Director Interview: Alexander Vlahos on Lola Short Film

"I'm trying to make the beauty but find the ugly."

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Lola Short Film - Copyright: Joel Reeves Photography
Alexander Vlahos, Lola Short Film
© Joel Reeves Photography

June 28, 2019 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_

Alexander Vlahos was born and raised in Wales and graduated with a BA Hons in Acting from Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in 2009. His acting repertoire spans the portrayal of 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. Lola Short Film is Alex's directorial debut.

Making a film requires true passion, resilience and vision. It can be a journey of blood, sweat and tears. Film directors are normally hired on the strength of their portfolio which makes it a challenge for aspiring artists to gain a foothold in the industry. One way for a new director to build up a body of work is to start off as an independent filmmaker. As an actor Alex enjoys "inhabiting other facets of my own personality under the guise of other people". As an independent first-time director his performance is reserved for cast and crew - a performance that reflects his own personality without the mask of characters. In this interview he shares his insights and experiences of making his debut film. [Find sound clips below.]

Related: Read our interview with Alex on developing Lola Short Film and the Set Diary from the shoot.

Looking back 2018 seems to have been a year of finding yourself through playing Romeo and redefining your career by directing your debut film Lola. Can we say you're not that much of a pessimist anymore?

The pessimism came from playing a part like Philippe and finding out my viewpoint and this industry don't go well together. Every time I go on stage there is no pessimism at all because it's where I start living and breathing happiness. Philippe brought in the aspect of pessimism to me as a person as well as depression. What was great about doing Romeo was that I could shake the shackles of Philippe off and figure out who I was again.

Starting Romeo day 1 feeling like a pessimist and then having 10 weeks of glorious rehearsals with the most amazing cast and having three months in the sunshine of York playing arguably my favourite character I've ever played on stage, and then having two weeks of normality, starting Lola prep again and going straight into recceing with the sun still beating down in London – concluding my trip to LA with seeing Evan and Tygh in October as one very, very long, beautiful summer [laughs] from April until the end of October, it was non-stop happiness for me.

I needed to do Romeo to find happiness and I definitely needed to do Lola to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life, which is hopefully be a director.

About your early acting days in 2011 you wrote on your blog: "As an actor, I know I'm a slow burner. It takes time for me to really warm into my characters, to really be inventive and play." In your early days as a director you don't seem like a slow burner to me.

What's funny about that blog it was my first ever real theatre job out of drama school. Hamlet, playing three wonderful parts at Sheffield's Regional, I'd go into rehearsals every day surrounded by the most amazing actors as a young pup looking around like, God, I'm really out of my depth. Alex back then would want to deliver a performance immediately – Dude, you've got four weeks, chill out! You'll find it. That just comes with experience, with anyone, four weeks of rehearsal means it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. With directing you don't have that novelty, your prep is your rehearsal. Your recceing, your shot list, your casting, your script notes, everything that leads to that first morning when you press record on the camera is your rehearsal. You don't have an opportunity to fuck it up when you're filming, especially shooting on film.

For Lola as a director I just knew I had to do all of my prep and on that morning of the first day of filming I genuinely knew I had done all of my homework ...which is something that young Alex would never have said in high school [laughs]. I was beyond prepared but not in a regimented way, I was still able to move and change my ideas. But that day was so planned out in my head and it worked out pretty much to the t.

Close your eyes! [He laughs.] Thinking back to those three days of filming, what happy moment comes to mind first?

