Film | This is the Northland - Q&A with Director Ted Simpson
Adventure filmmaker Ted Simpson has had quite a year. Almost twelve months on from the completion of This is the Northland, a contemplative and evocative short film exploring man's connection with the landscape through the prism of his grandmother's stories about Sandwood Bay in Scotland's wild North West, Simpson has screened the end result at festivals across the country and spearheaded a number of new projects through his production company, Just Trek. Not bad at all for someone who only graduated in 2016, with a degree in History from the University of Edinburgh — though his experiences establishing the student-run EUTV must have helped.
This is the Northland is a remarkable piece of work, austere and foreboding in its visuals while also feeling profoundly personal and philosophical in its tone. It's atmospheric in both senses of the word, simultaneously showcasing Scotland's famously changeable weather conditions and affecting a haunting, mercurial mood that is sometimes nostalgic, sometimes transcendent. The film both takes its name from and directly quotes Neil M. Gunn's Highland River, 1937 — a fitting touchstone for a narrative that covers similar ground; physically, metaphorically and — in the case of Simpson's grandmother, presumably — temporally. Needless to say, it packs a lot into its 10 minute run-time.
Fresh from his success at the 2018 Adventure Uncovered Film Festival in December, where This is the Northland won him the New Talent award, Simpson spoke to us about his influences, experiences and ambitions:
This is the Northland does an excellent job of establishing its story and themes, but I was wondering if you could tell us more about your own journey to Sandwood Bay?
Thanks! I'd actually had the idea to make a film about Sandwood Bay for a long time, since I first heard about it in the stories my grandma told me about the location. The biggest truth I hold on to when filmmaking is the importance of story, and with Sandwood Bay I felt my grandma had gifted me one of the most intriguing tales of any place in the UK — a tale that hadn't really been explored before.
I spent a lot of time reading old accounts of the place, both of its haunted reputation and more general writings about the area. I had initially wanted the film to be narrated by a voice from the local community, in order to cultivate a sense of the location telling its own story, and after spending some time up there I met Cathal Morrison, a former John Muir Trust manager of the Sandwood Estate. He was full of stories from his long tenure there and also held a real appreciation of its wild beauty, but he was incredibly camera shy and refused to be filmed or recorded.
It took this obstacle for me to realise that in searching for these stories to base a film around I had actually developed quite a unique relationship with the place myself. After a little break from the project it dawned on me that the best story to tell was my own. I think what makes the film so personal and engaging for audiences is that it's honest.
Some might envision adventure filmmaking as being very present and of the moment, and yet you actually studied History. How does the past inform the stories that you like to tell?
I've thought about this before — I actually think the approach to history and storytelling in film have a lot of crossover, and it's definitely informed my process; making sure there is a strong narrative and being able to critique the elements is definitely as skill I learned from my degree. More broadly, the reason I was attracted to history from a young age was because I love learning about different stories and perspectives. I think film, and particularly documentary film, is definitely an extension of that. My favourite films are ones that bring me into a world I didn't know about — just as history can.
Speaking of the word ‘adventure’, how do you define it personally? And how easy is it to be adventurous while also being environmentally sustainable and socially responsible?
Adventure to me is really a mindset — searching for and seeking out moments in which to be present. A few years ago I really thought I wanted to pursue being an 'adventurer' as a career, but in reality there's a difference between putting that in your Instagram bio and truly living that lifestyle. Now I just try and search for those moments where I feel challenged, moments that can give you a hard reset on your perspective on life, and those moments seem to happen more frequently when you surround yourself with the natural environment.
When we started heading out on our own adventures, we always headed north to Scotland, rather than somewhere far flung. It wasn't particularly from an environmental mindset but looking back I think exploring and appreciating what's on your doorstep has been a massive part of building my identity as a filmmaker, and as a human. I'm really proud that I've been able to tell a story about wildness that people engage with -- one that's entirely set in Scotland. I aim to continue that in future films too.
I think about the environmental consequences of adventure and filmmaking more and more, and find it difficult to balance travelling a lot for my job. Maybe it's that guilt that has made me think more about and work harder to tell stories that engage people with natural environments, at home or abroad. It's something I'm trying to do with Just Trek as much as possible, even with things like our little Christmas film about ocean plastics, Flotsam.
This year you won the New Talent category at Adventure Uncovered for This is the Northland. How important has the film festival been in getting the film out there, and do you have plans to screen the film at any others?
I finished This is the Northland last February, and after the film played at a couple of smaller festivals I thought it had run its course. It'd been a great personal project for me but already I felt like I'd grown and that I wanted to move onto the next project.
But then AUFF happened. To win the New Talent award at AUFF was very humbling — the quality of the other films screening was so high that it was just a pleasure to be a part of it. And then the film also played at Kendal Mountain FIlm Festival, which I regard as a massive personal goal and I was honoured for the film to play there, at one of the biggest adventure film festivals in the world.
Between that and the New Talent award at AUFF the film's been given a new lease of life, and now we will see it at a few more festivals in 2019 too — including Peebles Outdoor Film Festival in January and Sheffield Adventure Film Festival in March. It's been amazing to see the film play at these festivals, and to see different communities engaging with the themes the film presents.
Scotland obviously features heavily in This is the Northland, but Just Trek has gone international. How did you get involved with WWF and what would you like people to take away from Expedition Congo?
Expedition Congo was the result of a collaboration with Josh Guyan, a really talented wildlife cinematographer and photographer who I met in 2016. We'd talked about working together with him in front of the camera for a while when the opportunity came for a short series with WWF, and we jumped on it.
The focus of the series is on biodiversity and that's the big takeaway -- we're encouraging more people to understand that all living things exist in a complex network together, and that if you remove or damage one part the whole ecosystem could fail. I think it's a strong message that made it worth the trip, and despite massive time constraints on location we were able to share it in an engaging way.
I certainly didn't think I'd get the opportunity to tell these kinds of amazing stories at this point in my career, so it’s been awesome to see our work going out and reaching literally hundreds of thousands of people.
Just Trek works on a wide variety of projects, from commercials to web series to short films like This is the Northland. Can you see your company producing feature-length documentaries in the future?
Absolutely. I love the challenge of commercial work but the goal is to tell stories in longer form. I think between Expedition Congo and This is the Northland I'm ready to take things to the next level. I feel those two projects are examples of strong storytelling and are a good indicator of the style I'm developing. More than that, both projets focus on the kinds of stories I'm attracted to telling.
Despite the obvious differences, they both open conversations about wild places and our relationships with wild land. In 2019 I'm actively searching for more stories with those same themes; it's something I'm very passionate about right now and I feel I'm in a good place to get some more screentime dedicated to that. I'm in writing mode at the moment and hopefully at some point this year I'll get a chance to turn those treatments into a reality.
You’ve already achieved so much since graduation. What would you say the highlight of your career has been so far?
That's hard to say — I absolutely love my job, and it feels as though each day has some small highlight to it! Expedition Congo is an obvious choice, as there were so many incredible moments packed into the shoot — like seeing an elephant in the wild for the first time, crossing a river, while capturing the shot on a gimbal from a boat a few metres away.
But I actually have to say that finishing This is the Northland might even top that. Taking that personal connection to my grandma and late granddad, my affinity with Scotland and my love of wild places, and turning it into a fully formed piece of film that's been put out into the world was an amazing (and terrifying) experience.
This is the Northland is possibly the truest expression of my filmmaking voice so far, and so for it to connect with audiences and be recognised is really confidence-inspiring, and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.