Onion Talking: Jackal Films
Those of you who have been following The Velvet Onion these past six months will need no introduction to the work of Jackal Films. Former star of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Alice Lowe has teamed up with her regular collaborator Jacqueline Wright to create a series of comedy shorts, once a month, and have been uploading the results to their website and YouTube.
The duo recently celebrated six months of Jackal Films, and with their next short mere days away from completion, we’ve been lucky enough to snag two of the busiest, and most prolific people in Booshdom for an in-depth interview.
Hi, Alice & Jacqueline – Welcome to TVO! You’re now six months into Jackal Films. Are you pleased with your progress so far?
Alice: Yeah, I think we’ve sort of got better and more confident and raised the bar each time. Which makes it a bit nerve-wracking every month when you think to yourself: ‘how are we gonna top the last one?’ It’s a good driving force though, fear!
Jacqueline: Definitely! And we’ve been getting great feedback and support along the way, which has also been really motivational. Getting invited to speak at the Give Me Direction conference in Dublin was a huge boost for us, and I think it happened because Sharon Horgan, who was guest-curating the event, was so supportive of the Jackal project. I’m really pleased with the films though – and I can’t believe we’re half way through already.
Alice: I think when we started out we wanted loads of diversity in the style and content of the films and we have definitely achieved that. I like to think of Jackal as ‘a chocolate box’ of ideas. Everyone has their favourite. Which is true about Jackal – everyone seems to have their favourite film. Maybe everyone has one they’re just not bothered about either. That they hate in fact. Their own personal ‘toffee penny’. Though I love toffee pennies. That probably says a lot about me.
Has every film come out how you intended, or have there been any sacrifices along the way?
Alice: I think there always have to be rolling compromises when you’re working like we are with no budget and a tight deadline. Luckily Jacqui and I are both fatalists and tend to think if something goes wrong, it’s meant to be, and often makes you have to use your imagination more to make it work. I believe these are called ‘happy accidents’. Though that does sound like something you might request in a brothel in Thailand. Some of our best films are ones that we just had to pull out of the hat last minute (in fact, that’s pretty much all of them!), because of extenuating circumstances. But it always seems to work out for the best. Our whole ethos of Jackal is about ideas, and organic-ness. Is that a word? Just go with it!
Jacqueline: It’s definitely been a philosophical learning curve. We don’t sweat the small stuff anymore! And I think we’ve also learnt to trust the material – if it seems like a good idea, and the thought of it makes us laugh, then it’s basically going to be a good film. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have a callsheet, or a steadicam, or the newest camera gear. Or food for the crew. Food is overrated.
How did you come up with the idea to put out a video each month?
Alice: We had already made a few short films together that had had so much success for what seemed like so little effort. And each time, they were squeezed into a very busy schedule. So we thought, maybe if we just force ourselves to do loads of work, we will. And if we don’t force ourselves, we won’t! You will never regret making a short film. You might regret not making one. You’ll always think you don’t have the time. But you do.
Jacqueline: There was also the sense that we wanted to put all our stuff in one place to show what we’ve been doing. I have a very particular style of writing and it’s hard for people to ‘get’ you sometimes unless they’ve seen a body of your work. I reckon what galvanised us was a mini retrospective that Ben Blaine of Shooting People hosted for us at the BFI. The films we showed worked so well together and people were laughing so much, that we did think that we should be doing more.
It much be an amazing challenge to get the films made to such a deadline. Has there been any point where you’ve thought: How on earth are we going to do this?
Jacqueline: That happens most months! But thank god for the technical revolution, because if you post on Twitter or Facebook then the hivemind of your friends usually comes up with an answer. In fact, there’ve been loads of positives that have come out of us wondering how we could do it. One month when we couldn’t find an editor I went along to the Shooting People networking drinks – which happen all over the country every month and are free – and that night I met a great editor, Adam Gough, who edited Birdhandler for us. In fact he’s polishing the July film right now. And he’s a genius.
You’ve been working together far longer than some people realise, though. How, where and when did you first meet?
Alice: Ironically, I was directing a play, and Jacqui auditioned for it! She got the part too. For some reason we have now swapped jobs. Sometimes we swap shoes too. Just for fun. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
Jacqueline: In the play Alice made me wear a giant skirt, and then simulate noisy sex in the light of an electric torch. No wonder I never acted again.
You’re part of a growing trend of comedy writers and performers out there who are moving to the internet to get your work out there instead of relying on tv executives. Is this, perhaps, the future of comedy?
Alice: I hope so. Someone needs to work out a way to make money from it first! Part of why we are doing Jackal is to demonstrate that comic performers should be given more trust with their material. I have definitely gone through some fairly dispiriting development processes on various projects with different companies/channels, and sometimes what you end up with is a squeezed-down mess, all the joy wrung out of it, and it’s no longer current!
