We chat to director, producer and Film Production HE Certificate alumna Li Wallis about her journey to shooting a six-part mystery thriller series, NothingMan, with a team of Catalyst students and alumni. Photos by Dico Baskoro.
Li Wallis is a creative whirlwind. As soon as her feet touched the ground at Catalyst in 2019, we knew that she’d take our Film Production HE Certificate course by storm. The former documentary photographer knew what she wanted out of the one-year programme, and she took every opportunity to fast track her dream of becoming a TV series showrunner.
Li wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of her ambition – not least a pandemic. In fact, it was during the first lockdown period that she laid all of her creative chips on the table. Li decided that she wasn’t going to start her filmmaking career by creating a short film or even a feature film, but a whole six-part mystery thriller series: NothingMan.
Daring? Yes. Crazy? Well, once you see what Li and her talented cast and crew (of predominantly Catalyst students and alumni) have already accomplished, you’ll think again. Besides, when you’ve come through the Catalyst filmmaking boot camp, shooting a whopping 17 short films with your fellow students in just one year, creating six hour-long episodes no longer seems like such a reach.
NothingMan is about a group of strangers who find their lives upended when a series of unexplained deaths take its toll on the psyche of the residents of Berlin. As the city slowly loses its mind, alliances are forged when warring entities, hellbent on exploiting the environment and profiting from the unfolding disaster, emerge from the shadows.
Following the release of the first NothingMan trailer and the launch of the Patreon and Gofundme campaign, we caught up with Li to learn more about the exciting project and the extraordinary people behind it.
A lot of people would say that directing an entire series is extremely ambitious for a recent graduate. When did you first get the idea and what was the moment you decided to go for it?
Yes, I would definitely say it’s ambitious. I had the inspiration in March, during the first lockdown. I couldn’t go to school, so I was really thinking about different ideas. NothingMan started out as a very simple story with just a few characters and a little mystery at the end. It got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger as time went on and the pandemic kept going. I’m kind of an obsessive worker, so I can’t just sit at home and be bored; I have to work. So the situation forced me to just think a lot and knock around ideas.
I would meet a few friends individually to share ideas on things and I asked them if they wanted to work on something like this. Then, after the lockdown, when things started opening up, we realised that we could do it. I started gathering my crew and main actors in April. That’s when I was thinking about a lot of the people that I knew from school that I could trust and collaborate with, that were also extremely talented.
I guess I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the film world, because my main ambition is to be a showrunner for TV series. I’m very much somebody who appreciates series where you can get to know characters over time, with a plot that changes and morphs. At Catalyst, I was very gung ho about series. I kept saying it’s not just the future, it’s now. Look at the pandemic and what happened. You can’t really go to cinemas. It’s all about streaming.
When I went to the Berlinale, I spent most of my time at the Berlinale Series, which was at the Zoo Palast. That was an extraordinary week. I got to go to tonnes of panels and see head people from Netflix and HBO, as well as different streaming services from Europe, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. They were debuting shows and they had panellists, writers, directors, showrunners... The majority of them were women, so that was very inspiring. That, to me, opened up a world of the future potential of series. It felt more optimistic than the film side.
“There’s no way anyone is going to hire me if I just say it. I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to prove it, and this is the way I’m doing it. It’s ambitious, but that’s me.”
So, that’s why I decided to go in this direction. It made me very passionate about series and confirmed that I was on the right career path. That is something I would talk about in my class and everybody thought I was crazy. But now I’m doing it. I feel like if I want to be a showrunner in my life, I have to have a show. There’s no way anyone is going to hire me if I just say it. I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to prove it, and this is the way I’m doing it. It’s ambitious, but that’s me [laughs].
Your team recently released a great teaser video for the pilot episode. What do you hope to achieve from this promotional effort?
Yes! I have to give huge kudos to my cast and crew. I think they are the people that make this show, by far. I think each person is amazing, dynamic and fantastic. In a way, it’s like its own show behind the show. Every single one of us has our own real-life characters. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, photographs and other things to tell our story. The teaser video, on YouTube, is a long video. Originally we wanted to make it about three to five minutes long, but it went to seven minutes. But I thought it was a great way to show some of the main characters. For example, Zed, Astrid and Shauna. The video features those three main characters with little flashes of some of the others: Esther, Jack and Osman. There are also behind-the-scenes clips which show some of the crew. I just love it.
