Tom Jolliffe shares his experience of no budget filmmaking…
When I’m not writing articles or reviews at Flickering Myth, I’m working full-time and have my 15 month old girl who keeps me very busy too. Beyond that I’m an aspiring screenwriter (and more…) aiming to break Hollywood (actually I’d settle for a Lithuanian DVD release at this point). To this point I’ve written (pulls hand out, tongue protruding, and begins digging his brain recesses for a count) about six shorts which have been shot (not including tomfoolery with my brother when younger).
Last year I also found myself somehow on board a Thai feature film production as head of UK casting and location manager. Actually a friend of mine in Thailand was over with the film crew (shooting here) and got me the gig. To emphasise… when you’re trying to break in, anywhere, network, network, network! It really is who you know sometimes. So yeah, along with a day job, family and writing ABOUT film here, I’ve managed to invent the 25th hour and the eighth day of the week but that’s just between us. I’m also developing a feature film called Feral (currently slap bang in the middle of a second rewrite) with fantastic co-producer, actress and director, Leila Bartell (who will star in it) . A long gestating passion project which has evolved from a short, to ‘sod it, lets just make it a feature.’
When I started on the Thai feature, I’d made a conscious decision to move away from short films. My first short, Out, had been a great experience. I shot with my good friend Mr Alex Lawton (who’d previously made, Rewind4Ever, a highly rated Garage music documentary). We got festival coverage and a première on the big screen in East London with the British Urban Film Festival. It burned a hole in our pockets but when you want to lay out your opening hand, you want it to be a good one. We were delighted with the result. The flip-side with shorts is that there aren’t many avenues you can take them beyond festivals (and our film wasn’t exactly a festival friendly genre). If you spend any significant money on them you have to do so in the knowledge that you’re 99% likely to never see that again (particularly if your short isn’t a feature pitch piece). A feature on the other hand, is far harder to get made but it has a lot of potential destinations once you finish.
I did my duties on the Thai Feature. I even got some of that stuff given to me that lets you buy stuff. You know… money. By this time I’d sold two scripts, both shorts. Neither of which have been released yet (one was shot and shelved, one is stuck in pre-production). Actually getting money in this business is a rare treat indeed, particularly in your early days. The disappointing aspect though, is that the Thai film is unlikely to be released outside Thailand and the shorts look like they may gather dust on a shelf, which means they’re essentially dead credits. To a point, credits count. A bare CV doesn’t look quite as good as a beefy one. Being part of the crew on a feature was interesting. I had my tasks. I did them. Aside from an odd sense of fatherly pride at hearing how good my cast were, and the pay at the end, it offered nothing creatively. In essence it was a job. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now developing features is great and all, but it’s a long process and the finding money bit is an uphill struggle. So I was left with this insatiable need to just make something. I’d already handed off a script to Alex, for our second collaboration and left him to it. It was another short, Winter Hill which shot around the time I’d begun the casting process on the Thai film. I trust him and I knew come the final result (not far off now) I’d have another credit and we’d have a film to fire out to festivals. I then reversed my conscious decision to stop making shorts. I wanted to make films with a degree of creative freedom, where to an extent you can write, shoot and have something on the table in a matter of weeks. That inevitably means the short film form. I’d had money and no satisfaction creatively and I desire that feeling. I need it.
My brother was investing in a decent camera and looking to shoot things. My wife then comes to me in the middle of my Thai work and asks if I can get a role for a friend of a friend. I couldn’t. So I said I’d quickly write something and get my brother to film it. I wrote Estranged in a matter of hours. A film about two estranged sisters who grow up unaware of each other, on separate continents (the younger is raised in the UK, the oldest in her native China). An aspiring actress, Eden Jun had contacted me during casting for the feature. Though she wasn’t right for that role it was a speculative request for anything she could do on the film (just to be on set and see cogs in motion etc). I then got tasked with supplying extras and got her in there, but more so she ended up being a really great help to me during that particular process. I had to fill a bus with 20 people of mixed backgrounds and she ended up filling it for me. At this point in the process I was juggling things like a maniac, dealing with permissions, permits, documents and all manor of mind numbing aspects daydreamers don’t think of. So I gave her the role of the younger sister in Estranged.
I looked over the script. I saw the response it got from Eden (who from that point worked incredibly hard on her character). It was one of the best things I’d written. The idea of firing it out quickly to help out a friend of a friend of the good wife was sort of waning a bit. Something had been lost in translation too. This actress I was helping was sort of billed as having been in a lot of film and TV in China. I figured I may have the next Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh in my midst. Turns out she’d just been an extra in a few things and only wanted extra work. At this juncture I put my focus into doing the film right. No shortcuts, no half measures. Film is a funny thing though. The evolution of a plan. Unexpected changes. I’d just finished casting this feature. I hadn’t expected to be casting again so soon but then had to cast the role of ‘Maggie,’ the older sister.
