Interview with Ralph Martin Fleischer
By: Darida Rose
We had an opportunity to catch up with Ralph Martin Fleischer, who wrote and directed Driftwood. This is a poignant short with great acting, great cinematography and a theme that should resonate with many young people today. Fleischer also wrote the short Memories of a Lake. Thank you for sitting down with us.
Darida Rose, Phoenix Journal (PJ): Barry's situation is becoming all too familiar to young people. Why do you think that is?
Ralph Martin Fleischer (MF): Well, at the time of writing the script, I wasn't really aware of the extent to which this was a problem for young people. Initially, I thought it affected mostly those pursuing a career in the creative field.
But putting together a production team from scratch, I posted adverts and was inundated with applications from young people from all sorts of backgrounds in need of work experience. Suddenly, I realised that the situation that Barry and Ian find themselves in was quite common.
I believe there are several reasons behind this problematic situation. But they are all interwoven and thus create a social and psychological web of causes too complex to delve deeper into here.
In general, though, and among other aspects, it concerns stagnation of social mobility, which in turn is partly linked to widespread nepotism among the social elite and the affluent stratum of the middle class, and the infantilisation and warping of the mind by the special interest groups and corporations involved in consumerism economics.
(PJ): What was the inspiration for this film?
(MF): It was simply my own situation as an aspiring actor and living in a flat-share in north London that I wrote about. However, although Barry's situation is similar to what mine was, the character is not entirely based on me. His deep frustration and anger, for example, was actually inspired by a trained barrister that I got to know when working as an English teacher at a summer camp in Eastbourne, and who found it hard to find a proper job. But since basically all my friends in the creative field found themselves in a similar situation, I have also taken inspiration for the characters from them.
(PJ): Do you have plans for a feature?
(MF): Yes, I do. The screenplay is completed, with only some minor changes to be made remaining. It is a story very different from that of Driftwood, though it will still be a film in the art-house genre. It follows a young, newly appointed detective sergeant on his hunt for a child killer. It has three different storylines that interact to form a whole. On the surface, it is a kind of detective story, but at the same time, it is unsettling and delves into and explores the human psyche. What moved me to write the screenplay was reading about the killing of toddler James Bulger by two young boys in Liverpool in 1993, and what followed. Important themes are the voices of the dead and the protection of children by adults, or the lack thereof.
I am aiming to begin shooting at the end of this year, but it depends on the developments of the pandemic of Covid-19, as well as on whether I can get the financial backing needed.
(PJ): Can you talk a bit about Ian, the roommate, as a character? He seems to be Barry's conscience.
(MF): Ian is based on a real person by the same name, a witty film director from Brixton. Initially in the story, Ian was a born and bred Londoner whose irony undermines the seriousness with which Barry takes himself.
But I wasn't really happy with the relationship between the two characters and when Jeremiah (Ian) came along, the possibility of reshaping the story opened up. With Barry from Lancashire and Ian from a different country altogether, their different ways of dealing with the struggles of big city life shows Barry's refusal to take responsibility in much starker relief, as they have even more in common, though from widely different backgrounds.
Deeply moved by the news of the death of Barry's father, Ian's reaction clearly shows that he knows what loss really means on a human level. It may be that he comes from a country where saw family members being killed or executed. We don't know. It is left to the viewer to create the kind of experiences that makes Ian react the way he does. At the heart of his character is the understanding that life does not follow a given template of personal success.
(PJ): I was very impressed with the cinematography. Can you speak a bit about how you managed to keep a fairly simple location looking fresh and interesting?
(MF): Ariel, the cinematographer, and I worked very closely in preparation forthe shoot. The ideas I had drew inspiration from classical Japanese films by Ozu and Mizoguchi. As Ariel is both an accomplished cinematographer and an artist, he was able to understand my vision and turn it into filmic reality. From the very start, the house where the characters lived had to be bleak, reflecting Barry's inner world. As you will notice, the interiors lack warmth, look plastic, temporary like a hotel. It is a house and a world which Barry has been forced to live in by market liberal economics. In order to avoid making Driftwood visually dull, we decided to use a few props in the background, such as the symbolic painting on the wall in Barry's room, and to use as much space within the house as possible with different camera set-ups. As I was determined to avoid any emotional indulgence, we used close-ups sparingly (and no music with violins) and kept the camera back. This opened for the characters in shot to act within the context of the house to let their actions speak for their feelings.
