Veteran producer Martina Niland and first-time feature director Carmel Winters’ new film Snap is a masterful work of concealment and revelation that demands total engagement from beginning to end. Words Niamh Creely.
A 15-year-old boy abducts a toddler and takes him to his grandfather’s home. The crime becomes public knowledge and the teenager’s mother is blamed by the media. This is the beginning of a steady revelation that is emotionally real and yet as engaging as any thriller. Making the film provided many challenges, not least directing a child less than 2 years old. I spoke to the creative team behind this stunning film.
‘Snap’ didn’t begin life as a screenplay. How did the story evolve?
Carmel: I developed Sandra and Stephen as characters in a dramatic scenario I presented to trainee psychiatrists. The interns were fascinated by the complex dynamics between mother and son. Some even cried as they unpicked what had made this mother and son so estranged and yet so bonded in ways that they couldn’t even themselves recognize. I invented lots of characters over the years in this way but Sandra and Stephen sunk deep hooks into my imagination. The character of Sandra, in particular. Her voice was constantly in my head, defending herself – and her son – to an imaginary audience. And yet there were so many holes and contradictions in her defence. I love characters that don’t unravel easily.
How did the scenario become the film?
Carmel: I was teaching Creative Writing (Drama) in the University of East Anglia and performed a one-woman show, A-Picking At A Bone at the theatre there. I played both characters – Sandra, and her teenage son Stephen.
At the same time, I was sifting through ideas for a screenplay that could thrive on, and not just survive, a low-budget production. I don’t always enjoy the low-budget ‘aesthetic’ that tends to emerge as a by-product of little money and time. Those films that roped me in as a viewer did so because of the strength of the characters and the storytelling.
When I’m writing a feature film script I feel like an architect. I’m working in three dimensions, moving space around. I’m always in a spatial point of view, looking from a particular place, creating dynamic tension from cuts between viewpoints and place. So when I began to think of ‘Sandra’ and ‘Stephen’ as characters in a film I started to look at them from different distances – from extreme close-up to extreme wide – and seeing if they revealed themselves differently. And when I did this the characters got extremely involved in this looking business – and started looking back. Sandra started courting the attention of a camera while Stephen seemed enormously invested in getting behind it.
So in the film itself there is an interrogation of what it means to be caught on camera, and with the camera… And this was not only why this play should become a film, it also gave me the opportunity to try a visual style that, while not being big-budget dependent, could be imaginative, original, compelling – and intrinsic to the story.
The film was shot on several different formats, some quite unconventional.
Carmel: Yes, in the script different technologies of looking – from CCTV, mobile phone, webcam, documentary cameras, mini DV, Cine 8 – became deeply significant to the characters and their story. The question was: do we shoot on these different formats or do we shoot on the best quality format available to us and downgrade after in post? And the second question was how do we differentiate ‘mediated’ reality, which is easy enough to signal, from supposedly ‘objective’ reality, which the film itself had made problematic? Kate McCullough, the DOP, was attached to the project very early on. I’d seen a strange, obscure short film she’d shot and I thought, ‘there’s a DOP who’s not seduced by mere glamour’. She and I share something of an aversion to ‘noisy’ post-production tools and techniques, especially when it comes to altering the structure of the image. While the audience mightn’t consciously register the fakery, I think it still makes itself felt.
For our ‘objective’ camera we used the RED. We could have used film except we didn’t want to be tied to a low shooting ratio when we were shooting the toddler and baby scenes. I found it funny how well some of the lower grade formats performed. The Sony EX1 used in the documentary scenes wasn’t a million miles off the RED, I whisper to say. So it was very much Kate’s manipulation of that tool that coaxed its nastier digital qualities and pulled it away from the RED. And the mobile phone we shot on held up so well that there was even talk of downgrading it in post. Which we didn’t do because, let’s face it, if you’ve committed to using different formats you’ve got to trust their intrinsic qualities and trust the audience with them. Basically, the same thing went for the formats as every other aspect of the film: let the audience sift through the subtleties and shades of the grey areas. There’s nothing black and white about life, and there’s nothing black and white about Snap – ok, except for a brief black and white sequence at the opening of the film!
The full article is printed in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 134.