Random Acts North filmmaker Aaron Dunleavy talks about the experience of making his chilling, challenging short Strays, which was broadcast on Channel 4 earlier this year in series 4 of Random Acts. The film has screened around the world, with official selections at prestigious BAFTA and Oscar® qualifying festivals.
How did you come up with the idea for your film ‘Strays’ – and what inspired you to make it?
I’ve always had a passion for telling stories about young people growing up in smaller working class towns. I grew up in Blackburn and went on to study at film school in London. Moving away made me realise just how different a childhood in the capital city was, compared to that of a smaller, more secluded town. The unforgiving and harsh post-industrial landscapes of the north are a perfect backdrop for adventurous children in a town like Blackburn.
Throughout my previous work, I’ve explored techniques such as street casting and improvisation, in an effort to bring out authentic performances. I’ve always aimed for a purely local cast, as I feel it adds a layer of authenticity; not just with the dialect and accents, but also as they’ll have a broader understanding of the landscape and why the story is relevant to them.
Locations have always played a vital role in my films. Often, I’ll shape a story around a particular location, and for Strays this was the case more so than ever before. The film is set against a backdrop of terraced houses in the area where I was born, and where much of my family still live to this day. Around a decade ago, work began on demolishing all of the properties to make way for a new regeneration scheme. Lots of residents were moved out, and work commenced on pulling down rows and rows of red-bricked terraced houses. Halfway through the demolition, however, work came to a standstill due to a lack of funds, and rows of half knocked down houses were abandoned. Several years on, the houses still remain; half-demolished, crumbling and forgotten.
The area looks and feels like a post-apocalyptic war zone, taken over by nature and lost in time. I thought it would make the perfect location for a story which mixes reality with fantasy, in a dark and unsettling world in which children have taken over.
Tell us about your Random Acts film in one sentence.
A dark and unsettling world in which children have taken over a forgotten terraced street, devoid of adults with no rules or boundaries.
Tell us a bit more about how you’ve brought your idea to life.
My films have always explored the darker side of youth, but this film was an opportunity to take a different angle on that; supported by cinematic visuals, locations, costume and sound design with the largest budget I’ve had access to. This was the first non-student film that I had the chance to write and direct, and it was a great step up with the backing of a professional production team, mentoring and support.
The film was partly inspired by the book Lord of the Flies, in which a group of school children are abandoned on a desert island. I thought it would be interesting to explore what would happen if a similar story took place on the streets of Blackburn, with feral children running wild without rules or boundaries. As part of my writing process, I gathered up a few local kids and asked them what they would do in a world without adults. The resulting feedback was unsurprisingly dark, and thus the script developed into quite a sinister and unnerving narrative.
Please tell us a bit more about yourself and your artistic background.
My films explore stories of working class youth; with unscripted and improvised performances, street casting and non-professional young actors at the core of my filmmaking approach.
My debut student short, Throw Me to the Dogs, won 10 awards on the festival circuit, with praise from Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle. Screening at prestigious BAFTA and Oscar® qualifying festivals around the world, the film went on to achieve worldwide distribution via MUBI, streaming in over 240 countries, as well as being awarded a ‘Best of the Month’ Staff Pick on Vimeo.
Your film has a mostly child cast. What was your casting process?
The casting process for Strays was a massive challenge. I knew that to make the film feel like a real and believable world, we had to cast a large amount of children. I already had casting experience from working on my previous film, The Truants, which featured around 150 child extras to make up a school yard.
I published a casting call for Strays in the local newspaper, and the response was overwhelming. Around 600 parents applied for their children to take part, and in the end I had to narrow the selection down to around 50. The biggest challenge I faced in casting, was that we didn’t have the time or resources to set up audition sessions, and so all of the children had to be selected from photographs. As the film had no dialogue, I was confident that I’d be able to bring out strong performances without seeing any auditions, and so the resulting cast was selected purely based on image.
Talk us through your days on shoot. How did you find directing children? Did you encounter any difficulties?
Working with a larger cast with lots of varied scenes was a really exciting and challenging experience. I hadn’t met most of the cast before, which made shooting each scene really spontaneous. It was really rewarding to be able work with such a diverse cast across multiple scenes – from a quiet and intimate indoor shoot with a two year old toddler one minute, to being out on the streets with a dozen or so children running wild the next.
The shoot was hectic and action-packed, but it was such a great experience to be able to incorporate my improvisational style in a new and exciting way. A number of scenes that made the cut were improvised and hadn’t been written in the script, with many of my favourite moments in the film being captured this way.
How have you found the whole Random Acts North experience? Have there been any unexpected elements to the programme?
The best part of the Random Acts North experience was the fact that each commissioned artist was catered to individually. It didn’t matter if you had no experience making films or lots of experience, as everyone’s ideas were developed on a personal basis.
What hints or tips would you pass onto to someone who has been commissioned to make a Random Acts North film?
Taking risks and facing challenges is a big part of the process, so be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and explore your style as an artist from different perspectives. The most important part of the process is to enjoy it, as once it’s over you’ll wish you were doing it all over again.