DANCING WITH MYSELF: FILMMAKING LAID BARE
Join our guest writer, Hannah McKibbin, as she discusses getting naked and her new short film The Happy Genius.
When I first came up with the idea for this short film, I never stopped to think that getting a man to dance naked for me might be a fairly intense introduction to my first foray into filmmaking. I also didn’t stop to think that it might be difficult to get an actor to agree to dance naked on camera for a director with no credits to their name. The only thing I could think about was how the simple and visually evocative lines of the poem Dance Russe by William Carlos Williams would make for the perfect voice over accompaniment to a short film about loneliness. So I decided to take Williams’ poem, create a character around the central narrative voice and see if I could build a story around that.
The Happy Genius is a film about repressed older businessman, Henry, who has the perfect life to the outside world but still feels an aching loneliness inside. Fit to burst with all the tensions of his day, Henry retreats to the safety of his garden shed where, locked away from prying eyes, he releases himself from all this pent up tension by stripping naked and dancing wildly. For me, it’s about how we are so much wilder than the ‘civilised’ faces we present to the world. It is about the reverberations of repression and the importance of finding an outlet to express our innermost emotions.
"If you want to give birth to your true self, you are going to have to dig deep down into that body of yours and let your soul howl."
It took a while to find the right actor for the role but eventually we found Martin Bishop. Martin had an immediately intuitive understanding of the character and I knew straight away he was a great fit. Martin also has an exuberant rebellious streak that meant that he was up for the challenge of the dance. I wanted the dance to feel truly instinctive rather than a routine so we decided that we would not choreograph it. The idea behind the scene was that it was not about ‘perfection’ but perfect ‘imperfection’. Through dance, Henry is escaping from the rigid confines of the life he has built up around him - the big expensive house, the beautiful younger wife, the young kids, the pressurised corporate job and returning to a simpler, freer state of being. The dance couldn’t feel contrived - it had to be spontaneous if it were to work.
A great inspiration for my process for working with Martin came from Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms method. The 5 Rhythms are a form of physical therapy wherein the subject is guided to find their own expressive dance movements through listening to five different types of music which trigger different physical and emotional responses: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. The theory behind this dance movement therapy is that when you allow people to express the various emotions they hold within themselves they will release the tensions they are holding on to and effectively learn how to self-heal. Henry’s sadness is that he can only cope with expressing his innermost self when he is on his own - thus, his sense of loneliness becomes compounded once again.
Martin and I had a number of sessions where we moved through these 5 rhythms and found a selection of music that inspired the best emotional response in him. My main intention was to make Martin feel as comfortable as possible doing this before the added intensity of doing it without any clothes on. When it came to the shoot day, we had a closed set of just Martin, our director of photography, the assistant cameraman and me. Martin went for it with all the verve and passion that he could muster and we shot the whole scene in one long 40 minutes take. Because we were not shooting sound, we were able to play music and I was able to direct Martin throughout the scene. Filmmaking can be very stilted, taking a long time to set up and then continually stopping and starting in between takes so having the opportunity to play and explore in this way was a total joy. There was so much beautiful footage that it was really difficult for us to choose the best bits and the scene that I had been the most nervous about became the most enjoyable part of the whole shoot.
As an ex-Rhythmic gymnast, I am very much inspired by dance and have recently made an experimental dance film to accompany a new music artist’s first solo release. In line with my approach to ‘The Happy Genius’, instead of creating specific choreography, I wanted to allow the dancers to be free to express themselves in a way that felt natural and instinctive to them rather than follow a set routine. I am incredibly interested in improvisation and hope to bring this into my dialogue films in the future. I really admire the work of directors who use improvisation like Andrea Arnold, Joanna Hogg and Mike Leigh. If the actor really knows their character, improvisation can create incredible spontaneous moments that feel ‘real’ because they are unplanned - something you just don't get when following a script.
Hannah McKibbin, Filmmaker
Hannah is a writer/director and script editor from London. Her first film, The Happy Genius (produced by Alex Cook, Senior Talent Manager at BAFTA) recently premiered at the Paris Short Film Festival and is continuing its festival run across Europe and America. She is now in pre-production for the final shoot of a surreal dark fairytale drama - The Blood Bride - a death trip through an abused young woman’s subconscious.
For more information on Hannah and her work, visit her website www.hannahmckibbin.com