Will Wightman: "At this stage, I just want to surprise people."
David Knight - 13th Dec 2023
We chat with the director who signed to Blinkink this year following the huge success of his student film Heart Failure, won Best Director at BFI Future Film Festival and made his first foray into commercials with two memorable music-based ads - and discover he's now ready to take the plunge into making music videos.
Will Wightman has been busy bringing music and film together, in surprising and exciting ways. In fact, he has yet to make a music video. But on the other hand, he has been well occupied in his mission to singlehandedly rejuvenate and re-energise another genre: the film musical. As a result he has been getting some serious attention - and prizes.
In the past year, Wightman has won Best Director at the BFI Future Film Festival and picked up a Cannes Lion. And in April he officially joined the director's roster at London animation studio Blinkink, leading to his introduction to directing his first couple of commercials.
Both ads have seen him use the musical form in original ways, combining the features of the genre with the craft in puppetry and different styles animation for which Blinkink is renowned. He had done so in entertaining ads for very different ends: firstly, a PSA for animal rights charity PETA UK to highlight the cruelty of the production of wool and leather; and then a spot for US frozen food brand Ore-Ida that acclaims the reliable greatness of their french fries.
But it's his breakthrough short film which really exhibits Wightman's reinvention of an old film genre for a new audience. Heart Failure is a comedy about relationships, breakups, heartbreak and recovery, all from a Gen Z perspective. And it has another special power that no other short film can claim: it's a musical. An 'EDM musical', to be exact, with a 21 year old lead character called Frank who can only honestly explain his situation and predicatment to the audience through song.
If this sounds corny - and everyone hates musicals, right? - it certainly is not. In fact, it's super-cool. Superbly constructed, fast-paced, genuinely funny, with terrific performances from the actors playing the three protagonists, Heart Failure uses its structure to make all kinds of astute observations about the complications of modern living for early twentysomethings - most of which is centred around their phones, of course.
And on top of all that, this is a student film. Wightman wrote the film and the soundtrack - produced by Will Marchant who also DoPed the film - as his graduation film from Falmouth School of Art in 2021. It has gone on to appear in numerous festivals, win various awards - and appeared at the most recent shows of BUG at the BFI.
So we got in touch with Will to congratulate him on his success so far and ask him a few questions...
I’ve always felt that the musical was a relatively unexplored space.
Promonews: Heart Failure is remarkably accomplished for a student filmmaker. How did you get to that point? What had you made before that?
Will Wightman: Honestly, I've just been making films for as long as I can remember. I was very much that kid at school. I had a laptop to help with my dyslexia at secondary and I used to carry it around the streets and parks near my house to film stuff with the webcam. I used to force my poor mates to act and hold lights, then I got to college and met lots of people who loved it the way I did.
I studied TV production at uni and worked as a freelance editor too. So yeah, I've pretty much always had a film project on the go. Before Heart Failure, I'd probably made 40 films or something. Not that any of them are even slightly worth watching. [I bet some of them are - ed]
Why did you decide to make Heart Failure into a musical?
That really was the first piece of the puzzle actually! I'd been mulling this idea for a modern musical for a while.
As a lifelong musician, I’ve always felt that the musical genre was a relatively unexplored space. I just think there’s huge potential for stories told through music but so often the whole genre is shrugged off as cheesy and outdated. Injecting a musical with electronic dance music and super contemporary filmmaking was a really exciting combination to me.
I spent a long time thinking about what would be the best story to tell with that style of storytelling. When I got my heart horrifically broken in my final year of uni, it just sort of came to me... weird.
When I got my heart horrifically broken in my final year of uni, it just sort of came to me...
This was a graduation piece I believe, so what help did you have from the college in making it?
I had a couple of great mentors in my third year and the uni had a lot of kit that we had access to for free. We shot the film during Covid though, so to be honest beyond that we were pretty on our own with it. I actually didn't hand it in as part of my coursework in the end because it wasn't finished. We ended up doing all the post after we'd graduated!
You fit the age range for the characters and subject matter so… was it inspired by true events?
Oh big time. I get really frustrated with how so much of the world talks about young people, and the nature of the film industry is such that basically no high-end content is ever written or directed by anyone under the age of 25 or even thirty.
This film for me was really just about trying to distil down my own experience of being 21 into something that captured that as authentically as possible. Don't tell my ex though.
It was about trying to distil down my own experience of being 21... as authentically as possible.
How did you find your excellent cast? When and where did you shoot it? When was it completed?
Finding people who could sing and act the way I wanted was a real challenge. We put a few casting calls out and put all of our tiny budget into paying proper rates for good actors. I'm so glad we did it that way because our cast really smashed it.
