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Very few films can end with a scene that is so striking that it makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve just witnessed. Jörn Threlfall’s Over is one of those.

Set in a north-west London neighbourhood, this 12-minute short has no central characters and sparse dialogue. Instead, through a series of nine wide shots that progress backwards in time, Threlfall invites audiences to pay attention to little details that seem ordinary: a bouquet of flowers left on the road, workers taking away a damaged car, or a boy playing with his soccer ball.

And it’s in these quiet, patient observations of seemingly everyday activities that audiences discover that something tragic has happened, the revelations of which are striking and profound.

With Over, Threlfall, a London-based commercials director, emerges as one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch. And by taking a more contemplative approach to this real-life tragedy, he guarantees that, by the time the credits roll, this is a story we will never forget.

Threlfall’s breakthrough work on the film has not gone unnoticed by the industry, either. Along with being honoured with the top narrative short film prizes at festivals in Chicago and the Hamptons, Threlfall, one of Screen International’s 2015 Stars of Tomorrow, is now vying for Best Short Film at this year’s BAFTAs.

Ahead of the film’s latest stop at the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke to Threlfall about his unconventional style of storytelling, his preparation for Over, and his influences as a filmmaker.

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ScreenPicks: In making this film, you’ve taken this very unconventional approach. First of all, there’s no protagonist, or antagonist, for the audience to follow. Instead, we have a series of nine wide shots that progress backwards in time. Were these always decisions you always planned on for a film? Or did it develop after you learned about the source material — which we won’t spoil. (laughs)

Threlfall: “(laughs) Thanks. No, it actually developed after I learned about the incident. I was so struck by the surealness and the outlandishness of this event that took place in such a mundane landscape within London that I felt it really needed a new way of telling. I didn’t really want to bring a conventional, traditional narrative structure to the story. I wanted to involve the viewer in different ways and, I suppose, demand different things of them, different ways of playing with intrigue, different ways of playing with time and, really, different ways of seeing an event.”

ScreenPicks: In order for the choreography to be authentic, you worked with this former Scotland Yard officer to understand proper crime scene procedures. Can you talk about the other ways you went beyond traditional research to prepare for this film?

Threlfall: “I spent a lot of time at the location, actually. The single location, which is really just up the road from where I live, in north-west London. I spent a long time finding a place that allowed me nine angles, wide shots that offered, I suppose, a kind of fragmented perspective on the same scene, the same location. So I spent quite a lot of time walking around this location, this little bit of grassland, in a very suburban neighbourhood, just plotting out points, plotting out shots that would offer this kind of, I suppose, rather surveillance-like vantage of the events as they unfold.”

ScreenPicks: Especially in mainstream cinema, audiences tend to favour films that are fast paced, with quick shots. Your film, however, is refreshing because it’s quite patient and it commands the viewer to pay attention to the little details that you don’t really look at. It makes the viewer put the pieces together. What advantages do you think this more contemplative film has?

Threlfall: “Well, I think, firstly, it respects a viewer. It allows the viewer to think or to become involved, in their own way, rather than to be bombarded or assaulted with information. I think, as you quite rightly say, traditional, modern filmmaking often really leaves no room for the viewer to think for themselves. I like the idea that art, and any form of creativity, is a process involving two parties. I like the idea that the viewer is made to think, is made to reflect, is an an emotional and psychological and almost a physical level. I think that quiet and that patience and that reflection really is — that almost meditative process — is a respectful process and really lets the viewer watch the story unfold, in his or her own way, in their own time.

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ScreenPicks: Were there any specific filmmakers you were inspired by for this style?

Threlfall: “You know, it’s interesting because a lot of filmmakers have been cited in the same sentence when people have reviewed this short. I watch a lot of films; I’m very influenced inevitably, consciously or not, by filmmakers. Haneke, of course, is a filmmaker I respect hugely within the European filmmaking tradition. There’s a Swedish filmmaker called Ruben Östlund who made Force Majeure, of course, that I respect immensely for his silence and his more tempered approach to storytelling.

“Of course, a great American auteur filmmaker, experimental, semi-experimental, narrative filmmaker, Jon Jost, from the ’60s and ’70s, who also continues to make films today. It was always a big influence to me. I seem to remember a number of films he made mostly for economical purposes ’cause he could only afford eight rolls or seven rolls of a 1,000 foot mag — and not really in editing suites — so he ended up with eight or nine shots in his feature films.

“But this durational kind of filmmaking really stayed with me, and it has a certain theatricality to it, which I like. I mean, my background, of course, is also in theatre. And I like that kind of sense that the viewer is not really offered anywhere else to go; they sit in their seat and they watch a story unfold. And they’re not really offered closeups, details, or too many angles.”

ScreenPicks: Do you think this style of filmmaking, which is very contemplative and doesn’t spoonfeed exposition, would ever gain momentum for a wide audience, or is it still for a niche audience?

