A conversation with Brett Chapman

Brett Chapman talks to us about his short films, his filmmaking journey, and his influences.

8 min read

About a month ago, Sheffield-based independent filmmaker Brett Chapman got in touch with us regarding his new short film The Good Book. We watched it, and looked him up online, which led us to his previous short The Residue of a Relationship. We enjoyed how genuine and personable he came across in this film, and wanted to chat with him briefly. Having originally trained as a journalist, Brett seems to be passionate about the stories of individuals and small communities.

The Good Book is a dystopian sci-fi film set in the future and depicts the clash between two groups with opposing ideologies. In The Residue of a Relationship, a filmmaker comes to terms with a breakup, by going through his memories and paraphernalia left to him by his ex-girlfriend.

We talk to Brett about his filmmaking inspirations, the difficulties of working as a freelance filmmaker, why he loves using obsolete technology in his films, and naturally, Sheffield and Leeds.

You said in an interview that “The films I watched when I was growing up made me who I am today.” Could you talk about one or two such films and how they shaped you?

I think it’s sort of hard for me to get a grasp on now, but when I was a teenager it was cinema that I looked towards to try and gather some kind of identity. The fact that I loved film and wanted to be a filmmaker was the subculture that I aligned myself with, so it became who I was. Now that I’ve been working as a filmmaker for a while, the distinctions have all become much more blurred. But I still love finding a film that makes you feel like you could spend a few weeks in its world. Growing up, one of those films for me was Vanilla Sky by Cameron Crowe. Now, I know this might not be the coolest choice. But this is a movie that, at the time, really spoke to me. It made me explore pop culture and cinema because of what I found within. If I hadn’t watched Vanilla Sky, I would never have seen Abre los ojos or Say Anything, I would never have listened to The Red House Painters, and those things have gone on to be very very important to me.

Those formative years are so special because everything feels so so important and you’re on this quest to find your code, something to be about. Your interests and loves become a shorthand that you use to communicate with other like-minded people. For a brief period of time you can feel like you’ve found something that’s yours.

Another film that had a huge impact on me—although a little later—is a short film called Moments, produced for Radiolab by New York collective Everynone in 2009. It’s just a 4 minute short film that collects these seemingly inconsequential moments and makes something really quite beautiful from them. It’s based on a chapter from David Eagleman’s book Sum, which I hold as my favourite book ever. Of all the features and work I’ve ever seen, I don’t think anything’s had as big an impact on me finding my own point of view and voice as this film.

The bio on your site says, “The use of obsolete and archaic technology in his films is a staple of his work and practice.” Why did you choose to do this?

I’ve always loved old technology. When I was a very small kid, it would be these huge ancient scientific calculators, or my parents’ hi8 video camera that I would mess around with. There’s a certain tone or spirit that you create when you use obsolete tech to make films. It’s an acceptance that all of this stuff we make is fleeting, but also hints at that nostalgic niggle that we all carry, that things might have been better before. I guess alongside that, because a lot of my films draw on some relatively personal territory, it means I can use old home videos that my family shot and it never looks out of place! I grew up just before we had usable video on our phones, so I have tapes and tapes and tapes of material that I’ve shot over the years that may well never see the light of day. But the physical act, the sound of tape spooling and mechanics whirring to deliver from the past is beyond exciting to me.

You’re based out of Sheffield. In what ways do the milieu, ambience, and culture of Sheffield inspire your work?

Sheffield is a relatively small city but because of its industrial past and its cultural significance to the music scene in the UK, it feels like it’s full of secret venues and parties—hidden adventures at every turn. There’s a unique temperament to northerners, and I think Sheffield hits the sweet spot in terms of friendliness, acceptance, cynicism, and humour. I’ve worked in some cities where it feels like everyone is competing, but here in Sheffield, I feel like we’re all on the same side, supporting one another. Walking the street in this city, late at night when there are only a few people still around, maybe the distant chanting of some drunk students, it’s a special place. If I could quite put my finger on what makes it so brilliant, perhaps it would be better known as a creative hub but I can’t quite place it, and to be honest, I don’t mind feeling like I’m living in a hidden treasure.

Which film (made by you or anyone else) do you think captures the essence of Sheffield well?

