After receiving a special mention at Amsterdam Lift-Off, “Day of Reckoning” will screen at London Lift-Off Film Festival, which will take place on 4th-9th December at Arthouse Crouch End. We interviewed director Gideon van Eeden to hear a little more about his journey as a filmmaker, and the process behind this film.
Is “Day of Reckoning” based on any personal family experience during WWII or is it based on a book or a film?
The WWII setting was chosen by the writer, Peter. His inspiration was very specifically based on the experience of his late father. He wanted to work with that, the theme of having a past that comes back to haunt you and ultimately some form of rebalancing of things, a reckoning. Something that you still need to answer for before you can find peace. So it wasn’t as such a war film as it is a rites of passage story.
I read that you studied as a writer/ director at the Raindance MA programme. So is this where the script was written and developed, and what was your experience like at Raindance?
My experience is good, the big unique selling point that they have, is that they don’t teach filmmaking but create filmmakers. I can vouch for that, but I think with any type of postgraduate study, it’s all going to be up to you, it’s going to be what you put into it and what you want to make of it. The tutors are good, I really enjoy working with them. I still have my final masters project to complete, which is going to be the next short film. I have a very good opinion of Raindance in general. In terms of the script, Peter is an alumni of the same course, he finished a year ago, and when I put out a call on the Raindance social media, he was one of the people who reacted. I put out a call for a script, and had about twenty five candidates from South Africa, the Netherlands, all over the place, and ultimately his was the best. It was more aligned to the kind of films I want to make, but he didn’t write this as part of his studies.
Watching the film is quite stylised, visual and symbolic. How did you come up with these ideas? I noticed in some of the shots that there is a clock whenever you see Hans.
Yeah, that was some playful time symbolism. I wanted to include the clocks because of the symbolic nature of the kind of rite that he goes through, we all go through that. We all go through being born, through pivotal moments in our life and we all die. We all prepare for death in different ways. I wanted to give the film a very rich, layered sense of meaning, symbolically. The clock was probably one of the more obvious things to go for, time is running out, but for the keen eye we added more tiny little props and things. For the research i was looking at all sort of esoteric things, occult symbolism or things that didn’t make it into the film, we wanted to go for that really layered, rich sense of meaning.
How did you cast the film? What was the casting process like?
The four speaking characters, they were all professional actors. John is an A -listed Dutch actor who plays the lead. Once you start looking for Dutch A-list actors over the age of 80, you get a very small list of actors that are still working. So John was one of three candidates that we identified, he’s actually the oldest working actor in the Netherlands, he’s older than the character that he portrays, he’s 87 years old. I didn’t put out a casting call, I just phoned his agent and said that I have to have him. Then you start the whole negotiation process, but in the end, because he believed in what we were trying to do, he was an absolute trooper and just a wonderful guy to have on set. For the role of Anton we were looking for a young talented actor with raw talent. Its a tough role to play for a guy of his age, he had the perfect look we were going for and his enthusiasm was infectious. For the casting, we targeted people and I just got them. That’s just the way that we did it, there wasn’t really a desire to do long and elaborate casting. We knew what the characters were and we knew who we could approach for them, and that’s the way we did that. I did an open casting call for the daughter character, and we got some weird and wonderful applications. Wendy was very photogenic, she’s an actress with a strong desire to get out there and do the work which made the decision easy. It’s a tough character to crack, so I chose her on the basis of those two things; she looks great on camera and she has this tremendous hunger as an actress. It’s infectious, you want that kind of person on set.
How long was the shoot and how many people worked on set?
We missed the skills of a line producer quite significantly which created some scheduling hiccups. The crew were seeing the result on the monitors, and they were seeing what we were getting, and this was a great motivating factor. Everyone remained very passionate and enthusiastic because of the results we were getting. The shoots were extremely intense because some things were really important, the cinematography had to be subtle but powerful. It’s a very ambitious way of shooting with lots of push ins and pull outs, it’s incredibly complex shots to pull off. We wanted that and we knew that, but maybe we were a little bit naive with the amount of time it was going to take. The last day, was supposed to be half a day, we shot that out in a field with extras and everything. So in total 3 days with some overtime and around 30 extras and 15 crew members.
Looking back over the whole process would you change anything? Maybe get a line producer?
Yes, yes I would. One thing we refused to do as a team was to wait for the establishment to throw us a bone. You get mired in endless preparations and writing directors visions and synopsis and proposals, which we also did for this project, but with a different goal in mind – to align the cast and crew to the creative vision, not to beg for money. We like to do the effort and get the film made. We want the skills of a line producer onboard but if the next film is going to get mired in that kind of no man’s land then we’re just going to shoot it ourselves again in a very similar way. For the budgeting and scheduling, the budgeting is not such an issue, because I just pay for everything. I mean it’s a tough thing to sell to my wife, but like I said, we’re not going to sit around and wait forever, we’re getting things done in the way that we want to. However the scheduling skills of a line producer is most welcome on the next project.
So you kind of answered my next question, how did you fund it. So was it all self funded or did you get a kick starter campaign as well?
No, no there was no time for that kind of thing. I just bit the bullet and most people working on this film were working as volunteers. We got a very strong team together of crew and other post production personnel. There’s one reason for that, the quality of the script and the clarity of the director’s vision statement inspired people to join. With these two things, people thought wow this is a magical idea, we want to be onboard. In the Netherlands you can commit yourself to that kind of ambition. I think if you try to pull something like this off in more unionised countries it would be a lot harder. But yes, the brunt of the impact was sustained by profits from my work in corporate film.
Could you see “Day of Reckoning” being made into a feature film?
