Listen To Me is a hard-hitting short film directed by Bristol-based Rob Ayling, touching on themes of abuse and gender violence. Film Curiosity sat down to chat with the director himself about the creative process and the film’s important journey. We noticed that Listen to Me has had success in some film festivals. You must be pleased with this?
The very first award it was nominated for was Best UK Short Film at the East End Film Festival. After that, at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, it was for Best Thriller. The only other thing the film has been up for was March’s Shooting People’s Film Of The Month, which it came in second for. It’s had quite a journey.
The important thing about that last competition was that it was audience voting. For me, it cemented that people appreciated the film and what it was trying to say and what I wanted to do with it. For me, the key thing about it was getting awareness of the subject out there.It’s great to see a short film recognised that deals with the serious topic of domestic abuse.
Absolutely, for me the subject matter does have a personal connection. It annoys me when people brush it to one side as a topic that’s not worth discussing, when actually the problem is that we aren’t discussing it enough. The general attitude towards abuse and domestic violence is not good enough.
I started pre-production in 2014 and around the time I was writing, many domestic abuse cases were brought up around the time of the World Cup and it seemed that no-one was acknowledging them. Charity donations tripled around that time but the focus was still on the sporting event, and it frustrated me that the stories themselves weren’t being heard or addressed.It comes through in the film. Jessica Hayles is a great actress and you see her experience the frustration of speaking out against domestic abuse but being blocked.
That scenario is similar to something I experienced myself. I made a similar phone call to the one she makes and it frustrated me the reluctance from the authorities to deal with and/or help. So for me, this scene was about giving authenticity to these kinds of events in which people speak out and the frustration when there is no help.In terms of authenticity, the film handles an issue that had the potential to be excessively dramatic, but Listen To Me articulates the issues skillfully. How did you ensure this?
Funnily enough, I watched a remarkable TV drama called Murdered By My Boyfriend. I also watched Tyrannosaur with Olivia Coleman. Those two works struck me as powerful, inspirational pieces of drama on domestic violence.
With Listen To Me, I didn’t feel it necessary to show the violence. I thought about the quote, "it’s not always what you see, it’s what you don’t show that scares an audience." For me that struck me as true to the cases of violence and abuse. It’s not always what you see, it’s what you hear from behind closed doors or on the other side of the wall that is more frightening, and this is what plays out in Listen To Me.Something that comes through in the film is its realism. Your film raises serious questions; how was it received by audiences?
We have showcased the film at domestic violence conferences. Men and women have approached me after seeing the film and they have been able to speak up about domestic violence as a result of seeing it, which is great. I have received critique of the film too, even someone saying that they were disgusted by the film. I don’t think it is a film you should love, rather appreciate. Perhaps the problem for audiences now is that this isn’t a film about escapism; it is about seeing and hearing the issue.How did the film develop?
My mentor at film school, Simon Shore, directed the film Get Real. He knew somebody and he thought it was a strong idea, but thought that I'd need some strong actors as it was such a tough project to pull off. He introduced me to Sarah Warren and we made a short film together, and it worked very well. Simeon [Willis] and Sarah were actors I met previously in casting calls. I noticed they were strong actors who I’d love to work with; the same with Jessica. I knew she was Eleanor when I met her.
I wanted to see what the actors could bring to it and make sure they had a voice. If the actors were going to give a performance, I’d prefer they give a true performance rather than scripted. The film itself, even though I wrote the screenplay, was based off a series of improvisations from the actors.
The argument between Sarah and Jason was an improvisation. Sometimes we improvised the dialogue but what we didn’t do was improvise violence. The material came from the two actors. Sarah and Jessica were both brave in the way they went to extra lengths in their performances.
The first time we see Sarah’s character is right at the end of the film with a cut lip. She has lots of dialogue but we never see her; we hear her voice. Whereas many people would say the main character is Jessica, the voice of the film is very much Sarah and this links back to the title, Listen To Me – we don’t see her, but we hear her.