Jim Archer thought he would be filming “Brian and Charles” in the spring of 2020 in Wales, but a global pandemic had other ideas.
“It was lucky in a way that we did end up shooting in November and December,” he recalls. “Not only because that’s when the film was set, but the film needed to have that dreary, wet, overcast, cold atmosphere. Some of the days were pretty horrendous, but it was all worth it for the tone of the film.”
What Archer may have lost in terms of natural sunlight, he surely gained a clearer view of the warmth in the radiant relationship that develops between an inventor named Brian (David Earl) and his creation Charles (Chris Hayward), a robot that takes on a mind of its own. At a countryside outpost, the recluse has only the company of his sheep and his strange, impractical contraptions. Charles, born of finding the mold of a human head out with some trash, is no different as Brian builds him inexplicably tall and gangly, becoming a hunchback with a huge back panel. Yet after flipping him on for the first time, Brian comes to realize the savvy and often saucy creature he’s created, a quick study that takes on a last name – Petrescu – on his own initiative and expands his vocabulary at a rapid clip, thanks to the Branbert’s Dictionary on a nearby shelf. He also develops a taste for cabbage that neither he nor Brian can account for.
Rather than plunge Brian into further isolation, Charles would seem to open up his world as a bit of a wingman, not only giving him something to talk to, but talk about with the few others around town such as his neighbor Hazel (Louise Brealey) and while he puts up with considerable grief attempting to rein in the robot, it can’t be a bad thing that he’s letting loose a bit himself. Although Charles is only sophisticated enough to tell knock knock jokes, Archer, Earl and Hayward go for far greater laughs with the quite original comic duo, generating sparks that aren’t from Charles malfunctioning. While at Sundance, the trio of filmmakers spoke about the genesis of the act on stage and how they were able to create a rhythm on set even though Hayward, who endured slipping into the ungainly silver padded suit for the entirety of the shoot, had no way of seeing who he was engaging with, as well as actively encouraging a sense of surprise.
David and Chris, how did you come up with this in the first place?
Chris Hayward: It started with David.
David Earl: I had that character of Brian for quite a while. I’ve done a lot of standup on the comedy circuit for years, and then I did an internet radio show where members of the public would ring up and I’d try and converse of them in character. One night, Rupert, the producer, rang up and used this software and spoke to me as Charles, so that was the first time my character and this voice, Charles, started chatting to one another, and it made us really laugh. And Chris was listening at the time.
Chris Hayward: Yeah, it just really made me laugh, and I just had an idea of what Charles could look like and how we could maybe do it as a live show. We started doing live gigs where David would be Brian and I’d be in the Charles costume and Rupert would be at the back of the room on a laptop, typing the dialogue that Charles would say and we did that for a few years, just doing a few gigs here and there. Then we wanted to film something, so that’s how we came about making the short film and got Jim involved.
What made you want to adapt this into a feature?
Jim Archer: I feel like we decided to make the film during the short. We went to Wales, we shot the short and I remember having a conversation where we were like, “We could just be here for three more weeks and we’d have a film.” That’s one of those things where we’re like, “Maybe there’s something in this. It’s fun and there’s only six of us. If we just extended this, then we’d have something longer.”
It seems like an ideal production for COVID times with a limited crew and locations. Was it always of this scale?
Jim Archer: It was always about isolation, so there’s not many characters, but it’s not ideal for pandemic because the house we shot in was tiny and freezing. I don’t think it really changed our ambition for the film and the set pieces were all the same. We still managed to get exactly what we wanted when we were planning to shoot it before the pandemic.
Chris Hayward: I had the ultimate PPE equipment because I just had a giant facial [mask], so I was fine. I wasn’t worried.
Chris, were you looking forward to getting back in the suit?
Chris Hayward: I was apprehensive because it’s not certainly fun, but I really wanted to do it, because we’d obviously done the short and I felt like I’d suffered slightly doing all these different gigs and I thought, “Well, I can’t let someone else do it. I’ve got to do it.” But it’s a bit of a weird experience and actually quite lonely sometimes when you’re in there, you can’t really hear anything. You can’t really see much.
