Bold Content No Change: Homelessness – An Interview with Zak Jaques

An interview with Zak Jaques about his short film NO CHANGE: HOMELESSNESS completed as part of the Creative Project assignment for the Film and Video Production Technology degree at The University of Surrey.

Adam:
How did the film come about?

Zak:
I have to take it back two years to when I was at Bold Content! I was an intern and then an editor for about 10 months. During my time at Bold, I was shown a video called Drug Runner. It’s a docudrama based on a 15-year-old who used to take and sell drugs. The way that the video was formatted was quite interesting to me as it was essentially voiceover driven. The voiceover was taken from an actual interview with somebody who was a drug runner and it was recreated using their words. And then, every day on my way to work, I walked through the Stratford Centre – which is right next to the station. It’s just huge shopping centre, but what’s unique about it is that it’s open 24 hours because it’s a right of way. Because it’s inside, it’s used by homeless people as a recreational space from the outside. So if you walked through beyond 7/8pm there’d be hundreds and hundreds of homeless people living and sleeping in there. They all looked unique to me, like they’re characters out a Sweeney Todd film. At the time, my housemate was a member of the Street Pastors, who’d go around at night and help homeless people try and get shelter and see if they want any food or anything like that. Through her I managed to go out with the Street Pastors one night and speak to these guys on the street. Obviously, I was trying to stay safe but there’s a few times I was like, I don’t feel safe at all: there’s some guy over there who looks like he’s on something staring at me! But these experiences really inspired me. When I started my final year at university, I realised that this was something that I could do. I just needed to find somebody to interview. I spent months trying to find somebody who would be interested in speaking about their time being on the streets. Eventually I found someone who’d got out, and his name was Andrew. I went to Spoons and had drink with him and spent two hours just talking about it. I’d taken a mic with me to record the session and from there we transcribed it and turned it into a narrative.

Adam:
Wow. So Andrew is the guy who’s got a book out?

Zak:
Yeah. Andrew Fraser is the author of “Invisible: Diary of a Rough Sleeper”, which he wrote whilst he was homeless.

Adam:
All of the dialogue in the film is really eloquent and descriptive. Is that something that came directly from Andrew and his book, or was it more like you adding a bit of flavour to it?

Zak:
That was literally how Andrew spoke. He’s a very articulate guy. He went to university, studied Politics. He’s very educated even though he was on the streets for a big time.

Adam:
Andrew changed my perception of homeless people just because of him and how articulate he was. Something where you realise that almost anyone can end up homeless. Do you know how he end up on the streets?

Zak:
Like he says in the film, everybody’s different. I think with him he suffers from a form of PTSD and schizophrenia. One time in a flat he had a dodgy landlord and the landlord didn’t like him because he was gay and tried to get him out as soon as possible. When he eventually lost the flat, he had a breakdown that he couldn’t recover from.

Katharine:
Was the writing the book part of that journey to getting off the streets?

Zak:
When he was on the streets, he kept a diary and just wrote down little increments of his day and what happened to him. And every so often he’d go into the library – because it’s free – and type it up online and a publication found his blog and said we want to turn this into a book. And that was a way out for him. I don’t know if that was the reason for how he got off the streets, because living off one book is quite hard, but I think it was a way for him to realise that it is possible to get back to normality.

Adam:
How did the project and the process change your perception of the homeless?

Zak:
I can’t walk past a homeless person now without feeling incredibly guilty. It’s hard for me to see people out on the streets now and I try my best to help them in whatever way I can. It might not be money, it might just be chatting to them. That’s what all the crew have said too. One of the nights we were shooting in an alleyway that we’d got permission for, and at the end of the alleyway was a tent. I was adamant that I didn’t want to shoot that way as I didn’t want to invade somebody’s privacy. But it was a great shot… so my Production Manager offered to go and speak to them and offer food and drink. It’s January, freezing and pouring down with rain, and he sits down for 30-45mins just chatting to them. When he comes back, he’s dripping with tears. And I ask if he needs five minutes. He’s nods and walks off. So, can we shoot that way? He’s like, yes, we can. I don’t think anyone who watches the film can look at a homeless person now and not feel differently. That’s what I hope anyway.

Adam:
That’s one of the really powerful things about the film. You spend a long time with the character, and we get to know him and his backstory, and it’s a really powerful outcome. When you see a homeless person now, there’s a lot of advice that says that you shouldn’t give money directly, but you should give money to a shelter or a homeless charity. What’s your stance on that?

