Ben Quinn chats with Little Black Book about his quarantine film which he collaborated on with his son Billy.
When you decided that you wanted to make a film with Billy, what were your starting points? Were you quite fixed on a concept and focusing it around football early on?
Yeah, the football-sized hole in Billy’s life seemed like an obvious way to illustrate the loneliness and weirdness that we were all going through. We’d ride and run through places that were just so barren and alien. Places that were usually full of kids and the sounds of life, instead of just silence. Write what you know right? It was a concept that he could be honest with and with a genuinely personal angle.
What did that concept look like? Was it quite a fluid process because it was close to home or did you nail it down quite firmly?
It was really loose, to be honest. The project was part of his schooling, and as part of it he had to show his workings and inspiration, so he collected a lot of stills from cinematographers and directors that I pointed him to. Rather than look at Deakins, I showed him the work of some of my friends who make interesting stuff in LA and urban places using natural light. This was inspiration for things we could achieve with the film. Dustin Lane is a DP from Tennessee and has shot music videos for Vince Staples, who Billy loves. He also loves AG Rojas’ early documentary work. They were very tasteful references!
The film feels quite dark to me – there’s a lot of emptiness, quick cuts, the voiceover, etc. What were your main aims with regards to the aesthetic and feel of the film?
Billy is a deep thinker. He feels a lot. The images that surrounded us were pretty surreal and it really was analogous to the way we both felt, to be honest. It was a dark time full of emptiness.
We were back in London a couple of years back and we were walking down Carnaby St. in the pouring rain and I said to Billy, “You don’t miss this miserable weather do you man?” His reply was, “I guess I like miserable things…” You can take the boy out of England…
Tell me about the collaboration with Billy – how involved was he in the creation and production of the film?
We talked about what we would film together and he rejected any ideas of mine that he thought were cheesy. He’d look at takes to see if he was happy with what he was doing but as he was in every part of the film, it was hard for him to be too hands-on with the camera. He flew the drone and shot a lot of the B-roll that didn’t make the cuts, but it was a lesson in light for him. He did all the selects with me, cut the interview, and chose the music. We cut it together and he has a ‘director’s cut’ of his own that he submitted as his school project.
How did you find the process of working with him?
He is very savvy and really interesting to shoot. I shot another one of his school projects for him before and his work ethic is pretty amazing. I think it comes from being an athlete with an artist’s mind.
And how did you find the process of directing him?
We are really good friends and we just pottered around filming stuff. I didn’t really feel as if I was directing him. However, I do remember one shot when I suggested he do something and he just said, “No I’m not doing that. That will look dumb.” I guess he’s just training to be a professional athlete on set, as I’ve heard that before… His interview was great. I didn’t write questions, we just chatted. He made another beautiful documentary film before so he kind of knew that if he was really honest he would make good soundbites.
What was the production like? You used “a cheap toy drone, a cupboard full of old cameras, and lenses bought from eBay”. Tell us more!
We had a drone in the cupboard that we took on holiday once and hadn’t been taken out since. That footage is pretty wobbly! I used my stills camera and old vintage lenses that were eBay purchases, again that usually never come out of the cupboard. I bought an LED light off eBay for $30 that I exchanged in a parking lot during the lockdown. We also made dubious quality but surprisingly effective grip equipment from PVC pipe and some old sheets. I skated a lot while we were shooting or rode my bike – no dolly grips on this shoot.
What lessons did you learn when making this film that you might take with you when you can shoot with a crew again?
The biggest lesson I learned is that it is surprisingly hard to remember to press the record button. I seriously shot the skipping shot three times. Each time I made a mistake somewhere in the camera menu or just forgot to press the record button. I also loved making something organically. I loved being able to make mistakes without fear and without a tent full of people looking over my shoulder. I don’t necessarily think I would take many things into a normal shoot, however, I would be less nervous about lighting and shooting something myself.
What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Nothing tricky and as the boy said, “I just felt really free to be shooting again”
Any parting thoughts?
This was really just a personal exercise between Billy and me, but it ended up resonating with a lot of players. We got a lot of messages from kids, MLS and Premier League players about how Billy spoke for all of them which was really nice. The host of the Premier League in the US wrote to us saying that it made him cry. Most weekends we just yell at the TV saying “WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW??” but now we like him.
Kids have been through a lot in the last few months. I used to worry that they had it too easy but holy moly, I take that back.
I’m sitting here watching the resumption of the Premier League. The players on one knee with BLACK LIVES MATTER instead of their self-inflated names. Marcus Rashford has just made it possible for kids to eat and told Boris how to do it.
I’m glad that Billy has these players to look to as role models. Athletes feel the world around them and hopefully the world might come out of this a better place where athletes can be sensitive and articulate and inspire kids to do other things than drive expensive cars.
PS – a final question for my own intrigue as a Brit. How come you call it football and not soccer?!
I lived in North London for 20 years. I am a UK citizen and Billy will always call himself English. We are both proud Gooners and will be no matter where we live xx