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Blog website for Brian Harley & Short Night Films

"You can’t pay your debts with a fish, son. Not anymore."

Apostle’s Manoeuvre is now online.

My Dad: The Binman Director

(This article was originally featured in Covert Magazine, Dec 2010)

A few months after I was born in 1979, my dad, Bernard, and my uncle Jim made a short horror film called The Phantom in the Mirror, which they shot on Super 8 and edited in-camera as they went along. The film spins a familiar yarn, about a haunted mirror which consumes the soul of anyone who looks into it.

My dad passed away in May 2010, aged 59. Naturally, when writing his eulogy, I recalled many of his creative endeavours, including this film, which leapt back into my conscious, like a rabid facehugger from the Alien movies. I hadn’t seen it for over twenty years, assuming it had perished in the foamy tide of time. Nevertheless, his passing inspired an archaeological spirit in me with which I set in motion a quest to find the original reels, via several old friends and acquaintances. We also found a dusty old cup with the initials “J.C” inscribed on it but we chucked that tacky shit in the bin.

Speaking of bins, after moving to Coventry from Glasgow in 1970, dad and uncle Jim were both employed as dustmen (calling themselves garbologists), and were often amazed at what some people considered to be rubbish. Interestingly, as men employed to routinely dispose of trash and junk, they placed more emphasis on preservation than disposal. They recognised the value and heritage in those discarded possessions, which were usually propped up against soggy black bin bags or left in cardboard boxes. Many times, they would adopt the items rather than sling them into the back of the wagon to be crushed.

The film’s titular mirror, and even the camera it was shot on, were both salvaged from such a fate and put to use. My dad was a feverish antiquarian, bringing home all kinds of treasures – comic books, annuals, toy cars, paintings, ornaments, samurai swords - and basically any other blood-stained paraphernalia that probably should have been wrapped in plastic bags and tagged as evidence. 

When I was about eight years old, dad decided to show me his film on video, despite my mum’s heeding that it might be too scary for me. To be honest, it was a little late in the day to be heeding, since dad had already let me watch ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Hellraiser’, Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly' and quite possibly the scariest of them all, 'Darby O’Gill and the Little People’. Naturally then, dad figured I’d be absolutely fine with his low budget schlocker. So we made ourselves comfy, my dad in his chair and me on the floor beside his feet, as was my custom for watching the telly back then.

It opens, silently – nothing but the whir of the projector at least - with uncle Jim discovering the mirror, discarded against a brick wall in the jetty behind his house. He takes it inside, dusts it off and hangs it on the wall. As he does this, his reflection momentarily becomes a hooded skull, soaked in blood, which although startles him a little, he quickly dismisses the vision as the cause of an overdue catnap, as anyone would do, right? I see a hooded blooded skull all the time when I’m tired.

It surely isn’t though, as in that moment, the mirror had actually assigned uncle Jim as the witless vessel of which it will soon infuse all of its evil, preying on him during his nap and eventually using him to manifest into the hooded wraith itself, which stalks around the house menacingly, like some tubby Nosferatu. It doesn’t get past my dad though, conveniently cameoing as a bread-slicer-turned-hero, who stabs the ghoul in the back with a huge psycho-knife, only to witness it transform back into uncle Jim moments later. Then the projector falls silent.

Quite frankly, my mum should have heeded more. I was horrified. I was thoroughly chilled for reasons beyond my comprehension at the time. Although I was old enough to accept it was make-belief, I was young and impressionable enough to be disturbed by it forever.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was writing a film review for a student magazine, that I was able to begin articulating and understanding my dad’s film’s impact on me. I was reviewing the American remake of ‘The Ring’, which as I’m sure you remember, centres around a cursed video tape. The footage on that tape evoked a sense of dread I had not felt since I watched ‘The Phantom in the Mirror’ all those years ago. As I tried to explain why I found ‘The Ring' to be particularly ghoulish, I was actually able to decipher the same of 'The Phantom in the Mirror’. I even made a reference to it in the review. What struck me the most at the time (and to this day, in fact) was the silence. It’s difficult to tell if the sound of the projector played a part in the overall experience, a sound more associated with weepy nostalgia. I suspect it did. Over something like this, the sound of the projector gave the footage a kind of unrelenting verisimilitude. But mostly, I’m talking about the lack of sound generally and how it amplified all of my other senses – my sense of observation, my sense of anticipation, my sense of dread. Not to mention how it manipulated my perception of the people in the film. People I knew very well. I couldn’t understand how the usually playful uncle Jim was both vulnerable and menacing, both villain and victim. More than anything I had ever seen at the time, it demanded all of my courage and curiosity, and in writing that review, I discovered that The Phantom in the Mirror‘s most accomplished trick was its visual storytelling and creation of atmosphere.

