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Sleepworking's success is a dream for director Gavin Williams

The global success of chilling short film Sleepworking is a dream scenario for its writer/director Gavin Williams. He talks to Sam Wonfor

Gavin Williams who has written and directed the short film Sleepworking
Gavin Williams who has written and directed the short film Sleepworking

When Northern Film and Media (NFM) put out a call for pitches for its upcoming Shorted film challenge a couple of years back, writer and aspiring film maker, Gavin Williams began rooting around for inspiration.

He found it on a piece of paper he’d secured behind his desk a long time before, which in turn had come from a friend’s off-the-cuff, after work drinks greeting.

“He said he felt like he’d just sleepwalked his way through his day at work. A little lightbulb went off in my head – an interesting idea for a future world where people are programmed to work while they’re asleep,” says Gavin.

“As writers we tend to build up a backlog of little bits of ideas which compost down over the years, and this was one of them.”

Fast forward two years – and a lot of hard work – and the film which was founded on that figurative Post-it has become a bit of a darling of the sci-fi and horror film circuit.

Having been selected for 42 festivals around the world, Sleepworking has picked up seven awards, which is pretty good going.

But let’s return for a moment to its foundations. Having decided to blow the dust off his light bulb pub moment, Gavin, along with other successful film pitchers were invited to take part in Shorted.

 

“The six hour film challenge involved going down to Live Theatre (Newcastle) on a Sunday, where we were given two actors and were sent out to film something, edit it and bring it back to the theatre by the end of the day,” he explains.

“I hadn’t really got any idea what I was going to do, but working within structures can be really creative, and I had a notion that the way to take advantage of the limitations of the exercise would be to sort of do an advert for a service which allows you to work and earn money while you’re asleep.

“A bit like the ones you see in the afternoon on the telly: ‘have you been in an accident...’”

And that’s what they did.

“But that initial idea was all we had. I did not expect to win,” laughs the 43-year-old, who grew up in Newcastle after moving here with his parents as a toddler.

“Then I was tasked with coming up with the whole of the rest of the story, which took a lot of drafts and work with my producer Ed Barratt and a mentor through NFM as well.

“This is only the second time I’ve directed my own work,” he continues, referring to two-hander short he made in 2009 called Breath.

“It was a lengthy process to get Sleepworking into some sort of shape that made sense and it’s still quite a complex piece. You have to keep your eyes peeled and it commands a certain amount of attention from the audience.”

And the audience seem to be obeying, if the festival circuit’s response to the film is anything to go by.

So far, the film has collected: Prix Du Jury (Compétition Européenne De Courts Métrages) Utopiales Festival International De Science Fiction 2013; Best Director Salty Horror Film Festival 2013; Audience Award For Best Short At National Irish Science Fiction Film Festival 2013; Audience Award For Best Short At The Full Moon Horror And Fantasy Film Festival 2013 In Romania; Prix Du Meilleur Film At The Festival Du Film Merveilleux & Imaginaire 2013 In Paris; Quiet Earth Prize At The Festival Du Film Merveilleux & Imaginaire 2013 In Paris; and Best Short Cinematography At The Horrorquest Film Festival 2013.

So what’s all the applause about?

Set in near future Sleepworking, which was made with an all North East cast and crew, explores the premise that neuroscientists have discovered how to hack the brain so that humans can be programmed to perform menial tasks while asleep. As you might assume, it’s a technology used by the vulnerable as a way to work off debts (and one which I’d use to do the laundry in our house, but I digress).

Scene from Sleepworking starring Catherine MacCabe as Alice
Scene from Sleepworking starring Catherine MacCabe as Alice
 

When central character Alice Page begins sleepworking, she suffers disturbing side effects and begins to suspect the sleepworkers aren’t as advertised. What follows is her dangerous journey to discover what their bodies are really being made to when they are unconscious.

It’s not hard to see why it was originally conceived as a feature film.

I wonder whether now the short has gathered so much praise, the feature-length incarnation is next on Gavin’s wish list.

“It’s certainly something that is definitely worth expanding,” he says.

“This world where scientists start to crack people’s brains and plug them into all sorts of things is rich for other stories as well. I definitely want to explore it in the future, but the realities of feature film finance at the moment mean it would be difficult to take that as my next step,” he adds.

“It’s great though that we’ve got a kind of calling card. We’ve had this response to the film, which has been very rewarding, and we can say ‘look at this, this is what we can do with pretty much nothing... and it’s good.”

For now though, Gavin is cutting his cloth, working on a lower budget feature, Behind The Eye, for his next project as a writer/director.

“It plays on the themes which have been successful in Sleepworking, but it hasn’t got the same scale,” he says. “It’s set across just two locations. That would hopefully be my first feature.”

Although perhaps not his first as a writer. Another of his scripts, the thriller, Further Instructions, is on the cusp of securing the finance it needs to go into production.

“I’m working with another director on that,” says Gavin. “Things are looking good, but film financing is like a big game of Jenga. That’s why you have to have lots of projects on the go at once. You’ve always got to be thinking about the stepping stones to where you want to be.”

:: A North East screening of Sleepworking is planned, but the details are still to be finalised. Keep your eye on www.facebook.com/sleepworking for more details.

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