Foto: Lewis Reeves, Alexander Vlahos - Copyright: Lola Short Film
Lewis Reeves, Alexander Vlahos
© Lola Short Film

Lewis and myself on top of the building. Mark Nutkins had got the clapper board with Lola, my name and his name engraved on it, and Lewis was in costume and we just did one take of Anna on the rooftop with the painting. Everything up to that point, are people going to listen to me, do I have the right for people to listen to me? I remember I had my fingers crossed by video village, we pressed record, we were making a film, I'd officially become a director. We took a photo of us on the rooftop holding the clapper board – that was the first moment of real happiness. And honestly, it didn't stop! There were moments of scratching my head [muffled scream] because of time running out but that was the joy of it because we still managed to get it done. And the second biggest moment was seeing Lewis perform his piece at the end on the third day and allowing him that moment without filming for the crew to see how much work he'd done. I don't think I've ever been prouder of a friend and a collaborator and a writer and an actor in that moment of seeing him just smash what I hoped he would do and the crew acknowledging that and then go, right, now let's shoot it. So it was bookended with two very, very happy moments. And happiness in between, I didn't stop smiling throughout the whole thing – maybe on the face I was showing the grievances of a director but internally there was a big smile.

How much a part of directing is casting?

All of it! All of it! If you nail your casting you shouldn't really have to direct them. Sometimes we see films and we think, they're really good actors but they're really bad in this. It's because they've been miscast. We did a very lengthy process for casting Ruby. Our casting director Fiona Cross brought in some names and some not-so-names. I wanted to see everyone and anyone. We saw about 15, 16 actresses and every time I got something from someone I couldn't quite get the other thing that I needed, which was steeliness or softness or determinedness. Ruby is completely torn between wanting something and feeling something. She wants to get answers but she feels like she can't. It's a dilemma. In the end of the film she has a vulnerability and a softness and a smile but throughout the film she's paranoid. There's duality in that character and we spent a day casting and none of them felt right. And then I thought of Anna Brewster. I've worked with her on Versailles and I knew she could bring both. And she was amazing. There's something about having a trust with someone and hoping that trust flows through to me directing her. We're mates so you think, are you going to be able to take direction from me, do you want to take direction from me [laughs]. She was perfect, the minute Lewis saw her on camera he went "There's no one else who could play Ruby!"

Lewis wrote the film for him to be in it. The great thing about Lewis, he's a very talented actor, he has all these things that he wants to show you, and sometimes he wants to show you them all in one take, his facial mannerism, his insincerity, his humour, his prop-picking, and throughout the film it was just about trying to get to the simple true version of Paul, the character he was playing, it just meant that I got to pinhole him in something. And he delivered.

Lewis had worked with Arinzé on Crazyhead. A fantastic actor! We needed someone for Lola to have a physicality and a look about them that was unlike anything in the film. Arinzé is 5'9 but built like a brick house, completely ripped, amazing silky voice and has a power on stage that not a lot of people that I know can deliver. The version in my head of Lola was someone traipsing up and down the stage, hackling at the audience, commanding a space and what Arinzé did brilliantly, which wasn't in my thoughts at all, was to stand still and deliver the speech. We pressed record and he delivered a great performance.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Arinzé Kene, Anna Brewster, Lola Short Film - Copyright: Nicole Oebel
Alexander Vlahos, Arinzé Kene, Anna Brewster, Lola Short Film
© Nicole Oebel

Casting is key! Even down to our squash players, Ed and Jack, they make the film!

"This man is going to be the death of me" - Working with Mark Nutkins, what makes for a fruitful collaboration with your DOP?

At the point of starting Lola I haven't got a wealth of people I can call upon. Mark was given to me by our executive producer James Kermack who entrusted him completely to do his feature film and his short. I met with Mark and chatted with him about Lola and he gave me loads of great notes. Mark has a brilliant way of being: It'll happen when it happens. Time is elusive - and I am someone that has an internal clock that is running faster than the actual clock in real life. You need someone who is patient and takes a moment to breathe and doesn't get pent up, and I think Mark needs someone like me to say, Dude, I've got five minutes to do this shot, can you do it, please. There were a couple of hairy moments but never once did I lose his trust or did he lose mine. He went above and beyond as a DOP to give me a shot, I would say I want it in this area and I want to be focusing on this moment and he would then find the right angle to showcase both and make it beautiful. He wasn't the death of me and I'm going to continue to work with him. I'm directing a music video for a friend's band, Josey Wails, and Mark is going to DOP that for me. And I've sent him George Webster's short, which is the next one that I'm definitely directing, and he's my DOP for that.