Watching it today, as a film-maker myself, as co-conspirator you could say, over thirty years since it was made, I can clearly see it is an amateur horror film, brazenly baring the influence of classic horrors such as ‘Nosferatu' and perhaps Ealing’s compendium feature, 'Dead of Night’. I can totally see the strings now. I can see that the Phantom’s cloak is really just a fucking beach towel and I can see that the skull is just a cheap plastic Halloween mask drizzled in ketchup. Since it was shot in sequence, I now see that the timing is off too (although in-camera edits have since become a highly regarded form in this age of digital technology, with many boutique film festivals dedicated to the discipline).

Also, its silence heralds the kind of valiant, ham-fisted acting that would make even Harold Lloyd blush. Dad and uncle Jim even had the chutzpah to do a real time slow motion sequence for their finale and on top of that, there’s a vague post-modernist ending, in which the camera pans across the room and zooms in on the mirror which has “The End” scrawled on it.

But for me, it’s this kind of ambitious, home-made ingenuity and dynamism that makes ‘The Phantom in the Mirror' so adorable. The end credits crawl is possibly cutest of all – hand written on a roll of paper which is slowly hoisted up in front of the camera.

Watching it recently, I was reminded that my dad directed it, which filled me with a tremendous sense of accession, I have to say. I even get my first ever credit, as “Baby Brian Harley Jr” which not only makes me feel deeply cherished but part of the very fabric of this short film. I was there, man…probably snoozing in a little basket under the dining table, but still.

My dad may be gone now and I’m proud to say his legacy includes this film, which you’re welcome to watch here. His policy in life was to behold the value in everything and to preserve it, and so that’s exactly what I’m doing with his film.

I miss you, pop.

'I Cannot Consider Myself to Have Been a Believer'

Behold! Here be some epic listenage, in the form of the ‘A Dream I Had' soundtrack by Ben Cook (of Anti/Type Films), which is now available online.

Listen here…

A Dream I Had - Production Notes by Brian Harley

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A Dream I Had' is, in the best sense I hope, a melodrama - a tragic romance about former lovers who are now practically strangers. I've always been a little fascinated about the lingering emotions that exist between people and their failed relationships. Relationships that ended badly or without closure yield particularly ripe, dramatic possibilities. So I was curious to investigate that space between former lovers, to coax out and examine all those pesky feelings. I wanted to take romantic tension and place it in a situation where it would struggle to thrive; to marinate it in a soup full of lies, mistrust, violence and coincidence, and then see what it tastes like.

My intention with the film was to provoke questions about the nature of true love and forgiveness and the differences, if any, between coincidence and fate. In some respects, the film is an indictment of the recklessness and disregard we show towards people we once claimed to love. Personally, I can’t see how, when love mutates into hate, that it can be considered anything other than disastrous. We could be gentler with one another. We could be kinder. We could be more considerate. I think the characters in this film are trapped in the pit between love and hate. I’m not sure what that is exactly.

"The idea was to involve coincidence and suggest fate but then to somehow dismiss it all from coming across as a solution to their problem."

