The Tim Fywell Conversation

25 March 2021

Tim, your new short film, Night And Day, is the story of two sisters, one a doctor, and one an actress, living in London during the first lockdown period in April 2020, and how they both deal with mental stress in very different ways. How did your character outlines evolve, and were any of the characters or events based upon real life stories?

Yes, of the two sisters in the film, one is a doctor working on the frontline for the NHS, and that character stemmed from an interview that I saw on Channel 4 News as I recall, of a female junior doctor in her early to mid-30s being interviewed early on in the pandemic, probably the end of April which is the time that the film is set. It was the inspiration for it. And this was somebody who was filmed having come off a long 12 or 13 hour shift, fairly traumatised by what she’d gone through, and it was very very striking to see somebody talking in a very raw and immediate and honest way about the situation and some of the difficulties and dangers the doctors were facing. Not just the trauma of seeing what was happening to the patients, but also some of the trauma that they were suffering, and worries about lack of PPE or the right PPE. Later I was reading – and this was born out of research I did with people for the film – that NHS staff were being warned against talking to the press so that was the kind of germ of that idea.

The other sister actually came from a friend of mine. In the film I make her an out of work actress, in the sense that we are at the end of April and all the theatres are closed and she’s probably a theatre actress rather than a film or TV actress. She trained at RADA ten years ago, she’s doing ok, she’s not a star. All the venues where she would normally work, everything is shut. But I based that character on a friend of mine who is not an actress but who works in TV and film. She lives with her boyfriend, and they live in a one bedroom flat, and he works on the Covid wards. And I happened to say something like: are you managing to keep separate and safe, and she told me it was quite hard in a one bedroom flat. And she also told me that she had virtually not been out of the house since the lockdown started, and that she was quite fearful, and it sparked something in my head. That was one of the first stories I wrote. There was something very striking about that, and then obviously I invented the rest. Those were the starting points.

During your research, were you able to speak directly to frontline medical staff and healthcare workers to gain a better sense of the extreme challenges they were facing?

I connected with them because one of our Executive Producers, Eddie Charlton, who I had met on the Netflix show, The English Game, which he actually instigated. We got to know each other very well on that show which I loved doing. He came onboard as one of our two Executive Producers, and he mentioned that his daughter, Emma, whose a lawyer, knew a lot of medics quite well; a lot of her best friends were medics as it happened. She put us in touch with three medics and I talked for quite a long time to each of them. I had already written the film at this point so it wasn’t particularly that I changed the script very much having talked to them, but it in a way it corroborated a lot of my instincts. I had read a lot about it anyway and watched a lot of TV news and documentaries. Having their additional little details helped. It was important for me for example that in terms of the film, that the actors were not wearing masks and so I would text the doctors and ask things such as: in a hospital at the end of April 2020, if you were talking to your manager, not on a ward, but in a corridor, would you be wearing a mask, and they would say no, they wore them on the Covid wards. So those details were incredibly important. I wanted to make sure that they were right, and so they were helpful. I would ask them things like what sort of sounds would you hear in a ITU ward. This is almost a period film; its set in April 2020, it’s very relevant to the second wave of coronavirus but it’s very much also of its period.

© Night And Day

As people around the world continue to live and navigate their way through this extraordinary period in history, the subject matters of Night And Day will have emotional resonance for everyone who sees the film. What messages do you hope audiences will take from it?

I think it’s quite hard with a fictional film to say what message you want it to convey because I think one of the powers of film is that’s it’s not too obvious in its message and in a way, I love it that films are open to interpretation and everybody who watches them will hopefully take something else from it. But having said that, I think what I was trying to do, was humanise the mental health struggles that we are all facing, that we have all faced through this pandemic. In this case, that of a doctor who is working on the frontline. Doctors are struggling hugely themselves; they’re dealing with very sick patients and the research is coming out more and more about the PTSD that the doctors are going through and their need for counselling and help in this crisis. They’re not supermen or superwomen; they’re not super human, they’re very human.

I think when you look at the character of the younger sister, the actress, she feels almost guilty that she’s feeling a lot of mental stress when her sister and her boyfriend, are both doing very noble jobs. She’s feeling like I ought not to be feeling these things, and I think what I am trying to say, if there is a message, it’s that we all feel these things and it’s ok to feel them, and we are all going through them. And we all have to look after those issues in ourselves and in each other. That’s it’s alright to feel these things and it’s natural to feel these things. I think lots of people will probably eventually write about this period of time; it’s such a momentous period in our history and in all our lives. Not having been through the war, there’s been nothing to compare with this really, globally and personally. So I would very much wanted to record the moment in time in some way and I think a lot of people will. I suppose my angle was just to look at very specific human vignettes during this period rather than trying to do a big political statement about it. You could write about the government and the way they, in my opinion, haven’t done a great job. You just have to look at the statistics for this country compared to a lot of other countries: New Zealand, Australia, South Korea. I mean we have been very very slow to react. It touches upon politics but I wanted to humanise and to get up close and personal with some stories.

