Alexander Vlahos on I AM ONE Short Film
Video Interview

I AM ONE is about Billy, a young man coming of age as he confronts his father Ron after an incident at the infamous Mods and Rockers fight in Brighton, May 1964.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos - Copyright: Gregory Haney Photography
Alexander Vlahos
© Gregory Haney Photography

30 July, 2020 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Welsh actor and director Alexander Vlahos graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in 2009. 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. Alex's directorial debut LOLA was shot in London in 2018 followed by his second short film HERE WE ARE, filmed in Wales 2019. I AM ONE, the next short and a project with It's My Shout and BBC Wales, is about to be shot in Wales later this summer.

Update: A couple of days after this interview was conducted It's My Shout announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the production of their 2020 short films including I AM ONE has been postponed until 2021.

Collaborating on all of his directorial film projects, Alex and I discuss I AM ONE, the very personal film that is Alex's first project with It's My Shout as a writer and director, and we take a closer look at inspiration, story, writing process and early steps of preproduction.

The written interview contains bits of the conversation but we definitely recommend watching the complete video interview (divided into four clips below). Enjoy all the little stories and anecdotes Alex shares talking about I AM ONE and his recent creative journey.

Related: Interviews with Alexander Vlahos on his acting and directing projects.

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How did I Am One come to you and evolve?

Everyone tells you to always write what you know. I've always had a roller coaster relationship with my own father. My father and my mother divorced when I was two. My life has always been my mum on one side and my father on the other. And it's been a lovely childhood and brilliant upbringing, they've given me so much support. But with my father there's always been a sense of competitiveness and also a sense of him never really wanting me to get into acting. So I've always seeked his approval. I AM ONE has been born from that desire from me wanting my father to tell me those beautiful words "I'm proud of you and I love you."

There's two things going on with I AM ONE. My stepfather brought me up on Quadrophenia, he brought me up on The Who, he brought me up on 60s mod music. So there's the story about a boy wanting his father to say that he loves him and also, if I could put the film in any sort of generation I thought I could put it in the mod time. A time that I've studied a lot. It's all these young angry voices wanting to be heard, so you've got that small angry rebellion going on along with my own small personal angry rebellion, it felt like these two worlds would exist brilliantly together. That was the spawn of the idea.

Who are Billy and Ron to you and where are you looking to take their story?

Billy is me really. Billy is a young 20-something boy who over the course of two days and a morning grows up, becomes a man. Ron is not necessarily my father but fathers in general. What's great about setting the story in 1964 is that there's an even bigger divide between generations. It's about the two of them starting in very, very different places and throughout the scenes slowly but surely balancing each other out and meeting in the middle. Discovering each other. There are lots of things, toxic masculinity, there's culture, there's love, heart, family, but I think it's about a father and a son who don't understand each other, who never really have, getting to the point where they can. The film doesn't wrap everything up in a bow. We leave the film on a moment where "Oh I think they're about to talk". Because it's a short film you have the opportunity to cut it short and leave them wanting more. And that's what I AM ONE will do, hopefully.

What role does music play in your creative process. Do Billy and Ron have songs?

While I was writing I AM ONE I had the entire Quadrophenia album on the loop in my headphones. On the Quadrophenia album there's a song called "I'm One", which is a very Billy song, as well as "The Real Me". There's actually a line in I AM ONE I directly pinched from that song which is "Can you see the real me?", which is such a brilliant line. Can you see the real me. I wouldn't have the balls to ask that of my father. And as a boy in the 60s asking a man that he's terrified of... Can you see the real me? It's quite ballsy. And then there's a song called "The Dirty Jobs" which is basically from the perspective of parents at that time. "I slave away, I work my arse off for you, you don't respect us..." For me those two songs are Billy and Ron.

