Winner of the ‘Best Director’ award at the 2017 UK Music Video Awards, having made videos for the likes of Radiohead and Young Fathers, it’s fair to say Oscar Hudson is a filmmaker we’ve had on our radar for sometime at Short of the Week. Up until recently, his output, mainly in the promo field, meant he was a director we hadn’t been able to feature on SotW despite our huge admiration of his work. However, that all changed in 2018, when he released his imposing short Joy in People online and not only did we get to showcase his distinct skills on our site, we also named his film ‘Short of the Year’ at the 2019 Short of the Week awards.
In the first of what will become an ongoing series of in-depth interviews with directors we’ve featured on the site, Oscar joins us to discuss his path into filmmaking, the challenges and rewards he encountered making Joy in People and what he hopes to do in the future.
Hi Oscar, thanks for chatting with us today. Although I’m tempted to jump straight in and start talking about Joy in People, I thought it would be interesting if you could explain to our audience what made you decide to pursue a career in filmmaking? Was there a defining moment in your youth or some important person in your life that inspired that career choice?
I think it came from two places. Firstly, I grew up skateboarding. As a result, when you skateboard, you tend to film it. It’s a very natural thing within skateboarding, to document what you’re up to. Skate videos are the way in which you express your skateboarding. Editing in music and the filmmaking very naturally becomes a certain part of what a lot of skaters do.
I got myself a little camera with a mega fisheye on it and started making skate videos. That was my way into getting some of the technical skills and maybe getting more of a maker’s interest in film. Then also, my dad is a cinematographer, so I grew up with filmmaking around me, although funnily, he always encouraged me to get into a different industry. Although, secretly, I think he’s quite pleased now.
How did you make the jump from these skateboard videos to commissioned pieces?
When I think back about how it all worked, it’s all a very gradual process. I can’t think back and pick out a first landmark project or film. The line from making skate videos to making little weird commissions to then making some online content for magazines feels blurred.
Right from the off I was using film as a way to scratch a living, and that meant doing all sorts of stuff, from camera operating to editing to sound recording, literally everything. I went to university and did anthropology so nothing to do with film, but halfway through that got myself a little baby 5D model thing. I think it was a 550D or something. As I was coming out of uni, it was right in the middle of the time when DSLRs and Internet video was all just starting to boom a little. It feels mad to think about now, but this was actually quite a significant change. There was these consumer grade, relatively affordable cameras that could make “cinematic” imagery and also there was fast enough Internet speeds to host those videos.
“It’s probably true to say that my music videos were the things that got me the most recognition”
I fell in with i-D, Dazed and various other online platforms and they would send me to go and film interviews. Often it was for little or no money, but I thought it was worth it. Then, off the back of that they would give me commissions to go and film an event or something. That was how I made my living for a long time, and then slowly but surely you get some more interesting projects. It just morphs and evolves from there, and some of the earliest projects I did were music videos, but I was also doing shorts and docs and everything all at once. It’s probably true to say that my music videos were the things that got me the most recognition soonest, so that side of things took off in a more significant way.
Very important in as much as that they were there, and they were offering me opportunities, and a platform to put my films out on. Although on many occasions they weren’t my films, I was doing commissions for them. I’m very grateful to them, but at the same time, I was operating in an extremely low budget bracket. It was only possible to work because it was basically just me and possibly one or two others on a shoot. They gave me opportunities, but they weren’t exactly taking huge risks. They didn’t take a massive punt on me. They were just taking advantage of the cheap labor basically. I don’t necessarily feel massively grateful to them, but really I am, because it’s really difficult to get those first opportunities and find people to trust you to make something.
So if this work felt more like commissions, when you got more into music videos, did that then come with more freedom? Did you feel like these were more YOUR projects and YOUR ideas?
I did, yeah. I’ve always approached music videos in a way where I just wanted to do what I want to do. Not without limits, obviously, you need to take into account song, artist and tone. I remember when I first got an agent in OB Management, they looked after me for a while. The first few briefs they sent, I remember trying to write a treatment and found myself feeling like I was trying to write what I thought they would want to see. I caught myself in the act and I was like, “No, I should just write something that I think is really good and I think is great.” That was an important realization for me.
I’ve always made sure I only send in ideas if I think it’s going to be good and something fresh. I hate the idea of trotting out trendy stuff that’s all over the place at the moment. I never wanted to be like a jobbing music video director, just taking commissions because it was there. I wanted to always make sure it was something that I was getting something out of in terms of trying out something new or expressing something.