Mental health is an important component of Night And Day, and in fact you are planning to donate a portion of profits from the film to various mental health charities. As an artist, have you found it increasingly difficult to create during this time, or has the creativity acted as a kind of therapy for you regarding your own mental health?

As soon as we went into lockdown on March 23rd 2020, I thought right ok, I’m predominantly a director, I have written a bit before but I didn’t think it was going to be a short lockdown, I thought it was going to be months and months. So I literally went out and bought loads of fiction books to read, and I bought loads of notebooks. I thought well since I can’t direct for the moment, I’m going to write, and then I just found myself writing short stories. Before I had written a couple of film scripts which progressed quite far so I just found myself writing short stories. One of the first as I say was this story, that this film is based on. And in a funny way, it clearly was very much therapy for me. I’m a creative artist if you like, a creative person. I have to be creative. I go crazy if I don’t create on any particular day. I’m now getting better; I usually can give myself one day off per week, but the rest of the time, whatever else I’m doing, if I’m not directing a film or TV, I have to write. Even if it’s an hour or two hours per day. It became the thing I did every day. I’d maybe go for a walk, and then I’d spend the morning writing then the rest of the day was sort of alright.

I actually found it a very fertile creative time bizarrely. I imagined quite a few people did. I had always written before but now I was really focusing, and if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have carried on and have done another TV job, and I love the TV jobs that I do but in a way, everybody’s had to reassess their whole lives and their working lives because of this and like everybody else, I did. And it sort of takes you back to basics in a way, and for me, writing stories which then eventually, one of them became the basis for this short film. I mean I would never have done that without the pandemic. I wouldn’t have had the time or the energy or the commitment. I don’t want it to go on forever, as I would love to get back to some kind of normal as we all would. I want to be directing bigger things again but at the same time, it’s been totally invaluable and you sort of get back to the basics of what you are trying to say, what you are trying to create, writing your own material and taking charge of your own material which is a terribly powerful thing.

This will be your first film with a screenwriting credit, what do you enjoy most about screenwriting and do you have a particular writing process? Is your plan to continue writing as well as directing in the future?

I tend to write in the morning, I’m better in the morning. My work ethic is the same as when I’m directing. At the end of the day, in the old days when you were filming somewhere outside London let’s say and you and the actors were all in a hotel and everyone rushes to the bar. Well I don’t, I prep for the next day, then I can go and have a drink. That’s my work ethic. So I am the same now, and I think everyone has to create a structure during this weird time. My structure is to write in the morning, not necessarily all morning. I can write pretty quickly. I think about it a lot during the day, and then I write maybe for one or two hours, but then once I’ve done that, I feel freer to do other things.

As Night And Day is a crowdfunded short film with a low budget, how has the experience differed from your larger projects such as directing Netflix’s The English Game or a typical Hollywood feature with huge sets and budgets?

I thought it would be some little thing that wouldn’t take up that much time and that we would do it on a shoestring with a very small group of people. All that is true but I had no idea about the amount of work; I have probably been working on this for about six months for what will be a 18 minute or so film. The difference is, you sort of co-produce it as the writer/director with Kelly, the producer and Glenda, the co-producer who did a fantastic job. But basically it’s different because you don’t have the staff  and the back up that you would normally have. Even on the level of looking for locations, you have a location scout, you have somebody to pick you  up in a car and take you to see the locations. It was nothing like that; you go out yourself and you look. Luckily we found the locations fairly easily but its just everything; you’re kind of doing it yourselves, and so it takes a lot of time. But at the same time, that’s kind of liberating; you’re learning all the time about producing, about how to put something together. I have been learning about post-production, talking to the editor. Normally there’s all these people like the post-production supervisor who deal with all that. I had no idea what half the terms were that I had heard bandied around like conforming the film; I didn’t know what that term meant, now I do.

© The English Game, Netflix

But the other thing that’s kind of positive apart from all the work, is it makes you reach out to people, and be quite open with people and say look this is what I’m doing. You know I always thought that it was people straight out of film school that make short films which in general it is, but on the other hand why shouldn’t somebody like me do it. It’s the first thing that I’ve directed that I have written myself so it is something completely new. So if you stop being self-conscious about it, you are reaching out to people, and you’re asking for favours, and some people say yes, and some people say no. You find out who your friends are very quickly! It is a lovely job in a way because you’re doing it with very few people, you are giving a lot more responsibility to other people, and you’re listening a lot more to what they can offer and that was great for me. Although it’s a short film, its quite a complicated film to get right. There are lots of different layers and levels to it so we actually probably had as long to edit it into an 18 minute film as you would a 50 minute episode for TV. We gave ourselves that time and that was great. The shoot was two and a half days which is nothing but there was a lot of prep time on this film.

