Sara Dunlop reflects on her new Cannes Film Festival-selected short film.
If you work in advertising you’ve probably experienced the sudden drop in interest from non-advertising friends when you tell them you’re going to Cannes but not for the film festival. Cannes Lions doesn’t interest normal people. The Cannes Film Festival is a mysterious glamorous world.
Rattling Stick director Sara Dunlop has been going to Cannes with her advertising hat on for years, but this year she was honoured to have her new short film, Dreamlands, selected for the more famous festival on the French Riviera.
An exploration of teenage sexuality in a dead-end British seaside town, the film has put Sara’s name on the lips of people in the more arty corners of the film industry, as well as the commercial end. We asked her how she felt about this shift.
The Beak Street Bugle: You’ve been to Cannes Lions plenty of times, how did your first Cannes Film Festival compare?
Sara Dunlop: First off, you’re in that Palais building. I’ve never been in there before. It’s a labyrinth of rooms for tickets and press and conferences. It’s a lot more serious. I had to actually do meetings. As a director in the advertising Cannes, I’m there to chat and hang out, but it’s less about formal meetings, press interviews and conferences, sales agents, producers, agents. You drink rosé in the evening and then the next day you’ve got to be up at 9:30.
Being in competition allows you to be around a more international crowd. Obviously Cannes Lions is international but I find that the British end up together all the time, with maybe a few Americans. But the film competition really feels global. The other nine films were Iranian, Swedish, Spanish, Colombian, Brazilian. So you really get to see, in a short space of time, what the preoccupations are in their worlds. There was a famous Tunisian director who made a short in the competition and he told me “if I made your film I’d probably get banged up.” I realised I’ve got a film talking about British teenagers’ sexuality, which is actually pretty out there for other nationalities.
Also, you go to parties and there are stars there. I went to a party and Diana Ross turned up. You see people like Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe on the red carpet. So that’s another glamorous element of it. Then you get all the whacky types just dressed up wanting to get their picture taken outside the Palais.
I enjoyed it because I felt a bit more part of it. I was there for a reason and was being looked after by the organisers of the actual festival. And the talk is continuously about film, 24/7, which I enjoy.
BSB: Where did the idea for Dreamlands first come from?
Sara: The starting point was a bit of a flippant idea I had for a music video. I like narrative music videos. These days when I put a music video down it’s like a one-line idea: ‘dogging with sexy people.’
They didn’t go for that for lots of reasons. I think there was an article the next day about porn on the internet and how that’s affecting young guys and I was also hearing from friends about cyberbullying and social media and we were just trying to imagine being a teenager now with Instagram and Facebook. The carpark in the film is a place where everyone wants everyone to see what they’re doing. And somehow that was a metaphor for me about how you behave on social media – ‘look at who I am, what I’m doing, look at how cool I am, look at who my friends are.’
I don’t want to moralise and it’s not saying it’s wrong. It’s about making a choice. That’s what I like about [the film’s protagonist] Pixie’s character. She can talk like the boys. She likes sex. She’s not a victim. You can see she’s in control.
It’s also about female sexuality, which isn’t allowed to be explored like male sexuality. I thought about one basic thing, which is girls have sex with lots of guys are called slags; guys have sex with lots of girls and they’re studs.
BSB: The film’s tone is somewhere between grim social realism and a more cinematic style. What were your thoughts on that?
Sara: I want all the stories I tell to be grounded in the reality of what they’re about but at the same time I love cinema that is cinematic. So the world of the story that you’re trying to tell is slightly heightened. That makes it more exciting to me as a piece of film. I love those 80s teen films, so I wanted to put a British slant on that and say we can do other genres. We can make things look a different way. We do British Social Realism so well, Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach, who are two of the best directors ever, both had films in Cannes this year. I wouldn’t want to try and do what they do. That’s very particular to them. They do it so well. I want to try and find some other space.
Going back to commercials, creatives and advertisers are actually sometimes more creative in the way we create worlds. I recently shot a commercial for KFC and it’s British, but it has a heightened look. We could have set it on Peckham High Street where there’s a KFC, but it’s more magical than reality. And you get to do that in commercials a lot more than you see in British films. We do it brilliantly in advertising, so it’s just trying to take a bit of that and use it.
It doesn’t really matter where it’s set. It’s about picking up a bucket on the way home. You want to get home and get some chicken. There’s a guy slightly floating and the mural comes to life. It’s magical realism in a commercial. To try to get film funders to allow you to do a film where it’s magical is hard work. So it’s great. We’ve done a lot of reality recently so I think it’s quite nice to get back to having fun. Dreamlands and this commercial are so poles apart and yet for me the scripts both had something that was heightened, that wasn’t just a mirror to what you see. There’s an authentic feel-good aspect to that. It’s got a universal humanity.
BSB: Now that you’ve been recognised for your work in short film, how do you feel about your commercials career?
Sara: My main world has always been commercials and that is to me a very particular skill and style. It keeps you on set and keeps you practicing and using your filmmaking skills. If I only shot something every few years, like some long-form directors, I’d find that really frustrating. I love being on set, shooting. Advertising allows you to shoot and art direct and costume and cast and find music and do all the fun things in a short space of time.
I’ve spent so long trying to be really good at commercials, studying and trying to get better scripts, trying to do work that I feel really inspired to do. I can’t let that go. It’s been a progression over years because I want to be doing the big work. When I see good ads I’m jealous and I want to be doing them.
BSB: How did your commercials background feed into the making of Dreamlands?
Sara: All the crew and all the post production, casting directors, pretty much everyone, were all from advertising. And they were people who love film, but I know through advertising. I feel more comfortable with people that I know really well, that know me, that know what I like. The only person that wasn’t was the 1st AD, who came from more of a drama background. I thought that would be useful, as I hadn’t done much drama, to work a different way in terms of scheduling it. You’re doing four minutes of screen time a day, whereas your average 60-second commercial would be a three-day shoot.
If I got the chance to do a feature film I’d try and use all the same people. It’s all about people and you’re only as good as who you surround yourself with as a director. If you already like working with those people then why change it?