Gambling on a Fifty Pence stake

talks to actor-director Eric Kolelas about ambition, Aesthetica and the importance of artistic communities

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‘I’m a young black man in London… this way maybe they can focus on what the film’s really about’, actor-director Eric Kolelas tells me as we meet to discuss his first film, Fifty Pence. We are in London on the cusp of summer, with the thought of shooting anywhere else inconceivable, but, not wanting to be typecast, Kolelas set the eleven-minute short in Paris, where he grew up.

It was a chance to escape the stereotypes his background can label him with. ‘The way people speak to me changes’, he tells me, when they realise he hasn’t made a ‘hood’ film. But its basis was not so deliberate. The idea began when Kolelas, an aspiring actor, came across footage of Paris someone had posted online.

The simplicity of the shots, and the atmosphere they created, inspired him, and it is what makes Pence arresting. It’s a tale of one man’s attempt at redemption, set against the backdrop of ‘delivering’ a girl, but it began as an aesthetic pursuit. Speaking to Kolelas is an insight into the way shorts can be made – at first more art than story.

The film made it into Aesthetica here at York in November, and otherwise played festivals in London, Chicago, Paris and Barcelona. It’s ambiguous, as Kolelas wanted. ‘Lots of scenes there’s two ways to read it, and it’s the same with the ending … people from different backgrounds see different stories’.

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For Kolelas it all started at school, when he stumbled upon media studies as a fourth A-level. ‘Doing media studies was the best thing that could have happened’ – it turned out to really just be a chance to study film, something he had little interest in. After studying music tech at university he choose the perils of acting, ‘I was going to be so frustrated being a studio engineer for people [who were] doing what I wanted to be doing’.

‘You can have a month when it’s back to back, and then a month and it’s nothing’. But Kolelas seems not to mind, he’s hard at work in post-production on his second feature, a story of two brothers and their dysfunctional relationship – a tale British politics confirmed this week never gets old – and has written a third script.

‘I’m a big sci-fi guy, I’m in pain [that] I’m not at Iron Man right now’. He wants to make one, but ‘I’m not going to unless it can a be a good one’, and that costs. He’s come up with a solution. ‘Have you heard of Another Earth?’ The only special effect they have is a second Earth in the sky. ‘It’s cheaper’, he laughs.

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It’s important to consider for Kolelas, who self-financed Pence. His story is a window into the beginnings of a world one usually only sees the end of – the big-budget studio picture or the critically acclaimed indie. He hopes the film, and these two successors, will help him sidestep the countless other aspirants.

He talks amusingly about touring the festivals; Chicago’s ‘clean’, and he liked York (the place had a sense of history). In Chicago, ‘I thought I’d go there and big directors would come. None of that happened’, he deadpans. But ‘it made a big difference me being there’, being able to talk to people. As for the film getting noticed, maybe one day, he says wryly, a plumber who saw it ‘might be fixing the sink of a big film director’.

The short’s life is now on Vimeo, where he welcomes the constructiveness of criticism. It’s a ‘more relevant’ audience than YouTube, full of other aspiring film-makers; he recruited the crew for the film through it.

We discuss the need for communities. I suggest there should be more of one, film-making seems an independent existence. Perhaps its in festivals like Aesthetica, itself created out of a surplus of submissions to a film competition, that film-makers find one. He shrugs. Agrees. ‘I think that’s the case in almost everything.’

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