Director Interview: Alexander Vlahos on Here We Are Short Film

"A love letter to Wales and the beautiful demise of a long term relationship."

Foto: Alexander Vlahos - Copyright: Here We Are Short Film
Alexander Vlahos
© Here We Are Short Film

November 11, 2019 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Alexander Vlahos is a Welsh actor and director, born in Swansea and raised in Cardiff. He graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in 2009, and his acting repertoire spans iconic roles such as Philippe d'Orléans in the Canal+ series Versailles, Mordred in the BBC series Merlin, Hamlet on audio and Romeo on stage. Here We Are is Alex's second directorial film.

Here We Are is an intimate portrayal of a young couple and their weekend away in an isolated country home.

Directed by Alexander Vlahos
Written by George Webster
Starring Ferdinand Kingsley and Emma MacDonald
Director of Photography Ciro Candia
Produced by Alexander Preston and PJ Saysell-Rosales
Exec Produced by Nicole Oebel

World Online Premiere: CowHouse Films presents "Here We Are" and a live Q&A with Alexander Vlahos & guests, April 3rd, 2022. Get your FREE TICKETS here.

This year marks your 10 year anniversary as an actor since drama school. You've been in big international TV productions, played Shakespeare leads on stage and audio, and currently you're working on your second project as a filmmaker. So for you, personally, professionally and creatively speaking -

Filmmaking is...

...what I want to do and where I'm at my happiest. Ten years as an actor terrifies me when that's a statement because it feels like I've done nothing and everything. I feel like I've come to filmmaking at probably the right time in terms of wanting now to not be in front of the camera but behind the camera. I had to go through these ten years of graduating drama school, going into small roles and bigger roles and lead roles and learning my craft as an actor wanting to be a director. Filmmaking is where I'm at my most complete.

I still see myself as a learner. Inexperienced but also experienced. I find myself enjoying it, even the times when it's been a headache and stressful. There's a pure, 100 per cent enjoyment from the whole experience from prep to shot lists to editing to festival entries to dealing with collaborators, building up a crew... the whole spectrum of what it takes to be a director and a filmmaker. I don't feel I ever want to stop learning and trying different things, coming up with different ideas and wanting to put my voice onto something. Unfiltered, unadulterated enjoyment from start to finish!

Wales is...

Wales is becoming more and more needed by me. There is this Welsh word 'hiraeth' which has a direct translation for 'longing' but there's something more, it means that a part of you is missing. It's not a longing for a place, it's a longing for a feeling, a missing in the sense of identity. Wales now is becoming much more important for me as an uncle, as a family man. I left very quickly after drama school because it was told to us that it was needed to get away. In the first one or two years of leaving drama school you are passed around to different Casting Directors, and all the Casting Directors are in London. And London is new and exciting for a young Welsh boy... but in the last year and a half it feels more and more unnecessary to be here. And with that there is also a greater sense of where do I belong then? Where do I find home?

The only way that I can ever express myself properly is through acting or directing or writing. It's like the creative motorway. I can't choose to work in Wales as an actor but when it comes to directing, on "Here We Are" it was the first pitch to George Webster. It has to be in Wales! I want to make a film that shows my country at its greatest even if the topic doesn't have to be about Wales. I'm very lucky in that sense that I can make Wales a part of me again by choosing to direct there. Wales is 'hiraeth' for me, it's becoming more and more like a big magnet pulling me back.

There's only two characters in "Here We Are", two identities, but the third is this unbelievable backdrop, this desolate but also beautiful country. Choosing a location that didn't hinder the story but actually elevated it. Somewhere that was so beautiful as the story is also incredible beautiful and touching. Not wanting to choose something that was counter it. Wales is definitely the third voice in the film.

"Here We Are" is...

"Here We Are" is me right now. It feels like it's the edge of the cliff and I'm standing over the side of it. It'll be a big part of my life probably for another year. At the moment "Here We Are" is me in terms of style of directing, in terms of shot list, in terms of crew, casting, two wonderful days of filming, seeing my voice on screen, seeing if I'm capable of delivering what I think I'm capable of doing. "Here We Are" for me is discovering if I can do it. And that it wasn't just a fluke [laughs].

The premise of the film is about the beautiful demise of a long term relationship. Sometimes relationships go out in blazes of glory and fights and screams and tears, and sometimes they just end damply, they fizzle out. And the fizzling out ones to me feel much more heartbreaking. That happened to me recently and I don't think I've seen that portrayed, especially in short form. In long form you can really drag that out but I had the idea of how would you portray a long term relationship just ending and it being fine, sad but fine. The idea came to me that if it was set in one location it would make it very intense. I knew I wanted to do something like a love letter to my past relationship but I didn't want it to be so specific. I wanted it to be like an out of body experience of looking at a relationship that just ended and that I'm guessing many people have had. There's something quite universal about that telling that in short form.

