We here at Roobla were lucky enough to get a chance to sit down and chat with Ross Barnwell, the young student director of the fantastic Unto a Good Land (read our review here) and here’s what he had to say…
MF: The first thing that struck us about the film was the period setting, this was surely a very ambitious choice for any short filmmaker, let alone a final year university project. One is led to assume you must be very passionate about the time period in which it’s set?
RB: That’s the thing, when I was 14 I went on battlefields school trip and whilst doing that I read Micheal Morpurgo’s book Private Peaceful and loved it. It was the combination of this book and the school trip that lead me to getting hooked on the subject matter of the First World War. Coupled with my love of TV and film drama the project just kind of fell into place. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are obviously an influence here as well, their gritty and realistic representation of war is something I wanted to emulate.
The bulk of First World War dramas recently have had a more traditional period drama setting rather than a battlefield one and whilst Unto a Good Land certainly contains elements of Great Expectations and the like the cutaways to the trench scenes were my favourite moments because they were more realistic and that’s the scenes I am most passionate about recreating. These guys could spend a week in a trench and for six days be doing nothing before a battle so that boredom and living in awful conditions was something I wanted to show as well, someone having a cup of tea in a dirty hole for example is something rarely shown. I think it’s a juxtaposition that a lot of drama is missing.
MF: Were there any doubts that this film could be achieved on student budget?
RB: Absolutely, every single day! We had previously done a drama/documentary Wilfred (about Wilfred Owen) and that was great because it gave me a taster for this kind of material. During the making of this we found that big part of doing this project was to get the locations right, the trenches, the manor house etc. A lot of the thanks for this has to go to Tash, the producer on the film, she was key in securing a lot of the locations that really enhance the film. The trenches used weren’t actually built as a film set, they were built by historian Andy Robertshaw in his back garden!
MF: Andy Robertshaw? That’s not a name many of our readers will be familiar with…
RB: Well Andy has a big, illustrious career in being a military advisor for film and television, I think he used to be lecturer and then got into to film and TV work. Starting on stuff like Time Team he worked his way up and was the military advisor on War Horse. So as well as having lots of great stories about Spielberg, he had a great sense of how filming works. It was because of his experience I didn’t feel pressured working around him.
MF: So what was it like working in the trenches?
The trenches themselves are built to scale so he also warned me that we wouldn’t be working on a film set and that space would be confined. Thankfully we only had a crew of fix or six people so this didn’t present much of an issue. The lack of space also added to the sense of realism I wanted to achieve as these trenches were built in exactly the same way as in the past. Weeds were creeping through the sandbags and it was muddy and dirty. Whether the viewer notices this or not isn’t always important, obviously I do hope people notice these things but this detail is also important as it convinces the actors more of the period setting as well. Even whilst writing the script I stayed and slept in the trench for a full 24 hours just to get a better understanding of what is was like. I prefer to put things into the first person because it’s difficult not to regurgitate old material on the same subject matter.
MF: As well the film looking great, the story and the characters shone through for me, especially the German nurse. When writing the characters were there any influences you were specifically trying to evoke?
RB: It’s very easy to fall into genre stereotypes with this kind of material. Whilst this is not always a bad thing as some of the character types exist with good reason, this is something I wanted to eschew with at least some of the characters. It’s about finding some kind of middle ground, going back to the German nurse briefly. OK, a lieutenant and a nurse having a relationship isn’t particularly realistic but then I found the concept of her being German fascinating and that decision came quite late in the day. It’s about showing the other problems caused by war other than the obvious death and injury.
In terms of filmmakers who inspire me, two really come to mind. Derek Cianfrance has an entirely unique style, the fact that he has a background in documentary translates so well to the screen. Whilst I didn’t go to that extent, I did try and take influences from his directing and writing, where you write characters that are able to develop and breathe on set and outside of the script. The scene in the doctors for example is something I didn’t script, the idea for the scene was there but we ran with it on the day, the characters ending up having sex was the planned outcome but how it got there was deciding whilst shooting. The scenes feel more natural if shot that way than if I had scripted the whole thing.
Also I hate storyboarding, if I use boards then drift away from them as shooting progresses then I feel like I have in some way failed. Whereas if I don’t use them at all I don’t have that problem and for me at least the process feels more organic. I’m not criticising those filmmakers that do use them and undoubtedly they work for a lot of people just not for me. I am a very much a fan of setting up a scene and letting things happen, have a loose structure but allow for change.
The ability of Paul Thomas Anderson is also something I respect and try to evoke, he has a way of filmmaking that can make characters interesting even if they just sitting on the sofa for two hours. There Will Be Blood and The Master are fantastic films and the characters within them just perfectly formed. Leaving the camera on characters and seeing the reactions (like the dinner table scene in There Will Be Blood) was something I tried to do with Unto Good a Land and I feel perhaps that next time this is something I will do even more. But I’m young and still learning what I need to embrace more and things that I need to leave behind as my work develops.
MF: Unto a Good Land appears to be perhaps the pilot or start of a potential series, is this something you are looking at continuing?
It is something I would like to go back to but perhaps in the future, whilst I am more than happy with how Unto a Good Land has turned out I am willing to accept that I am inexperienced and in my head not good enough yet to work on an entire series or to pick up funding to do it. However if I get to the point a few projects down the line and have the money and the backing then yes I would go back to it and probably completely rework it. Despite being happy with it, because it was a student project I couldn’t help but consider the marking criteria at every point in the writing process and also the like and dislikes of the lecturers. I am happy with it overall all and feel I have accomplished what I set out to do but without a doubt if the opportunity presented itself I would revisit it.
MF: What are the plans to get Unto a Good Land to a wider audience, any festival appearances lined up or plans to screen it elsewhere?
Well the interest shown already by websites such as Roobla and the reviews are hugely flattering especially for someone this early in their career. It’s great that people are showing an interest and want to take the time to talk to me about it. Also it’s invaluable to have a more rounded understanding of the industry, for example it’s not on the festival circuit yet and I would like it to be but that’s not a part of the industry I’m yet familiar with. So fingers crossed it happens soon!
MF: Finally, what projects are on the horizon for you?
Well I’m good friends with Rebecca, one the actresses (the nurse) from Unto a Good Land and have learned so much from her. She has wanted to build her show reel over the past year and has a background in musical work so we are learning from each other. I have some ideas but basically just working with her on a lot of things, project after project and see where it goes. If anything comes next it will be some kind of 1950s project inspired by The Master. At the moment I’m in a position where I’m not tied to anyone or anything and can make exactly what I want to make so for the time being that’s my plan. The script is in progress and hopefully should be done sometime in June.
Another project with Rebecca is a feature about a woman who contracts a rate disease and finds out she will lose her sight in 30 days and follow her and what she chooses to do with the last days of being able to see but do it in a realistic way. Due to my impatient nature I want to crack on with this early next year but we’ll see how it goes and if it’s not ready then we’ll wait as it’s something I really want to get right.