Watersprite Film Festival: The Mega Review

JAMES MITCHELL spends the weekend pitching a film script, running about a lot and enjoying the company of Olivia Colman and Eddie Redmayne.

a grandson's love Aviator Beowulf BFI film fund cambridge watersprite festival camfm chippendale Chris Williamson Coraline Crash Cutting Edge dancing in ashes Derek drive eddie redmayne Fitzwilliam Museum gladiator Good Omens Hovis advert Hugo jobs John Logan king's speech last of the cybermen looper ludovico einaudi match point michael clayton neil gaiman olivia coleman rocket boys Silver Reel Skyfall Stardust The Doctor's wife two fires

Now in its fourth year, the Watersprite Film Festival has become an important date in the Cambridge calendar for film enthusiasts. At its heart, it is a student short film competition, but the festival also attracts top speakers from the world of film. 

As the festival got underway last Friday night, I was reminded of my first day at secondary school, as I dashed between lecture halls trying to work out exactly where I was supposed to be. However, as I slowly mastered the timetable, for the first time in ages I found my enthusiasm for learning rekindled.

Watersprite kicked off on Friday night with Neil Gaiman, the man who wrote Coraline and Stardust, collaborated with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens and served up the screenplay for Beowulf. He was very generous with his time, patiently posing for photographs and signing autographs for scores of devoted fans (he has in excess of 2 million followers on Twitter). During his talk, Gaiman revealed how he got his first break by telling fibs on his CV and how his writing process involves “putting it off and thinking about it a lot” – a concept that will be familiar to many Cambridge students struggling to complete their weekly essays. Spoiler alert: He revealed that he is in the process of writing his second script for Doctor Who, entitled ‘The Last of the Cybermen’ – he won an award for last season’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ – in a bid, as he put it, to “make the cyberman scary again”. Good luck with that…

Next, I had the chance to meet with John Logan, the man behind Aviator, Gladiator, Hugo and Skyfall, who I was surprised to discover looked and sounded a bit like Will Ferrell. I thought it best to keep my negative opinion of Skyfall to myself. He did reassure me that Bond was not becoming an ensemble piece and his decision to tackle the issue of 007’s advancing years drew on the fact that he himself had just reached fifty – so perhaps we can look forward to mid-life crisis Bond in 2014. I asked him if Marcus Aurelius and Bond would get on. “No,” he replied. “They must never meet.” Logan, like Gaiman, was insightful and charming. When asked if he would ever write a screenplay without dialogue, he quipped, “that would be like sex without an orgasm.” I’m glad my ex-girlfriend wasn’t there, as she would undoubtedly have asked him if there was any other kind.

The next guest was Olivia Colman, who has starred in Green Wing, Twenty Twelve and Peep Show. She also made a memorable cameo appearance in The Office and recently tackled a much more serious subject in the critically acclaimed Tyrannosaur, which deals with rape and domestic abuse. I was interested to learn that Colman dropped out of Cambridge a few years ago, apparently without the university noticing, as she concentrated on acting at the ADC for an entire year. In her own words, “I did very little work and don’t regret it at all.” She was incredibly down to earth, even popping to the Van of Life for some cheesy chips with the event coordinators at the end of a long night. The most important question of all, though: if she had to settle down with Mark or Jez, whom would she choose? “Jez,” she replied, without hesitation.

The Closing Gala featured an intimate chat with pale-lipped, rising star Eddie Redmayne at the Fitzwilliam Museum. As soon as the interview room was opened to the public, a gaggle of enthusiastic women barged their way to the front. I seemed to be the only male in the first few rows.

Copyright (c) Fitzwilliam Museum

Redmayne praised the theatrical scene at Cambridge and the diversity of roles available, observing, perhaps bitterly, that in the ‘real’ acting world you are largely confined to “playing how you look.” He did, however, recount one particularly bizarre audition at the ADC in which an eccentric director made him count from one to ten, expressing each number with a different emotion. That sounds like some sort of cult initiation ritual to me. Redmayne also maintained that bullshitting his way through supervisions provided excellent training ground for his acting career.

As aforementioned, the festival features a short film competition, screened throughout the weekend, which recognises outstanding achievement in various categories. The stand out film for me was Dancing in the Ashes, a short piece inspired by the true story of a girl who escaped the horrors of the concentration camp by entertaining Nazi guards with her talent for ballet.

Filmed in Bournemouth, it was created on a small budget, and made the most convincing use of Ludovico Einaudi (aka the “cry music” lazily dumped into Ricky Gervais’ Derek) I’ve heard to date. In fact, a lot of the shorts dealt with quite serious subjects. After two and half hours of domestic abuse, betrayal and genocide, I popped to the loo for a bit of (light) relief. As I stepped back into the screening room, and the credits rolled on the film I had just missed, I was met with raucous laughter. One girl sitting behind me commented, “That was one of the funniest films I’ve seen. It’s definitely going to win awards.” The next film was about dementia.

Other excellent shorts included Chippendale, a story about the comedic antics of a Russian antique dealer; Grandson’s Love, a film that examines the relationship between a young man and his ailing grandmother; Rocket Boys, a sweet story that starts a bit like the Hovis advert but quickly descends into a tale of escaping domestic abuse; and Two Fires, an entrancing documentary about a potter and a glass worker. If you didn’t go to the screenings, I urge you to seek these films out if you can find them. The quality was astonishingly high and entries were received from countries around the world – a testament to Watersprite’s growing reach.

Of course, the Watersprite Festival is not just about other people’s work. It is also a chance to meet with industry experts and get advice on careers in television and film. Every seminar room was packed with would-be directors, actors and screenwriters all frantically taking notes. The finance panel, for example, featured representatives from Silver Reel (Crash, Michael Clayton, Match Point, Jobs), Cutting Edge (King’s Speech, Drive, Looper) and the BFI Film Fund, providing advice on securing film funding. The script workshop was another excellent resource, offering a two-hour intensive course on how to conjure up the perfect screenplay. For me, however, the best event was the career speed meeting, during which Cambridge students were granted the opportunity to sit and talk for five minutes to industry experts on whatever subject they desired. Some remained behind to pitch film ideas (myself included) and business cards were exchanged. The most remarkable thing about all these events was the way guests spoke to their audience as if they were addressing the next generation of filmmakers.

A huge amount of work must have gone into organising the festival. The committee (comprised entirely of students) has worked tirelessly to deliver the best and most ambitious festival to date. Ask anyone who knows their stuff, and they’ll tell you that Watersprite is fast becoming the most important student film festival in the world. Nowhere else would budding filmmakers find the same combination of practical advice and inspiration on offer, all in one place. If you missed out on any of these talks (including the interviews) then you’re in luck, as CamFM will be airing them throughout the week.

The common theme I picked up from all the guests – and in particular those who studied at Cambridge – was that it’s what you do with your time here that matters. If you are interested in a career in film or theatre, then never mind the supervised essays and the like, the really important thing is to get together with like-minded friends and get the most out of what Cambridge has to offer.

All photos by Chris Williamson.