The Darkest Universe is a thoroughly original British independent release that follows a young man in search of his sister whose mysterious disappearance leaves him reeling. It is directed and edited by BAFTA-nominated directors Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley, whose work on the 2011 indie Black Pond earned them critical acclaim. In The Darkest Universe, Sharpe plays the lead character, Zac, and shares writing duties with Tiana Ghosh, who also stars in the film as Zac’s sister, Alice.
Today Will and Tom join us for a discussion about their new film, which is set for a 4 November release in the UK. Read on for our interview…
Hi guys, first of all I’d just like to put it out there how much I enjoyed your new film. This was quite an experience for me, the sort I wouldn’t mind having again. And then probably again. I was very much drawn in by the emotional hook established by the various forms of relationships that are presented here, be it between a brother and sister, two new lovers or strangers united in a single cause; there’s a sense of intimacy about The Darkest Universe that has stayed with me long after watching. To me, this felt like quite a personal project. Was that necessarily the case for you?
Tom: We always wanted to tell a personal story, but the film became more personal to us as filmmakers as it went on and we discovered more and more about the characters and the different ways in which they related to each other. Will and Tiani re-wrote the script while filming in response to scenes and improvisation on the shoot that we thought stood out and would be interesting to explore further.
Will: Often we tried to make the relationships feel more intimate by making them more difficult. We thought it was key not to portray Alice – the girl who goes missing – as a saint. The fact that her relationship with her brother is fractious and that both she and Zac are, to quite a great extent, difficult people – this felt like an important way of playing against the potentially saccharine arc of a noble search for a loved one. That Zac and Alice are deeply flawed individuals – and, in a way, really don’t get on – seemed to make Zac’s search feel somehow even more personal, that they did still love each other nonetheless.
Will, as you played Zac Pratt, the brother at the heart of this story, could you tell us a little bit about the character? Who is he? What motivates him?
Will: Zac is a very uptight guy who wants everything to be okay and to be a good person, but he deals with stress incredibly badly and has a lot of issues that he seemingly has not dealt with. He feels a huge sense of responsibility to look after his younger sister Alice (part of the reason for this becomes clear during the course of the film), but is also very bad at being patient with her, when she is being wilful or difficult or winding him up. He tries incredibly hard but really cannot handle the fact that not everything works out how he hopes it will. He and Alice are both dealing with their traumatic past in different ways. He buries his vulnerabilty under anger and bluster and it takes a lot to break him down to the point that he is dealing with his past and the feelings that he is terrified of confronting. I quite enjoyed seeing him as someone who has been battered into a pretty ugly character on the surface, but who, underneath it all, has a core of humanity and kindness that is fighting to get out.
Thematically speaking, what can viewers expect out of The Darkest Universe? And what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Tom: It’s about dealing with grief, and how to find closure when none can be given. I guess it’s important to say that it isn’t a sci-fi film: it’s a portrait of a man having a breakdown. What moves me when I watch it is that over the course of the film you start to appreciate that there is love between these two bickering hostile siblings. And the ending could be interpreted in many ways, but I love that it’s sad and happy at the same time.
Will: Yes, I think it’s also about stories and the stories we all have to tell ourselves to get by and how, to an extent, you are in control of how you tell that story and of how that story goes. You can choose what to believe, for better or worse. I watched a documentary about missing persons while we were developing the script and I found it really quite devastating how, many who had lost loved ones in this way, would cling so stubbornly to any tiny scrap of hope. One lady would leave a note out for her husband every day before leaving for work, just in case he came back, even though he had been missing for years.
From a technical standpoint there’s quite a lot going on in your film. You have two separate timelines and a multitude of angles from which we gather a perspective, be it handheld recording devices that Will’s character has on him, webcams or standard filmmaking equipment. As independent filmmakers, one of the obvious challenges of making a film comes down to working within certain budgetary limitations, but to me those restrictions weren’t very apparent as I was effortlessly drawn into this world. What were some of the challenges in embracing this set-up? What was the process like?
Will: It was a hard film to make and there were many times when we thought we might give up. Working as a pair helps on projects like this where we’re covering so many bases ourselves, because we can sort of take turns to be the one with strength to carry on. We shot in three main blocks over the course of three years and spent a long time experimenting in the edit. We tried to be strict with ourselves about not letting material through that we didn’t feel was good enough, or that felt somehow like it looked a bit cheap or amateur. We didn’t want to let anything through on the basis of – “well considering our means it’s not that bad.” With the phone footage, that was a device we reached for partly for practical reasons and to add some texture and realism. I sometimes think of it in relation to the theory that all events have already taken place and that our world is simply one path, out of an infinite number of possible paths, through those events. It’s like, in our footage, we had quite a vast array of events, scenes, memories, thoughts, dreams, worlds even – and we had to work out which of those were helpful and what order to put them in to tell the best emotional story.
