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Directing, Dingley Dell and . . . Orford doughnuts

PUBLISHED: 10:18 02 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:18 02 June 2015

Suffolk Oscar winner Mat Kirkby

Suffolk Oscar winner Mat Kirkby

Suffolk film director Mat Kirkby found fame for himself and an Orford bakery when he won an Oscar for his short film, The Phone Call. Liz Ferretti catches up with him to find out what’s next

Suffolk Oscar winner Mat KirkbySuffolk Oscar winner Mat Kirkby

Mat Kirkby’s oscar-winning short film, the Phone Call, is a powerful story with a stunning cast that will have you in tears . . . and it’s only his first film.

How does it feel to be awarded the world’s most prestigious accolade for your first film?

Winning awards wasn’t on the agenda when I started out, the aim was simply to make a film that I could be proud of. Winning the Oscar has been like a weird dream that I’m still waiting to wake up from. The statue is covered in 24 carat gold and weighs over six kilos. He’s got a few dings and scratches from dragging him round parties in LA, but he’s still unbelievably shiny.

Suffolk Oscar winner Mat KirkbySuffolk Oscar winner Mat Kirkby

The film centres on a phone call between Heather (Sally Hawkins), a volunteer at a crisis call centre, and caller Stan (Jim Broadbent). What inspired you to write this story?

I first had the idea as a reaction to all the superhero films around. I wanted to champion ordinary heroes – unassuming people who volunteer at crisis centres week in, week out, over years, with no reward other than to help others. That’s the definition of a hero for me. There are people around us, on the bus, in a coffee shop, that we wouldn’t think twice about, but they could be the most steely, tenacious person on the planet. Sally Hawkins’ character Heather is like that, even though she’s a shy bag of nerves! Also, my mum and my partner Miranda both volunteer on help lines, and I’m very proud of them for doing that. I’ve learned a lot by speaking to them about their experiences, such as the fact that the first problem the caller tells you is often not the real one. Heather has to work like a detective, and because we’re also trying to understand what’s happened to Stan, we identify with her.

The judges at last year’s Tribeca Festival, where The Phone Call won Best Narrative Short, said you showed “the sheer power of the human voice to convey compassion and understanding”. How did you do that?

There are a few simple ideas going on in the story, but they are very strong. I tried to create a boxing match between my two characters where one of them is on the ropes, then it switches to the other one. That creates a lot of tension. I worked hard on the script with my co-writer James Lucas, making sure every word was there for a reason. The call was recorded in real time, using a real phone, but with a box of tricks that enabled us to record both ends of the conversation. While we filmed Sally, we had Jim Broadbent in a room off to the side. It was technically challenging for us but made it more natural for the actors. The result is a dialogue that is believable and very raw.

Sally and Jim are two of the finest actors I could hope to work with. Sally liked the script immediately, but it took us a year to get a gap in her schedule, which was just after she’d finished Blue Jasmine (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). We were lucky that Jim (who won an Oscar for his role in Iris) was free on that same day, it wouldn’t have worked as well if we’d had to record him separately on another day.

I was struck by your use of colour in the film. Can you tell me about that?

I’ve used colder light to make scenes feel lonelier and white to make others seem heavenly. When we meet Heather she’s wearing a bright pink woolly hat. Little details like that can help tell us about a character, they draw us in quickly, and you need that in a short film. The colourist and I worked for days on end making sure the tone and colour were just right.

How much work goes into creating a 20-minute film?

Making a film is a craft more than an art. You have to keep chipping away at it and it might need fixing for a very long time. Then one day you run out of things to fix, the film looks effortless, as perfect as you can make it, but that’s the result of 10,000 decisions about the script, location, lighting, the casting, props, hair and make-up, made over four years!

It also takes a lot of people. I’ve been making commercials and music videos for names like Adele, Muse and Basement Jaxx, for 17 years. In that time I’ve honed my craft, working with a range of equipment and, more importantly, getting to know the team I wanted to work with. In the end we had 50 people involved, who all gave their time for free.

Making your Oscar acceptance speech must have been terrifying . . .

The ceremony is held in what looks like the biggest room in the world, which is scary in itself and on top of that you know there’s a billion people watching. It’s like being at your own wedding, but not knowing if the bride is going to pick you or one of the four other nominees. Like all 100 nominees, I had my speech in my pocket. I hadn’t planned to mention my favourite doughnuts from Pump Street Bakery in Orford, but looking at that crowd of famous faces was so unreal I needed to ground myself in something familiar. I think it caused a bit of a stir back in Suffolk.

What’s next for you?

Although you have this amazing award, the important things in life are still the same, like going for a pint and some Dingley Dell sausages at my local, The Sorrel Horse in Shottisham! I’m now a member of the Academy – which is made up of all the previous Oscar winners and nominees – which means I get the privilege of watching and voting on the new releases each year. As far as new projects are concerned, winning an Oscar isn’t a finishing line, it’s just the start. I’ve got five scripts that I’m showing to the top Hollywood producers but the expectations, from myself and other people, are now far higher, which means I’ll need to fuel my writing with even more coffee and doughnuts at The Pump Street Bakery. Also, we’ll be playing the film at local cinemas in Suffolk, so keep your eyes peeled for when it’s on near you. If you can’t wait, you can also download it from iTunes (for £1.99) or Vimeo and have a cry in the comfort of your own home.

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