Case Study: ‘What They Left’ and the Process of Collaboration

Learn from team behind the upcoming BFI NETWORK South West funded short film ‘What They Left’ about the ways in which they supported each other’s ideas and work from development through to delivery.

Filmmaking is nothing if not a collaborative task, one which requires equal parts creativity and care. It takes that same creativity and care to assemble a core team when developing a production. To learn more about this process, we asked the lead production team of What They Left (Upcoming BFI NETWORK South West funded short film) how the collaboration came about and how they worked together in pre-production. 

As a part of the inaugural New Voices project in 2020, Mevis Birungi’s stand out idea led to Michael Jenkins and Mena Fombo of Blak Wave taking her Script on for Development, and calling on Euella Jackson to join the team as a producer. After a lot of conversations, zoom calls, and an application to the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund, the team are preparing to shoot their short film What They Left. 

What They Left is an exciting social thriller that explores the emotional and psychological ramifications of losing a best friend. This short film is an innovative genre-blending short funded by BFI NETWORK South West.

How did you come to work together?

Michael Jenkins “We [Michael and Mena Fombo run production company Blak Wave] are involved as a partner on the 2020 New Voices program. Mevis was selected and went through the process. As she was successful, Blak Wave as a production company has taken her idea forward to production. With Euella, I could see that over the years, she has been taking the steps that’s putting her into the realm of being a producer. So it was great just to re reconnect with her and bring her in with this project.”

Euella Jackson “This felt like a really exciting opportunity. When I found out that Blak Wave were involved, it just felt perfect. Michael produced my very first short film, so it kind of felt full circle. To be on an all black creative leadership team felt really exciting and something I’ve never done before.”

Mevis Birungi “I was very keen to work with the team, especially as black executive filmmakers. I thought they would understand my voice and experiences as a black female filmmaker.”

Were you set apart in your roles in the early stages of this project?

Mevis “I had written the script for What They Left a while ago, but I never really fleshed it out. An old colleague of mine told me the BFI [NETWORK South West] were starting this programme [New Voices], and I applied with the idea. I worked with Mena and Mike on the development process and with a script editor that was provided to me by the BFI. Once we finished the script, we found Euella as a producer.”

Michael “Essentially, Blak Wave were a sounding board while going through the application process and the script development, and things like that. We were there to give feedback and just to really break down: what it is we were trying to pitch for.”

Euella “I expected to be a kind of hands-off producer, who just deals with all the logistics and gets everything done. However, Mevis was keen to foster a collaborative energy. That’s been really great to feed into. There have been some creative elements that we’ve been able to play with; What They Left is an urban thriller, psychological, social horror – with a real message.”

Image credit: Kelvin Williams
Image credit: Kelvin Williams

Images c/o Kelvin Williams

Has the process of New Voices changed your approach to filmmaking and your work?

Michael “Probably one bit of learning from this is that Zoom does give you that flexibility, even though it’s not ideal. It has made us more flexible as far as being able to jump on a quick call. It’s all part of the process, and filmmaking is a collaborative thing. I think the tools that we use to collaborate did change last year, so I think – even though I probably do feel a bit zoomed out – it’s been good and has made it sort of easier to collaborate.”

Mevis “I think having a middle person between the head funder is really helpful. I’m very new to the creative industry, I’m one year fresh into it. I previously worked in mental health, I studied psychology. 

My main passion was acting, so I was doing short films, working with friends, auditioning where I could… I’ve seen as an actress, just how hard it is to get into the industry, especially as roles may not be written for your skin colour.

I was like, “Okay, how about I write myself a role? Let me try writing a script”. Having New Voices has been very useful, especially for a beginner in the industry. It’s very, very useful.”

Euella “There have been times I’m not used to having so many people going back and forth; asking ‘can you tweak this’ and asking questions in an intensive way. There have been times when, you know, imposter syndrome takes over; and you’re like, ‘can we actually do this? There must be a reason why there are so many hoops!’

But it has meant that when you get to the other side of the process, you’re so much more skilled, you’re so much more agile, you are able to navigate changing landscapes. BFI NETWORK South West have invested a lot of time into the Hats team and also into What They Left. It has meant that I am a lot more confident going into What They Left, as this is my second film as a producer.

What do you look for in collaborators? What has worked well between the team on this project?

Mevis “I’m very much a person who likes feedback. I like to know whether the audience is getting it right. If I’m sending off my script to someone to read it, I prefer for them to give me feedback on what doesn’t make sense rather than them saying it sounds nice. It helps me accomplish the mission of making the script relatable.”

Michael “In this case, Mevis has stuck with the process and seen it through. That’s really telling about her as a person as a director. It gives us a lot of confidence with the way that she’s dealing with things.”

Euella “I think what is really important about collaboration, is that everyone feels a sense of ownership, that everyone is invested in the film. The best ideas happen when everyone wants what’s best for the project. When you’ve got a collaborative working space where everyone can walk in and do different things, everyone has wider experience and wider networks as a result – we all take care of each other, and we hold each other.”

headshot of Mevis Birungi. she smiles, wearing a black shirt and har

Mevis Birungi  is a Ugandan born British writer, actor and director. Mevis  enjoys creating female-led stories depicting real issues ignored by society, often writing character driven scripts with a psychological and psychoanalytical focus. 

As such, her debut BBC funded short film Nakato, produced by Calling the Shots explores the fearful and complex nature of abusive relationships. Highlighting the societal obstructions victims of domestic violence must overcome in order to survive. Nakato, the short film written, directed and starring Mevis Birungi, is now available for streaming online on BBC iPlayer.

Other exciting projects by Mevis Birungi include her upcoming short film What They Left. The short film was funded by the BFI Network and produced by Blak Wave Productions, marking this project as her official solo directorial debut. 

To find Mevis and news about her upcoming projects, follow her on Instagram, Nakato on Instagram, and Linkedin.

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