P:O.V. No.9 - Two Recent Short Fiction Films, THE SHEEP THIEF

An interview with Asif Kapadia on
The Sheep Thief

Richard Raskin

Unlike most other short films, The Sheep Thief uses many locations, many actors and I imagine was not filmed under particularly favorable conditions. It is also quite long for a short film, with its running time of 23 minutes. All in all, it was a very ambitious project, compared to almost any other contemporary short film I can think of. Can you tell me about your decision to take on the special challenges involved in making The Sheep Thief?

This is a pretty big question. There are many answers as to why we (myself and the core crew) decided to take on the challenges involved in shooting The Sheep Thief in India.

The short answer is that I knew it would be the last short film I would make as a student and I wanted to push the boat out. I wanted to make a longer short film with a story, one which was more than a joke with a twist. I needed to see if I could handle a longer screen time as in the end I wanted to make features and the longest film I had made thus far was 12 minutes in length.

I had studied filmmaking at different film schools for six years in total and I wished to graduate with something that made me stand out a little as a filmmaker. At the time I was feeling a little uninspired by rainy London and its grey concrete.

There is a problem with the way the terms or semesters of educational establishments work out. You write in the summer when the weather is good. You pre-produce in the autumn and end up shooting in the winter when it's grey, rainy, cold and the daylight is at its shortest. Then you're locked away in the cutting room when it's spring!

Anyway I was mulling over a few ideas which I had submitted to the Royal College of Art as possible graduation film ideas. One was set in London. It was a contemporary tale set in the world I grew up in. I was co-writing the project with a friend. (This project was called On The Corner. It is a feature project I now have in development here in London.)

The second project called Lunch was a strong idea but too short and simple for a diploma film. The final idea was a story I remembered from when I was around seven. A teacher told us a tale of a thief who becomes a saint in religious studies. I never forgot the tale and this became the basis for The Sheep Thief.

I wrote a short synopsis of the story and we tried to figure out how the story could be done. When we thought of setting it in rural Wales or Ireland, for example, it didn’t feel right.

The next stage of the story behind The Sheep Thief involved going to see a film called Cyclo by a young French-Vietnamese director called Tran Ang Hung (whose first film was Scent of Green Papaya). The director grew up and studied in France but he shot Cyclo in Vietnam. I was blown away by the visual style and power of the film. Also I felt I saw in the film an outsider's viewpoint on Vietnam, but I could tell that the director must have known the culture to make the film. For me it was like a light going on.

I would shoot The Sheep Thief in India. I spoke the language and had family there. Winter time in Europe is the best and coolest time to be in India. They have a huge film industry and plenty of equipment. Our money would also go a lot further.

It all slotted together. My production designer, who was English, had travelled India for eight months and had pictures of all the different regions. We knew the film would work in the desert of Rajasthan. I myself had only been to India once for two weeks a few years before. I hardly knew the place.

So our naive plan was formed. The people at our college were terrified by the prospect but our enthusiasm and the fact that they liked the story meant that they encouraged us to develop the idea. The team had worked together before and our two previous films had both won prizes and filmstock from Kodak.

I lied and said that my family were very well known and respected there and that I would only shoot in their town, etc. The college thought about it and said if we could raise the finances they would in theory be behind us.

We then found out that no Westerners had shot a short student film in India before – on celluloid film. People had shot documentaries on video or huge TV or film productions. But we found no one who had done a film like ours. So we were on our own.

The number of locations and characters all came from the story which was written in London. Essentially the tale was the same as the initial synopsis I had written. A friend put me in contact with an Indian writer/musician/lecturer called Venkat, who was doing a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. He became my script doctor. He knew and grew up in rural India and would tell me which elements were not realistic. We would talk and he helped improve the script enormously.

In the end the film's budget was £25,000. The college gave each graduation film £7,500 so the team of myself, the designer Victoria Harwood and the producer Victoria Connell had to raise the rest of the money.

