In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “The Tunnel,” BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Arash Ashtiani tells the harrowing story of three refugees running for their lives through the Euro Tunnel connecting France to the UK. 

Inspired by true accounts, the film is unflinching in its depiction of the bravery and risk unjustly required from the millions of people seeking basic human rights. “The Tunnel” drops us into the tense third act of a larger story Ashtiani is developing with co-writer Daniel Metz. Yet, the short stands alone as a powerful and chilling story of how far three individuals are willing to go in seach of a better life.

Ashtiani describes the stories he heard in preparing for this film as “rollercoasters” of physical and emotional challenges. In the film, this feeling is masterfully captured through the immersive production design of the tunnel itself and the precise editing that oscillates between the camaraderie formed between the men, the growing fear as the train approaches, and the eerie calm of the train station.

Ahead of the release, we reached out to Ashtiani to hear more about the film and his process. Read on for an in-depth look at how he pulled of such a compelling and ambitious film. 

On the inspiration for the film: 

‘The Tunnel’ is inspired by a true story. My community of friends in London includes people who came to the UK in many different ways and some in the most heroic and horrific ways in the last 20 years. One of the topics that we speak about is how we each arrived in the UK and some of them have come from Calais to Kent with different means of transport.   

When I heard their stories, I felt obliged to share them. Their stories are like a rollercoaster of emotions and events for me. The challenges they overcome, the dreams they have, the will to move, and also the energy. It’s got hardship, physical and mental exhaustion, and moments when their humanity is tested. It’s got laughter and life in the darkest moment and these are the things that inspired me to make this film.”

On the writing process:

‘The Tunnel’ is the last act of the feature script that Daniel Metz and I wrote together.  The first two acts follow these men in Calais training to run the Tunnel. We finished the first draft of the feature script in 2015. Since then we made the short and at the moment we are writing the new draft of the feature script.

We didn’t want to make a social film about refugees, but of course, during the research and writing of the script, we talked to the people who had been in Calais and reached the UK. We read the memoirs of refugees who have written their stories, watched documentaries, plays and films about the camps in Calais and how people live there.”  

On the production design and cinematography: 

From the writing stage, we had this question about where to shoot the tunnel. We had some information about the actual EuroTunnel and as much as we wanted to keep the real characteristic of the tunnel we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to those details. After months of location hunting, we came to the decision that it was better to shoot in a studio. The challenge was how to create extensions for each side of the set. 

Mike McLouglin, our production designer, did an amazing job of re-creating a section of the tunnel within the studio and Nick Morris, our DP, worked wonders in the way he shot it. One of the challenges was to create extensions for each side of the set to see the tunnel as an infinite black space.  Mike extended it with the genius idea of putting a mirror on each end so when the camera looks at each end you see the endless tunnel.  Mike then built a scale model version of the tunnel and we used a Hornby Eurostar model train with a tiny lens attached to it to shoot the scenes of the train actually traveling through the tunnel.  It seemed bonkers, but when Static VFX then brought their skills and magic to the post-production everything started to make sense and look incredible.

We decided to get closer and closer to the main character as time passed by. Each time we cut from the station to the tunnel, we get closer to the main character and it helps to create a more internal experience of the tunnel and the fearless attempt to run it.”

On the editing the film: 

The editing process of this film was one of the most interesting parts of the whole process. One of the most important goals for me was to test to see how we can create tension and suspense. My co-writer, Daniel Metz and I had planned it in the script but I understood it properly in the editing process and I have to thank the film editor Stuart Gazzard for this.

Through the editing process, I learned what kind of information we need to introduce bit by bit in order to build suspense. We shot the Gare du Nord station shots and also the model train after we had our rough cut. The editing process shaped the film by defining the main character, creating suspense and also the pace of the film.” 

On the challenge of making the film:

“I think, in general, making films is challenging. One of the main challenges filmmakers face is getting money to make their films. It took me a couple of years to find producers. Anna Seifert-Speck was leading a program at Berlinale Talent Campus where she heard me pitch the project and introduced me to Anna Griffin. Together we raised money from the BFI Network and Lush Film Fund. 

The mindset for shooting running and action scenes is different from emotional scenes. This became more evident during the shoot and the difference became clear to me. When I look back at the shooting days I learned that I spent the equal amount of time between action parts and more emotional parts which could have been done differently… I should have brought the energy and urgency of the escape and the run into the scenes by shooting them in a faster and more intense time frame and spent more time on the moments between the characters.”         

On hopes for the film: 

I think what continues to worsen is the rise of Nationalism and populist politicians in British and European governments. It’s the government that uses the anti refugees and xenophobe sentiments for their own political benefits. 

By the new British law that was passed just months ago, young male refugees just like the characters of ‘The Tunnel’ will be sent to Rwanda from now on to wait for their cases to be processed. I hope the audience understands the people who go through hell to get to the audience’s beloved haven are humans and full of dreams for a better life, a peaceful and meaningful life. They escape their homes and countries either from war, religious fanaticism, or economic hardship. They better get humane treatment to be able to join the society instead of always labeling them as criminals.

I hope that by watching a few strange people in an unfamiliar setting, going through a challenge because of basic human needs, audiences see their familiarities and see them as individual humans.”

On advice for aspiring filmmakers: 

Filmmaking is not a one-man job and it’s teamwork. Try to find people that make you excited about what you are trying to do. Trust in their taste is key for a creative collaboration. Trust comes from knowing people. Spend time with them as much as you feel you need, and listen to what they say, ask them to share with you their five top movi,es and see If you relate with them or not. It doesn’t matter if they are close to the film you want to make or not, but it helps you to understand if your worlds are close and if you share the same vision for the film.

Don’t let the technical side of your story overwhelm you, don’t compromise your story because of the technical side. 

Be respectful to your colleagues and be demanding!”  

On what’s next: 

“Developing and making ‘The Tunnel’ feature film is my next project. The story of the characters up to the moment they enter the tunnel. My co-writer, Daniel Metz, and I are working on the feature-length script with what we learned from making the short.  

I’ve recently finished a feature-length documentary about an Iranian exiled poet, Esmaeel Khoei, who passed away in London in 2021. It’s mostly constructed by the VHS tapes he had collected during his early years of exile.  It’ll be released in October.”

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