An Interview with Lydia Esler – By Michael Smith

Lydia Esler the writer/director of LOL has been directing commercials and promos for seven years and LOL is the first time she taken on this dual mantle for a short feature. It’s definitely paid off, as her short film has been accepted to Cannes and by the time this interview appears she’ll have been there, with her creation, and back. She has graciously accepted our offer of an interview and we’re glad she did. We were very impressed by LOL and reviewer Michael Smith talks to Lydia today.

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Hi Lydia! Thanks for agreeing to talk to us! I promise that this will be as painless as possible

1. So, you’re off to Cannes! How exciting is that?

I was very excited to go to Cannes this year with my film. It was the first time I had been to the International Film Festival there. It is really spectacular. It has the most amazing vibe and going as a delegate is really the only way you can gain access to premieres, Le Palais (home to the Short Film Corner and the red carpet premieres), industry bods and networking opportunities. It is a bit like going to Las Vegas though. An adrenaline hit, good parties and to survive…you have to leave!

2. Can you tell us what category LOL will be featured in?

LOL is at Cannes Court Métrage. This means that it is in the bidding for industry professionals and distributers to watch and buy the films for broadcast or other International festivals and markets. It is also a great opportunity for filmmakers like me to witness prestigious speakers, and access themed conferences. Cannes Short Film Corner is designed to build bridges between the worlds of short and feature films.

3. How did you get into the short film business, I know that you’ve been directing commercials for a while now, what prompted the crossover?

I’ve been directing commercials for 7 years but directors are often judged on the depth of their narrative work. A self-written short has no brief, client or ceiling limits to adhere to. So supposedly it is a truer expression of your house style. And it certainly does feel very different to directing a commercial. Ironically you have to learn to be less disciplined. Let me explain. Normally, before I go on set, I will even know how long a single shot can last. With narrative fiction you let the performance lead and the story dictate it’s own pace. Perfection is in the performance, not whether the product is big enough in frame.

4. When did you know that you wanted to be a director?

I started off acting but I got quite a serious sports injury, which meant I could not be on stage anymore. So at the end of my Drama degree I discovered filmmaking. I swapped drama school for film school and never looked back. When I applied to film school there was not enough space on the director’s course so I studied cinematography, but always with an intention to direct. After a few years in the camera department at a junior level I moved into production roles and eventually got a break as a director. Cinematography has been a useful science to inform my directing, so I am glad that is how the journey began.

5. What was your first project?

I had a few ‘firsts’. My first professional job was as a runner for Vito Rocco’s feature ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ (Recommended watch. He is the director of the My Space feature ‘Faintheart’). My first ever short was one I shot on camera at film school for my now DoP ironically – role reversal! My first directing job was a commercial for Sleepmasters. It was mainly a graphical job. And LOL is my first film I have written and directed.

6. What gave you the motivation to write and direct your first film?

It took me ages to pen my first film. I had had some experience writing for theatre or in collaboration. But not solo. I knew the film had to reflect me as a filmmaker. I had looked for scripts and writers for a couple of years, but did not find a theme that I really engaged with. They say write about what you know. I didn’t know what I did know, or perhaps whether what I knew had any interest for an audience.

7. Where did the idea of LOL come from?

Facebook of all places. I had a Uni lecturer who posted on his Facebook status. “Hotel Lobby. Another liminal space”. I had no idea what it meant, and when I looked it up (‘Where boundaries dissolve, and you stand there, on the threshold between what you were and what you are about to become”) I thought – That’s my life! Always wanting to get onto the next thing thinking the grass is greener on the other side. Sometimes you realise grass is just grass. It doesn’t stop me looking over the fence though. After finding the seed I had to dig deep to find my voice. It can be exposing. At first I worried about how it would would reflect on me as a person, but soon realised that unless you get your idea out there it can’t improve, so no point in being precious.

