Film Editor | Graciela Mae Chico
I sat down with Media Arts (what we know now as the Film, TV & Digital Production course) alumni Josef Bates on the afternoon before the first screening of his short film Tic at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. After catching him up on the new, lengthy course title, as well as bonding over the infamous and unchanging state of our beloved Media Arts’ Williams Building, it was Josef’s turn to catch me up with the processes leading up to Tic’s premiere at the festival — as well as the exciting future that beholds the heartfelt, dark comedy.
‘Mostly’ based on his own experience, the dark comedy is the classic tale of a date gone bad but with an undeniable personal touch; the protagonist Dave is shown struggling with Tourette’s syndrome, particularly the aggressive tic in his left arm. His struggles turn from funny, to absurd, to farcical gore. Bates informs me about the process the film has undergone, with the pre-production starting in January 2018. The film stars Will Merrick as Dave and Emma Mackey as his date Jess.
One of the films that instantly leaps out as tonally similar to the film is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (which Bates mentions as a comparison himself). Both thread on the dark comedy genre and both work effectively because of the passion and love in the story’s core, amidst the comedy and gore is a genuine story about personal experience.
GC: How was it balancing comedy and a topic that’s quite personal?
JB: I’ve never wanted to do a pity piece, I never wanted to do a dramatic film, because that’s not me. I’m not a dramatic person, I don’t like dramatic films, I don’t like to be bummed out. When I decided I wanted to write this, I knew I had to incorporate the black comedy styling of it. I realised what I wanted from it, I don’t want people to feel awkward when they’re watching it… I want people to laugh and have a good time, I want to show people Tourette’s can be funny. You can laugh at it, but you have to know why you’re laughing at it.
When I expanded on whether writing about the topic made him feel vulnerable at all, Bates recalled an anecdote when a movement coach came on set to work with Merrick in perfecting the movements naturally.
JB: Within an hour or two of the session, the coach would just click her fingers and Will would just do the movement and it was exactly the same movement I used to do…and I got emotional. I remember going to my producer, it’s very weird seeing that. It’s like looking at me, but older, if I was still going through the same challenges. But it was also emotional because I used to watch Will when I was sixteen, on Skins, About Time and Brief Encounters — he was an actor I grew up with. To have somebody I used to watch and admire as an actor, play a version of myself is a really cool, and a very weird, thing. I’m honoured that Will wanted to do it, but I think the emotional bit will be watching it tonight I think and seeing somebody’s reaction because that’s when I’ll know how much it means to people. Pre that it’s all about me; I’m the one who made it, I’m the one who wrote it, I’m the one who gives a shit about it, I think the first time that it will be emotional is when someone else gives a shit about it. I’m excited to talk about it and debate about it, I really hope it’s a good reaction. But if it’s a terrible reaction, that’s fine as well.
GC: Either way, you got to tell the story you wanted to tell.
JB: Yeah, exactly! I always think as a filmmaker you have to start making what it is that you want[ed] to make, what film would you want to go see? What Netflix show would you binge on a Friday night? What’s the thing that drives you? And this [Tic] is the sort of thing I would. I’m very proud that that’s what we’ve gotten out of it and I’m very proud of everyone who worked in it, the actors, the crew, the production company and I’m very excited to see where it goes.
GC: It definitely seems like you all had a lot of fun filming Tic! There’s a scene with Will Merrick (where his character addresses his left-hand face to face in the Restaurant’s bathroom) that seems like it would have been loads of fun to film, but I can imagine it would have also involved a lot of planning. How was prepping for that scene?
JB: It was a great set, everyone had a really good time. We ended up using what’s in the script but it brought the energy up massively, but the bathroom stuff was totally improv. It’s one thing asking an actor to portray Tourette’s and do all the movements, that’s hard enough, and to layer on top of that, direction, that’s very hard. He’s a powerhouse of an actor, he’s fantastic. Will and Emma have such great chemistry with each other. We did five weeks worth of rehearsals, which was mostly to build up chemistry. I don’t really want a set where my actors are there ‘for hire’, where we can’t say what we want to say to one another… on set it was a really good friendship circle that blossomed into really good work. I try to do all my work like that, making sure everyone is as comfortable as they can be, which I think is really important. You want everyone to love what they’re doing, it shouldn’t just be a job to people. I hope when people watch Tic, they can see how passionate everyone was, see how natural they seem and how much they’re enjoying themselves. I’ve always thought films I watch when you can see real passion involved, where you can see people really enjoying themselves, are films that you love. Like Shaun of the Dead, you can tell how much passion as involved in making it. It’s so full of passion and so full of energy, you just fall in love with it.
As we threaded on the topic of Royal Holloway (Bates praises Directing for Screen Fiction lecturer John Roberts for making him ‘fall in love with directing’). I asked Bates whether he had any advice for the current Media Arts students. He notes the inevitable ‘clouded view’ of the industry that you grow to have after three years of having kit, crew, and actors at your disposal. He also warns of the tendency of film school graduates of producing ‘quantity over quality’ films for their showreel, advising that, in order to make films that really make an impact, you need to choose those you have genuine ‘passion and love for’.
Tic boasts a budget above most short films, Bates expands on the financial hurdle that accompanies filmmaking after university. The film’s budget, miles away from his budgets back at film school, put on new pressure, as well as boundless new possibilities and he appreciates the challenge as the fight for budgets forces you to ‘prove why you want to make it’.
Before Tic’s screening at London Film Festival it was confirmed to also have been chosen for the acclaimed London Short Film Festival, adding another wreath to the film’s collection. If you don’t make the film’s LSFF screening in January 2020, you might have to wait for another reiteration of the story as Bates is currently working on expanding Dave’s story as a series of Channel 4. Pre-production for the project starts right after LFF and he will remain working with Will as well as collaborating with new writers. When I asked him whether he always envisioned the story to expand to a series, he told me it feels like a ‘natural trajectory’. Bates, while always joking about his ‘expanding ego’ is smart and eager to collaborate with other creatives, reiterating that, while he has established himself as a filmmaker, he is ‘still learning’ from all those around him.
GC: Did you always envision the possibility of Tic becoming a series?
JB: It was never my intention to make it into a TV show…Every week I find myself being in the same room with another incredible, talented person and I just try to absorb and learn from them. What’s great with the course at Royal Holloway is it gave me the facilities, but you can’t really teach directing and writing. You can’t teach the creative side of it because it’s something you inherently have to have.