Indie Shorts Awards Cannes

I absolutely adore sci-fi, but I'm more intrigued by the morals and the ethics of the future than the spaceships and the explosions.

Richard Fenwick

Richard Fenwick is an award-winning writer / director with a slate of features in development, including sci-fis LIFELIKE and SLOW LIGHT; and thriller SILENCE.
Richard's current film, SOULMATE, is a sci-fi short for BFI Network, starring Mandeep Dhillon and Joe Dempsie. His other films include BBC comedy short ALBERT'S SPEECH, Jaime Winstone starrer, LOVE LETTER and festival favourites ARTIFICIAL WORLDS and SAFETY PROCEDURES. He is also the director of many music videos for Timo Maas, Death in Vegas, Muse and more.
His work has screened at over 100 film festivals worldwide (Edinburgh, Berlin, Annecy, Cinequest, Clermont-Ferrand, Sarajevo) and won numerous awards (Hamburg, Cortolovre, IFTC). He was chosen as a Screen International 'Star of Tomorrow', selected for Cross Channel Film Lab, and participated in Think, Shoot, Distribute and NET.WORK@LFF.

The film combines themes of technology and romance, which, during the technological era we're living in (and especially after the pandemic), seems to be intersecting much more than usual. Can you discuss why you decided to combine said themes?
I think technology has been messing with human connection for a couple of decades now; I’m talking mainly about our bludgeoning online world. Society seems to be struggling with the growing complexity, and I wanted to take that further with SOULMATE, as I literally think the ideas in the film are just around the corner. Human connection was always meant to be in person, and the online world has shattered that. Yes, we connect online, but in a very different way. Alongside our frustrations with this, technology, and tech companies, strive to fill the gap, seducing us with their alternatives. That’s what I wanted to explore with SOULMATE – what happens when a relationship with an AI gets genuinely complex (i.e. so real we’re seduced). Will we know what to do? And what will it mean for the future of real relationships? I’m also finding people’s response to the film fascinating. I don’t want to include spoilers, but the ‘positive’ ending has definitely seduced viewers. I’m of the mind that the film is acting as deftly as the technology presented in it! I want you to be charmed in that moment, but I also want you to catch yourself days later, wondering whether you’re addicted to your technology to have felt that way.
The casting of Anna and the actor for the AI would be pivotal. How did you approach the casting process, and what qualities were you looking for in the actors to portray the emotional complexities of their roles?
I knew the actor playing Anna would need good range — she is after all, playing two parts, and they are quite different. Mandeep Dhillon is primarily known for her comedy in the UK but I had seen her in a wonderful short called The Forgotten C where I saw another side to her, and I was massively impressed. And I think she had just been picked up for CSI in the US too, so I was very aware of her. The results in SOULMATE speak for themselves, I think, and I feel fortunate to have found her. Joe Dempsie was also high on my list as I knew he still considered shorts (not a given when you’re talking about big names). He was so intelligent about the role. He wanted to know how human he was. How much he should play up the artificiality, if at all. We had philosophical discussions before and during about how his character would be experiencing some of these emotions for the first time. He was great to work with.
Do you see the film as a realistic reflection of contemporary society's increasing reliance on technology for connection and companionship?
No, it’s an exaggeration, but at the same time I think this is our direction of travel, so could well become our future sooner than we think! We’ve been sold convenience in capitalist societies for decades — from shrink-wrapped slabs of meat to cars on enticing finance deals. The tech industry is no different: it will sell artificial relationships to us as a convenience; as an alternative to real relationships, and validate it by saying it will solve the loneliness crisis. It might well do that, but in a way that could mean real relationships never recover. Of course, I hope I’m wrong, but I hear so many horror stories about the state of online dating, and how relationships feel more difficult in the digital age. In tandem, the loneliness epidemic appears to be growing out of control too, so the signs in contemporary society don’t fill me with great optimism.