Izzy’s Column ‘Amplify’ is a celebration and amplification of QMUL student projects, voices, businesses and more, where she aims to provide a platform for people that might otherwise be unheard.
QM’s Department of Film Studies was ranked first for Media and Film Studies by the Guardian in 2019, so, unsurprisingly, it attracts students of the calibre of Calin Butnaru. Cal is going into his third year of Film Studies at QM and you can check out his short films and photography projects at https://justcal.co.uk/.
I attended Cal’s premiere of his short film ‘Untitled’ in December 2019, and so it seems fitting that Amplify is premiering with a spotlight on him and his short films (although when it comes to the literal spotlight Cal’s only venture in front of the camera was when he hosted a fitness and wellbeing web series, preferring to stay behind it). As someone whose favourite films consist of Legally Blonde, The Parent Trap and Cool Runnings, Cal’s short films opened my eyes to unexplored cinematic avenues. Below we discuss how he gives his films the ‘Cal touch’, as well as his inspirations, influences and projects in the pipeline. Oh, and chicken soup.
Izzy: From watching the 2020 showreel on your website, I felt like there was a connection between all the clips shown even though they were from different films. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but they felt emotive and powerful despite being expressed through simple scenarios. I was wondering if you feel there is an underlying theme or message that fuses your films together, or do you approach each one with new aims and ideas to express?
Cal: I’m very glad you picked up on that, for sure there is an underlying theme I aim for in my short films, which is who we are as people and the environment we exist in. Untitled is a love story that unfolds in the background of the streets of central London, as there is a great, vibrant romanticism that I found and wanted to explore in that environment. For Unpacking, we had a toxic and failing relationship, set in a minimalistic and monochromatic house, and I used tricks on the lens and framing to make it seem claustrophobic. I am less concerned with complicated narratives, but more with delivering a simple story in an emotive way, which is a great word- I’m glad you use earlier as it is what I always want to go for. In one of my earlier films, Neon Heart, I was trying to deliver the feelings of grief and sadness through a highly cinematic eye that shows more and speaks less, even if it was at the expense of clarification regarding plot elements and character motivation. I am a staunch proponent of an open-cinema; I want my audience to come up with their own interpretation and idea of what is going on; I keep things open for their sake. This is a technique particularly inspired by the films of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, which are some of the filmmakers that have inspired me the most. I would say I’m always looking to explore new ideas and forms of expression in my future films, and seek ways in which I can become more ambitious, however, I never prioritise superficial scope over a focus on characters.
Izzy: Would you say that you can add the same sort of ‘Cal Touch’ to the films you’re asked to make for uni? Do you get the same amount of influence that you would over your own projects? (Cal filmed for the Students’ Union, alongside making a taster video for the School of Medicine and a short film about e-learning)
Cal: Quite a lot, which I found to be very helpful for me and my development as a videographer. I have been lucky to be fully trusted by the University when it comes to my fieldwork, only being given a brief about what they want- otherwise I had full creative control. This allowed me to approach the videos from a cinematic eye, which I feel really make my videos stand up and have an extra flair of quality to them. So far I’ve never had any complaints about my approach and it only got me more work, so it must be working!
I: Ah, I kind of wasn’t expecting that answer, so that’s great to hear! Would you say that these projects and other filmmaking ventures based inside QM have helped fuel your creativity or do you think you’re more inspired by seeking projects outside of uni and your degree?
C: For sure, since I have been at university I’ve truly started to explore my creative potential. I’ve found that the facilities, equipment and fellow students willing to help at university meant I could finally go out there and shoot without being dragged down by the lack of resources or people which I had encountered before. I started by helping out societies, which lead to further professional and paid work, and the assignments within my course encouraged me to make more creative work on my own. Without having come to university, it probably would’ve taken even longer for me to gain the equipment and confidence to grow as a filmmaker.
I: You mentioned the willingness of other students to help; I always think of filmmaking as a competitive industry but I’m guessing this starts more after you finish uni?
C: I really believe it’s important- at least at university-level- that we all are supportive of each other, as there will be plenty of competition after we graduate- it is indeed a very competitive industry, but I am sure most who want to be serious about it are aware of that, making it all the more important go through our university time as a collective and with a strong sense of camaraderie. Most of us are at the beginning of our careers and just starting learning. I love cooperating with my coursemates and approaching them for potential collaborations, and whenever I see them working on their own projects, I am very supportive and encouraging, always willing to give advice.