Jim Archer: Definitely as the shoot went on, I think [Chris] was definitely like, “I’m not doing this again.” [laughs]
You mention not being able to hear – is the dialogue added in post-production or are you actually doing Charles’ voice on set?
Chris Hayward: It’s a bit of both, really. We had some of the lines prerecorded on a laptop of Charles, and then we could play them live. And then other times, particularly if we’re outside, I’d sometimes have to memorize the lines or if we’re improvising and then we’d add them in post. But the beauty of Charles’s lines is that we could just change them all the time in post, so we could keep tweaking them or change the tone a bit or add funnier jokes.
Jim Archer: You say you memorized, but didn’t you stick the scripts just on the wall of Charles [inside the costume]?
Chris Hayward: Oh yeah. Sometimes I’d do that because it’s just a little easier.
The robot is obviously so tall as well. Was it difficult to maneuver some of those tighter spaces?
Chris Hayward: Yes, it was absolutely difficult. I’d often bang into things, walking the wrong way, tripping over, but sometimes we’d try and keep that if it looked funny. But I’m just blind in there, really. I can’t see anything, so I’m having to rely on other people to help me and then just make it up as I go along.
David, what’s it like to act against something like that?
David Earl: I really love acting with Charles because some of the time it might be improvised, so Rupert is throwing me lines through Charles that I don’t know are coming, and I have to wait for them and there’s a pregnant pause, and it always very often makes me laugh. So I believe Charles exists when I’m in front of him and it feels easy. Easier than acting with humans. [laughs]
Chris Hayward: Also, he’s got a blank face, so I suppose you can put any emotion you want on him and read it however you want.
It looked like production design was a blast because you’re figuring out all of these inventions that Brian has. What was that process like?
Jim Archer: That was a lot of fun. We had Hannah Purdy Foggin, a great production designer who really got the idea early on. Chris designed Charles originally, [which] I guess is the spark about what’s the rest of Brian’s stuff like? And on paper, [David and Chris] had things where you’re like, “Oh, it’s a flying cuckoo clock.”
David Earl: When we filmed that scene where I go into the inventions pantry, that’s the first time I saw a lot of those inventions, so I was reacting in the moment.
Jim Archer: Yeah, we kept things hidden from David. Even when we went into that art department room just to show everything, we [were telling him] “Oh, don’t look at that shelf.” We wanted David to see it live for the first time on camera.
David Earl: Yeah, I never thought I nailed that scene, but it was so much fun walking in there, seeing a load of ping pong balls stuck together or just loads of [other] stuff. We just thought it’d be more fun and just have a bit more energy in the scene, if I see it for the first time, react to it and explain to the camera what it was I was trying to build.
Were there elements of the short you were excited to build on?
Jim Archer: We definitely wanted to keep the cabbage references. I don’t know why, but we wanted to use that again. And just [Brian and Charles’] antagonism. That’s what we had a lot of fun with. When they start arguing, that’s often where you can get a lot of jokes in, and they’re just very funny together when they’re arguing, so we knew we wanted to build on that a little bit more.
Was there anything unanticipated that made it into the film that you really like about it now?
David Earl: Well, the sheep.
Jim Archer: Yeah, we did a couple of days’ pickups in spring, and we needed a spark of an idea for Brian to build Charles, and we had a scene written, but David had seen this sheep and a lamb, we just decided to film that as a moment, and I think you guys were like, “That’s it. That’s the moment.” And you had to convince me to not shoot the scene that was written to inspire.
David Earl: Now you watch. All the reviews will say the sheep are terrible.
I suspect some great notices are ahead. What’s it like sending it out into the world?
Jim Archer: Chuffed. And so chuffed to be at Sundance. For me personally, it was the number one festival where I wanted to go to, but we knew the chances of actually getting in were quite slim, so to be selected is a dream come true.
David Earl: Yeah. It’s amazing.
Chris Hayward: Also, we’re just really happy that we actually managed to get it filmed, because especially during that first phase of the pandemic, several times it just looked like it wasn’t going to happen or it could get called off at any point, so it was just a real relief to get it made as well.
Jim Archer: Yeah, you’d think the film about an indie British film about a robot would just be the first one that would just get canned. [laughs]