Jacqueline: I like that the internet gives us direct access to our audience. And it’s instant – instant gratification! Plus it’s great to have complete creative control, with no one telling us to be more normal…
Alice: TV at the moment is having problems, so they are terrified of anything unconventional. But I reckon the only way to succeed under those circumstances is to take risks and become more original, not less! Evolve! Goddam you!
How does it feel to know Lifespam lives on, long after BBC3 foolishly declined a full series?
Alice: Brilliant! I always knew I was destined to be a cult performer. When I die it will be written on my coffin ‘Here lies the invisible woman. You’re not even reading this are you?’ Seriously, it is very nice to hear that people are still loving it and discovering it for themselves.
Jacqueline: Yeah, I’m really proud of the show, and just sad for all the great performers and crew that we didn’t get to make more episodes. They would have been brilliant!
Alice: I am of the ‘live by the sword’ belief that I would rather have a good pilot rejected by the BBC, than a watered-down commissioned series. I knew I was taking a risk by making it so weird, but I’m not really willing to compromise, so there!
It’s a very quotable show too, with Boy George’s fatty chin, a thousand wives and the big clown recurring gag being particular favourites! Could the show perhaps be ressurected online?
Alice: Well people have suggested that we sell it on iTunes. But I don’t really understand how to do that! Maybe we’ll do it as a stage show. In fact, Jacqui? That’s a bloody good idea, have you got your notepad?
Jacqueline: We did think about doing more LifeSpam sketches on the net. In fact there might be a Jackal film forthcoming that is closely related, but you will have to watch this space!
Naturally we at TVO would love to help you earn a bit of cash for your work… so could the Jackal Films could be offered up for download via iTunes? Or a dvd with all of them on in the future, perhaps?
Alice: Definitely. All of the above. We have to work out the best way to do it, but yes! Watch this space!
Some of your ideas can often seem a little ‘out there’ to the casual viewer. What inspires you to create the stories you do?
Alice: I don’t know! I like films, reading, you know, the usual stuff. (Jesus, this is like an interview from a 1984 Smash Hits, sorry!) My main thing is that I try really hard not to fetter my imagination. It’s quite difficult when you’re working in TV and there are people telling you ‘what we want is something like this… Or something not at all like this…’ You’ll always get producers and the like talking about The Office and Little Britain etc, but the truth is, no one knows what is going to work or be successful. And all of those ideas were original. And they sold well because no one else was doing anything like it. And because they came from someone’s imagination. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked into a rant. I get bored fairly quickly so I really do take inspiration from whatever is interesting me at the time. I’m a people-watcher too. Most of my inspiration comes from people! Sometimes I lie awake because I’m thinking about my day and I get an idea for a story and I’m working it all out in my head all night! I think it was Brian Eno who said ‘the most original ideas are often the most clumsy.’ I have no shame about being clumsy really as long as the ideas are new.
There’s a fair few musical pastiches in amongst your back catalogue, with Kate Bush and Toyah homages, and the behemoth creation that is Kitty Litta, plus the glorious folk duo Hot Brew. Are you both big music buffs, then?
Alice: Ha! I would never call myself a music buff. I don’t know half as much as I should or would know! I definitely have a nostalgic bent where I am fascinated by the past. It must have been so exciting for people when they had never seen anything like Bowie before, and he just dropped down like a beautiful alien. I am fascinated as well by transformation, as well as the performer’s ego. These artists seem like a moment in time, very ephemeral, and in that sense, sort of inhuman, and there’s something sad about contrasting that with the artist’s real self, their vanity or their aging. It’s like a butterfly that has a short time of glory, but then shrivels up and, doesn’t die exactly, but just appears on Celebrity Big Brother embarrassingly and probably does an advert for butter and then a children’s christmas song with some animated frogs.
Jacqueline: What I really notice is that when Alice likes something, she’s immediately thinking ‘I could do that, I could make that funny’. So I do love music, but I wouldn’t necessarily make the link to spoof those artists – that’s all Alice! It makes me happy when we do it though.
Alice: Me too. It gives me loads of joy to make my little tunes for stuff and I love singing. In another life I’d be a musician, but I don’t really have the patience. Very bad at piano practice when I was a kid! I like to do stuff that is purely visual and without words also. And for that, you need music. It’s the most powerful thing usually in any film or theatre piece.
Alice – your impression of David Bowie is remarkable. Will he ever return? And do you know if Bowie himself, an avid comedy fan, has seen it?
Alice: Well thanks. I will take ‘remarkable’ as meaning ‘inaccurate, but an interesting interpretation’!
It’s one of the better ones we’ve seen, let’s put it that way!
