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Breakwater : Oxford’s first student feature-film in forty years

‘Breakwater’ is an upcoming feature-length film, produced by Oxford-based Nocturne Productions, and the first film by Oxford University students since ‘Privileged’ in 1982. According to the Indiegogo page, ‘The film follows the relationship between Otto, a university student, and John, a retired angler who lives on the coast. Their lives collide and fuse irreversibly over the shared trauma of losing a loved one. However, their tentative romance develops into something more sinister after the past exhumes itself in the form of guilt, grief and ghosts to devastating effect’. Thomas Bristow interviewed the Writer/Director Max Morgan, Second year English at Christ Church, and the Producer Jemima Chen, Second year English and Italian at Balliol, about their exciting new venture: 

What sort of precedent has the film ‘Privileged’ (1982) set, and would you like to follow in that precedent or are you going to be much more independent?

Max: We’re working with the people who did ‘Privileged’ as a team, and they’re helping us with production and with script a great deal as well. It’s a really well shot film, and Andy (Paterson) has been telling us loads of stories about how they did it. Every night they would shoot a roll of film then drive in the evening to the studio to get it processed, then they’d drive back and do another day of shooting, so it was just this constant cycle. 

When they first came and met with us, they said they were listening to Bruce Springsteen, just as they did when they were on their way to drop the film off at the studio when they were shooting. But before we properly started the project, we knew that ‘Privileged’ was a very Oxford-centric project about this elite group of people. It’s such a cool film, but we were hoping to make ‘Breakwater’ a bit more independent of Oxford, and differentiate it from quite a lot of student films in a sense by having it pay homage to Oxford, but also to portray Oxford in a slightly different light as well. Also having the entire second location, where the bulk of the film is set, in Suffolk and on the Suffolk coast, and by having that older character and the relationship between Otto and John who’s the older man he meets and spends time with on the coast. Production-wise, ‘Privileged’ started so many careers, Hugh Grant etc, so it would be really cool to know that we’ve given people their first opportunity to get involved in film. But I think in terms of precedent we want to make a good film first, I guess, and see what happens afterwards and hopefully have fun with it. 

Jemima: I think also we’re really lucky their advice to guide us through this whole process as well, because I think when we first got into it we were thinking ‘We just need a £5k budget, we just need this etc’, and it’s been rising and rising and rising. What we’re taking on here is a two year project, it’s going to be massive. It’s not your ordinary student film by any means, like what Max said. 

My next question, which I think you may have already answered, was how vital have the previous cast and crew of ‘Privileged’ been?

Jemima: Andy and Mike (Hoffman) have been absolutely invaluable with the script. They came to this meeting that we had with them with so many notes and it was really cool to hear how they worked. Mike was a Master’s student at Oxford, specialising in Shakespeare, so the whole time we were talking through the script he’d frame it with a Shakespearean reference. And he’d have diagrams and was like ‘This is what happens at this point in Twelfth Night. How does that connect to Breakwater?’. It was really amazing for them to care so much and have so many notes. It was hours of us just chatting with them. At the start they were very intense. They asked Max some hard-hitting questions and he did really well. They were like ‘Describe this film in five words. Give me an example where two people’s narratives in a film together has ever worked.’ It was basically baptism by fire but by the end of it, it was really fun.

Max: The film has definitely become a lot better because of what they did. And we’re constantly sending updates to them as well, so they’re still reading it which is amazing considering how busy they are. 

You’ve written an exciting summary of your film on the Indiegogo website, but what can we expect from the style of it, and what do you want to achieve with that?

Max: I think when we originally described it on the Facebook call out for crew, we described it as like Mark Jenkins’ ‘Bait’, set in Cornwall and shot on film, it’s about this fisherman’s struggle against gentrification, and losing a fishing boat. It’s highly stylistic, black and white, and visually I think that’s something we’re aiming for. But in terms of plot, maybe something slightly more psychological. Psychological drama and horror are the sort of genres we’re aiming for. And obviously with Oxford and Suffolk we’re shooting in two visually stunning locations, it’s about the clashing of those two; the smoothness of the golden sandstone and something a bit grittier, salt-encrusted and darker. I think the film is one of self-discovery as you descend into darkness, collapsing into something more sinister as their relationship develops. 

Jemima: We’re trying to move way from the whole ‘Oxford’ style because I think a lot of student films like to capitalise on the happiness, romanticism and hedonism of Oxford. This is very much taking quite a stark difference, though at the same time what we’re quite aware of is that we’ve kind of done a really perverse ‘Brideshead’. We’ve taken this ‘Brideshead’ format of our main character becoming a bit of a ‘Charles’ and we’ve just wrecked the idea of what ‘Sebastian’ is. That in my opinion is what the new script is looking like. So we’re paying homage to these Oxford traditions but at the same time mixing them in with some dark stuff. 

