Charlotte Regan Takes a Different Approach to Documentary Filmmaking in Latest Vimeo Staff Pick

Charlotte Regan give direction to her actors
Charlotte Regan give direction to her actors

The idea for director Charlotte Regan’s latest short film came up naturally. “Drug Runner,” which debuted today as a Vimeo Staff Pick, tells the true story of a 15-year-old cocaine dealer. The film’s hybrid approach explores how he came into the drug scene and the inevitable results of living on the wrong side of the law.

“The person it’s based on is a friend, and I always just felt like it was a story that was never told,” says Regan, “the reasons behind people getting involved in things like drug dealing without making the character a villain, because he was just a normal everyday kid.”

Blending Documentary and Fiction

“Drug Runner” is equal parts documentary and fiction film. Regan based the voice over that serves as the foundation for the short on interviews with the protagonist’s real-life counterpart. “I interviewed him about three times, and those interviews were more like general chats that went on for about an hour or two each time,” Regan explains. “He knew the intention was never to use his voice, so he was happy to chat openly.”

Regan then had to find a way to shape those raw interview recordings into a manageable narrative: “I had to then make a decision on what sections to use, so whilst it is a ‘doc’ its, of course, like all things heavily edited. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have the budget for a 6+ hour film, haha!”

Instead of using the recorded interview directly, Regan hired actor Alfie Stewart to re-create the voice over from the edited interview transcripts. She chose to not to let Stewart listen to the original recordings: “I never wanted him to try and completely re-create the guy’s speech pattern and style. Alfie is such an incredible and intuitive actor, and I wanted him to have his own take on how it should be said.”

Mitchell Brown on location for "Drug Runner"
Mitchell Brown on location for “Drug Runner”

Regan gave both Stewart and visual actor Michell Brown ownership over their roles. She credits their performances as part of what gives “Drug Runner” its appeal. “Mitchell in particular — I think it’s rare to find that [talent] in such a young actor,” says Regan. “Often his first take will be better than any take where I have given him direction! He is amazing, as is Alfie.”

Behind the Scenes

In addition to the film’s talented actors, Regan and director of photography Arran Green used light and color to bring the story to life. “The intention was always to make it a very colourful piece especially initially when he’s falling into that world and loving it all,” Regan says of the production style. “We always see the desaturated gloomy council estates when the truth is if you have lived in one from young they are filled with fun and your mates and people you know.”

Deliberate lighting during production combined with a color grade added in post contributed to the film’s final look. Shooting on both Arri and Blackmagic cameras meant a bit of extra work for colorist John Layton, but the result is a cohesive color palette that reflects the emotional impact of the narrative.

Film crew on an urban basketball court.
The cast and crew of “Drug Runner” on location
camera operator with a camera on a tripod
DP Arran Green at work

Regan did her own editing work on “Drug Runner,” which she says was surprisingly straightforward: “Because of the script/interview dialogue and the very literal style it was literally edited almost exactly as it was storyboarded … I wanted it to start off quite matter of fact, giving people clear insight into his position. After that it was just about knowing when to let things breathe and when to cut quickly, which just comes with many re-edits and a great team giving you honest feedback.”

A Collaborative Process

The feedback turned out to be an integral part of the production process, especially since Regan stayed so close to the film from start to finish. “You have to be honest and harsh with yourself,” Regan explains. “If more than one person has a note — no matter how much you love the bit they are talking about you have to cut it or change it, as obviously it’s nagging at multiple people.” She advises emerging directors to avoid that ‘ah it took 5 hours to film that shot though’ attitude, since, in her experience, it never improves the finished film.

A good team and clear communication also helped bring “Drug Runner” closer to Regan’s vision. For instance, since Regan had very little experience working with audio, she relied on sound designer Michael Ling to craft the all-important soundtrack. “We have worked on every single narrative project together,” Regan says of Ling, “we just fully know each other’s styles and what we want to achieve with something.”

"Drug Runner" production clapboard
“Drug Runner” production clapboard

Regan goes on to emphasize that a good team is important to any production: “They’ll a better opinion than you ever could if you are both on the same page story-wise.” She also advises aspiring filmmakers to shoot as much as they can: “It helps you know what to try and avoid going onto the next one.”

Looking Ahead

Speaking of the next one, Regan plans to continue to explore this hybrid form in future projects, though she claims she has no plans to evolve the documentary genre. “I just like to tell stories that are exciting me and that I feel motivated to tell. This style is interesting to me and the people I work with … we love the approach of fiction filmmaking but we love the truth of doc stories, so its a nice way to merge those two things.”

Thank you to Bold Content and Dana Lockwood for conducting the interview on which this article is based.

Nicole LaJeunesse loves a good short film. She’s also Videomaker’s Managing Editor.