With all four episodes of the award-winning 'Visions of a Vivid Life' released, we reflect with writer and director Levi Aluede, director of photography Sayna Fardaraghi, production designer Amber Bardell and editor Charlotte Elson-Whittaker on its conception, themes and what lies ahead for them in this final !GWAK blog showcase on the series.
Visions of a Vivid Life - Part Three: Memento Mori
MN: How has the release felt so far?
AB: It's been great having so much positive feedback on the series in general, but up until recently only a handful of people had seen my episode and 4. The first two episodes have been viewed much more so we're still waiting to see what everyone thinks about the entire story but I'm so glad people have mentioned my kooky shot of Kafka. That was something I really wanted to do and it might not have worked, especially with our limited schedule. Levi actually told me he wouldn't have done something that bold and unpredictable himself but it turned out fantastic and I love it when it gets pointed out!
SF: It's been so lovely to see so many friends tune in who were following us closely since the beginning, as well as the work gaining amazing recognition from various festivals. Viewing it now in its final form has also been pure magic; seeing everyone's work combined together to create something beautiful... it's really got me super reminiscent of our filming days.
LA: I haven’t thought about it that much. There’s so much left on the post-release schedule - for example, we’re in the UK Offline Web Fest, and they have rights to promote the series until June 2021. The child is an adult now and it’s off living in the world. I’m so busy on my next two films.
CEW: The release has felt overwhelmingly positive so far! I am lucky to be surrounded by many wonderful and supportive creatives. It has been nominated for and won quite a few awards already, so I am excited to see where the series' future leads!
MN: Levi - your personal essay on the pre-release journey of Visions of a Vivid Life, you mentioned that before you started writing you wanted to create a story that “would yield a heavy emotional reaction not just from me but from my actors, the audience, and everyone involved”. What impact did this intention have on your writing process?
LA: My intention was drama and character always, in every line, I was looking for emotions I felt when I watched people on screen, human beings in other films. I wasn’t worried about the mystery, the sci-fi or the genre. My number one goal was an emotional moment that would communicate those feelings inside me I had felt in other films, gulps of realisation and so on. An empathy that could only be achieved through the excess amount of natural specificity screenwriting yields. I was bouncing back from a short film that was very objective. It was about something subjective and emotional but I didn’t quite put the audience in that emotional space, I ended up really regretting that. I think my directing style is omnipotent and controlled but my screenwriting has always been based on emotional cornerstones and character moments, I really wanted that to become true on Visions of a Vivid Life. When I watched Part Four, I thought yes, I’ve achieved it. That moment we have with Charley and Kafka, that was the moment I always dreamed of and worked towards - my entire intention in the writing process is in that scene. In a way, everything that comes before that final scene is a build-up to pulling it off. It was the second scene we shot and I think it set the tone for everything else.
Visions of a Vivid Life - Part Four: Feed the Pigeons
MN: You cultivated an extraordinarily close relationship as actors and crew during production. What role did emotional connection play in the process, or the kind of atmosphere desired on set?
AB: Levi creates an incredibly open and family-like relationship with everyone on set. He spends a lot of time just checking in with people and is generally so friendly, welcoming, and genuine - that kind of behavior gives space for everyone to engage similarly. Levi really connected with the actors because of his emotive writing and honesty with them, we all knew it was his baby and how much he cared about the characters before we even had actors to portray them. I did feel like an outsider to that at times; my main worry was that it would be hard to direct my scenes since the actors and I didn't have that same relationship. I also had the added pressure of Levi watching me direct his story. When it came to it though, everyone just did their thing because there was mutual trust and everything worked out because of that.
LA: I don’t know, I just let the actors know I have no idea what I’m doing. Well I do, but I’m on a journey like them to find it. We’re all humans in it together trying to make the best work, may as well have a good time while we’re doing it. It’s important they’re as comfortable as possible, then they can produce their best work. Art and mental health are linked so much, I think about that while I’m working with actors a lot. With the crew, I talk to them, as much as possible, I let them know I want their ideas! That’s why they’re there, they make me better and ultimately the product. Every single one is important; filmmaking is like that. If the sound guy fucks up, we’re all fucked.
SF: Having this emotional connection on set gave such a wonderful and calm atmosphere to our environment. It truly felt like we were all doing what we love most, whilst enjoying each other’s company, which I believe truly shows in the finished product. When art comes from a place of love and care, you can feel it through the screen, and Visions is by far no exception! I truly wish all my future sets are just like this.
MN: Sayna, Amber and Charlotte - how did you come to be involved in Visions?
CEW: Well! Funnily enough I cannot fully remember my initial introduction to Levi and the project, as I think it involved a lot of shouting over loud music at a party last October - but! I had the honour of editing Amber's previous documentary film Art As Catharsis, which (if you haven't already of course) is still available to watch for free on the film's website! Amber was lovely enough to invite me to edit for her again with Visions, as well as Levi welcoming me in to also edit Part 4.
AB: I met Levi & Dylan in lieu of another project which we haven't yet made, so it was a natural choice really for me to be the production designer for this first instead. Levi is now my partner so it's been great to have such a close relationship throughout the process; I think it helped me really understand the characters and the story for our choices with visuals.
