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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 07.03.13] United Kingdom scifi thriller mystery

A rough fortnight ago was the fourth edition of the FFM, which is short for “Festival du Film Merveilleux”, a new contender on the Parisian fantastic films festivals arena. And one to be reckoned with, the selection being more finely tuned each edition. It revolves around short movies, and can be seen as a creativity lab. With that in mind I accepted to give out a special QuietEarth prize. The winner is called SLEEPWORKING and feels like a missing episode to Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror miniseries.

Everything in this little gem is what I like in modern science-fiction. Essentially fueled by the return to subtle effects, and a general aesthetics bordering more on the “realisme fantastique” of the french sixties and literary anticipation than your usual “oh look giant robots fist fucking lizards”-hypefest of retina destroying visuals. Being human in a different world not so far away from ours, basically Art as a way not only to entertain but also to explore the limits and boundaries of our condition.

This short is for me in the same playpen as Vanishing Waves, Eva, and countless others I’ve already extensively blabbered about in these pages.

And since we can't just give you the full short here and now as it's till touring various festivals, I asked director Gavin Williams to say a few words about his work. You can call that lazy journalism if you want, I call it having insight of the director's creative process :

“Sleepwalking towards Dystopia: SLEEPWORKING by Gavin Williams

SLEEPWORKING is a science fiction thriller set in a near future where scientists have developed a method for hacking human neural architecture so that people can be programmed to perform simple menial tasks while asleep. So, if you were seriously in debt you might do your job in the day then visit a sleepworking facility in the evening. There, you would go to bed in a dormitory with other workers, but your body would labour in a factory or an office for the rest of the night. Yet you would still wake fully rested in the morning. It's a service often utilized by the economically vulnerable – immigrants, struggling single parents, students – and, as in all good tales of techno paranoia, unbeknownst to its clients Sleepworking actually masks a darker layer of exploitation hidden beneath its benign surface: our heroine, Alice Page, starts to suffer unsettling side effects after her shifts and embarks upon a dangerous journey to uncover what sleepworkers' bodies are really being made to do while unconscious...

As a life-long fan of speculative fiction I'm a big admirer of the new wave of ideas-driven SF which has surged in recent years. Hailing back to 70's classics like SOYLENT GREEN and THX 1138 are recent features such MOON, DISTRICT 9 and MONSTERS, as well as TV shows like Charlie Brooker's outstanding BLACK MIRROR (to which Sleepworking bears some tonal similarities, even though it was conceived and shot before the first season aired!) Excited by the success of these projects I was keen to make a scifi short which worked on a number of levels. First and foremost the film is an atmospheric thriller, but it also operates as a pitch-black satire with a dash of surrealism and a light sprinkling of politics.

SLEEPWORKING depicts a cool-yet-nightmarish Kubrickian world five minutes down the line from our own, but it also explores a range of contemporary issues. In this future when you're a sleepworker you literally have to graft every hour in the day, which isn't too far from today's post-crash dystopia where we're constantly afraid for our jobs. We worry whether we'll be able to support our families if we don't agree to this agonising overtime, or take on grinding extra hours. In our world globalized business already mercilessly exploits its work force, turning us into sleepwalking drones. SLEEPWORKING uses genre tropes to explore themes of exploitation, madness, and greed. It's not about five minutes in the future. It's about here and now and we're all sleepworkers.

SLEEPWORKING is my second film as a writer-director after a decade of working as a jobbing writer, yet never quite achieving the break-through I wanted. I tripped into directing almost by accident (“Hey, you! Look where you're walking! Uh oh, now you've done it...”) and I feel like I'm part of a growing trend in the industry. As the means of production plummet in cost – cinema grade kit becoming affordable on even a hobbyist's budget – this leads to what I'd call “discipline creep”, where actors start to write, directors produce their own shorts, and writers begin to direct. It's a way to showcase what you can do entirely on your own terms, which was especially welcome for me after many years having work commissioned, optioned, but rarely filmed (often because my ideas were deemed too ambitious/quirky/plain odd!). I finally got to show the world what my “vision” would be! The hope is that your short becomes an industry calling card which leads to a range of new opportunities, and so far the leap of faith seems to be paying off for SLEEPWORKING which has been accepted by twelve international film festivals in the last six months.

