Officially Selected Alumni Interviews

Stuart Birchall: Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview

British Filmmaker Stuart Birchall’s narrative short “APEX” explores the emergence of a higher life form, the convergence of intelligence and higher consciousness in the primordial void of infinite potential. A portal through which something greater has emerged.

APEX” will screen at Toronto Lift-Off on Wednesday 18th July at 8:45pm, as part of Shorts Programme 2. We interviewed director Stuart to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

Firstly, a huge congratulations for winning the Tokyo Online Festival! We at Lift-Off always emphasise the importance of marketing your film — what methods did you use to promote APEX?

The principle method for marketing was social media, it’s quick and flexible and free and of course it has almost unlimited potential. I am by no means an expert at it yet! I feel I have learnt a great deal on this my first film festival journey with APEX. Building a network and meeting new collaborators has been wonderful, I hope to continue to build a following and new team members through social media as I progress. Alongside this I have printed postcards and posters to be used at various festivals.

How did you come up with the concept for APEX?

APEX began life as a series of notes and sketches for a bigger project. I have been working on a sci-fi feature film concept for some time and out of sheer frustration I decided to begin expressing these ideas in short experimental films to demonstrate what my intentions were for the future.

What were your initial ideas about how to portray the concept on screen?

Initially I was considering a more linear, conventional approach but instead I decided to stick with what is more natural for me, a more arthouse, surrealist approach. The film is part of something much bigger for me, so I am revealing it in a series of small abstractions.

How did you go about casting the performer?

I had seen our lead actress Pixie Le Knot in the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ – she was playing a contortionist. I decided to contact her directly to see if she was interested and free to come and get involved in the project. It was fortunate timing as not everyone can perform the physical style that I was interesting in exploring, or be willing to wear a full body prosthetic!

The alien visuals used in the film create such a strong atmosphere – how did you go about getting that so perfect?

Atmosphere is everything for me. I have always been a huge fan of the Alien franchise and the work of HR Giger, both have such a defined atmosphere, I can vividly recall that immersive sensation as a boy watching the Alien films for the first time. It has long been my aspiration to make a film that referenced these early inspirations. Whilst keeping it subtle, I think that atmosphere and familiarity in APEX is strong enough to captivate even on such a short experimental piece. It is important for me to capture the imagination and plant a seed of inspiration in my work through light and music, atmosphere is always a key component in the planning process.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

We faced many challenges, both in the shooting process and with the VFX. With such a small budget from which to achieve something so immersive! We had serious time restrictions with just one day to shoot and a very small crew. The prosthetic make-up took seven hours to apply! Leaving us just two hours to shoot! The very cold East London warehouse we were shooting in, and the fact that our leading lady was naked (only the prosthesis covered her dignity!) added to the challenges. Knowing this, I storyboarded very strictly! This meant the final running time would be well below 5 mins – a little risky! – but I feel it has a lasting effect.

Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

APEX is part of a series of short sci-fi films, a precursor of a much bigger aspiration. We plan to move into production on stage 2 in Sept 2018 and launch a crowd funding initiative to help us secure the funds we need to complete a bigger and bolder follow up film. It will shed some more light onto what APEX means and develops a much bigger conceptual design ahead of my first feature film. The support for APEX this year has been such a huge boost to confidence and opened up a lot of very interesting conversations.

Don’t forget to view the full Toronto Lift-Off programme and buy tickets.