Although the working class milieu of Sheffield has been the setting for many dramas and thrillers built around the tension of making ends meet over the years, Juliet Ellis intends to show audiences a side of it they’ve never seen before in her feature directorial debut, currently raising funds on Indie GoGo before a January deadline.
“The things that are invisible to most people are very visible to me,” said Ellis, who grew up in the city’s Landsdowne Estate. “I know people in England always use housing estates to depict a certain class or economic background but for me, it's not so voyeuristic. There was a beauty and a poetry for me, that's the world I knew, it was filled with adventure, discovery and light.”
That may sound like it runs counter to the core of “Bit By Bit,” Ellis’ intimate relationship drama about Aidan, a small-time gangster who must adjust his lifestyle to include Karly, the 12-year-old daughter who’s recently moved in with him. However, as her two previous shorts “Bro9” and “Blue” attest, the multitalented filmmaker and performance artist has a way of illuminating the humanity in the most shadowy of places and to hear it from her, “Bit By Bit” was a calling.
“It's almost like I didn't plan to make a feature film,” said Ellis, who still may be best known for acting in Ken Loach’s 2007 film “It’s a Free World.” “I was observing this dynamic between a father and his daughter and I was just curious about how we can love someone but somehow that love manifests in pain.”
To inform the characters of Aidan and Karly and build the world around them, Ellis immersed herself in the underbelly of British society for six months doing research, a commitment to realism that extends to the casting of the film where professionals such as Spanish actress María Ballesteros (“Princesas”) will be surrounded by locals from the nearby boxing clubs and neighborhood hotspots. But Ellis found her interviews with people in the community, including sex workers for one of the film’s major plot points, not only led to more openness in telling their story, but paved a clear path towards telling hers.
“Because the characters are based on real people, it was really easy to have access into a world that is denied to most people,” said Ellis. “I think the important thing is that you don't go in with any expectations. Conversations took on a life of their own. I gave away as much as the [sex workers] did in terms of information about my life, because it was an exchange. Why should they tell me stuff with out anything in return?
“From that, I began to write scenes that I wanted to see in a film. There was still no story — only scenes that I really wanted to shoot as a director. Then suddenly, it was like ‘oh that scene could go with that scene’ and before long, there is a thread. The film starts to write itself and I tried not to interfere.”
That falls in line with Ellis’ impressionistic style as a director, which in her previous shorts has employed splashes of color and shards of light to communicate far more than dialogue. Tellingly, her influences for the look of “Bit By Bit” such as Nan Goldin, Todd Hido and Dana Popa come from the realm of still photography rather than moviemaking, though Ellis maintains the film will be shot with fluid, handheld cinematography when lensing is set to commence in February of 2012. Of course, that will only happen if the film’s campaign on Indie GoGo is a success.
“It’s been an amazing learning curve for me,” Ellis said of crowdsourcing the film. “It's a very challenging thing and I have to say if you were just given the money, there would be a huge gap within my journey as a human being.”
And yet, she's already hard at work filling in such holes in our collective consciousness about a journey few outside Sheffield would ever know about.
To back this project and to watch Juliet Ellis' teaser for the film, visit the Indie Go Go page for "Bit By Bit" here. And follow the film's progress on Facebook and the film's official page on Ellis' personal site here.