JACK COOPER STIMPSON recently made his directorial debut with the new short film Alex’s Dream starring Alex Lawther.
Whilst being known for his roles in numerous British independent films, Jack has worked in theatre since the age of sixteen. Jack attended The BRIT school in South London, notable for its famous alumni, to study theatre for three years.
We spoke with Jack Cooper Stimpson about his new short film and his plans for future projects.
AC: There are so many layers to your new short film Alex’s Dream. Upon writing the script, what themes were you particularly interested in exploring?
JACK COOPER STIMPSON: I did a lot of reading about oneiric experience in cinema, which basically suggests that the process of watching a film in a cinema is a bit like dreaming. I thought that was a great springboard for making a film. There’s also endless possibility in speaking to people about dreams and their relationship with dreaming. It’s something that everyone can talk about to some extent. There was also a lovely moment when we were shooting, that I realized I’d inadvertently written a film about male mental health. I think Alex’s character is a young man, who finds solace in sharing a part of his story with those around him.
There’s some ambiguity to the plot. What does the story mean to you?
I think I’m naturally quite drawn to films and ideas that don’t quite add up or don’t feel the need to resolve everything for an audience. It’s also the joy of making short films, that by their very nature you can afford to take risks and be expressive with the world you’re creating. It’s the best medium for ambiguity. For me, it’s a film about communication. The lack of, or endless possibilities of how we communicate with the people around us.
You did some filming on a boat at sea. Can you tell us any funny stories from your time filming?
It ain’t for the faint-hearted. We got so lucky with the weather, on the day it was as flat as a lake and the elements were on our side. But even so, after three or four hours bobbing around, you start to look a bit green and wish you had two feet on dry land. The whole crew was fantastic and no one complained or fell overboard. I think Alex Lawther and Chris New loved it, I can see them donning the waders again in the future.
How did you approach casting the short?
It’s actually one of my favorite things about the project. The cast is a fantastic mix of friends, people I’ve known for a while and then actors who were drafted in through an audition process. Alex, Emma and Simon were all actors that I’ve known for a while and I was so pleased they wanted to be involved. That meant a lot to me, to have their trust.
Did you first meet Alex on the set of Old Boys?
Yes, I played a sort of jock character who bullies Alex’s character. That was a really special time and just the best fun to shoot. It was a tricky moment in my personal life, I’d chosen to skip university and had just signed to my first agent, but I felt incredibly isolated and struggled with my mental health. So when Old Boys came along it was such a relief. We should shoot a sequel when we’re all old and wrinkly.
What was your initial pitch for the project?
There was actually a six month period where I was pitching this project to channels and production companies and just not getting anywhere. It wasn’t getting any traction and actually I think that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This was always meant to be a passion project and made by a bunch of twenty-something-year-olds. I spent a long time piecing together a really attractive ‘package’ for companies and producers. It’s an exhausting part of the process and can suck all the joy out of it. In the end, we just put a date in the diary and worked 24/7 to make it happen.
How do you like to work with your actors on-set?
I’m definitely still working this one out. My background is in acting and I’ve always gelled with directors who aren’t overbearing and are happy to hand over the reigns from time to time. So I hope I’m like that on set? I’m also very lucky to have worked with such talented and professional actors – they’ve all been on time, off-script and very willing to listen to my ramblings. I talk a lot, I think that’s probably my style, talking and unpicking things with actors. If you’ve offered an actor the job, there has to be a moment when you hand over the character to them and relinquish part of the responsibility. Some directors are far too precious about doing that.
Who inspires you as a director?
I’m really lucky to have passed through two state-funded institutions, The National Youth Theatre and The BRIT School. I was at BRIT for three years and I’m constantly inspired by all of the people I worked and studied with. Especially the teachers. To be surrounded by such a caring and talented group of people gives you permission to be creative. Every aspect of being in that building was inspirational and I carry a bit of that energy with me on every job I do.
What were some of the unique challenges posed by this production?
Time and money. I know that’s quite a boring answer, but it’s the unfortunate truth of making films. There’s never enough of either of those things and it’s important to acknowledge as a struggle. To go a bit deeper, I suppose another challenge was being a first time director. That’s always going to be a scary thing to do and I’m so immensely proud to have made the jump.
Let’s talk about Harry the dog, what was he like on-set?