The money was raised on the basis of the script and from people whom I had worked for previously. In the end the money came in dribs and drabs from a producer in New York (Polaris Arts), a German co-production company (Strawberry Vale), and the BBC. I begged people I had worked for or with in television. Two editors I had worked with wrote me personal checks of £1000.

Somehow we go the money.

There are a number of differences between your screenplay and the film. For example, in the screenplay, certain events are presented in flashback, while in the film, you chose a more linear chronology. What was the reason for this change?

The differences between the script and the screenplay essentially came from the difficulties of shooting in India. So many of the subtleties got lost in the process. The flashback element was changed in the editing suite. We tried it the way it was in the script, but it was confusing.

In the end the film opens with a single aerial shot: our lead character Tashan lying dead in the desert. We then go back to him stealing the sheep and after he is branded we return to the desert. It's subtle, most people don't remember it. The only sequence which was dropped and not shot was the one where Tashan carried the old blind man across the stream and then robbed him. We just ran out of time and couldn't find an elderly person who was small enough for our actor to carry. It was I felt the one scene we could lose from the opening sequence which wasn't vital to the tale and dropping it enabled us to keep on schedule.

There are also events in the screenplay which you omitted from the film – for example, a) the encounter with Biswas; b) Tashan’s encounter with Aftab whose forehead has also been branded; c) Zed’s theft of the sweets and Tashan’s returning them to Yogesh; d) Tashan’s reluctant removal of the red scarf when Safia wants to clean the dirt from his face. Do you recall your reasons for omitting each of these things?

As I am the writer and the director, I always leave myself the option of changing elements of the tale during casting, rehearsal and of course shooting. I know I'm going to do it. The script must offer the structure and the characters but when I try something with the actors, if it doesn’t work I change it. If they don’t feel natural doing something, then together we come up with something better. And often in the case of this film, we just ran out of time.

Elements which were eventually dropped from the finished film:

a] the encounter with Bilal. At the end of the day the scene read better on the page than it would have when played before the camera. In reality, as far as I can remember, it seemed too much for them to be face to face. It was more subtle to see Bilal through the crowd. For the two of them to lock eyes told us everything we needed to know and quicker.

b] Tashan's encounter with Aftab who was also branded. The honest truth: I can't remember why we didn’t do it! As I re-read the script I think the idea sounds great. In reality, I remember that finding the gang to play Aftab was very difficult. I can only guess that in the prep I must have decided that the branding was a very rare occurance and that Tashan should be the only one in the film to have to deal with the stigma. Maybe I was wrong.

c] Zed's theft of the sweets was shot. I was unable to make the scene work. The gentleman cast as the sweet shop owner looked into the camera in every take and was a tad wooden.

One problem with the script was that it had too many endings. In the end we cut it as it was weak and we wanted to get on with the tale and get to the climax. I also remember feeling it may have been a little too sentimental.

d] Tashan's removal of the red scarf is one of the biggest regrets of the film. We built a special set for the interior of Safia's home. We shot the scene but it was one of the worst days and nights of my life as a director. I could not communicate directly with the woman playing Safia. Everything I said was through an interpreter. The woman felt very uncomfortable going anywhere near the young boy Abdul who played Tashan. Shooting the scene was hell. We went miles behind schedule and wasted a hell of a lot of film.

The truth was that asking a woman to play a part in a Western film in rural India is impossible. Of all the women we asked, no one wanted to be in the film. If the woman said yes, her husband or mother-in-law said no. We were desperate. Only one woman said yes and so she was cast. She had an amazing face but could not act or take direction. She was very awkward in front of the crew and with the boy.

So we shot the scene and I knew it stank.

We went on shooting the next day. It was one of the market scenes. Again nothing worked. Then my assistant director pointed out a woman extra in the crowd. She was so full of life and had an amazing presence. Her name was Kokila Behen.

I stopped shooting and spoke to the crew. I wanted to recast the part of Safia with Kokila Behen. We were half way through the schedule and our filmstock. The crew went crazy. Most of them wanted to go home by now.

