Most filmmakers first tackle a short film or two and then move on to making a feature, but Kerry Skinner and Stewart Alexander, chose to reverse that convention. They shot their feature film ‘Common People’ entirely on location at Tooting Common and have just completed their first short film, ‘The Bicycle Thief’. Both films are charming, character driven stories, that reflect British life with humour and honesty.
Common People was released nationwide after a brilliantly successful nine week run at the Clapham Common Picturehouse. The film’s local appeal is undeniable (Tooting is just up the road) but the multi strand nature of the film, conveying six different storylines, means that there is something for everyone to enjoy. From the story of the single father, to the elderly couple or lovestruck drinker, the film unfolds. As each vignette is returned to, the characters face death, find love, express compassion and create life. For a small micro-budget film, that’s quite an epic undertaking. This detail of life and optimism, led Stephen Fry to share that Common People “is a rare gem, the kind that makes you thrilled to have discovered it”. High praise indeed.
So, with no children or animals in sight and warmly ensconced inside the Picturehouse Central cafe, I met Kerry and Stewart to hear more about their filmmaking experience. Friendly, relaxed and incredibly open, our quick coffee and chat rolled with such ease, we were still talking two hours later. In that time we managed to navigate all the important conversations; from filmmaking, to on set stories, to orchestras, gender equality, Gatwick’s flight path, dogs and (naturally) the BBC quiz Pointless.
Talking about ‘Common People’ with passionate smiles, the film clearly evokes great memories, but I wondered what challenges Kerry and Stewart faced, particularly when shooting the entire film outdoors. Naturally there are benefits to such a location but you also have to contend with the idiosyncrasies of the British weather. Cue laughter as they recall they ended up shooting on one of the wettest April’s on record. “There was a lot of time waiting under umbrellas for the rain stop” they tell me.
Weather is one thing. Noise is another. Most is fairly manageable but when Gatwick Airport changes their flight path during filming, it causes certain headaches. Both actors, Kerry and Stewart also appear in the film and the shooting of a key lengthy scene for Kerry’s character was suddenly interrupted by planes passing overhead every three minutes. It meant they had to stop mid flow, wait and then continue. They can both smile about it now but Stewart reflects at the time (it) “was kind of a nightmare”. Kerry nods in agreement, “I wouldn’t have put any other actor through it”.
Weather and noise aside, they also had animal stars to contend with. Stewart is quick to smile, “it seemed like a good idea to shoot something on the common with parrots, dogs and children”. The glamour of filmmaking, right? When their original Rottweiler called the day before filming to say he couldn’t make it, (Well, the dog himself didn’t call, but you get the idea) they had to forge on. Everything was arranged and ready to roll, so the Rottweiler was replaced with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Unfortunately though, he wasn’t quite so used to being in front of the camera. Thanks to some improvisation, animal luck, and adjusting of shots, it all came together and the scene was completed.
With a micro budget film, (the film was shot for £35,000) the one thing that can open up a story is the music and Kerry and Stewart were lucky enough to have a 25 piece orchestra record the score. This all happened in the depths of a small East London recording studio and it probably wasn’t quite the conditions the musicians were used to. They both laugh as they recall seeing a fair few raised eyebrows at the location. The contrast of the two worlds was both exciting and amusing.
Having met at Drama School, Kerry and Stewart have obviously forged a great working relationship. It’s clear whilst speaking with them that they respect and compliment one another. They are mindful of each others conversation, occasionally looking across to pick up sentences or offer some thoughts. Surely this has to be beneficial to creating films together? They agreed and whilst Stewart wrote the Script for Common People, they took on Directing duties as a partnership. Was this tricky? They didn’t find it so. There were no parameters set for who did what and by editing and absorbing the script beforehand, when it came to filming, Kerry explains “we have a shared vision of what we’re expecting”.
After winning the Independent Spirit Award at the Sedona IFF, the Best Narrative Feature at the St Louis IFF and securing a nationwide release for Common People, Kerry and Stewart’s next challenge took the form of their short film, ‘The Bicycle Thief’. Kerry recalls “we said after common people, I never want to do a film entirely set outdoors and with children and then came the bicycle thief”. She laughs. Just to clarify, ‘The Bicycle Thief’ is primarily set outside and the main character is a small girl.
The idea for the film came to Stewart whilst he was cycling from Leigh on sea and the story “‘just kind of fell in to my head”. After writing the script, they submitted it to the Directors UK challenge. Their criteria meant the film had to incorporate the theme of delight and be shot in two days. When selected, Kerry said they “planned it within an inch of its life” and it paid off. The final film is an entertaining, layered story that brings a smile to your face. This positivity feels like an essential ingredient to their filmmaking style. Both agreed and elaborated that Park Bench Pictures creates stories that are reflective of society but also offer hope. This seems like something we all need, particularly at the moment.
Currently enjoying a festival route, ‘The Bicycle Thief’ has already been selected for the Sedona IFF and is programmed for the Mill Valley Film Festival as part of their gender equity initiative ‘Mind the Gap”, which champions women filmmakers. The production team on the film was 70% female, whilst Common People had a 50:50 gender split crew. It’s inspiring to see positive action being taken in this way and Kerry and Stewart both agree that they were lucky to work with such an amazing crew.
With two more films currently in development, ‘Songs from a Gilded Cage’ and ‘Body Checks’ (a screenplay based on their successful stage production), it’s exciting times for the duo, who clearly love what they do. Stewart sums their work up nicely, “We just want to make movies…its not a big ego trip for us”.
Our coffees long since drunk and life tugging away in the background, there was just a quick moment for Stewart to tell me about their experience on the BBC quiz Pointless. Speaking about marketing the film, he told me that after appearing on the show (and briefly mentioning Common People), their DVD and download sales took off when the episode was screened. That’s the sort of marketing a small budget film can’t normally buy. But the key question nagging me though, was the obvious one.
Did you win the jackpot?
Their answer - “Oh yes!”.
Amazing! So, what was the question?
Name three actors from any of the following films: The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Their pointless answer: Kirsten Dunst.
And there you have it. Who would of thought Kirsten could be so pointless?
Buy and watch Common People
Watch the trailer for The Bicycle Thief
Common People (89 minutes, 2014)
Director: Kerry Skinner & Stewart Alexander
Writer: Stewart Alexander
The Bicycle Thief (short, 2018)
Director: Kerry Skinner & Stewart Alexander
Writer: Stewart Alexander
Cast: Maisie Thorn, Richard Costello, Oliver Lang