Filmmaker In Residence Project: Legacy 4 (Festival & Screenwriting Lessons)

Festivals

Touring 'Wilderness' to film festivals has been an eye-opening experience in many ways. It seems obvious but the differences between touring a short and touring a feature are considerable. You soon realise (and I should have remembered from my time as a programmer) that even if a programme team likes your film, 85 minutes is considerably longer than 10 when trying to find a slot for it. 

We knew when we finished the film that it was not going to be to everyone's taste and was emotionally uncompromising and it feels that in some cases festivals may have liked it, but not known what to do with it. Yes, I know that some festivals will have also just thought it wasn't very good or liked it at all. 

This is of course disappointing because you want people to see the work and because you want festivals to be the place that take risks, but in such a competitive and financially precarious environment it is understandable. 

As mentioned in a previous post, we were accepted into 2 festivals that we had to pull out of in terms of participation. It was nearly 3 but Cambridge didn't mind that we had previewed the film to a London audience at the British Independent Film Festival. They asked that we don't show anywhere else beforehand though, which meant we had to pull the film from the lovely World of Film festival in Glasgow. That was a difficult but positive conversation as we discussed screening in Glasgow at a later date in association with the festival, when we hopefully undertake a tour of UK cinemas and universities. We've never been in that position before and found it tough, but necessary given our attachment emotionally to Cambridge and its scale as an independent film festival. 

The other festival we got into was a really big one, one that regularly receives over 10,000 entries and screens only 250 works. It's a very difficult festival to get into and it was tough to have to pull out when they felt the BIFF screening was too much of a conflict with their premiere status requirement. This was again, tough to take and made us realise the value of having clear premiere events in mind when making films. Although we had been rejected before and having got some rejections from similar status festivals earlier in the year we felt it wasn't worth the risk to not screen earlier and pin all our hopes on that one, however big and prestigious. Lesson learned. Although, it is a shame that a festival can like a film and make what amounts to quite an arbitrary decision based on statistics rather than the merits of the work and even their appreciation of it. Still.

Screenwriting

Connected to festivals, I also learned and relearned new things about screenwriting. The prestigious Oaxaca FF in Mexico required Spanish subtitles, so I set about compiling a transcript of the film film's script to send off to translators.

It was enlightening to see how actors had performed what I had written. Beyond the odd improvisation that I didn't write, it soon became clear that pretty much every line needed tweaking before sending off.

Despite teaching the maxim that people don't speak in full word full sentences, I didn't write 'Wilderness' like that. The cast though, knew how to make it flow and so I read with a little embarrassment how many times I wrote 'I Am', for example, but watched with pride at how seamlessly and naturally they all said 'I'm' and other similar cases. 

What was also fascinating was how often they switched sections of a line, saying the last half first and vice versa and how a) no one noticed on set and b) it didn't matter. 

It was intriguing to put the two screenplays side by side at the end of the transcription and see how similar and different they are. 

What was nice though, was realising how faithful the cast had been to the written word. Being the producer and education coordinator on set, as well as the writer, meant I didn't and couldn't grasp a lot of the detail of performance, but they did me proud.

Filmmaker in Residence Project: Legacy 3 (Festivals 2)

I've shamefully neglected my blog for most of the year but hope this (and others I post today) make up for it. This is going to be a full round-up of the festival tour that 'Wilderness' has been on and, thankfully, continues on.

The last post mentioned that the film was having its World and European Premieres at Cinequest and Dingle respectively. I attended both, with the support of the School of Film & Television and both were richly rewarding experiences.

Executive Producer Kingsley Marshall, me, and director Justin John Doherty at the 'Wilderness' World Premiere, March 2017.

Executive Producer Kingsley Marshall, me, and director Justin John Doherty at the 'Wilderness' World Premiere, March 2017.

First up, director Justin and executive producer Kingsley (both pictured above) and I travelled to San Jose, CA, for the Cinequest Film & VR festival. A large and prestigious independent festival we were warmly welcomed and the film, which played four times, was warmly received. It felt really good to get it in front of audiences and hear them feedback their thoughts and feelings. It also felt good to be part of a strong programme. The other indie feature work I saw was really strong. It was also good to make new friends, catch up with Jason Reitman who we knew from our days running a film festival in Luton, and hang out with Kingsley's parents who travelled up from San Diego to enjoy the festivities. 