I: Yeah, the sense camaraderie is something I remember from when I came to the ‘Untitled’ premiere back in December, you all seemed so close! Do you find it easy to trust people with your vision for a film when you’re collaborating? Was it hard going from wrapping the roles of writer, producer and director together to delegating tasks to other people?
C: I had to start being a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ as I never found the people to share my enthusiasm or hard-working attitude towards films, and I am a very dedicated and demanding individual who puts all the passion and time I can in a project. I had to learn and practice as much of it as I could about all the roles to get films done. And to be honest, it was intimidating and hard at first, but now it’s almost as if I couldn’t do it any other way! I absolutely enjoy the creative control I get, and I know that if anything is to be not good about the film, I can hold myself accountable.
I: Is there always a vision you are trying to realise with your films- do you have a plan for how you want the aesthetic/music/dialogue to work together or does it all sort of fall into place while your filming? I like how nothing feels forced about your short films but it would be interesting to know if it’s as effortless behind the scenes.
C: It really depends on the project. For some projects, I can approach them in a much more open and improvisational manner, preferring to keep a more chilled and experimental approach, using the kind of mood and atmosphere I want the audiences to feel as the main reference point. This was the case for Unpacking as we started filming on the day only with the script and the house, then we worked on the shots together, without any rehearsal. But my actors, Hannah Elizabeth Lynch and Sam Bird, were so effortlessly talented that they were able to get into the skin of their character and proceed with the scenes. I also encourage improvisation and actors saying things that feel like it would sound more natural, as long as the feeling of the scene is kept intact.
For really strong passion projects, like Untitled, I tend to approach it from a much more pre-planned and meticulous approach. I extensively storyboard and pre-plan, ensuring I have input in what happens on every frame, especially considering I like shooting in long, uninterrupted takes.
I: I’m glad you mentioned ‘Unpacking’, I wanted to ask you a question about it! One thing that struck me in this particular film was the balance between the silence and the dialogue. I was wondering how you judge when you’re filming that you’ve struck the right balance between these two things and how you know when enough has been said, especially when your films are of such a short length and you have to get a whole plot across?
C: Script-wise, I was super lucky to be working on a fantastic script written by Daniel and Hannah that already managed to flow and sound realistic without relying on exposition or feeling forced. The moments of silence, therefore, came about very easily as me and the actors managed to just ‘feel’ the script. Then, I worked on the balance between silence and dialogue while editing. Pacing is quite a difficult but essential skill to master as an editor, and it makes a massive difference between an average and good film I think, more so than anything else, maybe next to sound design and colour grading. They are the holy trinity of editing and with Unpacking especially I wanted to improve my skills in those areas, and I like to think I succeeded. Again as I mentioned, pacing especially is very hard, for me at least it needs to be instinctive. And to improve this instinct I practice by watching good films and focusing on scenes I especially like and how the editors did them.
I: One thing I noticed in common between ‘Unpacking’ and ‘Untitled’ was the domestic setting. Do you prefer this kind of atmosphere or is location something you’d want to be more ambitious with too?
C: Most of the time, I like setting my films in locations that are readily available and appropriate for the story, but I did notice I have an affinity for domestic settings, probably again as an influence from my favourite type of cinema. One particular filmmaker I greatly appreciate, Yasujirō Ozu, frequently uses domestic settings in such a way that it becomes a character in itself. I like filming in such a way that the environment is just as impactful as the situations the characters find themselves in, and up to this point a domestic environment was the most appropriate. I would love to explore more ambitious locations, but only if they are appropriate for the story and they reflect and compliment the character and narrative.
I: I feel like domestic settings give a more personal feel to films, especially when they are short and the whole story can unfold inside a house, like in ‘Unpacking’. Do you find that making personal films fuels your creativity and forms part of the ‘Cal Touch’?
