Alan Shelley was one of the first ever winners of Jameson First Shot in the first year of the campaign in 2012. Besides writing and directing his JFS short film Spirit of a Denture starring Kevin Spacey, he has worked as an editor, a VFX artist and has written and directed across the genres of music videos, commercials, PSAs and narrative shorts. His awards include a number of Vukas, two Loeries and a SAFTA. Since his Jameson First Shot experience, Alan has been working with production company BENCHfilms, a collective of like-minded young filmmakers.
His most recent offering is Taxiing, a charming, homegrown, feel-good story of a taxi driver and his conductor who want to fly a plane, currently showing at the Durban International Film Festival.
How did you come to be where you are now in your career? Please let us know a bit about your journey so far…
I started making films in high school with friends. I then went to film school, CityVarsity, in Cape Town. I won a few student awards while I was studying. After film school I taught VFX and started working as a freelance motion graphic designer. I entered Jameson First Shot and won. The whole experience really cemented my desire to direct. Now I co-own a small production company called BENCHfilms with friends I worked well with in film school.
Is being a filmmaker what you expected it would be going into it?
In some places yes. I knew going in that filmmaking was going to be hard work and it’s quite a misunderstood industry as far as friends and family are concerned. I think what I didn’t expect was how long things took. Not the production process but getting a project off the ground, the writing, and the funding and the selling all takes a long time.
What kind of films do you make and what kind do you want make?
This is the hardest question to answer. It changes all the time. I think looking at all my work surreal comedy is my forté. I like comedies that have a serious premise. “In Bruge” is a good example. Anything by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking). “Little Miss Sunshine” is one of my all time favorites. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is also a director I wish I could be.
To be honest I’d make any genre if the story resonates with me.
How would you describe your style or ‘voice’?
I lied, this is the hardest question. Brad Bird said it best with The Incredibles; It’s all about the Fantastic versus the Mundane, Order versus Chaos. That is something that has defined my work. Spirit of Denture is a good example of this. It’s about a dreary mundane dentist, being challenged by the fantastic; a Story Book pirate.
How has your editing and VFX experience aided your directing?
It’s a blessing and a curse. It means I can think about making a story in any time or place. I can think about making a Sci-Fi because I know how I can do it. If you have some skill in VFX you can add massive production value to your films for a relatively low cost.
It’s a curse because it takes forever. Hardware and Software are prohibitively expensive and render times are mental torture.
It really helps with the previous question about voice. I recently made a film about a taxi driver who dreams of becoming a pilot. He can’t afford to go to flight school or buy a plane so he converts his taxi into a plane and flies it around Cape Town. VFX allowed me to take something ordinary and turn it into something fantastical.
What are your thoughts on the South African film industry – what are some of the challenges and perks of making movies/ads/music videos here?
It’s good. There are a lot of opportunities here. We have a great commercial industry, great locations, great gear houses. Internet is becoming a burgeoning area of opportunity for filmmakers. Our expensive and slow telecommunications could put us behind the rest of the world but there are positive rumours in this regard.
What was your motivation/the deciding factor to enter Jameson First Shot?
My girlfriend made me do it. – I always wanted to enter, the thought of directing a film in Hollywood with a big star was amazing. But I couldn’t think of anything to write so two days before deadline my girlfriend told me that we weren’t going out until I submitted something. So I did.
What did you learn from the experience that has helped you since?
I learned a lot about directing – what to expect from actors and crew. I also learned a lot about production from our producers. I learned new things as well as validating methods we had developed at home. Also, new ideas come all the way through production. Mr Spacey was always suggesting new ideas right through the shoot. It’s difficult because we have a schedule and a determined number of shots and a new idea can disrupt that… Or so I thought. I learned to be more flexible with my plan and respond to better ideas from the actors and the crew. Do everything you can to make the film better at any time in the process.
What have you been working on since?
I have been working a number of short films and entering competitions. I’ve also been developing our company BENCHfilms. We recently won the 48hourfilmproject in Cape Town and we went to Los Angeles where our film placed Second Runner Up (3rd) out of 22 000 world wide entries and went to the Cannes Film Festival.
What do you think constitutes ‘making it’ in your industry?
I think if you can make a living and make the films you want to make you’ve made it.
I want to explore any kind of long form storytelling. Features are a format that we’ve all dreamed of doing, but I think TV is new cinema and web is fast becoming the new TV. At BENCHfilms we are developing scripts to pursue this ambition as well as creating a sustainable company in the age of content.
Where can we keep up to date with you and your work?