Film Graduate, Sean Roberts, put all of his lessons together to make his short film 'Coping Mechanism' and hasn't it paid off! 'Coping Mechanism' has since been accepted into 18 film festivals so far and is being watched around the world!
Sean had a chat with us about his film, how he has achieved such success with it and what it takes to get attention from so many different festivals around the world.
Tell us a little bit about your short film 'Coping Mechanism'.
Coping Mechanism was born of the Coffee & Cigarettes project during my second semester, so naturally it’s an intimate, two character, dialogue driven Drama. It presents a young man and woman, Ben & Mikaela, on an unassuming date in a moody restaurant. Their interactions with each other get more and more frustrating as their failures to communicate grow more awkward and Ben’s behaviour and intentions more strange and mysterious.
With this film, I wanted to make the most of the project’s limitations and fashion a simple narrative that allowed a single drawn out conversation to steadily increase in tension and mystery, turning what would otherwise be just a straightforward Drama into more of a Thriller.
There is, of course, a further twist to the tale that to say any more of here would be spoilers!
How did you get your film accepted into so many festivals?
It’s been an exciting whirlwind of growing successes all year with the film now having played in festivals on pretty much every continent! The film’s momentum has also brought me quite a few milestones as a filmmaker: from my first award wins; to my first VIP festival attendance where I got to be on my first audience Q&A panel; to my first published review in Cult Critic Film Magazine which was also thankfully a very positive write up.
I think the level of success I’m enjoying right now has to do with the fact that from the very beginning I never hesitated to dive in and get myself used to the world of festival submitting and self-promotion. My personality does not gel very well with the marketing mindset and, worried this was going to be a weakness for me, I decided to hit the ground running with my very first Lyrical Project film in Tier 1 and condition myself to being comfortable with promoting my work from as early as possible. I was shocked to find my Lyrical piece getting into three festivals, which was three more than I expected for such a humble project. But from that point on I had a new outlook, if that film could find an audience out there, then the sky’s the limit for whatever I make going forward.
The most practical advice I can give on tackling the festival world though, is be persistent with submitting and get used to rejection. Coping Mechanism has since reached 18 festival selections, but for it to be where it is now, I had to hear “No” from over 40. Just let it roll off your back! It’s nothing personal after all, most festivals are having to pick a handful of films out of hundreds of entries, sometimes thousands. You’re not going to get them all, but to get a few you’re going to need to really put your work out there.
What was the inspiration behind this short film?
The biggest source of inspiration behind the film was honestly the limitations imposed on it by the project itself. I keep a lot of personal notes about story ideas and the germ of Coping Mechanism came from some larger ideas simplified to fit the single scene, two-hander format. Since the setup is so straightforward, I wanted something that would allow me surpass expectations of what this film is supposed to be. So I committed to tackling something I’ve always wanted to try with a short film narrative, building up to a third act reveal that completely changes the genre of the film you’ve been watching up till that point.
This idea further inspired so many unique and exciting elements I would get to play with: Having a reveal flip the genre of what you thought you were watching is an interesting experiment in controlling tone; having many layers of mystery raising the tension prior to the twist gave me an opportunity to craft a scenario where the ending revelations alter everything that came before. A re-watch of the film with prior knowledge made for a different experience; and in the simplest terms, my concept gave me a fun way to surprise and delight viewers with more grounded expectations for what this type of film is supposed to be.
I know I said no spoilers originally but I’m going to have to break that rule to bring up the last but most crucial source of inspiration. The story ultimately reveals itself to be Science Fiction in its last moments and this was very important when developing the story and its themes. I have long believed that the best and most successful Sci-Fi are those that underscore some kind of relatable human experience or theme, albeit through a fantastical lens. This is really what formed the basis for what the characters and drama in my story are built on.
When you first started at AFTT, did you ever think you would be able to make a film like this?
I feel like everybody lives with that fear that secretly you’re not good enough to do what you love. That is often what holds us back from pursuing our dreams, we don’t want to put ourselves out there and have those negative thoughts proven right. But that’s the great thing about choosing to start studying at a place like AFTT, it’s the first step in moving past those fears and putting in the work to prove to yourself that you can.
Looking back now, I know that without the training, resources, and eager backup from my colleagues, there’s no way I could have pulled off what I ultimately ended up with in Coping Mechanism. So I wouldn’t have been able to completely fathom what I have now, back then. But back in the beginning, when you have that idea down on paper and you still have no idea if you are “able to make a film like this”. I think it’s important that no matter what, you say “Yes”. After all the hard work, time, and compromise that is to come, the thing that will get you through is your ability to ignore the fear and doubts and just say “I can make this film”. To get across that finish line you just have to choose to believe you can.
What made you want to study film?
I have always had a connection to film, having grown up surrounded by entertainment and endless access to VHS tapes. But sometimes the things you are closest to, you can also be the most blind to. It somehow never actually occurred to me for a long time that filmmaking was something I could pursue, although I seemed to subconsciously circle it by chasing connected fields at University. Most of these studies led me astray, as such broad subjects like New Media Production drove me into careers in Web Design which were just never fulfilling.
Meeting like-minded individuals would lead me to help out on amateur shorts in many technical roles, thanks to already having a few media production skills. With each creation, my appetite for filmmaking and what could be possible grew. I suddenly realised I didn’t just want to take this more seriously, I NEEDED to take it more seriously. Coming across AFTT right as it was about to have an open day was both the motivation and the inspiration I needed to take myself where I probably should have been all along.
What was your favourite thing about studying at AFTT?
The Consult system is what really takes AFTT beyond merely being a “school”. One-on-one sessions with working industry professionals where you get to personally benefit from their insight and expertise when developing your projects is a unique and invaluable experience. Every part of the process from evaluating script drafts, to managing project feasibility, to fine tuning the eventual edit, is done with hands-on guidance by consultants who want to help you realise the best version of your film possible.
You can’t get more “industry ready” training than working with tutors who make every day feel like you’re already working in the industry!
What advice would you have for anyone thinking about studying film?
Be a closer! Making films is hard work. It takes a lot of planning, cooperation, effort, time, and compromise. Throughout all of that struggle, there will be as many things that go wrong as there are things that go right. Just keep going, finish the film.
One of the most eye opening things I’ve discovered in my time is how many projects get abandoned, for all kinds of reasons. Actors bring it up all the time, how many films they’ve worked on that never saw the light of day. And this is an industry about results, for better or worse you have to be able to produce that end product. If you’re serious enough about filmmaking that you’ve decided to commit to studying film, then you’ve already got what it takes to see it through. So no matter what happens, if you have to compromise on set, or even if you have to rescue a project in the edit and make something completely different than what was intended. Finish that film!
Check out the teaser for Coping Mechanism below.
To learn more about studying Film at AFTT, click here.
Coping Mechanism - Teaser from Sean Leonard Roberts on Vimeo.