I explained that we only had to shoot close-ups of Kokila Behen, not re-shoot every scene. In the end, after a lot of talking, we recast the part of Safia and that is who you see in the present film.

Every wide shot in the beginning and middle of the film is the first woman and the close-ups are of Kokila Behen. She was a revelation and the entire atmosphere of the film changed. I got my confidence back and the crew finally felt we were shooting something good.

So by now our set for the scene where Tashan removes his scarf before Safia, had been taken apart. It had been built inside a home and the family had moved back in. We tried to reshoot the scene on the last day but it didn’t look right.

The remains of the first scene and the set are in the film towards the end. It is squeezed in between Tashan seeing Bilal in the market and Tashan's 'last supper' with Safia and the boys.

I cut out all the shots of the first Safia and we are left with Tashan playing guiltily with the red scarf as a fly walks on his branding. This is still one of my favourite scenes in the film.

One very nice touch in the film which I believe was not in the screenplay, is the magic trick with the hair and imaginary needle. Though its importance in the film is obvious, I wonder if you would tell in your own words about your choice to add it to your story.

The magic trick in the film with the hair and the paper was indeed not in the script. On the page Tashan bonded with the two kids by introducing them to a game of triangles played on Zed and Ya Ya's chalkboard. I wasn't really happy with the idea as it was on the page but I knew I needed something there for the three kids to do together.

Once we were in India and casting, I improvised with the kids using various games – often asking the kids themselves what games they played with their friends.

In the end the idea of the 'magic' hair and paper came into play and worked. This happens to be the one and only 'trick' I myself know. It was something I was shown when I was a child and never forgot. I can't remember who taught it to me or why but it seems everything comes in handy at some point!

Abdul Rehman, who played Tashan, mastered the trick within seconds. He tried it out on little Jiggly (Ya Ya) during a rehearsal and I knew we had the perfect idea. I asked Abdul not to do the trick again until the camera was rolling.

Little Jiggly was transfixed and had no idea what was going on. His reaction in the film is entirely genuine, as is his attempt to pull his own hair out and mimic it at the end of the film in the classroom. We shot the rehearsals and got lucky in capturing the young child's natural response.

In the end the trick works much better than the idea on the page, to establish Tashan as someone the two young boys see as 'magical' even if most of the time he uses 'sleight of hand'.

One of the aspects of your film that I find most striking is the attention you give to physical detail, such as raindrops landing on grains of sand, a bit of bloody tissue on the nail protruding from a stick, and drops of sap running down a tree trunk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another short film which focuses on physical detail to quite the same degree. Can you tell me about your choice to make these physical details central to your storytelling?

The idea of physical detail probably comes from my aim to try and tell the story visually as much as possible. Rather than a character saying something, my wish is to show – and for the audience to register and feel – the meaning.

Also I'm a big fan of Sergio Leone westerns and other directors who shoot huge cinemascope wide shots then cut to extreme close-ups – a tiny detail of a fly walking on a character's face or whatever.

Every detail you mention in your question was in the script. I try to put the images down on the page, to incorporate them into the tale. These details need to move the story forward, to have some emotional meaning and not just be pretty shots.

In many of the best short films, there is an object charged with meaning for one or more characters. In The Sheep Thief, you allow the red scarf to take on important parts of the storytelling – both when it is used to hide Tashan’s mark, and when he tears it in two near the end of the film, giving the halves to Ya Ya and Zed. Do you agree that it is good to let some object take on an important storytelling role in a short film?

Here again as in my previous answer: the idea is to use objects as visual elements which carry the story forward.

The most basic example of this comes from the mark on Tashan's forehead. In the story I had been told when I was a child, the thief who steals a sheep is actually branded with the letters S and T, standing for sheep thief. This was too literal and of course the letters would mean little in India. So we decided on an abstract shape from the branding iron as the mark.