© The Ice Princess, Disney Enterprises

It’s astonishing to think that you managed to shoot the film in London just as the city was about to progress from Tier 3 to Tier 4 lockdown restrictions. How did you deal with the pressure of this race against the clock scenario combined with the already adverse conditions of Covid, and the extra safety measures that needed to be arranged to ensure a safe shoot?

That was a challenge but in a way because the film is about this time – ok we shot in December and it’s set the end of April – but it was about the middle of this crisis so it felt appropriate to do it then rather than wait. I mean there were a lot of challenges that were different and things that I have never had to do before. In the way that we have got used to Zoom, I auditioned if you like the actors that I didn’t know. I knew Kelly, the producer and also one of the stars of the film. I didn’t know the other actors. I met them on FaceTime or Zoom, and I didn’t audition them as such but I talked to them to see if they had the right energy. I then rehearsed with them on Zoom which I’ve never ever done before but that was interesting. I edited the film entirely on Zoom, so the editor, Jeanna Mortimer, and I have never met face-to-face in a room.

On the set on the day, I felt like I knew the other three actors but that was the first time I’d met them in the flesh. Only one of the four had I met in person before so that was very strange but it’s amazing what you can do. You adapt and you do it. And obviously on the day things take a bit longer because you are being as safe as you possibly can, you have Covid tests before the filming starts. We lost a First AD the night before who tested positive for Covid so obviously, thank god she had a test, otherwise she would have brought it to the set. All the things we normally do about sanitising our hands and just being careful. It creates certain problems and the fact that you have a much smaller crew. Well we could only afford a much smaller crew who we paid very little money to. But in another way, that was part of the whole safety protocol. In a way it made it a simpler, more intense thing. If somebody sees the film in a few years time, I don’t think they’re going to think oh that was made with a tiny crew. But it was interesting to have to do that. It was just different. But then the world is totally different so why won’t filming be different. Everything is different.

How did you cast the two actresses, Kelly Price (The English Game) and Claudia Jessie (Bridgerton) who play the sisters in the film?

Kelly, I knew anyway from The English Game and she was terrific in that and we got on very well. She asked me to take part in a Zoom workshop she was doing with actors, and I enjoyed doing that, and I was impressed with her organisational skills. When I actually thought about making one of these short stories into a film, I hadn’t written the script at that point and I just said to her why don’t you produce it? She said well I’m not a producer and I said no, but you could, and she said I’m an actress, I want to be in it. At that stage, the film was very much centred on the other character, the actress, and I instinctively knew that Kelly wasn’t right for that part, and I said but there’s the older sister who I want to put in the film, and you would be great for that part so that’s how I cast her.

© Night And Day, Kelly Price

And then we looked around for a girl to play the younger sister and Kelly’s co-producer, Glenda Mariani, who works in casting and was clearly going to be the Casting Director for the film, came up with a list of that kind of age, late 20s, early 30s with their showreels. So we went though them all and a few of them stood out, including Claudia. And in the end I picked two actresses, Claudia and one other, both very interesting. I had FaceTime chats with each of them for about an hour and Claudia was passionate about the script; she just seemed to have the right energy for the part. And now one realises that she is in a huge hit, Bridgerton, the most successful show that Netflix has ever done watched by 82M households around the world! Claudia was one of the main characters in that and she was just perfect. And also I knew that she and Kelly would work as sisters although they have different hair colour, they look similar enough to be believable as sisters and they had very different energy at the same time so it came about in a very natural way.

© Night And Day, Claudia Jessie

There is predominantly a female team of filmmakers working on Night And Day, including a female Director of Photography, Editor, Composer, Producer, Executive Producer, Casting Director, Designer and Production Assistant. Was this a conscious decision on your part and that of your producer, Kelly Price, to provide opportunities for women filmmakers?

Initially it came almost organically and instincitively as Kelly was producing it, Glenda was going to be casting it, Helen was the original editor who I have edited with before, but Helen was unavailable so we got Jeanna who is a fantastic editor. Somebody suggested a DOP who I have only done one short film with before, Mike Spragg, but he lives in Hungary now, and he suggested Laura Dinnett who was a kind of protege of his. So suddenly we became aware that a lot of the HOD’s were women and that was great, and then it became a conscious decision so it maybe it wasn’t conscious right at the beginning but as we began to see this pattern, we made it a very conscious decision, so not everyone involved with it is a woman but by and large it is and that felt absolutely right. It was giving women, but also giving ‘newish’ people to the industy so the editor for example, Jeanna, he has done a lot of assisting on big films, and she had edited some shorts but she is up and coming. Laura the cinematographer, she has been a focus puller for years but now has made shorts as a DOP and as a cinematographer on one feature and so she is very up and coming. And so it was a chance to give women who have been under represented in the industry, and also just new people a chance to shine, working alongside somebody like myself who is obviously quite experienced but then in a way, it’s great for me to be challenged by new voices. I love working with different people and new people.

