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“Olivia Can Fly”: Oscar Sharp on The Kármán Line

A BAFTA nominee, Oscar Sharp’s The Kármán Line tells the unusual tale of Sarah (Olivia Colman), who inexplicably begins to levitate in her living room, showing no signs of slowing down, not even as she breaches the atmosphere above her very roof. A rich tonal brew, the film is also a showcase for some seamless visual effects as Sarah moves through floors and the sky alike. Since The Kármán Line premiered at SXSW, Sharp signed with Tobey Maguire’s Mental Pictures and is in development on a sci-fi feature. You can watch the short, now streaming in The New Yorker‘s Screening Room, above, and hear from Sharp on how he collaborated with his screenwriter Dawn King, and courted Colman and Andrea Arnold’s regular d.p. Robbie Ryan, below.

Filmmaker: First off, how did you devise the concept for the film, and what was your collaboration like with the writer Dawn King? The film very unusually melds supernatural elements with comedy and family dynamics, and I wonder how much of that was in your original conception.

Oscar Sharp: In the usual way, it started with an image, and a feeling about that image; in this case an image of a woman levitating upright, gradually and inexorably. It hung around partly because it had the potential for narrative built in to it, as her circumstances would naturally evolve as time went on. So this image haunted me for a while, and I started to ask, “What if that really did happen?” and particular moments and situations started to present themselves — and they’d give me chills and haunt me like the first image did.

After a while, I started to think I was trying to tell a story about Jade Goody, who had a very public terminal illness experience that brought out some of the more disingenuous sides of the media. I told that tale to a few people and wrote up the story as a pitch for a radio play. Then it hit me: as is often the way with these images, the real reason it had come to the surface had been invisible to me, despite being seemingly pretty obvious.

My mum had been diagnosed with a terminal leukemia, CLL, not long before the idea had emerged. I was evidently trying to deal with that. I pulled the press element out of the story and went on telling it to people. I started to think it might be a film, but it was Tiernan, the producer, who demanded we make it. But then all my attempts to write a screenplay failed completely — so I took it to my old friend, the amazing writer Dawn King, and luckily she said yes. We spent about a year meeting up between her many drafts, researching and talking and drinking tea and sometimes crying.

As for the tone, yes that’s very much what I wanted to do — I half-jokingly call the genre Magical Social Realism — and a lot of the research was about disinterring the psychological knots that gradual bereavement people in — but ultimately, if it works, it’s all down to Dawn and the actors.  

Filmmaker: You had a handful of shorts under your belt before filming The Karman Line, but how were you able to bring Olivia Colman and Robbie Ryan on board, two of the most (in my opinion) talented figures in the British film industry?

Sharp: The casting director Gail Stevens kindly submitted a letter that I wrote to Olivia’s agents. I’d met Robbie at a shorts night called Film Friends Forever, plus the producers, Fortune Films, had worked with him before on commercials. But let’s be honest, as much as it can be tricky getting the attention of someone who’s in demand, in the end it comes down to the script — then talking with clarity and fire about your plans for it. This is where that year of work with someone as talented as Dawn first started paying off.

Filmmaker: From a purely technical standpoint, how did you achieve the illusion of levitation? Were the atmosphere sequences shot on a green screen or with more practical effects?

Sharp: Olivia can fly.

No, wait, that’s supposed to be a secret. Cut that.

It’s a mix of techniques developed with the inimitable Seb Barker, our FX supervisor. While she’s downstairs it’s mainly wires through holes, upstairs and on the roof, principally standing on green boxes, and in the sky, it’s mainly greensceen. There are all sorts of other little cheats here and there though — and more enhancements added by Seb. Many of the plates he used, though, were shot by Robbie from the top of the same crane that we use as a prop in the middle of the film.

Filmmaker: You signed with Tobey Maguire’s Material Pictures following the film’s SXSW premiere. What sort of doors has The Kármán Line opened up for you?

Sharp: The project for Tobey Maguire is a sci-fi called Onboard — one of those that easier to explain to people in the wake of Her. Plus I’ve a bunch of other plans; Dawn and I have a new sci-fi-mythical idea we’re excited about, I’m scheming a gritty documentary sitcom about slacker wizards, and I’ve got his notion I want to try about shooting an entire feature-length film in 30 minutes flat.

The Kármán Line opened a breathtaking number of doors. It was a door-opening maelstrom. But there’s a whole crush of others cramming through those same doors every day. And for a while all that door-flapping makes it feel like the next thing is somehow going to make itself — but you soon learn that the only thing that matters, whichever door you walked though, is still the pages in your bag. So right now I’m headed back through my bedroom door for a meeting with my keyboard, my fears, and a large cup of tea.


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