There was a real community feel to the festival in the way filmmakers, audiences and volunteers/staff interacted that is rare on the festival circuit and was a great representation of why Cinequest deserves the reputation it has.

I was home for a couple of weeks before heading off to Dingle for the European Premiere. I travelled alone this time, with Justin having other commitments, but met my Dad there. He is originally from Dublin and celebrated his birthday that weekend so he flew in from Luton to hang out and watch films. That was really lovely.

Incredible sunset on arriving on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Incredible sunset on arriving on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

Another really strong line-up of films and another wonderful welcome. The film went down really well again. What was clear at both festivals was that the programmers had clearly seen the film and believed in it, even if they knew it might be a tough sell. It was becoming clear amongst audiences and programmers that when the film made an impact, it was strong, and people really wanted to dig into it or, in the case of programmers, champion it. 

Screening at a beautiful Church in Dingle, Ireland.

Screening at a beautiful Church in Dingle, Ireland.

One of the highlights of the festival was seeing Wolfgang Almer and Steffan Wolner's incredible music documentary Late Blossom Blues about blues musician Leo 'Bud' Welch. Truly one of the best music films I've ever seen.

It wasn't long after Dingle that we previewed the film for UK audiences with an appearance at the British Independent Film Festival in May where we opened events, and one of our incredible leads Kat Davenport took home the Best Actress award. This screening was a chance to invite friends and crew who hadn't yet seen the film. We sold out a screen at the Leicester Square Empire on a Friday night, which was a dream come true. It is a cinema where I have had some of my favourite theatrical experiences including Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master on 70mm and a press screening of No Country For Old Men. I still can't quite believe we did it. 

Kat's much deserved award. The first of many I hope.

Kat's much deserved award. The first of many I hope.

There followed a bit of a lull as the summer loomed and the usual fears and worries and apprehensions kicked in. We worried that the tour was over, that the film had run its course and that the good screenings, award and excellent review by Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman, Sight & Sound) wouldn't help get some real momentum. We had to wait a while for good news, but then we got a stream of acceptances and our confidence in the film returned.

Next up was a trip to New York and the new and growing event Chain NYC in Williamsburg. Justin and I headed there to represent the film. We caught up with old Filmstock friends, old friends in general and with Ryan Earl Parker, our original cinematographer before he was sent packing by customs at Heathrow three days before the start of production. That's a story for another time. 

The trip also saw me conduct some interviews with esteemed film critics for The Cinematologists podcast that I also do, and even though they didn't come to the screening meeting them in person in the context of being in town as a filmmaker resulted in them asking to see the film, which hopefully will yield positive coverage results in the near future. 

The screening went well. The festival is great. Again, it is clear that the programmers 'got' what we were going for. Following a few days that included cocktails at Schiller's on its closing weekend, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, catching a film at the beautiful Metrograph cinema and wonderful closing festival screening of Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King with writer Richard LaGravenese in attendance we headed to the airport clutching four awards - Best International Feature, Best Ensemble, Best Score and Best Feature Screenplay.  A great experience.

'Wilderness' director Justin, Chain NYC Festival Director Kirk Grotowski and me.

'Wilderness' director Justin, Chain NYC Festival Director Kirk Grotowski and me.

The film has since played in a number of places that I haven't been able to go to, which is a shame, but I feel so grateful to have been able to represent the film and the school at the first four public screenings. I'll be back out with it in a couple of weeks at the Cambridge Film Festival. This is a festival that means a lot to me and Justin. We used to go to it a lot when we were younger and it's a dream to play there. It was also a shame to not be at the Våsteras Film Festival (Justin was) where the film won Best International Feature, Best Directing and Best Screenplay. 

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The film has also been accepted into two festivals that we sadly had to withdraw from due to having screened, or clashes, elsewhere. There's another short blog to follow about this.

We are also the surprise screening at an incredible festival, but obviously we can't say which one, yet.

