Far Out Meets: Matt Houghton, the director of the short film 'Landline'

At Far Out Magazine we believe in cinema’s ability to heal.

At a time when millions of people continue to adapt their daily lives amid strict social distancing measures and cinemas around the world continue to keep their doors closed, we want to shine a light on filmmakers on a personal level. Turning our attention to the work created by independent artists, we have launched our new weekly series ‘The Far Out Film Club’. The project will focus on one filmmaker during each episode and will premiere on both Far Out Magazine’s Facebook page and YouTube channel every Wednesday.

As we enter series two, the Far Out Film club welcomes Matt Houghton, the director of the short documentary Landline, a project that explores the only helpline in the UK for gay farmers. The film offers a glimpse into the views and experiences of LGBTQ people in the British farming community.

“I was chatting one evening over dinner with a friend of mine, Rupert Williams, and we got talking about what it was like for him growing up in a farming family as a gay man and the sense of isolation that he felt,” director Houghton told Far Out of the initial idea. “I’ve always been drawn to ideas surrounding shared experience, and it got us thinking about how many other people might be feeling something similar.”

He added: “Together, we started to do some research and began to understand the extent to which being an LGBTQ farmer was so heavily wrapped up in ideas of identity. We came across Keith Ineson’s helpline, and it seemed like a unique lens through which to explore these ideas. Over the course of about a year, we collected stories and experiences from LGBTQ farmers who have at one time or another called the helpline and used them as our starting point for the film.”

The final project, made in partnership with Film London, allowed Houghton to express his strongest attributes; the innate of storytelling. The director, who strives to portray emotive, personal and relatable subjects in a profound expression of art, does so on Landline with aplomb. “I love documentaries that challenge the form, but I’m also extremely cautious of style over substance,” he explains. When it comes to documentary, I guess the most important thing for me is to really try to listen to the subject matter and be guided by it.”

Here, as part of the Far Out Film Club, we are premiering a screening of Matt Houghton’s short film which is available through our Facebook and YouTube channels.

You can read a full interview with Matt Houghton below and, at 20:00 GMT, watch the premiere of his film.

#FarOutFilmClub welcomes ‘Landline’. It is a short documentary about the only helpline in the UK for gay farmers – the film views the experiences of LGBTQ people in the British farming community.

Posted by Far Out Magazine on Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Matt Houghton Interview:

Far Out: Given the current circumstances, and the struggles that the film industry is facing, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?

Houghton: “It’s definitely been a tough year for a lot of people, and being an independent director has felt like quite a vulnerable place to be. But I’ve got to say; I’ve also been incredibly encouraged by the support that I’ve felt. As difficult as all this has been, there’s been a very real sense of togetherness. In some ways, we’re all a little softer with each other, a little more caring, a little more empathetic. I really hope we hang onto that.”

We’re focusing on your project Landline, a very niche subject that focuses on one specific area. Could you explain where this idea came from?

“I was chatting one evening over dinner with a friend of mine, Rupert Williams, and we got talking about what it was like for him growing up in a farming family as a gay man and the sense of isolation that he felt. I’ve always been drawn to ideas surrounding shared experience, and it got us thinking about how many other people might be feeling something similar. 

“Together, we started to do some research and began to understand the extent to which being an LGBTQ farmer was so heavily wrapped up in ideas of identity. We came across Keith Ineson’s helpline, and it seemed like a unique lens through which to explore these ideas. Over the course of about a year, we collected stories and experiences from LGBTQ farmers who have at one time or another called the helpline and used them as our starting point for the film.”

Given what could be a sensitive area, detail, if you could, how the scenario of this project was formed, how did you develop your ideas and did the end product match your initial expectations?

“For me, the process of making a film broadly happens in two stages; the development and the actual making of it. In my experience, the clearer you are at the moment when development transitions into making, the better it’ll all turn out. It’s a long-winded way of saying, I reckon preparation is everything. 

“I start most projects with extensive research and development, and for me, that tends to be on my own. For Landline, I worked with Rupert for about a year, exploring various avenues and speaking to a lot of people about their experiences. It’s the stage of the project where I’m working out the narrative, the core themes and the language and, in this case editing the audio layer. The moment that defined the film more than any other was the decision to use Keith Ineson’s helpline as the prism through which to view those experiences. For me, establishing that very clear framing device is when all the research clicked into place. 

“Truthfully, it’s probably the first film I’ve ever made where I ended up with a final product that felt like it was exactly what I wanted to do.”

