Natural Conversational Films

29th November 2018 

Accidentally, I’ve recently developed a love for an unusual style of film: one defined by natural, uninterrupted conversation.

They’re not interviews, for they’re too fluid, and observational.

Neither are they really debates, as they shift so easily from a serious topic to a small, light-hearted thing, whilst always remaining slow and informal. 

For me, these are conversational films: long, continuous discussions between ordinary people.

Although they’re plausible as both fiction and non-fiction, I’m most struck by their potential with real people, speaking honestly.

There’s a curious fascination to see individuals talking at length, as in real life, with the time to share nuanced arguments; whilst diverging into topics many would deride as irrelevant. 

Yet there’s also something more profound: both to preserve the diverse perspectives of ordinary people for future generations, and to open up dialogue with different communities and individual people right now - be it in the film itself, or with the people who watch it.

People from very different backgrounds must be able to learn from each other and find some common ground. We all need to be challenged, and rethink our understandings, regardless of how well educated we claim to be - especially at a time when politics, both in the UK and throughout the world, is at its most polarised for decades.

One of the closest popular similarities to what I’m describing would be an interview podcast, with visuals; though within a more relaxed setting, away from a more formal recording booth. Perhaps in a café, or a park, maybe even a walk through a town or a city - somewhere neutral, comfortable and pleasant.

These films can act as an indirect resistance to an aggressively short, soundbite driven culture; pushing instead for a slower, more thoughtful mode of expression.

Why is it acceptable for a very long interview to be reduced to a misleading, simplistic 10 second phrase?

Or - and this frustrates me so constantly with TV - why can someone be asked a complex question, and constantly get harassed by an interviewer into finishing as quickly as possible, interrupted and coerced into saying things they don’t quite intend?

And why shouldn’t we enjoy digressions, the random things we suddenly jump to in conversation, and embrace the irrelevant?

When pursuing naturalism, though, filmmakers must shoulder an ethical responsibility, in questioning where a subject’s honesty is unwise, especially when cuts have been made that may mislead a spectator.

Has what they’ve said put them in danger of serious, and undeserved, reprisals - social media mobs, job dismissal, legal challenges, social isolation - upon the film’s release? Do they, really, deserve that? Are they in a significant position of power, which could make any predictable negative reaction a fair and proportionate response? If they’re not, the filmmakers need to be extremely cautious.

Maybe the best way, in certain cases, is to make the editing process collaborative with the subjects. 

Although there can still be one person clearly leading the project, each subject has the opportunity to challenge anything sufficiently controversial or private that, in hindsight, could damage them, or which they feel has been misleadingly presented. 

It’s unlikely this can always work well in practice, particularly with difficult subjects, but for people not seeking the public eye and naive to both the filmmaking process and - especially - social media, I believe it’s likely to be the right thing to do.

My fascination with this sub-genre comes after I created a film in this style myself - by accident.

This film was not supposed to exist.

Or rather, it was supposed to be a very simple one minute exploration of Madeleine’s temperature gun, a brief interlude inside another film entirely.

Shortly before the shoot, I felt that - as we had the opportunity - we should ask her about a few other things: perhaps her vintage female-directed porn screenings, returning to the USA for the 1st time since Trump’s victory, and her experiences adjusting to life in the UK.

But, fairly spontaneously, I decided to just let them talk, for as long as seemed natural. And so they spent almost 2 hours in conversation, until the park closed(!). Followed by playtime in the streets outside, and an evening indulging in further discussion - and chocolate cake - at a Curzon Cinema.

It was almost inconceivable that they hadn’t met. Both volunteered at the same cinema, both were good friends with me and someone else (also called Ed), and both frequented similar rep. film screenings. For some time this was a source of some frustration to me, though now I realise that if they had crossed paths before, this film could not have existed; or rather, the charm and discovery would be gone. 

This is a film that captures the start of a beautiful friendship. At first it’s a little artificial, somewhat formal, yet gradually the pair become comfortable with each other, and talk so intimately. A good friend of mine even mistook it for fiction, and seemed to believe it was my attempt at filming a romantic date..

I’d previously explored conversational film a year before, for my previous project, A Short Like Any Other. 

Curious to try something which distinctly played between fiction and non-fiction, I’d created space in our treatment - which was otherwise a romantic fiction piece - for a brief ‘political conversation’, intended as a response to the rise of the far left via Jeremy Corbyn.

Around 3 weeks before the shoot, the EU Referendum took place - and Brexit hit. 

This switched what previously felt like an experiment into something urgent, and of some genuine importance. And the focus of the film started to shift - I didn’t know how I could justify making a film about a one-night stand (especially from a shy white middle class male perspective), when the only thing everyone around me wanted to talk about was something so profound. 

For a few weeks in late June to early July, almost every few lines of a conversation overheard in cafés, parks, and wandering the streets related to Brexit. Nothing else really seemed to matter. I’d never experienced such a universal interest in politics before, and to ignore it would be awful.

I was fascinated by Godard’s A Film Like Any Other (1968), which I’d experienced near the start of 2016, where the filmmaker created space for a conversation between students and workers, regarding the perceived failure of May ‘68 to create wider social change - or more bluntly, revolution. 

