Meet Indie Filmmaker: MILK MAN

Director James Rumsey recently submitted his film, MILK MAN, to the ECU 2010 Fiction Short film category. Having recently won the Audience Choice Award at the Filmstock International Film Festival 2009 in the UK, Rumsey talks to us about milk, re-birth and the beauty of working on a tight budget.

By Anna Takayama

Q: What is your film about?

Milk Man is about the consequences of getting stuck in one view of yourself and of life and aims to suggest that another view, with other possibilities, can be taken if we choose it. The story is of a fearful and neurotic voyeur called Brian whose life is dominated by routine. The drink that forms an essential part of that routine is milk. He runs out of milk late [one] night and is compelled to return to the convenience store. His routine is in bits and worsens as a woman takes what Brian believes to be the last carton of milk.

Q: What was the source of inspiration for your story?

Brian's story was born out of my own. My story is utterly unremarkable and much like countless others where dreams fade as the daily grind kicks in. It wasn't a bad life and I didn't mind the work, but I still lived life feeling it wasn't all it could be, So I left my job, left London and went to film school in Vancouver. I came up with the first draft of Milk Man while I was in Vancouver as I reflected on my choice to leave my job, the great time I d had in Canada, and what awaited me back in the UK, no job, no money, but also no doubt that I was excited by the new challenge ahead.That's what is at the heart of the initial idea: a realisation that life is often limited only by how you see it and the choices you make as a consequence.

Q: There is a definite shock value in the way your story unfolds but was this intended from the beginning?

Yes, the story evolved from those shock elements, as you call them. It was an integral part of what I was attempting with the structure of the narrative [it] is designed to reflect the existential theme and encourage the audience to think about assumptions that they might be making about the outcome of the film and perhaps about the way they view things generally.

Q: How would you define the genre of your film?

For me it s film noir. Some scenes, such as the lighting and design fit the noir cliché more than others, but the noir genre is more than a few visual clichés. In terms of a questionable hero at odds with his surroundings it is definitely a noir film with noir themes for me but one that has more in common with the reinvented noir of the 70s, movies like The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Junior Bonner and Five Easy Pieces. The protagonists in those movies either had a journey of self-rediscovery or perished in some way, unable to cope.

Q: The quirks of your main character are very particular how did you come up with this characterization?

Much of that was on the page but the translation of that into a living breathing reality owes much to Henry Everett. Henry is a very close friend that was always in my mind to play Brian. Somewhat poetically, he had quit his job to become an actor at the same time I quit mine to become a filmmaker. So Henry was on board very early. It gave us the luxury of time to discuss ideas for Brian as they occurred to us and it made a real difference. I also researched Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. Ultimately my research led me to realise that people with OCD have a more complex set of issues to overcome and deal with than Brian or I could hope to deal with within a 15 minute film. Hopefully, what we are left with is a neurotic and painfully ritualistic man, but not necessarily someone who is OCD.

Q: Why did you choose milk as one of your main character s obsession?

As the script developed and different elements came together, the milk came to symbolise a bunch of things. I found it evoked a sense of childlike innocence in Brian that I liked and that was sympathetic to the way in which Marina watches over him like a lost little boy. ..Milk also helps evoke a sense of a rebirth and the nurturing of a new life, reinforced by the encounter with the pregnant woman. But none of these are the reason why I initially chose milk. The reason was simply that I needed Brian to leave his flat for narrative reasons. I figured something as mundane as getting milk was as good as any other idea. The other connotations emerged and evolved after that. The fact that it is mundane sits perfectly with the themes of the film. Brian s life-altering event occurs doing something where he s been hundreds of times before, only this time, it's different.

Q: What was the casting process like?

I loved it. Every actor that auditioned contributed to the evolution of Milk Man because they showed me stuff that I didn't write, couldn't write. I know that only once I've seen it in the hands of an actor will things really start to take shape. Brian was already cast of course but it was great to see Henry spar with the other actors and put to bed any doubts I may have had about his ability to bring Brian to life. For Marina I was pretty sure I'd found someone who gave me just what I needed, and it was Delia Remy who thankfully I had the sense to cast in the end

Q: Tell us a little about the soundtrack how did you choose your music?

It was obvious from the edit process that Milk Man was a more subtle film than I had appreciated when I wrote it and finding the right timbre and balance in the music proved that again. Gerald Clark (my composer) and I decided from an early stage that we wanted to use saxophone. It suited the genre and setting, the loneliness of Brian and the element of intrigue we wanted to evoke. Pretty good going for just one instrument!

I had a clear source of inspiration in Bernard Hermann s theme from Taxi Driver and Gerald drew inspiration from Vangelis Love Theme from Bladerunner. The rest of the music was arrived at a lot more organically. On the other three projects the music fell into place with very little trouble, but that wasn t the case on Milk Man. I have to credit Gerald for hanging in there while I struggled to either be satisfied or to articulate what I wanted. The recorded music tracks were equally tricky to arrive at. To a large extent the tracks chosen were chosen because we didn't have the money to pay for any music. Although the music chosen was chosen because of financial constraint I love it and I m glad we had those constraints. The vintage sounds add strangeness and character to the film. It was damn hard work to find the music that was out of copyright, but well worth the effort!

Q: Were there any difficulties that you encountered?

Sure. I'd been an Assistant Director until Milk Man and so although I was very familiar with life on set, it was still a massive learning curve for me, especially post production. Probably the hardest thing for me was working on my own as writer, producer and director. I m actively seeking above-the-line collaborators now so if there s any writer s or producer s out there looking for a director to collaborate with, give me a shout at [email protected].

In general, the difficulties that were encountered end up being stories of triumph over adversity.

It wasn't straightforward to find a convenience store that would let us loose in their business over night. When we found one, like all convenience stores, it was located in a residential area. We had a generator to power some of the lights and could only afford a noisy one. So the challenge was how to avoid waking the neighbourhood and risk being shut down. Luckily, I found solace in a kind-hearted local businessman who had a forecourt and workshop by a busy roundabout about 150 yards from the shop. His generosity staggered me. Not only did he let us park our generator there, he also allowed us to stage make-up and wardrobe at his workshop and even bought us all curry as it was his 50th birthday on the night of the shoot.

Q: Where was the location of your film?

Milk Man was shot in North London. My flat in East Finchley was Brian s flat. Marina s flat was my neighbour's. The convenience store location is about a mile down the road from my flat on the border between Highgate and East Finchley. In a film that is about a man that does all he can NOT to connect with his neighbours, going out into my local community and finding such generosity and warmth was one of the most rewarding parts of filming the local paper even did a report from the set, and it's the edition that Marina is holding in the final scene.

Q: Tell us about your next project.

Festivals! I m a one-man-band and that s taken a lot of time since finishing [post-production] in May 2009. I completed a two-minute short in June 2009 for the Virgin Media Shorts competition called The Proposal. Delia and Henry turn up again as very different characters in a very different film to Milk Man. It's a cheeky comedy invented so that the Milk Man team could collaborate for another project, quickly and inexpensively. I'm currently developing several projects side-by-side with different collaborators in the hope that at least one of them will find backing. There's a short form opera set round a craps table; a supernatural black comedy featuring a goat and a gangster; a mock-reality TV show, a psycho-thriller about a questionable paparazzi photographer, and a comedy based on the mythology of the jin or genie as popularised by Aladdin. The recurring theme of all the ideas is the existential question of responsibility in relationship to the debate around freewill versus determinism. In other words, choice.

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