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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Cashback” Director Sean Ellis

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Cashback" Director Sean Ellis

British director Sean Ellis‘ “Cashback” revolves around Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) who takes a job working the nightshift at a local market to pass the hours away after developing insomnia following the break up with his girlfriend. There he meets a colorful cast of characters, all of whom have their own ‘art’ in dealing with the boredom of an eight-hour-shift. Ben’s art is that he imagines himself stopping time so he can appreciate the artistic beauty of the frozen world and the people inside it–especially Sharon (Emilia Fox), the quiet checkout girl, who perhaps holds the answer to solving Ben’s insomnia. Ellis’ short “Cashback” received an Oscar nomination (shared with Lene Bausager) in 2006. The feature version went on to win awards at the Bermuda and San Sebastian Film Festivals. Magnolia Pictures will open the film in limited release beginning Friday, July 20.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I always felt I was artistic but couldn’t draw. When I was 12 my dad showed me how to work a stills camera. The penny dropped and I realized that I could put the images that were in my head onto paper by using the camera. At the same time, I was very obsessed by cinema. During the ’80s, video rental was huge and I rented two movies a day, and my interest in photography and movies grew side by side. I started to make a living from photography and become known for my fashion images. Around this time I had the chance to actually makes my still images move and embarked on a series of video clips for bands that appreciated my fashion work. Commercials followed, but since I loved films, I was very eager to start working with story structure and actors, and so I then started to write and direct short films.

Are there still other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

I really think that the best job is directing. You get to do everything and you are surrounding yourself with the best talent for the jobs in hand. You learn so much by working with people that know more than yourself. Having said that, I’ve always had a desire to be a stuntman and like Barry in “Cashback,” I used to launch myself down steps in a cardboard box when I was a kid.

Please give some insight on how the idea for “Cashback” came about.

The idea came from being in a supermarket late one night. I had just finished a photo shoot where I ran out of time and didn’t get all the shots that I wanted to get. In the supermarket, I saw a shelf stacker and it reminded me of the boring jobs I used to have. I thought it was funny that in the past I thought there were too many hours in a day and now I thought that weren’t enough. The basic idea of a character who manipulates time was born at that moment.

Sean Biggerstaff in a scene from Sean Ellis’ “Cashback.” Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film and your overall goals for the project.

I made the film the sort of film that I thought I myself might enjoy watching. My only goal was that it be a sweet little film that might talk to the people that think or feel the same as the lead character.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing “Cashback?”

The biggest problem was the fact that the feature film version was to include the 18 minute short of the same name. The response that the short film got from the film festivals prompted me to expand it for a wider audience to see, [so] we were going to go back two years later and add 70 minutes to an 18 minute short!

The main problem was getting the same cast back to revive their roles. The only time they were all available though was in seven weeks time from the moment we decided to expand it, and they weren’t available again for a year so it was going to be in [that time period] or probably never. At this time, I hadn’t written the feature length script. I knuckled down to 10 pages a day, and a week later we were all sitting around a table reading the script and laughing. That done, the next hardest thing was to try and raise the money in six weeks!

And how did the financing come together?

It was from private investors. And at the time of shooting we only had enough for principle photography which meant everything would grind to halt after the shoot. Luckily we found some more investors while shooting, so we were able to go to editing after principle wrapped.

Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

There has been many influences to my work. David Lean, John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and John Schlesinger to name a fraction!

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

All genres interest me…well maybe not musicals and definitely not comedy horrors…

What is your next project?

I have just finished filming a psychological thriller/horror called “The Broken,” staring Lena Headey, Richard Jenkins and Ulrich Thomsen.

What general advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?

Beg, borrow but don’t steal… You’ll get there if your determination is greater than the things that can hold you back…

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

Being nominated for an Oscar was a proud moment but it’s all about being able to make films. And being in a position to be able to make a film is a real achievement.

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