Close to 2 hours, practically the entire film is captured in a park, with around a dozen people - and yet no faces are ever clearly visible. Shots focus on hands, grass, other parts of the body; perhaps in an attempt to anonymise the contributors, and to suggest their voices speak for a movement. Although both my films resisted this avoidance of faces, for I consider identity important, I did adopt many of his shot choices. 

I’ve since tried to find a number of other examples throughout film history, yet very few easily fit: perhaps Jean Eustache’s Numero zero (1971), or Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, 1968)? Maybe Éric Rohmer’s non-fiction work for French television in the mid-1960s, too, especially his piece on Louis Lumière (1968)? Maybe Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007)? But I feel all of these lean more towards unconventional interviews and debates, rather than being light conversations.

Strolling (2014-‘16), a web series by cecile emeke, explored the distinct experiences of the global black diaspora, via an informal interview style. Shot around the world, including in London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, New York & Kingston (Jamaica), with durations anywhere between 4 to 23 minutes, these are vital records of contemporary young people - urgent, political and very ‘woke’.

In their fluid, friendly tone they come close to this vision of a conversational cinema; the main difference being that there’s typically an interviewer actively directing the conversation, and who remains unseen, which prevents a more natural talk between friends.

Another example, and one of my favourites, is really a distinctive mix of debate / interview / conversation: Ken Loach’s In Conversation with Jeremy Corbyn (60 min. version). This captures two Q&As during Corbyn’s awkward re-election campaign in 2016, straight after the EU Referendum.

These are formal events, with a clear power barrier between the audience and the leader. Yet, the respect and trust the audience feel for Corbyn allows for a number of extraordinary stories on ordinary struggles, illuminating the worst aspects of contemporary British society, which aren’t heard anywhere near enough. Even as a sceptic of his leadership, this film makes it easy to see why he’s inspired so many.

Unfortunately, though many of these are close, none of these examples quite fit my vision for what a conversational film could be.

What’s needed are films that run as long as they need to, focused solely on a single conversation, with a very small crew, capturing people who have a genuine desire to understand each other, without having a new thing to sell or a brand to promote, and who can quickly become so immersed that they forget this is an artificial situation, and make everything feel real.

Technically, this means lavalier mics, rather than booms; two cameras: one fixed, one floating wherever it needs to be; long takes, minimal cuts and light grading. And almost no interruptions or prompts from anyone outside.

What seems most likely to me, though, is that there will be countless examples very close to this which are simply forgotten, as they were made for YouTube, often as part of a series for a digital publisher (rather than as independent shorts), or for TV, and never made accessible online.

Again, though, most are unlikely to have been quite as honest, fluid or informal as what I’m imagining, closer to unconventional debates and interview than genuine conversation.

Surprisingly, some of the conversational films closest to this vision are fiction:

My Dinner With Andre (Louis Malle, 1981) is predominantly formed of a long catchup in a restaurant, featuring two friends playing exaggerated versions of themselves, moving from light conversation to long, profound monologues.

And, most famously, the Before Trilogy (Richard Linklater, 1995 - 2013), though spread over dozens of locations, captures intimate romantic conversations over a few hours, each 9 years apart.

The dialogue in all four of these films was largely composed by the actors, and much of it is semi-autobiographical. So although they may not exactly be honest, or naturalistic, they’re close to something real.

A key regret with both of my films is that, in only using one camera, and not having it in a fixed position, I could never have enough visual material from the park to complement the audio of their conversations (which were recorded separately, in full - around 90 minutes for ASLAO & 100 minutes for Temp Girl). 

There’s also the prominent audio equipment, which constantly serves to identify the holder as someone in control, which does, even if subtly, affect the dynamic of the conversation. And so in future, I’d like to experiment with lavalier microphones to diminish this. Though part of me also feels the current setup is healthy, as it keeps the spectators, and the subjects, at least subconsciously aware that although these situations may be naturalistic, they’re not quite real.

Uncut, feature versions of both conversations exist, but the considerable amount of black space (and my doubts towards finding more suitable visuals) makes their chances of being shown very slim. With permission from the participants, one day I’d like to share the audio of both, as they’re fascinating simply to listen to. So many fascinating things had to be cut, especially the longer and more nuanced discussions.

To be honest, I’ve yet to find (or make) a film which quite fits with my vision for what conversational films could be; though perhaps my definitions are too firm, and maybe the inability of existing films to perfectly fit these rules is my mistake, and part of their charm.

It’s dishonest to truly believe you can (ethically) film an entirely natural conversation. In most scenarios, the basic fact that the subjects are in a particular space together, conscious that they’re being filmed, will make their interactions at least somewhat artificial. With my two shorts, though, I felt that the subjects became so immersed in their talking that they quickly forgot the camera’s presence, and gradually felt confident enough to share very personal stories and opinions.

Ideally, I’d like to create a series of shorts in a similar style to Temp Girl, albeit perhaps with people from more opposing backgrounds. Some could lean towards a more political focus, others may be more playful. Where possible, it’d be wise to make two versions: a short, around 10 - 15 minutes, and a far longer, mostly uncut record of their conversation. Most would involve just two people, though I’m curious to experiment with larger groups, too.

A few days after we shot Temp Girl, the three of us hung out one afternoon. It was lovely - we’d started a new friendship group, united by our love of experimental film, art and above-average satire, and we had so much fun. 

It could never last - she left the UK a few days later, and we’re yet to see her again. But this film preserves a special encounter, and hints at one of the best friendship groups I sort of, briefly had.

Edward Smyth