Zak:
If they’re asking for money give them money. But if you want to give a lot of money, homeless charities are a good way to do that because they can help a wide range of people. But they won’t give money directly to that homeless person. Your five pounds won’t change their lives, your ten pounds won’t change their life – you know how much rent and food is. But if you gave money for them to get a sandwich, cigarettes or a beer to get them through that, then that’s helping them along. Even if they use it for drugs. Andrew was quite adamant in saying that he wasn’t someone who did any drugs. But he did say that he knows why people do, because it’s a coping mechanism. And even if it does go that, it’s still helping them get along.

Adam:
That’s a really interesting viewpoint because you wouldn’t naturally come to that conclusion yourself.

Zak:
No, I wouldn’t have before. I’d be like, they’re just going to spend on drugs and alcohol, why would I give it to them?

Adam:
Coming back to the film, how did you make it look so good?

Zak:
I knew from the start that I wanted it to look great. There was only 13 of us on my course at Surrey, and only a handful of projects got made. So everyone had a major and minor role on each production. I had a few people who were doing majors on mine, so they put their heart and effort into doing the shoot. Max my DP and Jake my AC, they worked hard and we did loads of camera tests. Initially we were looking at the Sony F55 and Sony F5 as they have good low light, but then my DP bought a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, the 4K. We tested that as well, and we realised that the pocket camera has the best low light! You can put it into Resolve and make it look however you want. I also had a lighting director who was always moving around lights and we spent a lot of time getting the right shot. Luckily, we had enough time to get it right. And I would say no until it was!

Adam:
Was the whole thing shot on the BMPCC?

Zak:
The 4K yeah!

Adam:
What is it, like two grand to buy?

Zak:
Our DP got it for £1,000 and now it’s probably about £500.

Adam:
Wow, a £500 camera can produce results that good?! That’s incredible. That’s very tempting because you can stick it onto a drone, then get amazing drone shots as well. It’s so small, so good. So, you graded it all in Resolve?

Zak:
Yes, so I had it on a MacBook pro that was sent to me from uni because the pandemic happened. My original plan was doing it in the edit suite, but I couldn’t do that because of COVID. So, I had to edit the film from home and then sent it off to Max and he did all the grading. We would Zoom every night comparing and checking what I wanted, as I wanted it to look like the film Joker with the pastel colours. I didn’t want it too contrasty but very filmic.

Adam:
What was the hardest thing about making the film?

Zak:
It was hard figuring out what to cut from the transcripts because there was so much of it. I mean, we had about 30 pages of really, really good audio that we wanted to use. Then trying to come up with a visual narrative to match! Getting licences for the locations was also difficult as we had to speak to loads of different councils and businesses as everything was owned by different people. It took a long time and we had to visit people in their offices, but eventually we got licences for all the locations that we wanted. Then, in post it wasn’t the pandemic itself that made things challenging but changing the workflow.

Adam:
Did you have to social distance on set?

Zak:
No, we filmed in January. We did two days of extra shoots at the start of March. So, we were quite lucky.

Adam:
Budget wise, how did you get on? I know you did a Kickstarter.

Zak:
Our uni don’t offer money but they do give advice and offer free kit. We had loads of equipment we could get our hands on like lights, cameras and tripods, but we needed to fundraise to cover travel expenses, food costs and a marquee as we were filming outside. So, we had to go through Kickstarter and beg friends and family – and ex bosses (!) – to lend a few pennies to put forward to the project and we had the stance that anything that we didn’t spend we would to give to a charity of Andrew’s choice. We had about £200 left in the piggy bank after everything was done and dusted, so we contacted the charity that introduced me to Andrew and gave them the money. It’s a small charity called Hope4Newham.

Adam:
What’s going on with the film now? Is it going to do festivals? What are your plans?

Zak:
In the last three months since we finished it, we’ve been applying for festivals. I’ve just released it onto Vimeo and we’re going to carry on trying to apply for student film festivals and anything that comes up. I’m looking to Watersprite in January as that’s quite a big student festival in Cambridge, that may be, but I’m not sure. In the meantime, I’m sharing it around to as many people as possible. At the moment, the Guildford Council are using it for their homeless campaign and hopefully Newham will for theirs too. That’s what the video is for really. It’s not filmed for festivals, it’s for these charities to use to spread the word.

You can watch Zak’s film here: https://vimeo.com/472162876