Filmmaker Interview – Tobias Tobbell

Tobias Tobbell Confine

Although he has just recently directed his first feature film, British filmmaker Tobias Tobbell is a veteran of theater and video.  His London-based production company, Two Bells Productions, has created hundreds of videos and commercials, and Tobbell himself produced the independent feature The Drummond Will (2010).

His debut effort as a feature director, Confine, concerns an agoraphobic former model, Pippa, who is taken hostage in her apartment by a volatile thief, Kayleigh, after a botched robbery.  The film takes place in real-time, almost all of it featuring only three characters.  Starring British supermodel Daisy Lowe, Eliza Bennett (Inkheart), and Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), the film releases theatrically in North America this week and is also available today on DVD and VOD.

Mike Dub recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tobbell about making the film, working with a first-time actress, and the constraints of working in micro-budget filmmaking.

Mike Dub: Though you have created hundreds of short films and videos, Confine is your debut feature.  Have you been trying to get a feature made for a long time?  Was this film an idea that you had been carrying around, or was it just more good timing to have the idea for the story at a time when you were able to make the film?

Tobias Tobbell: Making a feature was the goal and my dream for a long time. Confine was one of many projects I’d developed over the past 12 years, but because of the limited cast and locations (it didn’t start as just set in the one flat), it was the most feasible. So when the time came I reworked the story slightly to suit a single setting and we had a nice controllable budget to work from.

MD: In addition to being your first feature, your film also features the acting debut of Daisy Lowe.  It must have been quite a new experience for both of you.  How did you manage the challenges of directing your first feature with a first-time actor as your lead?

TT: As a first feature it was probably the most comfortable way to start off: we didn’t have the weather to contend with, or big unit changes every day (we shot in one studio for the entire shoot), no big SFX or cast numbers. So in many ways, it was a great feature project for me to kick off with. I’d also recently completed producing another feature film, The Drummond Will, which had a smaller budget, bigger cast, a 30-day shoot and a whole multitude of difficult locations. I was on set most days (there was no production office so I tended to work from that day’s set!) so that experience set me up well. But directing a feature’s a different type of pressure of course, and this is where working with a new actress came into play. I’m looking at every shot in meticulous detail, thinking ahead to the edit, continuity (a relatively real-time story set in one location makes continuity much more noticeable) and all the other elements that kept me busy that meant I didn’t spend nearly as much time with the actors as I wanted to. Daisy’s also a very undemanding person. She was very happy to watch and listen rather than asking a ton of questions. At the time I really appreciated that. Since then I’ve remembered the value of an actor’s constant enquiring of the whys and hows! Fortunately, Daisy comes from the right world, so working on backstory took less time. She can also (openly) be a little obsessive about things like tidying, so she was able to empathize with character traits pretty quickly.

MD: You spent quite a lot of time in theater, which must have helped you in crafting a film that takes place in real-time at a single location.  What kind of impact did your theater experience have on this film?

TT: Confine was pretty much the first screenplay I wrote after finishing up with theatre so it had a huge impact on the script. The film definitely has a theatrical edge to it, from thicker dialogue to some stage-like blocking. In many ways, Confine could work better as a theatrical production than a film. It would be cool to adapt it (which wouldn’t take much) and see how it worked on the stage!

MD: Confine feels like it was influenced strongly by the work of Roman Polanski: the single interior setting, the emotionally fractured female in distress, the way the apartment itself becomes a character in the film.  You also hide certain images from the audience at times.  For instance, in the opening shots, we hear Pippa repeatedly locking her doors, but we only see her from the waist down so we don’t really know what’s happening right away.  That reminds me of the way Polanski would sometimes keep things just out of our vision.  Were you conscious of the connections to Polanski when you were shooting, or am I just totally off-base?

TT: You’re not off-base, but I didn’t feel the influence quite that heavily. In fact, it was almost the other way around. I wrote this, and I wrote a psych thriller set on a yacht, another 3-hander, and people started telling me that these felt influenced by Polanski. Obviously I’d seen most of his films but the cross-over was, as far as I could tell, a coincidence. That said he’s a bloody great director and if something’s slipping through from his work into the way I approach films then I’d be pleased to embrace that.

MD: With Pippa a former model (played by a real-life model) who is scarred and Kayleigh as this changeling who constantly switches appearances, there seem to be some undertones in this film about body image, or, in the case of Pippa, body shame.  Having spent so many years in theater and film, is Pippa a type of person you’ve come across?

TT: These are two extremes of types of people I’ve met and still meet all the time in all walks of life. Now, even more than when I was at school or university, many girls (and many guys too) are wildly obsessive about the way they look. The pressure from peers, from media and eventually from themselves, is mounting. Hearing about suicides because of the way they felt about their looks seem to be going up year on year. This film’s more about identity than straight good or bad looks. Kayleigh isn’t happy about hers, she’s got a series of go-to characters she can play at any given time that gives her confidence in that situation. Pippa is happy about her looks and identity on her own terms, whilst locked away. But the moment she’s put in front of someone that melts away into fear and paranoia.

MD: Confine was made on a micro-budget.  Even though it doesn’t look like a micro-budget film, I’m curious if there were issues you ran into where if you had just a little bit more money, you could have done something the way you wanted to do instead of how you had to do it because of budget constraints.

TT: Time. That’s what I could really have done with more of. There are always a lot of things you could change or have thrown more money at. With more time I could have workshopped the script through the development process, modifying the story and the dialogue. More time with the cast before the shoot workshopping character backstories. More time on set to take and retake, not to mention get more coverage, a better variety of shots to work from in the edit (in some cases we only had one shot from a scene, so in the edit we either kept the entire thing or cut it completely, because there wasn’t time that day to get close-ups of the actors!). On the positive side though; for a micro-budget, I’m really proud of the beautiful set we built (the guys built that in 6 days, including dressing, painting, etc). It looks fantastic too, DP Eben Bolter, and I spent a couple of weeks going through shots, looking at reference films and discussing the look – which certainly paid off. There aren’t many micro-budget films that look as pretty. I love the score too. Paul Lawler starting knocking around ideas before we starting even shooting. So not everything would have benefitted from more money, we made a lot of things work. More money, more time, would have been nice though.

MD: That being said, do you now have ambitions to make a big-budget, Hollywood-style blockbuster someday?  Do those movies appeal to you as either a viewer or filmmaker?

TT: I don’t know about blockbusters exactly, but the kinds of films I enjoy most tend to have healthy budgets. I love my production design, creating and building worlds. Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan are David Fincher are amongst directors I’m most inspired by (though the list is long). Sci-fi thrillers are probably the genre I enjoy the most as a viewer and eventually the kind of thing I’d like to shoot.

MD: Given that Confine is being released in North America, things seem to be going well with the movie.  Do you have any plans yet to make another feature?

TT: I’ve been plotting since the day we wrapped on Confine. Waiting for the right script, the right opportunity (and for Confine to be released in more than just the UK), has taken a while but there are now a couple of projects that are getting some traction. One’s a great, reasonably contained thriller, the other a post-apocalyptic survival story. But there’s a pretty long list of films I want to make and I guess for every film I get off the ground that list will change.