One short film that received its world premiere at Bolton Film Festival was Harry Is Not Okay, directed by Harry Sherriff from a screenplay co-written by Sherriff and Laurence Tratalos. Jordan-Luke McDonald spoke to filmmaker Sherriff, who also naturally played the titular character, following his film’s screening.
Harry Is Not Okay centres around a troubled writer who loses his grip on reality when two balaclava-clad men turn up at his flat, thrusting the viewer into a series of dreams and memories and bizarre scenarios that invariably hold a rather emotional and dramatic core.
Speaking to Sherriff in person, he comes across as both an extremely humble and composed individual.
“I’ve been making films for about 10 years. I did Film Production at university and then I sort of made my own short films. I got some funding from the BFI and made a bigger short film and then I went back to making smaller short films and then I made Harry Is Not Okay this year”, he explains.
“We shot it in May and finished it very quickly. Adrian at Bolton really liked the short film which was great and he screened it which was nice because we screened here last year with a different short film. Obviously that was just online. But yeah, so it’s nice to be here last year and then this year as well.”
With much of the 2021 collection at Bolton, the audience and festival hosts alike often found and discussed parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, and the various films on show. Such was the case with Harry Is Not Okay, with its isolated and lonely protagonist at home by himself. However, Sherriff insists that any interpretative connection was actually wholly unintentional.
“I think that was totally accidental. It was only until the film was finished and I had sent it out as a test — because no one had seen it, so I sent it to 20 friends — and a few of them were coming back and were like ‘so this is a weird Covid metaphor, isn’t it?’. Me and the co-writer Laurence never spoke about Covid.
“The thing that we did talk about was… we came up with a lot of bad ideas and then I said to Laurence ‘what do you want to write about, if you could write about anything? What’s on your mind at the moment?’ and he said ‘escaping reality’ which I guess might have played into the whole Covid and being stuck at home. But yeah, we didn’t because the thing is, after Covid, no one really wanted to watch anything about Covid.”
The short stands as an intriguing puzzle that expertly blends a wide variety of genres into its 14-minute runtime. The juxtaposition of tones works to create an unnerving atmosphere that could elsewhere easily descend into poor structure, but instead the somewhat disjointed nature further enhances the enigma. Moreover, each genre shift is performed with consummate ease from a writing and directing standpoint, feeling genuinely earned and unforced.
The film features elements beyond its primary status as a comedy-mystery, with shades of at once being a thriller, a romance, an action, a heist and even a horror movie. Horror and comedy are often alluded to as opposite sides of the same coin. As two of the primary genres of the film in question, the brilliant early comedic sensibility and one-liner quips serve as the perfect tools with which to disarm the viewer for the later darkness and mystery. Indeed, the multi-faceted approach really works, embroiling the viewer into what at first appears familiar yet is constantly subverted and transmuted.
“That’s nice, thank you, because that was something that we worried about when we were writing it. We basically set ourselves a really high bar because we wanted to to do something that was ambitious story-wise and we essentially said, you know, it’s going to start off sort of where you’re unsure about it and then it’s got moments of comedy and we wanted to end up up in this dark psychological horror genre and we were like ‘can we earn that?’ and I thought we did. But yeah, that was something I was worried about, so it’s nice that you’ve said that.
“When we set out to make the film, me and Laurence said ‘why don’t we make a puzzle, so when it’s in the cinema and people are finally in the cinemas watching something, they can kind of be like “oh, I’m not sure about this. What does that mean? What does this mean?”’ So that was kind of the aim.”
As well as blending multiple genres into the overarching narrative, the film cleverly splits its story into a few separate timelines, which span across reality, dreams and dreams within dreams. Nonetheless, Sherriff really strived to avoid ambiguous plot points that would demand the audience to devise meaning for themselves whilst simultaneously shunning overt explication or exposition.
“Some people on the crew — well, one person on the crew — was kind of like ‘oh, you should answer more things. It should be more resolution’ and Laurence and I were like ‘no, that’s the whole point of the film,’” he explains.
“I think if you think about the film or if — I know it sounds so arrogant — but if you were to watch the film again, it’s very obvious, everything that’s going on, in my opinion. Somebody on the crew sort of wanted it to be signposted and we were like ‘no, we don’t want to do that’ because then it just undermines it and makes it crap. We kind of like the idea of something smart that made you think ‘what’s going on? Is this a dream? Is this a story? What part’s the dream? What part’s the story?’ You know, ‘he’s writing the notes but is he writing the notes in the dream or is he…’
“So, as the writers, we answered everything because that’s the worst thing you can do is be pretentious and leave it up to… like ‘oh, we don’t know. They can figure it out’. Laurence and I know all the answers and we’ve spoken about it, and other people have come back and said other stuff and we’ve been like ‘oh, that’s cool that you thought that…’ So they are the type of films we like, where they are a bit sort of… you have got to work them out and think about it.”
