Interview: Jack Tarling
by Angelique Jones
From the outside looking in, film producer Jack Tarling may seem like an overnight success with last year’s triumphant love story, God’s Own Country, the sensational UK debut from writer-director Francis Lee. But the hard-grafting producer is a clear example of patience and perseverance: what started out as a passion project became proof in the pudding that good things take time and why you’ve got to believe in the work to make it work.
Tarling speaks about his inspirations, what he looks for in a script and his new Christmas day sci-fi horror, Await Further Instructions and that bloody beautiful film: God’s Own Country.
Angelique Jones: Let’s start with God’s Own Country. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful and raw indie film that presents its audience with an honest love story about real life today. How did you get involved with the project?
Jack Tarling: We were on a networking development scheme being held at the North of England at the time, so we were meeting lots of writers and directors who were all pitching projects to the producers. There were up to 20 producers, directors and writers each, and each of those would have a 10 minute pitch to each other. The idea was that we’d come out with a little team of people to try and progress something we’d found on that scheme.
Francis Lees’s pitch for God’s Own Country was the most compelling and engaging pitch that I’d heard over about two days’ worth of hearing about 50 different projects. Manon Ardisson, who produced the film with me, felt the same, and then the three of us decided to work together.
We didn’t feel that that scheme was right for us at the time, but we knew that another scheme with i-features was coming up a few weeks later, so we submitted to that and were selected. So, we went through a year of development with them, with the end goal of being financed with i-Features. However, they felt like we would be able to finance a film without them and raise a bit more money that way, which would be better for the film. So, we moved beyond i-features and it transformed into a project with BFI and Creative England. We ended with pretty much double what the i-features budget would have been. We then spent about a further year working directly with the BFI, making final script amendments until the point that they were very happy for us to shoot and put up a large amount of production finance. Finally, we found the rest and shot it!
AJ: God’s Own Country feels to me to be a very authentic British film about a very current story authentic to modern British culture, yet it’s also universal. How did you feel about it?
JT: It feels very timely in a strange kind of way. The timing has certainly helped the momentum of the film. When I took it on, there was no guarantee that I would ever get to make it, or that any of us would be paid for doing it. You have to be really involved and engaged with something like that, otherwise it’s not worth you doing it. It just won’t happen unless you really care about it because it’s that drive and momentum from the producer, the writer and the director. Without that commitment, interest and drive to get it made then it probably won’t happen!
"It’s hard to find projects where everything feels like it justifies moving forward"
AJ: What is most exciting thing for you about finding a film you want to produce? Is it part of your intention to find new filmmakers?
JT: I guess some people’s passion is finding completely new voices, so to some extent yes. But you also have to look at where we were in our careers at that point [of God’s Own Country], where we as producers hadn’t really made a film before either.
I would consider doing another debut, but it does come with certain challenges that I don’t necessarily want to have to repeat. I’ve learnt some of those lessons now and I’m looking to move on to work with slightly more established projects.
It really depends on the project and whether it speaks to you. Sometimes there are projects that I absolutely love, but I just don’t see working. Sometimes you hear an idea and think it’s an amazing idea, but you’re not convinced it can be delivered onto the screen, or by the person themselves. In that case, you just have to say, “I don’t think I can move this forward for you,” because if I’ve got those concerns, then financiers might have the same concerns. It’s hard to find projects where everything feels like it justifies moving forward, but sometimes you do and it can be hard to know when you’re going to fall for something, but when you do - you have to do what you can to get it made!
AJ: What’s your dream film to produce?
JT: There isn’t really one. It depends on what it is. Gods Own Country had an unusual combination of elements within it: on the one hand, it’s quite a straightforward romance story. It is boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back again. But obviously, it’s two boys, so that made it quite different.
It’s not that there haven’t been some brilliant LGBTQ romances before, but we felt that they typically tended to be in quite metropolitan environments, and they were about people that felt relatively comfortable talking about their emotions and their sexuality. Part of the interest behind Gods Own Country was that it was about people of all walks of life who might be gay. It didn’t really matter whether they were gay or straight. It was about people that didn’t find it easy to talk about their emotions, and whose working lives made them too busy and gave them a sense of having to be practical and not emotional and made them very repressed in their emotions in some way. It was never really about their sexuality. But certainly, it obviously made the film stand out. The film is exploring that farming world in a non-idealised bucolic way, but in a much more rural and honest approach. For example, the landscapes might be beautiful at times, but it’s a fucking hard life running a small sheep farm to support a family.
AJ: Did you have much involvement with the script for God’s Own Country?
JT: Francis wrote the script and then we’d read it together. There were probably 10 versions of the script that I read before the one we shot, each one moving forward incrementally. That’s not to say the drafts were all wildly different: it’s just a case of honing and refining. We would read everything, and there were also times we opened it up to a wider group of voices. At the end of the day, it’s Francis’s writing. But it’s hard to create amazing work if you’re writing in a vacuum with nobody to bounce off, so our feedback was an important part of that, but not the only part.