I’m not sure that there’s any one film I could point to that really captures the essence of the city. I guess the most obvious one people still point to is The Full Monty, but that movie looks at Sheffield at a very different time, and I think some of us here in the city are a little tired of this perception of northern towns as downtrodden estates still reeling from whatever industrial horrors the Tories perpetrated against us in the 80s and 90s. For me, I’d love Sheffield to have a cinematic character in the same way that somewhere like New York or London does. I keep shooting here and keep trying to use my favourite spots and I hope I always will. It’s a city absolutely brimming with eccentric, beautiful, and unexpected stories, and I hope that all the talented filmmakers we have in the city stay here to keep telling those tales. I don’t think there’s one film that fully captures the spirit of the place yet, but I hope there will be one day, and I hope I can be involved in it.

Brett Chapman during the shoot of The Good Book
Brett Chapman during the shoot of The Good Book

You’re working as a freelance filmmaker. What do you look for in a project before picking it up? What made you say yes to directing The Good Book?

Slung Low, the theatre company who produced The Good Book, approached me in April 2019 about potentially directing The Good Book. I’d previously made a documentary about their move into the oldest working men’s club in the UK, so we had an existing relationship. I think the primary thing that made me say yes was the scale and the challenge of the project as they presented it. Doing The Good Book meant that I’d get to work with the biggest budget and crew I’ve ever been entrusted with, and get to make cinema on a scale that sometimes feels out of reach for an indie filmmaker. For the majority of my work, I do absolutely everything, so getting to work with a crew felt very appealing. I had an amazing time working on the film with some incredibly talented people.

Speaking more generally, when I look at a project, I’m really trying to find things that I’m genuinely interested in and that feel like they’re mine, rather than just a job I’m doing for someone else. Every time I take someone else’s project on, it takes me a little bit further away from actually finalising my own next project. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more careful about what I say yes to.

Of course, often working as a one person operation, I do still have to take projects that are purely to pay rent, but that’s life for everyone. I just try and do the best I can with anything I choose to take on. I don’t like finding myself unable to do something so I’m always willing to put the work in to make a project work.

The Good Book is made in collaboration with Slung Low, a theatre production group. How easy or difficult was it to work with theatre actors on a short film? Based on your experience, what do you think are the differences between acting for the stage and acting in front of the camera?

The cast we had on The Good Book were all an absolute pleasure to work with. Riana, Angus, and Katie in particular brought their A-game. They totally got what the project was and what it was about from the very start. Plus, it’s not like this was their first ever appearance on camera—Angus was in The Kid Who Would Be King by Joe Cornish last year, so I don’t think our 8 day shoot in Leeds phased him…

I suppose the real challenge with The Good Book, as far as the cast, was the fact that apart from our 3 lead actors, everyone else was a member of the local community, some with zero experience of acting.

Now, Slung Low have a very proud history of working with large community groups to make incredible site specific theatre. So our challenge was taking that model and applying it to a film. This meant we had to change the way we shot and cut scenes, and the way we scheduled days. It was tough to work that out in the beginning, but in the end I think we managed to come up with a production style that really allowed the best of both worlds to flourish.

Shooting The Good Book at Holbeck
Shooting The Good Book at The Holbeck Working Men’s Club

The Good Book is shot in some culturally important places in Leeds. Could you tell us more about these spaces and your experiences there?

Though I live in Sheffield and have done since 2006, Leeds has a special place in my heart. When I first graduated University, I worked in Leeds for nearly 5 years. Getting to go back and shoot was a trip down memory lane for me. One of our primary locations, The Holbeck Working Men’s Club, is Slung Low’s base. So it made total sense to shoot there. Using a space that sits properly in the centre of a community was key to the goodwill we were able to generate during the making of the film.

Holbeck is generally considered a deprived area of Leeds, so to be welcomed and trusted to make this film was special. Getting to do night shoots inside Leeds library was also a major treat for us as filmmakers. That we were trusted to work in and amongst some of the most beloved spaces in Leeds is testament to how much good work Slung Low has done in the city and how far their name will get you!

This is a somewhat personal question, but how much of your earlier short film The Residue of a Relationship is real and how much is fiction? You may choose not to answer this, of course!

Every now and then people ask me about this and I can say, with absolute clarity, that The Residue of a Relationship is 100% a documentary. It’s all true, real and not fictionalised. Honest.

Which period of your filmmaking journey so far was the most difficult? How did you overcome it?

I’m still on the most difficult part of the journey! For me, finding an audience and getting your work seen—maybe even acknowledged—is the hardest part. You spend years honing your craft so that you can bridge whatever taste gap your initial lack of technical skills created, and then you strive to become unquestionably competent with your craft. I think Brian Eno said something along the lines of art not existing without an audience and I sort of believe that. Finding people to buy into your point of view and then pass it on is always the biggest challenge; one that I’ve not found the answer to yet. There’s always the next film though.

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