P:O.V. No.11 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, PEEPSHOW

An interview with Charlie Call on Peep Show

Richard Raskin

How did the Peep Show project begin?

I had been planning to make a short film that would be shot in 35 mm, something I had never done before. And right about the time I had resolved to do that, I went to a comedy show that a friend of mine was performing in – he's one of the actors that was in Peep Show. And they did a series of sketches, one of which was called Peep Show. So this was a stage performance. I thought it was very funny. At the time, I was busy editing something else, and I couldn't do anything about it right away, but about three months later, I called my friend up and told him that I thought they had made a very funny piece, and that if we reworked it for the screen, it could be very funny on film. So that's how it began.

And I pitched in my idea for how it would need to be changed. Because when they did it on stage, there was no set or production design or props or anything. It involved sort of "space work."

And was it agreed from the start that the scriptwriters of the stage piece would play the two male roles?

Yes, absolutely.

How about the woman, who was also wonderful? How did you find Jane Leyden for that part?

She was in the same comedy troop as the two men.

Was she in the original stage production of Peep Show?

No, but I saw her do it at a time when the original person was not there.

One of the things you mentioned about the difference between the stage production and your film is the set and the props. I think it is so important in a short film that there be an interplay between what is going on inside the characters and the external, physical things around them. Like the window that rolls up and down, the light that flashes, and so on. Did you give that special attention in your work?

Absolutely. One of the themes of the film is the difference between what men show women, or the face that they present to women, and the reality when women aren't looking. And my plan was that when the woman looked straight through the glass, these guys looked great and the room they're in looked nice, but once you saw them when the curtain wasn't there, not only did they talk differently and make fun of what they were saying, but you also saw, visually, that the only way that room looked nice was right through the glass. They had a little fan to blow the smoke away and to tidy up their image.

Were you at all concerned about the way feminists might respond to your portrayal of the woman?

Yes, actually I was. In fact, when I was working on the film, during the editing stage, I remember watching it and wondering if I would ever get a date again – if women would take it as an insult and feel that it made women look as though they were prone to frivolous flattery. I was concerned about that. But interestingly enough, two people who are professors at universities here in the states, have shown Peep Show to their women's studies classes to kick off a discussion. I have not gotten much negative feedback about it. A little bit, isolated. Surprisingly, women seem to be amused by the film and not insulted.

I tried your film out on a few Danish women, who told me that they didn't feel offended because the guys were portrayed as so disgusting.

Exactly! In a way, you could say that the men look worse than the woman, 'cause they're the deceptive, slimy assholes. (Laughter.)

Did your own work with the story evolve through the various phases of pre-production and production? Or did you know pretty much from the start how you wanted to structure things?

There was only one thing I was unsure as to how it was actually going to play out – I'll explain to you what that is – but for the most part, it was pretty thoroughly planned. Every shot was storyboarded, and there were a few shots about which I wasn't sure in which order they would be edited together. But for the most part, because we worked on a really tight shooting schedule, I knew there was just no time for screwing around and trying to think up something on set. So it was all pretty well decided ahead of time, with one exception.

Basically, the way I've structured it is that there are five segments that the woman progresses through, ending with the big climactic moment at the conclusion. In the fourth segment, where they say a lot of one-liners – "I want to wash your hair," and "Let's go shoe-shopping" – when we were shooting, I had no idea in what order we would use the lines. That was something that was not in the original stage piece. And I realized when I was storyboarding the film that we needed something like that for the pacing, to really bring her almost to the brink.

And what I did was, I sat down with the two guys and with the woman who was in it as well, and I said, "Here's what I'd like to do. We need to brainstorm about 30 or 40 of these one-liners. Just come up with the craziest stuff you can think of. Then what we're going to do is just turn the camera on each one of you, have you say a line, take a moment, say the next one… " And so that's what we did. I just turned the camera on them for like five minutes while they each said all these lines. Basically, I knew that was the one thing I was going to have to play with in the editing room. Which I did. And I actually had to leave a number of the things that they said on the cutting-room floor. But I think I got it exactly the way I wanted it.

You mentioned the tight shooting schedule. How much time did you have for the shoot?

We shot it in two days.

I imagine that Peep Show has done very well at festivals.

Yes, it's won a number of awards.

Do you think storytelling in the short film is essentially the same as storytelling in the feature, or that the short film has its own specific kind of storytelling?

I think the difference between the two is that the short film will focus on a narrower idea, and if executed properly, will take you through an arc – will basically still have a set-up, and something that may be analogous to a three-act structure. So I think there really is a parallel in how the story should be told, in terms of giving a resolution and having people feel like they were taken from one place to another. And I've seen a number of short films which had promise but for some reason don't end up with a pay-off or don't end up with some sort of resolution that's satisfying.

It's difficult. Just because a short film runs ten minutes, that doesn't mean it's easier. It still has to be thought through, and you still have to know where you're taking your audience from the beginning to the end.

Is there any advice you would like to give to student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

I guess the best advice I could give is to try to do as much preparation and planning as possible before you actually start shooting. With shooting, you never seem to have enough time. And if you have planned what you want to do, and if you've watched the movie in your head, and you know the shots that you need, that's going to give you the comfort level to maybe do some experimenting while you're actually shooting. But I think the biggest danger is to not know exactly what you need when you're on set.

5 July 2000

to the top of the page