Short Film Festival: An Interview with the Director of Oil Paint
Oil painting is a student short film written by Sophie Tucker and directed by Thomas Vallely. Gillian Konko and Bronte Sherbourne play two sisters, Clara and Niamh, who struggle to navigate complex emotions following the death of their father. The film will be screened on the second set of the Oxford University Film Foundation (OUFF) Short Film Festival.
Thomas Vallely, who joined me on a video call, spoke to me about it Oil painting, OUFF and the craft of filmmaking. I asked Thomas how he started this project and he preceded his answer by telling me that his background is actually theater: “I was with OULES, the [Oxford University] Light Entertainment Society for about three years. And I wanted to try something different. I just started my master’s degree, so I was like, ‘Oh! New course, new me.’”
As well as, Oil painting was created as part of an OUFF program for new filmmakers called Projects. “It was a good way to jump into something by doing something new,” Thomas said. As part of the program, directors are given access to the OUFF kit, matched with a producer and connected to the OUFF network for the crew. Describing the process, Thomas said, “I was brought together with Hannah Williams, my amazing producer, who has helped keep me on track. We were put together by Emma Earnshaw [the OUFF President]. And then we had to put together the rest of the crew.”
Projects program directors can also choose a script from OUFF’s bank: “There was a big Google Drive folder with all the different scripts you could choose from. I think there were about 40, which is frightening. So I’ve gone through them all. And they said, ‘Which ones do you like in particular?’ and I took off Oil painting.”
I was curious as to what made Sophie Tucker’s script stand out from the rest. Thomas replied, “The characters were very human-like. They didn’t necessarily say what they wanted or how they felt. They would say something off the mark, which I think is very realistic. Also, I think the kind of sibling/sister relationship was very lifelike… I don’t have siblings but my mother and aunt are close sisters and I saw a lot of them in Clara and Niamh.
“I actually modeled how I want to portray her in my own family. And I wanted to achieve that kind of closeness and understanding that nobody else in the world can achieve. It’s just these two people that have that special kind of connection. Even when they’ve really gotten riled up or upset in some way, they still have that kind of fundamental bond that can get through tough times. And that was the main theme of the script for me…I really liked that.”
That also meant the intimate focus on the sisters Oil painting would be made or broken by the strength of its occupation. After a call and review of the selfies, Thomas chose Gillian and Bronte as Clara and Niamh respectively: “Bronte sent the eulogy right at the end, that’s Niamh’s big moment. And it looked like she took it on her phone about a foot from her face, but it was really good. … I think there’s a difference between doing well and being emotionally authentic. I knew I was looking for real emotion and that’s what Bronte and Gillian gave me.”
Beyond their individual accomplishments, the relationship between the sisters needed to be made good. It was important for the actors to have the right chemistry to portray the sibling dynamic. Thomas found it difficult to assess just how well they would work together from self-photographs: “I brought her into the room for the first rehearsal. I thought I hope this works. They both seem to be pros so I’m sure it won’t be terrible but I hope it’s good. And they came in and they just coped like a house on fire, it was great.”
The two things that essentially separated this from Thomas’ theatrical experience were the cameras and the post-production. One of the most unexpected aspects of shooting the film was how weird it can be to get a good shot: “We had a couple of times… where Calin, our cinematographer, was [top of] a table or crouching on the floor or something to get those really good angles. They’re really good looking, but they surround themselves with this absolute madness.”
As I watched the film in preparation for the interview, I was surprised by a brief funny directorial appearance that I mentioned during the interview. Thomas laughed, “I want to stress, I didn’t want that to happen… Basically we had a scene where there’s a wake and we needed a lot of different people. So we rounded up some friends, bribed them with cookies and things… But then I realized there was a line about a divorced guy named Joe… that was begging for a cutaway [to Joe]. And I thought, ‘We don’t have enough men in this room to do that.’ And then Hannah just turned around, ‘We have one.’ I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”
Thomas recently finished editing the film in collaboration with his editor Jacek Podalsky. Although the process had started earlier, they found working online frustrating and completed most of the work in the first few weeks of this semester; just in time for the OUFF Short Film Festival where the film is due to be screened.
Speaking about the festival itself, Thomas said he was most looking forward to seeing the other films, both for the quality and the potential to discuss new ideas with fellow filmmakers. More broadly, he had begun to think in screen language: “I think I have the screen brain. I was at a coffee shop the other day and they were a bunch of people on a coffee table with a mirror behind them. And I was like, ‘Oh, this could be a really good shot,’ so I jot it down and then sketch it. I thought what am I doing? what happens to me So I clearly have the fault.”
I ended the interview with a question about what Thomas hoped audiences would feel watching his short film: “What I hope is that audiences are watching Oil painting and find it authentic and real… I think that showing the complexity of grief is worth a story. I hope to be able to move people.”
He then paused for a second before adding, “And hopefully they’ll enjoy it too and not throw things at me and walk right in the middle of it.”
Oil Paint was screened on January 31st (Tuesday) as part of Screening Set 2 at the OUFF Film Festival.