Russell Tovey: an interview with indie filmmakers

October 30, 2021


Raffi Chipperfield is the writer and director of Smile with Your Eyes and Harmless (both now available to stream on Paus). Raffi’s films are moving, funny and strikingly human, perhaps down to his open and unusual directing styles. Who better to chat to Raffi than Russell Tovey, the much-loved star of Being Human, The Pass and The Sister?

After the two films had their live premiere on Paus, Russell sat down with Raffi and Tuwaine Barrett, the star of Smile with Your Eyes on Zoom, to discuss how the unforgettable shorts were made despite COVID 19 restrictions, how the industry is changing and what inspires them most.

From the Paus Q&A with Raphael Chipperfield, Russell Tovey & Tuwaine Barrett

Russell: How did that feel? You've just had a screening and, although we’re not all together, there's been people around the world watching the film, judging you and finally seeing what you've been making.

Tuwaine: It feels nice for me because, first and foremost, there's no red carpet so I'm not judged on fashion. I'm just chilling in my jumper and stuff. It's nice to be able to share Raffi's vision with the world. I'm very fortunate to be a part of that. I’m very happy.

Russell: What about you, Raffi? Two of your short films have just gone out to the world! And you're in Berlin at the moment you're not even in the UK. How does that feel for you?

Raffi: It’s nice not to have that real tension you feel when you're all in the same room. Sometimes when you have a screening, you're sort of looking at everyone and thinking, what are they saying? Or wondering if people are looking at their phones. So that's nice, but at the same time, you can’t beat the energy of a crowd being in the same place and watching something together, experiencing it together. That's really what you miss.

Russell: When you’ve made a living, breathing thing together, it's part of the celebration; the premiere is a culmination of all the hard work and a chance for everyone to see what you’ve all connected to. But with platforms like Paus, that’s possible from a distance.

Tuwaine Barrett in ‘Smile with your Eyes’

Raffi: Yeah. Totally.

Russell: How did you come up with these ideas? And what parameters were set by you creating this during lockdown?

Raffi: So the ideas were, in a way, reverse engineered from the rules as they happened. At first, we were all in lockdown and couldn’t see anyone. Then, as we were watching the news, we were told we could be with one other person, or if your work allowed it or demanded it, you could be with one other person. So I wrote down a bunch of characters that live a solitary life and came up with a bunch of scenarios. For example, let’s go with a hallway...a single dad in a hallway...and then I just worked with what I would be allowed to do. I’d just work outwards, which is obviously something you don't generally do. It was actually really fun, it was like a new form of inspiration.

Russell: Do you think things are going to change in the long term? Do you think the fact that artists are adapting and making movies in this way may continue beyond the pandemic?

Raffi: From a technical standpoint, I think people will realise that you can do stuff with smaller crew and smaller budgets, but I think since New Hollywood in the 70s, we’ve realised we don't need a huge crew. We've all had iPhones for a while, we all know that we can make a film with virtually nothing. But, for me, I was definitely asking myself, what actually matters here and what do I care about? I had to refocus. The films are both about isolation and connection. It definitely changed my attitude.

‘Harmless’ by Raphael Chipperfield

Russell: Tuwaine, how did this project find its way to you?

Tuwaine: My agent sent me through this script, and I really enjoyed it. I ended up meeting Rafi on Zoom. I think he liked what I did, then made me do a few more things and then I got the job! All this time I was wondering... how are we going to film this? Like, it's gonna be scary. I'm nervous. I don't want to do this. I do want to do it, but I don't want to do it. I had my own conflict going on. Then it came to the shoot and the whole process just made sense and it was almost like Coronavirus wasn't a huge thing, which felt amazing. Obviously we had to take precautions and make sure we stuck to all the rules, but because of all that, it felt like it was fine to make a film and to create art. It just felt good. It didn't feel like, is this wrong?  