Alice: I might bring him back. I do enjoy it. I think I remember Matt Berry telling me that Bowie has indeed seen my impression of him in Snuffbox and that he ‘liked it’! I don’t know if that’s true or whether that’s a strange and fufilling dream I had. There were also people in Venetian masks and I was dancing in a bubble. Was that real too?
Sadly, we doubt it. One of your madcap ideas, however, has taken on a life of its own – the folk duo Hot Brew. With frequent live performances on the London comedy scene, was this always the plan or did it just happen naturally?
Alice: I have to say that the stars aligned, and the film and the live act came together seamlessly and organically! You know when you have comic chemistry with someone and, that being a rare thing, you should grab onto it with both hands. So I have grabbed onto Sir Antony Elvin’s root with both hands and so far it has been an exciting… ride. I’ve got to stop this filthy metaphor before it gets me in trouble.
Jacqueline: Perhaps the most worrying thing is that I have really enjoyed watching you and Antony do it.
Antony Elvin isn’t the only familiar face in your films either. Do you prefer to call on your friends to make your shots, or is it more a necessity due to the budget restraints?
Alice: The biggest lesson you can learn from a project like this is ‘work with your friends’. It makes the project so much better, more joyful, happier, filled with unconditional love, etc etc. We have toyed with the idea of getting ‘celebs’ in, but at the end of the day, this can be a bigger headache than it’s worth.
Jacqueline: All the people we work with are so talented, and they probably are going to be deservedly huge at some point! And they aren’t going to complain when filming wraps late. Because they love us. And we love them.
Alice: It’s a lot of mutual love going on. Jackal Films might have a few more ‘faces’ coming up, if that satisfies TVO’s unquenchable thirst for comedic talent! No more info than that at this point I’m afraid! You’ll just have to wait and see!
Ooh, exciting! Are there regulars behind the camera too? Who’s responsible for your costumes and make-up, for example?
Alice: We work with a small team of people and usually use the same DoP, Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, an extremely talented lady. Usually I end up doing my own makeup and costumes, which I enjoy anyway.
Jacqueline: Although recently we have used some makeup artists, including the wonderful Hanane Dauki who created the look for A Dead Cat. We adapt the size of the team depending on how ambitious the particular project is, but we definitely always offer the project to our core team of collaborators first.
What are the plans for the future? Will there be more Jackal Films after your initial 12 monthly installments?
Alice: I believe our plan is to make a feature film next year! We will be doing updates and possibly webcasts about it all throughout the process, and getting lots of fun people involved. We’re also not ruling out the possibility of doing an online sitcom.
Jacqueline: The project, to me, has sort of felt like filmmaking’s a muscle (or something) and that making a film a month has made us toned and strong! So we’re definitely primed to go onto a longer-form project. We’ll have to find something to do because I strongly suspect we’re going to really miss it when January comes and we’re not supposed to be making them anymore. Going cold turkey would be dangerous, that’s for sure.
There’s also talk of Junglophilia being turned into a feature film. Have you got a strong idea of how this would work?
Alice: The feature version of Junglophilia is a film that we’ve had in the pipeline for some time. It’s a female Spinal Tapp/Breaking Glass hybrid. We’d be doing it piecemeal over 2011 and it’ll be improvisational and involving live performances! We will probably be requesting TVO readers to come and participate as 80s audience members!
I’m sure they’re ready and waiting for the call! Finally, then… you both get your dream job together: Alice in a starring role, and Jacqueline in the directors chair. What’s the project, and who else is in the cast and crew?
Alice: Jeez, that’s a big question! Seeing as it’s a fantasy, do I get to choose dead people? I’d like Gene Wilder in it, definitely. I know he’s not dead, but I’m thinking about him in his 70s heyday… Mmmm Gene Wilder…. Jacqui you can choose the crew. Ooh, can we have Ray Harryhausen doing the special effects?
Jacqueline: Yeah, I reckon 70s is the way to go. I think maybe it would be ‘Making it with Pam: The Feature’. And I’d cast Paddy Considine as Alice’s love interest, because he’s amazing.
Alice: I’d kind of like to do a Mel Brooks type project, where it’s a screwball pastiche with loads of the great and good of the British comedy scene. No, not like Carry On. Nothing like Carry On. Screw it, a bit like a Carry On Film. But weirder. Maybe with an alien human cloning subplot. And a lot of drama. And a big hat. I definitely want a big hat.
Alice Lowe and Jacqueline Wright will bring you another fresh Jackal offspring this week, and once a month for the rest of the year over at their YouTube Page, and you can read about their progress over at the Jackal Films website, or our own Archives. Keep watching!
As an extra treat, below is the original full length pilot for Lifespam – directed by Jacqueline, written by herself and Alice, and starring Alice alongside Tom Meeten, Steve Oram, Simon Farnaby and others. It is most amusing.
Terrific interview with some fantastic questions!
bowie and eno! great interview!