An interview with Max Sobol, director of You (Us) Me, The Photographer, and Meat is Murder, by Owen Herman. Sobol talks about his work, his influences and getting into film-making. This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
OH: Let’s start at the beginning. What made you get into film in the first place? What triggered that interest in you?
MS: I suppose it came about just from loving stories in general. My Dad’s best friends are like round-the-campfire storytellers, so I grew up around that kind of thing. Also, my parents took me to the theatre a lot and I read lots and lots of books and I was just obsessive about stories from quite a young age, making them up, reading them. Then at around about 10 or 11 I think I decided I was going to be an actor and so I did that for a little while, but I found myself moving more and more into writing and directing and away from acting
OH: What made that decision in terms of going from acting to writing and directing? Was it that you wanted more control to create your own stories?
MS: I don’t know, I mean I’m not sure how good I ever was at acting really, but the thing I always loved doing above all else was making up stories, writing stories, like in English class. Wherever, whatever I did, I always made stories up. I guess I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid and didn’t really understand much about how the world and the industry worked, so for me because I was drawn most to making up my own stories, it naturally pulls you to the other side of the camera. There obviously are examples of great people who do both sides of the camera but they’re geniuses and I’m not sure that I fit into that category, so it just felt the natural thing really because I wanted to tell my own stories.
OH: As you were growing up and you learned more about the industry and, as you said, you felt better doing writing and directing, how did you then start to approach it? Did you go to film school or do any formal education or was it just in your own time and like a hobby?
MS: Right from a young age I was doing little courses, like I got put on an animation course by my mum when I was like 9 years old, so I started making films really young. Then I did my GCSEs and all the stuff that I got to choose was based around film, so it was theatre, media studies, and then when I went to do my A levels I did film theory, film practical, English literature, photography. I kind of made my own degree type course out of my A levels. They were all focused around film.
OH: So, it was very interest driven?
MS: Yeah, I knew that I wanted to be involved in film from a very early age, so everything I have done has been based around trying to make that. I’ve studied it from literally the age of 9 and then all of my education, whenever I got a chance to shape it, went in that direction. Then when I was in the first year of my A levels there was a competition at a local media centre where you could get £500 to make a short film, so I entered that competition and got the funding, and that’s when I made my first proper short film. I had made loads of little bits and bobs up to that point but for that one I had five hundred whole pounds so that was the start. I was really involved with that media centre throughout my A levels and then the gap between my A levels and doing my degree course. I would go and help out at that media centre; learn to use the equipment and do short courses on 16mm film. I was completely obsessed and very clear that I wanted working in film so everything that I did was really based around that. Then I went to Bournemouth Arts Institute which, I mean I had a great experience there, but I didn’t massively get on with the course itself and I, somewhere between, failed, quit and got kicked out but at the end of my second year.
OH: What was the course?
MS: It was Film Production at Bournemouth Arts Institute. It’s a course where you specialise in film production and I was specialising as a director. I did two years of it. It’s kind of interesting because, having subsequently gone into the industry, I’m meeting 23 year olds who are more than 10 years younger than me who didn’t go through education after A level and they basically just bought a camera with the money they would’ve spent on a course and they started making their own projects, or they came up to London and started running instead of going through university. I think university is an amazing place for developing your own voice and making your own short films. Especially on my course, we got to shoot on 16mm and stuff like that, but these days in terms of the industry, especially the advertising industry, I don’t think university is particularly relevant anymore.
OH: It’s an experience thing rather than any sort of formal training and education; it’s enjoyable but you don’t need that on your CV?
MS: Not really, I don’t think so, no. I think that it’s a good bit of growing up, just in general life terms, and I think you get a great opportunity to make some of your own projects without the pressure of living in London and trying to survive and pay rent and all of that kind of stuff. So, in that sense it’s a great experience, but really I don’t think it’s helped me move through the industry at all to be honest. I think there is also a certain feeling, or I kind of picked up a bit of a vibe, when I was coming into the industry found that you have people who had just graduated from a film course who thought they were directors, much like myself, and it’s like “you’re not a director, you can make me a cup of tea and you probably won’t even get that right”, which I did on several occasions. It’s like there’s a sort of illusion somehow that you’re bertie big bollocks when you come out of university because you might have been a big fish in that particular pond. Then you come to London and there’s just so much talent, so many driven people and there’s all these people who, like I’ve said, went straight into working as a runner at the age of 18. That was a bit of a shock to the system for me. Also, I’m not sure, if you’re just talking purely about the industry, that you need to go to uni anymore.
