Paul Holbrook is a prolific short film director from Bristol. With a background in writing, Paul transitioned to working behind the camera in 2014 by directing the short film A Girl and Her Gun (2015), a process which brought him into contact with long-term collaborator Laura Bayston.
Old Windows (2022), their latest project, is a short film about a struggling cafe owner who is intrigued when a mysterious, elderly stranger takes an interest in her life.
Impressed, we thought we’d find out more about this talented filmmaker, how he works and what inspires him to keep going. Thankfully, he obliged.
Psst! When you’ve finished reading this, check out our review of Old Windows and the rest of the film reviews on our site. Have you seen the film? What did you think? Reach out to us on social media and let us know!
Crafting a world of complex characters
FF [Simon Jefferson]: Firstly, well done on creating such a well crafted piece. I was really struck by the sense of authenticity throughout the whole thing. Kind of like Harry’s old suitcase, the world felt worn-in and real. Like it had weight. How did you first hear about the project/become involved?
PH [Paul Holbrook]: Old Windows was written by Laura Bayston who I have collaborated with many times in a director-to-actress capacity. Early last year she came to me with an early draft of the script and asked for some notes.
I was initially struck by the amount of subtext bubbling away beneath her dialogue, the complexity of the two characters beyond what was on the page, and ultimately the authenticity and nostalgia in the way it was presented.
I gave her some notes and over time the script really began to feel like something that deserved to be put into production.
Laura is a very driven and passionate person, so decided that she wanted to produce the film, so soon paired up with her co-producer, Jackie Howard, and their fledgling production company Jackalor Films was born. I count myself incredibly lucky that they asked me to direct the film too.
FF: One of the first things that struck me about Old Windows was the absolute sense of place and the nostalgia of similar locations that I visited as a kid that it created. How did you go about creating the café? How vital was the setting to you?
PH: With only two actors and one location, I knew early on that the production design had to be interesting enough to not only take some of the weight off of the actors shoulders, but to help us tell a story. I wanted the walls to have stories of their own to really amplify the sense of nostalgia and history. I wanted the film to feel like it was actually a tale generations in the making, and I feel giving a film a true sense of place can really help audiences engage with the nuances in what we’re presenting.
FF: Another thing that struck me was the colour scheme of the piece. The browns, golds and oranges from the lighting and the costuming. What were your points of inspiration for this? If we saw your/James Oldham’s mood board for the cinematography, what films would we see on it?
PH: We wanted to capture that late afternoon, low sun feel to give us the sense that this story was happening at the end of a hard day, hard week. We also wanted the colour schemes to lean into nostalgia too.
We didn’t look too closely at other films for inspiration – instead it was more looking at the textures of the 60s. Although the film is set in the 90s, we wanted the film to feel like it was trapped in a time gone by. We looked at lots of old photographs of the East End.
Learn constantly and celebrate the little victories
FF: You started out as a writer yourself before moving into the production side of things. What sparked that transition? Do you have tips for other writers thinking of doing the same?
PH: I started out writing feature-length scripts for the spec market, but didn’t get that break I was looking for.
Moving into directing was via an insatiable thirst to bring my words, stories and characters to life. It was always going to happen.
I didn’t go to film school and started in the film industry quite late really, but I have a rebellious streak and a real drive to see things through. It’s been hard, but I don’t have any magic piece of advice really. Just get out and do it. Learn from your mistakes, like really learn.
Celebrate every small victory along the way, and never settle, always look at ways to raise the standards.
Most importantly, though, is the people you meet and work with along the way. I have learnt so much from the people selfless enough to lend me their skills.
FF: Walk me through your process: how do you get from a plain sheet of paper to a final product? How do you get into it? Playlists? Moodboards? Walking and talking to the dog?
PH: I like to sit with my ideas, just allow myself to drift off with them. Trust my instinct, trust fate, and usually things start to take shape in my head.
I also question EVERYTHING! I always look for ways to emotionally engage with my ideas. I want to find some conflict within myself that I can bring to the table, that’s usually where the theme comes in.
Once I feel like there is enough weight behind the idea, I’ll sit down and start looking at story structure and decide whether it’s something better suited to feature-length, TV or short. Once I know what I’m heading towards, it’s just constantly fuelling that idea by exploring character, setting, tone, theme etc. and that can come from sitting in a room and digging deep with collaborators, or sitting in bed wide awake at night.
Once an idea is locked in and it won’t go away, that’s usually when I succumb to the fact that I’m actually gonna make this thing.
Acknowledge the barriers, then smash them
FF: There’s an element of the ‘working-class boy done good’ in your bio. As a member of the working class myself, I love to see it! What advice do you have to those trying to break into the industry themselves? Is it getting easier now that production companies are spreading North? Are we leveling up?