SF: Levi and I had been following each other via Twitter and Instagram for quite some time. We knew we wanted to collaborate at some point, and so once the project started, I got a call from him asking me to be on board - and of course I said yes! It was super exciting to be a part of a large project, as I hadn’t done anything of the sort before. Even more exciting to see that a few of the crew members I already knew via Twitter and University - overall a fun get together for such a wonderful concept!
Visions of a Vivid Life - Part One: Something Different
MN: The series obviously encompasses a lot of dystopian ideas - how has releasing Visions during a time in which reality feels so dystopian, and perhaps also a time in which memories feel more precious to us than ever, felt?
LA: I’ve always found memory to be quite fascinating. Dystopia? I’ve always sort of felt like I lived in a dystopia, that’s just London for you. In fact, I’ve written a few films with dystopian environments but to me these environments are just the world as it is and where it’s going. To me dystopia equals the future, and that’s not to say I have a cynical viewpoint; I think it should be expected if we want to improve and aim towards providing a better world overall.
AB: It has felt incredibly poignant, and of course the masks - Levi has been told a million times that he predicted the future - but really its a mix of funny and uncanny. We've since been using those masks to go to the shops. Somewhat though, I feel that these themes would have always felt relevant in a roundabout way. We can all relate to memories and the nature of trying to hold on to things that are transient: eventually, we make our peace in some way.
CEW: Yeah, editing the last two parts was quite a weird one for me, as I had just moved back home to the Midlands to be with my parents, so of course I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. I think that I (like many) can get quite caught up in the idealisation of the past and the negatives/ positives that come with this, so I was able to channel a little bit of that. But yeah, it felt quite strange to be editing something that felt both thematically and tonally relevant to the moment.
For me, the theme of memories and unconscious thought was crucial to the editing style. For example, I think that this is quite true to the death of both Mako and Kafka's fiance: they are both quite cloudy and sudden. Kafka's perspective causes them to overlap. We are left to fill in the gaps a little bit.
MN: Levi - How does your role as the screenwriter intersect with your role as director? Does the writing feel in part like a visual experience / directing feel like a communicative experience?
LA: Personally I find writing and directing totally different, but they intersect at every turn. You can’t have one without thinking about the other. I write from an innate place, let the characters take me where they want and that informs the story. I know the themes from the very beginning and that’s what I keep in my pocket for the directing approach later. Which doesn’t start until I know I’m going to be on set and with actors. Then, it becomes an equation to me, information plus behaviour over time. Whilst I do write with visual ideas in mind, I’m not a control freak, I’m looking for a feeling, the feeling I imagine when I write. So writing, the scenes, the story, the characters are inspiration for audio and visual ideas for my directing sensibilities to work with, develop and punctuate. If you’ve worked on a picture with me, you’ll know my directing sensibilities are minimalistic. I give myself rules and I break them for special moments, I don’t like handheld shots, dolly shots, close-ups, moving the camera unless it’s necessary (I’m strict about how it moves) and so on. I use these things for sure, but not very often. I’m sensitive about time on set: the actors need time, I need time to play around with different ideas. The room needs to breathe.
MN: Sayna and Amber - you also took on dual roles, with Amber, production designer, directing Memento Mori, and Sayna, director of photography, co-directing Feed the Pigeons. How did these roles intersect - or what were the challenges?
SF: It was quite scary for me as this was my first time ever DP'ing for someone else, as well as directing work that I hadn’t written before. However, after the first day of shooting, I found my feet and began to get into the groove of juggling these roles hand in hand. I'm quite a visually driven person when it comes to my own work anyway, so I found the roles to slowly seam into each other and intersect quite nicely. In fact, in episode 4, I found myself filming whilst directing the movements and pacing of scenes, whilst Levi handled emotional and dialogue aspects, which was a great success!
AB: Episode 3 was the perfect one for me to direct, because I had already established most of my design work by the time I had to direct the actors - it was still a huge challenge though. I resisted accepting the directing role for a while even when Levi said he wrote the episode for me, because I had never worked with actors before and it was a big commitment. I'm really glad I went for it, which was slightly inevitable, and I really did have to just go for it when it came to shooting: we changed some of the scheduling mid-way, meaning that I had to direct a scene with Matt (Kafka), a day before I was originally supposed to start directing. I didn't feel super prepared in that instance but it helped cut the overthinking. Deliberating for too long can be just as damaging as a lack of planning, and I did do the planning.
Visions of a Vivid Life - Part Three: Memento Mori
MN: Charlotte - could you tell us a little about the editing process?
CEW: The editing process for Visions has obviously been rather interesting under the Covid-19 circumstances: with Art As Catharsis I was meeting Amber quite often, whereas this time round I have had to navigate the edit much more independently. I had seen Levi's and Sayna's previous work, but this was a new working relationship. So effectively, a lot of trust was put into my hands.
Levi's Vision for Visions (excuse the overused pun) was clear from the very beginning, which made it far less challenging than I anticipated. We met before and after the shoot and just spoke for hourssss about the script and our inspirations, so that allowed me to realise the overall style and tone, and then I was able to be more intuitive with the details.