Russell: It feels important to just make some art as much as you can. You must have felt giddy in front of the crew. How has this time been for you as an actor through COVID? How have you been dealing with that?

Tuwaine: I’ve been very fortunate with the people around me, my friends and family. But it's been hard because obviously we love to make a living doing the thing we love. When we can't do the thing we love it's almost like, what do I do now? Even now auditions come slower than before. However, they are picking up and that's amazing. You know, big thanks to everyone who's worked hard against this virus and everyone who's still working hard now to make sure that we're still able to do what we love. I'm upset that it happened but I'm positive for the future.

Russell: So Raffy, how did you get a crew together to actually shoot both of these? They were shot individually and each took just one day to film!

Raffi: Yeah, exactly.

Russell: That's just crazy to me. How did you bring your crew together? Are they loyal people that you knew already? How did you do it in such a small space of time?

Raffi: It was a mix! I went to film school, so I looked through the address book and thought, who's around, who can do this and that, who can do sound design? For Smile With Your Eyes, only one person was allowed to be with Tuwaine at any point and that was the DP, so we were having to come up with ways of getting around it. I was talking to Ben Band, the sound recordist, and we're like okay, we'll mic up Tuwaine at the beginning, and then we'd have to find different ways to record, we put a mic in the car, we put the mic on the doorway and all sorts of places so he was never actually in contact with the actors in their own homes.

Russell: And the actors all brought their own costumes and make-up?

Raffi: Yeah.

Russell: Wow. How much is improv? Because it feels so authentic and real.

Tuwaine: I think Raffi had a base of what he wanted the scene to be and really just allowed me and the other actors to do our thing. It’s rare to come by, but it did allow a sense of play and freedom and ownership. Obviously, we couldn’t go off the rails but it was awesome because we were just allowed to do whatever we felt our character would do.

Russell: Raffi were you working on anything else before COVID happened? Did you have other things in the works?

Raffi: Bits and pieces, yeah. Some longer-term development stuff, but I don't know what the future is going to look like. You'll know better than me, Russel! I think we’re all wondering if there is going to be this big backlog of new stuff coming out. I think it's all about just getting back to making stuff however we can and platforms like Paus are for sharing what we're making.

‘Smile With Your Eyes’ by Raphael Chipperfield

Russell: Yeah, thank God, we've got something like that. COVID aside, what do you want to create next? What sort of stories do you want to tell?

Raffi: Watching these films back, I realise they're two very different characters, these two guys. What links them is that they're trying to connect with people. They're ready to connect with people, it’s just their circumstances that are throwing them up against walls. It makes you realise how many stories like this must be out there. Both films say something that I wanted to say. Even though Edward, the single dad in ‘Harmless’, is a very different character to Tuwaine’s, he could still have stepped into the film at some point and been trying to deliver him the package.

Russell: They exist in the same world! Smile is emotional and stressful and Harmless is full of anxiety but it is really funny. There’s a balance and it's really nice to have that to show the sides of your filmmaking.

Raffi: Thank you so much. Like you guys all know, as actors and creators, you make something and see it a certain way, and then afterwards people tell you about stuff they’ve seen in it that you didn't see. Even timewise, I want to make things that are short (Well, we shot them in the day so they had to be fairly short) but I want to make stories that really hold people in for that short period of time. Both characters are in these modes, where everyone's against them and they're fighting everyone. Then the world changes for both of them when somebody reaches out to them and helps them. Connection is the theme that sort of carries through both of them and even the making of them. We were locked in our flats, everyone was, and then suddenly there was that initial zoom with Tuwaine, and there were these tentacles of connection happening again. Then, when we finished shooting, we all had socially-distanced pizzas on the side of the road and went our separate ways. I'll never forget those two days of working with those guys.

Russell: Is there plans for you guys to connect again and make something else in the future? Because, as a pairing, I think this is the dream team.