Another channel from where "Here We Are" came from, there's a scene in "Lola", the first short film I directed, that has Lewis Reeves and Anna Brewster opposite each other in the kitchen, no dialog, it's 30-40 seconds long and it fascinated me. It was possibly one of my most favourite things to direct. Two people sharing a space with different objectives and super-objectives and meaning and feelings. I wondered if there's a film in that. Can I make twelve scenes like that and sustain it. That was one point, the other point was my sort of love letter to my previous heartbreak and the third one was my love letter to Wales. So you've got these three things coming together [forms an orb with his hands].

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Theo Wyzgowski, Ciro Candia - Copyright: Nicole Oebel
Alexander Vlahos, Theo Wyzgowski, Ciro Candia
© Nicole Oebel

Wes Anderson says about fimmaking: "Fill the well. Be a Fan. Find your crew. Steal, support, compete." Thinking of 'crew' as your 'creative family' I think all of that sounds very much like you.

I find myself incredibly blessed when it comes to directing, and not necessarily about acting. I feel like I've grafted to be an actor and that's good. With directing it feels like I've been gifted people to support me. A very talented writer in George Webster, who plays William of Orange in the TV show called "Versailles". We spent two hours on the Eurostar from London to Paris in April talking about filmmaking and his desire to make stuff and I thought maybe he can help me get this idea out of my brain and on to a piece of paper. So over the weekend at this "Versailles" convention I was sussing him out, wondering if he would help me write this. And he took it on, an idea that was in my head that I care deeply about and probably didn't explain to him why I wanted to make this. It's incredibly touching actually that he did that without any questions. [To find out why Alex didn't write the film himself listen to the sound clip below.]

Also at the "Versailles" convention in Paris I sat there watching my best friend, Evan Williams, be the most talented person I ever met and him pouring his heart and soul into not just being an actor but being a musician too. Hearing these lyrics in one of these songs thinking "Fuck, that's so beautiful, I want to pinch it" [laughs]. It was like a lightning bolt to the head! Evan came off stage and I hugged him and told him in that moment "The experimental song you did on the Ukulele, you need to send that to me because I'm going to write a film about it!" That's why "Here We Are" means so much to me, I've pulled and pooled all the resources close to me to make it happen.

I've been gifted with a family with someone like PJ Saysell-Rosales, who hired me as an actor in his short film in Bognor Regis, and I met him and realised he was young and hungry and wanted to be a filmmaker, he's got a passion, a drive, and I sent him draft 2 of George's script and said do you think you can help? I'm just lucky but also bubble wrapped in a family to be able to create something like this. I've never been scared of asking people to help me realise this. Making the most of my creative family, and the more people you got on your side the more fruitful the project is going to be. I completely agree with Wes Anderson, if you can find your well and fill it up with your family then you're going to be alright.

Is the work of other directors a source of inspiration for you?

My love letter to Wales is inspired by Luca Guadagnino's love letter to Italy. "Call Me By Your Name" bowled me over when I saw it. How someone can make something so beautiful without doing too much as a director. He's already editing while he's going along, he's putting the camera where he already knows he's going to cut to, his approach to things is how my brain works too. There's Luca's great quote "Coverage is for cowards" - coverage is shooting every angle and every look possible in a scene just in case. For an actor that's the most disheartening thing. It makes the emotion that you're portraying completely redundant going through it 10 12 times with different lenses and different versions of the angles. "Call Me By Your Name" was a direct inspiration for "Here We Are" in the way that Luca shoots and in the way that that film is cut together. Steal from the best. Motifs or slogans or their approach to directing - pinching from people like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson and Luca Guadagnino is smart [laughs].

Let's talk about casting. This film is a very personal story and it is carried entirely by the two leads. How did you find each other?

I know the two of them separately by happenstance. When they fall into your life like that it feels like it was meant to be. I went to see Tom Lorcan who played Benvolio to my Romeo last year in York in a play called "The Sweet Science of Bruising" and I saw this ray of light on stage who's had very little dialog and blew everyone away really. I hung around afterwards and I wrote a little note to this actress called Emma MacDonald: "I thought you were wonderful tonight. I'm about to direct a short film and if you don't mind I'm going to send you the script." The other happenstance was filming a series called "Death in Paradise" and I was over in Guadeloupe for ten days and my co-star was Louise Brealy and her boyfriend is Ferdinand Kingsley. He came over to Guadeloupe and we spent a day whale watching together and got on really well. So when it came to casting it was easy. Ish. [Laughs.] The pitch that got them, I believe, was me telling them that I'm handing the reins over to them, I'm allowing them lots of creative control. The script is scenario-based so what I need is two very, very talented people that can portray these characters without any dialog. And we pressed record on the very first scene on the very first day of recording and it couldn't have been anyone else.