But there's also a different thing going on in terms of music. Music is so important to me and I've only really just discovered this . But having Chris Hyson as my music collaborator on LOLA and on HERE WE ARE I started listening to a lot of Zoë Keating, which is an amazing, extraordinary solo violinist. There's a couple of songs called "The Path" and "The War" and they're just so emotional and impactful and guttural. It kind of feels that you're in something when you're listening to them. Having Quadrophenia as an album while I was writing I always knew that I never wanted to use any of The Who and 60s music in the film. I've been listening to a lot of different things and it all adds to the writing and the development of the film.

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Take us through the first steps, what were the joy and the challenges finding your way into the writing process?

Well I don't count myself as a writer [grins] so I find the writing process frustrating as hell actually. There's no joy at all in me staring at a blank page knowing I got an idea in my head and I cannot figure out how to get that idea structurally and emotionally onto a page. I never went to writing school I just have ideas. Draft 1 was just a cool idea that I had, and what happens through drafts and sending it to people like yourself, people I respect, to try and get some notes from is that good notes cause inspiration, bad notes make you want to close your laptop [laughs] and say never again. So thankfully I always had really good notes on this.

Writing to me is always a means to an end, and the main goal for me is wanting to direct it. The visual of it. When I write am already writing as if I'm directing it. I'm quite descriptive or maybe sometimes I'm not descriptive enough. I AM ONE, the idea was always to start small, my film was never supposed to be what it's actually turned out to be and that's due partly to the involvement of BBC Wales and It's My Shout and having to deal with – first time for me really – a Script Editor. That process was just bizarre, lovely but bizarre. Having someone you never met completely critique your work from start to finish, sometimes line by line. I AM ONE has been a huge lesson for me in short form. [smiles] Like I said I don't count myself as a writer, I just learned so much.

With I Am One, what are your thoughts on the Writer's Voice? Writing to direct it, at what point do you start translating the emotional language of our writing into action?

I never wrote I AM ONE for anyone else to direct. So very early on in the writing process I was putting in things how I knew I wanted to shoot it. The Writer's Voice becomes quite diminished. I'm writing visually. I'm writing emotionally because I think I'm writing lines down that I know good actors can do with my direction. I'm writing the script knowing that if there are gaps between lines that is subtext and it's not clear I know I can get that out of that person on the day because I'll be directing it. I understand now from doing this process with BBC Wales and It's My Shout that sometimes you really do need to spell it out. You need to write a script that you could give to anyone, whether that's a Producer or Exec Producer, who has no idea about you or your idea and can get it immediately. And that was a lesson. So the Writing Voice actually for me was quite quickly parked, told to be quiet, and then the Writing Voice became even more powerful as the drafts went on. I really had to disassociate myself from directing it, I really had to be a writer, and when the writing process was finished then be the director. And do all the fun stuff!

What's the relationship between your acting and your writing? In acting, finding the truth, opening doors is a deeply personal challenge - can you compare that to writing?

When you're an actor you are hoping that the words you are given allow you to be a good actor. You're hoping that you're given something, hopefully in every scene, that allows you to showcase everything, vulnerability, passion, anger... Good writing does that. Writing you're having to do that for other people, I'm writing dialogue hoping that that is good for actors. I'm hoping I'm giving them ammunition, stimuli, that there is something in every line that they can sink their teeth into, because I would wish for the same. So I set the bar quite high actually as a writer because I know I'm going to give it to talented people.

Writing is quite exposing. When people critique your acting - it's done, isn't it. Let's say if people critique now VERSAILLES to me – I've got nothing I can change about what I did four years ago. With the writing process your nerve endings are much more on show, you're much more vulnerable, you're just hoping it is good.

Going back to ‘writing the film to direct it', what does it mean for casting? Do you feel like you've written the lines for someone or with certain actors in mind?

Yeah, absolutely I have. I obviously can't say who those actors are just in case it turns out that they can't do it. But very early on did I start writing with a certain type of person in mind. I found that if I had a very visual image of a certain type of actor and actress in mind for when I was writing that was great. Having worked very closely with the person that I hope will be the lead I knew his isms, his ways of being able to get under a character. It's a lot to be a lead! [laughs] So there's an immediate trust and respect that you have with anyone who's running or carrying a show. You know that giving him the lead in your short film they've got it. Writing for specific people is a joy actually. When you don't have that person in mind that's when it becomes difficult. It probably means you need to go back and do a lot of work on the character. My Billy and my Ron have been kept in the loop since November. Cross fingers that they'll do it.

