Interview: The Walk Director Michael Jobling and Screenwriter Sophie Ellerby

Interview: Sofia Jones
Friday 10 November 2023
reading time: min, words

Sofia Jones speaks to director Michael Jobling and screenwriter Sophie Ellerby about their new short film The Walk, which was produced by Notts' own Griffin Pictures and screened at the 67th BFI London Film Festival as part of the Right Here, Right Now programme...

The Walk

In The Walk, Amar (Adeel Akhtar) embarks on his weekly 24-mile round trip to the job centre and back. Amar must make this almost Sisyphean journey because his rural bus route has been cut - and if he doesn't, his benefits will be cut.

Ellerby and Jobling portray not just the cracks in the UK’s system, but a person who lives within it. The Walk is not simply about hardship, but a meditation on grief and the self, too.

Sophie Ellerby is a Nottingham-born actor, screenwriter and playwright. She began her acting career at Nottingham’s TV Workshop and went on to a role in This Is England. Her play LIT is now being adapted for TV. Although she is an accomplished writer, The Walk is the first film she has written.

Michael Jobling is an editor, writer and director. He moved to Nottingham to study filmmaking at Confetti. While living in Nottingham, he began his own production company, Them Pesky Kids. As a director, he has made countless music videos and short films, one of which was nominated for Best British Short at Birmingham Film Festival. He is currently developing ideas for a feature film - but for now, we chat to Jobling and Ellerby about their latest project, The Walk...

Where did the idea for The Walk come from?
Sophie: I was doing a writing residency in Shropshire with a theatre company called Pentabus. I was living in a rural part called Ludlow when I found a Guardian article about this guy whose bus route was cut. He had to walk a 24-mile round trip to go and sign on at the job centre each week.

I thought it was crazy that this is the case for some people in this county. It’s like these quiet stories that don’t necessarily make headline news. We realised there was a question: is it a pilgrimage or is it purgatory? It felt like he was having to do this thing again and again, just trapped in the system. 

Michael: So often cases like this are represented as a statistic, or people end up being defined by that particular predicament. It clicked for us that he has also got some other stuff going on in his life. This bureaucratic decision has been made by the council and it's adding a load of salt to the wound. It is a side to these stories that you wouldn’t see; I felt like it was a really interesting excuse to explore that.

I liked the challenge of it from a filmmaking perspective. It was one person walking, we didn’t know what his destination was - which relates to the whole ‘pilgrimage or purgatory’ thing. But also, just from a storytelling perspective, it was a bit of a challenge - and that’s what excited us.

Everyone was keen to have an intimate experience with this character and the sense of isolation that he is having on this walk

Did that kind of storytelling remain a challenge once you started making it?
Sophie: Because it is just one man on screen, walking from one place to another, and so much of what is going on is going on inside his head, there is a lot of scope for the audience to project onto the story what they see. There are some clear moments of conflict and tension between him and his brother on the phone, but there is a lot of subtext in the film, more so than in a lot of my other work. I think that is because of the context. You could have put a voiceover over the top, but that would have ended up becoming a John Lewis Christmas advert. 

We spend a lot of time reading Amar’s facial expressions and movements. Adeel Akhtar’s performance is a real credit to the film. Could you tell me how he got involved in the project?
I have admired his work for years. We ended up coincidentally meeting through a mutual friend, and we got on so well. We had a great chat about life and work and philosophy. I came back and spoke to the team on The Walk and we suddenly realised Adeel would be amazing. We asked him, and luckily he was up for the challenge. It was a real honour to have someone of that calibre backing the project, and it was a beautiful part of the process to have him in the fold for that last chapter of development.

Michael: I was very excited by the prospect of it because he is the only actor to ever make me fall out of my chair from laughing. So knowing that he can do both is special. But that is not coincidental, he is very committed to understanding you as an artist. There would be times when we’d speak about everything apart from the film. What he is trying to do is to understand you, and sort of love you and see what makes you tick or what you are passionate about, what part of yourself you are putting into the film. He’s not just an actor, even though that’s what he's famous for, he’s an artist. 

We didn’t want to have a solution to his problem, but for him to be equipped with a different perspective, or with a different tool to help him carry himself

I expected much more of the scenes to take place in the job centre. Did you always write the scenes in nature, or were there different scenes cut in the final adaption?
Sophie: In screen development, especially in short films, there are so many different things that influence the development over time. Everyone was keen to have an intimate experience with this character and the sense of isolation that he is having on this walk.

There were so many different versions, I don’t think I’ve ever drafted so many times. Some versions were much more I, Daniel Blake style. What is interesting about this one is that, as Michael said, it’s a side of that story that doesn’t get shown much. When we think about poverty and people who are below the poverty line, I don’t think the most immediate image that comes into people's minds is the rural. It is seen as a city problem.

Coming back to the article, there are so many things that you take for granted when you are in a city. If your bus route is cut and you live in the middle of nowhere, there is a sense of isolation that is scary. You can still be isolated in a city, but there is something about the physical isolation of rural life. 

Michael: Looping back to the lack of dialogue, I almost saw it as another character. The environment around him, even the sound design, is speaking to him. The world around you is subject to the eye of the beholder, so it matched his perception of himself, as if the world was attacking him - justifiably or wrongly.

The rural setting is a complex relationship. It is something that can be scary and aggressive, but can also provide you with a lot of solace and peace. We didn’t want to have a solution to his problem, but for him to be equipped with a different perspective, or with a different tool to help him carry himself - even through that day.

If it didn’t cut to the credits at the end, he would still be in the same position. He still hasn’t talked to his brother, and he still has to go to the job centre - but he is equipped with something slightly different, yet even he wouldn’t be able to articulate it. We wanted the environment to be the thing that did that.

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