Letters Home from Jaye L Swift on Vimeo.
AmeriCymru: How did it feel to win the Cardiff International Film Festival?
Jonah: It was a surprise to be honest. The various criticisms we’d had up to that point varied from reasonable to downright mean-minded but we’d had a couple of minor hits with some festivals – best foreign film, best war film and a commended or two. Neither Jaye (the writer/producer) nor I had even thought about what to say when we got to the stage. She chickened out and I said something or other but I can’t remember what. I still hardly believe it.
AmeriCymru: How would you describe the film?
Jonah: It’s an intense snapshot of what it must be like to face such numb horror as the slaughter of WW1. We tried to give each of the soldiers a loving and hope-filled home-life, against which we set the stark claustrophobia they experienced in the trench before going over the top.
AmeriCymru: How did the project begin and what was your role in it?
Jonah: Jaye and I were part of a writer’s group based in Bridgend, South Wales and we had often whinged about not being able to sell our work. In the past I had some success with stage and radio plays and she had some more recent success with stage plays – one of which was Letters Home. She had started to put together a team to make the play as a film and asked me to direct it. We took her original script and changed it to make it more filmic – adding the three women and the baby – real name Josh, who behaved immaculately throughout his scenes. I thought of using Suo Gan as a theme throughout and a well-behaved baby gave me the perfect excuse. Jaye found Andy Edwards, a WW1 enthusiast who had built a trench at Morfa Bay Adventure Park near Pendine in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Some of the uniforms and weapons came from The Barry at War Museum, South Wales, some from the Tin Shed, Laugharne, West Wales and the rest we hired.
AmeriCymru: How easy was it working with a small crew and budget?
Jonah: If we’d known what we were doing we would have costed the whole project very differently but we ragged and tagged our way through it. Cast and crew did the whole thing for expenses only. That’s how persuasive Jaye can be. We used kickstarter - crowd funding site to get the money for hiring locations and equipment.
The actors were professionals, working for Fluellen Theatre in Swansea and Pontardawe, South Wales but most of whom had never performed on film. AJ (sound) and Matt (camera) were both starting their careers in this field. I had directed stage and radio but this was my first attempt at film.
Because we were a small crew, we were flexible and willing to learn as we went. There were no what we call jobs-worths in the gang. This was very much a team effort. Whatever needed doing got done by whoever was standing nearest.
Filming began on October 11th 2015.
We used a farmhouse owned by a friend of mine for the several “home” locations and filmed the whole project over three days. Problems along the way were circumnavigated as best we could. When the actress playing Tomos’ mother pulled out, Jaye and I looked at each other and decided that of the two of us, she would stand a better chance of playing the role. After that, she was muddying up the soldiers in between takes and dishing out the food while Mark (runner, armourer and smoke-machine operator) was helping them put on their puttees every morning. How they did it during the war is beyond me. It seemed to take forever.
Having shot the “home” sequences in one day, we all stayed at Morfa Bay for two further days to shoot the rest of the film. One consideration was the weather. Jaye had an alternative script for if the weather was wet, changing the location to Passchendaele. Fortunately, the weather remained dry and so we were able to stick to the original idea.
Editing and sound mixing was completed by the team during spare weekends either side of Christmas and we were able to show it to all the people who had supported us at Barry at War museum on 21st of May 2016.
The premiere proper was at Pontardawe Arts Centre (where most of the actors were based) on July 1st 2016 – the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
AmeriCymru: You funded some (or all?) of the making of “Letters Home” with a kickstarter campaign, how hard was that to make happen? Did it make getting to make the film easier? Do you think crowdfunding opens more opportunities to independent artists?
Jonah: Because we needed specific locations and costumes, the project would have been too expensive for us to fund from our bank-balances, even though we cut it down to the bare minimum. Thank goodness there are people out there who want to fund films for very little reward. In the case of Letters Home all they got was a private showing and a signed DVD. Our crowdfunding experience was entirely positive and much easier than I had been led to believe. If you have a project and you need crowdfunding, my advice is to treat all the sponsors as members of the team, as we did. Keep them in the information loop, tell them about the disasters and the triumphs of the process, show them the out-takes and the team is stronger for it. The film wouldn’t have been made without them.
The kickstarter page; Letters Home
AmeriCymru: Have you had a chance to watch the film as part of an audience? What effect do think it’s had on the people who’ve seen it and was it what you hoped or expected?