Below is a list of the festivals we have screened at or been accepted in to date:

Cinequest Film & VR Festival, California

Dingle International Film Festival, Ireland

British Independent Film Festival (Preview Screening), London UK

Chain NYC Film Festival, New York

Long Beach Indie Film Festival, California

Västerås Film Festival, Sweden

Oaxaca Film Festival, Mexico

Jozi Film Festival, Johannesburg

Eko Film Festival, Lagos

Wine Country Film Festival, California

Twin Cities Film Festival, Minneapolis

Cambridge Film Festival, UK

Cornwall Film Festival, UK

Goddess On The Throne FF, Kosovo

 

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Legacy 2 (Festival Premieres)

It is an honour to announce that 'Wilderness' has secured both its World and European Premieres. First up, we travel to San Jose in the US for the brilliant Cinequest Film & VR Festival where the film will screen in competition. Following the World Premiere there on Saturday 4th March it will screen a further three times. Justin and I will be in attendance and hope to connect once more with old Filmstock almunus Jason Reitman who is part of  a special event at festival.

'Wilderness' at Cinequest

Following our trip to the US we head to Ireland for the European Premiere, screening alongside Ben Wheatley's latest amongst others, at the wonderful Dingle International Film Festival. I will be in attendance there with hopefully some cast and execs along for the ride also.

Wilderness at Dingle

Thanks to the School of Film & Television at Falmouth University for their continued support of my work and for helping me attend the premieres of the film.

The plan is to make some educational connections whilst there to talk about the film's unique production and engage with academics and students around the world about this kind of filmmaking.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Legacy 1 (Festivals & Research 1)

2017 has started with a viewing of the final, final version of the film with all the VFX shots completed and the sound mix 99.9% done. It will be 100% done pretty much by the time this goes up.

That's it then. The film is ready. The next stage is putting the film and the project out into the world. We have started submitting the film to festivals and have our first one confirmed. It will be a great place to have a world premiere and we can't wait to announce it. 

The festival really loved the film and it was a real tonic to get such a positive response from a festival where we have not screened previously and haven't used a friend to pave the way for an introduction. 

The other aspect of the film that's going out into the world is the research element. I have submitted papers on the project to a couple of conferences and will use those appearances to cultivate some journal articles.

I don't want those papers to be strict talk based presentations so now that term is back in session I will be creating more video content in the form of interviews with student participants for a YouTube channel and to create some audiovisual content for when I take the film and the project out into the academic world.

It's going to be an exciting year.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Post-Production 3 (Cast & Crew Screening and Beyond)

The project inches closer to its next phase, that of legacy, as the film is submitted to festivals and I start to collate the experience into academic outputs. I've met with my line manager about how to disseminate what was learned from doing this project, as we wait to see what form it would take in its next incarnation. I believe I have the basis for something that is truly groundbreaking and over the past couple of months I've become increasingly convinced there are filmmakers out there chomping at the bit to make films and that this model can feed that hunger. 

Recently, on October 10th, we screened the film for cast and crew, supporters and well wishers. It was a nerve-wracking evening but it went well. The film went down really well even though it wasn't (and still isn't) 100% done. There are some VFX fixes and sound mixing issues still to resolve. It was almost there though, and those very minor things didn't seem to impact people's response. Brutal, thought-provoking, well observed were some of the responses. That was exactly what we were going for. So that was good. 

It was wonderful to screen it in the Newlyn Filmhouse, a beautiful new addition to the Cornish cinematic landscape and be in the room with the people who made it happen. Be that through working on it, funding it, or giving us the love and support needed to realise it. 

There were and are negatives though, that need to be catalogued. Some of the students chose not to attend the screening, the screening of their first feature film credit, which was frankly baffling. Yes, even for someone who works in higher education with young people.

Also, some of the students and staff involved don't seem to care that it's not finished and that work they signed up to do isn't complete and will need to be outsourced, at personal cost, to professionals, so that no more time is lost on it and we can get the film out into the world. That surprises me.

It now goes out into the world, hopefully. We have exciting prospects longer term with Cornish screenings and a release, but for now I hope it connects with the wider film festival community and continues to resonate with audiences. I also hope all involved are as proud of the work we did as I am.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Post-Production 2 (Tweaking)

The film is getting there. We are compiling our ideal film festival plan, awaiting VFX shots and the complete sound mix. 

