Freddy Syborn and Florence Keith-Roach are having an argument about Chloe Sevigny. Florence cites the actress and high fashion muse as an inspiration, while Freddy insist that he has no idea who she is.
“I still don’t think I’ve seen her in anything,” says Freddy.
“She was in Kids,” says Florence.
“Oh yeah. I have seen Kids.”
“And now she’s in this, in spirit.”
Freddy and Florence are the writers, directors and stars of Frenching the Bully, a half-hour comedy film that they have just made available online. The show follows the travails of Fleur (Keith-Roach), a struggling actor wading from dodgy audition to dodgy audition, and Freddy (Syborn), a fledgling writer desperate to meet women. The roles are autobiographical: Freddy is a comedy writer known for his work with Jack Whitehall and for creating the post-apocalyptic ITV2 comedy, while Florence is an actress and playwright whose play Love to Love to Love You we reviewed earlier this year at the Vaults.
The play’s genesis came in summer 2012, when the pair were in Edinburgh performing in one of Freddy’s plays. “It was just one of those whinging moments,” says Florence. She cites Lena Dunham’s breakthrough Tiny Furniture as a particular influence: “In America there were these young filmmakers making very autobiographical, very un-sensationalist stories of slightly humiliating experiences – that moment of leaving university and having that realisation that the world is very disinterested in what you have to offer and quite rightly so.”
The immediate question surrounding Frenching the Bully is: how does it distinguish itself in such a crowded landscape? There is no shortage of comedies about struggling actors (Extras, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Toast of London) or the difficulties of graduate life (Girls; E4’s Drifters, recently commissioned for its third series). Go to a meeting of young writers and you’ll be sure to find someone who says she is writing “a British Girls“; surf through comedy writers’ Curtis Brown pages and you’ll be sure to hit upon “6 x 60 comedy in development about unemployed graduates”. With the bleakness of the graduate job market making it easy comedy fodder, how does Frenching the Bully stand out?
The answer is ambition, which manifests itself in two ways. First, there is the substance of its themes and influences. Rather than owing a debt to other sitcoms, Florence and Freddy constantly cite art-house influences from the films of Larry Clark to James Bidgood’s cult film Pink Narcissus (1971), a classic of erotic gay kitsch. The unconventional hook of the film, which gives it its title, is that Fleur dreams of putting on a one-woman show about the tragic life of Mia Zapata, of the Seattle punk band The Gits, who was murdered in 1993 at the age of 27.
“The idea was always that the whole series would be about the making of the musical about Mia Zapata,” says Florence. “Originally we wanted to do the musical live at the end of a proposed series: it’s that thing of these outsiders trying to make it, faking it before you make it.”
Freddy adds: “The idea was to find some integrity out of a process that had zero integrity. Florence’s character would start just wanting to write something sad, but in the end we wouldn’t make something sad, we’d make something celebratory.”
Most young filmmakers who shoot a web series will do it with a 5D and tripod and hope that the story makes up for it. Frenching the Bully, in contrast, is visually distinctive. It has impressionistic, hazy sequences basked in white light; elsewhere, it is graded in a faintly downcast sheen which, in a scene towards the end, drives home the wretched humiliation of the early-hours night bus. For a film with a tiny, five-figure budget, this is no small achievement: it was shot on an Arri Alexa, the gold-standard camera in the film industry, by experienced DoP Sarah Cunningham, who has worked as a 2nd unit DoP on films by Ken Loach and Guy Maddin. Freddy continues:
“There are lots of small web series independently made like ours – ours is different because we put so much effort into the look. It’s filmed on Alexas which are what you film TV on: we went down a slight different route. For the money we could have made three smaller, less good-looking, less cinematic episodes, but it wouldn’t have been as distinctive.”
The ambition of Frenching the Bully, however, was a double-edged sword. After a gruelling but exhilarating week-long shoot, Freddy and Florence made the film they wanted to make – but the resulting product also made it difficult to place. The rule for film festivals is that shorter the film, the easier it is to programme – so its half-hour length made it an awkward fit. In other ways, the film’s visual style worked against it. It made it a difficult sell when pitching it as a TV pilot to production companies, and the resources involved also made it harder to do a follow-up.
“We didn’t know we were going to make it on such a well-produced scale, to be honest,” adds Florence. “That was something that happened over time. We started talking more and more and realised that we were quite ambitious with what we wanted it to look like. It took on a life of its own. It’s a shame only in the sense that because we’re so attached to this visual style it means that just making another one is not a very easy option.”
Now that the pair have put their distribution issues behind them, they are simply glad that Frenching the Bully is out there. Currently streaming on Vimeo, the film can now find the audience it deserves, with its well-observed character detail – such as the unwieldy morass of shopping bags that Fleur brings to auditions, in contrast to her more polished actor rivals – and bold set-pieces, such as a climactic, opulent party in a railway arch (featuring Spooks’ Shazad Latif).
After Frenching the Bully, the duo are now turning their hand to new projects. Freddy has the Bad Education movie coming up; Florence is working on her new play, Eggs, “about female friendship and fertility and death”. In contrast to Love to Love to Love You, which had a large cast and an elaborate set, Eggs will be a minimalist piece with just two women in a blank, white room.
Frenching the Bully shows how the pair do not shy away from ambition. But if – like Caden in Synecdoche, New York – they were given unlimited resources to pursue whichever project they liked, what would it be?
Florence replies: “Mine would probably be some kind of classical gay disco adaptation of Oedipus set in ‘70s New York with the cast of Midnight Cowboy reprising their roles, co-directed with Peter Bogdanovich. Probably.”
Freddie? “Florence has got such a good answer. I’ll be a runner on hers.”
Frenching the Bully is available to view on the Wits’ End Productions website. Eggs runs Aug 7-30 at Sin, 207 Cowgate, Edinburgh.