(PJ): It seemed to me that Barry's mother didn't have a negative opinion of her son's situation. But with a title like driftwood, it seems like you're saying that Barry is aimless and drifting. Are we supposed to sympathize with Barry, or think that he's just lazy and angry for no good reason?
(MF): Does any mother have a negative opinion of her son? Possibly, but I have never heard of one. If anything, the opposite is true. I know of mothers who despite overwhelming evidence refuse to believe that their son is a criminal. This shows denial can be a strong factor in a
mother's love for her son.
That is not the case in Driftwood. Barry's mother undoubtedly loves him very much, but she stands up to him when he accuses his father of mistreating him. However, she is trying to establish a connection with her son, but he won't let her. He is too ashamed of himself.
No doubt, Barry was once a young man who came to London full of energy and hope for the future, naïvely believing that his talent and hard work would suffice to 'make it'. Gradually he came to realise that the world doesn't operate that way, and that it doesn't accommodate just for anyone, without money or connections. He refuses to admit defeat or to change course and as his frustrations grow, he constantly deflects responsibility by blaming others. This has become even more common now than it was when I wrote the script.
In his heart of hearts, Barry is not a bad person, but one who has become trapped in his own dreams and who can't find a way out without turning into a loser. Ironically, the death of his father offers an opportunity to do just that, though Barry doesn't see that initially. It isn't until Ian throws the truth in his face how some children truly suffers in terms of parental violence, that Barry takes responsibility for his own life and reconciles with his father in the final scene.
(PJ): The production values are quite high. Can you speak about the filming process? How long did it take?
(MF): We were on an extremely tight budget for the kind of film I had in mind. But during our talks in preparation for the shoot, Ariel and I discussed what the various kits as regards lights and camera lenses would mean not only for the actual filming, but also for the post-production process. As I didn't want to compromise on the filmic quality (that's just who I am), I made sure we got the best but minimum amount of what was required to achieve that, even if it meant going over budget (which we did).
We shot in a rented house in north London over three days. We used as much as possible of the interior, the various rooms, the hallway, the stairs, the bathroom, as well the back garden. We had 25 pages to cover so it was an intense process, though there was never any kind of stress among us.
Though Ben, the 1st AD, would occasionally look worried and throw a glance at his watch when he saw I was about to ask for another retake.
But the fact is that we would never have managed to get so much done in such short time if the team, and I mean everyone involved, had not been so professional. I was very lucky to find such an outstanding team to work with.
(PJ): Barry gets very annoyed at the radio broadcast about the rights of trans people and complains about the ills of society. Is that just an excuse that covers up his own feelings of inadequacy?
(MF): In short, yes, but I would not use the word inadequacy in Barry's case. He feels trapped, but ironically what keeps him trapped is his fight to keep reality at bay. It is the tortuous feeling of being a failure in his own eyes, but possibly also in those of his father, that sits right at the heart of his behaviour.
I would like to clear up any misunderstandings that might arise regarding the radio dialogue that Barry works himself up over. It was actually a real discussion taken from one of the BBCs morning shows where a student representative and a journalist debated the issue that many universities in the UK were barring certain people from appearing on campus to speak to the students. What the student rep is claiming on behalf of LBTQ people is the right of students to bar anyone from appearing at their university on grounds of spreading hate.
The rights in question are not any legal rights, but rights that the student union claims to have in order to protect themselves from what they consider to be hate speech.
(PJ): In one of the opening shots, we see Barry sitting on his bed and the light is quite diffuse. Could you tell us why?
(MF): To be honest, it was a late decision. We realised that the shot wouldn't say anything as it was. It was just Barry in bed, sleeping. We thought of it as a missed opportunity to show something about this guy when his guard is down, before he wakes up and the guard comes up again. And we didn't want to move or change position of the camera, using cutaways of the guitar or painting or whatever.
So, we created a kind of hazy layer around him filling two symbolic purposes. First, as a protective shield, making it difficult for the light from the window to reach him. Second, it acts as a manifestation of his muddled state of mind, dazed as he is after being knocked down by big city life.