Zara Woolf Talks Red Velvet & Filming During The Pandemic

Filmmaker Zara Woolf joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about her upcoming short film, Red Velvet.

Q: Hello Zara! Welcome to Close-Up Culture. Can you tell us about your background and what drew you to filmmaking?

A: Hi James! I come from an acting background. I have been acting since I was eight years old in short films, operas and youth theatre productions. I was drawn to filmmaking by A-level film studies and my huge appreciation for the art form.

The role of the director was very attractive to me, interpreting the script in my own way, as I had often longed to do whilst acting. I love working with actors and feel like coming from an acting background and understanding their process is a huge directing advantage.

Q: Can you talk about the story of Red Velvet and where your inspiration came from?

A: Red Velvet is a coming of age/romance short film. It is filled with nostalgic moments, awkward encounters, and life lessons for Emily Conte, a 16-year-old maths genius.

As Emily puts it, a “one in three hundred and sixty-seven thousand chance” occurs when her idol runs into her in an art shop and buys her an expensive painting. She wants to become part of his life and get closer to him; but as Emily had previously obsessed over Jacob viewing him as almost godly, this brings a complicated dynamic to the situation.

It is a short film so I don’t want to give much else away… you will have to go and watch it for yourself!

Q: What impact do you hope the film has on audiences?

A: I hope, for starters, that people will find the subject matter relatable, especially young girls. So many people obsess over celebrities, especially with social media and technology giving us the illusion of being closer to them.
I think the most exciting films include a normal and relatable character get involved with new and exciting territory, which is what I tried to do with Red Velvet.

Emily and Jacob’s contrasting lifestyles bring such an unexpected social dynamic, I hope people be intrigued by it.

The film is aimed at empowering young women to pursue their aspirations with confidence. I hope Emily is an inspiring character for young women. I want the film to encourage using knowledge and drive as a power tool.

Q: I understand it took months to write the script. How did you find this stage of the process?

A: I loved the scriptwriting process. My father, James Woolf, is a published author/playwright and supported me throughout, which I cannot thank him enough for. I learned a lot about story structure through Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat, I recommend this book to all writers; it made my goals for the script feel very achievable. I also attended a 10-week part time screenwriting course at UAL where I learned a lot of fantastic methods for coming up with ideas, useful tips and rules for screenwriting.

Bearing in mind that I myself would actually be producing and directing the film could be considered a slightly restricting obstacle, the script went through about three drafts and I had to shave off 7/25 pages and make it more achievable to shoot.

Q: Working with a small crew and budget can be challenging at the best of times, but you did so during a global pandemic. How did you approach this unique shoot, and how did you find this challenge?

A: The small budget was the biggest obstacle at the casting stage. As you can imagine, most talented and accomplished actors will not work for free so I had to use personal connections and find people who were genuinely invested in the script. This stood me in good stead as it is always fantastic to have people on board a project who are genuinely passionate about seeing it grow. The film was originally due to shoot in April, but of course, I had to cancel this in March, I was absolutely FURIOUS. I literally thought the universe was turning against me, very narrow minded I know haha. But now, in hindsight, I am actually SO glad I had to delay the shoot.

Whilst the project was on hold, I busied myself writing a new socially distanced mockumentary “Ghost Documentary – Working Title”, which I shot in August. But as I was planning and shooting the mockumentary, lockdown started to ease, and I picked up Red Velvet again. Due to the long wait, I had time to save and the budget for the film practically tripled; I was furloughed from my job at PureGym. I was able to source exciting new locations, such as the Strand Palace Hotel in Covent Garden, buy props and allow myself a budget for cooking for the cast on certain shoot days (where I had access to a kitchen!) As a former personal trainer I always made sure that when I was doing the cooking, the cast were getting a meal with high nutritional value!

It was definitely a stress and a challenge having the pandemic to think of on top of everything. The location I wanted to shoot the parents evening in for example, would not allow more than 12 people in a room at any one time, so I had to think outside the box when it came to filming, playing around with angles and where actors were positioned in the scene, to project the illusion of a fully functioning parents evening going on, albeit a small scale one!

I made sure to talk about Covid precautions in all the emails for everyone’s piece of mind. I think the key was making sure everyone understood I was doing my best to take the matter seriously and keep everyone safe.

Q: And how did everyone adapt to the unique circumstances, particularly your young cast? 

A: The cast, I like to think did not have much adapting to do apart from wearing a mask when told to and accepting hand sanitizer on a regular basis from my assistant director. That being said I hugely commend the whole cast and crew for putting up with the masks. I honestly found them a challenge and a huge nuisance. As a director, clear communication with the team is essential, and I felt hugely inhibited trying to articulate my ideas and feelings to everyone at times.

Q: I imagine filming during the pandemic would throw you all kinds of strange situations. Do you have any stories from the shoot?

A: I ran into German Doctor Dr. Heiko Schöning, who was also staying at the Strand Palace (as I was for the shoot) on the way to breakfast. He was asking my friend and I “Why are you wearing that mask”… “You know I am a doctor and they don’t do anything”… “you shouldn’t wear it, take it off”. I admitted that I only wore one because I was told to and everyone else did, I had never researched it.

I had no idea he was a famous doctor planning on protesting at the “We Do Not Consent” rally (anti mask) in London later that day; and I believe that neither he nor I knew he would be arrested and make the news.

Q: What are your hopes and plans for Red Velvet?

A: Originally I had ideas to submit the film to festivals, but I have discussed this with my close friend and knowledgeable filmmaker, Ella Greenwood, who advised against it for my particular situation. The film will be around 20 minutes so it would have an extremely slim chance of being the one 20 minute film selected (most films in the mix are around 5 minutes I believe). I also think that the subject matter of the film, although spreading feminist messages and modern ideas, is not quite suited to film festivals at the moment, the general vibe of the film is light, comedic and romantic. The film will be available to stream most likely on Amazon Prime, TBC. If it does well I would LOVE for it to become a feature or to create a sequel.

Q: What are your hopes for your filmmaking future? Any ambitions or goals you’d like to share with us?

A: I am so excited to start my course at the MetFilm School, I will learn many different roles involved in filmmaking. In the second year we choose to major in two areas and I am pretty sure I will choose directing and editing. My biggest ambitions are to work in Hollywood and to work on a project with Netflix. I would also LOVE to work alongside some of my favourite actors and directors. My biggest dream would be to work with my personal favourite actors: Millie Bobby Brown, Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, and Timothée Chalamet, and directors Wes Anderson or Tarantino. I love having big goals, in my mind, if there’s something you long for – then why WOULDN’T you want to go out there and try for it?

Learn more about Zara and Red Velvet

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