C: I’d say my love for all sorts of creative arts means I’m like a sponge that takes from whatever I consume and come across, then I filter what I like most and try to put my own take on it, which is how I make my films. I find it surprising how compared to most other filmmakers, I don’t tend to put a lot of personal experiences in my films, as I feel there are more important stories and themes to be explored and told than my experiences. I want to create experiences that relate to a lot of people and have a sense of universality and applicability.
I: Wow, I think creating films that can be both universal and personal is so cool. Is there anyone in particular that inspires you to make films this way? Who are your biggest influences?
C: I would say European Cinema is my biggest influence, particularly French Cinema, contemporary and French New Wave, due to the incredible way they manage to convey emotion and character in a way I cannot fully understand yet but hope to master. From America, I also absolutely love the Filmmaker called Paul Thomas Anderson who made some of my favourite films ever: There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread. I also admire and find inspiration in the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky due to his use of long camera takes and natural lighting.
I: Ok, and I’ve been wanting to ask this question for a while! I remember at the premiere of ‘Untitled’ you revealed that the actor’s vomit was cold soup- are these sort of techniques tried-and-tested within the industry or have you come up with your own along the way?
C: I strongly believe that one of the most essential skills any director should have is resourcefulness and outside the box thinking, as well as a continuous willingness to learn and listen. For the vomit scene in Untitled, the actor himself, Sam Bird – who is super talented and awesome and knowledgeable in general, it’s the best joy to work with actors like that – proposed we use chicken soup and I think it worked really well. I also learn a lot from other directors I admire, who started with basically no budgets and ended up working on larger films as producers love a director who is highly resourceful and capable. Some of those directors include Christopher Nolan, who made his first feature film, Following, by working around a very tight budget. He was able to do that by working over the weekends around his full-time job which he used to fund the film, lacking any professional lighting, instead of using clever camera angles to make the most of natural lighting, and rehearsing extensively with his committed cast, in order to save film roll, as digital cameras hadn’t been invented at that point. This, combined with a great script, meant that Christopher Nolan didn’t need millions or studio backing to achieve his dreams, just a ton of commitment and outside the box thinking.
Making films myself, I’m able to use what modern technology has to offer. Good quality cameras are significantly cheaper, and there are so many helpful Youtube tutorials about filmmaking that analyse great scenes in detail, as well as giving you practical skills into using equipment. Furthermore, streaming and digital rental services make it so much easier to discover both classics and new films, and learning from the masters is the best way to improve. Sometimes I also employ my own tricks, such as using a bicycle to make a track or cheap IKEA things to make practical lights.
I: Thanks so much for all these insights, Cal! Going back to the start of it all, how did you know filmmaking was the career for you?
C: I was always very creative since I can remember, so definitely I wanted to pursue this path, but it probably all started when I was maybe 9 years old and I passed by a place that had a filming crew and just seeing that made me think how awesome it looked and stayed with me since. Furthermore, due to my passion for cinema in general, and being highly creative, a filmmaking career seemed like the most natural path for me to pursue.
I: And now at the moment, do you have any upcoming projects to watch out for?
C: For sure, I am going to direct a short film at the beginning of August called Young Adults which is my most ambitious and professional piece of work yet, but despite its size, it is the project with my least amount of creative control or input. It’s an experience of a sort of ‘studio work’ where often you have to please a lot of the producers and executives, but in a way that is ok as it means there’s less pressure on me and I can enjoy having fun on set and working with actors. I also plan on making one other film in the style of Untitled and Unpacking that will complete a spiritual trilogy, then make another bigger short film of my own next spring.
After talking to Cal, this afternoon I sat trying to think of witty movie one-liners or punchy film-based puns to title this article, striving for the perfect balance of attention-catching without being overly cringe-worthy or cliche, all whilst holding a mirror to the conversation we’d had about filmmaking and Cal’s studies at QM. When I asked if he had any preference for the headline himself, Cal responded that he struggled with titles because his films hold too many ideas to convey them in a few simple words, and I realised the same applied to this interview! Instead of condensing it down myself, the principles of Cal’s beloved open cinema can be applied here! Whatever your interpretation turns out to be, I hope what you’ve read has showcased (knew I’d manage to squeeze in a pun somewhere) Cal’s talent and ideas as candidly as his films do. Thanks for reading.
Izzy Grime is a second year historian at QMUL and hopes to bring a new sense of community within our university with her Column.