Words and images | John Liot
Helier Bissell-Thomas, the name might not mean much to you, but then several years ago the same could have been said about a certain ‘Henry Cavill’. Jersey’s latest export to Tinseltown finds himself positioned on the other side of the lens, and we find ourselves with another artistic islander to be proud of. Kaufman’s Game, Helier’s feature length directorial debut, which was shot on a budget made possible by maxing out credit cards whilst the burgeoning director was still at University, is available now on the Amazon Prime streaming service. The film impressed me on its confidence and technical prowess. The production of Kaufman’s Game was hardly smooth sailing though, and aside from the expected trials of filming, the young director also took on just about every role necessary to get the film completed, from Director of Photography to tea boy. That hard work seems to have been rewarded with more than a congratulatory pat on the back. After winning Gold at the LA Neo Noir film festival, Helier secured distribution across cinema and video-on-demand services for Kaufman’s Game. His passion-project has turned ripples into waves within the film industry and Helier’s next project is already taking shape with some serious star power behind it.
On a routine trip back to Jersey I caught up with Helier to chat about what a life in film means to him.
You shot Kaufman’s Game on a micro-budget whilst you were still at University. Could you ever have predicted the success the film has had since you released it to the world?
It’s hard to predict catching lightening in a bottle. You just need to be ready for the catch when it strikes, and meet the moment with all the prep work you’ve put in. Luck and success are born out of preparation meeting opportunity.
Along with directing the piece you were also making the teas and doing just about every other job that was needed of you. What was the most challenging aspect of creating Kaufman’s Game?
Probably having to constantly think around the lack of funds, while wearing twenty different job hats. Sometimes the stars would line up in the heavens and making necessity the mother of invention was simple, but other times it felt like paddling an elephant to Hollywood, in a dinghy. The one real luxury you have making no-budget, independent films, is that you’re on your time, mostly.
What have you learnt most about yourself throughout this entire process – from shooting the film to enjoying its widespread releases across the world?
I think the thing I’ve really taken away from the experience is that trusting your own instincts as a film director, above all others, will pay off for you. If you believe in anything enough, others will. It sounds a bit crazy, but Kaufman’s Game testifies this notion.
You’ve had tremendous success with Kaufman’s Game being picked up by film festivals, VOD streaming services and a secondary run of cinema screenings. Is this setting the bar for your next film really high? How do you make sure your next cinematic offering succeeds the first?
Yes, Kaufman’s Game has been made to feel very welcome by the national and international markets alike, not least in North America. I think as a director, you have to approach one movie project at a time, and not worry too much about what went before it as you develop the project. My next movie will be different though, as this time I’m working with a high budget, and with the collaboration of a top tier cinematographer and casting director, two jobs I did myself on the last one. So this next movie is different, from the ground up, in terms of its team and management, however, the well of inspiration for it hasn’t changed much.
Has your upbringing in Jersey played a part in who you are as a director now?
It must be deeply culminated into the mix of what I love artistically in cinema, I would say. I love the peace and sense of community in Jersey, and I would love to make a movie here at some point; I have some ideas already. Jersey is a truly magical place and great island to get creative and dream up stories… I suppose there’s a certain Film Noir atmosphere to St. Helier at night that I’ve long been aware of… Trying to find Project 52 for a nightcap is a bit of a ‘noir detective adventure’ in itself! It’s a great joint to knock heads with creative types about town. I love hanging out at the Blue Note Bar also, for the Jazz…
Would you like to see Jersey more involved with the film industry?
Yes, more than anything. I think if the States of Jersey agreed a tax rebate for film producers shooting and/or post-producing movies in Jersey, then in time, Jersey could become a little movie-producing powerhouse, like Belgium is, for example.
The Jersey premiere of Kaufman’s Game took place at the Jersey Arts Centre, thanks to its artistic director, Daniel Austin, who really got behind the movie. It was a terrific and well-attended event; that the media covered beautifully. I’ve been talking to Daniel about hosting more premieres, and possibly film festival events at the arts centre again in the future; it’s a really terrific venue.
Earlier this year Michael Pearce released his Jersey-based film, ‘Beast’. All of a sudden we’ve got two emerging young directors from our shores making waves in the creative industry. How does it feel to be part of this new offering of artists to fly the banner for the Channel Islands?
It feels great! Michael’s movie was a terrific achievement, bringing Jersey further into popular culture. I’m very proud of my heritage and to be part of this new guard of Jersey artists, as you describe, thank you. I’m passionate about this to be sure.
Is there a dream project you’d love to do, working with specific people or telling a certain story?
I’m a one movie at a time kind of guy, so my next LA set crime thriller is getting all my attention right now, although at some stage I would like to make a movie in Jersey about the Nazi occupation. I have some ideas of ways to cinematically stylise it without straying from the history too much. I’d partly like to use this as an excuse to shoot a Jersey Cabbage Loaf… If there’s ever been a bread with unsung cinematic star quality, it’s that one! Please don’t pinch my idea…
What have you used for motivation to succeed within this industry and what would you pass on to a younger generation hungry for similar success?
I’m no oracle but I’ve picked up a few things I guess…
Surrounding myself by people who know more than me, and absorbing as much knowledge as I can.
Having powerful mentors who recognise your abilities better than you do.
Watching many movies, old and new, all the time, especially the classics in a big cinema. Movies by titan directors like David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman were designed to be watched on the big screen with full surround sound, not on VOD links.
Reading a lot of Kafka when you can’t sleep.
Listening to The Beatles when you’re bored.
Spending time in Los Angeles, soaking that city up, it’s the movie biz epicentre still, and probably forever.
Take as many jobs as you can to build up your contact network and make money as your learn and grow your black book.
Eating healthy, keeping fit, not drinking too much.
I’d also say Miles Davis records are a good trigger for Film Noir ideas… He actually composed the score for a French Noir movie once…
When can we expect news from your next project to come out?
It’s all on the way… I’m flying back to LA soon to activate a few things for the next movie with my producer partner, Ben Richards, and its very exciting times. There’ll be official press announcements before long. This is a much bigger movie in scale than Kaufman’s Gamewas, so my approach in shooting it won’t be as touch and go, though the story will be told through the same lens.
Helier Bissell-Thomas, thank you for your time.