The film has been through a few changes since the rough draft. We have had some amazing feedback from people, however there's been one sequence that has caused some head scratching. It's been a source of connection for viewers but there's been little consensus about what it is in particular that isn't working.

So we've been trying to fix that and we think we are nearly there. The rest of it has been tightened and sharpened a ton so that it feels right. As mentioned, the response has been really positive with everyone who has seen it so far able to see what we were trying to do, and responding to the style or the emotion or both. 

I think we have made a very particular kind of film that won't be to all tastes but stands as a testament to our desire to do something that other British filmmakers might not be doing at present.

I have gone from feeling numbing and weirdly distant from the film, to really loving it and feeling really proud of it. Working through it with Justin and getting feedback from valued peers has helped break down my initial fear of committing to saying I felt it was a good piece of work.

It was most nerve-wracking to screen it for the executive producers from the School of Film & Television who funded the film (my bosses). Their response was really encouraging. They liked the maturity and cinema of the film and want to help it get out into the world. That was a big weight off. Even though you know you have delivered an excellent educational experience, you still want people to value the content of the work. And it seems they do.

So now it's finish the film, prepare for a cast and crew screening and series of events in October. Then it's send it out into the world.

Exciting times.

Recent Thoughts on Life in Higher Education - Summer 2016

Summer is an odd time in Academia. Most people think you are on an extended holiday because you aren't in the office. Whilst I would no way claim to have a terrible job, and I am aware how fortunate I am to hold the position I do, summer is a time of varied demands and opportunities that are hard work and time consuming. Personally, since I finished grading my own students I have undertaken external examining, attended UCAS fairs, attended an academic conference and written my module guides for 2016/17. This is not a defence of Academia or a woe is me self-pitying tirade. This is just a very short collection of things I have noticed on my very recent travels, collected here for my own posterity as much as anything else.

UCAS Fairs and Recruitment

There are many demands unreasonably placed on academics that are part of the increasingly worrying decimation of higher education but I feel that engaging with recruitment is not one of them. I feel that academics and teaching staff being on the ground level talking to prospective students is vital. I don't believe this because of the 'students are customers' mantra. 

Two days talking to prospective students at a UCAS fair at the University of Bedfordshire reminded me of so many important aspects of my job. Whilst our institutions want to hammer home the consumerist nature of the student body actually talking to young people (and not so young) at Fairs and on Open Days is invigorating. You are reminded that these are young (and not so young people) making a serious investment of their time and their life, heading down paths that scare them financially and emotionally. Some are investing in their dream, some seeking to find a career that they can be proud of and help them fulfil personal ambitions. All have no idea what they are entering into and those best place to help them understand that are those who will teach them day-to-day, in hand with those who help run the institution on a daily basis, those who make universities 'successful' regardless of what the pay scale says. 

I believe academics should be invested in recruitment and greater understand the pressures that young people are under in the contemporary climate and I don't believe that metrics are the best way to do this. I believe in good old fashioned conversation. I believe in stepping forward and greeting tentative young people and helping them understand the decision they are about to make. I believe in having conversations where academics are honest about whether a course or an institution is right for an individual. Not everyone should be at university, not everyone should be at my university. This kind of talk horrifies university sales teams and executive board members but we are talking about the lives of young people. In the war of the metric and the statistic and the survey and the table it's too easy to forget that. Two days a year standing by a table talking to people is a cheap reminder of what really matters. 

Academic Conferences

I am what is classed as an early career academic. I have been in academia for three years since moving from the world of independent filmmaking and film education. It's been a whirlwind of publishing, doctorate completion, teaching, promotions and academic conferences. I still feel out of place and like I will be fired every day. I still get anxious about my teaching and my 'research'. Academic conferences are daunting places and there are certain things that go on that make the situation worse, and it's unprofessionalism.

The lack of preparation by people presenting - not prepping their tech, not knowing how long their talk is - worries me because to me that must echo how people teach. I can tell when someone is nervous and can sympathise, I'm always terrified, and you can tell when someone doesn't really care about the fact that there are other people there - peers on their panel, and an audience in front of them.

I love hearing people talk about their research and I love the springboard nature of academic conferences but it always worries me that people's selfishness will result in the downfall of this prestigious and privileged life.