I also wanted to show the love and passion we put into NothingMan through this teaser. Like I said, I’ve been working on this since March and April. I’m still working on it. It’s literally my full-time job; that’s all I do. We have filmed it on a shoestring budget. I’ve given everything to it, and I know a lot of the others have, as we all work for free. We’ve put all of our passion and dedication into this, whether it’s through acting, working on camera, working on sound…
It’s a passion project, but we’re trying to also deliver something that’s super professional. Yes we have worked for free, but it is a high-quality product. I do believe that ultimately, when this pilot episode is finished, it is something you’d see on a streaming service, like Netflix, Stars or HBO. We’re really doing what we love – every single person working on this is doing what they want to do as a profession. As the creator and director, this is my dream job. Oliver Rotter, our fantastic director of photography, wants to specialise in this area for the rest of his life. And it’s the same for Lawrence Bolton, who is our amazing sound recordist and sound designer.
In order to release the next five episodes, we really have to raise money. What we’re asking for isn’t huge. Consider that there are series like The Crown, where one episode costs millions. We’re just trying to fundraise ten thousand euros per episode, which is fifty thousand euros in total. Technically, that’s not a lot, but for us, it’s a lot. That’s why we did the fundraising video as kind of a teaser. It’s something for people to pass around and hopefully it gets the word out.
Li Wallis with lead actors John Dooley, Julie Millaud, Siebe Schoneveld and Milena Rendon
Actors Milena Rendon, Sophie Chmiel and Sabine Schröder
Actor Juan Arthur and Li Wallis
Actors Siebe Schoneveld and Milena Rendon
DoP Oliver Rotter, Li Wallis and sound designer/recordist Lawrence Bolton
Where can we support the project?
Our cast and crew have filmed individual videos where they tell their stories and talk about their interests, passions and what they did on the set, as well as some funny stories. All of this is going to be exclusive content for Patreon supporters.
Five euros is the cost of two beers [laughs]. We really appreciate it, because that money will enable us to do what we’ve all gone to school for, what we’ve invested our time in.
We love how much of your promotion focuses on the characters, so that we can get to know a bit about their personalities and motivations before the story unfolds. What inspired you to present the series in a ‘whodunit’ format?
During the summer, most of the other five episodes were planned out. There were a few of us getting together in a writers’ room. Now it’s mostly me and my flatmate John Dooley who write it. The show started so small and now the plot has become a battle between two main sides. You have The Revered, which is this extremist environmental group, and The White Brigade, which is a mysterious band of misfits. The pilot is going to be split into two chapters. I really want to play on what is good and evil. Is it obvious? Or does it change over time? Then you think, ‘ooh they were bad, but actually they might be good.’ The plan is really to confuse and change the audience’s expectations.
Every single character will go through extreme changes in development. We have our six lead characters, which are highlighted on the website. The other characters are also going to be quite instrumental in the way the story goes. I find that fascinating and super exciting. The pilot is just the introduction, so wait till you see the other episodes!
Again, that’s why I love the format of series, because you can’t do this in film. You have around two hours to tell a full story; it’s just a window into something. But with a series, you can go into one season, two seasons, three seasons. It’s mind blowing.
“The very cool thing is that everybody, except for about six people, went to Catalyst. If it weren’t for Catalyst, I wouldn’t have met them.”
How did you select the cast and crew? Tell us about a few of the key members.
Oh my, I wish you could interview all thirty people! We have just over thirty people who’ve been involved. The very cool thing is that everybody, except for about six people, went to Catalyst. If it weren’t for Catalyst, I wouldn’t have met them.
As for the main people, I think I’ve got to give it to my guys. Oliver Rotter, who did not go to Catalyst, is someone I’ve known for a year. He’s my DoP. He’s amazing. He’s somebody who’s so easy to work with and is a real visionary. We plan our shots together. He’s super creative and has an eye for detail. I don’t think I could have chosen somebody any better than him. He’s my right-hand man and one of my partners.
