Having watched her film at the recent BFI Film Academy short film showcase, we sat down for a chat with Mir Bates, the writer of ‘Little Things’, about her career thus far.
Hi Mir! Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with us about your career thus far. For those who may not know you, how would you describe yourself in a sentence?
I am a student of film, visual effects and animation, with a passion for films, holidays and houmous!
It’s a superfood!
Super! Let’s start at the beginning. What caught your interest in terms of films and filmmaking? Was there a moment that inspired you specifically to pursue a career in this field?
I have always loved watching films and getting lost in a fantasy world. From a young age I always preferred listening to film scores and soundtracks rather than pop music.
Intriguing. What was it that sparked this level of interest?
My real interest in filmmaking has come from visits to film studios and backlot tours. I have been lucky enough to go behind the scenes at Warner Bros and Paramount in California, and then Warner Bros and Pinewood in London. My family are really supportive and are also interested in film, so whenever we go anywhere, there is always a visit to some famous filming location.
That’s fantastic. What sort of films or filmmakers do you like?
Of course, Steven Spielberg was the first director that inspired me along with films such as the Indiana Jones series and ‘Back to the Future’ films, which he produced. In both films there is a mixture of pure, real physical effects and early computer-generated effects. For me, I think they are incredibly clever considering the technology of the time. It’s very creative.
We would agree! These are some of the best films of our childhood.
I recently watched ‘Raiders! – The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made’. It is about a bunch of kids in the eighties who wanted to re-create the first Indiana Jones film, scene by scene.
How did it go?
The finally finished it 30 years later! That’s dedication. I hope I can create a fan film like that one day!
Truly a labour of love. Who else do you look up to?
I really enjoy action and adventure films, so Michael Bay is a filmmaker who is known for his crazy big budget film effects (such as ‘Transformers’), and it would be amazing to work on one of his films.
Let’s talk about the work you did on your first film, ‘Nanny Vostock’. It touches on the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal at Salisbury in 2018. How much of the film is based on that, and how much is based on your own ideas?
I came up with the idea at the same time the events were unfolding in the news. It was a big topic of conversation in our house, because I had family living near Salisbury at the time, but also my Nan used to work at Portland naval base, and she told me about the famous Portland Spy ring. That inspired me to create a film based on this.
Watching it, it feels like there is an element of the Disney Channel mystery genre, in which a young (often female) protagonist would try to investigate and uncover the truth. Were there any particular films you watched or considered in preparing for your own?
I watched the 1964 spy docudrama film ‘Ring of Spies’ to help me write the story, and I even used clips and audio from the film itself. I didn’t really watch anything else for inspiration, but I guess that I wanted to add some comedy into it, because when I was talking to my family about the ideas, we all kept suggesting things to put in and found it funny!
It must have been quite an experience, especially as you also acted in the film. What was that like for you? You were doing plenty behind the camera as it is.
I really didn’t like it because I can’t act, and I hate being in front of the camera. I know that now! There were lots to do, because it was unscripted.
Wow. That was a brave approach…
I had a storyboard, but I was still learning about camera angles and such, so we filmed a lot of the same scenes using different shots. Trying to repeat the same lines over and over again was frustrating. It also snowed on a day we weren’t supposed to film, but I decided it was a good opportunity to incorporate it into the film.
Got it. We can relate to the frustration, for sure.
It was hard to act and shoot at the same time because it was very windy and cold. We didn’t have any specialist sound equipment, and we were trying not to slip – which I almost did, but it would have made a good outtake though!
‘Nanny Vostock’ was made for a course at Loughborough College. What did you study there?
I did a two-year film and television Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) course at Loughborough College, and it gave me a good understanding of production, as well as hands-on skills with cameras and editing software. I am now at Confetti College in Nottingham, studying visual effects and animation.
What has your education experience been like, and how constructive is it in developing your career?
