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James Gardner • Director of Jellyfish

"Jellyfish is part of the conversation that promotes a better understanding of how we can improve our society"


- We chatted to British director James Gardner, whose debut feature, Jellyfish, has just won the Cineuropa Prize at the Mons International Film Festival

James Gardner  • Director of Jellyfish

We chatted to British director James Gardner, whose debut feature, Jellyfish [+see also:
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interview: James Gardner
film profile
, premiered at Tribeca last year and has just won the Cineuropa Prize at the Mons International Film Festival.

Cineuropa: What was the main motivation for making this film?
James Gardner: The initial idea behind Jellyfish was to tell the story of a teenage girl who discovers a hidden talent and examine how her family circumstances suffocate it. I had the idea for Sarah, her family and Margate… That all came as one, but it took a little time before I realised I was telling the story of a young carer. I knew what a young carer was, but it wasn’t until I really started developing the idea and researching properly that I came to realise to what extent it is an indisputable crisis. There are more than 800,000 young carers – young people between the ages of 11 and 18, looking after one or more family members, unpaid – in England alone, and it is unacceptable that we’re not supporting these vulnerable young people better. It saddens me to say it, but despite Jellyfish being a work of fiction, everything that was written into the film was inspired by incidents that actually happened.

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Do you see your film as delivering a political message?
I think it’s virtually impossible to create art that is completely apolitical, as it will always exist within a context dictated by time and space. As a filmmaker, you have to embrace that, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jellyfish delivers an overtly political message, as it is not a propaganda film, and nor was it conceived to make a political point; it just evolved and is being viewed that way because of the day and age we live in. Jellyfish is part of the conversation that promotes a better understanding of how we can improve our society.

How did you work with the actors, especially the astonishing Liv Hill?
Because of how low-budget the film is, I had no real hope of scheduling any rehearsal time with the cast all together. Therefore, a large part of my preparation with the actors was just the one-on-one conversations we had prior to the shoot. I was very lucky to be able to cast the wonderful actors I did, because there was no financial incentive for them to work on the film, as to make the film possible, we conceived of the entire production as a socialist enterprise, where everyone, from the top down, would be offered deferred payment only. It was the only way we could afford to make it. As for Sarah, it was incredibly difficult to find a young actor capable of carrying the weight of an entire feature film on her shoulders. And after about seven months of searching, I thought that perhaps we had written an impossible screenplay. In the end, after all the auditions, self-tapes, showcases, emails, phone calls and so on, it came down to a piece of luck. Cyril Nri [Mr Hale] had been offered a job that clashed with our shooting window, and his agent called to ask what was happening with the film and if I’d found Sarah. I hadn’t, and I was on the verge of postponing the shoot for the second time, when the agent offered up a self-tape for a client they had just signed. It was Liv. And it may sound like a cliché, but it’s true that within the first five seconds of watching that self-tape, I knew I’d found Sarah. And the reason I’m telling this story is to highlight just how easy it was working with her, because she’s truly gifted. She is the definition of a natural.

The film has quite a dark atmosphere. Can you tell us more about how you worked with the lighting?
I really wanted the movie to have as much of a naturalistic aesthetic as possible. Jellyfish is a drama that deals with confrontational real-world issues, and I knew that I would create the most compelling, strongest version of the story by doing everything I could to make the film feel as “real” to the audience as possible. One of my favourite scenes is the showdown between Karen and Sarah, where Sarah is in darkness and Karen is lit so brightly that you can see the detailing in the whites of her eyes. It’s magnetic. And actually, for a long time in the edit, we weren’t with Sarah enough in that scene, because the editor and I had completely fallen under Karen’s spell, and I think that’s definitely to do with the way she is lit. It’s that contrast between the light and the dark, and comedy and tragedy, that defines this scene. It runs through the entire film and characterises its tonal quality.

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