A few years ago James Lucas, of London Fields, took a rough script to his friend and colleague Mat Kirkby, a commercials director at Ridley Scott Associate Films. He’d written it on a three-hour flight to Bucharest. Kirkby saw potential in the work and so the pair set about an after-hours collaboration to bring the story to life.
Two years on and The Phone Call, starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, is pulling in rave reviews on the festival circuit, scooping Best Narrative Short at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and qualifying for Academy Awards consideration along the way.
“It’s really just taken off. It’s exceeded any of my expectations, that’s for sure,” says Lucas modestly. “It was nice to have our day-job roles and progress that into this creative collaboration. It’s not the norm but it seems to have worked rather well.”
The film is a stripped-back, emotional short of rare power. It focuses on a single, twenty-minute phone conversation at a Samaritans-esque call centre between Heather, a quiet counsellor, and Stan, a troubled pensioner in search of comfort.
“It was actually inspired by a close relative being a Samaritan and that got my creative ball rolling I suppose,” Lucas explains. “They’re like unsung heroes, they’re like angels. They’re people that willingly give up their time without any pay and deal with these very complex situations and scenarios and conversations. They do it I suppose out of empathy and I thought that’s just such a brilliant thing.
“I’m not going to be too dramatic, but in a world that seems increasingly selfish and self-obsessed I was just interested in looking at the other side of that, at people who still retain a sense of empathy.”
His desire to shine a light on the delicate, relatively underexplored realm of phone counsel was shared by Kirkby, who also has family working in the field. On receiving the script, the director’s first creative task was to structure the narrative and flesh out Heather’s character.
“I made her this little sort of mousy character that you maybe underestimate,” he says. “You perhaps learn that she’s actually very tenacious and she doesn’t want to let go of this guy.”
Hawkins, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for her part opposite Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, is extraordinary in the role. The camera is zoomed on her desperate features for a good portion of the film’s 20-minute running time, capturing a fluid facial performance that brilliantly bears the weight of an extremely heavy situation.
Kirkby explains that during filming the actress would work through the entire script in single takes. “She’d get into the whole flow of this 20-minute performance and feel it. She was shaking and crying and after each take she had to have a good old sit down,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like that again. It was like watching it happen live, it was quite incredible.”
Having waited close to a year for confirmation that Hawkins would be available for the project – with a two-week window confirmed at short notice – the Academy Award-winning Broadbent signed up two days later. “So one was ten months and one was two days,” Kirkby says. “You get someone like Jim Broadbent straight away because he would love to do it opposite Sally.”
In a bold and decisive directorial move, Broadbent’s character remains anonymous throughout the film, never physically appearing onscreen at the other end of the line.
“There was an audacity in not showing his face,” says Lucas. “I think it’s almost like a novel where it’s left up to you to construct that character and that character’s physical features and his or her persona – just for the fact that it gives it added personal poignancy, I think.”
Kirkby elaborates: “To me it’s a massive dramatic device because if you see the person on the other end you immediately make judgments on them or you can see what their problem is,” he says. “I think the minute the question marks stop, that’s when the drama stops. You have to have the viewer asking questions. To be honest, when we found that we’d got Jim Broadbent I was like ‘Oh bugger, I’ve got an Oscar-winning actor and my plan is not to film him.’”
The Phone Call has taken the talented pair on a journey all over the world – from the London Film Festival to Tribeca in New York and events in Cork, Dresden, Miami and Aspen – where the piece has been met with overwhelming praise and acclaim.
With talk of a full-length feature based on the material, the friends are sure to link up again in the not-so-distant future. “To stand up in Tribeca Film Festival on stage together and then be shaking hands with Robert DeNiro. Yeah, I’d quite like to continue that,” Kirkby laughs.
What started as a loose idea and a common interest between colleagues has grown into a sensitive work of serious artistic merit, stretching the short format to its complete and glorious potential.
“It’s been about making something meaningful rather than sensational, something thoughtful,” Lucas affirms as we say goodbye, summing things up rather nicely.