Chris Hees: 'No matter what happens around people, we’re always watching characters'
His short film The Bigger Picture won the BAFTA for best short animation in 2015. Now Chris Hees is working on a variety projects from an Amy Johnson film to establishing an animation studio.
Sitting in his study on video call, BAFTA on the shelf behind and a poster of the iconic Hull white telephone box adorning the wall – a shameless bit of Hull he jokes - Hees is carving out a space in the film industry for distinctive regionalised perspectives, balancing the profound and the comedic: “we’re able to look at ourselves a lot more and make fun and not take things too seriously.”
Having moved to Dublin with his fiancé Síle last August, “It's been great” he says with a smile, “I was back and forth a lot before lockdown. But it’s been great to take stock of a few things and enjoy the garden and Dublin.”
After attending the National Film and Television School in London, he returned to his home city of Hull. Plaintively, he states that “London's great in many ways but it’s not the energy I wanted to be determined by my whole life.”
Reminiscing on the whirlwind award experience of The Bigger Picture, Hees says smiling “it was a crazy time in my life.” He goes on to say that “It puts you on a certain pedestal. The industry is so competitive that the major thing you need is that kind of moment just to be able to stand above the crowd and say ‘I'm here, I think I’m pretty good. Just give me an opportunity’ and that’s what the BAFTA provided.”
Still, Hees insists that there remain a variety of avenues to explore and goals to achieve. “In the real world I did an incredible thing, I was BAFTA winning and Oscar nominated, it didn’t matter what that thing was for. In the industry it is still recognised, I did those things, which is incredible, only a few people can day to have done so. But it is still for a short animation film. So, there is still a level I need to push to achieve my main goals. And I'm being given the opportunity to do so.”
Through the distinctive animation style of the short film Hees describes “the size and scale of it allowed us to do so much more, to feel big and impactful.” He emphasises how “every moment in the animation, when the character grows to 10 foot or water envelopes the whole room, it was all about emotional expression of character. When animation plays as important a role in storytelling as it did in that film you’re on to a winner.”
“I’ve got a slate of animation films in development currently with directors from both the UK and Ireland, the style of which are beautiful in their own right. As a producer you get involved a lot more if there are these powerful impactful styles.”
The lockdown has allowed Hees to return to several projects which had been placed on the back burner over the last few years. “For me it’s hard, though what the lockdown has done for me is give me the time to take stock and revisit ideas I've had for a little while, both in the space of films, speaking to writer directors about projects which may have been put on the backburner for a little while and reigniting that energy, and also in business.”
One exciting project that Hees has his sights on is an animation studio based in Hull. “I've been chatting to some people who are interested” he says enthusiastically. “So, it’s allowed me to step back and put those ideas in some sort of real form.” He goes on to discuss a charitable organisation he is also hoping to establish. “An activities-based charity directed at kids who are more likely to end up in a life of crime and using filmmaking to encourage skills such as teamwork and give them some confidence. This interest came from doing some extremely positive work for the BFI film academy. I brought it to Hull and that’s for people in the region. It's been extremely positive. For me it’s bringing in Hull talent to break the myth that if you’re from the area film isn’t a viable option. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s hard for everyone and you shouldn’t be limited by where you’re from. I've always said that London is the epicentre of the film industry in the UK and you won't break that. It brings people in from around the world. It's where everyone is for logistic convenience. But London has the monopoly of opportunity not the monopoly talent. So as a film producer who comes from a region, comes from Hull I want to do what I can to give back of course, to the place that I came from, to give others the opportunity. But also, to take the opportunities that coming from a region offers me. It's so interesting that when all the BAFTA and Oscar stuff happened, and I started coming back to Hull a little bit more. A lot of people were asking me why I would come back to Hull. Surely the trajectory is London then Hollywood” he said laughing. “But it’s funny when I returned to London to live and work a lot of people were like ‘oh god, I wish I had a Hull, I wish I had a niche’, because you’re just one of so many in London.”
This notion of regionalism, in terms of voice, characterisation and filmmaking is something which Hees is extremely passionate about, projected through his production company Bridge Way Films. “I'm not an advocate of the idea that if you’re from a region you make regional films. I don’t support that idea. Similarly, if you’re from a working-class background you don’t make films about that life and themes. Of course, if that’s what you choose to make films about go for it, there’s a space for it in the industry but being from those places teaches you all kinds of experiences as broad as love and brotherhood and terminal struggle. Then there’s a beautiful comedy about coming from a difficult past and working-class background. You can put that into anything.”