OH: You mentioned how your mum put you on an animation course. Do you feel like you parents were quite happy to encourage a possible career in film-making? How did they feel about you wanting to be a filmmaker?
MS: They were always pretty supportive really. They always had the attitude of “ok you want to reach this grand ambition at the end, but what are the small steps in-between that you need to take to get there”. That’s something I still try to refocus my brain around all the time; not just focusing on some big abstract idea floating around in your head but try and think about the steps A B A B C D E F G etc that take you down to Z. I mean my mum was a homeopath and my dad was a permaculture teacher, so they weren’t exactly people from a normal job themselves. You know they’re fairly far out hippie type people. There was never any pressure for me to be doing a ‘normal career’. I think they were just trying to make sure I was being realistic about how I was approaching it.
OH: You eventually ended up making You (Us) Me in 2014. How did that come about? How did you get to the point where you were beginning to think about making a feature film?
MS: By the point I’d started that project I had made, including little exercises at uni and my job etc, around 70 films. Some of them might have been a corporate video but I’d made a lot of stuff. I had a couple of films that had been to the odd festival and won little prizes here and there. I was in London working as an editor just editing mood films, not even editing anything particularly exciting, feeling a little bit sorry for myself having stagnated a bit after university. I just thought why aren’t I getting an opportunity and then realised I’ve got nothing to show that is going to make someone say “oh this persons exciting, I want give them an opportunity”. I was just feeling like I wanted to make something, so I just did basically. I was working as an editor and I would just go home at night and write the screenplay. I spent about a year developing the screenplay and moving it towards production. I wrote that with an actress in mind, who I’d worked with before, and then I cast the lead guy just through an online casting site. I wrote that script over about a year and then the way that we approached the shoot was that I paid for the production myself. I would go an edit mood films and earn a bit of money, and then we did a ten-day block where we shot like 40% of the script. Then I went back to work, earned a bit more money, then we did another ten-day block. Then we ended the main bit of shooting with about 90% of the script shot, which was intentional because I knew that as a first time writer of a screenplay and a first time director of a feature film, dealing in that length, that I was going to need to do some re-shoots. I thought let’s do a rough cut and then come back, work out what we need and shoot the last bit. It being a production with no money, to do that rough cut took fucking ages. That’s just the reality. I had this amazing editor working on the project, but he was editing before work for two hours and then after work for three hours. He absolutely pushed it along, but it just took a lot longer to pull together than expected. In the end, the first and last day of shooting were a year apart. During that time, we’d almost entirely got a cut of the film together. The whole process of the shoot and edit probably, in the end, took close to a couple of years. It was very drawn out but that was just everybody giving up their time like the DOP Maeve O’Connell, I’d worked with a few times before. Basically, between myself, her and the editor, the project was really carried along. Obviously, the actors put in shit loads of effort and no one was getting paid. We were just plugging away at it. All in all, for it to come to Amazon Prime it took 4 years. That was really drawn out and the thing about making that film was we were just learning how to make a film by making it. It’s kind of scrappy and I think, although we shot out of sequence, if you laid the footage out from the first scene we shot to the last you can see a style emerging and developing.
OH: In terms of the film itself and the story where did you get those ideas from? What inspired you to make that particular film? Because it’s a pretty dark film.
MS: Oh, you’ve seen it now have you?
OH: Yeah, I watched it yesterday. I think you handled the tone really well because it was dark and then it takes a bit of a shift. It’s not a fill blown comedy, but it is funny.
MS: No, I call it a ‘wry smile-edy’
OH: Yeah. So, what made you decide that was the kind of film you wanted to make?
