Joseph Archer is an award-winning director and producer of films. His current and previous work have screened at BAFTA-qualifying film festivals, such as Raindance, Encounters, Aesthetica, and Carmarthen Bay Film Festival. He has worked with a number of funding organizations including BFI NETWORK, GENERA and NYFA, and now works closely with executive producer Lucas A. Ferrara. Joseph co-founded Window Zebra Productions in 2019 and headed up its narrative production. He left the company in 2022 in order to set up Silicon Gothic Films. Additionally, Joseph is the festival director of Covent Garden Film Festival, which aims to exhibit work around mental health and climate change awareness. He has co-directed a new British Film Institute funded film called The Sikh Soldier in which a Sikh soldier fights through The Great War for the British Empire, only to survive and have to face a further hell back in India.
How was your experience growing up in Lincolnshire? What advice would you give to filmmakers growing up (or attempting to produce films) outside of the major cities where there isn’t already a pre-established film industry?
Filmmaking anywhere is a simple process, made complicated by your financial means, who you work with, and how you choose to work. So Lincolnshire is a lovely county in England, but has very little in the means of anything, let alone activity or infrastructure for the film industry. It is extremely rural and underdeveloped compared to other areas of the UK. Additionally, I didn’t come from a wealthy family with zero connections to the film and TV industry. Thus, attempting to make films is very difficult in my circumstances. So growing up in a proper old shire, the idea of doing it as a career was an impossible thought. But to the confusion of my teachers and parents I would turn my homework into films, handing in the silly cinematic works rather than anything paper-based. This would include directing my mates in my back garden to perform live action versions of science equations and oxbow lakes. The best of this early and wholly unrecognized work (probably for the best) would be my retelling of Macbeth, where the King of Scotland has to fight through WW1, with Lenny from Of Mice and Men, in order to take back oxbow lakes from the German Empire. Some say oxbow lakes featured too heavily in my early experimental work at school. As the film industry is non-existent in Lincolnshire, I was pushed by my parents to study science at university, and I ended up at the nearby University of Nottingham. As a student I did everything I could to not do my boring degree, so I made a feature film called House Party Raiders (2017), a ninety-minute action-comedy. And then from there I continued to make films with the connections I made from and after university. So my advice would be get to a place with a pre-established film industry and make connections. Or do everything you can to make a low-budget film where you live.
You have had a somewhat unconventional journey into filmmaking. What skills did you learn from your science degree and job in journalism that have helped you in your filmmaking? Have you had any other formal training in filmmaking?
Science, journalism and filmmaking share a common goal: to explain the world and communicate it to people. Science does it empirically, journalism does it sensationally, and filmmaking does it artistically. While I have not had any formal training in filmmaking, I have asked a lot of people a lot of questions about filmmaking, and I have made a lot of films to gain experience. And I am still very much learning. I think it would be beneficial in some way if I went to a film school (although I could never afford it) but I have not always been impressed by the people who have only been to film schools, and not had real jobs or real life experience. The work ethic and common sense has sometimes been lacking from life long film students and I worry too that if you have only lived and learned in film institutions then what are you going to offer to the world, other than your ego and your lectures’ second-hand opinions. I think they teach you what a film is, not what making filmmaking is. This may be a controversial thing to say but from what I can see film schools are completely inaccessible institutions that lock out anyone but the financially well off. I know this is a blunt statement, but it is just what I have observed. I’ve had film school graduates coming to me and asking me how do you make films, despite them having years of ‘education’, and me having no formal training. Unfortunately, film schools also add to the unnecessary mystique that filmmaking has, which mentally locks a lot of people out of filmmaking in the UK. The only thing that I think can counter this is the work of organizations like Iconic Steps to provide free or affordable filmmaking courses. The National Youth Film Academy did support my work when I was starting out which I greatly appreciated. In principle the organization was a really good disrupter of the film school market and film training in the UK, but unfortunately from what I know of that organization, it’s future is uncertain. Science taught me that fully understanding a complicated world is rewarding, even if it’s mind blowing. Journalism taught me that the same story can be told to different audiences, and it’s about knowing what angle is best. Newspaper journalism was roughless and competitive too, which was great training for the film industry, and both of the industries have an absurd and unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol.
The Sikh Soldier Team Photo
Are there any filmmakers, writers or artists who have inspired you? Do you have any favorite films?
Lucas Pope may be a genius, if you don’t know his work, check it out now. I’m not an intellectual when it comes to filmmaking and filmmakers but I’d say filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and his team are incredible, and I think Steven Spielberg has made some very entertaining films too. My favorite films include Children of Men, The Lego Movie, Local Hero, Koyaanisqatsi, Thunder Road, Roma, Living Daylights, Goundhog Day, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (of course), 1917 and Boiling Point (the short version film, not the feature). All those bonkers experimental filmmakers in the 1970s are really fun, I think I admire their creativity rather than find it inspiring however. In terms of up and coming filmmakers and artists, Jacob Lee is definitely inspiring. I’d also say Mark Jenkins is inspiring even if his work is a bit hit or miss, maybe a bit too arthouse. Jim Cummings is brilliant and his ethos is inspiring. Also check out the recent short films called Plaggy Bag by Alex Withers, Killing Boris Johnson by Musa Alderson-Clarke, and Personal Best by Lara Peake. For video games the Fallout series and Bioshock series are incredible. For art and designers, Magritte is top-tier, then I’d say James Ensor, then Paula Scher.