When it came to filming the thing. We shot in my actual student house, as the third and final lockdown lifted. There were six of us on set at a time and honestly, it was the toughest shoot I've ever been a part of.
I'm so thankful to everyone who helped me bring this film to life and I'd especially like to shout out to my very patient housemate who let us turn his house into a film set/bomb site.
What happened next? Presumably, it’s been screened at various festivals and won prizes, which must be exciting. What were the big highlights?
The film has taken me further than I ever could have dreamed of to be honest. We were at BIFA, Cannes Lions, the young director awards, BFI Future Film, the Webbys and a bunch more. It's been a dream come true.
The biggest thing for me though is the people I've met through the film's journey. I met Blinkink who have been just so nurturing and supportive of me. I also signed with my film and TV agent of the back of the film, and he's helped me secure some really exciting deals that hopefully I'll be able to tell you about soon.
We shot in my actual student house, as the third and final lockdown lifted.
What was the key factor on you signing to Blinkink?
I love everyone at Blinkink. We have really similar values about the kind of stuff we want to make and it's just a great creative community to be a part of.
As one of their only fully live-action directors, I was really excited by the chance to be somewhere I could bring something properly different to the roster, and also be repped by a company that could offer me something properly unique in return. I can't wait to see what we do together in the next few years!
You’ve now made the ads for Peta and Ore-Ida. There are similarities between them stylistically - and they’re also both musical too, of course. Any input in the creation of the songs from yourself?
I wrote the music for both of them actually! Writing music has always been a big part of my process. I usually write the script and music at the same time. It really helps me to visualise the tone and pace of a scene, then when the film is cut together, I reproduce the track from the ground up with a much more capable music producer than me.
Jessie Cave did an amazing job walking that line between humour and heartbreak [in Shop To Save Lives].
On the PETA film you tread a fine line between sweetness and horror. What was the key in making it work?
In many ways, PETA's Shop To Save Lives is a much simpler project than Heart Failure or Ore-Ida, but it's definitely the biggest tonal challenge I've come up against. PETA traditionally look for that shock factor with their marketing, but they wanted us to make something more palatable this time, while still delivering their message effectively.
A lot of it was about letting the audience's imagination to do the heavy lifting; having the animals sing about these horrific injuries, blissfully unaware, felt more powerful than actually showing them. It was the same with the wounds, rather than using hyper-realistic latex injury detail, we used fabrics, paint and coloured beads to create our 'gore'. I wanted it to be horrific, but I felt softening the edges of it ever so slightly made it fit into our kids TV world better and so somehow felt more eery.
Ultimately though, the key for me was having Jessie Cave at the centre of it. She's really part of the audience in many ways, and her emotional journey through the film really signposted how each scene needed to make the audience feel too. Jessie did an amazing job walking that line between humour and heartbreak, she was a pleasure to work with.
Writing music has always been a big part of my process.
What was the best takeaways from making a) PETA's Shop To Save Lives, and b) Ore-Ida's Deliciously Predictable?
For me, Shop To Save Lives was an incredible opportunity to learn the advertising ropes and work with a far bigger team than I'd ever been involved with. I'd never shot with sets or puppets, so I really had to learn on the job.
Meanwhile, Deliciously Predictable was about taking everything I learnt from PETA and doing it 10 times bigger. I feel really lucky to have been a part of such cool projects this early in my career. Fingers crossed there will be more soon!
What’s next on the agenda? What are you working on at the moment?
I've got a few feature film projects in development. Then at the same time, I have my eye on some music videos. I'm really keen to collaborate with musicians and let someone else take the musical reins for a change. I think working with a small budget again will also be a great chance to see how my creative muscles have grown. Nothing produces good work like limitations.
I think at this stage of my career, I just want to surprise people with what I do and not be driven by money or big names. My main hope is that when people watch the next thing I make, they’ll think something along the lines of ‘holy shit! I wasn’t expecting that!’
Do you have a favourite artist (or artists) who you think would be ideal for a Will Wightman music video?
Where do I start? There's loads up-and-coming DJs that I love. Sammy Virji or TwoShell, for example, have such a palpable energy in their tracks, and I'd love to make something that feels properly kinetic like that.
I love the visceral intensity of rock bands like Idles or Squid. I also love the cinematic quality of Black Country New Road, their tracks have real heart. If I'm dreaming big, I'd love to do a video for Disclosure or Apex Twins, and A$AP Rocky has made some amazing videos over the years. I could go on!
To be honest though, I think the perfect artist for me is really someone who's up for collaborating; someone who's happy to put ego aside and just make something properly creative. At this stage in my career, I'm open minded!
• Will Wightman is represented for music videos and commercials by Blinkink, watch his reel here.
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David Knight - 13th Dec 2023