Teodosia Dobriyanova talks to Stella Corradi about her short film Little Soldier, working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and the position of women in the industry.
As a winner of the Best Female Director prize at Bechdel Test Fest 2017, Italian-born filmmaker Stella Corradi is the perfect inspiration for electric ghost’s first interview. A graduate of Film from Queen Mary University of London, Stella has worked as Assistant Director on productions such as Ginger and Rosa (2012) and Macbeth (2015), amongst others.
She made her directorial debut in 2016 with Little Soldier—a short film following the relationship between little Anya (Amaris Miller) and her mother Amanda (Zawe Ashton). The film takes place in a community estate in East London and reflects on the blurred boundaries between reality and a child’s imagination. For her first film, Corradi had the support of renowned DoP Robbie Ryan (American Honey; I, Daniel Blake).
Fascinated by Little Soldier, we spoke to Stella Corradi about her debut, her inspirations, and her love for cinema. And yes, we talked about women, too.
electric ghost: Congratulations on your debut short Little Soldier. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it came to life?
Stella Corradi: I wrote the script a couple of years before submitting it to Film London’s London Calling fund. After working in the film industry as a director’s assistant to Sally Potter and Justin Kurzel, I finally had the confidence to develop the script and ask people I admired to collaborate with me on this.
Why was it important to you to depict a story of addiction from the perspective of a child?
I tried to steer away from making this a film about addiction. There are many reasons why a child has to take on responsibility be it illness or disability of a parent, depression, or having lots of siblings. Some children simply have that kind of dynamic with a parent and there is a kind of dependence not only from the child for the parent but vice versa. So the importance for me was to focus on how a child deals with that kind of dependence and responsibility. In this case, Anya feels that she has to protect her mother from her boyfriend and will go to any lengths to do so, often through her most powerful strength: her imagination.
What was the experience of working with Amaris, who plays your central character, both as a child and an unprofessional actor?
Working with Amaris was amazing for me from the first moment I met her. We shared a common language and she understood what I was trying to communicate with very few words. She is a natural improviser which demonstrates her sharp intelligence and innate ability for acting.
“You are responsible to motivate your cast and crew into bringing your vision to life.”
Do you think casting unprofessional actors adds to the realism of this project?
Definitely with the child actors—they react better to play and improvisation and have not had too many concepts or techniques pushed on them. However, working with professional actors like Zawe Ashton and Morgan Watkins created a safe environment for Amaris to really shine.
I know that you have been working in the film industry for years prior to Little Soldier. Did directing your own film meet you with challenges you hadn’t experienced as an assistant director?
The main difference and the biggest challenge is responsibility. You are responsible to motivate your cast and crew into bringing your vision to life. There were things I experienced on film sets as an assistant that I didn’t want to be repeated on my set: the military-style hierarchy, bullying, shouting, sexism, etc. I felt responsible to make sure I was encouraging and inspiring my cast and crew at all times in what can be a very tense environment.
I cannot help but notice the visuals in your film. The colour palette and use of 16mm create a very specific atmosphere. Was this something you pursued from the beginning?
Yes, I learned from both Sally and Justin that one of the best ways to communicate your vision to others is through a visually compelling ‘look book’. I compiled a collection of images, colours, textures, light qualities, costumes, etc, that inspired me and matched how I imagined the film in my head. We knew we were shooting on 16mm so texture and light was very important. My production designer Paulina Rzeszowska then had her own look book and my costume designer Katren Wood made some great sketches based on my ideas and then everything was brought together through Robbie Ryan’s lens.
What was your experience having Robbie Ryan as a DoP?
Robbie was incredibly generous. He really encourages first time filmmakers and I was so honoured to be able to collaborate with such an artist. He is the nicest and most down to earth guy you could meet, but a genius behind the camera. He also helped a great deal with the performances. Amaris felt so comfortable with him and her relationship to the camera was down to him.
“Women in film, or the lack thereof, is now a topic of conversation. The wider public is acknowledging it and I feel that audiences are seeking out female filmmakers”
When working on a film, do you let on-set situations and ideas shape the course of your story?
Yes, especially when it comes to the script. I have a script but I want the dialogue to develop between the cast. I do not rehearse the words until we see what works on the day. Usually something very interesting comes out which can only happen between the actors in front of the camera in that moment. Also, many times things that I wrote and were shaped in a certain way in my head did not work on the day so I have to improvise also and try something different. And then you also need that flexibility in the edit room when you see the reality of the rushes.
Architecture seems central to your film. Anya often walks within and around her estate, which feels like Anya’s castle that she needs to defend. I loved watching how a child’s imagination can shift the reality of physical spaces. Can you comment on your use of space and architecture in Little Soldier?
This was very important to me. I grew up in a similar estate as Anya and I wanted the exterior to be her space which she navigates with confidence. The estate is her territory, her castle but the same safety is not reflected in her own home so she builds a fort/nest where she feels safe within her mother’s apartment.
You won Best Female Director at the Bechdel Test Fest. Do you feel like cinema is progressing towards a future where more females will make, discuss, and occupy cinema?
Yes definitely. Women in film, or the lack thereof, is now a topic of conversation. The wider public are acknowledging it and I feel that audiences are seeking out female filmmakers, and films with female leads and narratives. Mainstream cinema has also finally caught onto this and acknowledged that there is money to be made from it. However, I do feel that to introduce a more diverse generation of filmmakers we need to address class and race as well as gender. If you look around a typical British feature film set the majority of crew are white and male. Targeting young people from school is the way to spark the interest in girls and people from minority backgrounds. I myself didn’t know about the hundreds of roles in the film industry until leaving university and I certainly didn’t have any connections to the industry so it was a more difficult route for me and one which I wouldn’t have embarked on had I not been interested in film already.
Is there a specific kind of cinema or topics that you would like to pursue in your future films?
I love fantasy and I love working with children so I would love to continue to explore narratives rooted in reality but which travel to realms of fantasy through the child’s perspective.
“Having worked with Sally Potter I am constantly inspired by her work and the way it has evolved from film to film.”
Which films/filmmakers inspire your work?
Having worked with Sally Potter I am constantly inspired by her work and the way it has evolved from film to film. Jane Campion is someone who has been paving the way for other female directors for decades. Barry Jenkin’s career is very interesting to me—the time he took between features to really craft Moonlight into the masterpiece that it is. Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu’s body of work with actors is amazing—from non-professionals to oscar winners, children, and actors of all nationalities and languages.
What was the last film you saw in cinema?
It’s called More Earth Will Fall—a documentary made by Lee McKarkiel and Sam Liebman which premiered at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. It’s a harrowing and moving documentary made over seven years following a family in a favela in Rio. It’s a beautiful piece of work and I hope it gets worldwide distribution. The last commercial film I saw was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and during the film I was starting contractions prior to giving birth to my baby girl.
What is the film you think our readers should watch this week?
If you haven’t seen it already, Moonlight. A masterpiece in all forms. The camerawork, performances, editing, music, and sound create a cinematic symphony. I could watch it a million times. I haven’t seen it myself but as soon as I can I will be trying to catch Wonder Woman . I’m a big fan of Patty Jenkins.
Lastly, are you currently working on any new projects?
I have several scripts I’m working on, including an apocalyptic sci-fi where the hero is a 12 year old girl, a refugee story with a strong female lead, and a short rom-com about foley artists.
Little Soldier is available to view on Vimeo now.