How did you come to be involved in making The Sikh Soldier? What was it about the film that caught your attention?
In 2019, I had the initial idea when Sky and I were driving around a roundabout in Derby. We were going to a screening of On In 15, a film Sky and I had made together the year before. The two of us had both just watched 1917 by Sam Mendes, and wanted to tell a WW1 story but from the perspective of a Sikh Soldier. Even though the UK has been making WW1 films for nearly 100 years, but a film about an Indian soldier had not been made. So we wanted to change that. I then spoke to Sindy Campbell, the head of Film Birmingham, about producing the ambitious project. She really helped bring in so many brilliant professionals and good practice to make the film as brilliant as possible.
Can you explain a bit about the history behind The Sikh Soldier and how you developed the themes of the film?
We worked with historians and experts across the world to help inform the story and the history behind it. We wanted to try to give as much context as possible with the time we had, which was difficult, but we came up with creative solutions to do it. The themes surround what a soldier today would go through, as well as what a WW1 soldier would go through. Such as duty, faint, brotherhood, and having to reason with your place in geopolitics and history. How do you know what you’re fighting for is right? Inclusion and expression was another key part. As well as heavily featuring members of the South Asian community in the film, we also included soldiers from other countries, such as French Algerian soldiers. We also had a drag performer in the film, which is never shown in WW1 films, despite them being quite common in the frontline entertainment shows.
What was it like working with co-director and actor Sky Cheema on The Sikh Soldier? How did he complement your own abilities?
It worked really well, we had been working on the project together for over 3 years, so I think we realized how we could bring our skills together effectively. I think us both being from the Midlands and having a love of history helped. I tend to go wild with coming up with the big vision and world, and Sky is very practical and entrepreneurial, so we could easily create the story and film together.
Joseph and Jack Archer
What was the process of building the trench setting, and what atmosphere did you hope to create in those scenes and throughout the rest of the film?
We wanted it to be like the characters are trapped in a maze of fate and duty. It had to be dark and claustrophobic. Additionally we made sure all the scenes in the trenches were at night and all the scenes in India were in the day.
How would you describe your style as a director?
I honestly have no idea how I would describe my directing. So I asked some people who I worked with how they would describe it. They all mentioned I like a collaborative aspect between all members of the cast and crew but I know when to draw a line with ideas if it does not work for the film. Ultimately it’s your job as a director to make sure the film is consistent and does what it sets out to do. I do know what visual styles I like though, such as I love silhouettes and long shots. I much prefer moving shots to anything still, unless it has to be for the emotion of the scene, has to be used for effect. It then depends on what other visual motifs fit the story and themes.
How did you come to form Silicon Gothic and what are you hoping to achieve through the collaboration?
Cathy Wippel and I are both interested in the same type of stories and themes. We’re writing a manifesto which will outline clearly what Silicon Gothic intends to do. Simply though we intend to make eco-dramas that bring to life manmade problems into Gothic style monsters.
Can you tell us a bit about your close working relationship with Executive Producer Lucas A. Ferrera? How important is it for a director to have a strong relationship with an Executive Producer, and how have you benefited from it?
Lucas A. Ferrera is exactly the kind of person independent filmmakers need. He is business focused but also has a creative sense as well. He believes in my work and what I want to do, and I have always been honest with him when things go well and badly, so it helps build a good working relationship. Along with trusting his savvy opinions, I also really like his great sense of humor, which can be as blunt as it is funny.
Cathy Wippel and Joseph Archer
You are also the festival director of Covent Garden Film Festival. What does this role involve and why is the festival important to you?
I want to disrupt the festival scene in London, because at the moment it takes itself way too seriously, and produces so much environmental waste while it does it. So I wanted to set up a new film festival in central London that can offer something different, and at an affordable price, and not at the cost of the environment. We also showcase a lot of films that promote mental health awareness, which I am very passionate about. It’s first year went better than expected, and we received lots of positive reviews. This year I now have the support of an amazing judging panel, and we already have some incredible films that have been submitted. Programming this year is going to be extremely hard.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
I have some feature projects with Silicon Gothic coming up that I’m really excited about. We will hopefully be announcing soon! My brother and I are making a new feature project together. It’s a proper drama, and we’re currently casting for it, so any actors please get in touch! Sky and I have some really fun projects coming up, but I have no idea which one we’re going to focus on. I’m also working with Ben Daly, Lydia Helen and Sophie Sandor on some feature projects. So hopefully lots of fun films are on the way!