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Still from the film ‘VENUS’ featuring Gotham Alley in Hastings. © Andrew McGee 2020.

New twist on the ‘cyberpunk’ Sci-Fi film genre made in Hastings

VENUS is a short film shot in Hastings, co-written by filmmakers Andrew McGee and Tara Shehata and starring Margaret Clunie (VictoriaLast Christmas). It’s a self-contained short story that they are intending to use as a proof of concept to launch a full-length feature film. VENUS is inspired by cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. The film embraces the Sci-Fi genre, while sensitively exploring themes of identity, gender and objectification from a unique perspective. The script was also a Screen Craft finalist – one of the biggest international screenwriting competitions. Stella Keen asked the filmmakers how they came to collaborate on this ambitious project.

Are you based in the Hastings area and how did you come to collaborate on making movies?

Andrew – I’m near Brighton and have lived around the South East over the last few years and always enjoyed visiting Hastings. We met five years ago while studying and working on short films, though we didn’t collaborate fully until Tara directed a short film called The Shadow of Cairo, which we also co-wrote.

Tara – I’m currently based in Cairo. I lived in England when I was doing a BA in Film at Warwick University and an MA in Directing at Met Film School, but since graduating I’ve come back to work in Egypt.

Poster for the film ‘The Shadow of Cairo’. © Tara Shehata 2018.

What inspired you to get into movie-making in the first place?

Andrew – I’ve always been creative, writing stories as a child and drawing comics about my dog, which I look back on as storyboards. I wanted to pursue acting as a teenager, but eventually felt more comfortable behind a camera. I love the collaborative process of bringing so many different artists together, from actors to composers to set designers.

Tara – I fell in love with the medium thanks to my dad, a huge cinephile, who introduced me to many films. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker somehow, without fully understanding the technicalities.

Tara – what’s the movie scene like in Egypt?

Egypt’s film industry is central to the Arab world, with many films produced every year distributed across the Middle East, but it’s starting to become more renowned internationally. Egyptian cinema has a rich history – the late great Youssef Chahine for instance – his films have international audiences and thankfully many are finally available to watch on Netflix. The Egyptian series Paranormal has just been released on Netflix and  Egyptian short film I’m Afraid to Forget Your Face has just won the Short Film Palme D’Or at Cannes, so I believe Egypt’s film scene is of great importance internationally.

Still from the film ‘The Shadow of Cairo’. © Tara Shehata 2018.

I love the look of The Shadow of Cairo with the animation elements. Can you tell me a bit more about what inspired this style? It seems to be very much filmed from the little girl’s viewpoint.

It is definitely filmed from the little girl’s point of view, helping keep a light-hearted tone against the serious issues the film tackles. I love animation, especially the use of 2D animation on live action – it’s the clash between fantasy and reality, which the protagonist deals with: she dreams of being a superhero but has to face the reality of the world she lives in.

How have you found the collaborative aspect of VENUS – writing the script together? Does it help or hinder that you are both experienced film directors?

We bounce ideas off each other very well and have different strengths – we consider ourselves directors first and writers second, so support each other through the process. It’s also important to have the female perspective in a film which is so much about objectification and female identity. I think our writing benefits from our very different backgrounds and experiences. But I don’t think we could ever co-direct – we would probably have too many conflicting ideas!

Is this collaboration ongoing for future projects?

Andrew – After VENUS is released I’m hoping to develop it into a feature-length film and focus on writing the script myself, while Tara will be doing the same with The Shadow of Cairo, but we’ll always feedback on each other’s work and will co-write other projects in the future.

The locations for VENUS are mostly in the same small area of Hastings – it seemed a particularly richly inspiring location!

Very inspiring, we were incredibly lucky! Despite knowing Hastings, I actually only discovered Gotham Alley after researching similar locations to shoot in. I was despairing – the UK simply doesn’t have many good alley locations – the city-based ones were unaffordable, but the location was crucial to the story. Gotham Alley was perfect with so much cinematic potential and the Alley Association and Rock House were wonderfully supportive in making the shoot happen.

Filming ‘VENUS’ on location in the Observer Building, Hastings. © Andrew McGee 2020.

One of the other major locations in VENUS needed to be a big, abandoned-looking urban space. We discovered that the Observer building was available for the production, which immediately solved several pre-production issues by filming everything in the same spot over four nights. We also used the tunnels below the building, full of old machinery and cool alcoves, to great effect.

Both locations look stunning on camera with the production design and lighting setup, though the toughest challenge was lighting the interior of the Observer building. It was crucial that we had light coming through the window, but the fact it was on the second floor of the building meant we needed a scissor lift in the alley which was an extra complication on an already quite big shoot.

Are you planning to shoot any more films based in Hastings/St Leonards? It’s clearly a photogenic location!

We’d love to! One location which just wasn’t possible in the schedule or budget is Bottle Alley, with its amazing light show, great architecture and depth. Between the countryside, sea, and historic town spots, it’s a wonderful part of the country for diverse storytelling.

On location, filming ‘VENUS’ in Gotham Alley in Hastings. © Andrew McGee 2020.

Miguel’s cinematography is superb! It definitely evokes Blade Runner but also references the ultra-rich colours of the Italian ‘Giallo’ Horror genre! How did you decide on the look and style of it all?

Our futuristic world gave plenty of lighting opportunities to experiment with visuals and tone. We were keen to give each scene a distinct look and atmosphere in line with the emotional beats, something which the latest Blade Runner film did very well, and punctuate certain big narrative moments with shifts in colour.

Miguel had time to colour grade the film himself during the first lockdown, which is such an important part of everything you see in film and TV that I feel is under-appreciated. You can’t save bad lighting in the edit, but you can definitely ruin good lighting and cinematography with bad colour grading!

This certainly looks like your most ambitious film to date in every sense! What’s next?

Without a doubt! We hope to develop VENUS into a feature film but realistically we’re not going to find a blockbuster budget for a debut feature. These production values are inevitably expensive, but new technology like the Virtual Production screens used in the latest Star Wars series will help make independent and low-mid budget filmmaking more accessible than ever.

Still from ‘VENUS’. © Andrew McGee 2020.

Is the current world crisis inspiring or just too difficult?!

It’s a much less exciting dystopia than the ones in films! It’s sparked a few thoughts but mostly the bleak state of things makes it harder to be creative, especially without the mental break of socialising or travel – though fewer distractions mean more time to keep working on the film.

With film festivals postponed or moved online, we’re crossing our fingers for next year. After the amount of time and work that’s gone into this film, we want to wait for proper festival screenings and celebrate by seeing it in a cinema. We were looking forward to a premiere with the cast and crew, but we’ll still try to make a big event out of a Zoom call!

To view the trailer for the film and find out more about Andrew’s work visit here and Tara’s work here. There’s also a Kickstarter page for VENUS here.

Posted 18:49 Sunday, Nov 15, 2020 In: Film

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