Interview with Director of The Voice in the Head, Cyrus Trafford

It is thought that 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year in the UK, these problems also representing the largest single cause of disability. In Cyrus Trafford’s moving short film, The Voice in the Head, he brings the subject of mental health to the forefront, in the hope of raising awareness and provoking discussion about something that can have an impact on people from all walks of life. 

Based on a true story from the award winning book ‘A New Earth’ by Austrian writer and spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, the film was commended by Stephen Fry, who has publically spoken out about his own struggle with bipolar disorder: “Terrific short! Beautifully shot, composed and performed. The question addressed is such a good one and the way the film deals with it will live with me for a long time.”

Cyrus Trafford found success with his directorial debut short, I’m Christian Okoli, which screened at BFI, won at several film festivals and was selected as one of the ‘Top 100 Pieces of Art’ in London in 2013. Since then he has directed a handful of shorts that have all gone on to tour the international film festival circuit and garner critical acclaim. 

The Voice in the Head also boasts star on the rise, Charlotte Luxford (What I Know, It’s Not Custard) in the lead role, and music from BAFTA nominated composer, Johan Soderqvist (Let the Right One In) and Zack Hemsey, known for his work on well-known film trailers including LincolnInception and A Most Violent Year

Highly successful on the festival circuit, The Voice in the Head screened in competition at the Oscar and BAFTA qualifying Rhone Island International Film Festival, was nominated for a German Independence Award for Best Short Film, and opened the international premiere of Sarah Silverman’s I Smile Back at the 22nd Oldenburg International Film Festival in Germany. It was also handpicked as one of 6 shorts by executives from The Weinstein Company, BenderSpink, Circle of Confusion, Gotham Group and Rumble Films for a special Stage 32 shorts programme at the Raindance Film Festival. In October 2016, The Voice in the Head made the long list for the BIFA Best British Short Film.

We were lucky enough to get some time with Cyrus to talk about his thought provoking film.

Why did you choose to make a movie regarding mental health issues?

I didn’t. I chose to make a movie about a fascinating story that when I read the first time completely surprised me and further more, made me present through reading it. It just so happens that most people have to go through pain and suffering in life to become present, and Mental Health is an example of pain and suffering people go through. But first and foremost my primary goal of making this film like most of my other shorts is to make people present. Then I utilise different issues to facilitate reaching that goal. But the issues I use are not the goal.

Mental health issues as a topic aren’t probably the easiest thing to make a movie about, I guess. What was the hardest challenge during making this movie?

The hardest challenge during making this movie aside from the normal issues a production faces such as not enough budget, not enough time etc. was almost certainly making sure that the screenplay was as compelling as the story from ‘A New Earth’. Just to give you an idea, Eckhart Tolle who wrote the story (note – which is also auto-biographical) writes in such a specific way that it makes adapting any of his work near-nigh impossible. So then to not only adapt it, but to make sure that it also met those lofty standards in a visual form was certainly the hardest undertaking of my career. Thankfully he really liked the piece and so do his followers. But read his work and you will see what I mean.

Your new film is based on the work from Eckhart Tolle, is there any specific reason why you went for his work instead of others.

No not really. Back in late 2014, my friend took me to hospital as my asthma was up and I didn’t have my pump with me. And whilst waiting in hospital to quell my anxiety I took ‘A New Earth’ out my bag which I was reading at the time and landed on the story ‘The Voice in the Head’. As soon as I read it there, I turned to my friend and said this would make a great short film, and that was that. I prefer to let the story come to me rather than me seek it, because I feel the end-product then becomes an extension of you (so organic) which in-turn will connect and resonate with your audience a lot more because it’s original/authentic.

The two leading ladies (Charlotte Luxford and Stella Willow) are amazing but still kind of unknown so how did you end up working with them?

I agree, they were amazing but even more amazing to work with. Fantastic attitudes and they committed themselves whole-heartedly. With Charlotte, I was actually sitting on a panel helping a friend cast his feature, which Charlotte came and auditioned for. The monologue she performed that day totally blew me away, and in my head I banked her in to work with her one day when the right project arose. So with this film it was a straight casting. I literally met her for a coffee, took her to the park that you see in the film, read the story to her there, and asked if she wanted to do it. With Stella it was actually a lot trickier because I wanted to find someone who Charlotte could look like in 20 years time which completely limited by casting. I auditioned three people, and even though Stella’s audition wasn’t the best out the three, from talking to her I could feel she was the one who was going to give the part absolutely everything and personally I value that more than talent because as director I can bridge that gap for them.

In the movie the Crazy Woman is declared crazy because she talks out loud to a person that’s not there/herself. I was wondering if you experienced the same ‘insanity’? Im sure a lot of us have.

Haha I think we all have, have we not? Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us have a constant monologue running through our heads which in most cases we can’t switch off, so at the very least we are experiencing dysfunction. The question than becomes how can one tell dysfunction from insanity? Maybe that was a better question to ask in the film as nearly nobody on this planet is sane.

When people think about insanity, they think about being crazy. What was the craziest idea you had to make a movie about?

I’m not sure I’ve had any seriously crazy ideas in respect to making movies, I know I know…boring, but with each project I conceive the budgets needed to realise those visions seem to grow exponentially which in-turn makes it harder to get off the ground. Maybe the crazy thing is not being able to curb my imagination within the current financial restraints I face in terms of realising my visions…

Just one last question: Are there any other projects you’re working on right at the moment and that we can expect in the near future?

Three things if I’m lucky, one for sure. I am currently in production on a short film called ‘Lost to Rhythm’ that is a hybrid of animation and live action. At a ‘surface level’ the film is about ‘Freedom of Expression’ but for me it’s deeper that that, for me it’s about how to accept one’s own death in an extreme limit situation, and again how that can make you feel some degree of peace in the most horrific of situations faced. Since I had the idea for the film, and by the time it will be finished this particular project will have taken me 3 years to complete ( I hope not longer!). Because I don’t have the budget to hire more animators as I am self-funding this, my hero of an animator Chandra Sekhar Poudyal is hand-drawing it frame by frame. This is the one for sure that will happen.

Then I have two Feature Films that I am looking to get off the ground. One is called ‘Amare’ which is ‘a coming of age’ story set in a U.S Prison, and the other is called ‘Mujō’ which means impermanence in Japanese. In respect to ‘Mujō’ we are actually casting the film at the moment so I will talk about this a bit more as it’s a bit further a long than ‘Amare’. The idea behind the film originated in that most people intellectually understand impermanence in that we live and we die, but nearly nobody has actually realised that. What do I mean? Well there is a difference between reading how to drive a car and driving a car, a difference between knowing the path and walking it. Intellectually understanding something in most scenarios is not liberating, but realising something is. So I wanted to make a film that through watching it, you REALISE impermanence. So again this was the first question I asked myself as per answer to question 5. Then the next step was to find the right story to help facilitate the overall objective and that’s where my brilliant screenwriter John Hörnschemeyer came in. The film is set in Japan, and we are hoping to shoot next Spring in 2018.

The Voice in the Head is available to watch on VOD now. 

Liselotte

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