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Filmmaker Interview with Zoe Dobson and Ali Cook

Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson

One of the official selections for the London Independent Film Festival 2020, short film The Cunning Man is directed by Zoe Dobson and written by Ali Cook.

I caught up with them both to chat about their movie...

Ali Cook in The Cunning Man
Ali Cook in The Cunning Man

Your short film, The Cunning Man, just won best short film at the London Independent Film Festival. Congrats. How would you describe the film to a new audience?

Ali: Thank you! The Cunning Man is inspired by John Harries (1785-1839), a physician and ‘Cunning Man’ – a healer who uses folklore magic. The film tells the story of an elderly and mysterious farmer who drifts through the Welsh valleys collecting dead animals. Nobody knows why or what he is up to...

Zoe: An enchanted modern-day fable inspired by a real Cunning Man John Harries (c.1785 – 1839). Despite being a trained physician with a practice in Harley St, John Harries claimed to be able to heal man or beast with magical powers. In our tale, the Cunning Man is a rural practitioner of the dark arts who becomes the target of a conspiracy. When pressed into a corner he draws on his powers to avoid a hefty fine. It’s a tale about the underdog winning out. ( John Harries book of spells can be viewed at the National Library of Wales)

Why did you want to tell this story?

Ali: Although John Harries was a healer and used modern medicine, he also used folklore magic and so was feared just as much as he was he admired. This really interested me.

The film also poses the question: should animals be regarded as a commodity? In the ritual scene where our Cunning Man recites an incantation from his book of spells in Welsh, he is in fact reciting the five key rights of animals as laid out in the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Zoe: The message of The Cunning Man is about hope, magic elicits hope and opens up a world of possibilities that can be liberating, especially if it helps us think differently. The short was an opportunity to play at being a wizard, to do the impossible. I grew up on a farm and the stark beauty of the landscape, the anxieties and darkness of a life-lived on the land have long been something that has sparked my imagination and I wanted to make a fictional film that reflected and refracted this otherness. 

How have you guys been affected by COVID-19 as filmmakers?

Ali: Well I’ve gone from no productions to zero productions – so it hasn’t really affected me.

Zoe: Yes, massively. Shoots have been pulled and we are biding our time writing and creating from home.

What's next for you?

Ali: I’ve written a feature film; a folk horror called The Grimoire – it’s about a mysterious and real book on witchcraft written in medieval England.

Also, in a slightly different direction, I’ve written a comedy about a new age book centre and the colourful characters such places attract. I’m aiming to make this into a short film with a view to pitching it as a TV series.

Zoe: I am currently directing/writing scripts for a short form project with Jeff Goldblum. I am also writing a short scripted film, which I hope to shoot at the end of this year, if we are allowed out!

Who are your movie influences and why?

Ali: I grew up watching a lot of David Lynch so I love the idea of keeping the audience unnerved, on edge but also amused.

Zoe: Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Safdie Brothers, Todd Philips, The Cohen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman, Martin McDonagh. I’m drawn to these directors because of their distinct voice and attitude. Their stories reveal the human condition in all its fragility. Their character studies are accomplished and populated with odd ball, screwed-up, off-kilter, complex and troubled characters. Music is a big part of cinema for me, and these directors each have their own distinct signature style of musical scoring. As for writers: Samuel Beckett, Hunter S Thompson, Eimear McBride. I like writers who disrupt the rules, whether they are the rules of grammar, society, convention or storytelling.

What advice would you give to new filmmakers?

Ali: For me, I’d spend all my time improving my writing. We only want to watch a story we are begging to see.

Zoe: Stop thinking about it and write it, shoot it, cut it, get it out there. If you have limited funds write a two hander around the kitchen table. Just do it.

If you could put any two actors (living or dead) into a story, who would they be and what would the premise be?

Ali: Mr. Bean goes to the Oscars – where he meets Marilyn Monroe...

Zoe: James McAvoy and Florence Pugh. The year is 2050 and the elite have second homes on Mars. James is the night concierge of one of the top hotels, The Mars Overlook, Florence is a native to Mars and the grandchild of Mr Newton, she runs the World Enterprises, the shuttle company who have a monopoly on the planet’s guest list.

What would you say if you were a dolphin?

Ali: Thanks for all the fish, honestly you shouldn’t have.

Zoe: Swim for your life. ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to your courage’ (Anais Nin)



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