That’s interesting to hear because I was going through your back catalog before we spoke and was trying to pinpoint the moment I really started to take notice of your work and flag you as a director we really need to keep an eye on. When I think back to the Darwin Deez video [see above] and then more recent stuff like the Bonobo video, what always caught my eye about your work was the inventiveness and the originality. This really carried over to Joy in People as well and the first thing that struck me when I watched it was how unique it felt. Where did the idea behind the short come from?
It came from two places, and I’m not quite sure which side came first necessarily. I think they both were there at once somehow. Firstly, I got quite interested in this idea of trying to make a fictional story that felt like it was coming out of reality or grounded very much in the now, in current affairs. I was at a point in my career when I was thinking about how you make work that feels dramatic and with lots of production value, without having any money. I remember I was thinking about just those things right when the London riots struck. I thought, “Wow. Imagine being out there with a camera and shooting something with a backdrop of a riot, a genuine real riot. That would be quite something.”
Obviously, I didn’t do that. I wasn’t ready to do that, and the ethics of that are a different question. The idea of using real world events to bring this current thing to a story was planted though and the idea of playing with the line between fiction and non-fiction was fun and interesting.
Then I realised there was a big football tournament coming-up and I thought there was something so incredibly strange about this European football tournament happening right at the peak of the migrant crisis and right on the eve of the Brexit vote. These two things coming together with this festival of soft nationalism just seemed like such a strange moment. Then I guess from those two instincts, I came up with this idea for the film, to have this character moving through the real crowds and supporting everybody.
So you headed to the Euros and filmed Meredith having real interactions with the people gathered for the tournament?
Yeah, most of the time. He’s a great actor and he has a lot of experience. He’s actually also a friend. It was funny to have a friend who was so well suited for that role just right there, but he has a lot of experience in immersive theater, so he’s uniquely suited to do a role like that, improvising and working with real people and staying in character. Actually, his personality has that naïve wide-eyed quality to it, anyway. Again, I couldn’t have asked for someone better for the role.
“I’m just sending him off into this crowd of racists and thugs, basically, hoping it would be all right”
Were there any times when you were taking this filmmaking approach and interacting with the everyday crowds where you thought, this might not be a good idea?
Oh, yeah, definitely, a number of times. That was a central thing. We were sending him into crowds with football fans, and we all know that hooliganism is never too far from them. Not only that, we also went to a far-right rally in the UK and that was the scariest one as we were still figuring things out. That was pretty scary, driving to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Birmingham and sending Merry into this crowd, desperately trying to make sure nobody noticed that we were connected. I’m just sending him off into this crowd of racists and thugs, basically, hoping it would be all right. It was pretty scary. Actually, it turned out fine. Weirdly enough, they were quite well behaved and actually quite friendly. It’s strange to say that, but I suppose that is one of the strange underlying messages in the film, too.
Even though these were real situations that you put Meredith in, the film could have still come across as feeling artificial or stage, but it never really has that feel. I wondered how you worked with Meredith and how you worked with your DP, Ruben (Woodin Dechamps), to create an authentic feel to the piece?
It’s really good to hear you say that, but I think the reality is that as much as all those interactions are real, or actually not all of them are. There’s one or two planted things, but it’s a very artificial process in many ways. Of course, there are times when we’re literally just sending him out and shooting for two hours straight from 50 meters away and letting him do stuff, but we were in constant communication. I’m constantly feeding him ideas and lines to try and elicit responses from people. It’s like fishing or something.
I remember there was one moment in particular where we wanted Merry to say, “Oh, so when’s the next game?” We wanted the next person to be like, “Oh, five days” so that Merry could be incredulous that he had to wait five days for the next game. We got it, but it took us absolutely ages to find someone who would give us a straight answer and respond in a normal enough way that he could then respond.
Then as well as that, there was a huge amount of stuff on the cutting room floor for this film. I did also write more staged scenes or just more stylized moments of interaction and dialogue with other actors, but all of that just went out the window because the best stuff was the smaller moments. They were more genuine interactions. You can really tell. As a good as an actor is, you can tell when someone is acting and when someone isn’t.
The best stuff is always the stuff with unknowing people. There was also a risk of the film, and it occasionally would in the shoot, straying into Borat territory. It does try and be funny in places, so sending in someone who’s clowning about, we didn’t want it to be like a hidden camera prank show, at all. There was a fine line sometimes.
