Nathan Shepka stops by Flickering Myth to talk about his first feature release, and his many creative roles as a self-starting filmmaker from Scotland…
Nathan Shepka is a film producer from Scotland. He also acts, directs and writes most of his films. Last year he embarked on creating his first feature film, action thriller Holiday Monday, with a further two features now in production for release next year. He stopped by to offer an invaluable insight into the world of micro budget film-making and getting your feature out to the world.
Tell us about your filmmaking beginnings? And what drove you to become a film-maker?
This is a long journey right here! Basically though, I’ve always had a love of film. I used to watch old VHS tapes of James Bond movies my grandparents had recorded off the TV. As a kid I’d watch lots of films. I also grew up on British sitcoms and bizarrely a sitcom called Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em about the hapless, disaster prone Frank Spencer. This lead me to an appreciation of stunts and that got me interested in action movies.
I started out making shorts which went out on YouTube, first just me, myself and a camera and then secured a crew. I ended up making 7 shorts, 5 at about 25 minutes and 2 at 40 minutes before I thought, if I’m going to keep going with this I need to do a feature or do something of actual commercial value. Shorts are nice as practice but it needs to be going somewhere and this was the next logical step. I didn’t do it sooner because I was still learning and making a bad short isn’t as big a sting as making a bad feature. I didn’t go to film school or anything so I’ve literally thrown myself into filmmaking and absorbed everything I can. In reality I went to Uni to do a business degree which I guess has helped with that commercial side of things as filmmaking is ultimately a business.
Tell us a little about Holiday Monday. What was your inspiration?
I love the action genre and I knew I wanted to do something action based for my first feature. It just had to be fun and entertaining. To me there are two kinds of films; those that set out to entertain and those that set out to say something. I’m not saying there can’t be a crossover but I knew if I wanted to get it out there and get it picked up it needed to be commercial and then I can move onto try and say something when I have that total artistic and creative freedom. Holiday Monday is a bit of a buddy film. I liked the idea of mercenaries/guns for hire as it means they can get away with more, i.e. cop characters and such have to follow rules. It is mostly set on the one day, bank holiday of course, to help give it a bit of pace and have them get bloodier as the day goes on. A little bit like Die Hard. It was a concept I felt was quirky enough to be commercial and potentially warrant a sequel.
What do you hope to deliver to action fans with Holiday Monday? Would you say the practical approach (with in-camera pyrotechnics and stunts), over CGI is a key selling point?
Yeah very much so. Because of the low budget we can’t afford to have stunt doubles or do a crazy number of takes or dare I say it have the most watertight safety measures in place. So people get hit, people fall on concrete and generally throw themselves into every action scene with gusto. It does have an organic element to it this way, in my view. There’s very little CGI in the film, all the stunts were done for real, every bullet fired was a blank and the fights are great fun. So if you like old school action, Holiday Monday hopefully ticks that box for you.
Your cast do a great job of bringing the film to life. In particular, you have a lot of chemistry with co-star Colin MacDougall, which is always key in a buddy film. Had you always envisioned you both as the central pair?
I worked with Colin twice before this, once on a short in which Colin provided some of the stunt work and choreography and then later on in a short called Hunting Season that Colin was one of the leads in alongside myself again. Colin’s got a sympathetic, likeable nature on screen. He’s believable in bringing the sensitivity to key dramatic scenes but he also knows his way around a fight scene too. We never have to do too much rehearsing for our scenes, he’s easy to bounce off and I think the buddy element is one of the most appealing things about the film actually, an action film has to have good characters that you care about and that the audience fears for when they are in danger. And on the flip-side, an action movie is only as good as the bad guy bringing that danger to the protagonists. We also struck gold there with John Love as Barnes.
How do you find balancing all the different roles you’ve taken on in the production? There’s a pressure to being a producer, a lead actor and director. You’ve worn each hat and many more. Do you see yourself as an all-rounder or is there one discipline you eventually want to focus on?
I think that stems from being a bit of a control freak in all honesty! It actually stemmed from watching other people whilst I was making some of my earlier shorts and going, ‘I’d like to have a go at that.’ Producing just means you can pull everything together. Writing the script hopefully means you can then bring it alive as you envisioned, if you direct it. And then editing is basically just cementing that final part of the vision. The plan is to keep acting, writing and producing. I’ll hand directorial or writing duties over the odd time if I feel someone can do a better job or handle the film better than I could. But yeah, Jack of all trades. I like to get stuck in.
Do you foresee yourself continuing as a producer and creating your own content with full control? Is this the main ambition?
Yeah essentially for us to become a little bit bigger as a production company, grow to the point where we have a good network of regular crew, build good relationships with distributors. The key behind this growth will be securing name talent in upcoming productions, that’ll hopefully allow us to gain bigger budgets to work with and not be constrained by the boundaries that ultra low budget brings.
