'The Letter' is August's Film of the Month

28 Sep 2017 in Film of the Month

4 mins
'The Letter' is August's Film of the Month

We're pleased to announce that our Film of the Month winner for August 2017 is The Letter, a film made by Mercer, who was aged 16 when the film was made, from Methodist College Belfast, in Northern Ireland.

Engaging for those aged 11+, The Letter is an intriguing and elegantly constructed film in which a letter is written and re-written over and over again, leaving the audience with an enigma to solve.

Fantastic cinematography, editing and sound. The story is clearly developed and full of emotion and intrigue.

Film of the Month judge on 'The Letter'

We got in touch with Mercer, now aged 17, to find out more about his winning film.

The Letter is a very short film that includes a wide range of difficult notions. Where did the idea for the film come from?

My first idea for the film was to film something purely around the enclosed space of a desk, a very simple location used in the interests of short shooting and preparation time. I chose to favour an intense tone and atmosphere over an intricate plot, and so writing a letter seemed the most basic action that the narrative could be based on. Then I needed a meaningful subject for the letter, so I decided it would be a condolence letter to the family of a girl who has died in exceptional circumstances. Finally, I compiled a number of editing techniques, locations and props I had been wanting to use to form the rest of the film. For example, I made use of the location of the solitary swing, to weave the little snippets of the girl on the swing (representing little shards or remnants of memory) with the writing of the letter, and the events described within it.

The style of the film feels both serene and contemplative, but also jagged and frightening. What were some of your influences in coming up with this style?

The influence for this film's style was not from any other films in particular; more from a set of styles I had been testing out and wanted to include. 

The solicitor, who is writing the letter, is extremely contemplative, but also troubled. Writing a tactful condolence letter is a daunting task that the solicitor greatly struggles with. She goes through a number of re-iterations, scrapping more formal versions of the letter to write a very personal final version, which she feels is the kindest to send to the family of the dead girl.

I was inspired by the idea of an individual challenging the conventionally formal condolence letter which might deal with a death in an untactful, inhumane way, when really those affected need human love and support. This style is also reflected in how troubled and agitated the solicitor is, demonstrating how death affects all that it touches, regardless of how directly.

I also built on the idea of a poor system for dealing with death, with a lingering shot of other shelves containing items of other dead people, evidently in a queue for further condolence letters. This hints at the fact that our victim of misfortune, Ellie Grey, is just one out of hundreds of other deaths encountered in the line of the solicitor's work, and shows how easy it is for individuals to be dehumanised - a frightening thought.

The jagged editing style was something I had been experimenting with previously, and I included it to heighten the sense of horror at the girl's death. The sudden transitions to the imagery of the swing is a harsh change of style from the contemplative atmosphere at the desk, jarring the audience and simultaneously presenting two perspectives of the event of her death at full force.

However, the narrative does end with some restoration of order, with the solicitor pleased that she has done the right thing in changing the letter to provide love and compassion to the family of Ellie Grey as best she can.

What was the biggest challenge making the film?

Developing a strong initial basis for a film is the greatest difficulty I experience with everything I make, and The Letter was no exception. By cramming this film's production into the half term before school exams started, I was constrained in terms of time, personnel, and location, meaning there was a much narrower scope of inspirations to work with. However, by working with just a few simple props as narrative drivers or 'MacGuffins', I was able to overcome the limitations I faced.

How long have you been making films and what inspired you to start?

I have been making films in one form or another since before starting primary school. I vividly recall memories of making short little films with toy figures in the attic with my dad around the age of 4 or 5. As I grew older one of my main inspirations was a friend from a school, a couple of years above me. He made films and posted them to YouTube, which ensnared me at the time, and motivated me to do the same. Starting to make my own films, I realised it was the creativity of it that really gave me a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, a pleasure which I still strive for as I continue to make films today.

What inspired you to enter Film of the Month and how does it feel to win?

