Tom Jolliffe on making a low budget film…
For any aspiring writer, director, actor, or whichever field in film you happen to have aspirations in, a commonality exists. The struggle to breakout. There will be days when you want to give up, or days when you feel like you’re getting close, only to have the wool pulled out from under your feet. Aside from my love of film criticism, and regular contributions to this great site, I have ambitions as a screenwriter.
I’ve come within sniffing distance a couple of times to selling feature scripts. As happens many times in this business though, the precariously perched money atop the tree sometimes snaps its branch and falls to oblivion. As a writer you tend to be on a branch lower than certain others so any stray falling cash is picked up long before you get your mitts on it. For everyone making a film unable to fund the whole thing themselves, funding can sometimes seem certain, only for the investors to back out last minute, often causing a house of falling cards scenario. In the UK there’s not enough investment in film-making for film-makers. We now have avenues such as Kickstarter, but attaining what you need via that is easier said than done.
So what is the answer? Well, aside from grinning and baring it, dusting yourself off and trying again, another is to do it yourself. If you can’t get work as a director, or can’t get your script picked up in order to get a portfolio going, then as best you can, and as much as you can afford it, do it yourself. Network. If you are a writer, get to know directors and vice versa and be prepared to work for nothing initially. Everyone has to start somewhere.
This is what I did, having grown tired of countless short productions failing to get off the ground with my scripts, as well as being within whiskers of selling a couple of features, I decided to take up the role of producer. Firstly I’m not getting at those who decide to make a film and not see it through to shooting and completion. It’s bloody hard, particularly if you want to do anything remotely ambitious or requiring more than just guerilla film-making with a few actors and a single camera. Earlier this year myself and director Alex Lawton (Rewind 4Ever: The History Of UK Garage) were trying to produce a short, only for a culmination of brick walls to put the kibosh on it. Sometimes the fates don’t allow you. Cut forward to around July this year and we developed a new idea that initially was supposed to be simpler than the initial idea (in terms of logistics).
So pre-production begins on the short film Out. As it transpires this film, throughout the process of planning will end up being far more elaborate than the film we tried, and failed, to make earlier in the year. As is always the way. Out tells the story of Paul, who gets out of prison having served time for a crime his younger brother committed. Having hoped his brother Mike had turned straight, Paul gets out to discover Mike is still involved with local crime-lord Jake. Paul once again tries to step in to help Mike, in the hope he can go straight, but at what cost to himself?
With just two of us producing, multi-tasking is in order. I find myself, as does Alex, donning several hats. Location scout, casting director, production manager among other things. I can also hands down say that casting a film is equal parts stressful, fun, enlightening, surprising, annoying and hilarious. We get inundated with responses ranging from not too brilliant, to excellent and with a frustrating amount of people failing to properly read the brief. For the role of mother in the film we get an application from a 26 year old (who is supposed to play the mother of two men that age bracket) Chinese woman, currently based in America expecting us to overlook her age, ethnicity and the fact we’d have to pay her travel expenses to get all the way over here from the states. We also see quizzical, sometimes humorous examples of actor ego as some people in their 40’s list their playing age as 18-40. An impressive range there. We also have to turn down a Britain’s Got Talent finalist along the way.
Casting ends and we’ve assembled a quality group, and as we had hoped, we managed to get a recognisable actor to lead the film. Fresh from the brilliant Channel 4 series, Top Boy, we get Shone Romulus, who played one of Ashley Walters right hand men, on board. In addition we find ourselves in a fortunate position to get Joerg Stadler on board as our villain, who some may recognise from Saving Private Ryan, as Steamboat Willy the German soldier that Hanks and company stumble upon. They let him go only for him to come back later on and kill one of the unit. It was a memorable role, and when someone who has worked with Steven Spielberg applies for your film, you snap them up. The rest of the cast is a mix of experienced and young and up and coming, but all better than we even hoped for. The ultimate goal though is to have something we can put into festivals and hopefully catch the eye.
As the week of shooting in mid September approaches we find ourselves praying to the weather God’s and hoping that no one drops out. Then someone drops out. A mad scramble but thankfully a last minute replacement is found who ends up being better than the original choice. We also have pyrotechnics involved and a car to wreck in a finale involving fire-arms, requiring a pyrotechnician. At this point we’ve discovered that between all the permits and insurance you legally need to even make a film, and cost of some locations, that our original, perhaps naive expectation to do a film for next to nothing was way off. We could have gone rogue with it, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in your production and we’d probably not have got as good a cast as we did. It’s hard enough to shoot a film without worrying about whether the police might turn up and shut you down for the day. It’s never easy and I find myself not a week before shooting begins laid out with chicken pox which doesn’t help, but thankfully they can get by without me on set.
The first day of the shoot goes well. It’s all dialogue scenes in one location. Everyone shows up, everyone nails it. Getting that first day out the way is a great relief. There will be more difficult days to follow with more elaborate scenes but to get the cameras rolling and get under-way feels like a great vindication for lots of preparation. Making a film at this level is precarious. It’s like walking over thin ice, or through a mine field. We don’t get second chances. If we don’t get a shot within the day required, we don’t have it. If the destruction of the car goes wrong we can’t re-rig and go again the next day. If something goes wrong the whole film could potentially implode and be left forever unfinished.
It’s a wrap. Sweat can be wiped from brows and thoughts can turn to post production. A great relief is felt as we’ve got the most difficult part out the way. No more worrying about whether it’ll rain on an outdoor scene, or if someone will make it in time so we’ve got enough time to shoot at a location we’ve got for a limited time. We get to the end without too many compromises having been made.
In the next few months I will be able to update readers on the progress of the film and I hope those with an interest in independent British film will support, not just this, but other shorts and features currently being made by passionate film-makers looking to keep Britain among the forefront of indie cinema. I will soon be able to post artwork, behind the scenes pictures and eventually the trailer for Out.