You were just talking about trust between you two. How did that come about, did he know you were a first time director?

Yes, he did.

Was it in how he approached you?

I guess so. I was very clear with him when I first met him how I wanted to shoot it and I got the impression of that it impressed him that I wasn't some idiot. I wasn't blagging my way. I sat down with him and I said my plan is to shoot everything in one setup leading to a big Boogie Nights shot and I had already made plans where we put the camera. And he was quite, okay, this person knows what he's talking about! In turn then on set, in situ, I don't know if that's the right lens that I'm choosing, and I'm quite happy to put my hands up and say, yes, I'm inexperienced in this field. But I can talk to my actors. I always knew throughout the three days that my focus was always going to be on Lewis and Anna and Arinzé as the cast.

When you delegate, that's the best job about being a director and that's what I really fucking enjoyed on those three days. Is it important for the film if I'm the one that has the say? The idea I could delegate to Mark and give him the opportunity to be creative within the confines of what I wanted meant that we were both happy. He came up with some beautiful shots, that I never intended for, that are in the film. The trust that was built I'm going to keep that with him. I know what I want when I go into a film but I'm always, always open to someone saying what about this? And going, great, that's even better!

Shooting everything in one setup you are changing the language rules of having a medium shot, a wide and a close-up. You focus on your characters without cutting away, so how did you design the choreography of the shots?

It's basically theatre. I'm pulling from my experience of having a proscenium arch stage conventional. I just thought this would be good for me and for the actors and for the script. The camera and the lens will be put in a place where we get all of the action and allow the audience when they're watching it to use their eyes to focus in on bits themselves rather than me telling them. It worked for Lola, and in a weird way it simplified and caused less stress on the day. It meant that we could really focus on this one setup rather than doing three okay setups of the same scene. I'd rather focus and spend an hour doing one shot and doing that well rather than ten minutes each on a close-up and a mid and a wide and rushing it.

The choreography was dictated by the blocking of the actors. I would sort of tell them how I saw the shots and they would then do it naturally. Smart actors know where the camera and where the lens is. Anna, Lewis and Arinzé are very smart, beautiful actors. Anna has such a strong angular face, especially in Versailles with Montespan, but she managed to make Ruby incredibly soft because she was very clever about where she placed her face. The DOP Mark said she was the perfect person to work with which is an amazing compliment. She knows where the light is, she knows where the camera is. That's an amazing thing for a director to have that in a leading actress to not even need to tell her move your head a little bit because of the light, she does it naturally. Blessed to have such a great cast, I really am!

What particular appeal and challenge is the fact that we don't have dialog between the main characters?

I never want actors to tell me everything. I think that's what I'm continuing to figure out with the next script I'm doing. I enjoy ambiguity, I enjoy seeing on a character's face potential. I enjoy going, what does that mean? I don't quite like definitive. Throughout Lola there's so many moments of people's looks that you could interpret in a particular way and if it's wrong? [Excited] Great! It kept you going to the next scene. So much can be said about a body posture or a gesture. A smile could mean lots of things. There's potential and possibilities within the audience's interpretations of that moment. I think that's interesting! That's filmmaking! In a 14-minutes short I think it's really important to keep people guessing.

Having no dialog while directing meant that I could just focus on what's not being said between them physically. Having no dialog means that you take away all that could have been said and should have been said. Lewis writes great dialog but for Lola it was about stripping away and getting to the root of two people, a couple, hiding themselves from each other. We can use words to hide ourselves from each other but I think that's a bit of a cop out, a bit obvious. Let them exist within a space together and see if they can get out of it. I think that's fascinating, watching two people who are clearly still in love hiding something from each other and not being able to talk to each other about it. It's every couple really, isn't it, sometimes we go through two, three weeks without actually telling the person that we love what they've done wrong. It's so human! That's what the whole point of the film is, I tried to make it as human as possible.