Again I think you’ve already half-answered this, but very simply what have been your creative influences?

Max: I really like the plays of Robert Holman because he writes about the coast loads. And there’s a play it’s loosely based on called ‘Jonah and Otto’. But I don’t know, because when we first started talking about doing this, it was various groupings of images and developing a plot out of it with massive shifts between what happens. This is really random, but the band ‘Jockstrap’ were a massive influence. I saw a ‘Jockstrap’ concert, and I thought it would interesting to write about the relationship between experimental music and someone radically outside of that and outside of the Oxford sphere. I live close to where we’re filming so I have a lot of memories there, and I think that’s partly something to do with it and something to do with the fact that we can film in Oxford. Knowing the area where we’re going to be shooting helps too. That’s something we’re having to grapple with when we make this, because obviously we have a limited budget and not necessarily limited technical capabilities. But we’re still students and we’re working around ‘Who’s going to stay where? How many air mattresses do we need? How are we going to get extras for this scene?’. It’s thinking about how we’re going to move forward with the film whilst bearing stuff like budget and what’s technically feasible in mind. For example, ‘How are we going to light this scene?’, and ‘Where are we going to shoot it?’ has an impact on writing. Recently, our primary filming location burnt down.

Jemima: Two floors just gone! It was our prime location, and it was ‘John’s’ house, so it’s prime filming and our accommodation just gone. 

Max: Yeah we were going to stay in my friend’s house and shoot downstairs. It was so antiquated that it wasn’t fireproof and burnt down. Fortunately, we’ve found alternatives but we’re still working with that. 

Another very simple question I suppose, but why did you want to make this film? 

Jemima: I’m part of OUFF (Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation) and I’m the Secretary, so I was really lucky to meet with Neil and Andy just on a completely separate topic of the kind of rejuvenation of OUFF and how we can go forward and make it a bigger thing. We were talking about what ideas we should do and what films and they were like ‘Do a feature’. Max and I haven’t worked on a project this large before, but they were like ‘Go ahead and just do a feature film’. So we were like ‘Why not?’, because obviously it’s been 40 years since it was last done. It’s always been ticking along, it’s always been an idea. Max and I have both been lucky enough to work professionally in the industry, so there’s been some really cool projects. But being on set and working long and hard days and being at the bottom of the hierarchy made us think ‘We want to give this a go’. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons from there and it’s been really amazing, but also to be in charge of our own project is very liberating. We’re also really lucky to have amazing people on board, our DoP (Director of Photography) is from the University of Westminster film school. He’s amazing and was working in Jamaica when we interviewed him. We’re really lucky, and having the confidence came from finding other people who were interested in the project, which is snowballing. 

Max: Jemima and I had been hatching it for a bit, and then we asked people to join the crew, and the excitement that generated was really great. Our crew is full of experienced and talented people, and pre-production is going really well because everyone is dedicated to the project. It’s so nice to have quite a big crew to work on a project of this scale, and feel like everyone is really involved in the film. It’s a lot of work to do, which Jemima and I didn’t anticipate so much, but everyone is getting involved. It’s fun but a lot of work. 

Jemima: There’s also a finance team with a CFO, which is amazing because we’re now a limited company. Eventually, we want to distribute the film like ‘Privileged’. We have a legal team and they’re also amazing, marketing and events too. It goes into so many facets. What spurred us on as well is that we were reaching out to businesses in Oxford to sponsor us, so The Missing Bean is sponsoring us for coffee when we shoot and Najar’s is sponsoring us for wraps when we shoot, so is Jericho Coffee Traders. When we got these businesses to sponsor us it gave us great confidence.

You have your launch coming up on the 27th of October at OXO Bar, what can we expect from that?

Jemima: It’s a way for everyone to meet our cast and crew, and in particular our crew from London. We’ve got our gaffer now so you’ll meet him and our DoP. There’s thirty people in our team so they’ll all be able to meet each other which is amazing. And more importantly everyone from Oxford can come and meet them because we everyone to get to know the crew, especially because we’re going to try and get casting really soon. We obviously want people who are interested in casting to come, we’re going to have ‘Breakwater’ themed drinks like ‘Otto’s drink’, and we’ve got some really exciting raffle prizes from some amazing sponsors. G&D’s is giving us vouchers for Sunday ice cream and we’ve got ball tickets. The raffle, importantly, is going to be an online thing that people can be part of, if they can’t make it to the drinks. It’s completely free to come, we just want everyone to see what the vibe is. We also have merch by our amazing graphics designer Freddie, who also did the poster. It’s really exciting. 

The ‘Breakwater’ Indieogogo page was set up to help with funding, and importantly the film will be casting soon. Naturally, I cannot wait to see the finished product, and I’m sure the reader will join myself in wishing Max and Jemima all the best for their production.

The Indiegogo page can be found here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/breakwater#/

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