Sci-Fi on a Shoestring: Skinny Short Film Competition-winner Rory Alexander Stewart
Rory Alexander Stewart, winner of The Skinny's inaugural Short Film Competition, tells us how he made prize-winner Good Girl ahead of its follow-up's world premiere at Glasgow Short Film Festival
“She looks like a dog, she comes across as a dog, but... she’s no'.” Somewhere between this tantalising opening and its mysterious horror ending, you realise Good Girl is not your average short film. Its title character is Tully, a German Shepard who may also be an extraterrestrial. Tully’s de facto owner Julie (Julie Speers) is convinced: the dog can, after all, cause her to become stoned on command and makes life difficult for anyone who pisses Julie off. When the judges for The Skinny’s inaugural Short Film Festival Competition put their heads together they soon concluded that this darkly comic hybrid – described by its director, Rory Alexander Stewart, as “a mockumentary sci-fi thriller" – was a worthy winner.
Stewart was awarded the modest sum of £3000 by sponsor Innis & Gunn to use as a budget to make a new film, which is to be screened at this month’s Glasgow Short Film Festival. That followup is Misery Guts, and reunites Stewart with Good Girl’s human leads Speers and Ainslie Henderson (see our interview with Henderson on page 18).
“I just walked in the pub with my camera and Julie was behind the bar and I asked her what she did that day.” It’s a few weeks before Misery Guts' premiere and Stewart is recalling how he met Speers while shooting The Port, a short doc he made about much-loved Edinburgh bar Port O'Leith, behind which Speers works. “Without any prompting she improvised a story about a man coming in to the pub with a samurai sword, which was completely hilarious. It was just kind of obvious that she had a special talent of some sort.”
Misery Guts: behind the scenes
Misery Guts marks Stewart and Speers' third collaboration following that initial meeting, the other film being Wyld, for which Speers won the BAFTA New Talent acting prize in 2014. “I think we both like daft humour, and her absurd monologues are always fun,” says Stewart of their partnership. “Good Girl was a chance to see how much nonsense we could come up with and make a story out of it.”
What marked Good Girl out during the judging process was its lightness of touch, how it easily segues into dark and surreal areas of human consciousness without ever jarring with its humdrum setting. “Good Girl was a funny one because I really just thought it would be silly; something that was about the funny aspects of mundane life. But then it became this other thing.” One major influence in Good Girl’s trajectory might be that Stewart happened to go to a screening of another unclassifiable sci-fi midway through production. “I did see Under the Skin about two thirds of the way into it, and I thought, 'Oh, this is like what I’m making, I’ll maybe nick a couple of superficial elements from it.' I’m pretty open to genre, especially nowadays.”
“Good Girl was a chance to see how much nonsense we could come up with and make a story out of it” – Rory Alexander Stewart
That’s evident in new film Misery Guts. If Good Girl was Stewart’s kitchen sink take on sci-fi, this follow-up is his shaggy version of a crime movie. Like with Good Girl, the film came out of just starting the camera and letting Speers and co improvise. “I would write a pretty basic outline and then we would just go through the scene and sort of get it on its feet," he explains. "It’s a lot like editing a documentary to be honest.” The team’s chief concern was not to repeat themselves. “Julie wanted to do something different, so we decided to have her be unable to talk for a portion of the film.”
If you’ve seen Good Girl or Wyld, you’ll realise that the prospect of keeping Speers quiet could prove disastrous: much of their fizz comes from her deadpan delivery. Stewart had some comedic trick up his sleeve in the form of Ainslie Henderson. “Ainslie’s a really amazing joke machine,” says Stewart. “In the portions where Julie isn’t talking, I don’t know if i’d have been hugely comfortable doing it with someone other than Ainslie. He’s just insanely talented.”
As well as Speers and Henderson, Misery Guts also features Jenna O'Neill, who appeared in Wyld. It seems in these three modest film Stewart is building himself quite a repertory group; he clearly finds collaboration inspiring. “In the past I was a bit more rigid about sticking to the script,” he explains. “But then after I did the documentary I kind of realised a lot of the energy you see on screen comes from the tension between the people you've cast.” The result is that he’s found a looser, more responsive approach to storytelling: “I suppose it’s just realising that you’re always writing: you’re writing when you’re writing the script, you’re writing when you’re directing and you’re writing when you’re editing. It’s just bringing the headspace of writing to all the different stages.”