Q&A: British filmmaker Bertie Gilbert on the delicate relationship between trauma and art

WSN spoke with London-based filmmaker Bertie Gilbert about the complexities of channeling grief into his short film “Please Care!”


Bertie Gilbert’s latest film “Please Care!” is available to stream online on Omeleto. (Courtesy of Bertie Gilbert)

Stephanie Wong, Film & TV Editor

25-year-old filmmaker Bertie Gilbert has been a prolific director since the young age of 16, when he first found success on YouTube for his offbeat and whimsical short films. Some notable titles include “Let it Be” (2016), “Playground” (2017) and “Stomping Grounds” (2018), the last of which went on to win the First Flight Young Talent Film Award at the New Renaissance Film Festival. He has since gone on to build a vast body of work, including frequent collaborations with singer-songwriters Will Joseph Cook, Tom Rosenthal and Dodie Clark, more commonly known as simply Dodie. 

His latest short film, “Please Care!,” stars Hugh Skinner of “Fleabag,” and explores the dangers of what Gilbert coins “performative suffering.” The film hones in on one secondary school teacher’s twisted desire to turn his grief into a spectacle by directing a play about his wife’s tragic death. The film premiered at various British Academy Film Awards accredited festivals, and went on to win Best British Director at the British Short Film Awards. It was made available for online viewing on Omeleto on March 9.

WSN sat down with Gilbert to discuss “Please Care!,” the ethical implications of using art to process suffering, his favorite films of the past year and how we should take film “as an art form” less seriously.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: Where did the idea for “Please Care!” come from initially?

Gilbert: I’d say that the initial thing that inspired it was from how a lot of the films I’ve made have a recurring theme of people processing difficult emotions in unproductive or unhealthy ways. I wanted to extrapolate that idea, and write a story where you’d be able to figuratively tap on the glass of someone doing that in a reprehensible, but not entirely irredeemable, way. There’s something inherently perverse about taking your grief, and instead of processing it in a healthy way, burdening a bunch of adolescents with it.

The danger arises with these impressionable young teenagers: are they going to be able to deal with what is placed upon them? I wanted to explore that kind of emotionally stunted person — one that seems to be an all-too-prevalent figure — in a colorful and playful, but no less tragic, way. That contrast between something pure and innocent like a school play with something horrible, the terrible loss of a loved one, and trying to use the former to make sense of the latter — it’s a fool’s errand. 

WSN: What’s your opinion on people processing their trauma and grief through art? Do you believe that there are ethical implications that should be considered when it comes to dealing with that kind of subject matter?

Gilbert: That’s a great question, and it’s a massive part of the initial inspiration. As someone who grew up doing YouTube, I would always gravitate toward making contemplative personal vlogs. I definitely felt this instinct kicking in to document whatever I was struggling with at the time. I’d have this feeling where I would think, “If I don’t take this pain and distill it into a piece of work, it’s wasted and serves no purpose.” When I was more removed from whatever it was I was dealing with, I could recognize how dangerous and damaging that thought process could potentially be.

But I am also a massive advocate for turning your pain into art. If you are to make a piece of art based on a trauma or pain you’ve experienced, I think you have to be very cautious about what stage of your journey of processing that pain you’re on when you make that art. In the case of “Please Care!,” I imagine that the death of his wife has happened really recently. Before he can even stop to consider the enormity of what he’s feeling, and how tragic this all is, he’s immediately gone to pour that pain into a creative project. 

I would say that the healthier route for that would be to just develop a bit more of an understanding of what you’re feeling. For me, I like to make stuff when I’m more distanced from all of it. If you’re gone through a journey where you’re coming to terms with your pain, you know that the best thing you can do with that is to replicate it for other people who have gone through a similar experience and encourage them to process their pain. It all depends on what stage of your journey you’re on when you turn that pain into a product of sorts — it’s all very complicated. 

Also, another thing that I’ve found interesting is that often the quality of the creative project in question can blind us to some of its insidious aspects. The play in “Please Care!” is so obviously crap, so you can kind of see it for what it is and don’t have those blinders. It’s interesting how a lot of art gets a free pass if it achieves a certain level of polish and quality, but I do think it’s important to see through that, especially when dealing with heavier subject matter, and make sure that your intentions are pure. 

WSN: How would you say “Please Care!” fits into the rest of your body of work?

Gilbert: Like I said before, I think a recurring element in my filmography was people not being in touch with their emotions and dealing with their trauma in unproductive, dangerous ways. It’s not the most autobiographical work of mine — I’ve never been a drama teacher or set fire to a school, yet, but I think that it is the most meta. I’ve been making films since I was 14, and I’ve been quite vulnerable with thousands of people since I was very young. Maybe that doesn’t lend itself to making me the most well-adjusted person. As far as I see it, it’s the most reflective of my relationship with creating art.

WSN: I read somewhere that you co-wrote the script with Dean Dobbs, who you said wrote all the funniest bits in “Please Care!” Who’s funnier — you or Dean?

Gilbert: Dean. He’s so immediately, constantly and consistently funny. If he was in this interview, he would have already run circles around me with regards to humor. This is a very easy answer. He’s very, very funny.

