Making 'The Hut': a short film by Angel Jones
Writing, directing and producing a short film from start to finish...
In May 2021, I wrote, produced and directed the “no-budget” short film, ‘The Hut’ at Highfield Grange Studios. It was wild.
‘The Hut’ is an original story (inspired by a true event) about Ray, an injured woman who takes refuge in an abandoned mountain hut during a treacherous snow storm up in New Zealand’s southern alps. A psychological spiral brings her to the revelation of her own PTSD from a traumatic relationship when she meets her alter ego.
It’s a dark comedy psychological thriller. The short film idea stemmed from my feature film script of the same name, as a way into exploring and testing out the idea for the screen and diving deep into one specific narrative thread of the feature film. The story was inspired by a true event that happened whilst I was living in New Zealand, having read in the news that a tourist woman was found injured, but alive, in an empty ranger's hut up on the Routeburn track after an accident left her injured and her husband dead on the trail. After leaving her husband's body to try and find shelter, she came across an empty ranger's hut which luckily had some tinned food and various supplies. She waited out in the hut for a month until she was found by a rescue team. On reading this, my creative mind was racing and I knew I had a story, and an incredibly engaging female character, in there to create and explore.
Using the basic premise of the feature film, this short film offers a space for the character of Ray (and the audience) to dive deep into one specific issue, which then opens a whole world of spiralling characteristics of self-criticism, anxiety, guilt and shame. The film explores the performance of identity, gender, relationship PTSD, guilt and the dual nature within the self. Oh, and it interrogates the way we speak to ourselves and perform when no one’s looking but ourselves.
The hut is both a physical and metaphysical space, a threshold between living and dead, the past and the present. The in between space of existence. It's a liminal fertile space brimming with creative and narrative opportunities. The potential to thrive, but also the potential to stagnate and fixate on the past. This is where we meet Ray – in a crucial moment of limbo.
I wrote the screenplay with a practical approach, using my own shoe-string budget as a creative constraint. This was liberating as I wanted it all to take place in one single space, with one actress, and a very small crew. I then began with this premise and thought about which element of Ray’s story I wanted to explore the most and put into a pressure cooker environment, in which the character can then interact with herself in a fresh and exciting way. I already had the conceit of her physically interacting with her “alter ego” on screen (which you can do in film using only one actor, hurrah!) so I wanted to ensure that there was some crucial, vital revelation during the film’s arc. Then, it felt essential to explore the character’s latent PTSD from a past abusive relationship. The way these things creep up on us, unconsciously, and have such an impact on our lives yet they can go unchallenged until we find ourselves in a pressured environment. Ray is (quite literally) forced to face herself inside the hut. And so is the viewer. From this outline, I was able to secure a ridiculously talented actress, Charlotte Luxford, who luckily for me, was very much into the idea.
Now I had the idea in mind, it was a case of writing something narratively and visually engaging with all of the practical constraints in mind. I started with the conversations Ray has with her alter ego, and it all developed from there. Writing this short film was a strangely smooth process – which I believe is down to the work before hand (and the fact I’ve been working on the feature story for a few years). I sent the script to my potential crew, and landed the dream team.
Charlotte and I rehearsed in the world of Zoom (due to Covid-19 restrictions). It was a fulfilling process and I was blown away by what Charlotte was bringing to the character. As I hadn’t secured the location for the hut yet, for the most part, we were both imagining our own spaces of the hut and so blocking and physical rehearsing would have to take place super last minute before the camera was rolling.
As it was a micro-micro budget film, I needed to pull in lots of favours. I got incredibly lucky. Highfield Grange Studios offered up their studio space as they were in between filming, and they even offered their accommodation for free so that my small crew could stay. Viridian FX offered up their Black Magic Ursa 4.6k and sound equipment. And I was able to rent lights for cheap from a lovely man named Paul via Fat Lama. All was going pretty smoothly considering I was learning how to produce a "proper short film" on the job.
I had the location, the crew, the gear and I'd made a realistic (and ambitious) shoot schedule. I just needed everything and everyone to bring their A-game. (Oh and hope that none of us contracted covid.) A lot of the producing process was (is) managing the team and ensuring everyone was as excited and enthusiastic as I was because when you're making something with no budget in a very short space of time, you need everyone to feel supported and excited and inspired. They were.
