Five Minutes With John Roberts

Media Arts lecturer John Roberts, winner of two BAFTA awards, provided his students with a unique insight into the filmmaking industry, when directing his new film Day of the Flowers.

Released in UK cinemas on 29 November, the film tells the story of two Scottish sisters who travel to Cuba with their late father’s ashes and, through a series of adventures, make some surprising discoveries about their family. The film stars Carlos Acosta, the world’s leading ballet star, in his acting debut.

During the making of the film, John took students onto the set to observe and has also invited members of his production team to run workshops at Royal Holloway.

We spoke to John about filming in Cuba, the many talents of Carlos Acosta and how his teaching complements his directing career:

What was it like to work with the world-famous dancer Carlos Acosta?

Playing the romantic lead, Carlos is a natural film actor and is very charismatic, so it was great to capture some of that magic on screen. Working with actors is where the real pleasure of the shoot is for me. When the unexpected happens or you see some chemistry between people, all the technical work drops away and you finally get to see what the film can be.

How did Carlos’ background as a performer influence his acting?

Carlos gave the exact opposite of the sort of performance needed by the Royal Ballet, which is full of big gestures and melodrama. For this film, he was very still and understated, making the transition to a film performance with intelligence and ease. I was also aware that he was watching everything carefully - I can see him directing, as well as acting, in future.

Day of the Flowers is the first British film to be made in Cuba since 1959 due to previous restrictions. Did this pose any challenges?

Cuba has had a lively film industry for decades, but the planning and particularly the permissions to shoot were difficult to get. Things moved slowly and much of the equipment was quite old. We flew in cameras and personnel from Spain and Mexico, as well as the UK. Because I don’t speak much Spanish, I only found out that some parts of the film were funny when it was screened in Miami and Cuba and the audiences were laughing. I thought “Wow! Those Cuban actors were good”, even though I had no idea what they were actually saying!

How have you used Day of the Flowers in your teaching?

I’ve used the film in many lectures and workshops as an example of directors’ input into the whole production process, from the early draft of the script, right through to sales and marketing. I invited some students onto the set during production, and the editor of the film has been to Royal Holloway to take part in some workshops, where the students re-cut scenes. Some other senior members of the production team have also come onto campus to discuss casting, lighting and design. There have been many classes where we’ve used the script to study film structure, story development and working with screenwriters. The most useful part is being able to not only have the finished product, but also earlier versions of the script and early cuts of scenes, to compare with the finished film and to show where things have worked, and more interestingly, where they haven’t.

How do you balance work as a lecturer and film director?

It works very well! I am able to develop projects and am even thinking about working with a graduate from the MA in Screenwriting on something in the near future. It’s great to be around fresh ideas and I like the atmosphere in our Department of Media Arts, especially the mix of practice and theory. Having to think about what I do as a director in order to teach, has also helped me, particularly in working with writers.