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Tick Tick Tick
Sheffield Shorts 2020
Fiction // Comedy
Interview with writer & co-director Liam White
Firstly, tell us about the film and what inspired you to make it?
OK I should start off by saying anyone who hasn’t watched the film yet should do so then read this as spoilers abound.
Both Larry Ketang and I have found it really difficult to explain TICK TICK TICK over the years, as although it makes sense and has a lot of universal themes, the way it’s presented means that it really has to be watched to be understood. It’s basically about being torn between standing up for what you believe in versus playing it safe and keeping your mouth shut. It’s set in the workplace, as that’s quite a universal setting for the theme; with you the employee versus a narcissistic boss: most of us have felt that power imbalance; but it could be any setting where you have felt forced to hold your tongue for fear of making things worse, and you may go years regretting that decision, even though you knew it was the right one to make. For example, back in 2014, in a hospital room, my estranged Granddad started off talking about what I thought were scallies, but then it was suddenly about black people and pretty racist. I wanted to call him out over it, but he was on the other side of my Grandma’s deathbed, and I didn’t want her going out hearing an argument, so I just shook my head and silently seethed. I still think about that moment now.
I worked in a mainstream state school at the time I wrote Tick Tick Tick, and I was using my frustrations at all the staff meetings that could have been emails, all the half-baked initiatives no one believed in but everyone had to adhere to, that would determine our salaries in many cases. As a mainstream teacher, you are often held to account for things that are beyond your control, and I really struggled with the dishonesty around that. One ex-boss, in particular, was the inspiration for The Businessman. She once said watching films was a waste of life, and she was the art teacher!
But I’m a big believer in common sense, in looking at the bigger picture objectively and logically, and not just swallowing things whole at face value, and Tick Tick Tick was partly a lament that I wasn’t feeling that much at the time.
The script is very interesting, particularly in the video sections of the film. Was it a challenge to write in this way? How did you come up with the idea?
The actual writing of the film was relatively easy. I was on a train going from central Berlin to the airport when the idea came to me, which was that pattern of speech the two men in the car have. I thought that was an interesting idea I hadn’t seen before, and tried to think of a situation or framework in which that could make sense. All of a sudden, all that extra-curricular school bullshit I was swamped with at the time slid out from my subconscious and tapped me on the imagination and the general shape of the whole film came to me before I’d even got off the train. I wanted to write it there and then, but I was at the airport now, so I just did it in my head. Writing, re-drafting. At security. On the plane. In the taxi home. Genuinely, as soon as I got back home to Manchester I had the finished script in my brain so the first thing I did was fire up Final Draft and type quicker than I ever have typed in my life. I only stopped because I was late for a Christmas Eve pub crawl with my friends. Then I finished the draft the next day. The only thing that changed is when Larry and I found our location for the outdoor scenes, we looked down upon the terrain where the river snakes through the land, we both knew that Jerry’s death had to involve a drowning as well as a strangulation. The rest is just as I wrote it, six years ago.
Making it was difficult because we applied for funding, but even though we knew exactly what the film was we were trying to make, as I say it’s really quite a difficult film to explain, and sounded like an obscure curio, and we couldn’t drum up any interest. Also, our film-making network at the time was just the two of us, and Naomi Yang, the actress in the film. We had to work and save up money, and slowly but surely convince professionals to come aboard. This film should have had a 10 grand budget minimum and a large crew of professionals. Luckily Larry and I didn’t know just how out of our depth we were at the time. We just had a burning desire to make this film. It took a long, long time. Effectively, it was like a self-taught and very expensive film school!
What message would you like the audience to take away from watching the film?
That’s a tricky question. We are mainly just hoping that this film resonates with people, that they feel the pain of the main character, told in a way that they perhaps haven’t seen before. I’d love it if it got people asking themselves questions, and compared it with their own lives, or they want to rewatch it. Certainly that they don’t feel like they just wasted 14 minutes of their life!
As for what the central message is, obviously I quite clearly had one when writing it, but one of the interesting things about seeing the finished film, getting even just the crew members (i.e. people who in theory know exactly what this film is) to explain Tick Tick Tick is that they have very different answers. Although I have quite strong feelings about the type of thing that is at the heart of the film, I try to write scripts that are not didactic or binary; I like to have the audience lean in a little, and even be unsure how they feel.
As for filmmakers, the message would be if you believe in your film, don’t give up! Even if you piece it together bit by bit over years, the lessons you’ll learn and the crew you’ll build up are invaluable. And it’s better to have a go than do nowt and spend the rest of your life wondering.
Also, it’s absolutely fine to approach people at the level of Anton Lesser etc – if their agent blanks your email, you’re no worse off. But, if your project is interesting enough, and the stars align, you just never know…
Finally, what are you working on next? Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Well, Tick Tick Tick took far too long for any film to make, nevermind a short. Using that as our fuel, we managed to make four films in 2020, three of them totally self-funded, and one largely funded by BFI Network and Film Hub North. DOUGHNUT is done and dusted and is being submitted to film festivals. I somehow managed to get Maxine Peake and Ben Wheatley amongst others to watch that, and they were very positive. And then PUNCH-DRUNK is a(n almost) one-take wonder, written in direct response to the sprawling production of Tick Tick Tick. We managed to get Barry Ward in the central role for that, and the results have blown us away. We were lucky to find a phenomenal actor in Corin Silva, who manages to give a powerhouse performance from off-screen. That will be finished by the time people read this. Then we have a fake 1970s Public Information Broadcast, called DEPARTMENT OF NECROSIS, shot on actual film reels. That should be a sub-minute blast of dark humour, which we would like to put online as soon as it’s done. And finally PICKLES, our BFI-funded short about a woman who agrees to look after her neighbours’ dog, only to find it dead on the first day. That should be done by the end of January.
So most of 2021 currently looks like getting our films out there, (hopefully not bankrupting ourselves in the process with festival submissions). We hope physical screenings can make a return; we’re dying to watch them with audiences. We also have a script that we think could be the strongest short of ours yet, and we’re going to be looking into getting funding for that.