8. I’ve seen the film and loved it, how did you find the little girl? Was it difficult to get her to do what you needed?

Nicole Paphitis is unique. I did a casting call with kids from several agencies. I wanted a girl who could speak Italian, look Italian, act with maturity, understand the subtlety of the story, carry the show, deal with the hours, night shoots, freezing cold exteriors and stand on top of a van. It was a big ask and a couple of the scenes are quite daunting for the character, so trying to persuade an 8 year old’s parents that they will be protected is the first hurdle. The girls auditioning were between 7 and 9. In the casting suite the girls had to enact two scenes with props. At that age actresses are most used to dancing, ballet and singing. They are not used to screen acting and some had never even attended a casting. Nicole proved that she was capable of ‘feeling’ rather than just ‘showing’ emotion and this was key.
I was very lucky because Nicole just got it. She understood the story and brought life to the script in a very real way. I tried to be quite singular in my approach to the action, and not complicate the direction with any inference that the audience would later bring to the narrative. So I focused on what LOL would practically do and feel at that moment, not what the scene implied. I am aware meaning is drawn from social references and expectations of the audience, which were deliberately not inherent in the physical shooting of the scenes. But this can be and was injected in the way the story was cut together.

9. What other things have you done besides the commercials and LOL?

I am always trying to fit in my own projects between commercials, which have involved music promos amongst other projects. Before I was directing, I was an assistant director in drama, and have worked on some UK TV dramas that are on TV now.

10. Are you planning to do more films as a writer/director?

I equate a high production, lo-no budget film to childbirth. It nearly kills you, you wait just long enough to forget the pain and then you do it all over again. So I dare say so! However I didn’t make LOL to sit on the shelf or begin a catalogue of shorts with no audience, so now that it is made I need to get it out there, to give it a shot on the festival circuit. Then I will set about the next one. In the meantime I quite fancy making a micro short though.

11. What’s your next project?

I am working on a few commercials, which are taking me out of the country at the moment. I have a few ideas brewing with some friends too involving cars (one of my other passions) and virals.

12. Where do you see your career going?

I love the current genre I work in which is commercials and promos, but as a director you can be boxed, so it would be nice to expand my repertoire in the narrative genre. I feel like there is an expectation on directors to prove their worth by always seeking out some lo-no feature project, as though without one on the boil you have no artistic merit. I loved making LOL, I love my work as a director and I hope that LOL can lead to other quality drama projects. I could only direct a piece of cinema I identify with and I don’t have any plans currently to make a feature, which is a massive undertaking, but if the right story was around the corner I would welcome it with open arms.

13.At the moment you’re based in London. Do you see yourself changing that anytime soon?
I am from the South of England but spent 11 years in the North. So moving to London 3 years ago was coming home. I heart London. It is the epi-centre of so many things, particularly my industry and British cinema. Whilst I am in the UK I will participate in the rat race, because I love it. But if I want to change that I would like to live somewhere with a slightly more balanced attitude.

14. LOL looked fantastic. What did you shoot it on?

I shot on Red with old Japanese Kowa lenses. They brought the cinema panoramic aspect and the Red allowed me to ramp the speed for the fantasy sequencing. Anamorphics are pretty hard to get hold of on a budget but I find that if your mission is not to cut corners and you do things properly and professionally people like to help.

15. Still on LOL, I felt that the Barbie doll was used allegorically to signpost what was going to happen in the film was that your intention or was that just one of those serendipitous moments?

The metaphor of the doll is entirely intended. I am glad it doesn’t seem too obvious but it is deliberately woven into the fibres of the story from the first scene. It was the first image I had when I started writing the story and it is the first image in the film. That part is a coincidence.

Thank you Lydia for chatting with us and we hope everything goes well for you and LOL in Cannes. You’ve said that you’ll let us know how it turns out and we wish you a great turnout and response to your film. I’ll definitely be looking out for Faintheart and I’m quite pleased that I now know what liminal means.

For anyone who wants to learn more about the film or Lydia check out the Facebook page here.