(Credit: Matt Houghton)

That’s fantastic! Was the whole project plain-sailing, or did your creative vision change when you began to understand more about your process?

“One of my very close friends said to me once that he loves making documentaries because when you get stuck, you can just go back to the research. I really subscribe to that. 

“Developing a clear language for each film I make is really important to me. With Landline, the idea was that everything from the narrative structure to the visual language, the audio recordings to the music, was influenced by the helpline. Once we’d made the decision to structure the film episodically, it seemed as though we had a unique opportunity to treat each of the stories individually in terms of how we told them. 

“We wanted to create an active conversation where the stories of a group of individuals compound and react with each other to paint a broader picture. It felt important to challenge the audience. I didn’t always want people to know exactly where they were or what was going to happen, and the interplay between the audio and visual layers played a huge part in establishing that tension.”

Did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in its creation?

“Anyone who’s made a short film knows that they rest very heavily on the time, skill and generosity of a whole host of people – so all the usual challenges applied. We ran out of money; we didn’t have a location until about a week before we shot, our reliance on the weather was absolute (I remember praying for an overcast day for the first time in my career). But that’s all pretty normal in my experience. 

“The biggest challenge was probably in the construction of the film itself. I think on paper, Landline was quite a difficult project to comprehend. Somehow, the way that I wanted to structure it was not always easy to grasp – for producers, for funders. It was an idea that needed a lot of faith from everyone involved, but once we had that, everything else felt easier. 

What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film director?

“I wouldn’t really want to generalise, but one thing that I think I’ve learnt is that the combination of patience and tenacity is important. Often when I feel like I’ve hit a wall with something, anything really – a creative problem that I can’t crack, a contributor stops picking up their phone, I can’t see a way to get a film funded – I just stay patient and don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many times the solution has emerged, one way or another.”

We’ve reached a point in cinema, much like that of the music industry, when the phrase “we’ve seen it all before” becomes a topical debate. 

How do you stay original? How do you find ways to produce something unique in a market that has so many creatives? Or is being unique even that important?

“I don’t think I really believe that ‘we’ve seen it all before’ because any kind of art form is not just about what you’re looking at but also how you’re looking at it. And if you take that into account, then there’s infinite room for the new to emerge. 

We are all unique, and if a film is an expression of that, then it will be unique. I’d go as far as to say that trying to do something new is a big part of what drives me.”

(Credit: Matt Houghton)

What/who are some of your major cinematic influences?

“So many. Too many to mention, really. During the first lockdown, though, I was co-watching Sidney Lumet and Abbas Kiarostami films with a friend of mine in New York. The level of craft is just incredible to me. I love so many different types of filmmakers, but the thing that I love most is the economy of storytelling. When I think about it, all of my favourite filmmakers share that. 

Do you think those influences are prevalent in your work?

“I wish! I guess in some ways, I’m always on the lookout for things that inspire me, but I do try hard not to just copy. The strange contradiction in all of this is that we watch films to learn but ultimately, you’ve got to do it your own way, right?”

Totally! Given your inspiration, though, could you run us through your process? What distinctive themes are you looking to create, if any?

“I work in both documentary and scripted film, and in recent years, I have become increasingly interested in making films that experiment with story structure and that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. 

“I love documentaries that challenge the form, but I’m also extremely cautious of style over substance. When it comes to documentary, I guess the most important thing for me is to really try to listen to the subject matter and be guided by it.”

How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic within your work? Is it a conscious decision?

“I’m obsessed with film language, especially when it comes to composition and camera movement, and I often restrict myself with simple rules when I shoot. In that sense, I do make very deliberate aesthetic decisions, but they’re very different for each project.”

Generally, speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“It’s so varied. A lot of it really is just instinct, and I try not to overthink it too much. One of the nice things about making films is simply the prospect of your next film.”

Short films are often closely affiliated with independent film and filmmakers, do you think the landscape of this medium has changed over time?

“I really love short films. When I first started making films, shorts really only existed in the service of longer projects. They were always described as ‘stepping stones’ or ‘calling cards’ – the implication being that once you stop making short films, you never go back. But I think sometimes a short is just the best form for an idea. In that sense, I think I’ll always be open to making them.”

Finally, do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of cinema you may be exploring next?

“I’m currently collaborating with an amazing documentary photographer on a short film about endometriosis, and I’m developing a feature project about a bank robbery in the ’70s.”

Good luck with it Matt, we can’t wait to see the results! 

(Credit: Matt Houghton)