Jonah: We’ve seen it a few times and in various locations: Barry at War Museum, Pontardawe Arts Centre, a hotel in Llanelli, Brecon Cathedral (on Armistice Day 2016 – very moving) and most recently in the Vue Cinema in Cardiff as part of the Cardiff Independent Film Festival. Each one of those locations had something special and emotional about it. On three occasions, Trenchfoot – Andy Edwards’ band played. Great band – check them out.
Technically our favourite was the Vue Cinema because the sound of the mine (synthesised by AJ) came up through your feet when you had professional loudspeakers of that size.
Jaye is a very skilful writer and people responded strongly to the suppressed emotions in the film. Most people talked to me about how sad and hopeless thoughts were mixed with heroism and flashes of love, for a real knot of emotions. That pleased me most; that we managed to get across that range of emotions in such a short piece.
AmeriCymru: What was the most challenging thing about making “Letters Home”?
Jonah: Trying to show the size of this horror with such limited resources. We chose to focus on the three men and get inside their heads, rather than try to show the battle. We couldn’t advance across no man’s land, because there were houses surrounding the one in Morfa Bay, therefore we had the soldiers passing camera as they began the assault. Ok – I sort of stole that from All Quiet on the Western Front. I was determined not to show them dying, so that we could all believe that they might have survived.
AmeriCymru: Where can people see “Letters Home”?
We’d be very happy for any feed-back from AmeriCymru readers.
The review in Wales Arts Review
AmeriCymru: You worked at the BBC for many years, what was your career there and had you had prior experience as a film or video director?
Jonah: I worked at the BBC in Cardiff as a sound engineer but the way that the BBC was organised in my day meant that if you fancied a go at something different, they would often let you do it. Along the way, I presented, wrote and presented, directed (radio) and produced. I never directed TV – now you’ve made me feel a bit of a charlatan – but worked on big network productions, so was able to watch the process from the side-lines. Before I joined the BBC however, I was a peg-bar animator, making films that I had written. That meant that I had a good sense of pre-editing (you don’t want to draw stuff that won’t end up in the film).
AmeriCymru: You have another film, “The Caterer’s Reckoning,” which you direct and also wrote, what can you tell us about it?
Jonah: Once Letters Home was done and dusted, Jaye and I thought about the next project. Keep it cheap and make it very different. What can we film in my house? I looked at the creative mess in my computer and came up with a black comedy which had been performed in the New Venture Theatre, Brighton a few years before. Jaye laughed at the script and so I set about turning it into a film. This time we paid everyone – except Jaye and me. If you’re going to this business, do it for love, not money.
The plot? Too many possibilities for spoilers. Suffice it to say; a ghastly married couple who can’t stand each other, wake up after a party in their house to discover something unexpected behind the sofa. We’re just gluing on the music and the effects as I write. Once we have draft one, we’ll show it to people at an arts centre in Cardiff and collect their thoughts before possibly a final tweak or two. Hopefully we’ll start on the festivals circuit with it before Christmas.
AmeriCymru: What’s next for you? What else would you like to do?
Jonah: Two possible films (one written by Jaye) on the subject of Earth’s annihilation as part of the Create 50 Impact project. Three possible monologues of mine to be filmed in Welsh and English. Jaye also has an expensive-sounding script for which we’re trying to get Ffilm Cymru Wales funding. There’s a vague idea of mine for a longer film involving spooky goings-on in Merthyr Mawr (not far from Bridgend, South Wales – wonderfully strange-looking place) but we’ll probably stick to the short ones first.
I also have to come up with a logo for 2 Jays productions.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?.
Jonah: This year was my first ever trip to America and I think I hit two of the best parts of it with the best local guides. The first was Portland, Oregon where we were looked after by the AmeriCymru team of Gabby and Ceri, who took us out into the sort of wilds you don’t get in Llantwit Major, where we are based. The second was San Francisco where a friend of the family showed us around. My partner, the author Mari Griffith (featured elsewhere in AmeriCymru) and I were delighted to make the connections between the Old Country and the New. Hopefully that will be the first of many trips here. Tell your Hollywood friends, maybe they’ll invite us over.
Any other questions or observations – please contact me through AmeriCymru.
Interview by Gaabriel Becket