As a London-based photographer, Sean Ellis worked with some of the biggest names in showbusiness, including Elton John, Kylie Minogue and Takeshi Kitano. But his future became clearer when he collaborated with David Lynch on a series of fashion photos. "I was a fashion photographer who was a frustrated film director," Ellis says.
He wrote and directed his first short Left Turn, about a disturbing hitchhiker, in 2001 under Ridley Scott's production label RSA, which brought him together with Lene Bausager, his producer and partner in Left Turn Films. They followed that with another short, Cashback, which tells the story of a student (Sean Biggerstaff) whose imagination runs wild as he works the night shift at a supermarket. "It's a very visual short film influenced by Sean's obsession with capturing a particular moment in time from his photography days," says Bausager.
After initial rejections from a couple of festivals, Cashback went on to win prizes at Tribeca and the Chicago International Film Festival. "Chicago was very important for us because it meant we could automatically apply for the Academy Awards. Then it got nominated for an Oscar and everything became very surreal," says Bausager.
The short did not win the Oscar, but Ellis kept it alive by expanding Cashback into a feature. Left Turn raised the feature's $3m budget through private investors, not traditional UK funding. "This is one of the major problems with this country," Ellis says. "About 90% of what is shown at the cinemas is American. When young British film-makers actually aspire to compete in the same arena as the Americans in doing an actual movie, we don't get taken seriously."
France was more welcoming. Sales and distribution outfit Gaumont saw the first screening of the feature Cashback in London and decided to handle the film worldwide, starting with a launch in France on January 17.
Gaumont has also signed with Left Turn Films to handle sales and to co-produce Ellis' latest project The Broken, providing full funding for the $3.5m film currently shooting in London. Gaumont hopes for a Cannes debut.
Much like Cashback, the film captures a moment in time - when a woman (Lena Headey) sees her double drive past in a car.
The feature was being developed with a US production company but Ellis was unhappy with the control they wanted. Now Gaumont is letting him take the creative reins, Ellis says he takes inspiration from European films such as The Possession, and also Ridley Scott's Alien.
"One of the first times I was aware of production design as a youngster was watching Alien, which didn't go for the shlock horror approach, but classy, finessed tension-building. That is what I'm trying to do with The Broken."