Threlfall: “It’s a good question. I mean, obviously, we’re talking in feature films, I imagine, short work in different ways inevitably. I think, certainly, offering this technique over 90 or 100 minutes would be a more challenging venture, one that I would rise to without a doubt. But let’s look at the Force Majeure, the Ruben Östlund film, or Play, his previous work; I think it was on the Oscar shortlist last year. I don’t think it made the final five, but it’s certainly a film that resonated — not exactly sure how well it did at the box office — but I don’t know.

“I think, of course, we live in a world of Star Wars and Star Trek and visual and oral bombardment — which will always be, probably, the most popular and commercial form of filmmaking — but I think audiences are, now and again, long for something novel, something a little bit more original. Who knows? It’s a good question. It’s something I’d certainly like to explore and experiment with.”

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ScreenPicks: I know that you have lots of experience directing advertisements over in the U.K. Would you say that has at all helped you hone your craft in the narrative short film area?


Threlfall: “Yeah, I think so. It’s a great old thing, advertising, because each commercial — I make a lot of car commercials — is 60-second or 120-second little art piece, really. And it certainly allows me to tell a story, offer a narrative, in an elliptical way, over that short duration. So yes, it disciplines me as a filmmaker … Where are the short cuts? How can I tell a story short [in a] short, sharp, succinct manner? So yes, certainly commercials has helped with making short films. It’s a great crossover, actually. I recommend any short filmmaker to make commercials — any filmmaker, really. It keeps the wheels oiled and really allows you to hone your craft.”

ScreenPicks: As I’ve mentioned, it’s kind of hard to talk about this film without spoiling the ending. But it’s definitely one of those endings where you change the way you think about the events that preceded it. So I’ve read all your past interviews, and the impression I get is that you love to challenge the way people perceive everyday things that they take for granted. What is it that compels you as a filmmaker, to perceive those things?

Threlfall: “Gosh. That’s a very interesting question. To ask people to see the world in different ways, and to perceive the world around them in different ways, is a huge challenge. Certainly, that’s something I’m looking for in my everyday creative process, not only wanting to tell stories about the world around us, with fresh eyes on that, but also to see the world with fresh eyes myself. I think there’s a big distinction for me between seeing and looking.

“I love the idea of making people look, actively look at things they might only see in passing every day. So we stop, we look, we notice, and we become mindful of ordinary, often very mundane, banal things or events that really can enrich us, but we really just usually pass over without really fully taking in or comprehending.”

ScreenPicks: Is that how you are in everyday life? You see things and try to think of ways of seeing them differently?

Threlfall: “I’m like that. And I like the idea of offering different perspectives on something familiar. Absolutely, I think. To make people see the world in new, fresh ways is vital. I think it’s vital in feeling alive. I think, certainly, the idea of slowing things down, noticing, perceiving, understanding, certainly is something that enriches people’s experiences.

“And this is — why I was drawn to this remarkable story — it’s a very, as you say, it’s a mundane everyday neighbourhood, where, really, nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. Into this landscape comes something very unexpected, very surreal, very outlandish, and tragic. And it makes people reassess the way they see the everyday. And it really makes people open their eyes, I think.”

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ScreenPicks: Your next stop for Over is the Sundance Film Festival. Has there been any reactions so far, though, that has really stood out to you?

Threlfall: “It’s a very interesting film to watch at the movie theater, at festivals, with an audience. It’s a process I find hugely gratifying, actually. It’s a very interesting experience because, obviously, I know what’s coming; I know how the film finishes. For me, that kind of surprise element — this lack of knowing what’s going to happen, and then this sudden event — just to watch a viewer respond to that is very interesting, exciting, interesting, a lot of things rolled into one.

“When I was in Palm Springs, a lot of audience members laughed at the final moment in the film. It’s something I understood. It teaches me about people and how people respond to events in shock and in horror and tragedy and the surreal. People laugh, of course, as a defence mechanism. Some people shout out, some people scream, some people vocalize, and are very vociferous. Some people are just stunned and don’t know quite what the hell’s happened … What it leaves people, the residue it leaves people with, is very interesting and very, very exciting for me. People are intrigued, people are shocked, people want to know more.”

ScreenPicks: Finally, I know that you’re working on a feature about teenage romance. Can you tell us about what we can expect from that?

Threlfall: “All I can say at this stage — I don’t want to talk too much about the subject matter — it’s something that really hasn’t been touched on much in cinema. Again, I’m being very secretive about it. It’s an intriguing story. It’s a, as I say in the notes, it’s a teenage love story that’s very tender, very lyrical, quite beautiful, but embedded with a very, very dark, almost sinister, psychological, emotional landscape. So again something very ordinary, something very beautiful, something very natural, sits side by side with something horrific and unexpected and unnatural. And the tension that results from that juxtaposition is really what makes the film so powerful and so novel.”

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival runs between January 21-31 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Sundance and Ogden, Utah. The BAFTA Awards takes place on Sunday, February 14.

(All photos courtesy of Over.)