Having made films for a decade and having taken on the task of directing, scriptwriting and being on screen many times before, Sherriff felt quite comfortable taking on all three roles once again this time around, although he also acknowledges that working on his longest short film yet made things a bit more complex.
“Well, I’m so used to it because I’ve been doing it for a few years, so the whole writing-directing-acting, I’ve kind of got into sync with it. But it was difficult on that one because that was like 14 minutes and I haven’t done that before, so that was just kind of a little bit harder. But it was fun. It was really enjoyable and I can see why people do it in longer form. I see why they do it because it’s really rewarding and nice, but then also I’m like ‘how do they do it? How do they do a 90-minute thing where they are writing, directing and acting in it?’. I don’t know when I’ll do that again,” he notes.
Directly on the back of successfully producing Harry Is Not Okay, Sherriff is now set to attend the prestigious National Film and Television School from the beginning of 2022.
“One of the goals for the film was that I wanted to apply to the National Film School which the odds on were ridiculous. I applied and I got in somehow, so I start there in January. So I’ve got two years… basically I’m not allowed a job. They don’t allow you to have a job. You make three big short films whilst you are at the school and a lot of exercises in between, but the three short films, that’s where my head’s at really. I move down south in January,” he notes.
Although the film itself was not made as a direct analogy for the Covid lockdowns, it was still conceived and shot during the pandemic, and therefore production was subject to various logistical limitations, although Sherriff emphasises that such challenges were not too difficult to overcome given the nature of production.
“We had a very small crew if you compared the crews on the other short films that were in this screening [to ours]. Some days we had like four people on set, a really small crew. We only had one day really where there was like six people. Everyone was wearing masks obviously and we just minimised everything. It was easy; it wasn’t a problem actually because it’s a very simple short film when you look at it. It’s like simple locations; we’re in a van, we’re in a house; and obviously once you’re acting, the mask has got to come off and you’re acting. People had tests as well. We made sure everyone had tests.“
Given that the film is about a writer, Sherriff discusses the challenges of writing about writing — a cinematic topic that can sometimes be rather stigmatised and scorned — especially when the central premise of the film is so deeply metatextual and specific to himself personally.
“It’s tricky, you know, because you put a target on your back when you’re a writer and you write about writing because it’s like people don’t like it and it’s pretentious and it can be crap and they go ‘oh, you’re writing something about a writer’. But my favourite filmmakers write about writers and write about creatives and stuff like that, so that’s what we were drawn to and what I wanted to write about.
“Also, when you have a film called called Harry Is Not Okay and you are in it and you are called Harry and you are putting so much of your life into a film, it’s a bit daunting as well because if people go ‘oh, I didn’t like that, that was crap’ or whatever…
“I could have cast an actor and it could have been John and it would have been John Is Not Okay, but I feel like it just takes… What makes the film interesting to me is I had a dream where I woke up but I was still in the dream. I’d heard about it before of course because people have said they have a dream but they were still in the dream. Well, I experienced it for the first time and was like ‘woah, that was freaky’ and sort of wanted to play around with that. Then the writing came in and Laurence said he wanted to escape from reality. He came up with the idea as well of being kidnapped. He was like ‘why don’t you get kidnapped and you get forced to do something you don’t want to do?’ and I was like ‘okay, that’s kind of funny’, so that went in there.
“I think sometimes where filmmakers go wrong is, they come up with an idea for a film like a logline and then that’s like the whole film — beginning, middle and end, they’ve got it in the logline — and we didn’t do that. We went ‘well, how about this? And why don’t we talk about that? And why don’t we do this?’ Like Amazon delivery is something in everyone’s life, so that got thrown in there and then my girlfriend Marie — she’s my girlfriend in real life — and she does the voiceover in the film, so there’s a lot of my life in it, which is why I want to make films.”
Sherriff outlines the production timeline of the short, which was turned around rather quickly due to its nature as a supporting piece for his application to the National Film and Television School.
“We wrote it very quickly. It took us ages to come up with an idea, weeks of Zoom, because I was chasing this deadline for this film school application and then once we had the idea, we wrote a draft really quickly. It was like 11 pages and it was rubbish. It wasn’t very good. And then we just spent four weeks, five weeks whilst we were doing pre-production improving it because I knew we had the basis, we had the structure of it and everything. It was just working out the logic and how we can make it smarter and make sense and not be pretentious.
“What I see it as, as well, is there’s a lot of films or stories where it’s like ‘oh, it was all a dream’ and that film isn’t that. It’s slightly different. So that’s what we were working on as well. We don’t want this to just feel like it’s been done before. We want it to be original. We want it to be a bit weird. I’m glad and it was nice that you said it was ambitious narratively. We’ve tried to do a lot there in 13 minutes and the fact that it’s not a complete mess… maybe it is to some people, but you know, I’m proud of it.”
By all means, Harry Is Not Okay is certainly a film worth being proud of. Deeply funny and at times dark and disturbing, the short is well worth checking out when it becomes available to watch online via Directors Notes from the 27th October 2021.