Yesterday’s feature review was Hands Solo, a wicked funny mockumentary about a deaf porn star and the girl who got away. I caught up with the director, William Mager over email to talk about himself, the film, and disability in the movie-industry.
I’m interested to know a little background on the creative relationship you have with screenwriter Charlie Swinbourne. How did you two come to work together?
Charlie and I met on a British Deaf television programme called VEE TV, shown on Channel 4 (now sadly no more). He came on board as a work experience when I was directing a few short VTs for the programme. We hit it off pretty quickly. He had a short script at the time called Coming Out, which was such a simple and brilliant idea. He held onto it for a while before eventually getting it made by another deaf director, Louis Neethling. That film did really well on the festival circuit, and it’s had thousands of views on YouTube. It wasn’t until I made a short film called Stiletto, with the DoP of Submarine, Erik Alexander Wilson, that Charlie showed me a script in the pub, called Hands Solo. I knew right there and then that I wanted to make that film!
Are you or Charlie deaf, and/or what drew you to a project with a signing protagonist?
Charlie and I are both deaf – but in different ways. I was born profoundly deaf, which is a medical term for saying that I’m very very deaf indeed! I was brought up to speak and lipread from an early age by my mother, and it was only much later on that I got into the deaf community. I was the only deaf in the family basically, whereas Charlie had a more moderate hearing loss but grew up in a deaf family with deaf parents… so we sort of met in the middle I guess. I think our aim with Hands Solo was to make a film that was fun, entertaining and a little bit silly. It wasn’t that we wanted to make a film with a signing protagonist, but to make a funny film which educated viewers about deafness and deaf culture through stealth, with jokes about lipreading, sign language interpreters, and all the rest of it. The idea is that by the end, you might realise you know and understand a little bit more about the deaf community than you did before.
I’ve never seen a narrative film with dramatic scenes signed. Is it a niche comprised of very many films? What are some good ones that you’re aware of?
Deaf people and sign language aren’t seen in many mainstream short films or feature films. Usually, when you DO see it, it’s an enterprising writer or director thinking that they can get a shortcut to awards and critical acclaim by featuring deafness and sign in an arty but not always realistic way. That’s irritating for deaf writers and filmmakers who want to get a bit further in the industry themselves. Having said that, some of my favourite short films recently include Ted Evans’ The End, Bim Ajadi’s Dead Money and Tarun Thind’s English. Ted is deaf, but made an absolutely stunning film about how medical intervention could bring about the end of the deaf community altogether. Bim put together a short film that drips with style and atmosphere. Tarun Thind isn’t deaf, but still used his deaf characters in a subtle and interesting way.
I’d really like to see, in the very near future, a feature film that features deaf people exercising their talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. The level of skill amongst deaf filmmakers now is getting better and better – it won’t be long now. I’d also like to see more female deaf filmmakers in the UK with the skill level of the American director Julia Dameron, but that will come too.
I notice that the the film is hardsubbed (non-removable subs) I assume that choice is a nod to the deaf community correct? Is this an issue that bugs deaf people generally?
We debated for a long time over this – I actually suggested making two versions of the film, one with subtitles only on the signed bits, and one with full subtitles throughout. But the line producer, Scott, shot me down saying there wasn’t any point in excluding a deaf audience for the sake of trying to attract more mainstream viewers. The guy had a point.
Subtitled access to films in general is a sore point. On television it’s OK – the BBC and the other main terrestrial channels are more or less 100% subtitled. The quality varies – but mainly, it’s good. It’s on DVD and in cinemas where things get messy. Not all DVDs have subtitles, and even fewer films are screened with subtitles in UK cinemas. In fact a BBC Radio DJ, Sara Cox, recently complained on Twitter about her screening of Bridesmaids having English subtitles, which were there for the benefit of deaf viewers! Obviously, the deaf mob rose up and gunned her down for it, and it made the national newspapers. Prior to that, Charlie wrote an article for The Guardian about the current state of subtitle provision in the UK, which is an interesting read and might educate people about the problems… me, I just stick with DVDs nowadays.
In my review I mention that I see the film as a power fantasy, one that is, perhaps, especially welcome to deaf men, who find it difficult to communicate with the general public, and who might, on occasion, feel ostracized. Here they are presented with a protagonist whose disability is a strength, and makes him this amazing ladies man. Not so much a question, but I wonder if you’d comment on that idea?
Ooooooo! Well, there is that. But really, the underlying message is that… deaf people have sex, you know. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. You’d be amazed how many people don’t think of deaf or disabled people as sexual beings. It makes them uncomfortable. It makes them feel icky and not quite ‘right’. So Hands Solo is smashing down that prejudice with his very talented fists. I don’t think most people would see it as an attempt to paint deaf people as sexual tyrannosauruses (Predator reference there) – it’s obviously very exaggerated and silly, and as you see in the film, Hands’ hand brings him far more pain than pleasure.
Summarize the involvement of the UK Film Council, Magic Hour, And 104 Films. What are your feelings on the UK Film Council getting the axe?
The Magic Hour scheme was set up by Justin Edgar’s production company, 104 Films with the UK Film Council. it was a funding scheme for deaf/disabled filmmakers to make short films and show them around the country. Hands Solo took a year to develop and make. The idea for the film came from Charlie, before we knew of Magic Hour. And once we got the funding from them everything moved a bit faster – script meetings, getting talent on board, auditions. Throughout the whole process Justin Edgar and Michelle Eastwood were incredibly supportive and helpful throughout the process.
For me a huge high point was getting a positive review in Sight & Sound and Empire magazine, as well as various newspapers. That was amazing. To see my film on the big screen at my local cinema in Sheffield, The Showroom, was also fantastic.
I only wish I could have worked with them again the following year, but you can’t have everything!
Charlie and I have done three projects together - Hands Solo, The Fingerspellers and My Song. They’ve shown at festivals all over the world, and won lots of awards. I’m really proud of them all, and really pleased to have worked with Charlie and still be friends with him after all the stresses and strains of working together! We hoped to make another drama together this year but sadly the funding didn’t come through. We hope to work together again in the future but I’m looking forward to developing some dramas as a writer/director.
Charlie will be writing and directing more films himself which can only be a good thing for the rest of us!