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Directing wise, your first two films don't have dialog which gave you the chance of allowing the actors lots of creative control. I Am One does have dialog, some beautiful lines even from The Who songs. Is there going to be a new approach for working with the actors?

Absolutely, yeah. I actually think I've adopted a style that basically benefitted the films but it benefitted me in my directing. I could really concentrate on nuances without having to get bogged down into the dialogue. So I decided in LOLA an HERE WE ARE that dialogue is something that I'm not ready to tackle yet. There's a possibility in that. Specifically for LOLA. HERE WE ARE was always about a non-dialogue film. If it's your third time to direct, already people have gone "Oh you have a very specific style!" - I don't want to be just that person. Directing for I AM ONE I feel like I have visually, stylistically and even in the prep really decided to go the complete opposite.

The base of LOLA and HERE WE ARE and I AM ONE is heart and family and love and what it means. And that's never going away, I'm never going to go off and shoot and action films! I want to be able to tell human emotion. So the next step is having dialogue. What I've discovered now is that lines of dialogue can be like bullets. You want to convey an emotion but a line of dialogue can just shoot it at you. And I feel like that's in I AM ONE. Hopefully every line is like a bullet from every character. And that's how I'm going to tackle it.

What's the relationship between your acting and your directing?

Everything! Absolutely everything! I could never be able to have the confidence, the wherewithal, the knowledge of how I approach films without having been an actor. I still learn to this day. My acting links into my directing. I count myself as an actor's director and that comes from having actor's directors direct me. A couple of people have a style that benefits actors' performances so I feel like I'm adopting their style. I've stolen the style of Declan O'Dwyer and Ed Bazalgette. And that comes from me being on set with those directors. I've worked with fantastic actors already and hopefully I'm about to work with some brilliant ones and I feel like I can get in there with them. I feel like I've earned the right, from being actor, to get in there with them and rehearse those scenes with them. Respect I really think it is, respect from your peers that I would never ask them to do something that I couldn't do myself.

Visually, what are the new challenges you are excited about?

Everything about I AM ONE is going to be different from the last two films. Consciously I made that decision. I'm keeping the same DOP from HERE WE ARE, so that's Ciro Candia, and every time we speak we get more inspiration, different ideas, we keep adding layers of complexity to this. We're shooting black & white, it's set in the 60s but we're not trying to hammer that home. We're doing a lot more static shots, a lot more old school way of shooting, we're changing the ratio, we're going 4:3. Visually I feel like it's going to be something striking. By making all these decisions now I can plan the film a little bit and also allow for flexibility for the actors' blocking. Making decisions that will not affect the actors but then having a freedom within those decisions that the actors are what we film, we are dictated by them. So yeah, visually it's going to be completely different from the past two, which is good and challenging and again something different for me to try.

You've worked with It's My Shout before. What have been your previous projects with them and what is special about this one?

It's My Shout as a scheme to nurture and bring in emergent talent is brilliant. When I started with It's My Shout it was 2008, it was at the grass roots level, the end goal was six short films having a screening, first time directors, first time writers, the crew were all trainees. I got asked to be an actor in it, I was currently in my second year in drama school. I actually shot a film called PIGFEED over my 20th birthday. Then while on set talking to Roger Burnell, who was the Exec on it, and at the time I was interested in writing plays. So 2010 I decided to write JUNIOR for my love of Wrestling. I sent in my pitch and got selected. I can remember going to see JUNIOR at the premier – I think I was filming THE INDIAN DOCTOR at the time so I couldn't go to set while they were filming JUNIOR – and to be honest I was disappointed. It didn't look particularly dramatic. Again, that's something that I learned, as a writer you give over your project, it's up to the director to try and make it come to life. And maybe in 2010 I didn't write enough, stylistically, to help the director with how I wanted it to look.

