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Interview with Naqqash Khalid (Director)

By Luan Greenwood

Tell us about where this story evolved from.

I wanted to make a film about language and miscommunication. The original idea was to have three people in a room who can’t communicate – language fails and betrays them. That was my starting-off point.

When do you know a script is ready to shoot, and what is your process of getting it there?
It’s different for every project, I don’t like to over-intellectualise or overthink things. To me, a script is more of an outline to help recruit the people you want to work with. Writing is an unconscious act and then when you’re making the film, it’s a process of figuring out what the script is all about. I don’t want to know everything before shooting. I’m more interested in the questions rather than the answers.

How did you find the cast for the film?

I offered the parts to actors whose work I was excited by and feel privileged that they accepted. The casting process was different for every role, but ultimately when looking to cast an actor, I’m looking for a co-author. It’s important to me that the actors take ownership and bring themselves to a role.

Casting is an extension of writing. A lot of my characters are written without a fixed race or gender. I like opening up the possibilities of what a character’s identity is when looking for actors. For example, the role of The Officer was originally written as a man, but when casting I decided to look for a woman as I got bored thinking about a man occupying the role. We’ve seen
it before, it would have been cliché. Instead, letting a woman have all of this physical agency and command in this part – it brought something that felt fresh and exciting. Sarah-Jane plays it with this bravado, with a masculinity inherent in the script, but bringing a femininity to the role at the same time, and in this new context that femininity feels threatening and is more sinister.

What made you choose French actors rather than another nationality? And what did you feel Idir Chender and Hania Amar brought to the filmmaking process?

I don’t think I made a conscious decision about which nationality to pick, I have a lot of respect and admiration for French cinema, so I guess this was an excuse to work with French actors. Idir and Hania are very different types of actors and my approach to directing them was specific to their characters. Their characters are not in the same film, so the performance style is in conflict with one another. Idir’s character is grounded in reality, and Hania’s character is hyperreal.

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I facetimed with Idir to discuss the project and knew very quickly he was the right person and that I wanted to work with him. We immediately developed a shorthand and were tuned into the same frequency. Working with him is like striking gold, he is a very open person – you can ask him for anything and he delivers without hesitation. It was difficult for me when the shoot wrapped because I felt that I had only just begun to scratch the surface with him, he’s just an incredible actor to watch. Most of the film is him acting alone, he has to carry the film without any dialogue, without any action, it’s not an easy task but he brings such a nuance and complexity to the private moments on-screen. You don’t want to call cut on him

Hania brought a lot to the table. We had a great conversation on the phone and discussed the character and her journey. She’s like a surgeon in how she tackles a role with such careful precision, but like all great actors she can let go of any preparation and withdraw into the moment. I gave her a lot of conflicting direction – I wanted to maintain the character’s ambiguity and resist us having a shared understanding of her motives. I was trying to get her to a space where she would surprise me. I almost wanted to prevent her from telling me where the character would end up whilst preparing her for the possibilities. Working in this way requires a lot of mutual trust. The moment she has at the end of the film, the sheer confusion we feel as a result of the decisions her character makes… it’s my favourite moment in the film.

You live in Manchester, how important was it for you for this film to have a Northern actress like Sarah-Jane Potts and be filmed locally?
The role plays with the clichés of a Northerner – friendliness, politeness, warmth – perverting the stereotypes, making those familiar traits unfamiliar, it’s the essence of those things that makes the character dark. Being Northern, having that strong regional British identity, is important to the character. She is desperately trying to hold on to it, and fears she’s losing herself. I’m curious how a British audience will react to her because as a British person, I feel we are more likely to want to identify with her, she represents something we know in a film that feels foreign to us, but then we’re faced with the baggage of what that brings. We have to separate ourselves from her or justify her gaze.

I love Manchester, I want to make films here, but it’s difficult. There are very few opportunities in the North of England for the type of work that I want to make, but I’m glad I was able to make this one here.

Interpretation, or misinterpretation, figures heavily in this story. What inspired you to make a film that centres on a character’s ability or incapacity to express himself?
Filmmaking, acting, these mediums are all about communication. You are communicating something about people, about yourself, about the world. When telling a story, in every decision you make, there is something that you are trying to say – conscious or not. Right now, in the world, I feel there is a lack of real communication, and our shared understanding of the most basic things is deteriorating. We are arguing if the dress is blue or gold, if something is truth or fake news, is it Laurel or is it Yanny? We are a culture consumed by distraction. I was curious to see what would happen if I made a film where language is empty, full of distraction, making communication impossible. This is also a film that asks for an active audience, everything is open to interpretation, it’s comfortable in its ambiguity. I hope everyone comes away with something different.

Language is powerful, your ability to speak and be heard, it’s all wrapped up in power. I wanted to play with those dynamics.

What makes a short film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?

I’m a process-oriented person, it’s all about the experience for me and the people involved. I’ve collaborated with an incredible cast and crew on this, it’s not lost on me.

Is there something you try to subvert or avoid or rebel against in your work?
I never went to film school and haven’t had any training or been on anyone else’s set. So, if I’m honest, I don’t know what the rules are. I only know how to make films in the way I want to make them. I’m grateful for my inexperience on that front, because films should be about tapping into your specificity and not following any set rules. This is my first film where I’ve had a proper crew and post-production process. I’m learning on the job, figuring out what conventions of filmmaking I like and dislike.

Film is a medium that is overwhelmingly male and white. There’s a lot of talk about diversity and representation, but little action. My crew is 50/50 gender split as a starting off point. I make sure my collaborators are balanced, and that women occupy key positions. It is not a box ticking exercise, it is something that makes the work better and takes very little effort on part of the producer. I want to be challenged in my work. I want to surround myself with collaborators who are different from me, have different experiences, have different viewpoints. That shouldn’t be rebellious or subversive, it should be the norm. I don’t understand people who want to make movies that reflect the world but then their sets are narrow reflections of themselves. That’s not the real world. For me, these changes we want to see in the industry need to start at the bottom with no-low budget sets.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming project(s)?
I’m in the process of getting my first feature off the ground. The way in which I want to make it is quite experimental, so I’m working through some challenges at the moment as I don’t think it’s a film that will be traditionally financed. I’m trying to keep it as easy to shoot as possible, so I can finance it cheaply and make it exactly how I want to make it. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s sort of a thriller about domestic life, and about how we construct different versions of ourselves in public and in private.

The post-production process of Stock has inspired new ideas. At the same time that I’ve been editing this film, I’ve been writing another short, which I didn’t plan or expect to be writing. I’m really excited about it.

‘Stock’ will premiere on Sky Arts in Spring 2019. For updates, follow @StocktheFilm on twitter.