Particularly, he refers in detail to a project he’s in the midst of producing focused on the Hull-born aviator Amy Johnson, the first pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia becoming a celebrity in her own right during the 1930s. “Yes, it tackles the journey itself” he begins by saying, “but to make it universal, we’ve gone beyond the idea that making a film about a female is enough, let’s be a bit more dynamic than that. And with Amy Johnson we have the opportunity to tap into the fact that she suffered with mental health and it ran throughout her family. This is a topic that makes the film more universal.”
Hees’s production company, Bridgeway Films has a focus on both regional output alongside European cinema, his route into which was largely determined by the filmmakers he’s working with. This has included the Italian director Tommaso Pitta and Polish director Weronika Tofilska. “I'm draw towards their sentiment in the way they make films” he emphasises.
The intersection between British regional cinema, in particular from the Hull and East Yorkshire area, with European filmmakers, Hees is fascinated by their outsider perspective on the stories they are developing together.
One area, however, that Hees sees as entering a noticeable lull in creativity and output is the British comedy film scene. With a nostalgic wistfulness he says how he “always love the heritage we have in comedy in the UK. Going all the way back to Ealing studios and the Carry-On films, A Fish Called Wanda-type films, all this wonderful British comedy which we did so well. I think we’ve left that behind recently.”
“Where are the comedy films in the UK?” Prescribing how there is “possibly a drought in original comedy.”
“There's some really intelligent stuff out there now. Like The Square by Ruben Östlund, one of my best films which have come out of Europe recently and Wild Tales – a series of small short stories – an Argentinian production. It's so good, it’s so funny, very black comedy. But it has a point to say, it says something about the world. That's something I'd like to achieve in my work. The film I'm developing teeters on the drama comedy, the comedy is in the reality of life.”
"But it has a point to say, it says something about the world"
In response he outlines an upcoming project he’s working on in Hull, the focus of which is a man who is grieving the loss of his wife, who then attempts to become a comedian. “So, the world of the stand-up is our cannon into the idea of expressing yourself and inability which men sometimes have to emote and grieve properly. We're using the cannon of stand up to delve into that.”
“It's not that there isn’t a hunger for comedy. We're not seeing enough of it in the cinema and there’s a space for it. I don’t particularly want to see films about quarantine in the next year, I think it’s madness that they’ve commissioned this Winterbottom series, I don’t want to live through this again.” He cites the playwright James Graham as particularly formative currently in the use and development of comedy.
With the recent media response to the Black Live Matter movement spreading around the world and the removal of television shows deemed inappropriate is, he says, fully justifiable and well overdue. “I don’t think we need to laugh at anybody. I don’t like that sort of comedy. There's a difference between representing a place in time, 60 years ago perhaps there was a different view. For me I would be happy getting rid of them, let's make new content, I'm not too attached to that. You can't glorify characters and individuals who shouldn’t be glorified.”
“If I ever feel that moments of being uncomfortable and questioning whether I should be laughing at something, I think it should be taken out, there are other ways to push comedy. There are comedians who make a career out of laughing at other people. You sit cringing and feeling awkward. It's the comedian's job to create this awkward tension and then to provide the relief through joke. But there’s no need to laugh at people in an overtly negative way.”
It’s a conversation which plays to the heart of the film making industry now, most notably the recent #MeToo movement and drives to increase representation. Hees is under no illusions that the change which must take place will be slow but there is a certainty in the bright prospects of the film industry moving forward. “I think there is a huge deal more we can do to make it more inclusive in all areas, in terms of gender, sexuality and disability.” The latter of which he addresses specifically, stating that “there is hardly any funding for disabled filmmakers from institutions currently”.
“There are people out there who are extremely talented who are simply not being given the opportunities. It is a lack of visibility and opportunity. It is a very hard thing to fix quickly. But this has been going on for so long. You could fill the industry with really talented and diverse filmmakers instantly, but the uptake and change happens at completely differing rates.”
This points to the increasing awareness of story and character creation based upon relatability and identification, ensuring complexities and originality, something which Hees notices is instilled in the everyday: “no matter what happens around people we’re always interested in and watching characters.”