When you read the script there's room for this to be an entirely different film. The aspect of finding the truth within yourself, how did you work on that with the actors, sharing your truth and also letting them find their own truth within a moment?

It's about asking questions that don't necessarily need to have answers, giving your actors ammunition to perform. Provide them and fill them up with information, back-story, emotion, plant thoughts in their head about why they're there and they'll find the truth themselves. Guide these two wonderfully talented people to a place they feel comfortable that they can perform at their best. And my job then is to edit it to find that again. If you cast well you should never have to say no to your actors. It was an effortless two days for me, they committed to it 100 per cent and the truth that they found is their truth. "Here We Are" has become their film now, Ferdie's and Emma's.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Ferdinand Kingsley - Copyright: Nicole Oebel
Alexander Vlahos, Ferdinand Kingsley
© Nicole Oebel

Can you compare working with the actors on "Here We Are" to working with two of your very close friends in the first film?

There was lot of fear and anxiety and a lot of bluffing on "Lola". It felt like "I am a director Lewis, I will do you proud; Anna, let me prove it to you". I talked the talk but can I walk the walk? Mark Nutkins, my DOP, was a brilliant guide and mentor but I also felt that I wanted his approval at the end of the job. It was one added pressure that probably was unneeded, whereas on "Here We Are" there was none of that.

Going from film number 1 to film number 2 almost everything and everyone was new - the DOP for example, shooting on digital... What were the new challenges and what was the moment you knew we're on track?

New crew meant everyone coming at it together wanting to shoot it. I shipped around the script to Phoenix Rising Media, and Ciro Candia, my new DOP, had seen "Lola" it felt like I come with a recommendation package. It felt a lot easier just to be a director on "Here We Are". Shooting film to digital, there wasn't really any difference in my process, I don't think I ever went over three or four takes, quite efficient shooting. Refreshing.

The moment I knew we were on track there were three. One was three or four days before we were going to shoot. On Tuesday night I got a phone call from my line producer PJ saying "I'll speak to you on Friday!" Friday was the day we were going up to Wales. Everything was set, nothing else needed to be done. It felt bizarre that it was just going to happen. The second one was on set, on the Saturday and it was rehearsing the dinner table scene between Ferdie and Emma. They were going to have to portray something quote emotional in this scene and I thought we were going to rehearse three or four times. They rehearsed once and they were in it! In that moment I knew the film is brilliant within these two capable hands. And the third moment was in the edit, having a few hours straight of making the edit look like I wanted it to, and then sending it to people to see if they agreed. Three different steps of the process, three different moments of knowing everything is on track.

Being open to change, always an interesting aspect, did it bring lots of surprises during the shoot too?

I generally like that, being open to change. It's possibly the biggest thing you can be as a director. You can see it so vividly in your brain and if you get to the location and the layout isn't how you thought it would be - just go, watch, look, listen, absorb, get all your senses on show and feel everything you can possibly feel. Ciro and I had a very strong shot list planned - we didn't shoot half of those but shot alternatives. The dinner table scene for example, we were going to do an entirely different angle but the location didn't offer that. There was a staircase in the way so let's figure out a solution. Not once did I feel like my vision was compromised or did I ever feel like the actors felt like their performances were being compromised by what we were doing. We're always pushed for time. At the start of day 1 everyone is in a nice little eurhythmic mood and at the last shot of the day everybody is kick bollocks scramble because we're about to go into overtime and we can't afford to pay the crew. Always open, you just have to make compromises and then they become the film.

Are there shots you were most excited about?

Yeah, the "Kubrick". On "Lola" there was the "Boogie Nights" which was built up because of the way I wanted to shoot it. A big feat of every crew member working together, extras, the location working out, Anna's performance... For right or wrong, I built it up and it became this thing beyond "Lola". I learnt my lesson to not give something such an importance because it means less to people which means they can probably deliver better. Ciro and I had a meeting before we went to shoot and I said I want to do something weird with the bathroom door. We talked about putting the camera on the deck and looking up but then also flip the camera around. It was really weird and it got nicknamed the "Kubrick", because Kubrick does the weird well. I was looking forward to seeing if we could do it.