During 2018 Roger Burnell phoned me, and after the success of LOLA he said "Could you send me the copy of the film?" and that was the start of the conversation. So once I AM ONE was done, the first draft, I knew what home it needed to go to. It feels like BBC Wales being involved gives It's My Shout a lot more ambition. When I sent them the first draft of I AM ONE the notes that I got back were fantastic because they were like "Let's go bigger with this". Suddenly the scope of my film went from this tiny little zero-to-no budget film to something with a bit more bang to it. What's different about this now is that very, very rarely for It's My Shout do they allow writers to direct their own work.

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This is the part of the interview where I put some quotes of yourself back into your head: "learning my craft as an actor wanting to be a director", "HERE WE ARE for me is discovering if I can do it", and "seeing it from start to finish, that's why I'm here" – You have four films in different stages of their journey, where are they now, where are you now, and what has the learning curve been like so far?

LOLA has gone on an unbelievable festival circuit and is now coming to its dramatic conclusion. We've had the busiest two – three weeks of festival entries and it's been an actual surprise considering for a while when we started the festival journey – nothing. And that's fine, we understood that it was going to take a while. We've always had the belief that the film was good. So LOLA will hopefully be online soon so that people can finally see the whole thing.

HERE WE ARE only just finished the completion of the film about two or three weeks ago. Due to the corona virus I was having to grade it and sound design it remotely, which is a huge experience and a huge lesson adding weeks onto post production.

I AM ONE is about to start filming in August which is exciting. And having been a writer now and a director I feel like the last quote that you said about seeing it from start to finish feels even more appropriate. I really have seen this thing from birth of my brain, which was probably September, October of last year, to now last week of August, possibly a whole year from idea to actually shooting it. [Shooting has been postponed until 2021.]

And the last film in my repertoire is... The day the country went into lockdown (mid March 2020), with the help of you and with the help of me sending an old, old play that I wrote and directed back in 2010 to you called OUT OF LOVE – cut to ten years later, [chuckles] I send you that play and you say "There's a film in here, there's something to nourish in here and get out". So Day 1 of lockdown sat down with my laptop and I had two open documents and restructured the play into a film format. Then I had a draft 1. And now I'm coming up to draft 10 since lockdown and have got to the very good position of selling my film rights and hopefully directing my first feature film next year. It feels like the last quote that you said is incredibly more appropriate than ever before!

I feel like I've ticked a lot of things that I wanted to tick off in my acting life. And for directing now it feels like the list has started, I'm back to square one but in a really good place. Personally I feel like I'm starting the journey again now.

You know a little song by The Who "Love Reign O'er me" - Pete Townsend once said about their Quadrophenia character Jimmy "He's in danger of maturing." What do you think about this quote with regards to Billy as well as your own creative journey?

What a brilliant question! I love Pete's word of danger, there's a danger that he's maturing. As if maturing is bad, which is great because actually the fear is, especially back then, if you mature you lose all sense of yourself. The mod culture was so youthful, they were chaotic together. And I feel like the danger of maturity is that suddenly you don't belong with them anymore. You need to get a job, you need to grow up. I think that's an amazing quote from Pete, it really is for Jimmy in Quadrophenia. In Billy I think it's less about maturity, I think it's more about acceptance and at the end of the day it's about love. So to flip the quote from Pete on its head it would be: Billy in this film is in danger of being loved.

And then for myself, I feel like I've got a lot to prove. There's a maturity in my work now, and I think that I AM ONE definitely would be a step up in terms of maturity as a director. Personally... [laughs] hopefully I'll always be immature, hopefully I'll always be a child.

More interviews with Alexander Vlahos

Note: © myFanbase 2020 - The interview is exclusive to myFanbase and may not be published on other websites or the like. You may share the first two questions (up to 180 words) if you link back to this site. Translations other than English and German may be posted with full credit including the link to this site.