I now have much more experience with a variety of editing, effects and animation software. Confetti is a specialist institute of creative technologies, with courses from college through to post-graduate university level. It has lots of links with the industry, and we often have professional speakers come and give us talks. We also had a trip to the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York this year. All of this has really helped me to understand the industry and how I can develop my career.
We’re interviewing you because we saw your film, ‘Little Things’. It was one of the films made for the 2020 British Film Institute (BFI) Film Academy at Broadway in Nottingham. How did you first find out about the programme?
My mum found the advert on the Broadway cinema website. I applied in 2018 but didn’t get selected. So, I tried again in 2019, and luckily I was accepted.
What has your experience in the programme been like?
Although I was apprehensive at first, it turned out to be incredibly fun and very interesting. The staff running the course were really nice and supportive, and I got on well with everybody. I did it challenging because it’s a big time commitment, and there is a lot to learn in a short space of time, but the experience has been amazing.
Can you describe a particular moment or example that defines the programme for you?
Filming on the busy Christmas streets of Nottingham in bright yellow fluorescent jackets! It was definitely a moment when I realised that I wasn’t in the classroom anymore, and that we were part of a professional film production, having to deal with members of the public while trying to remember all of the things we had been taught. We were also working with professional actors. It was definitely the defining moment for me.
Sorry, just very briefly: why did you have to wear the yellow fluorescent jackets?
We had to wear yellow fluorescent jackets because we were filming in a busy city centre near heavy traffic. I think it was a safety precaution because we were also filming in early evening in low light.
Got it. Coming back to the film itself, describe ‘Little Things’ for those who have no idea what it’s about.
The film is about a person living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It tries to convey a moment in their lives and how they cope with situations that might seem ordinary to most people, but are incredibly stressful for them. In this case, it’s a Christmas shopping trip, supported by a non-autistic friend.
Tell us a bit about the origins of that story.
We each had to pitch a story idea to the rest of the BFI group. It had to mean something to us and involve two people. My idea was inspired by my experience of living with high-functioning autism. I wanted people to see that even though people with Asperger’s look and have often learnt to behave the same as everyone else, they are actually dealing with lots of stuff, like processing lots of sights and sounds that can be very stressful in certain situations. Christmas in particular, excessive amounts of presents and people, lots of lights and sounds around.
We are now wondering how this has affected the development of your career. Is there something that you do or prepare specifically, then, for a film environment? Certainly given what we know of production life, the simplest of sets can also be incredibly stressful or stimulating for people without Asperger’s.
I’m a planner and I like lists, so I was able to cope by almost overpreparing during pre-production. This meant I knew I had everything I needed. I try and mentally prepare for the days on set, so I walk through what might happen in my mind beforehand. The days spent shooting were very stressful and tiring though! I hope that the more I do this type of work, the more I will become comfortable in these situations.
We find the film to be interesting, largely because of the focus on the characters and their relationship to one another. What kind of preparation did you do to create and develop these characters?
Originally, the main character was female, as it was based on me and my experiences. When we began casting, however, one of the BFI staff suggested having an autistic person play the role, so I scripted the main role to be either male or female, as we hadn’t found the lead actor yet.
What sort of role did the director, Charlie Durney, and actors (Charles Evans and Justine Moore) take in all this?
Charlie helped to develop both characters, but when we cast Charles and Justine, they began to improvise in the early takes, and I thought they really brought the characters to life.
On that note, we wrote that the dialogue reminded us of the mumblecore genre. Is this a deliberate consideration for you, or were there other sources of inspiration, by way of other films or filmmakers?
No, I didn’t know about that genre at the time, but it has been really interesting to follow up on other mumblecore films. I think the whole ‘Little Things’ team all added their own ideas and creativity to the film so it really was a collaborative effort. We were all inspired by each other.
You wrote the script for the film, but you did not direct it. Yet on set, you were present as a member of the filmmaking crew. What did that feel like? Were there moments where you felt like you wanted to interject your own opinions on how a scene should be directed, perhaps?