Lets step back a bit though. If you read up on a lot of film-makers and you read interviews and any advice they give to aspiring film-makers, then there’s often a common suggestion. That is to just go out and shoot! I’ve spent years being ‘nearly there’ on a film. As a writer predominantly, my ambition in an ideal world is to write something, hand it off (like with Winter Hill) and have a screener link handed back to me 6-12 months down the line which won’t make me bang my head in frustration. Being a producer came about as needs must. I’ve ‘almost’ sold two features. I got close to getting a Scot-set horror feature off the ground 18 months ago with my meme tagging brother, Nathan Shepka. One producer had expressed a strong interest but was permanently waiting to receive the back end on the Samuel L. Jackson film they’d just released (which never came). That said we developed that film, and I wrote it, purely with an ambition to sell it. We’ll go back to it next year but it’s not my best script. Horror sells though. On another I was just negotiating a buyout when I get the call that the funding had fallen through. Whilst looking into becoming a writer, director or whatever, you will get used to the deferred payment spiel on a lot of ‘job’ adverts. When developing a film though, until that point it goes from in development to in production, everything is deferred. The theory goes with short films too. You can hand off a script and someone will promise to make it. I’ve been waiting about 10 years for some of the scripts I’ve given away. Nothing. Don’t wait! Shoot! Ridley Scott just said it recently. No excuses. Anyone can shoot these days. Mainstream films are being shot on iPhones. The field has never been more open.
You also don’t need to spend thousands. You will inevitably always end up spending something. I did get a budget down to as low as 50p recently with my brother, for a red light-bulb (though technically his new camera, which we were road-testing, was £1500, so I suppose you’d say the budget was £1500.50). Network with people. Be nice. Be good to work with. Do favours and they’ll be done in return. That creative void left in a creative will mean that people will come out and work with you just to collaborate on something. You may call it the unpaid and many get a bee in their bonnet on it. If you’re just looking to exploit people then yeah, it’s shitty, but if you want to get a small unit of collaborators and offer something that interests them, you can get a team together. Failing that, make friends. Friends who happen to have that similar interest, or better yet, an Alexa camera.
So far this year I’ve made two shorts. On a whim I made All In, a short crime drama with my brother. Just the two of us and to run his new lenses through their paces we did the film over two evenings and we acted in it too. I then scored it in a day. That’s in the bag, fully done and out in the realm of festival submission. The idea was conceived after finding a random casino chip (I like instinctive film-making. A flash of an idea, shoot, cut, done). A hapless gambler with a huge debt who goes to his friend for help, who is unaware just how involved he is. This is where the ketchup stained walls come in. As visual effects technician I was tasked with creating a blood mix (spoiler alert). I’d made a pretty good mix. Actually ketchup was secondary, It was an old bottle which was also our blood spray utensil. My mix involving cornflour and colouring was so good in fact that it’s left faint staining on the walls of bro’s flat. Note to all. Never hire me as a VFX technician.
What you may have gathered is, I’ve donned a lot of caps in my no-budget travels (and indeed rare budget excursions). If you want to make films for next to nothing, be prepared to multi-task. So far in half a dozen or so films, I’ve been writer, producer, co-director, location scout, casting director, visual effects technician (never again), runner, costumer, production designer, composer, a sound technician (my first taster on Estranged recently) an actor and an extra. If you work on a big feature as a crew member, chances are you will have your role and be entirely focused on that. On more intimate projects, particularly when you want to keep a team below 10, you will find people doing 3-4 different things. If you can do it, you will do it. It’s only when you can’t, you need to outsource. Note…if you have no camera or cameraman, that’s always a good place to start when outsourcing.
When you work in no-budget in particular be prepared. Be prepared to settle. Not easily. Not at the expense of your vision and a coherent final product but you have to know that because you didn’t spend 20 grand on your short, you are not going to be blessed with the best locations, or the best sound. Almost every film will have a sound nightmare in production. Whether you’ve spent 50p or 50 million. A lot of post-services will be where you could end up seeing most of a budget (if you do have a minimal one) go. To fix sound, picture or perhaps to score. Not everyone can spend thousands willy nilly on making films of course. So learn to live with that sound crackle. My own view balance. If you want to spend months running campaigns or filling applications to obtain funding (not as likely unless your film has a prescient social or political angle) do that. If you have a short that you want to express a larger vision and needs 20k. Go for it. It’ll be hard work. Just don’t close yourself off to whim and fancy. Like grabbing a camera, a couple of actors you know and just shooting a film. Watch Persona, the Bergman masterpiece. It’s largely two women in a single location for most of the film but it’s a complex and engrossing work. Your film is as good as the script and how you deliver the vision. That’s the beauty of cinema, it’s the endless possibilities. If you want to film a WW1 short epic, even with minimal costumes, settings and action, then it’ll still cost you a fair bit. You do have the option of minimal characters, minimal locations (and easy locations). If your director and cinematographer are good you’re in luck.
