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Interview: Sparky Tehnsuko for VILLAIN

Here be dragons

Having worked in various roles on big-budget productions — including James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019) — writer/director Sparky Tehnsuko has gone on to direct a number of short films via his independent production company Cowboy Funfair Ltd. he formed with producer Sej Davé. Their ethos is to “develop and produce innovative and engaging stories for modern audiences”, most evident in their recent short film “Villain”, starring Bella Ramsey; a small epic that shows off a grand scale coupled with traditional storytelling.


Set in Iron Age Britain, a teenage girl, Georgia, makes the unwise decision to seek revenge on the dragon that torched her home and killed her mother; however, her mission is upended when she unexpectedly discovers a scaly child, Sabra, in the unfazed beast’s lair. Sparky took some time out to answer a few questions about the film.


What inspired the story — a lifelong interest in genre storytelling or a specific seed?


I wrote down a simple bullet-point version of this story one day as a means of catharsis, to fictionalise a real-life family schism that I had personally experienced. But then I decided to obscure the reality of it a little further, by creating an overall metaphor using fantasy elements, as I saw that as more exciting than a kitchen-sink drama about things so familiar to myself. I’m definitely a great fan of fantasy, but the genre was honestly used as a coat of paint to layer over an event I found too ugly to portray without it.


There are Beowulf vibes, I guess a great deal of the fantasy blueprints are unavoidable via the hero’s journey... but are there any other specific influences on the film?

The main theme of the story is that of revenge, and how perspectives of trauma differ. With that in mind, movies such as Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here and Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, as well as books varying from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to James O’Barr’s The Crow, were all rattling around in my head as I was writing and directing the film. As for the look of the film, my aim was to take bright elements of the hopeful fantasies I watched a lot as a kid (Willow, Dragonheart etc.) and mash them into the dark, despairing fantasy of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. There are probably a million more subconscious influences too.


I have to talk around a particular element, but it feels like you are naturally building a myth here, such as a new breed of humans immune to fire?


Kind of, though I think I’m far from the first to do it — the idea (which I hope comes across) is that these characters are half-dragon, so they inherit some of those genes but are forced to live as outcasts. I think humans find it far too simple to shun others for differences, so for any of these Dragonborn people to exist would likely mean they are ostracised and grow to be very lonely, which can quickly breed anger and hatred… and with shielded skin, they’d be a great threat to those who wrong them.


The film screams quality a really ambitious task that tackles such huge scope. Were you being intentionally economical setting it 90% in a cave?


Thanks! We managed a lot with very little, largely due to great favours from talented people made more available by the pandemic, and I don’t think we’d be able to achieve it again today if we attempted the same. As for the economical intent, the answer’s both yes and no: the story is still practically the same sequence of events as it was when it was simple bullet points, with most of those events happening in one location just because that was how it was written. We did cut a planned montage of Georgia’s journey to the cave, though — mostly to keep her built-up anguish present from the opening scenes, but at least a little to lower the costs of running an entire crew to a bunch of locations to only shoot for a few seconds in each one.


Is the short seen as a proof of concept?


I’d like to do more with it, yes; rather than the medieval era, Villain is set in Iron Age Britain, which is a fascinating period of tribal civilisation and art that’s rarely (if ever) portrayed in popular stories. Though it was initially planned as, and remains, a self-contained story about the futility of wrath and its effects on innocent bystanders, I have found myself planning a sequel of sorts to expand on the characters and their wider difficulties surviving the world in which they live.


Which filmmakers do you admire?


The likes of David Lynch, Julia Ducourneau and Takashi Miike all need due credit for giving the world beauty and ugliness in variety through their sheer fearlessness. Otherwise, I enjoy dramatists who hold up a mirror to society’s ills, such as Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet, as well as the recent wave of great horror by Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. I watch more movies than anyone else I know, so I could go on forever!


What would you like viewers to take away from the film?


I’d ideally like viewers to see and feel the effects of anger on families and relationships, and to encourage conversation over silence, but if people take away nothing more than a feeling of exhilaration from watching Bella Ramsey running through fire to fight a giant dragon, I’ll take it!

Visit Cowboy Funfair Ltd. for more information on Sparky and Sej's projects.



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