Birdfall by Adele Myers
The filmmaker Adele Myers has become recognised in the poetry film world for her spare, sublime and evocative films. She is also something of an exception in the field in that, as a result of teaching DSLR short film production, her films are always honed and crafted in line with the more traditional big budget productions, using film crew, lighting, and sound on set.
Known in the creative world of interactive art and performance in Manchester since the late nineties, she has had over twenty years experience delivering a wide variety of artistic projects and training programmes, including starting Bokeh Yeah! DSLR peer–to–peer training network and production hub. She was working at Manchester College until last year when she left the UK and began teaching local women film in the United Arab Emirates. Look out for Adele’s latest initiative the Timeline Poem-Film Challenge. The challenge is to make a poem film from a selected poem in a certain amount of time.
A chance meeting in 2010 with Ra Page of Comma Press led to her being asked to make her first poetry film. Ra was interested in filmmakers making films based on the poems that Comma Press published. The result was the now highly regarded Racing Time (2012) from the eponymous poem by Chris Woods, capturing the determination and sprightliness of an elderly fell runner as he reached the peak of a climb in freezing conditions.
Selected by Alistair Cook for the Dunbar Filmpoem festival 2013, Alistair then chose Adele as one of the ten filmmakers commissioned to make a film to a poem by the winners and commended poems for The Poetry Society’s annual National Poetry Competition prize in 2013.
The resulting film was Birdfall, based on the commended poem by Danica Ognjenovic. It was premiered at Felix Poetry Festival, and screened at The Southbank Centre, London as well as by Liberated Words at Encounters Short film and Animation Festival, Bristol, 2014.
I spoke to Adele in Fujairah during Ramadan about Birdfall.
S: So, did you choose the poem, because it seemed to gel well with your concise filming style?
A: I asked if we could choose, but we were allocated poems. Initially Danica’s reading wasn’t very clear as it was done on a mobile phone. I asked if actors could deliver the poem but we were asked to work with the original voice, which then needed a lot of editing to make it clearer.
S: Your editing worked well because she sounds very clear. Did you know what she was writing about?
A: No, we didn’t have any contact.
S: I like that, it left it up to you to interpret; you had no preconceptions on the subject. I personally thought she might have been writing about boat people.
A: I thought of that and at one point I looked into the idea of slaves coming over on boats … The poem felt like a vast poem and I didn’t think I could find a lake and boats and birds flying over without a budget, and I thought you could possibility do it in animation but I am more a live action filmmaker and so prefer to work with actors.
I don’t know if you know but I made two films. My first idea was about hens and roosters meeting in the Farmyard pub. Bikers come in a pub and the local ‘hens’ have fantasy sex with them, but as the bikers were unaware of this they leave the ‘hens’ disappointed, but they laugh it off as girls might in that situation. I think that possibly confused The Poetry Society. They didn’t want a film that couldn’t be promoted openly on their website to schools. When Danica eventually saw the film she was a little curious as to how I came up with this idea – because it wasn’t how she had envisioned the poem. The second one is more similar to her original ideas.
S: What made you think of that idea? In your other films there normally seems to be some correlation between the poem and the image?
A: It was a domino effect. I couldn’t find a lake; and it was the first line –working out what it meant – ‘We were three hours at sea when the birds began to fall‘. It reminded me of the northern saying ‘three sheets to the wind‘ – meaning being drunk – I thought about if birds were in a situation then drunk; a friend has a country pub in Derbyshire and my northern roots kicked in as I imagined how people might interact in a certain situation. The pub being called the Farmyard was perfect as then the customers became the hens. I imagined the situation of these Rooster birds descending on the deck of this pub and ruffling the feathers of the hens.
Suddenly this Coronation Street goes wild scenario became the narrative. I showed it to Alistair and he was fine, but The Poetry Society was concerned about the sex scenes so I had to make a second film. So I came up with what I thought other people would accept, if I am honest – a Swan Lake scenario –and that would be okay, especially if a ballerina was the bird.
S: Do you know why you chose a confined space?
A: That might have been because it was one of the only spaces we could get on a tight budget that I could also control. I knew someone who ran that space as a studio and so I knew it was available, and I had rehearsed in there and I knew we wouldn’t be disturbed, and we didn’t have time for anywhere else.
A: It was quite dark. We made the space our own and shot in a day and edited in three days. I made a square box out of cellophane and lit it to create atmosphere. It looked beautiful. Within my films I try and elevate the poems and try and take them somewhere else.
S: What camera did you use?
A: All shot on DSLR. I’ve got a Canon 5D Mark III.
S: The quality of the film is so good.
A: Yes Thanks. All my film so far have been shot on a DSLR. We have strict shooting settings that we don’t go beyond …
S: How many people were involved in making the film?
A: Myself as director, an assistant, a sound editor and of course the dancer Liis-Maria Toomsalu. The main camera – Richard Addlesee followed my directions; I was also second camera on this particular film.
S: That’s a nice place to be; you can watch the other cameraperson and you know how you are covering them. And storyboarding?
A: I often don’t storyboard, especially if I am filming it myself but it helps if there are other crew on the shoot to relay a shot list to them or show an idea, so I have used them.
S: That’s unusual since every other aspect of the filming process is quite tightly controlled.
A: It’s because if I am shooting myself I have the idea in my head. I then go into the editing and know what I want very clearly, better than an editor can interpret, because I was at the shoot, I’ve seen all the footage already as I shot it. Also, usually you’d have a monitor but the way we are doing it we barely look at it, doing a one-day shoot. We also had an assistant to throw feathers at a fan on the floor to make them float. It made the film more abstract, more ambiguous.
S: Did you choose the choreography?
A: I choreographed a bit – because I am from a dance background, I studied Creative Arts at Crewe and Alsager College and majored in Dance. This film also married my dance background so gave me an opportunity to explore dance again. The dancer Liis-Maria is from Eastern Europe, and is classically trained. She was actually my neighbour in Hulme in Manchester, although I’d never knew her before the film.
S: I didn’t know you had been a dancer. Somehow then this film does all seem to make perfect sense, and the symbolism etc., even if you came to it in a roundabout way. What about the make up?
A: The dancer did quite a lot of work on that and her costume – we looked at birds, emblems and tattoos and Swan Lake, and she showed me photos of suggestions. I didn’t make any strict instructions on what she could or couldn’t do; in the end she decided. Liis-Maria is also pierced and tattooed so it was a different take on classical; an alternative classical dance.
S: You chose the music?
A: I originally worked with fairground themes, music box-type sounds, like the ballerina in a box. I wanted something soft to lead you into something but not being sure what it is. I had been going down the fairground route for some time and we rehearsed a lot with that, but in the edit it didn’t work so well.
S: Was it also governed by the softness of her voice?
A: No it was more about the setting – making it mythical and mysterious.
S: What about the budget?
A: After the first poem film I was on a really tight budget. I spent about £400 on this one, including buying the music. I had written to the composers numerous times for permission and I was in Antwerp (about to screen at the Felix Poetry Festival) and waiting for it to go on screen so had to pay 200 euros for the rights just before it aired.
S: Do you always work with someone else’s poem?
A: Yes. And I take a long time choosing the right one. I have never done my own, I might do one day. I write a little poetry, though not all the time, and I’m not sure its any good really, but the other day I thought about sending one to a competition – I thought I quite like that poem.