Now that the film is done what are your thoughts about finding the truth within yourself as a director when it's not your own writing? So much of the film feels very raw and true to life.

I'm really interested in getting to the bottom of humanity and human aspects and what it is to exist in this crazy world. I'm really figuring that that is what I want to make and that's the films that I also want to watch. I want to find the truth within a moment and I also want the audience to experience what that is on screen. It is raw but it's also an incredibly polished film in a weird way. We've got GFX, we shot on film, it looks cinematic but it has elements of humanity and rawness to it. I think I'm trying to get both. I'm trying to make the beauty but find the ugly.

What does it mean for the tonal trajectory of the film that the final scene was shot last?

It meant that the emotions between Anna and Lewis, Ruby and Paul, could actually be something quite real. It was by accident but shooting the last scene last, you kind of hope for that in a schedule. I wish my last ever scenes in Versailles or Merlin were actually my death scenes or farewell scenes but they're not. My last scene in Versailles season 1 was just me walking down a corridor with a candle. It's so anticlimactic. You're saying goodbye to everyone, it's your last moment, it's also the last shot of the film. It's good when those things happen.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Lola Short Film - Copyright: Joel Reeves Photography
Alexander Vlahos, Lola Short Film
© Joel Reeves Photography

Can you explain your location scouting strategy and how you went about selecting the locations for your film. What was it like filming in such completely different locations?

The locations are characters within the film, they are the cinematic background characters of everything. If you get your locations right you just have to put the camera. Location recceing was another aspect of directing I had yet to experience because it was the one part I never saw. All the directors that you experience and learn from in situ as an actor – pre-production and post-production are the things that you don't see, that you can't learn from. So going on a location recce I had no idea. I phoned Declan O'Dwyer and said, help me, what am I looking for, what am I asking? So he gave me a lot of questions like always ask the DOP where the sun is. If you like a location make sure the DOP is happy that he can light it. It's collaboration.

We're shooting a short, we know we have three days of shoot, you will find locations based on proximity to places, you just have to. Is it the right night club? This question doesn't matter. It has to be right because it's ten minutes way. It is the right club! You start thinking about crew, camera trolleys, monitors and lights ...Is my vision more important than logistics, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you just want the crew to be happy, and I'll make it work.

I remember the first day of filming it was wide open space, the rooftop, and as the days went on, the higher the pressure was the more confined the space was [he laughs], in the night club your video village was in the smallest darkest place [he laughs]. Did that have any effect on you?

No, it didn't affect me. The monitor can be anywhere it doesn't matter. That's down to Lewis's script because we did kind of shoot in order really.

How did you, as the director, stay focused on the 'overall whole' of the project day-to-day when you're working on overseeing minute decisions?

I had a wonderful script supervisor called Charlotte Jeffery. Her first ever job as a script supervisor, it was a baptism of fire for her. I was telling her what she needed to do as she was doing it. By the time it came to the second day she would already plan ahead. You're the focal point of everyone and it can get a little bit much. I enjoyed it but sometimes your head is being pulled one way or the other, and it's nice to have someone who is literally just there to focus on the script and the story moments and what you are shooting and what's your plan. I would always dip in with Charlotte in the morning to say this is what I'm looking for today, this is the goal, these are the shots that I need, this is the amount of story time I need to record - you just focus on that and I'm going to do everything else but I'm going to keep dipping in and out with you to ask if I'm on track. She was my rock really, and how important script supervisors are in general to keeping a director sane [laughs].

Films evolve through the creative process, sometimes most dramatically in the editing process. Can you talk a little about putting together the visual style for the film and the relationship with the musical score?

