RIIFF Alumni Showcase
Interview: Director Mark Gill (The Voorman Problem)
One of the Audience Award Nominees from the 2012 Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, “The Voorman Problem”, is an entertaining and thought-provoking short film in which the pragmatic and sensible Dr. Williams is called into a prison to examine a mysterious patient known as Voorman, who believes himself to be God. The doctor must decide whether to diagnose the patient as a lunatic, a faker, or both, however his ensuing conversations with Voorman prove to be as enigmatic as the prisoner himself.
We had the chance to interview director Mark Gill about the success of his film, his inspirations, and his future filmmaking plans. Note: There are elements of “The Voorman Problem” which are talked about, however there are no specifics that are revealed and so this interview is free of spoilers.
RIIFF: What inspired you to make this film?
Mark: My friend recommended me a book called number9dream by David Mitchell, and he said there was a part in there that I’d really like. He was right, and there’s a very small part of this novel, which is a self-contained story within a story, and that story is called ‘Panopticon’ which I took and adapted into The Voorman Problem.
RIIFF: Are there specific filmmakers whose style you try to emulate or draw from when making your films?
Mark: I think every filmmaker starts off using other people’s voices but I think that my favorite film, [although] I don’t know if it’s the best film I’ve ever seen, but my favorite film is certainly Blade Runner. That’s what made me want to make films, and I’m looking forward to going there [to Los Angeles]. I love that film and that was what really got me hooked on filmmaking.
RIIFF: Do you prefer to make short films or feature-length films?
Mark: Well I’ve never made a feature length yet, so I’m hoping this is the launchpad. I mean, if I can’t make a feature off the back of an Oscar nomination I might as well give up (laughs). I do like making short films though, they are good, and especially something like The Voorman Problem, which was an incredible experience. I like the form, I think it’s a form within itself and I think its great that the Academy supports it.
RIIFF: Was there a specific message you wished to convey when making The Voorman Problem?
Mark: To be honest with you, I don’t think there was. Its been interesting because it’s a very self-contained and satisfying little story within itself and I suppose its about metamorphosis in some ways but essentially it’s a very dark comedy, its quite whimsical, and we just wanted to make something that was entertaining.
RIIFF: To what extent is this film an examination of mental illness, and to what extent would you say it’s a ‘religious film’?
Mark: I’ll be honest in that I wasn’t thinking that when we made it. Somebody’s going to have to write a thesis on this, there’s so many different readings of it, its fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, and this is just my personal opinion but religion is a type of mental illness, maybe. Certainly I think religion is worth exploring, and if you have a problem with it the best way to do that is with comedy. It sort of de-mystifies it in some ways, you know, comedy is a great vehicle for that [purpose].
RIIFF: This film could be considered a social commentary, was this your intention?
Mark: I’d be interested to know in what way you think it’s a social commentary
RIIFF: You know, when I watched it, [I noticed] the way that the State, as a shadow character, was portrayed in the sense that they didn’t know how to deal with Voorman and then also [the way] the man running the prison was kind of a shady character too. Those kinds of shadow components I think in some ways could be considered a sort of social commentary on the government but that’s just one reading of it.
RIIFF: I think first of all I was trying to make something that was entertaining for a change, and then what I love is that people come back with [different] readings of it, and that’s what I love about it. And that’s what I love about David Lynch—he never explains anything, and I think I’m going to take the ‘Lynchian’ view here (laughs).
RIIFF: What would you say is the target audience for this film, and what has been your strategy for marketing this film?
Mark: It was very much geared towards festivals, because that’s the natural home for a lot of short-filmmakers and where a lot of people start out. We knew it was going to be easily marketable once we got that cast, and so we made it and then what we did is we didn’t do anything with it for about twelve months, and we just sat on it because we knew that Martin [Freeman] was gonna get the Sherlock role and then the Bilbo Baggins role. So the strategy really was just to wait till Martin’s profile was a little bit bigger--we knew that once we’d shot it and seen the original edit that what we’d got was something special and so it was a case of just strategizing and formulating a plan. So then when the film came out Martin’s profile was huge so essentially that did the work for us.
RIIFF: What future projects are you planning?
Mark: We’re already in development on our first feature film and we’ve already received some development money. It’s a film I’ve wanted to make for a long time. I can’t really talk too much about it because there’s a few legal things I need to sort out, but it’s a biopic, it’s something I’ve wanted to make for a long time, and people are quite excited about it, and I’ve got a couple of other stronger ideas of what I’d like to do after that. Both are adaptations and we’re just trying to secure the rights to those at the moment and to see if they’re available. One of them will be set in the [United] States, its an American novel, and the other one is a short story which will fall into the science fiction genre but much like Gravity, its not really about being in space. It’s a small story with a big idea.
RIIFF: Any final comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
Mark: We’ve received so much generous support from places like Rhode Island [Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF)] and for us its been a really humbling experience to have made a piece of work that’s gone and been so well received. And then it got a BAFTA nomination and that’s as big as its got in this country, but then to top it with the Oscar you know, we are pinching ourselves quite a lot. I just want to say thank you to people like Rhode Island. I think short films are really important and I really sincerely hope the Academy continues to support them because it really helps us as filmmakers get our toe in the door. It’s very hard to make any sort of film, and I have total respect whether the film is good or bad for anybody who gets something onscreen. So if an award or a nomination can help any filmmaker and make it easier, then I think it’s worthwhile.
Although the film has had great success in the festival circuit and has racked up a number of nominations and wins, its success has been so significant that the film not only received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination, but also has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for best short film in the fast-approaching 86th Academy Awards, which will be airing live on March 2nd.