Sound and music play an incredibly important role in the film. How did you approach this given the heightened sense of fear and paranoia that you had to convey in the story?

One of the things I really wanted to convey – and that’s why it’s set at the end of April 2020 – was that very strange atmosphere, almost science fiction, almost post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later feeling of a world that had kind of stopped. Hardly any planes in the sky, very few cars on the road, the sound of birdsong that people hadn’t heard before. Hardly any buses or buses with one passenger, that kind of weird atmosphere. People were afraid to go out of their houses, people passing each other in the street giving each other a wide berth. When I originally wrote the short story and sent it to my agent, she said oh I really like this, it feels quite science fiction like and I said well that is the world that we’re in, I’m glad you said that because I wanted it to convey that. Hopefully sound will really add to that.

We filmed certain scenes early in the morning to try and get that feeling of streets that were empty. I mean like 5.3oam. We were in Tier 3/Tier 4 when we filmed so we had to shoot it even earlier in the morning but I just wanted to get that atmosphere. And there was a bit of traffic around and I asked the editor to take it all off the soundtrack and just replace it with silence and a little bit of birdsong which hopefully adds the richness in the final soundscape. It’s just to convey that eerie, in some ways beautiful, but quite eerie world of a pandemic where people are not going out and streets are empty, and you’re just aware that there is something in the air. The choice of a female composer, Tara Creme, somebody I knew anyway as a friend, and I had heard her music and it just seemed very appropriate to this film. There were other composers that were actually putting themselves forward, very accomplished composers, but their style was a lot more mainstream and I knew for this film, an indie short, I wanted it to be like a European film or like those American indie films that come out from time to time that are wonderful and have very interesting scores, and they tend not to be done by mainstream Hollywood composers. And I knew we had to have somebody with a very different voice, a composer that would add to that.

What is your vision for Night And Day; do you plan on taking it out on the festival circuit, and then distributing it to a wider audience?

Well I think initially, yes we’ll enter it into various film festivals and hopefully it will get into quite a few and then we will see. I just want it to get some attention, be noticed. More likely it will go on various online platforms, Amazon, iTunes etc.

As the entertainment business continues to suffer, what do you think will be the best way forward for the filmmaking industry to get back on its feet, and how do you envisage the future of the film regarding cinema and theatrical releases versus streaming?

Every time the cinemas have been open, whilst in between various lockdowns, I’ve rushed off to the cinema I have to say.  The cinemas have been pretty well deserted and seats taken out or spaced out and you wear your mask but nothing can beat that experience of being in a cinema so I hope that comes back, I’m sure it will come back in some kind of way. On the other hand, people are getting more and more used to films being streamed. A lot of the best films being made or the big films being made now are available on Netflix and are sponsored by Netflix or bought by Netflix. People are getting more and more used to that and in another way, what’s terribly exciting is that these films can now have a massive audience on Netflix. People’s TV sets are pretty big now and through lockdown you have the experience of having popcorn at home or whatever so I think people do really sit down and watch films, and I have seen a lot of the best things recently online so I think there will be a mixture of the two things.

I also think that maybe just now, the bigger films aren’t going to be made, but maybe the smaller, more intimate stories that are made slightly more cheaply will be. I love those kind of films personally; the ones that don’t rely on special effects, that don’t rely on masses of CGI. I mean yes there’s a place for those but to me that’s not where my heart is. I can watch a Marvel movie and really enjoy it as entirely escapist entertainment but normally when I switch on the TV or Netflix or whatever to watch a film, or go the cinema, it’s more the indie, intimate, human stories. And the exciting films that I’ve seen lately are things like Babyteeth, Saint Frances, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, they’re smallish films made for not a lot of money which have intimacy and human resonance and I love films like that, and I suspect more films like that will be made because they’re not just cheaper, they’re going to be slightly easier and safer to make. Of course the big films will probably come back but I think it’s quite healthy if those smaller, realer human films get made and get distribution.

Creatively, what’s next for you after Night And Day? Do you have any writing or directing projects lined up?

Not as such. My agent is looking for stuff and I need to earn some proper money soon and do another TV job or whatever. There’s a couple of things in the air, we’ll see. But meanwhile I am definitely going to carry on writing, I can’t stop now, and writing more short stories which may turn into film, or this might turn into a bigger film, which would be great if it did. But we’ll see. But definitely through the whole experience of the pandemic, writing has become incredibly important to me, as well as directing.

Watch the trailer for Night And Day here

Follow @nightanddayfilm on Instagram

For further information on Tim’s Film and TV work visit here

Images: as credited. Leading image: Our Girl, BBC Drama Productions.