I know in storytelling, coincidence is a bit of a thorny device but here, it’s the main thrust of the film so I can’t be coy about it. In my defence though, I don’t use it to solve the problem and more than that, personal experience qualifies me to defend it. The truth is, we’re all qualified to defend coincidence really. It’s not magic. Coincidence is just the most intimate form of chance. We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives. That said, the trick was to try and handle it fairly realistically and delicately (partly why I opted to shoot the film in a hand held ‘documentary’ style and strive for naturalism in the performances). The idea was to involve coincidence and suggest fate but then to somehow dismiss it all from coming across as a solution to their problem. Instead, I wanted it to feel bittersweet. When Chris describes his dream to Margot, he does it out of desperation. He knows he cannot defend himself. He knows he will never forgive himself. All he can do is express himself. He makes a somewhat inexplicable grab to recount the dream he had. As he does so, we see how Margot is affected by what he’s describing. We get a sense that she recognises it. Make no mistake, this is a big, profound moment between the two characters. It’s meaningful to them and yet in the aftermath of what has just transpired between them, it’s also, tragically, meaningless.

"He knows he cannot defend himself. He knows he will never forgive himself. All he can do is express himself….It’s meaningful to them and yet in the aftermath of what has just transpired between them, it’s also, tragically, meaningless."

It’s not my intention for the audience to necessarily like or root for the characters all the way through the film. Rather, I was more interested in juggling with the audience’s sympathies and empathies, to make them question their first impressions and leave them either coveting or defending their last.

I’m well aware that some audiences will condemn Chris’ actions while others may have the capacity to forgive him or even the vague understanding of why he did it, at least. By the end of the film, there is a pretty clear sense of risk and dilemma that the characters will need to deal with. How are they going to trade all that anger, pain, resentment and disfigured love for responsibility? Should they? I’m offering no solutions here. I feel it would have been wrong to do so. Instead, I wanted the film to enable the audience to participate and pick their own ending. It appeals to your own sense of humanity, compassion, pity, forgiveness. What would you do? Could you forgive the other person? Could you forgive yourself? Can true love see you through anything? How much do we allow superstition to influence the decisions we make? The questions are ripe and endless, perhaps too monumental to solve in our waking lives, which is why sometimes, we take stock of what our subconscious tries to tell us. Maybe, just maybe, the answers can be found here, in our dreams.

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Writing & Directing Influences: In writing terms, my influences for ‘A Dream I Had’ can probably be traced back to the melodramas of Arthur Miller and his inclination for sensational human drama and complex familial issues. I’m interested in how an audience can identify (not necessarily like) with flawed, imperfect characters and how utterly compelling they can be to watch. The subject matter is also in some small part drawn from personal experience of failed relationships, drawing on those difficult residual feelings and tensions and spinning them into fictional terms.

My directorial influences for ‘A Dream I Had’ derive from the style of British realist directors such as Alan Clarke, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold and Michael Winterbottom as well as the glossier American melodramas from the likes of Alexander Payne, Sidney Lumet and Roger Michell. After making ‘A Dream I Had’, I was made aware of the work of British New Wave directors such as Tony Richardson and John Osborne and while I don’t credit them as direct influences, I do recognise that ‘A Dream I Had’ follows a fine tradition of films about angry young men, all full of piss and vinegar, who indulge their grudges with the world but ultimately declare their hearts in the end.

Finally, David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter' tends to have a significant influence on me and my films in one way or another. 'A Dream I Had' is probably the most evident of this so far with respect to complex romance and the tension of what could have been.

The Cast: In order for the film to connect and engage with an audience, I needed a cast who were emotionally intelligent and courageous; actors who understood the complexity of the material, who believed in the characters they were portraying and who were willing to examine and summon their own personal experiences and invest it in to their performances. I was lucky to locate all of these qualities in Ben and Aimee. I have worked with Ben numerous times before, most notably on my previous short film, ‘Eventide’ and was keen to work with him again. Ben has a nobility to him that I was keen to challenge on screen, to create a role for him in which he gets to portray someone who is quite erroneous. I first saw Aimee perform as Cathy in a stage production of ‘Cathy Come Home’, (in fact, the first ever staged performance of Cathy Come Home) opposite Ben. It was clear to me that Aimee could not only handle a leading role but could also harness difficult, gritty material rather well. She also shared great chemistry with Ben, who was playing her husband, so I already had an insight into how they would come across as a couple.