MS: The tone is, I guess, kind of like my personality. I’ve got quite a dark sense of humour. I’ve always grown up loving things like Brass Eye and Jam and stuff which is quite provocative and dark. That sort of tickles me. The idea itself came from trying to process one particular relationship that I’ve been in, but generally relationships that I’ve been in, whereby it’s that kind of self-destructive dynamic in the relationship that can emerge sometimes, where you’re almost hardwired to destroy the relationship. I think I was processing that stuff in my life and I turned it into this genre mashup film and that’s something that I really love doing. I really love lots of the New Hollywood cinema where they’re kind of genre films but they’re like Trojan horse genre films. They are a genre film ostensibly but what they are really is a film about an idea and about some characters that you explore in a really interesting and unusual way. As times gone on a lot of the rough edges have been smoothed off a lot of genre films, although its maybe making a comeback nowadays with something like Get Out. There’s a new wave of stuff where it’s a genre film but it’s also more than that. I grew up being taken to see interesting art-house cinema by my parents but then I was obsessed with like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and all of that kind of classic Back to the Future sort of stuff. I like the idea of making something which feels like a genre movie but then it gets under your skin and it explores something a little deeper than that.
OH: In quite a contrast to that you’ve also done a lot of commercials and advertising. How do you approach something like that in comparison to doing something that’s driven by story?
MS: It’s challenging, and it sort of depends on the project but a lot of the stuff, a lot of advertising content, there’s still a story that you’re trying to communicate. It might not be a three act structure, it might not be necessarily entirely contained within the film, you might just be trying to encourage people with a call to action click on a link, but fundamentally you’re telling a story, you’re expressing an idea or some characters or a brand or whatever. I think you just have to put on your director for hire hat and you have to think what does this script need to be told in the best, most effective way. You have to try and put some of your own personality where possible. To be honest I’m not sure that my natural tone as a filmmaker particularly suits advertising because it’s usually quite dark and odd, however it’s a great opportunity to keep working and to keep practising all that stuff that you need. It’s a very refined version of what you might do in a short film or a feature film or a TV episode. It’s like “in 30 seconds get all of this information across”, but you learn a huge amount about all that stuff. I’ve always found you can treat each project as an opportunity to explore something, it might be a camera technique or something you’re doing with the sound design. There’s always an opportunity to learn and there’s lots of great people who work in the industry that make it a pleasant experience.
OH: 2017 was when The Photographer came out. How did that one come about? How what was the process behind that?
MS: That project, The Photographer, was one of the benefits of working in advertising because it was a project that was funded by an ad agency who were giving staff an opportunity to submit a script and then they would fund and support the production of that film. One of the agencies that I’ve done quite a lot of work with put me forward to one of the winning scripts and then I got chosen to direct it. Again, like the feature, when no one’s getting paid, it’s a very drawn out process. It’s the time-money-quality triangle that everyone always talks about. To make something good you need the time to develop that script and cast the right actors etc. It took us a while from picking up the project to actually getting it done, but it was a great opportunity because so many of the short film projects that I had been doing since university were unfunded things, so you have to compromise at some point in terms of what kind of camera you get or what kind of actors you’re going to get or the lighting or something like that. To have at least a little bit of money was really exciting.
OH: I think it does show because The Photographer definitely feels and looks a lot slicker in comparison to a lot of other short films where the lack of funding is more obvious. The Photographer really feels professional, even though I know a lot of you guys weren’t getting paid. It feels like it’s a professionally made film.
MS: The budget, relatively speaking, was in the region of £5,000. Which for a short like that it’s not a lot of money. A lot of shorts of that scale in terms of the production, the quality of the crew and all that sort of stuff are getting between £10,000 and £50,000 to make them. It was still a real tight thing but we were in a fortunate position in that all the people working on that project were people who I worked with in advertising, so we were able to call in favours and I think that elevated it above the money we had for the project. We were able to give it a higher production value than that because we just called in favours. The natural thing that happens when you work in the industry is that you start to form a little crew of people and you work on commercial projects, but then you are all dreaming of making feature films and tv shows, so you sort of get together for stuff like this.
OH: In terms of The Photographer, it’s very interesting about the process of filmmaking in a way, the taking of photographs and the truth behind them. Is that something you think about often? Like how truthful the camera is and the trust we put into films, television, photographs. Is that an idea that you enjoy looking at?
