Across the pond past half of the United States, a Nick Whitfield, a UK-based actor, comes to SXSW with his first feature film, “Skeletons.” “In this surreal comedy, Davis and Bennett are a mismatched pair of traveling salesmen in the business of cleaning skeletons out of closets. Together they travel across Britain, performing ‘the Procedure’ whereby secrets and lies are exposed.
Bennett is a stickler for the rules and finds that Davis has been using their special procedure illegally to reconnect with comforting moments from his past. Their boss, the colonel assigns the pair to their biggest challenge yet, a graduation test that could see them moving up the company ladder. But when they arrive at a remote family home and can’t get the job done, they discover that you can’t always get away from your own skeletons and you can’t always leave and never come back.” [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
Director: Nick Whitfield
Screenwriter: Nick Whitfield
Producers: Tracy Brimm & Kate Myers Paul Welsh
Cast: Andrew Buckley, Ed Gaughan, Paprika Steen, Tuppence Middleton, Jason Isaacs, Josef Whitfield
Cinematographer: Zac Nicholson
Editor: Rachel Tunnard
Whitfield introduces himself SXSW film “Skeletons”…
I was a professional actor at 19, straight out of school, and went to Paris to study theatre with Philippe Gaulier at 22. He’s a brilliant man, and a uniquely-inspiring teacher – Sacha Baron Cohen and Emma Thompson also trained with him – and he encouraged me to write, to make new work and get away from the dusty, museum-like atmosphere of a lot of theatre. I started co-writing solo theatre pieces which I performed. I must have done 1000+ performances around the UK and Ireland. Anything I know about putting a story in front of an audience, I learnt here – when you feel the public’s attention drift and you’re standing on stage with half an hour to go and no one in the wings, it kind of focuses the mind.
I found myself moved by films more often and more intensely than live work, and I felt the need to get away from words a little, so I started to write screenplays. It was the frustration of these scripts being admired but not getting made that prompted me to get some friends together for the weekend to make a short film. This turned out to be the starting point for “Skeletons,” the first foray into the world of the film.
The keywords for me in the making of my film were collaboration and fun. I wanted my team to feel creative, to be able to express themselves and to enjoy it. I believe strongly that our work is better when we’re having fun. Of course, your choice of people to work with is crucial, and I took some time to find them. From there, I think the idea of the world of the film was strong enough and clear enough for the actors and the HoDs [Heads of Departments] to unite around and bring their own ideas into the mix. I had a few battles to get things exactly how I wanted them but in the main my job consisted of being presented with beautiful work and being grateful that I was working with so many talented people.
The biggest challenge in filmmaking, for me, is the story. There are, of course, many elements to a film but I think that the story is where the magic ultimately lies, and it’s the hardest thing to get right because it has to work in so many ways – as psychology, as music, as a collection of images, as a promise to the audience that has to satisfy them and surprise them at the same time. What I love seeing in the cinema is a good story, well told, and that’s what I hope audiences will get from “Skeletons,” as well as some hearty laughter and access to a strange, parallel Universe that we took great pleasure in creating.
Whitfield’s influences from film and theater…
My taste in films is quite eclectic, I guess. Favourites include “Unforgiven,” “Bleu,” “In Bruges,” “Festen,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Time of the Gypsies,” and I was recently blown away by Un Prophète – all very strong stories set in distinctive worlds. Looking at that list I wonder if there’s a thematic link as well. They all deal with people who are outside mainstream society – by choice or not. This is also a theme that comes up repeatedly in my work. The plays of Pinter and Beckett are also part of my DNA, and when I look at “Skeletons” now, I see as much of Philippe Gaulier’s world of social outcasts, holy fools and rejects as anything else.
Whitfield on his next projects…
I’m currently working on a story about men coming home at the end of World War One. It will be another emotional comedy. I will be working with many of the same people who made “Skeletons” with me, and I can’t wait.