PH: I think when you come from an impoverished, sometimes oppressive, always marginalised background, you have to fight for every little success, but with that comes resilience, resourcefulness and life experience. People shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that.
Breaking into the industry is hard for most, but even harder when you come from a place that feels so far away from the creative industries. The imposter syndrome is real. The barriers are real. But, you have to be rebellious, you have to commit to the end game, constantly work towards it and never give up.
If you keep working regardless, keep knocking on doors, eventually the gatekeepers will have to take notice. Eventually you’ll find your champions. Value what you can bring to the table and don’t let anybody make you feel like you don’t belong. Call out injustices and always help others below you on your way up, that’s the best way we can effect change. They let you in, do your best to bring the rest with you.
FF: You’re credited as a contributing writer here, with Laura Bayston taking the written by credit. What were your contributions or was the script fully formed when you got there?
PH: When the script first came to me, the story was there, it just needed finessing to not only make it shootable on the budget Laura and Jackie were able to bring to the table, but to help find the subtlety I knew it needed. I wanted the conversation to feel both organic but awkward, the silences had to be loaded. So, we basically interrogated every line of dialogue, each one had to earn its place.
We also worked at loading up the backstory to help the audience feel like they were only getting a snippet of a story that felt a lifetime in the making. The story didn’t really change at all, it was more a question of manipulating the tone and energy by which it was delivered.
Constant collaboration companions
FF: You’ve collaborated with Laura Bayston several times now, and she’s really good in this (please pass that on from me!). How did that relationship first start? How does that history help when working on a project like this, both behind and in front of the camera?
PH: Laura is a phenomenal actress that gives you so much as a director. She wants to uncover every small emotional nuance in the decisions we make as a collaborative duo and that adds depth to what lands on screen. She is also acutely aware of tone, she’s emotionally open and beautifully insecure whilst at the same time ballsy and passionate. She’s a dream to work with and long may it continue.
I first worked with Laura on a short film called A Girl and Her Gun back in 2014 and I’ve never looked back. We trust each other, we’re honest with each other and we both value what each of us bring to the projects we work on.
We’ve attacked lots of projects together now and we know where we’re each coming from, both from a personal and a creative pov. We have a creative short hand and to simplify it, we’re just both on the same page when it comes to the kind of stuff we want to work on.
FF: Harry’s character in Old Windows is a mysterious and somewhat sinister figure at first. How did you go about striking that balance, keeping us uneasy but not going too far?
PH: That balance was always difficult, I have to take my hat off to both Larry Lamb who was able to really strike a balance between vulnerable and scary and our editor Julie Buckland who helped us tread that thin line with poise.
FF: I’m curious how long the shoot was. I remember going to a seminar once and the subject of hiring ‘known talent’ came up, and the shortness of a short film’s production was mentioned as a selling factor. Was this a factor when attracting such a talent as Larry Lamb to the project? How’d you get him?
PH: The film was shot in two days. Twelve pages of dialogue. It was hard…In regards to attracting Larry to the project, he was always right up there on our dream cast list and luckily for us, he just really connected with the script and the character. He saw something in Harry that he could elevate for us.
We spent a couple days here and there working with Larry before the shoot, to find our way through the motivations with him and kinda deconstruct Harry from a collective POV.
Larry’s observations and openness to share his own life experiences and connections to what was fuelling the idea of the story, really helped us hone that balance, without ever resorting to tired tropes of the London gangster. We always wanted Harry to be complicated, engaging and most of all relatable. Larry helped us achieve that.
Onwards and upwards
FF: What’s next for Old Windows?
PH: The film will have its first public screening at Manchester Film Festival 2022 and then we hope for a successful festival run. I’ve still not won that BAFTA yet, so that’s always the dream. Once the festival run is over, we’ll be releasing online through one of the many platforms out there these days. We plan to release exclusively with one, so hopefully a decent festival run and a few awards will give us a good shot at that.
FF: When are we going to see a feature from you? You’ve done a metric ton of short films at this point, so, you’ve got to be eager to make the transition. Is that the goal?
PH: Yep. 100% the goal. Always has been. I have a couple of TV series bouncing from desk to desk out there and a couple of spec features doing the same. Most exciting though is the feature version of Hungry Joe (2020) which has been optioned by a really exciting production company (with strong working class roots) and we hope to be moving into pre-production on that soon. Aside from personal projects, my agent is out knocking down doors to find me that next break.
FF: We’re going to Charlie’s Café, I’m buying. What are you having?
PH: I’m gonna go for Omelette, chips and beans with a shit-ton of cheese!
FF: Thank you for your time! Good luck on your future projects!
PH: Thanks for the support, it means everything on the way up.
Interviewer, Intro, Editor & Article Headline: Simon Jefferson
Second Editor & Artwork/Headline: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Shunk Films