The breakout performance of the year, surely?! Harry was the family dog and sadly passed away earlier this year. I’m so glad he’s been immortalized by the film. He was a real pro on the day and a shoutout to my mum for being a dog handler for the shoot!
Behind the camera, do you have a fear you’d like to conquer?
Yes, I think the next step is going to be directing and acting in the same project. I’d love to do it when the right script comes along. It nearly happened for Alex’s Dream and in hindsight, I’m so glad that I didn’t take that extra responsibility on. I don’t think it’s a necessity, there should never be a tick box criteria, but it’s something that really interests me. The first film I was ever in had the same lead actor, writer and director. That sort of proved early on that it is possible.
In the short, the script holds a lot of restraint, with the characters often communicating with a subtle facial expression in response to some dialogue. Was this a cautious decision?
I’m really pleased you think it has restraint, It’s important to have an economy with the dialogue in a film. If you want to be hyper-analytical about it, there’s never much dialogue in your dreams (not mine anyway), things are always expressed with gesture and movement. The comedy comes from letting scenes play out and enjoying those little facial ticks and gestures that people naturally do.
How did you approach writing the script?
The approach was just: get it done. I really wanted to write and direct something and I knew it was going to take a while to do (one year to be precise), so it was a case of knuckling down and going through draft after draft. Alex was the first person I showed a draft to and he was really supportive and encouraged me to be ‘weirder’ and ‘wilder’ with it. We were flatmates at the time so there were several late-night conversations about it, over cups of tea and glasses of whiskey.
In terms of a release, what are your plans for the short film?
There are a few conversations going on and I’m hoping that it’ll be out this year. 2019 was a mad year and as a result it was hard to focus on finding distribution. These things take time though and we want to make sure it finds the right home. Somewhere that has an appreciation for talking dogs and fishermen!
You’ve also been working on Extinction, a short film starring Emma Thompson. Can you tell us about the premise and how Emma Thompson became involved in the project?
Extinction is a comedy about climate change. It’s very much in support of all the essential activism that is going on right now, especially the crucial work of Extinction Rebellion. A group of activists meet with the government and things slowly descend into chaos. It’s a satire with a really important message at its core. Emma Thompson came on board quite early on in the process, she was getting involved with Extinction Rebellion and we managed to reach out to her and get a script in her hands. I want to be Emma Thompson when I grow up, so this was a really big deal for me. I can confirm that she is a truly generous and good human being, guided by empathy and human decency. Emma was really collaborative and a joy to direct.
The production was filmed in an incredibly grand building – where was that?
The building was incredible and was such a great character to play with! It’s a place called Church House which is literally a stones throw from Westminster and the House of Commons. We were right on the doorstep of the government offices and the mp’s we were poking fun at, it made the whole project feel like a Trojan Horse type of operation.
Did you work alongside Extinction Rebellion on the short film?
Yes and no. I knew nothing about the group prior to writing the script, so I jumped in headfirst and spent about five months getting to know the organization, going to actions and collecting material. We were very upfront about the fact that we were making a film and using their name, but it was always important to keep a bit of distance. It is essentially propaganda, but staying independent allows you to remain objective about the subject matter and makes the project stronger as a result.
This is such an important time to be talking about the climate crisis that we’re experiencing. I want to represent the British film industry and be at the forefront of a more eco-conscious way of making films. I also think that, right now, Extinction Rebellion is the most viable option for objecting to the inaction on climate change. I’m really proud to have been a part of the April and October Rebellions.
The concept feels like it could be turned into a series. Do you have any future plans?
There is something in the works. I don’t think we’re allowed to announce anything just yet, but maybe this isn’t the last you’ll see of these characters.
What has the response to the short film been like so far?
Thankfully, audiences have been really receptive to the short and the message behind it. However, this is still a divisive subject matter and some people who don’t agree with the principles of XR, obviously object to the film. We’ve done a few Q&As after the screenings and it’s tough being put on the spot by people who fundamentally disagree with the agenda that you’re pushing. But ninety percent of people have laughed and cheered and enjoyed it and as long as it gets people talking about the subject, I’m happy.
What do you want the world to look like in 10 years?
Great question. Let’s aim for a world that has chilled out a bit, literally and figuratively. This idea of exponential growth and constant expansion is never going to make us happy, so I’d be up for slowing down a bit and being a part of a society that promotes equality over the rat race syndrome we all feel the need to participate in. We need to grow like trees, not like shareholder businesses!
MAIN PHOTO: TIM NATHAN
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