AJ: Would you expect multiple drafts to be the typical process of script to screen?
JT: That’s how it should work. Writing a script should require that level of refinement before they’re ready, particularly if that film is very emotional. There were lots of moments where Francis would get frustrated. Each time he delivered drafts he’d want that to be the final one but then we’d say: “what you’re wanting is the right thing, but at the moment on the page it’s not quite delivering.”
So, one of my processes for choosing projects is to ask what is it that the writer is trying to say. Then I ask, are they trying to say something that is valid? Something that needs saying? Has it been done before? Does it make sense? How are they saying it? Is it effective?
From the get-go, we were kind of convinced that God’s Own Country was a potentially very interesting project from somebody with a unique perspective, and that we would like to see that film made. But then, it’s just a case of making sure that the thing that Francis could bring to it was actually going into the script, and then later on, going into the film.
AJ: Do you think that “indie” films are becoming more mainstream?
JT: Arguably, this film might have been a very niche film if it had been filmed 10 years ago, which would have only been watched by people who might have identified themselves as LGBTQ .
What was exciting for us filming now in 2018, was that we thought about our audience quite carefully. This was not going to be aimed at a multiplex-Friday-night-popcorn-chewing-17-year-old audience. You have an idea when you look at any film; is it a marvel movie or is it something that’s going to be led by critical acclaim? What kind of audience are you aiming for?
There have been quite a few examples of films which have really broken out of these binaries. Society has become so much more accepting of the idea that just because there’s a gay relationship in a film, it doesn’t mean that a heterosexual person in the audience should feel excluded from watching that film.
AJ: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest feature film, the sci-fi horror Await Further Instructions?
JT: I’ve always been a big fan of dark, subversive, sci-fi horror. It was a general idea that was pitched to me by a writer in Newcastle 9 or 10 years ago, where he had only about 3 or 4 pages written down, and I liked the idea. We worked together on that, and lots of things changed, but over the course of the years we raised money, had drafts written, and re-financed it over and over again.
AJ: How do you feel about the final product hitting our screens?
JT: Pretty happy. It’s really polarising people - the critics have generally been really positive. We landed a critics pitch in the New York Times, as well as a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews, which is amazing and probably better than I expected, because with genre films, people are a bit more snobbish about them. To get critics pick in the New York Times was absolutely unbelievable. They shouldn’t have even been watching our film really, so that was a real surprise.
AJ: What most excites you about it and why are you excited for people to see it?
JT: Await Further Instructions is like a pressure cooker of a movie. It’s an ever-tightening vice. It’s very linear. It’s about a family who wake up on Christmas morning who discover they’ve been sealed inside their house by a mysterious black substance. There’s a line of text on their TV that says: “stay indoors and await further instructions.” From there, we follow them over the course of 2 or 3 days.
It’s a very tense film about the breakdown of this family unit. It’s ultimately a very explosive film, and every time that we think that it can be taken any further, it gets taken up another notch and something unexpected happens. It’s a journey for an audience and they usually come out a little shell-shocked on the other side.
AJ: Another film that seems very timely in relation to its themes…
JT: Await Further Instructions is coming out an interesting time where we are ever more questioning our relationship with the media and how influenced we as a society have become. And, in some regards the family acts as a microcosm for our society, and the tensions that exist within it at this point in time. We are taken to a very literal, physical conclusion.
AJ: Lastly, what advice can you give to aspiring writers and what do you look for in a script?
You want to find something that somehow feels like it’s covering new grounds and like it has interesting and unusual elements to the script. There are scripts where I can see they’ve been brilliantly written, but they’re just not connecting with me personally so I’m not the right person to produce those. Just because I pass on them doesn’t always mean I think it’s a bad script or a bad project. Something that seems original to me, might seem unoriginal to somebody else: it all just depends on people’s experiences.
I just want to feel like I have some emotional connection with the project. I’m a big fan of concepts. Await Further Instructions is very much a concept movie, whereas God’s Own Country is more about an emotional connection.
And then if the general idea or concept is interesting, I just want punchy writing. Personally, I don’t like things that are overwritten. I think people have a tendency to ramble in their stage directions. My advice would be: get things down in short sentences. Say what’s happening. You’ve got to present things in present tense and think about how your directions are going to be visually conveyed. You’ve got to remember that a script is the blueprint for making film, so really make sure that the things that are being described have some way of reaching the screen.
Watch Await Further Instructions now. God’s Own Country is available to purchase online or on Netflix.
Angelique is a freelance writer working in film, with a passion for travel and yoga. She starred in and co-wrote the forthcoming film Adira's Dream. As well as being Film Editor for OTB, she is also Art Director for Last Maps and is a qualified Hatha Yoga Teacher. You'll find Angelique working on a film somewhere, practising yoga and doodling sketches.