It was important for Ben, Aimee and myself that we rationalised the characters’ behaviour and arrived at a general understanding as to why they conduct themselves the way they do. We discussed the characters’ background, their lives and relationship prior to their encounter in the film. These discussions built a back story essentially, enabling Ben and Aimee to bring these unwritten details and familiarity to the surface of their performances. Ben and Aimee were also able to naturalise the script, making slight changes, abbreviations or inventing extra lines here and there to motivate the exchange more realistically. Although we rehearsed several times, we never rehearsed it ‘full blooded’ as we were keen to save it for the day to ensure that spontaneity had a place in the overall process.

Since the film investigates the nature of honesty and dishonesty, I was keen to plant various signs of deception into Aimee’s performance particularly. This included a range of physical and verbal clues; designed to create doubt and mistrust of her character. For example her body language and the direction of her eyes are huge clues. You may also notice how she is often defensive, a reaction associated with guilt, while Ben’s character is often on the offensive, an approach associated with innocence. Although he doesn’t disclose certain aspects of his life, he doesn’t actively lie about anything.

Visual Style: I wanted to shoot the film in a hand held, documentary style, which I’ve come to favour more and more for my work, as I find it not only contributes to a greater sense of realism but also provides the film with a nice energy. I also feel it’s generally more stimulating to look at and it’s unquestionably a much faster way of working. In the case of this film, the shambly, liberal camera work enforces the notion of vulnerability and the unpredictable nature of the encounter. I like feeling the sense that anything can happen and a wyly camera strengthens that sensation.

I didn’t even want a tripod on standby. We didn’t bring one. Tripods were banned!

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It was really important to me that we attach the cameras to Ben’s character, so we experience the encounter through him. Wherever he goes, the cameras go with him. I felt this was particularly necessary in order to manipulate the audience into feeling complicit with him, even when he says and does things that most of us would consider rather horrendous and immoral. After his character spits on the baby, he stands up and strides towards the camera, which tracks back quickly, leaving Aimee’s character behind in the distance. The idea here was to visualise the adrenalin rush the moment causes in him (and the audience I hope). Because the camera stays loyal to Ben in this moment, the audience are somehow involved in his escape, seeing what he cannot over his shoulder. By forbidding the audience to disengage from him here, increases their sense of shock, repulsion and reluctant compliance. This sort of sympathetic use of the camera, along with Ben’s performance, also enables the audience to witness how his character feels about what is happening, especially his instant guilt and remorse - information that Aimee’s character cannot see, making the audience feel like a sort of helpless conscience.

I was also keen to stage the film using some longer takes than I have previously attempted. In the film’s opening, we introduce Ben’s character to the audience via a tracking camera which moves through the space with him, pushes towards him to register his reaction to something off screen before rotating round the back to reveal Aimee and the baby. Again, it’s designed to enable the audience to feel a connection or a loyalty to Ben, to share the encounter from his perspective. Many of the sequences in the final film are from long single takes, only cutting away to coverage cameras to register reactions.

Sound Design: Through the sound design I wanted to embrace the sense of distance and tranquillity that the location offered. It’s a place that feels a little removed from the rest of the community, so the city soundscape is faint while the sounds of nature, such as birdsong and wind thrive. I also wanted to add a hint of ironic sound, such as the faint peal of wedding bells that can be heard. It’s mentioned that Ben’s character films weddings for a living. I find it quite sad that someone who is surrounded by love and romantic gestures all the time is broken hearted. The bells also serve as a sort of echo of what could have been between them. The bells during the argument also take on a sort of siren quality, amping up that sense of urgency and irony. Wind is also used as a metaphor for his emotions and composure. For example, in the moments leading up to when he spits on the baby, we hear a blustery wind approaching the scene, reaching an aggressive peak just as he does so. Finally, the wind chimes create a soft, delicate sound, motivated of course by the wind, and which represents the vulnerable nature of the relationship, the delicate kindling of romance within the encounter as well as serving as a motif of the baby’s presence.