Raffi: I'd love to. I mean, Tuwaine is just obviously amazing. Everybody who watched it said, I guess it's a big compliment, but people were saying, how did you get this delivery guy? How is he such a good actor? Nobody believed that Tuwaine was not 100% the character, which is obviously the pinnacle of authenticity.

Tuwaine: Yeah, 100%. Raff just gives you this sense of confidence in achieving something that you wouldn't think you could do. I mean, we shot it in a day! I didn't really have the confidence in myself to be like, I'm gonna kill this gentleman, but I'd just have constant chats with Raff where he’d encourage me to find my own way through it, my own way through the timeline. Even though we only had a day, I felt like I had the time to actually do something that felt right to me, and it allowed me to live in the moment.

Russell: There is a wonderful history of social realism in independent British film. To what degree do you feel part of that tradition and to what degree have you departed from it?

Raffi: Russell and I were kind of chatting a bit about this the other day and I said something intelligent at the time... But I feel like, obviously social realism is, in some way, the touchstone for British film. In the Post War era, social realism was massive. You’ve got your Taste of Honey and Saturday night, Sunday Morning, your Robinson films. We're steeped in social realism. But I do feel that it sort of limits the stories, social realism comes with certain constraints and maybe limits certain types of storytelling and certain characters don't belong in those worlds. I think it is just a more interesting representation of British society.

‘Harmless’ by Raphael Chipperfield

Russell: You said something amazing at the time about how, when you walk through London, you can be in five separate movies. You could be in 101 Dalmatians in Holland Park and then end up in Attack the Block when you're walking through Ladbroke Grove. I guess it’s the same when you go to New York, you feel like you're in a movie with steam coming through the grates. With UK film, I think we are incredibly spoiled and we also under appreciate our locations and how they've been used.

Raffi: Yeah. For example, maybe the first character that Tuwaine bumps into doesn't really belong in a social realist film. Realism is like this interlinking of different people's lives and different social classes, different everything, especially when you live in London, which I do. That's the thing that is really interesting for me, what are the limits of social realism and where is that going to go?

Russell: What was the best decision that not only helped you get to this point in your career, but also kick-started your creative development? Can you put your finger on it?

Tuwaine: Yeah, for me, it's just been about taking risks. Being your own person is so important. I was constantly in situations where I was put in large groups of people and I wanted to differentiate myself from the rest. I kept wanting to be the black sheep, I wanted to be different somehow, in some way. I never relaxed and just fit in. I wanted to stand out, which I think is very important in today's society.

Russell: You want to take up space!

Tuwaine: You want to take up all the space and I do, naturally,  because you I'm a big guy, but mentally  as well.

Russell: Raffi, can you put your finger on anything or any moment that really moved your development onwards? What inspires you?

Raffi: I think film is so weird because it ticks so many different boxes in your life. It gives you a type of lifestyle. Being with people, being present and being 100% engaged in that way is something I really enjoy. I don't know when I decided to do films, necessarily. I guess I had some experiences like watching Curacao films. I went with my dad to watch Icaru at the BFI and I always remember that experience.

Russell: How old were you then?

Raffi: 16, maybe 17! But on the flip side, like Twain was saying, there's moments where it's just about you and it’s about saying what you need to say and what you want to say. It's not about an industry, entertainment or fitting in a box. You’re not worrying, are my stories too boring? That was, for me, the only really good thing about the last few months -  all that noise falling away.

Russell: Definitely.

Raffi: Did you have a moment that you could pinpoint, Russell?

Russell: When I was a kid, I loved Dead Poet’s Society and fell in love with Robin Williams. I just wanted to be Robin Williams. That was it. That was my approach; the way that he made me feel, I needed to make someone else feel that. That was my inspiration.

Thank you Russel for taking the time to chat to Tuwaine and Raffi on our behalf and for being such a supporter of Paus as we grow. Watch Smile with your Eyes and Harmless, as well as some other incredible films by Raffi, on Paus now.

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