But the biggest stuff I was looking forward to, which was also hanging in the balance, was all of the lake. It was an undetermined. We'd never recced it, we didn't know if the weather was going to play to our game... We also had in principal agreed to one boat for all of us, two actors, me and camera crew and sound. We turned up, we saw the boat no way six people were going to get in that boat! But the people who owned the lake were big fans of "Versailles". They were like "Oh you're Philippe, you're the bad boy, aren't you?!" Suddenly you just go "Yes, I am that guy. Any chance we can get two other boats?" "Yes, of course you can!" [huge smile, little non-chalant shrug] The weather playing to our advantage and the lake being even more epic and beautiful than on the pictures - it's Wales in a nutshell at its most beautiful and terrifying. It all played out, just luck and good fortune. It was built up because it was the last thing again. I should probably start shooting all the most important stuff first and learn from my lessons.

Foto: Emma MacDonald, Alexander Vlahos, Ferdinand Kingsley - Copyright: Here We Are Short Film
Emma MacDonald, Alexander Vlahos, Ferdinand Kingsley
© Here We Are Short Film

There are different kinds of using no dialog - in "Button Eyes" we see them speaking, we just don't hear them, in "Lola" we see them texting but they don't talk to each other. In "Here We Are" it feels like the silence is the story?

George Webster said it brilliantly - and I never thought of it like that it maybe was the way that he approached it, which was "the bit once a conversation is finished before it's about to start again that void space". It's suggesting that once the exhales happen before the inhale, it's that little gap in relationships, and I find it so fascinating, the not-doing. The bits in acting where we're just us. It's something that I find interesting to mine out. Dialog sometimes gets in the way. There's this famous quote "Darling, I can do it all in a look!" That's the power of actors, good actors can do everything in a look. Knowing that and finding that there's something interesting in that void space, the things that are left unsaid is there a film in that? It's interesting as an actor to feel like you want to say something and the idea that it's on the tip of your tongue. Also knowing that the film had somewhere to go was a challenge when there's no dialog. What's great about this film is that I moved some scenes around because of the non-dialog. It's about pacing. It's a demise of a relationship, it's heart-wrenching. There's nothing sadder than seeing two people who love each other being unable to talk to each other or have nothing else left to say. I think the film holds up to being watched a couple of times, discover new things between them.

From the image in your head to screen to the creative process in the edit - how would you describe the film's path or journey?

Like a roller coaster. From having complete and utter faith in the script to having doubts to turning up on the day and having more faith in the idea to then watching the rushes with no sound thinking "Fuck, that's not what I remember shooting!" and then remembering full well that you need to have sound and the full picture and everything put in order to get an idea of something so you shouldn't do quick judgements. To then seeing a first assembly and having the biggest panic attack about whether there was a film there at all. Seeing a whole lot of nothing. A whole lot of scenes completely devoid of connection and narrative. How can we feel something in person on the day and not feel anything while watching it back a month later? Where's that magic gone, how can I get it back? To then spending a day in the edit, butchering it in the nicest possible way, cutting milliseconds and swapping scenes around and giving it a very hard opening with beautiful score and closing the film how I always wanted to close it. Bookending it with a strong start and end and then allowing the film to breathe in the middle. The whole thing has been up and down. Being thrilled and proud to being sick of it - that's the joy of it. Never once have I lost faith. It's so much more rewarding as a filmmaker going through these emotions than being an actor. Seeing all of it, posters, marketing, seeing it from start to finish, that's why I'm here.

"You're building a house together with everyone" - a vivid image you previously used to describe post-production. In "Here We Are" what part of the house is the music?

The roof! It's so important. Chris Hyson is a genius! He's been such an important part of the creative process. Collaboratively his music elevates everything that I've done. As a friend I can talk to him and he just gets it. I've known him since I was 19. He's done "Pink Wall", Tom Cullen's feature film. Talent finds talent, and talent deserves recognition. He's the roof! I didn't want the music to be romantic, I wanted to push against that. I wanted it to feel like a Welsh Western, plucky guitar strings, and his demos were just bang on the money. With "Lola" the score needed to be suggestive and it was his idea to come up with the four chords L-O-L-A and repeat those in different fashion throughout the film as a motif. Stuff like that blows my brain because it's really one thing that I'm not: musically trained. So having a good friend who's very talented helped me make the film even better. I'm just lucky to have him!

So with everything that we've just talked about in mind -

Happiness is...

[Pensive smile] Happiness is knowing that I'm on the right track.

More interviews with Alexander Vlahos

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