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Music: Very early on, I knew that I wanted to use Amazing Grace somewhere in the film. Obviously, it’s a hymn about forgiveness and redemption, which are some of the film’s most important touchstones. I didn’t want the music to be orchestral or too leading though and looked at ways in which I could apply it to the film diegetically. I considered having an acoustic version coming out of dangling headphones draped around a character’s neck or as a straight hymn coming from a church in the distance. I also quite liked the idea of the music being brought in on a breeze, fading up and down with the gusts of wind. My main concern with non-diegetic score though was that it might undermine the reality of the film. In the meantime, I asked Ben Cook, who previously scored Eventide, (alongside Jim Bogue and Alex Miles) if he would like to come up with something and I’d work out how to use it later. I provided him with an acoustic version that I liked as reference and explained how I wanted a rendition that felt like it belonged to the streets rather than the church. It had to be a little messy, a little everyman, a little humble and yet somehow still beautiful.

"I wanted a rendition [of Amazing Grace] that felt like it belonged to the streets rather than the church."

In no time at all, Ben came up with a brilliant - dare I say epic - version, which helped me to visualise the finale of the film a little more. At the end of the day, my main concern was to create a piece of work that was not only credible but dramatically engaging. The application of score towards the end of the film is particularly useful I think, because it enhances the sense of importance surrounding the encounter, it helps to stir coincidence into fate, it swells the sensations of romance and tragedy, without compromising the overall intimacy. The music is urgent and intoxicating and so makes it a little harder for the audience to write off the idea of reconciliation, reunion or romance, no matter how disastrous they believe it might be in the end.

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Composer Ben Cook’s notes about the Music: "There is quite often freedom within a structure. Trying out ideas within the confines of a set structure allows you to be focused without your mind wandering too far. The remit I got was…. guitar, Amazing Grace and rough.

After listening to a variety of different versions I settled on an open tuned version to give that distinct note sustain so to fill the spaces between the purposely freeform rendition. I recorded the piece through a simple computer microphone, to give it an actual raw and scratched sound, rather than one added in post. All sound peaks were left as they were, accurate time keeping was done away with and the delay and echo was left to their own devices, this, I believe gives the piece an unstable, unpredictable and raw sound, in keeping with the themes of the film if not the subject matter.

To lift the recording from merely a ‘guitar playing Amazing Grace’ I took influence from a variety of other sources. Firstly and predominately it was Neil Young’s incredible guitar work on Deadman, loose and chaotic and, most noticeably, often at odds with the film he was scoring. The tone of guitar is heavily influenced by Neil Young’s distorted but punchy sound. The influence of this score on my work cannot be understated. Secondly was Josh T Pearson’s heavily reverbed, space filled musicianship, which treated every guitar part as if it were a hymn, apt for the piece I was playing. Thirdly and less obviously was Billy Corgan’s overdub work on Siamese Dream. During the middle section of the piece 7 guitar parts were used, as well as 2 piano and 2 harmonica parts. I attempted with this amount of instruments, along with the looseness of playing, to give this section of the piece the feeling it could fall apart at any moment.”

Trivia: There is a shot of a dreamcatcher and some wind chimes hanging from the handle of the pushchair. They serve several purposes. The first was to enhance the mystical nature of dreams. Since the baby is sleeping throughout the encounter, it is quite feasible that she is dreaming, with the dreamcatcher ensuring that she is protected from nightmares, and by extension the conflict between the two adults. Additionally, it indicates that Margot is superstitious and goes some way to justify why she appears to be willing to engage with Chris further, despite what he did.

The dream Ben’s character describes is based on a real dream that I had.

All of the characters (except for baby Olivia) are named after actors and actresses who have portrayed Superman and Lois Lane.

Benjamin Thorne plays ‘Chris’ after Christopher Reeve. Aimee Powell plays ‘Margot’ after Margot Kidder.

Even the off screen character of ‘Dean’ is named after Dean Cain, whose portrayal of Superman is a bit naff. In the film, Chris is resentful of Dean and even teases the name.

Ben is wearing a pin badge which features a modulator. The model featured is the same as the modulator used to create the music for my previous short film, ‘Eventide’.

The film was shot in 6 hours.

My Maiden Blog

Sometimes when things get tough, we take stock of our subconscious, searching for answers in the dreams we have…