That’s a difficult thing to answer, because I think what makes this a very special short film is that it actually has the complete character arc that you would have in a feature film contained in a short film. So if you’re going to build this out or elaborate this into a feature film you’re going to start milking moments which would cost you on subtlety . I would be keen if anyone says lets see if we can do this, I would be keen to look at the development of it. It wasn’t really made as a proof of concept though, we wanted to go for a self contained character arc and we achieved that. We’re probably going to do the same kind of thing with the next short film, but that should have more of a proof of concept taste to it. I’m not saying I refuse to do it, but I would have to put some serious thought into it.
There’s been a lot of buzz around “Day of Reckoning” in the press. What’s the secret of getting into the press or publications and what advice would you give other indie filmmakers?
The thing that is most difficult for aspiring filmmakers to deal with is rejection. You have a bottomless pit where you chuck all your money in, you hope and you pray, and wait for this email that says congratulations you’ve been selected. It’s a christening of fire for anyone that gets into this business in a serious kind of way. Dealing with the media is less personal. The reason why we achieved this kind of attention is because we were cocky enough to barge out tweets, cajoling them into showing interest. Once you have words such as “press release” in the heading, no one is ever going to read something like that, always try to be catchy. It’s like a trailer, try and grab their attention in new and innovative ways, just in the first five seconds of reading, be cocky enough, in your face enough for them to notice you. Just keep going, you’re going to get no’s everywhere, so we were probably quite lucky. For a short film to have kind of national press attention is quite unique. The only over short film that has been in the national papers here, is someone who is in the top three of the student Oscar nominations. I think it was just the circumstances coming together quite nicely. The guy who wrote the piece on us, he saw an A-list actor, so they liked that, the papers liked that. We mentioned Raindance, where the world premiere was and Raindance is a well respected independent festival with a long track record. We also had a third element – the Dutch premiere that was a concrete thing they could tie it to. So we had those three things, we had Lift-Off in Amsterdam, the premiere in London and an A-list dutch actor, those were the ingredients of what he liked. We basically punted him on social media and he noticed us, he noticed us and then forgot about us. Then he noticed another social media post, saying that we had the premier at Raindance, so he said give me a call, we spoke on the telephone and that was that. That’s the way I think you should go about it. Its persistence, stubborn persistence.
How did you start working in the film industry?
That’s a very long arc, I’ll try to abbreviate a little bit. i was always obsessed with films and filmmaking. There wasn’t really a film school when I went to varsity in South Africa, and people did not consider it a study that would garner opportunities in life. So I went to drama school in which i completed in 2001 and then I spent a couple of years working as an actor on television in a daytime series. So that was actually the first job I had as an actor, or any job in the business. I was too young and too wild and silly for that kind of world where creativity was limited. They did try to write scripts to challenge me as an actor, as well as training as a director but it still wasn’t a match made in heaven. I ended up doing theatre work and I wrote, directed and acted for that. The freedom I had working in such a bohemian lifestyle was fantastic and I achieved some success with that. I supplemented my income working with acting students which was a great way to learn for me, more than ever acting myself. Then came the love with a Dutch girl and the daughter and we opted to start a new life in the Netherlands. I quickly abandoned any theatre ambitions here, so I did corporate film and advertising and some wildlife documentaries to have the opportunity to go back to Africa that I yearned for. But the desire for cinematic storytelling and narrative fiction remained a constant pestilence. Self-study hadn’t brought me where I wanted to be so I chose to do a Masters at Raindance. It’s online, negotiated learning and a pretty high standard and I’m almost done with that.
Do you still perform?
No, I did a short little comedy in 2011 but I think my days in front of a camera or on-stage are largely over. I just lost touch with that and I stopped doing theatre work when I came to the Netherlands because I didn’t have the street cred I had in South Africa. I couldn’t create the same kind of theatre that I could in South Africa. It’s a very old establishment with companies and all the things which I’m quite allergic to. If I stayed working in theatre then maybe in ten years time, I could have achieved the same level that I had in South Africa but probably not. But you never know, maybe someone will cast me – will be good for a laugh.
Would you say that working as an actor has helped you as a director? For example, connecting with the cast and getting the performances you need?
Yes, definitely. I think the most important thing is actors are trained to identify and work with beats. The actor sets up a beat and pays it off. That’s the function of an actor. Your script analysis is focused on that very thing. If the director doesn’t have the same strong instinct for beats like an actor would have then you’re lost. That’s definitely something that it taught me – to give them the freedom that they need within the parameters of the story. I have a deep respect for what they do and I love working with actors. It’s probably my favourite part of what I do. If you have your casting right and talk with them and prepare with them then it’s a wonderful thing to do.
What’s next for you other than making a film at the MA programme?
The academic goals are secondary to career goals for me. The general assumption is that you should have made two short films before talking about anything with a larger circumference. So we’re going to create another professional programmable short film, with eyes on the prize for a feature project within the next 3 years. We’re working on development of several of those but we need to get that second short made first. I’ve written a first draft of that so I’m going to get the writer credit as well because I want to connect the dots as a writer-director. However, I’m collaborating with Peter – he’s the script consultant and he’s probably going to be a co-producer. We are preparing a roll-out of crowdfunding campaign to supplement my own investment. I am also entering the fray with several other short scripts, by my own hand and other screenwriters, to see if I can get funding, if any of those attempts succeed such a project would take leapfrog the others in the schedule, but its early days. One thing is certain – that second short will be ready for submission in less than half a year.
“Day of Reckoning” will screen at London Lift-Off Film Festival, which will take place on 4th-9th December at Arthouse Crouch End. Tickets coming soon!