After participating in the extremely enjoyable Into Film Summer Film Project last August, I searched on the Into Film website for what other opportunities they had to offer. The Film of the Month competition caught my eye as a great chance to actively share my film, and put it in front of a wider audience who will be interested in the narratives I have to tell. Although that is all very well and good, actually winning Film of the Month is a whole other story. It is a big step, that I am excited and elated to have achieved. It is the most rewarding thing to see the fruits of my endeavours paying off.

What advice would you give to other young people who want to start making films?

Apart from the cliché - "just go out and make films" - there are a definitely a few key things I really would advise budding young filmmakers to do. It's great to be able to make films on your own, but finding people with the same interest and passion for filmmaking as you really, really helps. Having others to work with gives you people to bounce ideas off of. It allows you to pool everyone's skills for a better end product, and have lots more fun throughout the whole process. Although I often feel that I'd be better off going solo and doing things my own way, I always really appreciate working in larger groups when I get to. 

One of the biggest lessons I've learned is to never delete your old films or footage, and I learnt it the hard way. I wish I had known how to properly archive and keep things I'd created for later when I started filmmaking. In 5 or 10 years you'll look back on your old films and see what amazing progress you've made, and remember the good times that you had when you began making films. Even old raw footage is worth keeping, if you have the storage space. I hugely regret not saving my old films, even the bad ones, every time I think of them. So DON'T delete. You'll thank yourself later... 

Finally, keep throwing stuff at the wall and eventually something will stick. Send your films to friends, family, show them to whoever you can. Enter them into film competitions, contests, festivals. If you aren't happy with a film, figure out what you can do better and learn from your mistakes. If you make a great film, maybe even win something with it, take that as a massive step forward with your skills and passion in filmmaking, and then move onto your next project. 

Always have an open mind to learn more about the art, and remember that if you experience difficulty and stress with filmmaking, that end satisfaction of looking back at your completed product will make it all worthwhile...

How do you think film can help young people better understand and deal with difficult issues, such as grief?

I feel that film is an extremely powerful visual and auditory medium, that can address issues of grief, loss or anger and provide alternative perspectives to situations in which people might be overcome by these emotions. They help to show the grieving that they are not alone in their adversity, while also acting as a form of entertaining escapism, allowing people to forget about their problems for a short while, and then come back to face them with a new resolve. Filmmaking can also provide a creative outlet to feelings of grief or sadness. I find often that when I feel these things, one of the best things to do is be active and do something, using that feeling of creative fulfilment to counteract the negative emotion.

What are your favourite films and why?

Without a doubt, Blade Runner. The gorgeous neo-noir style had me enthralled. I was totally hooked by everything about it, the beautiful settings and landscape shots, the deep, thought-provoking themes, the inspiring Vangelis score. Certainly a film that has left me thinking about it in awe for years to come. I also love Inception for its outrageously complex plot, and the work of Edgar Wright, for its genius and originality. 

Mercer's film will now be showcased to over 300,000 film club members online and on the Into Film YouTube channel, and he has also secured a £100 Amazon voucher plus an Into Film goodie bag with which to help further develop his future films. If you've been inspired by August's winner, find out more about how you can enter our ongoing Film of the Month competition.

If you liked The Letter, why not try these related films:

  • The Red Turtle (2016, PG, 81mins) Engaging for 11+
    Co-produced by Studio Ghibli, this dialogue-free animation is a beautifully meditative experience that ponders the meaning of life. 
  • Following (1999, 15, 70mins) Engaging for 14+
    Christopher Nolan's directorial debut is a slender and mysterious London-set neo-noir about a writer who covertly follows people. 
  • Julieta (2016, 15, 99mins) Engaging for 14+
    Spanish auteur Pedro Almodvar marvellously weaves three of author Alice Munro's short stories into a single tale revolving around one young woman.
  • Caché (Hidden) (2005, 15, 115mins) Engaging for 16+
    A married couple begin to receive suspicious and frightening videotapes at their house in this tense mystery-drama from German director Michael Haneke.
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