Lawrence Bolton, a Catalyst graduate, specialises in all things sound. Not only does he record the sound. He’s also doing the post editing, cleaning up the dialogue. He’s working on the design of it, including foleys. He’s giving it real ambience and atmosphere. Just like Oliver, his eye for detail is extraordinary.
And Jayden Bailey. Jayden is a director in his own right, but he is our head gaffer. I’ve learnt so much about lights from him. Wow. And he’s just an overall amazing team member and cheerleader of this whole show.
And John Dooley. John did not go to Catalyst. He’s my flatmate and my best friend, and he’s also one of the main characters. He plays Jack, the ornithologist, the birdman. John has also done some writing on this show.
Those guys have been with me from the very beginning when this whole thing was just a blip, and they’re the ones who’ve put so much time and effort into it. I could go on and on about everybody else.
Jayden Bailey, Li Wallis, Oliver Rotter and Lawrence Bolton
Oliver Rotter, director of photography
Lawrence Bolton, sound recordist and sound designer
Jayden Bailey, gaffer
John Dooley, actor and co-writer
You’re collaborating with Electronic Music Production & Performance student Francisco Morel on the score, who also created the music for your previous film Logan’s Will. What is your combined vision for the sound this time?
The famous Francisco. He has also been with me since the beginning. He knows my passion for thrillers, for things that are very dark, for suspense, for the supernatural. He gets that; that’s his music. So, for NothingMan, what we’re working on is something very haunting. It’s a bit ethereal, it’s disturbing, but it can also be beautiful. It echoes the visual look. It’s meant to be eye candy, while going down a dark path.
Above: Francisco Morel's sound palette for Logan's Will
Linn Hege Langrekken – who graduated last year from Catalyst Music – is doing a lot of the vocals for this and some of her compositions. And, oh my god, you just wait till you hear that. So the first trailer track is Francisco’s. Our second trailer, which will hopefully come out in a few weeks, will have Linn’s music. Man, you just wait.
We couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the mystery disease in NothingMan and the pandemic. Is the storyline a commentary on COVID-19?
No [laughs], thankfully. It was inspired by the pandemic – the virus is sort of a catalyst into this world. But, ultimately, it’s about the destruction of the environment and the illegal animal trade, with some supernatural elements thrown in. So, yeah, as the series develops, it’s definitely more on the environmental side. There’s nothing about COVID in there. I think we’re living through enough of it.
Prior to studying the Film Production HE Certificate at Catalyst, you worked as a documentary photographer. What drew you to fiction? And how did our one-year filmmaking crash course catalyse your journey as a director?
Yes, I had enough of documentary photography, and I wanted to work in series for quite a while. I decided to make the leap last year. I definitely prefer fiction, and for me, it’s also important to build worlds. That’s what I want to do; I want to build whole worlds and characters, with crazy stuff happening. I am inspired by truth – I’m a big consumer of news – but I want to create something that’s brand new and original.
"Catalyst is different in that it offers many artistic courses under one roof – as opposed to just a film school or just a music school. That's why I chose to go there."
The one-year crash course at Catalyst allowed me to collaborate with a wide range of fellow students studying in different areas – like music production, sound engineering and acting. From the outset, I knew I wanted to bring people together to work on a large project. And I was able to meet lots of people from different years to make this happen. Catalyst is different in that it offers many artistic courses under one roof – as opposed to just a film school or just a music school. That's why I chose to go there.
When can we expect to see the first episode?
Yes, when? [laughs] I am doing the work of about ten people at the moment. I’m editing, and I will continue to edit forever! No, our first trailer has just been publicly released. Currently, we’re working on the post production – so we’re doing our sound design, our scoring, our visual editing. Zac Yeates, another Catalyst student, is also doing amazing work on our opening credits. So, whenever people see opening credits and they think, ‘oh this is really artistic,’ that’s what Zac is doing. Oh, and don’t forget colour grading. We get to do that soon too.
The first episode will be just over an hour and ready at the beginning of the new year. We are deciding on distribution at the moment. Of course, we would love to find a production company, which could take it on and help us with the following episodes, or maybe do a season two with the full budget. Who knows? But we will find a way to distribute it, even if it ends up on YouTube or spreading via word of mouth.
For now, we just need to film the next five episodes, just so we can have a complete series. My aim is to have the whole series finished by the beginning of next summer.