The first thing you do you get all of the footage that you've done and then it's up to the editor to put some sort of running order. Had I shot coverage I would be giving the editor more choice in the edit to create a story of his own but by doing one setup per scene I took that away from him. That was a purposeful decision to make sure that there's a very clear narrative. Then it was just about clipping moments, coming in a bit sooner or taking out a bit later. If that scene's a bit longer do we feel more for Ruby or less? If we cut away on an emotion of Anna half way through are we robbing us as the audience of feeling something or do we let that moment live? If we let that moment live too much are we being indulgent? That's interesting questions in the edit. Seeing her huff, is that funny? Did she intend for it to be funny? What happens if we cut just before that? More questions arise from what you shot. I think the happiness I felt on the shooting also matched my happiness of finally getting the whole thing in an order. Then you start mining away milliseconds, frames, you play with timings. Then there comes a point where the editor and you can't do any more with it because score needs to be added. [Listen to the sound clip in which Alex enthusiastically elaborates on this.]

Chris Hyson, our amazing composer, is a friend from drama school. I did a short film on a Kickstarter with him about six years ago called "Button Eyes". I went to Chris's house and he got a version of Lola in front of him. I'd sent him some musical ideas, and we kept playing the film from the start. And he would tinkle and record it and we would listen back. It was again another mining process of adding things while you're still editing. A score might change a scene that you intended to be quite hard-hitting to quite romantic. It's a juggling act, you're never quite finished. And I'm very open to getting opinions just to see if I'm on the right ballpark. It's a learning experience and I'm not taking it for granted that I know everything because I don't. You're building a house together with everyone but you have the final say in where to put the bricks.

I think in indie filmmaking or in actor-directors we mostly find writers who direct their own work and/or directors who star in their own films [he laughs] - What were the pros and cons, if there were any cons, to start off truly focusing on directing?

I'm very, very lucky and very, very fortunate and I'll never take it for granted that because of my career as an actor I'm allowed to direct. I think that's a really good thing to know and I am very aware of it. I find that being an actor and having a brand name, like Alexander Vlahos is Mordred and Philippe, allows me to go to people and say I'm directing, would you come with me on this journey? And people go yeah. [Find this reflective moment in the sound clip below.] I think that's a blessing and I think so far there's no cons to what I've decided to do. Also the minute I start talking to people about it they realise that I've got much more of a passion towards directing than I do about acting.

My next short is a story that I wanted to make but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to write it. I know what I want, I know how I want to shoot it, I kind of know who I want to be in it, I know the mood and the feel, I've got this one shot of the opening in my head – how can I put this into words? And I just described it to George Webster and three days later he sent it back as a script. Now I've got something, I can work with this and I think this is exactly it. I do write but I don't find an enjoyment in it. I would never want to direct my own words.

Do you want to direct your own acting?

No. I think it takes an extra compartment in my brain that I don't have yet. At the moment I want to able to do one thing and do it well. If I'd put myself in Lola, ugh, I'd be a mess. As an actor I need to focus and as a director I need to focus – the film would've never got made. Maybe 20 years down the line I might want to direct myself as an actor, as a small part maybe. Never say never.

An article in the Guardian said first-time filmmakers seem to find it easier to tell a depressing story than an uplifting one, what are your thoughts on making a film with an uplifting ending?

The uplifting ending was always there in Lewis's script. I quite like that I made an uplifting film! Why is the instinct for first-time filmmakers to make depressing films, the subject matter isn't easy but it's easier to shoot depressive things. It's easier to shoot that emotion. Does happiness mean you need a big budget? Can you shoot gloom and sadness because it's supposed to be dark and scary? I'm glad I made a film with an uplifting ending! We're living in such a fucking horrible time – isn't it nice to leave the cinema feeling happy? What's great about Lola, we're not trying to pull the rug between your feet, it tells a very simple story and there's a pay-off. If you go into making films trying to get a reaction from someone before you've even shot one take then you're fucked. Just serve the text, shoot the script, cast it well, everything will fall into place afterwards. It's 15 minutes of happiness towards the end, it's a good, sweet film, it deserves to be on a big screen and be seen by as many eyes as possible.

More on Lola Short Film

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