Film and TV Editor Charlie Gearon sat down with director Peter Mackie Burns to discuss his debut feature-length film, Daphne, premiering at Bristol’s Encounters Festival.
The Shorts2Features strand of Encounters festival aims to celebrate the debut feature-length works of filmmakers who previously worked in the short film medium. This year, the spotlight falls onto Peter Mackie Burns. Peter’s short films have garnered high praise from the festival circuit in the past, with his short Milk winning him the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2005. Epigram spoke to Peter ahead of the screening of his phenomenal debut feature, Daphne.
‘It’s a character film’, explains Peter. ‘We wanted to build an authentic, three-dimensional character.’
Although this is a debut feature, the character of Daphne has existed in some form for several years now. She made her first appearance in a short film Peter made in 2014 entitled Happy Birthday To Me and has very clearly stuck with the director since.
‘Happy Birthday To Me I made with (writer) Nico Mensinga and Emily Beecham who played Daphne,’ says Peter. ‘I thought she was really interesting, and when I saw Emily’s performance in the short I thought, well, there’s so much more to explore with this character.’
The affection Peter has for the character of Daphne is equally evident both in his speech and in the film itself. The audience lives with Daphne for around a week, the camera barely leaving her side as she goes about her daily routine. We see her pursuing sex, drinking too much, working a stressful job and trying to cook for herself. There’s no hint of melodrama, with every interaction and every event coming across as original and genuine.
The penchant for capturing individual scenes is very clearly a skill which Peter developed in his work with the short form. His short films often function as individual snapshots; brief insights into characters, their lives and their motivations. Daphne takes this snapshot approach to story-telling, and over the course of 90 minutes creates a three-dimensional collage of Daphne’s character. There is no convenient and tidy plot-arch. Instead, we simply follow Daphne as she tries to stumble her way through the mess that is inner-city life.
That is not to say that Peter’s film lacks focus. Towards the start of the film, Daphne witnesses a violent crime which stays with her and forces her to re-evaluate her fairly nihilistic approach to life.
‘I’m interested in the process of character films where the character is about to recognise some form of change’, explains Peter. ‘I’m not really interested in seeing the change per se. What I’m interested in is when the character starts to be aware of the need for change. Daphne starts to realise that she can’t keep living the way she’s living.’
It seems Peter’s primary motivation in creating the character is to give cinema a female character who audiences can relate to, who they can recognise is women that they themselves know.
‘We just wanted to make someone who was relatable’, he says. ‘I feature lots of women in my short work. And we just weren’t seeing women that we knew in the context of cinema. That’s why we wanted to make the film.’
Although Peter still has a very obvious love for the short form, it seems he believes there are some concepts which require a full 90 minutes to fully expand upon. ‘The short form is closer to a poem than a story’, he says. ‘We wanted to make the city [London] a part of her characterisation. In a short film, there wasn’t really time to explore that element too much.’
Despite this, Peter seems keen to pursue both short and feature films in the future.
‘I am going to make another feature I hope, fairly soon’, he states. ‘But the short film is a fantastic form on its own. I don’t know how close they are to a feature film: it’s a different beast.’
It’s this appreciation for the short form that draws Peter to Encounters, and to festivals more generally. ‘
The best festivals respect short film as a form in its own’, he says. ‘It’s great to meet audiences and chat with them about film. They’re the people you make the work for and it’s essential to get out there and meet them.’
Daphne is out at Watershed cinema now
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