Christopher Manning is a writer and director of narrative fiction. He travelled and worked a variety of jobs in Europe and America before earning a BA from Columbia University in the City of New York, where he studied History and Film. He has worked as a Script Reader, Production Coordinator and Assistant Director on various fiction and documentary films as well as for television. In 2015, he participated in the Cinephile Scholarship Program at the Telluride Film Festival. Christopher is currently enrolled on the MA Filmmaking course at the London Film School.
Jamie was included at Sicilia Queer FilmFest 2016 international competition Queer Short.
Roberto Rippa: Jamie is your first film. What happened before that?
Christopher Manning: I took a degree in History at Columbia University in New York and studied photography, literature and film as a student. After graduating, I worked as a PA, script reader and runner in television and film before moving to Paris, where I taught English at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po. In Paris, I worked on other people’s films, wrote my own screenplays and developed a few ideas, but was finding it difficult to complete projects and progress as a director. In 2015, I decided to enroll on the MA course at the London Film School. Jamie was made as a side project during my first year in London.
RR: What was your first approach to cinema as a spectator?
CM: I was lucky as a spectator in that I was introduced to a lot of good cinema as a child. My father used to show us the films of David Lean, Billy Wilder and John Ford. Later, my mother and her friend introduced me to Italian and French cinema, which opened new worlds. During my adolescence, cinema ultimately became a door to other cultures and experiences of sexuality. I remember watching films like Les Roseaux Sauvages by André Téchiné and feeling that they had sparked some kind of emotional awakening in me. Other films shocked and amused me like Bruce Labruce’s Hustler White or the work of Almodóvar. I was a cinéphile by age fifteen, smoking Gauloises and reading copies of Les Cahiers du Cinéma that my friend brought me from Paris.
RR: At the very beginning, what was the inspiration for the story?
CM: For several years I had been developing stories about relationships and romantic encounters between men. “Emotional biographies”, or the private emotional lives of characters, are what interest me. At the very beginning of writing Jamie, I was attracted to the idea of two strangers conversing, opening up to each other. In some ways, we are more likely to reveal intimate things to a stranger than to someone we know. When you know or love someone, there is always the fear of being judged or even rejected. The first drafts of Jamie were about two strangers who meet on a London train and share a few personal stories before their different destinations inevitably force them to part.
RR: How was the writing process for the film?
CM: From start to finish, Jamie was a deeply personal film to make. I think that all first films are bound to be personal, but the subject matter and characters in Jamie made it especially the case for me. Although the film is not autobiographical, I put a lot of myself into the film. I wanted to write something very naturalistic and relatable. What came out of me during the writing process was from deep inside; I wanted the end result to be as honest and universal as possible. Although we had a locked shooting draft going into production, I had to make dramatic changes to the script during the shoot because of complications with the train that we had permission to film on. I remember very vividly sitting around with the line producer, AD and cinematographer on the night before the first day of shooting; the atmosphere was like a graveyard because we had just learned that it was going to be impossible to shoot on the train. I just told myself that if Jamie and Ben couldn’t stay on the train, then I would have to get them off it and walk them through central London. That for me was proof that the story of their encounter was deeply imbedded in me. Otherwise, it would not have worked to adapt the scenario and rewrite the script so quickly. Looking back at it now, it is remarkable how much changed on location.
RR: How did you work with the actors and how did you choose them?
CM: I was determined to find two actors that exhibited a credible physical chemistry together; it was important to me that Jamie and Ben look like a couple even if we are introduced to them just as they meet. Sebastian Christophers, who plays Jamie, was unbelievably the first actor we auditioned. Some six weeks and many actors later, we found Raphael Verrion, who brought the right chemistry when he performed with Seb. For the role of Ben, I was looking for an actor that could play confident and seductive and yet remain approachable. The idea was for Ben to have qualities that Jamie was lacking. I think very often we are attracted to opposites for this reason. Love is often born of admiration. In rehearsals, we didn’t rehearse as much as we talked about character and backstory. I tried to find the balance between keeping spontaneity and creating the depth required to convincingly portray Jamie’s world. This part of the process was highly collaborative and Seb and Raph gave a lot. I think that this comes across in their performances, which are so genuine, but also complex. Jamie’s vulnerability moves me every time I watch the film.
RR: What has been the most difficult part in working on this first film?
CM: As I said earlier, making Jamie was a very personal process for me. Given how challenging the shoot had been, and also how much had changed in the story during the shoot, it was very difficult for me to see the film that we had in the edit. I would say that the most difficult part has been accepting Jamie for what it is and letting go of what I thought it would be. Films are never finished, only abandoned. Deciding to “abandon” Jamie was a challenge. It has been a very emotional journey.
RR: You told me that Jamie will probably come back in the future. What do you have in mind?
CM: I would like to make a feature film about Jamie’s first serious relationship. Hopefully, we’ll be able to follow him on that adventure soon.
RR: Did you also participate in the editing process with Jojo Erholtz? Have you filmed more than you needed?
CM: When Jojo joined the project, I had already done a first assembly that was quite a bit longer than the final film. Jojo and I sat together for the entire process – she would cut something in front of me and then we would watch it and discuss. By the time we had a first cut, we had dropped one scene and it was clear that we needed to do a few pick-ups for the beginning. Jojo brought economy and a very sensitive eye for story to the film. In the end, I let the film sit for quite a while before making a few small final adjustments and taking it through the final stages of post.
RR: How long did the shooting last?
CM: The initial shoot lasted four days. Later we did two days of pick-ups.
RR: Tell me about the production and the difficulties – if you found any – in producing a first film.
CM: Jamie was the epitome of a ‘labour of love’ and I had to be very determined to finish it. I produced the film in addition to writing and directing it and this posed a lot of problems. We had crew drop out, a DP leave the project, complications with the principle location, a micro-micro budget, sound recording disasters and also had to schedule a reshoot and later in the process, pick-ups. In the end, I would say that I was very lucky despite what at times felt like a lot of misfortune. But that is filmmaking. You make the most of the circumstances regardless and tell yourself that next time you’ll fail better.
RR: Jamie was in competition at Sicilia Queer FilmFest. What have been the reactions? And did they surprise you in some ways?
CM: The reactions have been, on the whole, very positive. Several people have expressed interest in seeing a feature, which is an exciting reaction. I have also been approached by people who were quite moved, offering their congratulations. On the other hand, a few people have misunderstood the film and been overtly critical. At the end of the day, Jamie is a very sensitive, subtle film and I don’t expect everyone to understand what it is that I was trying to do with it. Like anything else, some people will relate and understand and others will not. What’s most important is that the audience feels something and is moved. I think that audiences at Sicilia Queer really felt something and that has been rewarding for me to witness.
RR: What would be your definition of Queer Cinema?
CM: In principle, I don’t believe that Queer Cinema should be a genre or subgenre. Even if the term “Queer” is broader and more inclusive than LGBT, it is still a category and I believe that we should try to eliminate categories. The problem with putting films into categories is that audiences tend to see the issue and not the film. I had a chat with a producer recently who thought that the audience for LGBTQ-themed films was limited to only those who empathized with the issues. I couldn’t disagree more. These films have a much wider audience. As a filmmaker, I am interested in making films that are about story and character, not about issues. That said, I also believe we need to tell more stories that challenge hetero-normative thinking and that these stories need to be distributed on a large scale. Cinema opened me up to my sexuality and I found myself through exploring the stories of others in films and books. Perhaps “Queer” could mean simply “opening up, exploring beyond the norm”.
Palermo, June 3 2016