What are the biggest challenges in working with a microbudget? What are the most important things to get right before and during production on Indie films?
I think you have to scrutinise everything that is being spent – and that’s not just the thrifty Scotsman in me, you should see my bar tab on a night out after half the pub has been furnished with a shot. But you go, ‘nah we can do that cheaper’ or ‘nah I can get a mate to get me that.’ I guess the main thing is you can’t write EXACTLY what you want. Any time I write a script I consider how long it’s going to take to shoot, how many locations there are etc. So I guess the budgeting work is kind of set up when I’m writing the script. You write within your means and what you know you can do/pull off whilst at the same time trying to step up your game and put things in you know will be a challenge. That and edit as you write as well. I’ve seen people end up making 3 hour features and having to trim them back to 90 minutes. Imagine not only the lost performances but the time and money. That could have been two features potentially instead of half of one on the cutting room floor. Economise in prep I say.
How have you found the post-production stages? What are the challenges of finding distribution?
Post-production can be gruelling. It always takes longer than expected in my experience. Trying to establish a regular network of post people is tough because if they are real good their availability is scarce and their workload is herculean. Distribution wise, I actually hit up a dude called John Lepper who runs Cyfuno Ventures. So John is now my sales rep and in many ways my sounding board. I also bug him with questions every other day, which he graciously answers. Distribution-wise he made it really easy. He took the film out there and came back with the offers.
Who are your greatest filmmaking influences? What are the films that inspired you most?
Difficult one. I think Sly and Arnold in the 80’s and then some of the 90’s action stars have influenced me in terms of tone and style. I don’t have a go-to filmmaker as such that I hail as the best so I suppose I take small influences from loads of places. Oddly my favourite films are mostly thrillers. Action movies can be well made but they rarely get recognised at the Oscars for example. I don’t want to sound pretentious but I love really well made films. Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island (coincidentally all by Scorsese). I love the latter day Clint Eastwood movies like Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and The Changeling. Love Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho.
Action movie wise in the last few years, the John Wick movies, The Raid movies, Scott Adkins’ Avengement were great. Those hit some really high notes. Asian action cinema is off the chart crazy. I love all genres though. It just so happens I have (hopefully) a flair for action.
How do you see the indie film landscape in the UK, and also more specifically in Scotland at the moment?
Honestly? Not a great deal goes on in Scotland. Some of my counterparts that I’ve met over the years also produce features on a similar budget level, this is proper grassroots stuff. Then you get the big blockbusters like Fast 9 coming here, usually with their own US crew and there isn’t much in between these two polar opposites. UK wise and I guess generally the pandemic has been a bit of an accelerator in terms of the decline of physical media. Maybe not so much cinema as people seem keen to get back to that. But I notice you’ve now got these really low budget shoestring movies and then these massive $300 million dollar budget tent-pole movies and again very little in between. That sort of mid-budget level and even I guess slightly bigger budget DTV films have kind of disappeared but I think thanks to streaming it’ll see a bit of a resurgence. Netflix are ploughing bigger budgets into original content and with some stars that would otherwise be sailing between low budget movies. Which is good. A new audience for cult stars.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Yeah absolutely. First feature out the door, make something either really commercial or really fucking good. Don’t give up, never give up. If this is what you want to do with every fibre of your being, go out there and do it, make something, learn from it, make something else. And any barriers? Knock them down. Some people would think I was daft to throw literally all my 9-5 money into Holiday Monday and admittedly there were times when I questioned my own sanity as I’m sure every budding filmmaker does. But then here we are, and hopefully this is just the beginning. Trust the process, keep at it and don’t let setbacks or knockbacks get you down.
How pleasing is it to see your forthcoming release of Holiday Monday, out on physical media as well as streaming. Is there a sense of vindication when you can see your work in a store?
The fact that people will be able to walk into a store or go on to Amazon and pick up a movie we made is batshit crazy. I say we, because the kudos needs to go to everyone. Without the cast and crew it wouldn’t exist and without their endless trust and commitment it wouldn’t have gotten on that shelf. I’m still a bit of a collector, I love blu-rays, I love limited editions and opening up the cupboard to that library of films. There’s still something nice about that. DVD stores are like candy stores to me.
What do you have coming up?
Next we’ve got a nice slow-burn mystery thriller called When Darkness Falls. A bit of a 70’s British horror vibe, written by Flickering Myth’s own Tom (yours truly). Total change of pace but hopefully we’ve crafted something haunting and tense. The Scottish landscape is a key character, in addition to a brilliant cast. And there might be a little sequel to Holiday Monday bubbling away. Time to don the Kevlar again.
Thanks to Nathan for stopping by to chat about his upcoming film. Holiday Monday is released on all formats, August 24th in the US. The film is available for pre-order on Amazon: Holiday Monday – Blu Ray Amazon. and i-Tunes.