MN: What role does nostalgia play in the series? I found myself asking a lot of questions about the extent to which nostalgia can consume us and taint/alter our reality, much like the more literal manifestation of this idea in the show.
LA: Nostalgia means ‘open wound’. I think generally we’ve sensationalised nostalgia a lot, in different ways; whether it’s pop culture or personal memories, I see a lot of filmmakers on Twitter with films with sensationalised memories of a time passed. It’s like a front, forget about your problems, feel this pain from a past you long for. But a wound is a wound and time moves whether we like it or not. We shouldn’t be looking back to be happy, we shouldn’t be looking forward either, we should be right here, in the now. That’s what Visions of a Vivid Life is all about, human beings discovering now and what’s in front of them.
AB: I think that Charley (Lily's character) really represents this unhealthy relationship with nostalgia or the past, and shes so fascinating. I would love to explore her more but she was literally dead for my episode! I doubt I'll be directing but I'm excited for season 2 is all I can say there. I'm fascinated by all of the characters' journeys with reality and memories - that's what the series is all about.
Visions of a Vivid Life - Part Three: Memento Mori
MN: Visions treads a really interesting line when it comes to time - the central subject matter is the past (or at least one’s interpretation of the past), the “science” feels futuristic, but the settings, clothing, and dialogue all feel strikingly contemporary. The result is remarkable. Was it challenging to condense such a complex framing of time into such a short series?
LA: Hmmm, generally no. I can’t believe I’m going to say this but, it’s part of the aesthetic, my aesthetic sensibilities, I suppose. Then there’s genre, everyone expects a futuristic concept to be followed by futuristic visuals but that’s not what I had in mind at any point. No matter how I write a story, when it’s set or where, to me it always feels like right here (wherever here is), or as Alex Garland says, ‘Ten minutes from now’. Every picture has its unique look. I think generally if you look at anything around you, there’s past and future in it all. In clothes, in devices, in ideologies even. So I built my stories around that. I wrote a feature film, sort of a dystopia, where the main character owns an iPod classic from 2008. Later in the film we find out he has a collection of them he’s kept from years ago. That just makes sense to me, to have old things lying around or that one coat your father used to own. Which was the idea for Kafka’s World War II coat.
AB: In terms of production design we were very tied to the idea that things would feel familiar, but hard to place - that's why Mako's jacket is unique and altered by me. Levi said it had to feel like you couldn't go and buy it; you wouldn't know where to start. But everything had references to other times, for example, Kafka's jacket is a military jacket, the subtle oriental style of Mako's feels classic, yet not traditional. I also really wanted things to feel tactile, so hand-stitching and painting elements really helped the actors feel connected to objects and clothing too I think. We had quite a limited amount of set to play with really, because Charley's flat was meant to be so hollow, so the key items like the suitcase were really layered with meaning - and paint.
In the series, we're always getting hints at things but never the full picture, and that's really fun to play with in terms of the production design. Another way we brought some energy to the set was an element of magical realism:
I referenced the 'memento mori' of Dutch masters' paintings in the set on my episode, which then actually appears in 2&4 as well I think. The idea was that we would show a visual representation of Charley's & Emma's deaths with the mise-en-scene and the reference is these paintings from the 1600s. Condensing time actually gave a bit of freedom. I think that its always easy to represent the contemporary time in films - it means less work to be done in research and constructing for the sets and costumes, since we know it. The elements which bore the most story were more ambiguous though. I generally dislike doing production design for settings or costumes that lack context or backstory because what's the point? We all love things to be pretty or eye-catching but without reasons, I have no passion to work with.
MN: In terms of film - what is next for you?
LA: My next project is called 'Memories of Moon', which is about a sombre young man, Casey, who suddenly gets a call that his ex-wife, Lily, has passed away, her funeral is the next day, 4 hours north and he drops his current failing relationship to try and make it. It’s a short, I don’t know how long it might end up but it’s totally a drama about forgiveness, grief and loss. I have more freedom on this and amazing support. We already have an incredible cast and crew. I’m just looking to make the best, most heart-breaking human journey I possibly can.
SF: I'll be planning my final project for University this year. It's an experimental short which slightly taps into themes of nostalgia similar to Visions. I can’t wait to get started on it and have the wonderful crew members be a part of it, a dream team!
AB: I'll definitely be working with Levi on his next couple of films as the production designer, and my next directing role will be for a personal project which explores being a young woman navigating the world. The film will be called 'Moving Woman' and aims to be a fun yet poignant and raw poem to anyone who identifies as female. (Also includes Millie Norman - who is hosting - & Lily Walbeoffe from Visions!)
CEW: I am in the middle of editing The Glass Dream for fellow !GWAK member and all round wonderful Djenaba Davis-Eyo at the moment, as well as working on a few personal projects. I am going into my final year of studying film at uni, so a lot of my energy is going to have to go into that, but I am very much looking forward to what the future holds!
WATCH VISIONS OF A VIVID LIFE HERE
HOSTED BY MILLIE NORMAN