I know fifteen or twenty minutes isn't a long time, certainly not enough time to cover every idea and angle of a piece of work, but that's the time limit. We are all bound by it. The amount of people who have no concept of how long their presentation is baffles me. How can you not? There are three other people who also need to present, there are four other panel slots and a keynote today alone. Be a community thinker and prepare. Don't go long. 

Also, audience members, you have a responsibility. You need to show awareness of the appropriateness of your questions and comments. You need to respect other people and recognise whether your input would be more suited to the buffet line. You need to be aware of your tone, and your language, and respect that if you don't get the answer you want you don't have a license to plough back in and demand another. 

These may seem like small gripes or someone throwing their toys out of the pram but over the past couple of years I have seen these kinds of trends and it saddens me. There is always good and bad practice, in everything. What saddens me is how much bad practice persists unchallenged - in these latter cases panel chairs often don't challenge when they should or pay attention to the room.

There's an adage that 'how you do anything, is how you do everything' and I see some value in that idea. Academia is under threat from most sides and selfish complacency is not going to save it. It's time for us all to think of others, the bigger picture, of how the way we do thing represents what we do. I agonise over this and hope I can make a difference in a small way.

 

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Post-Production 1 (Rough Cut)

The film is in the editing room. I've now seen the rough cut with the sequence that was shot last weekend added and it was an overwhelming experience.

My first feature film. I'm so proud of it and so proud of the work that people have done to realise my screenplay. 

It's hard to be objective at this stage. I think it's a good film - uncompromising, part of a tradition, messy, beautifully shot. The next stage is to do another cut and then share it with those whose opinions we trust implicitly to see if it works, and see if our instincts are correct. 

The first thing I saw and that we shared with a few people, including my bosses at the School of Film & Television, was a 90-second teaser. We cut together a teaser to share with our designer and the record labels whose music we wanted. 

The response to that was superb. People seem excited to see the final film and the people who I expected to respond in certain ways did so exactly as hoped, so that was good.

The educational aspects have slowed down, with a few students still doing bits and pieces. However it has been great to see staff from the School of Film & Television getting more involved and also some new students working on it in VFX capacities. Even as the final film comes together I'm still learning how people can get involved in the project and how it can be more that a simple film shoot experience. 

I'm excited to see it again, I'm excited to show it to people. I can't wait for people to see the poster, and the stills, and hear it. 

I just hope it's good.

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Production (Epilogue)

Day 8 started with news of the death of Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa whose 'For An Imperfect Cinema' is an essay I always loved. I remembered, re-reading it, how beautiful it is, how passionate and searching. For example:

"Imperfect cinema finds a new audience in those who struggle, and it finds its themes in their problems. For imperfect cinema, "lucid" people are the ones who think and feel and exist in a world which they can change. In spite of all the problems and difficulties, they are convinced that they can transform it in a revolutionary way. Imperfect cinema therefore has no need to struggle to create an "audience." On the contrary, it can be said that at present a greater audience exists for this kind of cinema than there are filmmakers able to supply that audience."

For An Imperfect Cinema by Julio García Espinosa

Part of Espinosa's text talks about film education as elitist and anti-democratic and this is something that despite it being my job I battle with. Particularly at the institution where I work and not helped by a re-ignition of the awareness of how much more is learned in the actual doing of it all. However, on the whole I feel that this filmmaker in residence pilot project is informed by the ideas of Espinosa and John Cassavetes, whose influence weighs heavy. I feel this not only in the content and aesthetics of Wilderness but in the almost stubborn belief I have had in this project as a way of creating opportunity for those who would not normally have it and also in creating a new way of making feature films that can exist outside formal industry structures and as such revel in a freedom of approach in terms of storytelling that doesn't have to conform. Time will tell on that score.

The dust is still settling on the project's production phase which is the key phase in terms of the investment and the potential legacy. From the student experiences that have been collected informally and through the project's blog it seems clear that the experience has been uniformly positive with a wide array of learning taking place. What has been most pleasing is how many students not only learned from the project but understood the unique opportunity they were being afforded. Most didn't take it for granted. Some definitely didn't make the most of the opportunity, choosing to ignore guidance and information that was being passed on and not paying attention to the entire culture and practice of a professional set but thankfully they were in the minority. Overall it was a really positive experience for me. It was great to spend nearly two weeks with a big group of students and for there to be relatively little ego or irresponsible emotion. It was a really nice group of people to work with, who worked hard and were fun to be around. 