The red scarf then covered the mark – red being a very emotive colour. We tried as much as possible to minimise the use of the colour red within the frame throughout the film, to make the red of the scarf stand out as much as possible.

The ripping of the red scarf was in and out of the film. At one point Tashan left with the red scarf still on but it seemed right that he would tear up the scarf which hides his secret and move on. Somehow when the scarf is worn by the children it changes from a negative to a positive object. Without anyone saying a word in the scene near the end of the film, we hopefully get across the different emotions of the characters. The kids are proud to wear Tashan's scarf, while he has to move on with his mark there for all to see.

Objects offer to both a short or a long film the opportunity to tell the tale symbolically. If used well they can really add to the story. However, focusing on an object too much can add meaning where it isn't needed or intended, so you have to be careful. A simple close up used as a cut-away will leave the audience thinking: "I'll remember that object. The director has shown it because it'll come back later." And then it doesn't and you leave the viewer wondering what it all meant.

In your view, does the short film tell its story in essentially the same way as a feature, or does the short film have its own, specific kind of storytelling, not found in the feature?

That's a difficult question for me to answer as I have yet to make a feature film. My experience comes from writing three full length screenplays over the past two years. Since graduating from film school, I have found that there is a huge leap from writing a short and writing a 90 page script. It takes a long time. I have found to my cost that all the hard work goes into the planning, working out the story before you actually set out on writing the script. You can waste so much time trying to figure out the tale as you go along with the longer form.

With a short, I feel so much is dependant on the specific length of the film. I have made shorts of various lengths: 60 seconds, 3 minutes, 8 minutes, 12 minutes, 23 minutes. I feel that depending on the length of the short, there are certain types of story or narrative structures that work better than others.

With anything up to about three minutes in length, I feel the story can be very simple. The film can literally have one 'story' and be like a joke. As long as it finishes well – normally with a bit of humour or a twist – the audience goes away satisfied.

With a longer short film – about 10 minutes in length and more – I feel you need to have a lot more going on. You need to have almost three 'stories' woven into each other. Following one simple situation may feel a little boring. You need to have rounded characters, if that is the type of story being told. I feel a film around 10 minutes long doesn’t really leave much time to stray too far from the main story, everything should lead back into the tale.

When dealing with a film twenty or thirty minutes long, you really need to have a strong idea, rounded characters, a journey. Something needs to happen and things should change. I found when making The Sheep Thief that for the first time I had enough time to be able to veer off the central storyline to build character. I could take my time and play with the pacing as I was (hopefully) going to have the audience's attention for a while.

These all sound like sweeping generalizations, but they were the rules I played by. I always considered the length of the film when coming up with the idea and writing the script. Certain ideas don’t work when squeezed into 10 minutes. You simply need more time to do the tale justice. In the same way, certain clever or funny or joke-like ideas cannot be spread out over a longer length and work best when short and sweet.

I reckon the main thing to bear in mind, whatever the length of the film, is that it should never be too long. Keep the film tight and leave the audience wanting more.

Do you agree that the short film deserves far greater public exposure than it presently receives?

The short answer is yes. I feel that good, strong short films should be seen by more people to show what can be done with the form. I can only really answer the question from my experience though here in the UK the number of places where you can see short films is very limited.

There are a few short film festivals – new ones are popping up all over the place – and that will help. Unfortunately here in the UK I feel we just don’t have the culture of watching short films. I will never forget going to Clermont-Ferrand and seeing people queuing

around the block in the snow, paying money to watch short films well after midnight. I just don’t think it would happen here in the UK. Many of the European festivals I have been to also have young juries, school kids are brought along to watch the films, special screenings take place for younger children, and older students at college conducted interviews at Brest and at a few other festivals. Again I haven't seen this happening yet at British festivals. So most of the people who go to screenings are the filmmakers and their friends, and most people outside of this very specialised world never see the films as they are intended – on the big screen.

