David Lawson, director of A Clockwork Heart (2021)

A Clockwork Heart (2021): a Disney-esque debut from Scottish director David Lawson

There are a few things you might expect from a directorial debut. A decent script should really be a given but, with the rest, especially on a tight budget, anything can and often will go wrong.

What you don’t really expect is to be hit by a film that instantly has the hallmarks of a Disney fairy tale. 

With mesmerising performances from voice artist Catherine O’Donnell, complemented perfectly by Tunisian Scottish actor Aiysha Jebali (Abigail Copperhead) and her co-stars Vincent T. Spangenberg (Charles Tanner) and Gary Dean (Geoffrey Copperhead), A Clockwork Heart (2021) is a short film that harks back to the roots of storytelling as well as nodding to the era of the silent movie.

In short, with virtually no dialogue and on a shoestring budget, Scottish indie filmmaker David Lawson has pulled off something quite remarkable.

We spoke with David about the challenges of writing, directing, producing, lighting… (yes, he did all of that and more), how one member of the cast was vital to the film going ahead in the first place, and he provides tips for budding filmmakers with zero filmmaking experience (the exact position he was in prior to making this short movie).

FF: Can you tell me what A Clockwork Heart (2021) is about? And what was the inspiration for the film?

DL: The inspiration might be an interesting one to start with because literally there wasn’t inspiration for the film. It was myself wanting to learn moviemaking. So, if you want inspiration, it wasn’t inspiration in the story, as such, it was the inspiration to push and drive myself into filmmaking.

I’ve been involved with a local filmmaking group around the area and we’ve made a couple of short horrors for fun and you enjoy that; I don’t want to be pigeonholed in the horror side of things; you can see this movie’s very, very different from that, but I wanted to take on as much as feasibly possible without going crazy.

My advice to budding filmmakers is don’t get too wrapped up in all the details for your first attempt. Accept it’s not going to be perfect.

The directing, the producing, writing the story as well and editing that turned out to be a whole heap of fun. Obviously I wasn’t going to act, and I got the actors in to do that. Aiysha, Vince and Catherine – who I think you’re aware of – are all noted actors around this area anyway. Harrison, our young actor, he was a little star in his own right!

So, the inspiration… I wanted to make a movie and learn more about it because we don’t have the opportunities or the formal opportunities to do this, really, north of Central Scotland. It’s all kind of there or further down south in London. So, you’ve really got to go and investigate YouTube if you’re going to make a movie up here. That was the inspiration about A Clockwork Heart (2021). It was designed to be a simple story and you can see it’s the kind of story that Disney might take on board because it’s very family orientated, wasn’t wanting to get political, didn’t want to alienate anyone.

Aiysha Jebali, actor, as Abigail Copperhead
Aiysha Jebali as Abigail Copperhead and Gary Dean as Geoffrey Copperhead

A Clockwork Heart (2021) is a story of love from various angles. You do have the kind of fatherly love from the father or inventor, as you’ll eventually work out from the father to his would-be daughter. You’ve also got the love, friendship style, between a youngster and the female and then growing up you’ve got the man to the girl, or women, love but then you’ve also got the love from… SPOILER ALERT! …a mechanical creation who’s been given this ability to actually give love back towards her, what would now be partner, Vince Spangenberg or Charles Tanner, as we call him in the story.

FF: It’s interesting that you mentioned it as something that might be picked up by Disney or made by Disney, possibly…

I felt that the narration by Catherine O’Donnell seemed perfect for the film. I was surprised after I watched it a couple of times to see very few credits for her on IMDb.  I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about her and how she became involved because I really thought the quality of her voice, the richness, it really lifted the whole film. I could definitely see her doing a Disney film, or doing a voiceover narration at that level?

DL: Absolutely. Catherine was a stunning voice actor. You’re absolutely right about her IMDb page, there is almost nothing there. You will see that I think she does now have a credit for the A Clockwork Heart (2021) movie that we’ve just done. She was, nicely enough, the lady in waiting for the Mrs. Brown movie with Billy Connolly. That’s up there and then there’s a complete blank of everything in between, so I’m not sure what’s going on but she has done lots, particularly with BBC and other outlets up this area. So, she’s no stranger to voice acting, it’s just not up there. I don’t actually know if she uses other media or not. She could do. But you are right.

It was designed to be a simple story and you can see it’s the kind of story that Disney might take on board because it’s very family orientated, wasn’t wanting to get political, didn’t want to alienate anyone.

Something which not a lot of people know: when I was heading out making this movie, before the actors were all fully on board, I had Catherine on board. But, what Catherine wasn’t really aware of at the time, is I had the narration in place for the movie, I had the storyboard largely done by that point in time, but I was so nervous going out to start approaching, you know, notable, or kind of notable people in the industry to help me to make this. She was almost going to be a make or break point for this film. If she said no, she didn’t want to do it, that could have been quite a confidence crush to me, because I had worked with her once before on one of these short horror movies that we’d done and, in my head, she was the absolute perfect person for this role. And if she said no, I didn’t know what I was going to do; I didn’t know who I was going to headhunt next and I was going to be at a total loss. But she is an absolutely beautiful person to work with! Very, very accommodating. Very easygoing. I love every minute of working with her. She’s absolute genius. And you’re absolutely right. Her voice is beautiful.

The cast and crew of A Clockwork Heart (2021)
The cast and crew of A Clockwork Heart (2021)

FF: What were the main challenges you faced writing and filming A Clockwork Heart (2021)? As you sort of alluded to, you did almost everything yourself apart from the acting. What challenges did you face that come to mind?

DL: Well, the challenges that were easily overcome were, there was no fighting between the director, producers, art department [it was all David]. Everything kind of gelled nicely in my head. So, if I made a decision, you know, everyone there agreed! That was good, that was an easy part.