MS: Definitely yeah. Obviously in the context of the film, the idea was about how we curate our lives online and/or how we can look at people’s lives online and make assumptions about them without actually knowing the truth. There’s that line about the rectangle in The Photographer and I think, because I shoot a fair amount of documentary stuff as well, there’s just something really fascinating about how we have this idea about documentaries being real life but as soon as you choose to put a rectangle around something, what are you choosing to have and not have in the frame? You’re making the decision and you’re basically constructing a reality. I think it’s a fascinating thing to explore and obviously when you look at everything that’s going on in terms of world politics at the moment, that sort of idea of what’s real and what’s not real has been really challenged. Since we made The Photographer it’s been challenged even more by fake news and deep fakes. It feels like it’s a conversation that we’re right in the middle of at the moment. I’m not sure that we really know where that’ll end. There’s a kind of a bit of soul searching going on in terms of people taking responsibility for what they put in films and photographs. I think we have to reflect on the potentially harmful effect of the choices that you make as a filmmaker and so I think it’s a really interesting area. Funnily enough my process working with actors, and generally the way that I shoot, is that you’re always going for some sort of truth in terms of the performance. You’re trying to strip away the artifice of there being a film and let some sort of truth come through from the performance and from the actor. There’s always a little contrast at the heart of making any film because it’s all completely false but fundamentally you hope that what you’re making has a truthful essence and is maybe shedding some light on a certain issue.
OH: You’ve got your new film, Meat is Murder, coming out soon which is also looking at issues of the day and has some slight political edge. What can you tell me about it? What is it about and what can I expect when I watch it?
MS: Meat Is Murder is a film which is about a group of vegan vigilantes, called ‘The Vegilantes’. This one, tonally speaking, is kind of goofier than The Photographer or You (Us) Me. It’s more straightforwardly a comedy but, again, it’s not like “ba-dum-tish”. It’s fairly straight faced in its humour. The films about this group of vegan vigilantes and within the group there’s two factions; one is the more kind of softly-softly approach and one is a hard-line group who are calling for more action. It’s fundamentally about the conflict within the group and the idea was to talk about the way that the arguments around an issue can sometimes obscure the issue itself. It’s about a group of vegans but it could be about modern politics; the sort of way that in-fighting and arguing and people trying to point score off each other actually ends up obscuring what we’re actually trying to talk about. Obviously, veganism is itself is a kind of hot, buzzy topic and I think it’s going to be interesting to see the reaction. We are somewhat gently mocking of vegans and the way in which the public image of veganism isn’t great. It’s something that’s actually changing and has changed since we started the film, but there’s a lot of people pouring scorn on veganism because of the way that it presents itself, and so we’re kind of making fun of that but as a lens to talk about this bigger issue which is that people can’t debate without turning into an all-out war. It’s a mockumentary, so it’s basically about this guy who’s a first-time filmmaker who goes into this this group of vegan vigilantes to make his first ever documentary. It’s the antithesis to The Photographer in a way because we shot it on a little handycam. We shot it on the worst camera that we could shoot on whilst still giving us some scope to grade it. We’ve framed everything as badly as we could. Every scene is essentially a continuous take, which actually is a bit like how we shot The Photographer so that’s the crossover. All the scenes were shot as oners and then in The Photographer we chopped it up a little bit, but in this film the idea is that each scene plays out continuously and if the camera cuts it’s because he, the filmmaker, pressed stop and then record again. We went to MPC to grade it, this incredible post-production facility in the heart of Soho, one of the best places in the world that you can grade a film, and we basically asked them to make it look as shit as possible and spent the whole time thinking about what were the mistakes that we made when we were young filmmakers and trying to put that into the look of the film. From that point of view, which is quite scary actually to be honest, there’s a certain element of wanting to put something out that’s really lovely, like The Photographer, but this film, the story required that it has this aesthetic which is basically really ugly.
OH: I was also thinking about social media and the way that the film is being promoted. It’s this kind of narrative within the film but then expanded onto social media as a form of advertising. What made you guys want to take that approach and do you think that has benefits for advertising? Do you think it’s an approach that works?
