21 May Featured: Mark Middlewick | Making Films That Leave Gaps for Meaning
Mark Middlewick is accomplished for a director so young, having had his first short film, Security, shown at film festivals around the world. The same film was recently nominated for Best Short Film at the 2015 SAFTAs. We’ve known Mark for his music video work for Shadowclub, and musicians Matthew Mole and Nakhane Toure. His music video for Nakhane’s ‘Fog’ was an unconventional nomination for Most Beautiful Object In South Africa at the 2014 Design Indaba.
Strangely visually rich in their minimalism, Mark aspires to make poetic personal films that challenge the viewer, and that leave gaps for the audience to find their own meaning. Mark writes all his material, deciding on stories according to a general rule of making the things he wants to see. We hope to see much more from him.
Having recently returned from the States where he shot his Jameson First Shot-winning short film with Trigger Street Productions and Adrien Brody, we caught up with Mark to find out why and how he makes films – and about the JFS experience.
Please tell us about your decision to pursue film as a career? What do you love about the medium and telling stories in this way?
Film is the most accessible of all the arts. It’s the most widely consumed and thus offers the best pedestal to influence culture. For me, it trumps all other mediums by successfully allowing the audience to empathize with other people, which is essential in a global society that seems to be becoming more and more divided by the day.
You taught screenwriting and directing after completing your studies, what are the most important things aspiring directors need to know? Are there some things that just can’t be taught?
The most important thing aspiring filmmakers need to know is that regardless of how much experience they gain, the only thing that will improve their filmmaking is to watch an array of films. They need to gorge themselves on cinema.
I was often surprised by how few films students were watching. There are certain film schools that don’t expose students to cinema, rather focusing on a small scope of commercial fare. I believe that we need to be nurturing a new wave of African filmmakers with clear distinct authorial voices, and we can’t achieve that if we don’t expose them to a plethora of film from all eras, countries and cultures.
What kind of films do you make – and aspire to make?
I aspire to make poetic personal films that challenge the viewer and give them insight into characters they might not ordinarily be exposed to. How successful I have been thus far is up for debate, but no matter the project that’s always the goal.
Would you say you have a signature style? If so, how would you describe it?
I’m primarily influenced by the French New Wave as well as New Hollywood cinema, and I’m interested in applying both movements’ sensibilities to South African stories. My work tends to be sparse and very quiet and I always aspire to make films that leave gaps for the audience to find meaning. I’m very much a minimalist at heart and I’m all about showing rather than telling. I often find myself asking what can I take out, rather than what can I add. I’ve been revisiting some of Robert Bresson’s stuff and the guy was an absolute genius at boiling his work down to its bare essentials.
You’ve directed a number of music videos, most notably for Nakhane Toure. What role does music play in your life and work?
Music is often the jumping off point for many of my ideas. Not necessarily conceptually, but I’ll hear a song and the momentary feeling it evokes makes me want to create a similar experience using narrative film.
Do you approach a music video differently to say, a short film?
I do. I see music videos as a form of video art (especially my work with Nakhane Toure). Music videos aren’t about narrative, they’re about evoking a feeling or a theme.
Yes, they’re marketing for an artist, but I believe they can be so much more. Unfortunately many local and international music video directors just want to make “cool shit” without thinking about what their images are saying or the ideologies they’re entrenching.
How do you decide on what stories you want to write and tell?
My brain is always full of half-baked ideas, but the ones that stick are the ones I pursue. As a general rule, if I want to see it, then that’s a good enough reason to make it.
What has been your most significant project to date? Please tell us a bit about the making of it…
In 2013 I made a short film, Security, as part of the Focus Features Africa First Program. It screened at several international film festivals around the world, among them the London International Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival. It also won a couple awards back home. The film was a revelatory experience for me as it really helped me hone my voice. It felt like the first thing I’d made that represented me, which isn’t to say that it’s not filled with moments and choices that now make me cringe.
Can you let us in on your Jameson First Shot experience? What were some of the biggest challenges, and biggest rewards?
The biggest challenge was attempting to make something distinct within the sensibilities of the program. Previously the films in the Jameson First Shot Program all had a similar feel and aesthetic and I set about making something that stood in contrast to that. If anything my concept was a bit of a Trojan Horse.
I found it quite difficult making something that wasn’t located in South Africa narratively. But the character was someone I felt deeply connected to and I used this to steer me in the right direction.
You’ve worked in LA previously. How does this compare to filmmaking in South Africa?
When I worked in LA I was a lowly script reader. I read 3 scripts a day, most of which were absolute trash. It was an enlightening experience as you realise that although there are many, many people chasing the same dream there are only a few that have the talent to make it.
In regards to shooting in LA, aside from presenting a different landscape, it’s very similar to shooting back in South Africa. I think we fail to recognise just how accomplished our local crews are.
What are some things you enjoy about making films in South Africa specifically? Would you say you’re influenced by your surroundings?
I’m definitely influenced by my surroundings. I’m a white boy from the suburbs of Johannesburg. Initially I attempted to run away from my seemingly banal heritage, but upon leaving the country you realise what a bizarre upbringing that is and the unique complexities of your experience.
I often feel like South African filmmakers gravitate to the same old stories, stories that in many ways conform to our own international stereotype, instead of making films about our own unique South African experience.
In the future I’d like to see South African filmmakers begin to make films that represent the idiosyncrasies and polarities of our country. However, there is light on the horizon, and filmmakers like Oliver Hermanus, Sibs Shongwe-La Mer and Ernest Nkosi are making beautiful films that explore distinct personal South African experiences.
What can we look out for from you next?
I’m currently developing a film with the NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation), but I’m most excited about a small personal project that will hopefully see the light of day in 2016. I’m also working on some conceptual art projects, which allows me to express all my self-indulgent pretentions.