Estranged was shot a couple of weeks ago. A small team who came together with a singular vision and from diverse backgrounds. It was a great shoot. Director Dez Gray had a wealth of set experience both large and small, as did our camera op Steve Acton. For Eden it was her first leading role and one she’d thrown herself into for five months of pre-production. When I first met her in person she appeared with a folder full of notes and a copy of my script covered in notes. As a writer it’s flattering to see that much thought going into your work. The initial genesis of the film was more about doing a showreel piece for someone. To an extent it was why I gave the role straight to a first timer, without an audition but by the same token I’d had a good gut feeling about her. So when I decided to approach the film a bit more carefully, I never had any doubts about recasting Eden having already promised her the role. Again, this is important when you work in low to no budget… keep your word. Get a reputation for being reliable, good to work with and more importantly honest. Back up what you say. When she appeared with that folder full of notes, and we did a short little acting without dialogue exercise later that afternoon, any worries I may have had were allayed.
If you’re doing something character focused your script needs to be tight of course. Estranged was a two character film. That meant the cast had to be good. I’d put a lot of chips down on Eden pulling it off (she did, and it’s rare that I’ve felt this, but I never doubted she would). After first speaking to Dez I also knew he was the man to pull the film off as well, particularly as he’s a very actor-centred director. We just needed our co-star. I’d not expected such a big response from my casting call but we had a lot of applicants. There were three particularly strong applicants. There was the obvious casting aspect that needed to be met, our two actresses had to look like they could be related. What was even more important was that ‘Maggie’ is written as warm. I wanted her as a character to have charm, be likeable, so that when she’s a little overbearing she doesn’t come across as simply annoying. It’s difficult to pull off but upon seeing Yuyu Rau’s previous work and audition piece, I knew she was the one. She just exudes likeability. On screen and in person. She’s delightful. She recently appeared in the controversial BBC sitcom, Chinese Burn. I felt the role would be a good antithesis to that, and ultimately given she applied, must have felt the same.
There were two others who I liked, who sent engaging messages and wanted to learn. They acknowledged they were probably a little young for the role but took a speculative punt anyway. For myself personally, I will always listen to these. I did with Eden and it paid off. Many won’t. They’ll focus entirely on their remit and not spare the time. If there’s passion and respect in the message I will always appreciate it. As it happens one, Kamila, will be in one of my next films, and Maria who asked politely, joined us on Estranged as a production assistant. It never hurts to ask, about anything. The worst you’ll get is a ‘no,’ or a ‘thanks but no thanks.’ I’ve got useful advice and help off a number of established actors and producers over the years. Just the acknowledgement and the two minutes of time is absolutely appreciated. You may also find along the way through castings or networking that you just like someone. If they’re not right for the film at hand, you may find you revisit them for something later.
The shoot itself went well. A day of interior shooting allowed the benefit of time. There’s no rush and furthermore, as you will discover with no budget, interiors can be a godsend given that you have more control over light and sound. It also allowed the time to conjure up a dolly shot. We’d tried without success for half an hour trying to get an office chair to play ball, until someone pipes up with ‘I’ve just seen a baby stroller in the other room.’ Turns out baby strollers make a great dolly (undoubtedly my sprog’s stroller will be getting used in my next film). Our exterior scene, shot at Victoria Park in London, was difficult. Visually, the location is perfect. It’s gorgeous. Great views and a centrepiece Chinese Pagoda that just fit with the tone of the film and its characters. What can’t be controlled though, is the light, the sound and the background. This is a busy park and we shot on a Sunday. Again, when you shoot for nothing you’re governed by the rare slots of opportunity when you can get everyone together. From air traffic to what seemed to be duck mating season and ‘bring your kids to the pagoda’ day, we’ll be having a fun time balancing the sound. As I said before though. Sound will always be your biggest nightmare. Even if you have a few million in the bank to spend. You’ll have an epiphany on every shoot. On Estranged, mine was to never write a scene at a London park ever again.
I’m already itching to shoot again. I enjoyed shooting Estranged immensely and would love to work with everyone on the team again. I’ll shoot two with my brother next, whilst staying well clear of his condiments cupboard. We’ll have a little homage to Videodrome called Followers, and then One Way Out which will be a fairly dark reluctant assassin film (with Kamila Hussien). Whether more than half a dozen people will see them, who knows but it’s great to make them. As long as I feel we’ve made the best of an idea with the tools at our disposal, I’m happy. As for my fellow aspiring film-makers, Godspeed and remember to be good to your cast and crew. You may have the next big thing in your film and if they look to do any favours when they’re at the top, they’ll always remember the people who helped them out on the way up.