The 405 caught up with director Barney Cokeliss to chat the art of cinema, the genesis of art and creative ideas, film-making, influences, and his new short film Night Dancing.

Every night, Bob (Jason Thorpe) is transfixed by the vision of a woman dancing (Louise Tanoto) outside his window; every morning, he struggles to make sense of it. The line between a leap (of faith) and a pas de deux grows increasingly fine as the dance beckons.

What instantly hooked me in this remarkable little short was the fugue state the audience is lulled into along with Bob in watching the woman dance.This dream is not conjured merely by Cokeliss and his actors: cinematographer Philippe Kress played a part in framing each shot in a way that accentuates the waif-like quality of the dancing woman; the exquisite coloring courtesy of Jean-Clément Soret (visual effects on 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) did much to drive home that slight despondency of Bob; and most especially the incredibly elegant, sumptuous score from composer Anné Kulonen (who worked with Cokeliss on the short The Foundling), without which the dance could not have happened.

Is the dancing woman real? Is she but a dream? The ethereal pas de deux that is Night Dancing will keep you wondering – and wanting to know. While the entire narrative with her will remind you that hope and positivity always exists near us, even when we seemingly cannot feel it all – don't be afraid to dance.

Hello Barney and welcome to The 405! I'd like to start by inquiring a bit about your history, what got you into film-making?

Thanks!  When I was a young kid I always assumed I'd be a writer.  Then, as a teenager, I discovered cameras and took thousands of photographs.  Film-making emerged pretty quickly as the ideal way to bring my narrative and my visual interests together, and then to add music.  It's a highly addictive combination!  So, like a lot of people, I started making shorts while I was a student, and while doing entry-level jobs on film sets and in cutting rooms as holiday work.  Learning the process from the ground up by having to do lots of things yourself is something I'd encourage anyone to do. 

That is a great way to learn. I'm very hands on as well. Favorite films and favorite directors? Which have been most pivotal on your development as an artist?

My list of favourite films is pretty eclectic, but they all mean different things to me.  I love Goodfellas for its energy, boldness and formal invention; Aguirre for its crazed linearity of descent; Some Like It Hot for its magic and deceptively effortless-seeming charm. 

I'd mention A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort S'Est Echappé) for its intensity; The Big Lebowski for its characters and dialogue; Carol for being so beautiful at the same time as catching the nuances of wordless emotion so delicately. 

The defining quality of a great film for me is one that creates its own world - its own unique atmosphere and tone.  So I get excited when I feel like I have a new tone buzzing in the back of my mind that I can tap into when I write.

What you just said actually leads nicely into our next question: what makes a great film?

Aside from that unique atmosphere that I've talked about, I like David O. Russell's recipe - what he calls the "holy trifecta" of camera movement, music and performance.   That trifecta makes great moments.  A great film has to bring those moments together into something which makes us think a little differently about our lives, while all the while following a story that seems outside of us.  That's the ultimate aim - to take people outside of themselves and into your story where they end up finding something of themselves to reflect on.  

The Woman (Louise Tanoto) as she dances like a waif outside Bob's window. Is she but a dream?

I love that condensation of what makes a great film – so true – and so based on our suspension of disbelief, which the best film-makers manipulate like a conductor before a symphony. Our next question: what have been your greatest challenges and greatest triumphs as a film-maker?

I hope my greatest triumphs are ahead of me!  As for challenges - the honest answer is that the biggest challenge most creative people face is making sure that every day they are maximizing their productive use of time and not letting the inevitable distractions of life get between them and their creative goals.  Steven Pressfield's book "The War of Art" is brilliant on this - it's a must-read for anyone who has a project they are passionate about making happen.

The internal battles are always harder but more rewarding than the external ones.  

Getting into Night Dancing – a supremely beautiful, elegant short – I wanted to start by asking what the inspiration was for the narrative itself, and also for the visual language you employed – especially in the scenes where Louise Tanoto's character dances. It was as if we the audience were watching the Bob character's (played by Jason Thorpe) dream and were transported to join him in the sort of fugue state he was in.

Thank you for the compliments!  That dream-watching fugue state description of yours is very astute.

[Laughs] Thank you but just a truism I noticed upon watching both the film itself and my reaction to it.

The idea of a fugue state for the audience is an interesting one - as if the audience shares the character's uncertainty about what's real and thus comes to empathize more - I like that.

The inspiration behind the story is worth recounting, I think, because of the way the film came to me. It came, initially, just as an image: a woman dancing in the street alone at night and a man watching her from a window.  When I started to unfold what that image implied in terms of story, it turned out to involve a number of themes and elements I've been interested in for a long time: desire, longing, loneliness, nocturnal imagery, contemporary dance, and so on.  Of course it's no coincidence - my subconscious naturally came up with an image that chimed with my other preoccupations.  But it's a good example of how, if you let your mind do some of the filtering and creation for you unconsciously, you end up with a more natural synthesis of what you're interested in than you would if you tried to force it consciously.  I heard Jane Campion's The Piano was inspired by one photograph and - if that's true - it's a great example of how letting a story unfold from one image can pay great dividends.

Jason Thorpe as the awe-struck and bewildered Bob: is he dreaming?

As for the visual language of Night Dancing, I made a conscious choice not to limit our experience of the dance to Jason Thorpe's character's point-of-view.  That would have been the obvious, "correct" way to go, but I felt it wouldn't have done justice to the dance, and wouldn't draw the audience into the film as much.

Also, I think there's an element of Jason's character imagining what it must be like to be dancing with Louise, and so his use of imagination frees us up visually a bit.

What do you want the audience to take away from Night Dancing? The ethereal elegance I think is what will stick with me most about it. Such exquisite visual language to capture Bob's longing.

Thank you!  The film touches on a number of powerful emotional issues - issues of isolation and longing, delusion and desire.

On one level it's a snapshot of an episode of mental illness.  But I didn't want to it to carry too specific a message.

Instead, if people take something away from it, I hope it’s a sense that, whatever you may be going through, you’re not alone – and that there is beauty, redemption and hope in the world.  At least from time to time.

As someone who deals with mental illness (depression and anxiety), that part of the film was certainly appreciated. I really liked how that part of Night Dancing – as opposed to most films about mental illness – wasn't completely black too. As you said, there's hope.


Last, where can our readers catch Night Dancing and what is next for you?

Night Dancing will next be playing at the London Short Film Festival and the Los Angeles Dance Film Festival, both in January 2018.

Next for me will, hopefully, be one of three features I'm working on at present.  They're all quite different in terms of tone, genre and scale, but they all have the possibility to move and enthrall the audience, which is what I find most fulfilling about working in this medium.