the shoot, if you can get everything done in time because there are so many elements to making a film. At any moment a curve ball can rear its ugly head and collapse the process. This film had its challenges, but luckily the budget was in place so there wasn’t any stress there. I had a fantastic crew boarding the project, thanks to Oliver’s producing we had a well experienced make up artist Janet, and an equally qualified master first assistant director Top, both new players to the Neilson Black stable. I myself had developed stronger skills by teaching myself to create storyboards for shot lists. Never once had I done this before, but now I know how valuable this skill is for a production. Not only does it make everyones job clearer in terms of schedule, as a director I am able to see the film visually and its rhythm from a very early stage. It only took 9 films to find this gift of a process, but it was always meant to happen at the right time.
This project turned out to be a 2 day shoot. Originally I had it planned to be a 1 day shoot, but as the script developed and the budget increased, it made much more sense to have a relaxed 2 days at the cost of a higher budget, than try to keep costs down and squeeze everything into a single day, killing the cast and crew in the process. We were way ahead of schedule on the first day, so on that day we were able to shoot some of the material scheduled for day 2. We started with the kitchen scenes, moved outside to do the exterior scenes and then finished the first day off with the evening living room and hallway scenes. Fade tells the story of the breakdown in the communication of a marriage, mainly told over a single day, so most of the scenes we shot in the first day was in the same course as the story. Because we had time on the first day to shoot extra material, we included a shot of Ndongo walking through the woods at the back of the garden. The location was amazing, it had so many spaces and details that would have been completely wasted had we not included them in the film. We needed to take advantage of everything we had at our disposal for free. The shot of Ndongo in the woods worked for the story because of the way we shot it, it will intercut throughout the story with the narration on top. It will be visually intriguing, will fit the tone, another layer to the movie. Oliver had some great input here.
The house had Japanese styled architecture that hadn’t been changed since the property was built, so we didn’t need to change much regarding the production design. This made scene setups straight forward and friendly to Lauren and the camera and lighting department. It all just worked and kept costs down at the same time, which was needed because for the size of the film there wasn’t a lot of budget left over for wardrobe and production design.
Day 2 was mostly the bedroom scenes. It is strange because even though we were in one room, the schedule seemed more intense and the hours more demanding. Perhaps because the scenes were a bit more technical, a lot of repeating the same thing from different setups. I also had my very own acting debut in a Neilson Black film. This wasn’t by choice. I always made a decision to myself not to be the director that acts in his own film’s like Woody Allen, but due to a production curve ball it made the most sense for someone to take the role on. And that narrowed down to me as the only best option, so this time I took one for the team. It was quite fun actually, I got to put to use my early acting experience, performing at drop in classes many years ago when I first started out in the industry. It is also important for a director to understand what it is like to be an actor, physically doing what they do, it will only make you a better director for them.
We had a very special guest visit the set, Peter Biziou, the cinematographer of Mississippi Burning and The Truman Show. It was a real honour to have him, he shared his professional wisdom with us. It was especially good for our cinematographer Ariel to meet Peter and have some valuable cinematographer time, and a few pictures as well. Peter knew about the project because of Robert, they are next door neighbours, so the project remained on their radar and conversation. I’d like to think they were looked after for the few hours they were there. A special mention to Lauren and her outgoing personality for helping in this department.
Generally I felt the project was a well looked after production. Now living in a COVID guidelines world, we put the necessary precautions in place like lateral flow tests, masks and hand sanitisers. I think the crew appreciated this, it made the production a more comfortable place to work in. Even if it was a low budget indie short film, just putting the basic precautions in place will always go down well for everyone involved. We had two fantastic runners Petra and Catalina looking after the COVID department as well as the other production tasks. They were excellent workers that looked after the production and backend department, valuable members to the team.
To work within the parameters of the script, we had a later start on day 2 and a later finish because one of the scenes required us to shoot at night time. This was the scene between Ndongo and Parvinder, the first main turning point in the film, an injection of energy, the story taken in a new direction. Both actors delivered class work, they really brought their game. They hadn’t even rehearsed in person prior to the shoot, but with a little pre chat and run through, they knew how to handle and play the scene. They could just jump right in. As this film was originally planned as a silent film, the idea of adding dialogue came later. Then during pre production it was discussed the cast would improvise their scenes, but my writers hat went into action mode and I sketched out the dialogue in these scenes, which the cast were happy with and used. It worked and the actors were able to find the beats nicely in scenes. It was getting dark and cold once we wrapped this scene. After a fun and creative 2 days it was a productive way to finish. Even though the pre production for the film took a good few months (as it does with film productions), those two days didn’t last long. You make such great creative collaborations in such a short space of time when shooting, sometimes only ever seeing and working with members for a few hours. But that’s okay because it’s the connections that are important and something you keep for possible future projects and catch ups. It was interesting to notice how many people knew each other on this film from collaborations on previous works, it is a small world in the film industry.