I know a few cinemas here in London are trying to screen short films up to 10 minutes in length before the main feature but these are primarily the art house cinemas.

Shorts in the main are screened on TV late at night by Channel Four or by BBC 2. The number of places are very limited as often there is a commissioning process and only a few get produced and then shown. Also nearly all of these films need to be 10 minutes in length to fit neatly into the schedules.

Once a year, Channel four has a series of purchased shorts screened. They can be of any length and there is an interesting range of films shown. Unfortunately the programme starts at 11 p.m. and runs until about 3 a.m. – not exactly prime time.

I think somehow someone needs to take a chance. Good shorts need to be seen at the cinema again before the main programme by an unsuspecting audience.

There are more and more film and media courses – more and more shorts being made and somehow we need to get them seen by real people. Who knows? Viewers may even feel inspired to have a go themselves.

What advice would you give to young filmmakers, making their own first short films?

The main thing is to enjoy yourself. To try and surround yourself with people who will be positive, who will push you to try things out.

I took the film school route into filmmaking. It worked for me. I got my hands on equipment, film stock and a crew. Sometimes I was even given a small budget to work with. I would never have been able to put a production together on my own.

But it can be done. The main thing is to believe in yourself as at the end of the day there is no set way, no one knows anything. Make your own rules. You don’t have to know anything at first. Just go off with a video or DVD camera and shoot something, anything. Then look at the footage, try to cut it together and see why certain shots work better than others. The main thing is to learn from your own mistakes and from the mistakes made by the people around you.

I tried my hand at everything on my first few shorts. I wrote, produced, directed, operated the camera and edited. I felt I had to do this to learn about every process. The films were terrible but I knew what each stage encompassed. I then tried to find people to collaborate with who were better than me at camera, producing, etc., so I could concentrate on the story and the directing.

Learning to write is pretty central in my opinion to making your first few films. As you have no track record no one will give you a script. Write your own. The more you write the better you will get. If you can’t work out a story, just put down the order in which certain events will take place. Don’t get stuck on the dialogue. The structure is vital, the dialogue will keep changing, and you could work it out on set.

All the hard work is done in the prep. Have your script or storyline or the structure all in place before you shoot. It never improves as you shoot it.

Try and set yourself a task with each film. Set the film entirely in one room with only two characters. Shoot an entire film in one shot. Concentrate on dialogue. Or shoot with no dialogue. Keep pushing and experimenting.

I feel at the beginning and possibly at the end that it can be really positive to have no money, or minimal equipment. Then you have to use your head to find clever ways to make your ideas work.

Work out your shot list, have a plan of each location and where you intend to put the camera. I am not a big fan of tight storyboarding, but simple stick drawings, which enable you to undertand and explain how a sequence will be cut, will really help when things get confusing and you get short of time during the shoot.

Editing is also an important thing to learn about. Not necessarily by cutting one’s own footage. But I learned a lot by studying the rushes to see why certain shots felt weak because I was too close to the actor, why certain shots didn’t cut together properly because I had not put the camera in the right place.

On my first films, the cutting room was where I learned the most. The production was so badly put together, that we just rushed from one disaster to the next. It was in the cutting room that for the first time I had any peace and quiet and could try to make sense of what we had shot.

I feel it’s very important to watch plenty of films, at the cinema and on video, all sorts – commercial and art house – just to see how they are put together, what makes one unique and another derivative.

Read books by and about filmmakers that interest you. Everyone goes through the same traumas. See how they achieved things. Read plenty of scripts, both long and short. Study the structure of films, the devices used by the writer to pull you into the story and the characters.

Learn to trust your instincts. Everyone will tell you to shoot it one way when you know you want to do it another way. But also know when to listen to your crew. You have to trust one another.

There's so much I could say, but at the end of the day, just go out and shoot. Just do it. You can only really learn by doing it and making your own mistakes. You can’t really learn filmmaking by reading a book.

Try to make each film better than your last, then at least you're moving in the right direction.

September 1999
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