MS: Yeah, it’s an interesting experiment. The approach is basically that, at the moment, we’re pretending that it’s a real film and we’ve created this account for the vegans that we post stuff on, and then we repost it and we’re commenting as the filmmakers as if we’re making this exposé documentary. Part of that was to make something that was a bit more teaser-y and tantalising than a typical short film promotion might have been. Also, what we were really keen to do with the promotion of the film is to expand on the idea of debate, of people discussing and/or arguing around the issues at the heart of the film. We’ve been going on Twitter, for example, and debating vegans and carnivores and just really engaging in the debate. That’s partly a promotional thing to try and get more engagement with the project, and when it comes out it’ll hopefully spark a bit of debate which will help us in terms of getting views, but also it’s an important conversation to have, firstly the veganism public image discussion, and secondly people’s seeming inability to have a civil conversation on Twitter on something that they don’t agree with. It’s been quite an interesting approach. It’s quite scary going out there and debating people and disagreeing with them or putting forward an opposing point of view. My adrenaline glands were pumping when I started doing it, it was really terrifying, but the point of the film is around this idea of debate and conflict around an issue. To promote it in that way felt like it made sense and it’s going to be an interesting one when the film goes live to see whether people just are pissed off or whether they engage in the discussion with us and with each other. The other thing about it is that the usual, old fashioned way of dealing with a short film’s release, which was probably what we did last time with The Photographer, is all about going to festivals and spending eighteen months to two years at festivals and then you put it online, but the new rules are that there are only a couple of festivals globally that won’t take the film if it’s been online. Actually a lot of festivals look for stuff that’s been popular online and they programme it with that in mind, so our feeling was to try and use some of the things that we’d learnt from working in advertising for promoting our film, hopefully getting giving the film a bit of a decent online presence and then we’ll start to submit to festivals as well. These days outside of wanting to make a film, wanting to tell a story, the point of making a short is partly to try and showcase the cast and the crew and to try and move forward in the industry. It makes a lot of sense for us to just get the project online as quickly as possible, especially as it doesn’t affect the festival screenings. It makes sense as an approach. I’ve really enjoyed it as an experiment, I guess we’ll know how well it’s done at the end of the project. The next phase will be to do some sponsored posts like these little fifteen second clips of the film and then we’ve got a trailer which is about forty seconds. Once the film is live, we’ll release those pieces of content that will push people towards the film online. The project is going to have been a great experiment in terms of thinking about how you as an independent filmmaker can take distribution into your own hands and try to build your own audience. That’s something that I think we often don’t think about enough, if you’ve got an audience online that engages with your work it’s going to be more likely for someone to give you some money to make a feature or employ you to direct an episode of TV. I think that’s a really important thing as a filmmaker or as a production company - to have an audience that you engage with online. That’s become a massive thing, so from that point of view it’s almost like a trial run. We’re developing a feature at the moment so we might use some of that same approach in promoting that film.
OH: You mentioned a feature in development. Is that what’s next for you? Your next project?
MS: Yeah. When I made my first feature, I made it as a beta test, and I was originally even thinking about putting it out as a web series in ten-minute chunks. Then it did better than I was expecting, and I wasn’t really ready for being in that position - people asking you for treatments and scripts - I didn’t have anything in a state that was ready to share. I had to go work to pay back the money that I’d spent on the film, so the idea with these short films and the next feature is try and create that situation again but to have projects ready to share with. So, we’re working from a treatment with four actors that are cast already and we’re developing the script with the actors as we go. The idea is to shoot between January and march next year, ideally speaking. It’s a little indie, a lot more contained than You (Us) Me, so in a way it will be my proper first feature. It’s four actors, one main location. It’s a much more contained and manageable production which is what you’re supposed to do when you make your first feature, not have like twenty locations, which I probably did for You (Us) Me.
OH: Just to finish off, some more general questions. I put them down as quick questions, but the first one is “what are your favourite films?”. Obviously, that is, for most people interested in films, that is a very big question.
