Norwich Film Festival: in Conversation with Director and Writer Bertie Gilbert

Ever wondered what filmmakers think of Norwich? It seems they are amused by the equal proportion of hippy stoners to elderly people here, or at least Bertie Gilbert is.

Writer and director Bertie Gilbert was also keen to see his short film screened at the Norwich Film Festival: “I love that I had to make a bit of a trip to get here. It makes it feel more of an event.” It was a pleasure to have a chat with Bertie before we watched some great shorts alongside his own.  

PLEASE CARE! is Bertie’s first BAFTA qualifying film,  a comedic but cautionary tale about the turbulent and toxic ways of grieving. He was happy to give a quick premise before we watched the film ourselves: “So Hugh Skinner, from Fleabag and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again fame, plays a drama teacher, who, after experiencing a tragedy in his life, decides to have his students put on a play about this trauma. It’s his very misplaced toxic attempt to grieve out in the open and to try and have that horrible experience validated in front of children, fellow teachers, and parents.”

As I watched the film, my attention drew to Skinner’s acting talent – so much emotion was expressed in the simplicity of facial expression. Many shots isolated the disturbed nature of his character, Max, revealing him as mere spectator to his own chaos inflicted onto others.

So how did Bertie manage to bag him for the role? Bertie explains, “there’s no story – we just sent him the script and he liked it…He was so up for the scrappy nature of doing a short film like this.”

“He’s exactly how you would expect him to be based on his work – the kind of bumbling sort of floppy posh British guy, (as am I),” he said jovially.

Of course, an anecdote Bertie shared about Skinner was one of Covid-induced stress: “he gave me a heart attack the day before shooting – he rang me and was like, ‘Bertie – don’t worry, it’s not Covid, I’ve done the test – but I’m a bit under the weather, so might have to blow my nose a lot. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” This was at a time before the vaccine, or at least only the eldest and most vulnerable were getting it. I was thinking, if you, Skinner, got Covid, that was it. I would be very upset.” Bertie did make it clear that to forewarn a sniffly nose and not cancel the shoot altogether was very much preferable – it really showed Skinner’s support for the project.

 “For the first two days he was a bit sniffly and taking a lot of Day Nurse. He kept on apologising saying, ‘I’m so sorry was that take alright? I’m just on a lot of drugs’” – Bertie gave a pleasingly life-like impression of the actor.

I wanted to know more about Bertie’s stylistic choice to make PLEASE CARE! a dark comedy. Bertie reflected on his creative “journey” writing shorts saying: “the stuff that has worked less is when I go for the serious subject matter and dark themes, and I tonally reflect that. When you do something like that there’s no room for surprise, you can’t do any sort of rug-pulls, and it feels sort of dour and flat. With really serious stuff and subject matter, I think if you catch people off guard with that, have it framed in a light whimsical world, and then cut through to something really real – I think that’s more powerful and makes more of a statement.”

YouTube is where Bertie kick started his career and creativity, and it is the platform where PLEASE CARE! will eventually be shared. We talked about how this experience has helped him understand and enter the realm of film festivals: “I’m really proud of them, but they all kind of serve as condensed features. It speaks to a level of ambition, I’ve been eager to do features for a long, long time. But as I’ve done more festival stuff I’ve come to learn that what works on YouTube might not necessarily work in a film festival. With a film festival you kind of need a strong elevated pitch, it’s less about characters and more about premise because you don’t have as long to introduce the characters and make people care about them. I feel my early shorts condense those kind of ideas.”

“It’s very useful to go to festivals and watch a lot of shorts that do well and try to understand. If your film doesn’t get in, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The way they programme these festivals and the way they curate is so important. It’s about finding a place where you can fit into that.”

We finished the interview and took our seat in the auditorium. Bertie recommended sitting right in the centre, towards the back – that’s where you can see and hear everyone’s reactions best, be it a laugh or more. I remembered something Bertie said earlier in conversation: “it’s really nice and validating to see my film on the big screen and have it look good, but also look like that’s where it’s meant to be.” As well as supporting the emerging talent of filmmakers, film festivals are about the audience – how they engage and breathe life into the films themselves. It meant a lot seeing Bertie gain delight in that. 

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Laura Patterson

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January 2022
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