Making the set:
I’ve always had a clear vision of what the hut looks like…in my head. Once I secured the location and the studio said we could use anything we wanted from their props room, my partner, Tom, and I visited the studio and scouted the best place for where we could build "the hut". We decided a small square room would do the trick. We then just needed to make that without a production design budget…luckily for me, my partner is an artist and we were both able to come up with a set design. A week before the shoot, myself, Tom, and a wonderful art director, Dec, rocked up to the studio to “make the hut” using the resources we could find at the studio and some of our own. It took us 5 hours to turn a white box into an old mountain hut. And we did it!
I was genuinely surprised at how authentic the space looked and couldn’t have been happier with it.
(You can watch the time-lapse videos of the making of the set below here)
Everything started to feel real. I was no longer imagining this space in my head but I was seeing it before me, and so were the rest of the team. It was inspiring, motivating and fucking exciting.
On direction and planning the shoot:
After visualising the film from start to finish many, many, many times in my own mind, I created a mood-board and playlist for how I wanted the film to look, sound and feel. I pulled location images, production design photos, props, costume, lighting from some of my favourite films, and songs that connected to the mood of the film’s story. This was crucial for the rest of the team and helped the whole process as we only had a couple of weeks to plan and it was all over zoom or the phone.
I made several drafts of shot lists by going over the script and visualising the shots. My wonderful cinematographer, Matt and I then went over everything together, and shared our ideas, and he went away and created a shot list for the shoot which we collaborated on together.
As producer and director, I had to work out a balance between reigning everybody (and myself) in with regards to what we could feasibly shoot in 2 and half days with a teeny tiny crew of 5-6 and in such a small space. It was both scary and thrilling. We had to think outside the box and stick to a rigorous schedule.
The shoot was planned down to every little detail and I re-drafted it several times. The rest was down to the execution – a mixture of hard work, precision and luck! And...going with the flow on the day. I was well aware that not everything can go to plan. What's that phrase?....
The 4 weeks leading up to the shoot were filled with prep – arranging logistics, crew, planning the logistics of the weekend, the food, the schedules, along side the being the director and creatively planning. It was intense and hugely rewarding. I was in my element and fell in love with the shoes I was filling. I was riding on a buzz. Everything was going...well...and I just had to stay on the train to keep momentum going, as it really was building. There was a moment where I thought everything was going a little bit…too well. And it kind of was, until my lighting arrangement fell through a few days before the shoot and I genuinely worried that we wouldn’t be able to get hold of the lights we needed in such a short space of time with my practically non-existent budget in mind. But, after a day of emails and connecting with other filmmakers based in York, I got lucky…and well, learnt about a little website called Fat Lama where I was able to hire out everything I needed for a pretty good price. Crisis averted.
Now to shooting the damned thing.
The film shoot:
Directing the film was the most fulfilling experiences of my creative life to date. I felt such a thrill on set with everyone, and I was fully in the moment – present and content and focussed. It was an intense shoot, as the schedule was so full on, but the team were so talented and full in it, and Charlotte was such a professional actress. Not only is she incredibly talented and brought the character of Ray to life, but she was so focussed and in the zone that we were able to go in and out of takes fluidly. It was a treat to be in the presence of her acting.
During the shoot, myself and the crew were so involved with the whole process that decisions were made very much intuitively and in the moment. It felt GOOD. And, regardless of whether some of these decisions were "good" decisions or not, it was a positive space to be in.
On reflection, looking back on the shoot, I know there are some shots I wish I’d got (coverage! Duh!) and naturally, as the edit progresses, there are ideas I could only have thought up in hindsight. So I don’t regret a thing as this is all part of the learning curve and the creative process - the making and doing and growing. I’m hugely grateful for the lessons I’m learning. Directing ‘The Hut’ has been a monumental learning experience, and a beautiful and powerful reminder of why I want to tell stories through film. That, in itself, is a gift. It all started with taking one small step, and then another, and then another...
A film is collaborative by nature, and I couldn’t have made this film without such an inspiring team – a set of talented, unique and motivational individuals that each brought their own magic to the film.
And so the journey continues, one step at a time...
Here's to the next film.
'The Hut' is currently in post-production. Stay tuned for film release details.
P.S. Watch the time lapse videos of the making of the set here: