One never knows the trajectory of a film at first watch. Since its world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, The Phone Call clearly turned into something special. Directed by British music video/commercials director Mat Kirkby and written by Kirkby and James Lucas, this moving short stars Sally Hawkins as a shy volunteer for a crisis hotline who receives a call from a grieving widower (voiced by Jim Broadbent) that changes the course of her life.
Anchored by its amazing cast, Kirkby’s film explores intense themes of grief, depression and, oddly enough, hope in a mere 20 minutes. Given its impact on festival audiences, it was a no brainer for the TFF 2014 jury to award The Phone Call the Best Narrative Short prize. Since Tribeca is an Oscar Qualifying Festival for Short Films, that meant that the film was automatically eligible to receive an Academy Award nomination, which thankfully it did!
We got the opportunity to speak with Mat Kirkby about short filmmaking and the whirlwind of life post-Oscar nomination, which includes pitch meetings galore and one very special Oscar Nominees Luncheon.
Tribeca: A video of your reacting to news of The Phone Call’s Oscar nomination in real time recently made the rounds on the Internet. What does it mean to see footage that captures that monumental moment?
Mat Kirkby: It happened so quickly. I didn’t even know my friend had taken out his phone to film the nomination announcement. I think I would have told him not to if I had known [laughs]. I just assumed we weren’t going to get the nomination and wouldn’t have wanted him to film me getting bad news. It’s brilliant to have that moment recorded, though. I’m glad of it now. You get so lost in the moment and you might never actually remember what happened.
I can’t actually remember hearing the news because I think my brain could only take in so much information. I was amazed at the mixture of surprise, elation, and relief I felt afterwards. I couldn’t sleep for a week up until the announcement, so I was just relieved to be able to rest again. You just can’t help it, can you? I’m pretty level headed, but I couldn’t help waking up at 5 in the morning thinking about a potential, seemingly impossible Oscar nomination. It’s like a dream. The whole experience has been overwhelming, but in a great way.
Tribeca: Were there any “wow” moments that occurred while you were making The Phone Call?
MK: The first “wow” was getting a “yes” from Sally Hawkins. I can still remember it the same way I remember when I heard news of our Oscar nomination. It was that big of a deal. I remember where I was standing and what I was wearing and what the weather was like [laughs]. In terms of the actual shoot, the biggest “wow” was the first take we did with Sally. She asked us if it was okay if she did the whole script instead of just the portion we had marked off. The script is 20 minutes worth of dialogue, and as a commercial director, I’m used to actors having one line of dialogue and often times that takes some time to get right.
So she wanted to do the whole thing on the first take, and I was really taken aback. I thought we were just going to do a bit to get warmed up, but she’s such a professional and so, so prepared. What actually ended up happening was Sally performing the whole script perfectly—with no missed lines or fumbles—and that made me completely reassess how I would direct the short. Rather than doing hundreds of shots with Sally on the phone, I decided to just keep it simple. I think we used only about 5 different shots of her and most came from the same 2 takes. With the exception of a few cutaways to the clock and her hands, that was pretty much it.
I was so wowed by watching Sally work. It was amazing to look at the script and see a direction that indicated that a tear wells up in her eye and then look at Sally and see her bring what’s on the page to life. I didn’t have to do anything to coax the performance out of her, it was all just there. It was almost magical.
Tribeca: How did Sally Hawkins come on to the project?
MK: When we originally wrote the script, Sally was on-stage in London, and I actually managed to get the script to her via her agent and met up with her for a cup of tea. It was so brilliant. I thought, “Oh fantastic, she loves the script!” and everything was going to start to fall in place. However, then we had to play the waiting game because she had an incredibly busy year. Her people told me that they would fit us in when they had a window, and 3 months turned into 6 months turned into 9 months and then it was a year. That’s what you have to do sometimes. We had to be very patient and try not to go mad. We had to have faith because she was perfect and amazing for the role. We knew we had to wait for her.
Tribeca: What about Jim Broadbent?
MK: Well, once we got the call a year later that Sally would be available in two weeks time after she finished shooting Blue Jasmine, we went to work on Jim. That just goes to show you how long it takes to get short films on the circuit, since Sally was nominated for an Oscar last year for her performance in Woody Allen’s film. I remember once we had Sally officially on board, we called up Jim Broadbent’s agent and Jim agreed to do the film in less than two hours. Though, it’s an easy question for an actor, isn’t it: “Do you want to work with Sally Hawkins?” I would imagine most times the answer is “Yes. Please!” Luckily for us, Jim was available because he’s also busy. We were incredibly fortunate with him.
Tribeca: Were they actually on the phone together?
MK: Yes, they were. We had a little box of tricks, but Sally was basically on the phone with Jim the whole time. We shot the short film in an office, and we had Jim in a spare room off to the side. That meant we had the luxury to do these sort of daunting—at least for me anyway—20 minutes takes, and the actors could really get into the scene. I don’t think we would have gotten the same performance from Sally if she was reacting to a recording of Jim just saying the lines.
Because we won the Best Narrative Short prize at Tribeca, I might be able to make my first feature. What if my potential feature film were to play at a future Tribeca Festival? It would complete the cycle.
Tribeca: Did you have a daily ritual that you and your crew followed before going to work on The Phone Call?
MK: Yeah, it was always based on porridge actually [laughs]…porridge and lots of tea. I believe that a crew marches on its stomach. My other half basically cooked hot cross buns for the crew everyday. That’s how some of them were paid actually [laughs], but the buns were quite large and she’s a great baker. Other than that, there were no real rituals on set. However, it’s pretty much a universal mantra over in Britain to keep everyone warm and make sure nobody is hungry.
Tribeca: Why did you decide to submit The Phone Call to the Tribeca Film Festival?
MK: It was all pretty serendipitous, really. Even though the film was only a two or three day shoot, Sally gave me a little gift of this nice book for me to do my sketches in. On the first page, she wrote “see you in Tribeca, lots of love from Sally.” When I saw that, I thought it was a complete pipe dream that our film would ever get into the Festival. I thought she might as well have written “see you on the moon!” However, her words always stuck in my mind.
When we were eventually accepted to Tribeca, it was literally like our dreams coming true. When we won the Best Narrative Short prize at the Festival that was the turning point for our film. It was a total affirmation that we actually had made something pretty good and that this was all real and actually happening.
Tribeca: What was it about the Festival that attracted your interest?
MK: You know, I’ve been turned down by so many festivals, and I’ve learned that you never should count your chickens. To me, Tribeca is one of the top 3 Festivals in the world so it was a no-brainer that we would submit the film. Plus, New York is my absolute favorite city. We were so desperate to play there [laughs]. Out of the 60 festivals that our film was accepted to last year, it was our best experience. We could afford to go to only 3 or 4 festivals, and we saved up to go to Tribeca.
Tribeca: The Phone Call not only won the Best Narrative Short prize at TFF 2014, but numerous other awards from different Festivals. What’s the key to writing a great acceptance speech?
MK: Well, I don’t know yet. I’ve never written an acceptance speech before. Though, I know what I did at Tribeca that I will avoid in the future. I started talking too far away from the microphone and nobody could hear me. So I now know to stand close to the microphone. It was a bit ironic because our short is all about communication, and I couldn’t communicate [laughs].
If you’re one of those big name actors, writers, directors or producers, your agent usually makes you write an acceptance speech or so I’ve been told. At the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, one of the governors gave a big talk to everyone who was nominated to tell them what to do and what not to do during their speeches because millions of people will be watching. They gave tips like “don’t ramble on” and “don’t wing it. Most importantly, they advised us to “write something from the heart.” All the winners get only 45 seconds to make their speeches, so they also reminded everyone to keep it short.
Sally gave me a little gift of this nice book for me to do my sketches in. On the first page, she wrote 'see you in Tribeca, lots of love from Sally.'
Tribeca: I can’t imagine attending the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. That experience must have been so wild.
MK: It was absolutely wonderful. Throughout all of our incredible experiences with The Phone Call, the luncheon stands out. We had time to sit, have a meal and wander around to talk to all the other nominees. Even though it’s intimidating to see all these talented filmmakers and artists, you don’t feel like just a mad person from off the street. The people in that room were equals, and you could really feel that energy. Plus, everyone was just so happy. It was like being in this amazing wedding party.
Tribeca: If everything falls into place for The Phone Call on Oscar night, how will you celebrate?
MK: I think I would just feel relief. It’s been such a stressful, amazing, nerve-wracking few months, and I couldn’t be anymore grateful. I plan to have a boogie and a drink on the dance floor—win or lose.
Tribeca: You’re in L.A until the Oscar ceremony on the 21st. Are you working on your next projects?
MK: Getting an Oscar nomination means you’re able to get through a lot of doors that might not have been available beforehand. As The Phone Call has been travelling around from festival to festival, I’ve been locked away working on a script for a feature length film. Since I’ve arrived in L.A, I’ve had 4 meetings every single day pitching the script to people. 3 or 4 weeks ago, I was at home in my pajamas, typing away to finish the script. All this week, I’ve been to various film studios. The back lots of the studios you see in movies are real [laughs]! It’s like you’ve walked into that dream of Hollywood you had as a kid except it’s reality this time.
So keep your fingers crossed! There’s definitely are links between Sally’s note of “see you in Tribeca” and our Oscar qualification due to our win at the Festival and the nomination that allows me to be here in L.A right now pitching this film. Because we won the Best Narrative Short prize at Tribeca, I might be able to make my first feature. What if my potential feature film were to play at a future Tribeca Festival? It would complete the cycle.
The back lots of the studios you see in movies are real! It’s like you’ve walked into that dream of Hollywood you had as a kid except it’s reality this time.
Tribeca: So many young filmmakers want to skip short filmmaking and jump right into feature length narratives. Why do you think short filmmaking is important?
MK: When you make a short film, you can do things you can’t normally do in feature films. In my case, I could not have featured a 20-minute phone call in a full-length film [laughs]. I wouldn’t have been able to play around with unusual storytelling devices. Because I was working on a short film, I was completely free to make the film I wanted to make, something I was proud of. My team was not worried about making our money back—which is something we would have to worry about if we were making a feature film.
Tribeca: Let’s just say we live in a world where The Phone Call is being made into a feature-length film and you yourself were too busy to direct it. What director would you most like to see re-imagine the film?
MK: You know, that’s never crossed my mind [laughs]. After meeting Damien Chazelle at the Oscars Nominee luncheon, I think he’d be the right filmmaker for the job. Plus, Whiplash was my favorite movie of the year! Damien adapted his short to make his film and knows what it would take.
If you are a New Yorker, you can see the entirety of the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts Program (including The Phone Call!) at the IFC Center until February 19.