MS: Ooh God that is that’s so difficult. I’d say the films that have had the biggest effect on me, I don’t really believe in ‘favourite’ anything because it changes all the time, since I was a kid would be Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - when I watched that in the cinema and the guy’s face melted I jumped up and screamed and ran to find my mum because I was trying to be cool and sit at the front - and then Jurassic Park had incredibly visceral effect on me. Then I think getting older Bicycle Thieves. Bicycle Thieves is probably the closest I’ve got to a favourite film. Such a great film. It’s an incredible movie, it’s a small story but it’s an epic story at the same time, it’s such a beautiful film. The filmmaking is just absolutely incredible. As you get a bit older and you move away from your Indiana Jones and your Jurassic Park you start to broaden the scope of what you understand a film can be. That film had a huge impact on me. Then I saw Persona by Ingmar Bergman at university. Again, it’s like there’s certain films where you watch them, and your brain recalibrates and you’re like “oh ok this is what a film can be”. My lecturer Jim Carew at university gave me that film to write an essay on and it just completely changed everything for me. And I’ll just chuck The Big Lebowski into the mix because I fucking love that film.
OH: That’s five pretty good solid choices.
MS: Yeah and it’s so difficult, if you asked me tomorrow, I’m sure they’d be different as well.
OH: In terms of directors that you get some inspiration from and want to try and emulate, are there any people in particular that you look at their style and you’re like “that’s the kind of thing I want to do” or “they’re the kind of films I want to make”?
MS: John Cassavetes is probably one of the biggest influences in terms of just his ability to get incredible performances and the way that the scripts shed a light on the human condition in a way that’s quite unlike anyone else, so yeah I love John Cassavetes. I love Mike Nichols. I really love, of newer people, Denis Villenueve. I’m trying to think who else, recent. Have you seen that film Burning? The Korean film. Lee Chang-dong. That film I saw recently, and I thought “I aspire to be that guy” basically.
OH: In terms of your own work, what do you feel the proudest of? Which would you, if you weren’t behind the camera, want to see the most?
MS: Oh God, that is impossible. I always sort of hate everything that I make because I can’t watch it without seeing all the missed opportunities and the stitches, the joined lines. To me it’s quite an unpleasant experience having to show my films to people, which is obviously ridiculous because that’s why you make them. I’m really proud to have made a feature film but I find the experience of watching it really painful. I think that’s an incredible thing to have done and to have done without any backing from anyone so I’m proud of that but, as I say, when I look at that film I just see all the missed opportunities and I think something similar about everything else I’ve ever made. I’m trying to be kinder to myself, but I think if you finished a piece of work and you were like “yep that’s it, perfect”, what’s the point in making another one? Although I’m trying to do it without sort of self-flagellating. I think it’s important, it’s more important to me, to focus on what it wrong with a project and what I should do better next time than to congratulate myself about it.
OH: If people are interested in seeing some of you work, where can they find it?
MS: Most of my work is on my Vimeo page or my website. The Photographer, you can view it on Vimeo, but it’s also part of a collection of shorts about London that streams on something called FilmDoo. The feature film, annoyingly, has just come down from Amazon Prime. I think the distribution deal just lapsed so I’m trying to get that back up at the moment. But yeah, I guess my website, which isn’t a very exciting answer.
OH: What about Meat is Murder?
MS: It’s coming out on October 30th, the day before Halloween. The idea is because it’s got a bit of a horror-y element to it and it’s about veganism and we’ve got Halloween followed by World Vegan Day, we’re releasing on 30thOctober.
OH: Final question, any advice for young filmmakers or anyone wanting to get into the industry? Quite a broad question but anything you think you’ve learned.
MS: I think fundamentally just make films. It’s never been easier to make films. If you had asked me that ten years ago, I probably would have said the same answer. If you shoot on your mobile phone, if you borrow a camera, fundamentally the way you learn how to be a filmmaker is by making films. If you want to get recognised by the film industry, make a film, put it online, try to promote it as best you can with you know your friends and family, and try and get it out and seen by as many people as possible and that’s going to open doors for you. The other thing is go to London and start working a runner or whatever but in terms of actually being a filmmaker, I think it’s easy for us to kind of sit and wait for an opportunity to come to us but you got to just bloody go out and make stuff.
If you are interested in Max’s work feel free to check out https://www.maxsobol.co.uk/. Our review of Meat is Murder will be out on the 30th October.