Actually, I enjoyed watching my idea come to life. Charlie made sure that I was OK with his vision, and when he made suggestions for adaptations, he would always ask my opinion. For instance, he would often ask if what he was suggesting would be a realistic experience for an autistic person.
That’s quite a wise approach to directing.
The only time I felt that I wanted to overrule Charlie’s decision was to change the film to black and white. The rest of the team and I debated whether it would work or not, mainly because I felt that someone with autism has a heightened experience with colour, especially at Christmas. However, when we watched the final cut and Charlie explained his reasons, it was a good decision, it looked great and fitted with the tone of the film.
Earlier, we touched on the two actors, Charles and Justine. You mentioned that they brought the characters to life, and to us, they certainly made their acting seem effortless. What kind of input did they provide on the characters they portrayed?
They improvised some shots, and because the film is character-driven, it was really important that they felt ownership of the characters and had the freedom to suggest ideas that they thought might fit. These were then acted out for us to see how it might work.
Beyond shooting at Christmas in a public area, what were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
The main challenge for me was the pre-production work I had in my role as producer and first assistant director. I had to first make sure that all the documentation was professionally done and completed on time. I also had to constantly communicate with the team, making sure everyone was contributing. Then I had all the final pre-production documents to finalise and send off to the BFI.
Paperwork is never fun.
Yes. There were also specific challenges for me, because of my autism, when we are filming outside in the busy street. Not only was it stressful, as production was condensed into two short days, but my experience was much like the lead characters: lots of people, lots of stress! However, I managed not to panic and disappear.
On that note, we wonder what producers everywhere should consider if they have someone with Asperger’s on their team. In your opinion, is there something that they could or should do, at least as a way of alleviating some of the problems that could arise?
I think it helped me to have time out in between scenes. I also found it useful to talk to one of the actors alone while they were off set in a one-to-one conversation. It helped me to alleviate my stress by chatting with them about how they were coping with the day. I think it helped me and I thought it might help them relax too.
Of course, beyond the problems there must also have been some sweet moments you experienced in making this film. Paint us that picture, then: the most memorable or pleasurable moment you had in making ‘Little Things’.
A really pleasurable moment in making the film was seeing the indoor sets for the first time. Rachel Rattray, the production designer, did an amazing job at converting the different locations in Broadway Cinema into a shopping centre. The props she created were really cool.
Yes, this got a mention during the screening’s Q&A.
Speaking of which, I also of course really enjoyed the premiere, and seeing the film poster and the film on the big screen. It was a wow moment, but also nerve-racking!
What was the reaction like from people outside of the production process, like your friends or family members?
They really enjoyed it! I had 13 members of my family there, and they were all really proud. I think they were quite surprised to see me on the stage answering questions afterwards, because they know I’m shy. But my mum is super proud, and is really encouraging me to go for it.
If there is one thing you wish for people to take away from your film, what would it be and why?
I not only wanted to convey to the world the perspective of someone with ASD, but the take home from the film is also about Lucy’s character having to learn how to cope with ASD too, because it affects her close friend and therefore her as well. So, both friends are learning about autism together. I think this is important because having ASD can be quite lonely for some people due to the difficulties with social interaction, and therefore it takes a special friend to be able to go on the journey with them.
Given our familiarity with the condition, we thank you for this. What’s next for you?
I had managed to gain a place on the National Film and Television School craft residential programme over the Easter period this year. It was supposed to be an 11-day intensive course, with the intention of creating a short film to be shown at the Southbank Film Festival in London. However, it was sadly cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Oh no! That’s such a shame.
It’s really disappointing, but hopefully I will be able to join next year. In the meantime, I will carry on with my college course, look out for opportunities and hope for the best!
Finally, did your grandmother actually used to be a spy for the Soviets?
She still keeps saying no!
‘Little Things’ was made as a part of the BFI Film Academy 2020 short film programme, along with ‘Blind Date’ and ‘Flatmates’. Read our review of the films here, as well as our thoughts on the films from the 2019 and 2018 editions of the programme.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training