London Shorts Q&A: Oscar-Winning Director Mat Kirkby

By Stuart Black Last edited 110 months ago
London Shorts Q&A: Oscar-Winning Director Mat Kirkby

Mat Kirkby, director of The Phone Call, which he also co-wrote with James Lucas and co-produced with Michelle Kirkman.

Update: he won! Congratulations to Mat, who took the Oscar for Best Short Film — Live Action.

With his acclaimed short film The Phone Call, Londoner Mat Kirkby has gone from Holloway to Hollywood in search of an Oscar.

It’s the culmination of a four year struggle to get his passion project made in between his day job directing commercials and music videos for the likes of Muse and Adele. The Phone Call is a very different piece, a wrenching yet ultimately uplifting slice of real London life about a woman working for a helpline (Sally Hawkins) who picks up a call from a man at the end of his tether (Jim Broadbent). Here's the trailer:

Kirkby spoke to Londonist about he got the project off the ground, how London helped shaped the story, and what it’s like to be in Los Angeles in the run-up to Oscar night.

What part of London do you call home?
I live in Holloway — on the boulevard of dreams as they call it. I’ve been living there for 22 years.

Where did the story for The Phone Call come from?
Most of my stories come from living in London, sitting down outside coffee shops and watching people, or being on the bus hearing stories. This particular one came from my better half Miranda, who’s a volunteer at a helpline. She said one thing that stuck with me as a filmmaker: the first thing someone says is their problem on the phone is never what their real problem is. I thought that sounded interesting dramatically. So in the film, Sally Hawkins is playing a bit of a detective trying to work out why Jim Broadbent wants to talk.

Is the need to connect with each other something particular to London?
You know, we’re all in this big city together and people do slip through the cracks. They need a bit of help and these volunteers are the only ones there for them. I thought it was a bit ironic, you get these mousey characters but then on the other end of the phone you’ve got the most dramatic things happening. And you just never know: you might sit on the tube and perhaps assume the person opposite you has a quiet life, or a small life, when in actual fact some are superheroes.

How easy was it to make the film?
It was quite a long process from pen on paper to now — altogether about four years. I tried to work out how many hours I’ve put in, I think it comes to tens of thousands.

What was the shoot like?
We were filming in a disused office just above Tottenham which was freezing cold because we couldn’t afford to heat the place. We had jacket hoods zipped up and woolly hats on — and needed a bit of Dunkirk spirit. One day my missus baked hot cross buns which really helped.

How much did it cost?
I tried to raise money — filled in all the forms — and there is a lot of support out there for short films. But we weren’t successful and nobody gave us any money whatsoever. So we ended up doing it on a shoe string — a lot of favours from friends I was working with on adverts. And we had to chuck in a bit of our own cash too. But it feels genuinely satisfying when you’re working with all your friends for a common goal like that. It’s a real human thing — being helped by all these wonderful people. You do sleep well at night.

What makes short films special to you?
Short films enable you to do things you simply can’t do in a feature because there you have to make money. A short film is your opportunity to not have all those people on your shoulder telling you what to do. The storytelling can be a lot more pure and honest and from the heart. Some of the short films I’ve seen having been on the circuit have been incredible and I know that if there’d been twenty people in a committee, the filmmakers wouldn’t have been able to tell those stories.

Should short films be more available to cinema-goers?
A night of good shorts can be like a tasting menu at a Michelin starred restaurant — it’s like ooh, hello, what’s this one, this tastes of this and that tastes of that. If you get a good run it can be very satisfying. And it does make you think: why isn’t it a format we get more of at the cinema. I think people in London would definitely pay to see them. It’s a shame people don’t get to see these amazing gems.

How has the nomination changed things for you?
For me it’s been a calling card — yesterday I was pinching myself because I was on the lot at Universal in a little golf buggy and then I went to Steven Spielberg’s office to pitch my movie script!

Is London a good place to make films?
There’s everything you could possibly need in London, especially great architecture. It’s interesting coming to Hollywood, which is all one storey high and looks like it’s made from cardboard. In London we have this fantastic array of incredible locations — which we should make full use of. We need to shout from the hilltops that we’ve got this fantastic city that’s so beautiful.

If London is a character to you, how would you sum her up?
Well she’s no spring chicken, but she’s full of character — and she’ll show you a good time.

Watch Mat here finding out his short film was nominated for an Academy Award:

THE PHONE CALL - starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent - REACTION VID!! from mat kirkby on Vimeo.

Last Updated 18 February 2015