INSOMNIACS is fantastic short film currently playing in the Cinequest Shorts Program 1: States of Mind. Two London insomniacs meet on the roof of a building at 4am. This 15 minute film has several comedic moments, but also shows just how unfunny it is to be without sleep for several days. Vanessa Kirby, as Jade, especially infuses her character with the palpable frustration and insanity of the chronic sleepless. But though 4am is the loneliest time of day or night, finding one person who shares your anguish can sometimes help to bring peace.
I was lucky enough to interview director/writer Charles Chintzer Lai.
1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of INSOMNIACS, from concept to financing.
I have struggled with insomnia my entire life. It’s a problem that has been exacerbated by a busy lifestyle in big cities. At the time of writing, I was reflecting on a past relationship I was in with a girl who also struggled with sleep deprivation. It’s an intense dynamic when you put two insomniacs in the same room at night — we had a lot of 3 AM conversations and at that time, you’re only thinking about your deepest concerns and fears. So from that experience, I had this vision of a romantic drama exploring a connection between two people that couldn’t sleep.
The film was self-financed on a very low budget.
2Q: Although short films are my favorite, they often have little chance of being seen by a wide audience, and an even smaller chance of gaining you fame and fortune. This is your third short. Why do you choose this format?
I made this short as a way of working on my craft. I am relatively new to filmmaking – these 3 shorts are my only experience in directing narrative. I knew I was not ready to make a feature, and that I needed an opportunity to experiment with new things aesthetically. Particularly visually, I wanted to show a very romantic eye, to create a dreamy, seductive mood. We experimented with reflections, lens filters that softened the image, atmospheric lighting. The experience helped me build confidence in my visual aesthetic, and I now feel prepared to take the next step to features.
3Q: Now you are in the “easy” stage of filmmaking, the high of showing your film to an audience. Do you ever stop being nervous when presenting a film? How do you think audiences will respond to INSOMNIACS?
I just hope that audiences have an emotional response to the film. Particularly anyone who has ever struggled with insomnia, I hope this film is faithful in communicating that experience. What I wanted to articulate is that insomnia is not a disease, it’s not something that can be easily cured; it’s symptomatic of broader mental health problems. And through these characters, I hope audiences can gain an understanding of the problems that can lead to insomnia.
4Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making INSOMNIACS?
My best experience was shooting the scene where Theo is watching Jade from across the apartment complex. It was the most complicated scene I have directed. Particularly whilst shooting Jade. Vanessa Kirby, who played Jade, was stationed in an apartment on the other side of the complex. We communicated via walkie-talkies. To see Vanessa through the window, she had to be positioned very precisely—so via the walkie-talkie, I would adjust her position throughout the scene. We shot on very long lenses, 600 mm and 135 mm, which enabled us to see Vanessa and gave it a voyeuristic feel.
Whilst shooting Theo’s side, I wanted to capture the feel of a man that was lonely and lovesick. Using a window reflection, we were able to catch the London skyline, a view of Vanessa’s apartment, and Henry Lloyd-Hughes (who played Theo) observing her with longing and desire. It was complicated to get the lighting just right to capture all these things in the same frame. I have to give alot of credit to my DP Simon Walton.
You can watch the scene here: https://vimeo.com/83180449
5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won an Oscar for INSOMNIACS. Give us your acceptance speech.
I tend to keep my expectations in check, so would never prepare an acceptance speech in advance. So if this actually happened, it would be a spontaneous mess. That said, here it goes…
I want to thank my cast and crew. They really deserve all the credit. My amazing cast: Vanessa Kirby, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Imogen Stubbs, Charlotte Hope. My producers Prudence Beecroft and Charlotte Wolf. My executive producers Nathan Silver, Fred Casella, Nuala O’Leary. My HODs Simon Walton, Jake Whitelee, Josh Ward, Rosalind Boulton. And everyone who gave their time and effort, and believed in this project.
And to anyone who has ever struggled with insomnia, I know how difficult it is, I understand what you go through, I know how you feel. This film goes out to all of you.