Social media has achieved a bad wrap and reputation in recent times and understandably so. However, without it, Film Forums would not exist. Without it, it’d be insurmountably difficult for the platform to connect with aspiring and established filmmakers and provide opportunities to those looking to make it in the film industry.
One of those aspiring filmmakers, Kristen Brookman, caught my eye with her hilarious tweets. LOL has been overused for years – in fact for probably 2 decades now – but it fittingly describes my reaction to many of her posts on Twitter. Like a bee to honey, I visited her profile and was immediately interested in her imminent short film premiere for Hi, Stranger (2020) on YouTube. The subject was mental health in support of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
As a mental health advocate I immediately wanted to watch it. Knowing that the film was entirely based on Zoom was intriguing to me; I’d not seen a movie done in this way before (yes, there are countless examples now, of course, thanks to COVID).
When I was sent the screener I didn’t really have huge expectations given the combination of very low budget, a very limited medium and a potentially gloomy subject. Hi, Stranger (2020) could have easily have been mediocre, let’s be honest.
What I uncovered once I’d hit Play, however, were exceptional performances from Tom Lewin and Penelope Yeulet to complement the perfectly crafted script. The theme of mental health is sensitively handled during what feels very much like a completely authentic conversation between two people on an online date. Somehow, by the end of the short film you not only warm to both characters, but you feel as if you know them as people.
In the following interview with director and writer Kristen Brookman she discussed the challenges of shooting a film entirely over Zoom, how she managed to cast these talented actors, and what advice she would give to aspiring screenwriters who are just starting out.
FF: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
KB: I’m Kristen – I’m based in Basingstoke down in Hampshire. I’m still very new to the filmmaking game I would say. Other than this one, I’ve only made one short film before. Both of them had no budget at all, so they’re both kind of start, passion projects. I’m happy to be learning and trying to learn from people around me; trying to get stuff made. But yeah, I’m still a bit of a rookie at the moment!
FF: Did you go to film school?
KB: I didn’t. I studied film at college. I did a Film Studies A-Level, but obviously that was just watching films and studying them, it wasn’t so much a production thing – that wasn’t a major element of the course. Then I opted to start a ‘career’, because it seemed safer – in marketing actually. And then, yeah, I realised quite quickly that I need to give this film stuff a go otherwise I just won’t forgive myself. So yeah, I didn’t do the university thing, but at the moment I’m feeling good about it and making stuff. It hasn’t held me back too much – yet, anyway.
FF: Yeah, the filmmakers I talk to – it seems to be a mixture of people who’ve been to film school and people who haven’t. Who knows if it makes a huge difference or not. I’m sure you learn stuff, but, I think it’s important that you’re driven and that you give things a go as much as having an education about it. It all helps obviously! If you go to film school AND you’ve got the talent AND you’ve got the application and drive, then clearly you’ve got a little bit of an advantage…
KB: You’ve got to be proactive, yeah. Definitely.
FF: Absolutely, yeah. What is ‘Hi, Stranger’ about and is it entirely scripted, or was some of it ad libbed?
FF: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
KB: Yeah, it was entirely scripted. There may have been one word or two changed, but we stuck to the script. I mean, it’s a film with just two people talking over Zoom. That was kind of a challenge, I thought, but one that I liked, where you have to sort of hit certain emotions and have some sort of story arc just from one conversation, which I quite like. And yeah, it delves into mental illness, but in hopefully an honest way and in a way that seems normal – so the conversation hopefully felt normal to the audience, rather than forcing that kind of theme. But yeah, it’s kind of a story of two people on a virtual ‘date’ for the first time.
FF: Yeah, for me, it was very, very sensitively handled and authentically done. It felt very, very natural. It really just felt like I was watching an organic conversation between two people, not a film with two actors in it. So, I think that’s really what you’ve got to aim for and I think you nailed it, I really do.
KB: Thank you!
FF: I’m pretty critical. When I watch stuff with my wife, I’m always saying ‘Why do they do it like that?’ or whatever. I’m always commentating and annoying her by saying that, so I’m not just being sycophantic and telling you that.
KB: Aw that makes me feel very good, thanks [laughs].
FF: How was it actually filmed? It appeared to me to be done in one take, but I’m probably wrong. How was it actually done? I saw at the end of the credits, that it said “filmed with the help of their other halves” – the actors’ other halves?
KB: Yeah, that’s right. You were right actually – it was done in one take. We did it about three times and the one that we settled with was actually the last take. And yeah, that comment in the credits – so, basically we had a real Zoom call, like I guess we are now, and I used the footage from the Zoom call. But, Penny and Tom, with the help of their other halves, actually had cameras set up on top of the laptops. They very kindly helped me. I mean, when do you ever have to ask the actors to film? *Laughs* So, it was very nice of them. But, in the end, I felt like the Zoom footage just seemed more real when they were interacting with the laptop at points and stuff. It didn’t quite work with the cameras. The quality is not quite there, but I thought it all just adds to the Zoom effect – hopefully.
FF: Yeah, I would say that the quality is very good. I was actually going to ask you – I was wondering what equipment you used, or was it just their laptop webcams and it just happened to be good quality?
KB: Yeah, I guess we must have been lucky with the internet and stuff. We were always going to use the laptop sound just for ease, because Zoom will record both sides of the conversation, but there were a couple of points where the sound had actually cut out in the call, so I used their camera footage (which still isn’t great sound) to just fill in any of the gaps. So, I guess all the work they put into setting up the cameras did help in the end! But yeah, we were going to use DSLR cameras, it just didn’t quite work when they were moving the screens and things. We must’ve just happened to get lucky!
FF: Yeah absolutely. How did the casting of Tom Lewin and Penelope Yeulet come about, and were you surprised by the strength of their performances and the chemistry between them?
KB I’m very, sort of – maybe too active on Twitter and things like that. I’ve never met Tom. I’ve video chatted in a group with Penny before, but I’ve never met her. I just know them both through Twitter. They have great show reels right at the top of their profile, so I knew they were very good actors and I just kind of trusted my instinct. I think I was pleasantly surprised, yeah, just because of how much it worked and how intimate it felt even though it was a video call. They did it really well. In the script there were a few written pauses and things like that, and they took that upon themselves and really owned those kind of moments and pulled them off well. So yeah – huge, huge credit to them both.
FF: I thought they were very, very good. I was surprised
to see that they – IMDb might not reflect everything they’ve done – but, especially Penelope, hasn’t done an awful lot. I was quite surprised by that. They seemed like they would be experienced.
KB: Yeah, they’re great. Penny’s a writer as well, so she’s got a lot in the pipeline to actually make, and direct as well. I’m not sure what they’ve both done – they haven’t done a lot before, but I’m not sure yeah!
FF: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers looking to get into the industry? I kind of always ask that question and I’ll appreciate that you’re at the level you’re at, but there will be film students and people just graduated, or people that are literally about to start filmmaking and aren’t sure what to do. You’ve at least done a couple, so you’re one step ahead of them! What advice would you give to them?
KB: I mean, like you say, I’m not in the industry yet, so I’m still figuring it out. But, I would say – and I’m echoing advice that I’ve heard myself – just make stuff. If you’re a writer, just write stuff. Writing is so subjective, so not everyone will like it, but as long as you do then just stick to that. But yeah, if you can, just make stuff. Luckily, the things I write are fairly simple and subtle, so they don’t need big effects and CGI and that. Just grab a couple of friends, it doesn’t matter what – there’s such great technology these days – you could use a DSLR, you could just use a phone if you wanted. Cameras are so good. Don’t worry about high-tech, just go out and make stuff with your friends and know that you’re going to learn from it as well. Don’t set your expectations too high, just take it as a learning experience and go out and make something.
FF: Yeah, that’s pretty much what most filmmakers are saying really, so that’s fair cop. What’s your favourite film of all time?
KB: Oh my God. I should’ve prepared for that. I always talk about Good Will Hunting (1997), because I love that from a writing perspective. I love that from the unconventional relationship; sort of father son kind of thing. For this film, I was a big fan of a very independent film called The Sweet Life(2016). It stars Abigail Spencer and Chris Messina, but I don’t think it’s very well known. They’re basically two characters that are both ready to end their life, and they start in New York [it’s actually Chicago*] and they’re like, “let’s go to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off”, so they have a road trip. That sounds crazy enough, but yeah! The female character especially was based on that. And the dance therapy scene is inspired by that. That’s one of my favourite films ever. It’s got depressing, deep kind of themes, but every single time I watch it, it has a lingering feeling where I feel happy. I don’t know why! A bit like you were saying “I don’t know why I like it so much”, but yeah, I just do.
FF: That’s cool. That’s some of the best films – a little bit of an enigma where you’re not quite sure why you like them. The writing’s good, the acting’s good – that’s fine. But yeah, there’s something you’re not sure about. That’s great filmmaking.
And finally, what’s next for you? What’s your next project or film that you want to work on?
I’m working on another short film at the moment, which I didn’t write. It’s written by a guy called Joe Deacon, who plays the younger guy in my first short film, Uninspired Moments (2019). It’s called Blue Bear (TBD). Again, it sort of tackles some slightly difficult themes – themes of loss and bereavement – but hopefully redemptive in the end. We’re hoping to raise some money for that, for the first time. I’ve never done a crowdfund before, but we’ll see how it goes! And we’ll hopefully shoot it in maybe Spring next year – maybe things will be a bit more normal then. Wishful thinking! But yeah, I’m looking forward to that one and seeing what I can do.