But, encompassing all that does…I wouldn’t say stress because I enjoyed it but, you do feel a bit stressed because you are thinking about a lot. There is a reason why all these positions exist within films and trying to do them all, even at a small level, you have to insanely plan, or things go wrong.

A Clockwork Heart (2021) is a story of love from various angles.

Two things, which I did find a challenge… One was, I had highlighted in my schedule notes for the day on one of the outdoor shoots that Aiysha would be carrying a book and I forgot to give her the book! It was a simple mistake, but a continuity error nonetheless, as far as the story was concerned. I’m now faced with ‘What do I do?’ Now we have about four and a half, maybe five hours total time, including getting the equipment to the forest, and losing light, at the end of the day. We spend almost two hours under umbrellas waiting for the rain to dissipate. That’s Scottish filmmaking for you! What do you do? So, I told the crew and cast, what I’d done and, they were all geniuses very quickly; Vincent and Aiysha were brainstorming and, instead of trying to fit in another part of the shoot that day and redo it, we decided just to get Catherine again, and change a couple of lines in her narration. So, the book was tucked away at her side instead of being carried. Nicely handled but, while I was trying to think of reshoot they, who were more relaxed, were able to just take a step back and go, ‘Yes, this is easier than David’s making it out to be!’

One other challenge I faced, which was probably my biggest challenge, is I hadn’t quite anticipated how bad this was going to be, even though looking at it now, I can certainly see how and that is just the logistics of getting everyone together. We are not a professional unit. You know, everyone has jobs. So suddenly, we’re in a position where people can take time off but, getting them all together at the same time is quite hard. And my heart goes out to certainly Gary and Alan, who actually were taking time off their work for no pay just to help me out and do this. I love them for that because just being willing to do that makes the schedule so much easier. So yeah, time management and scheduling all the people together, certainly, when this is not a full-time production movie. That is really, really difficult.

FF: As a first-time director, writer, producer, and all the other roles that you occupied, what do you think you did particularly well? And on reflection, what would you do differently?

DL: It’s not necessarily what I did well, but maybe how hard I was on myself. I was not wanting to let anyone down. I made a promise that I would put this movie out on YouTube or Vimeo, or whatever other VOD platform, and to the actors and crew, irrespective of how good or bad this was.

So, I planned this insanely well, to try and make sure that nothing went wrong. And I really was hard on myself. And you’ve now seen the movie, and the interior bedroom scene I was never ever happy with. It wasn’t so much of an afterthought, it was largely thought of during setting up that room, that I realised how much art departments come in handy because you need so much clutter and junk to put around the place to make it look totally realistic and I don’t really think I did that justice.

Scottish film director David Lawson on set
Scottish film director David Lawson on the set of A Clockwork Heart (2021)

What’s probably also not well known is the workshop scene; you’ll definitely pick up a Pinocchio vibe from that. I did not have that location at all. Even when we started shooting, my backup plan was to transform the bedroom scene into a workshop. I’m glad I didn’t! I’m glad I hung out and just kept speaking to people in order to try and find a location. And, eventually, we found a location which, in my own words, are stunningly beautiful. The stuff that was on the walls there, you couldn’t have dreamt a better location and there’s been a number of people that have commented on that as well. It was genius but hanging out for that location that was scary because I didn’t have it and being willing just to hang on to see if I could find something definitely paid off.

FF: What made you make the leap into filmmaking? And what advice would you give to budding filmmakers who are in the position you were to make that leap?

DL: The advice to budding filmmakers is don’t get too wrapped up in all the details for your first attempt. Accept it’s not going to be perfect. Go out and make it anyway because you will learn so much during that process. I learned so much and this is not the first movie I’ve made but it’s the first one that I’ve directed and produced. So, it’s kind of all fallen on my shoulders. You really do learn so much because, hey, there’s no one else to blame.

How did I come into this? Largely from one angle, but there was another angle that did definitely give me a boost. The primary angle was photography. I’m not a professional photographer, just complete amateur, but that does give me a little bit of an insight into composition. But when you do composition with photography, you only need to worry about the lighting for one shot that doesn’t move. When you’re into film, your camera could be moving through that scene. And if you just light it as you would photography, you move the camera a few inches, and suddenly the lighting could fall apart on you. So it does help, but you have to understand where it breaks down as well. But it was the primary route for me entering into filmmaking, particularly through the technological side of the cameras.I’m an engineer at heart, so I love that aspect of them. The other slight side of it was I was a pro sound engineer for 20 odd years. Live sound that is not, film sound. It does teach you about microphones, the different types, the pickup patterns. There’s not that many different types used in filmmaking, it tends to be just a few types, but having the familiarity with making things up on set or for Catherine doing her vocal recording, it was definitely a boost. So, both of them were my entry point into filmmaking.

A Clockwork Heart (2021) Film Poster

FF: What are you working on now/next? I’m assuming you’re promoting A Clockwork Heart (2021) and it’s going through the festival run. What’s next for you after that?

DL: What’s next for me? I’d still like to do more shorts. I’m investigating one possibility of an idea that is actually quite unique to the north east of Scotland. It uses what we call a Bothy ballad. Now, for the wider audience who are not unique to the north east of Scotland or living here, it’s one of these stories that would be told at, for us a Ceilidh or, for yourselves, maybe a barn dance or something like that, where someone would narrate a story or possibly sing a story, and we have some of these that are quite unique to the north east of Scotland.

And I’d like to look at maybe producing one of them, see if I could write something to fit a story. A bit more of a challenge because, yes, there would be more dialogue than the three words we had in the movie we’ve just had! But yeah, that’s what I’m looking towards.