Interview with Tom Stubbs of ‘Dawn of the Dark Fox’

We catch up with filmmaker Tom Stubbs after a trip to Sheffield Doc/Fest with collaborator Michael Smith to pitch for financing for their new feature film, DAWN OF THE DARK FOX - a development based on their short 'Light and Dark', an award-winning film from Encounters 2009.

Filmmakers Tom Stubbs and Michael Smith

Tom Stubbs and Michael Smith in ‘Light and Dark’

Tom, how did you and Michael meet?

Michael got picked up by Knowle West Media Centre when he was about 15 and they were doing video-making projects. I met him when he was about 22 and I was doing some video workshops for the centre. Michael had worked with them for several years and had been involved in loads of projects. I was helping make films and animations and he took part in some workshops. He had loads of ideas but they were very difficult to get off the ground; he’s a comic book artist and almost a novelist, and has worlds within worlds. We did Light and Dark in 2008 and we always thought we’d do some more.

You won both an audience and a jury prize at Encounters in 2009 for your short film Light and Dark – did these wins encourage your decision to transform the short into a feature film?

Yes, getting into Encounters is hard as a lot of people apply. When I was making the short I wanted it to be ten minutes, I wanted to get it into Encounters because I hadn’t got a film into it at that point, and I’d made things that were longer but I wanted to appeal to the selectors with a shorter running time. My pregnant partner was due around the time we won, so I went straight from that to being a dad a couple of days later.

We always knew we wanted to do something more, but there was a bit of a hiatus with being a father and fitting things in.

How did the feature film idea, Dawn of the Dark Fox, come about?

We had tried to get funding and then we met our producer, Alex Usborne, and he was very interested. Alex contacted my company, Biggerhouse film, as he’d seen on the website we did a lot of projects to do with disability and his company specialises in that. I gave him a copy of Light and Dark and he called me saying that he really, really liked it. Michael had done some performances and I had seen that he was a great performer, so I had the idea that there should be a theatre show that we’re building. We were called to a workshop in Sheffield and Michael and I went up as a double-act. It was about pitching and shaping ideas, and I just started filming on iPhones thinking, “we’re doing it, we’re making the film now”. So that’s how the film started. There’s footage in the film now that was from back then, like us falling out after missing the train and other stuff like that.

How is the project going so far?

We haven’t said we’re in production, but we’ve just been accruing material. We went up to the Sheffield Doc/Fest trying to find funding for the production. I tried to film a time-lapse of the journey because in the back of my mind this film is going to be about time; the time we spend together, the time that Michael is frustrated that it’s not happening on time, the time limit on the film itself… So time is a big theme, and this film has taken a long time so far! We currently have about a 90 minute assembly of clips of us trying to make the film with bursts of this other world. I think the film will be a rollercoaster into places we don’t know. There is a documentary element and there’s a written element, but the ending is still unfinished. We’ve got a sense that there’s going to be a showdown – whether that showdown is between me and Michael or between Michael and his alter-ego – it could be somewhere in-between.

How was Sheffield Doc/Fest?

Sheffield was really positive. We were in the MeetMarket and we were pitching so we had about 20 talks scheduled and pitch meetings. We had 15 minutes to pitch and Alex is a seasoned producer so he’d written and directed most of the pitch, and we’d rehearsed it. We’d created clips to show so that people could understand the dynamic between us, so we played a clip and then had about 7 or 8 minutes to pitch. It was draining for everyone really, we were walking around in a daze then you have to switch on and be charming and be on time. It’s all about time.

What is it like working together, did you have to compromise a lot?

We all have to compromise. I’m trying to maintain the project and push it forward and keep it going, but at the same time I’m really trying to make sure that the ideas come from Michael. There’s so many of them that we need to be selective, so there’s discussions as there are in any film or creative process. Editing will be a big bone of contention, as Michael says in the short film, “why do you want to cut all my best bits out?” Sometimes we get into a really great creative space where we can work really well, it’s all about time. It’s finding time to be together as we’re almost in different time zones, I have kids and get up at 6, whereas Michael can wake up at 10, then I’ll have to pick up the kids at 3, so there’s limited time.

What would your advice be to anyone entering Encounters in future?

Sometimes there’s many forms beyond both documentary and drama. There’s other things to try and do. Keep things brief. The reason why I think Light and Dark was particularly successful is that I was aware at the time that a film over 10 minutes would be hard to programme. We consciously wanted the film to be ten minutes. We even made a joke of it using the stopwatch and the film is 10 minutes to the frame. It’s a hard marketplace, you have to clearly see those limitations. Set yourself a target, learn to maybe make a really densely detailed 6 minute film. People will respond to emotion. Our film had lots of information and it was fun and it was engaging and I think people got all those emotions. It’s like with the pitching, we’re trying to make a big film but we’re reducing it to a 15 minute pitch.

It’s a pressured environment but in the same way, Encounters is a pressured environment as there’s so many people making films that you have to make something that stands out. Encounters is a very good focus for the industry. I think some people will focus on script, but I think focus on the emotion and the energy. I think it’s good to take the conversation away from technology, equipment and dialogue, that’s nuts and bolts, but if you can convey an emotion, convey meaning and take people on a journey, I think that’s what people want.

Enjoy the trailer for DAWN OF THE DARK FOX below.

Enjoy award-winning short Light and Dark below.