Tom: It was really hard to balance the two timelines, because they needed to develop at their own pace while also complementing each other. At one point, we spent nearly a solid year in the edit trying to get that to work, and then eventually we realised that we just didn’t have the right scenes to make the film work – so we went out and shot some more. On a film with a proper budget, you wouldn’t be able to do that, but here we didn’t have anyone waiting for the film to be finished – so we could just keep working until we wanted to stop. So we had time to think our way round problems. For the majority of the shoot the crew was two people or less – but we tried to make it look as good as we could. We got a great deal on a Red Epic and some prime lenses and Will Hanke, our brilliant and tireless DOP worked extraordinarily hard and kept pushing us to make it look better.
One of the things that I thought made your film stand out was the decision to infuse the story with a subtle science fiction element. Like some of my favorite independent releases, you tease it out throughout the narrative just enough to be noticed, but the implementation is never overt. The story mostly operates within the realm of reality but now and again we get the sense that there’s something bigger going on, some larger event that might yield some revelation. What prompted you guys to dabble with this creative flourish?
Tom: It took us a very long time to get the level of sci-fi right. When we started shooting, our idea was that there actually were hundreds of spaceships hovering ominously in the sky throughout the film. The characters would never directly comment on them, but you’d get the sense that something was very wrong with the world. And as we started to edit and do effects tests, we realised that it was eclipsing the subtle human relationships. So we stripped it right back, scrapped most of the sci-fi visuals, and got our composers to stop writing the eerie sci-fi soundtrack we’d initially been going for, and write tracks that were warmer and more intimate. We tried to be faithful to the strengths of the film that we’d actually shot rather than being faithful to our original theories.
Will: Yes, the imagery first grew out of the theme of alienation and how Alice, for example, feels alienated from the rest of the “normal” world. And we didn’t want anything to pull focus from the human stories in the film. There was a point where it felt like you could only take these sci-fi images literally – that aliens were around on Earth in the world of this film. It felt stronger once we’d pulled it back to a point where you could decide for yourself about whether to take these images literally, as glimpses of another world, or psychologically, as flashes of Zac’s dreams or thoughts, or just as stylised loosely metaphorical flourishes.
In some ways that sci-fi bent tends to make The Darkest Universe an even more romantic film than it already is. At the core of the movie you’ve got this really tender, realistic relationship that blossoms between Alice (played by Tiani Ghosh, who also helped write the story) and Toby (played by Joe Thomas, of The In-Betweeners). I thought the chemistry between the two was absolutely fantastic. There was so much awkwardness there, it was truly compelling. How important was it for you guys to have that relationship play out the way it does?
Will: Yes. For us, one of the defining scenes of their relationship is a scene where they go on an awkward date at a pub and then Toby goes back to the boat Alice is living on and, even though they both clearly want to take things further, neither of them can make it happen. The sci-fi elements of the movie were, in part, intended to elevate their love to a sort of transcendental love and we wanted their characters to come across like they almost seem like they don’t belong in this world, like they might even belong somewhere else completely. Tiani and Joe both played their characters fantastically, with a really compelling oddness and chemistry which created an air of mystery around their characters.
Tom: Tiani and Joe have worked together quite a bit before, and both enjoy the comedy of awkward people who communicate badly. That’s an important part about their initial relationship – but the scenes that surprised us during filming were the more simple ones where the two characters felt like they completely understood each other. We felt that was ultimately more satisfying, and so in the edit we ended up removing a lot of the scenes where the characters didn’t totally click with each other, the more traditional ups and downs of a romantic relationship story. Some of the situations that were too ordinary or urbane seemed to make them less mysterious somehow.
If international viewers (like myself) are curious to find out more about the project where can they go to check that out? Any chance The Darkest Universe gets an international distribution or do you expect it to stay local and play to British markets?
Tom: It’s going to come out in the US on Seeso next year, and hopefully some other territories as well.
What might audiences expect out of Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley next? Any grand plans for an upcoming project? Maybe another collaboration?
Tom: It’s really satisfying to make these films together, but we’ve always been working on our own separate projects too. And now that those projects are being commissioned, we’re going to work on our own things for the time being. I’m filming a BBC series about Youtube vloggers at the moment, and am working on an odd sort-of-horror film with another writer friend.
Will: I think it’s also partly because we both want to be understood as individuals, not simply as a pair. When we work together, we want to work together out of choice, when it feels right to us – not as a default. It was getting to a point at one stage where it felt like we were expected to do everything as a pair and neither of us want that really. So yes we may collaborate again in the future if we both feel excited about something. For now, I’m writing the second series of ‘Flowers’, which I’ll be shooting next summer, and developing a couple of other TV and film ideas at the same time.
The Darkest Universe is set to open in UK cinemas on the 4th November, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!