WSN: Who do you cite as your biggest cinematic influences?

Gilbert: This is a tough question. As I get older, I find myself borrowing less and less from other films and filmmakers. There are loads of directors that I like. I really like Mike Mills. When I watched “20th Century Women,” it just floored me. The way he was able to explore the most intimate details of relationships, all those small idiosyncrasies, it all felt weirdly cosmic. There’s a monologue at the end where you kind of see time unravel, which I really connected to. Exploring the vastness of the universe and the human experience simultaneously — it’s something that I hold in my mind a lot when writing stuff. Mills makes really lovely, warm and charming films that are still honest, raw and complex. 

Spike Jonze has always been one as well. The way that he conducts himself as a creative person has always inspired me. It’s not that he doesn’t take it seriously, but he’ll do “Jackass” and “Bad Grandpa,” and then do “Her,” all these music videos, and a bloody perfume advert or whatever. Whatever the creative project calls for, he’s happy to jump at that chance. He doesn’t view film as this sacred thing, which I don’t either. 

Naturally, I have a lot of friends who are super into films. But once I go to the cinema with them, I just want to go home as quickly as possible because I don’t like that little debrief and unpacking you do at the end of the film — what you didn’t like, why it was so brilliant or why it wasn’t. I literally just want to head for the exit as soon as I can. Nothing but love for those people, but with films, I like them to just wash over me. I want to be moved by a film, I don’t want to be impressed by one. With Jonze, I get the impression that he has a similar perspective. 

Paul Thomas Anderson also shares those same sentiments, I think. His films are so sophisticated, artful and brilliant, but the man doesn’t seem too pompous about it. I think I saw the other day that his favorite film last year was “Thirteen Lives,” that Ron Howard film about those guys who rescued that soccer team that were trapped in a cage. I haven’t seen the film, but it looks like fairly standard and pleasant fodder, and I just love that Anderson said that was his favorite film. I think that’s brilliant. There’s nothing more humbling than that. I mean, I loved “Avatar: The Way of Water.” I love those blue freaks. 

Those are my main inspirations, whether that be through their actual films or just based on how I perceive their relationship with the craft. Just don’t be weird about it. Enjoy what you do and enjoy films, but I always tell my friends who are super into films to please get more than one interest — I think that’s essential to being a better creative. 

WSN: Do you have a favorite film — one that’s moved you, like you say — from the past year?

Gilbert: I loved “Aftersun.” A lot’s been said about that movie, but the last minute or two of it just sneaks up on you. I take antidepressants and quite famously, they soften the emotional highs and lows — you kind of plateau, and it’s harder to tap into your emotions. I hadn’t had a good cry in a while. But when I saw “Aftersun,” it just reached into my throat and pulled something out of me. If it could do that while I was on antidepressants, imagine what it could do if I wasn’t. 

I know that at this point it’s cool to hate on it, but I still really love “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” I’ve seen a lot of people call it a “theater kid movie,” but I don’t quite see that. It takes a while to end, but I did like it. 

WSN: Are there any big projects of yours coming up? I know you’re working on your first feature film, “He Lives!.” What can you tell us about that?

Gilbert: I really want to make it, basically. Because it’s about a very personal subject matter, I need to make it to move on with my life. I just have this really strong sense that if I’m going to do my first feature film, it has to be this one. I’d love by the end of the year to at least feel like there’s a path forward to making it. Making features is obviously a really difficult and complicated thing, but I have faith in the creative side of the project — I just have to persist with regard to its actual production. I won’t stop until I do — it’s all about the hustle and the grind, et cetera. [laughs]

It speaks to a lot of what I’ve been trying to say with my shorts from the very beginning, even when I wasn’t necessarily aware of it. Often, I’ve been tiptoeing around the story I actually want to tell, and this is me confronting and getting to the heart of it. I think it’s far and beyond the best thing I’ve written.

WSN: Do you have any advice for students or aspiring filmmakers?

Gilbert: I think everyone reading is probably in quite a fortunate position, surrounded by like-minded individuals who all share the same passions. Often, I’ll talk to people who don’t go to film school and are sort of adrift, and my main advice to them would be to find other people who share that same passion and make stuff with them. Just organically you’ll have a team around you and just go from there.

Going back to what I said before, I guess my advice would be don’t be weird about films. I think it’s really important to dispel any mysticism that film is an unattainable, inaccessible and magical art form to be put on a pedestal. The moment you shed that, you pave the way for much more authentic expression. Take it seriously, absolutely. But for me, if I don’t feel like I’m reaching into something that’s from my soul, I just know it won’t be as true or authentic as it could be. Take moments to double check that you are drawing from somewhere real and independent of film as an art form — use the medium of film to articulate that abstract, personal thing. Just chill out, don’t be weird, and have more than one interest. Don’t just watch films. 

I love that I sound like such a hater of motion pictures. Maybe I am. 

“Please Care!” is available for viewing on Omeleto.

[Read more: NYFF 60 Review: ‘Aftersun’ is a tender exploration of the intimate space between a daughter and father]

Contact Stephanie Wong at [email protected].