Talking of the shoot, how much of the film was planned beforehand and how much did you just make up as you were going along?
All the major plot points I had planned out in advance. As a filmmaker, I tend to plan extremely meticulously and I’d like to know everything, but this obviously is a film that’s trying to embrace the entire opposite approach, so I’d try to do both. I wrote a script and there’s parts of it that just say things like, ‘Merry interacts with the crowds and has a positive experience’, or ‘Merry interacts with the crowds and has a negative experience’. We would go out, and I wrote huge amounts of prompts and lines and things for him to say and things for him to talk about, so I tried to control it as much as I could but then equally, we were just at the mercy of the football results, ultimately.
When he’s in the pub in the UK watching the England game, we really needed England to score a goal in that game and they left it late. Again, when we watched the other game, if England never scored, then the film really wouldn’t work. You need those moments of euphoric celebration to set in the idea that he’s falling in love with that. I guess in the end it was a mixture of careful planning and blind luck.
Would you return to this kind of filmmaking approach again?
Thematically, it’s something I’m interested in returning to and I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily wringed it out entirely. I just don’t know if I would make a film in exactly the same way. I’m thinking about and writing stuff at the moment that does have similar ideas, but most of my projects usually involve doing something new, for myself as much as anything else.
“I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to make Joy in People the feature, though we have talked about it”
I generally tend to be drawn to experimental film, not in the traditional sense of what that might mean, but experiments. I definitely get something out of that, so I can learn stuff and see if there are ideas and approaches that can be built on and incorporated into other work. I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to make Joy in People the feature, though we have talked about it and the Euros are happening again next year and the themes aren’t going anywhere.
When you were making the film, were you aware that you were going to cover so much thematically? Obviously there’s an overarching theme in it, but then you dip into religion, immigration and more, was that always the plan, or did those themes come up just because of the situations that arose?
All those things you mentioned, those were all part of the plan. I think there’s maybe a few reasons for that. At that start, it was important to me that his selection of football crowds was contextualized within all these other kinds of crowds. I wanted that to create an equivalence between different kinds of groups of people and for it to emphasize almost the arbitrariness of his selection of the crowd, which is why the film skips across quite a lot of territory in that first part in particular.
Thematically, the focus is crowds, it’s all about people coming together. There are so many different ways in which people do come together and there’s some kind of significance in togetherness and identity.
Watching Joy in People, you really feel for Meredith’s character. It really feels like you’re there on a journey with him. At times, there is a kind of sympathy for him, wanting to belong, but then I also had an overall takeaway, which was this joy in belonging to something. The euphoria of some of these situations, it’s hard not to feel uplifted by it. I just wondered, what were you hoping your audience would take away from watching the film?
I guess if I had to pick one thing for people to come away with, I wanted to try and question the unspoken rules around nationalism and around national identity. That would probably be my headline thing that I wanted an audience to get out of it, but equally, nothing is straightforward. Nothing is black and white. I wanted to try and explore that from a sympathetic standpoint, and I wanted people to be able to relate to the position that maybe they don’t necessarily find themselves in themselves.
Maybe it’s interesting to note that I’m a big football fan. I love football. I’ve grown up following football and following England, I support the national team, but I’m usually extremely skeptical about it. I’m very much not a nationalist in any sense, aside from perhaps sport. I think maybe after the World Cup this year, a lot of people might be able to relate to that a little, like finding yourself swept up in some kind of sentiment that’s alien to you. I think football can act as this really interesting conduit in that way, where you can maybe see things that are true of life in a broader sense but might remain invisible otherwise.
I didn’t want the film to be too explicative or to put really direct thoughts or ideas into people’s heads, so it is intentionally oblique. I wanted to paint a bit of a hazy picture, and for that reason it has been interesting looking at some of the responses. Some people see it really very much as this celebration of football and of nationalism, which is not necessarily my intention, but it’s difficult to tell people what to think about your work.
Can you tell us a bit about how you funded the film?
I applied to Creative England and what I’m sure now goes by a different name, the Kevin Spacey Foundation. Both were very interested, and we got to the final three or something for the Kevin Spacey thing and they didn’t go for it in the end. Partly because of the risk-taking involved in making it and they just felt too nervous, so ended up saying “Oh, we can’t. It’s just too scary for us.”
