Filmmaking team Mark Gill and Baldwin Li have taken a rather roundabout route to the Oscar shortlist. As one of the films that could earn an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short, their very funny The Voorman Problem features a psychiatrist who interviews a prison inmate who thinks he’s God, and gets a bit more than he bargained for in the process. The film has had a long, charmed life with connections to Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and a man whose current job involves holding up a House of Cards.
SSN: Where did the idea come from?
Gill: It’s an adaptation of a short section of a novel by David Mitchell called Number 9 Dream. He also wrote Cloud Atlas. It was recommended to me because I’m interested in the subject matter. I’ve made a few short films about gods and religion and such. He sent it to me and I loved it. It was a good fit.
SSN: What was about it that jumped out at you?
Gill: I have a great issue with religion. I think it needs poking fun at all the time, and comedy is really a good way to do that. Those aspects of it, taking the idea of God being bored, dealing with His playthings, I just like making fun of religion. (laughs)
Li: There was something playful about it, as well. It wasn’t a dogmatic piece. It felt quite reaching. Both funny and intellectually stimulating, rather than just being a critique.
SSN: I think you accomplish that with the Belgium joke, where Voorman threatens to wipe it off the map to prove a point, and that even Belgians probably won’t even mind it being gone.
Gill: (laughs) We’ve actually taken the film to Belgium quite a lot, and they love it. Of course the French love it, because Belgium is the butt of a lot of European jokes. It’s a lovely place, but it is a bit strange.
SSN: Walk me through the process of getting yourself on the short list for the Oscars.
Li: It’s had a remarkably long life, as it happens. We shot it in 2011, and to submit it to the Oscars, you have to win a prize at a selected festival or have a commercial screening in L.A. It was doing the rounds, doing really well, and we’d probably done 25 or 30 festivals, though it hadn’t really picked up any awards. Eventually, we were selected for the St. Louis International Film Festival, and we won a prize there, Best Fiction Short, and strangely, we didn’t find out until a week after the festival had finished. (laughs) Then we checked the Oscar qualifying list and found we had actually qualified, so we submitted.
SSN: What was it like, getting the email letting you know you made the short list?
Li: I was away on holiday, and had told Mark not to call me, but he called me anyway, and I didn’t answer. Then he texted me with the news that we made the short list.
Gill: He’s learned a valuable lesson. Never to not answer my calls. (laughs)
SSN: Have you seen any of the others?
Gill: I don’t like short films. (both laugh) I haven’t seen anything, and I think it’s harder to watch them, the closer you get to the Oscars, because I think they take them down. I saw last year’s winner, though.
SSN: How did you get Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander?
Gill: Baldwin and I secured the money and made a list of actors we’d like to work with. Neither Martin nor Tom were on it, but Kevin Spacey was. So the two of us sent a very nice letter to Kevin at the Old Vic Theater in London, and were very surprised to receive a nice reply from his assistant, telling us Kevin had read the script and was too busy to do it, but wanted to help us secure some talent. He suggested we go to Tom Hollander, who said yes immediately, and Tom helped us get Martin. It seems strange, but it was really that easy.
Li: We had spent a lot of time and effort on the script. Probably eight months solid on it. We’re really proud of it, and I think it really paid off.