The Indiependent settles down for a chat with 24-year-old Sean Lìonadh, director of the massively successful short film Time for Love, which reached millions of people online. He talks about his most recent film, reclaiming agency over his trauma through directing, and plans for his first feature length movie.
Based on Sean’s own experiences, Too Rough tells the story of Nick (Ruriadh Mollica) who wakes up after a big night out next to his boyfriend Charlie (Joshua Griffin) and must conceal him from his dysfunctional, abusive family. Funded by Shortcircuit as part of Screen Scotland and the BFI Network, the film has appeared at 22 different festivals, winning the Audience Award at the Glasgow Short Film Festival and Best International Short at Ireland’s Galway Film Fleadh.
The Indiependent: Congratulations on all the success you’ve had with it so far. I imagine the audience award at the Glasgow Short Film Festival was particularly special, since it’s your hometown?
Sean Lìonadh: Thank you. Yeah and also because it’s the audience. It’s always nice when the audience vote. I was in London at the time when I found out, and I was like “I just want to be home!”
Are you sick of seeing the film on the big screen, or is the novelty factor still there?
No, it’s nice. People ask me what it’s like to watch your film on screen, and to me it’s like being a magician and knowing all the tricks that you’re going to pull out of the bag, and waiting to see if each trick is going to land? And just listening to see if they gasp, or they laugh. But obviously it’s way more emotional than that, because it’s my life that’s on the screen. It’s always nice to see it, because I love the characters. You kind of have to love the characters when you write something. So it’s nice to see them again.
It’s obviously a very personal story for you. Do you feel a responsibility to tell the stories of your community? Or was it a natural choice to tell your own story first?
I think one can tell whatever story they like, but I guess it’s more inspired when you’ve been through it. And everything that happens in the film has happened to me at some point (even the social worker who is God-obsessed). I used to have a social worker who came to ‘fix’ our family but she took her orders from Jesus. It’s hilarious, but also Jesus gave terrible orders. She tried to out me to my dad when I was thirteen, and I was like “Jesus is giving you some bad ideas.”
I think on a personal level, I just had to do it. When you go through a traumatic experience, you’re so helpless and powerless. When I was directing one of the scenes in the film, where Nick’s dad is lying on top of him, it was like re-living it but with power. Because I was directing the story, because I was telling the story, it was like going back and not being as helpless in that situation any more. So on a personal level it’s so important.
At the same time, I’m such a harsh critic of short films. I see a lot of really important issues being dealt with poorly (without meaning to bitch about other peoples’ films). There’s no soul to it. You can tell they haven’t been through that experience perhaps. I just think you have such an opportunity to build empathy between your experience, the LGBT+ experience, and a big audience. And if you mess up, then you’ve wasted an opportunity. So I do think you have a responsibility to the audience and to the people whose stories you’re telling to build empathy.
Was Too Rough originally a longer story that you had to edit down? Or were you always imagining it to be the length that it is?
It is a short film, for sure. When you’re making a short film that’s a pitch for a feature, you can tell. I think a short film is such a particular sort of creature and you need a story that’s going to work with that format. But interestingly when I started writing it the story was flipped. It was actually about a working class boy in a middle class home, and his insecurity about suddenly being in this more ‘normal’ household, which is kind of what I experienced when my dad married into the middle class. Suddenly everything was a bit posher, and it makes you so uncomfortable at first.
There were some really interesting framing choices towards the start of the film, would you mind just talking us through the cinematography?
I really loved Ida (2013), and I became obsessed with the compositions in that. The frame will not make sense to begin with. They’ll be framing something that you don’t quite understand until the end of the shot; when the thing becomes meaningful. At the same time I wanted it to feel very real, not too composed. I think as they fall in love throughout the film I really wanted it to feel like it was becoming a film, becoming cinema out of reality. I think when we fall in love, that’s kind of what it feels like. It feels like your reality is becoming cinema. So the handheld became static, and the music came in, and the shadows come in. I really wanted the film to ascend into cinema, by the end.
Are your actors local, or are they just really good Glaswegian accents?
SL: Ruairidh is from Edinburgh, so he’s a Scottish boy which is good. And we really wanted to get a Scottish boy for Charlie as well but we couldn’t find anyone. And I was greatly distrusting of anyone trying to do a Scottish accent. But I was proven wrong because Joshua did a really good one.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next project, Nostophobia?
It’s about two young men who fall in love, and as they fall in love they discover a supernatural entity that’s almost being manifested by their relationship. And it’s very benevolent at first, but things soon go very wrong and it becomes very dark. It’s essentially a psychological horror. It explores a lot of the shame I think that is already in Too Rough, and just the feeling that there’s something dirty or wrong in you, which people from all classes have, but which is compounded a lot in the working class.
There’s a long tradition of manifestations of grief in horror films.
Absolutely. The Babadook is a massive reference for me. I love that horror is becoming a way to express human emotions that need more than a drama. They need a horror film to show just how horrendous and terrifying some feelings can be. And love to me has always been horrifying. I’ve never seen it portrayed as a monster, and I want to do that.
Words by Eli Dolliver
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