Creative England said, “Yeah, this sounds great, but we can’t,” or I had to shoot it at the tournament, and there wasn’t enough time to get all the stuff. As it happened, they all said no. At the time, I’d just booked my first ever semi-proper commercial project and decided I was just going to spend most of what I made on the film and immediately put the money into this project.
“It seems to win audience awards rather than the jury awards, which is cool. I don’t quite know what that says but maybe it’s the wisdom of crowds”
I saw the film at BFI London Film Festival 2017 and I know the film played a few other festivals, did you get to see the film with a live audience? if so, how was the reaction to it?
Really good, really positive. It’s funny because actually it took me quite a long time to finish the edit on this despite the original plan to release the film before the tournament had even ended. I wanted to edit it within two and a half weeks and release it on the day of the final, which ties into what I was saying about trying to make something that felt like it was very much coming out of the present moment. Then my hard drive crashed and it all went wrong, and I scrapped that idea and ended up taking another six months or something.
When I first finished the film, I actually wasn’t very positive about it. It’s actually been mostly by virtue of time and also just people’s response to it that I’ve started to see it more favorably myself, because it has been very well received at most of the festivals it’s been to. It seems to win audience awards rather than the jury awards, which is cool. I don’t quite know what that says but maybe it’s the wisdom of crowds, appropriately enough.
So the plan was originally to release it straight online? Obviously this is something we’re always interested in hearing about at Short of the Week. It’s a discussion that I suppose will be ongoing, the traditional root for a film is that it does festivals and then you wait to put it online. This has started to somewhat change in recent years, so what made want to get it online sooner rather than later? What was the driving force behind that?
As I said, originally I was going to put it online super fast, and then once that didn’t happen, I thought I would get in a couple festival screenings and then put it online. That’s ultimately what happened, but the main driving force for its online release was the World Cup, it just felt like the right moment to it online. That’s something that an online release affords you, the ability to tap into a feeling or a zeitgeist or an appropriate moment, which if you’re just sticking rigidly to a festival plan, you don’t have that. I don’t regret it in the slightest. I think when releasing the film in the aftermath of the World Cup, there wasn’t a better moment to do that, and I think it was the right move.
Earlier, you mentioned that you’ve toyed around with the idea of a feature version of Joy in People. I was just wondering. Could you tell us a little about what you are working on at the moment, what you’ve got coming up next?
There are a few things, as always! I am writing a feature script but it’s not Joy in People. I don’t think that’s going to happen, mostly because I think you can get away with that kind of filmmaking when you’re doing a small self-financed project, but the minute you need to start worrying about release forms, I think that film becomes extremely problematic. In another way, part of the motivation for making it was that I was quite excited by this idea of doing something a bit naughty, in terms of almost like stealing scenes from people. I don’t know how well that would go if you’re scaling things up. Actually just to go back to your very first question of why I wanted to make it a short film, that was a big part of it actually, I felt this is the kind of film that you could only really make as a short risk-taking project.
Anyway, what am I doing now…I’m working on a feature, which is still in the writing phase and that’s hard. I’ve never written a feature before, and I’m learning a lot about that. Then my inbox is open to music video stuff, but I’m trying to be a bit more selective about what I’m doing and just only pick the really, really appealing ones. Next, I’d actually want to make another short, but just something a bit mad and something that no one else would pay for.
I don’t want to go the funding cycle and do nine months of training. I just want to make something weird and small and fun, just have a little creative splurge, basically. I’ve got a number of different projects, ideas for stuff, I’m just currently deciding which one in the next couple months. I just want to get something out of my system like that.
I still very much feel like it’s early days, and there’s new challenges ahead. In a way I’ve lent into the avenues that have opened up for me, a bit. My next challenge is maybe pushing into those that aren’t the path of least resistance. I think it’s interesting that the music video world tends to lead naturally to the commercial world, whereas the shorts world will lead you more towards drama or into features.
I don’t want to make tons and tons of commercials. It’s not what I want to do, but that is currently what is opening up ahead of me. Right now, I’m learning how to balance what I want to do with the opportunities that are forming. Thankfully, I’m with Pulse Films, who are wonderful and have a big features department, so there is infrastructure in place for me to push down those channels, too, but it’s very much on my back to take control of that.
Editors note: thanks to SotW team member Serafima for the awesome portrait of Oscar that sits at the top of this article.