And now the Quiet Earth prize (the film simultaneously won best film at the Festival du Film Merveilleux & Imaginaire in Paris, France) I couldn't be more proud with the award and it really feels like a huge validation for the tremendous effort everybody put into the short.

Interestingly, SLEEPWORKING was funded in a slightly eccentric way. The commission was awarded after I won a six-hour film challenge. The scheme involved twenty short-listed teams of film makers, all of whom had to supply their own kit and crew, and who were presented with two actors they had never met before at the start of the competition day. We were then sent off with six hours to shoot and edit a taster for our proposed shorts, be that a single scene, a trailer, or – if you were insane – the full story in rough. Our original six-hour trailer for SLEEPWORKING can be found here...

Now the core idea for SLEEPWORKING had always been a feature-length story. For the trailer I'd come up with an advert for the Sleepworking service itself which played like a cheesy midafternoon medicare commercial (and painlessly transmitted the basic story exposition). However, having unexpectedly won the full commission I had no idea how I was now going to make the concept work in 15 minutes rather than 90. I had some vague ideas – the notion of a character's dreams and waking world blurring so they couldn't differentiate between the two – along with some arresting visual imagery – I loved the idea of a dorm full of people in business suits preparing for bed together! – but that was it. Initially, the script was much more thrillery, revolving around sleeping people reprogrammed as assassins, but I realised I was dancing nervously around the real sour heart of the idea, and what unscrupulous people really would use this technology for: sex and violence. Nettle grasped, I worked closely with my producer, Ed Barratt (Toronto film festival hit, “Wastleland”) on story development. Twelve drafts later, bruised and tired, we finally had something everyone was happy with... Now we had to actually make the damn thing...

We shot SLEEPWORKING over four insane days late 2011 with a small crew in and around Newcastle Upon Tyne in the North of England. My first short, BREATH, had been designed to play to my virgin directorial abilities in that it was as un-fuck-up-able as I could make it: two actors, two locations, dead simple. This was not that. SLEEPWORKING has multiple locations, many speaking roles, an indoor crowd scene, fights, green screen and digital effects which none of the team had worked with before. It was right on the bleeding edge of the possible with our budget and it's a testament to my amazingly talented crew – especially my young cinematographer, Si Bell – and our brave, gifted local actors, such as stars Catherine MacCabe and Stephen Gregory, that we came home with the film at all, let alone one which could go on to win awards!

One aspect of Science Fiction which can be a real challenge on such a tiny budget is the process of world-building. If you don't have access to expensive sets or extensive CGI how do you make your future feel like an immersive, lived in place? We had to be more creative. Just as the influence of the United States has seeped into cultures around the world today I decided that in the Sleepworking future the rise of China had influenced their art and fashion. This is reflected subtly in the film's environments: mandarin collars, Caucasian characters wearing make-up influenced by Chinese stage styles, and tablet computers housed in fans. Hopefully these little touches make the world feel ever so slightly futuristic in a more imaginative way. By the same token, while we did have some excellent digital effects provided by FX house, Bloom Studio, it was important to me that they featured only in an almost offhand way, the theory being that if you make the fantastic mundane then it feels more credible. This isn't the future to these characters. It's their boring everyday reality.

So, what's next? Well, I'm currently developing the feature-length version of SLEEPWORKING, alongside a lower-budgeted feature script – tentatively titled, “Edge Cases” – which is an odd cross between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “Death and the Maiden”, and “Rashomon”! With SLEEPWORKING, though, I always saw this future as a society on a slippery slope to a dystopia. They weren't there yet, but you could see it as a darkness at the end of the tunnel. I don't believe that societies wake up one day and suddenly they are enslaved. I believe we're eaten by increments, numbed from the neck down. People end up sleepwalking towards an awful fate, blinded by convenience, inertia, or self interest. Perhaps it's time for all of us to wake up before it's too late?”

Directly from director to readers. This guy deserves budget, and I'm eagerly waiting for his next project to come to fruition.
If you want to know more here's all the relevant info :

Facebook page...
Gavin's website...

FFM website :
All my thanks to the FFM team, see you next year girls.

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