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Production (Days 9-11)

Day 9

All in on the water's edge.

It's a tough day where we don't quite get what we want. It's down to the elements. Shooting on the edge of the sea, working out tide times and patterns on location is different to looking in a tide timetable book and it takes some time to grasp how to do what we need. The crew is up for it. They are ready for work throughout the day and handle the difficulties really well. It's a day when my three hats collide - writer, producer, educator - and I am reminded of the difference between theory and practice. Today is a day that will help me teach better as I teach both theory and practice of filmmaking. The writer in me was screaming (internally) "Get in the water", the producer in me "Hope the equipment survives" and the educator "There aren't any students at risk are there?". Having worked on the risk assessments with student and 1st AD Ida, there were a few moments where I wondered if and how much we were stretching them but I was proud to see we had accounted for most of what we encountered and followed the protocol we set out. The director Justin, well that's a different story and it's one that illustrates the nature of filmmaking at the coal face where risks are dealt with differently. It was a reminder of how difficult it is to teach filmmaking because so much of it is learnt by doing, in the moment, and also because of how institutions are bureaucratic businesses whose job is to safeguard its investment (understandably) but that can sometimes get in the way of true creativity. Much to ponder.

Day 10

Back at the water's edge and all the preparation, tinkering and frustration from day 9 comes good as we get what we need. It's sunny and a number of School of Film & Television colleagues come down to visit the set and see the workflow in action. It was nice to be able to showcase what we were doing to colleagues and see how positive they were about it. It's that bittersweet mix of sadness at nearing the end and also pleasure that the physical toll will soon be over. 

The past two days have seen executive producer Steve Clarke (mentioned in the earlier casting blog) and his wife visiting the set. Part of the success Justin and I have had over the past 15+ years has been down to the support of people who get what we do and are there for us, physically, when it matters. Seeing Steve at the tail end of a tough shoot lifted our spirits and filled the air with raucous laughter. It was a fillip that helped us get to the finish line.

Day 11

I take a coffee and Chaos Dog to Chun Castle and the Quoit and contemplate all we've done, as we head into the final day. We get some pickups from the  and focus on the final scenes of the film - excluding the very end which was shot a few days back. They are intense scenes and in the filming of them I start to see how Justin is constructing the film visually, through a series of visual callbacks that should work beautifully. It was great to see Seb Badarau work, having missed his first scene through illness and I'm in the room for the filming of the intimate, penultimate scene of the film, the final full scene to be shot and yet again am astounded by the performances of our lead actors. They only need one take and in it they do so many small things which resonate with lust, truth and humanity and enable multiple, messy readings of the scene. We have been truly blessed with Kat Davenport and James Barnes.

In between watching some scenes shot, Mark Jenkin (filmmaker) and Mary Woodvine (actress) visit the sun drenched location, which is really nice, and Chaos Dog gets bored not being involved and escapes from my car through a half open window, twice. 

The last shot is an establishing shot and it was nice to head off with Justin to capture it just the two of us. This experience has been strange. It is both my project being piloted and my script being filmed. In both cases I'm proud of what we have achieved and I know I couldn't have done it without Justin. It was a poignant ending, standing with him as he recorded the shot, 20 years after I wrote the first film we would make together.

Day 12 - Pickups & Goodbyes

We rise early following a wonderful wrap party with all but one of the student crew, all HoDs and our intrepid stills photographer Andrew. The wrap party had a really celebratory atmosphere and it was clear that this group of people had bonded and shared a valuable and valid sense of accomplishment. The morning after it was a skeleton crew, no students, and two sequences to get. The first was car based and driving around, the second was some close ups on a beach with my dog getting his big moment. It was gorgeous weather and the mood was tired but happy. The actors were pros and we got what we need. Following that we separated and Justin and the actors, plus production coordinator Jonny and editor Steven, headed back to Luton. It is over. At least the bulk of the project and the filming is. The debriefing, the contextualising, the analysis and the editing start now. That's all actually pretty exciting. 44 scenes in 11 days with over 75% of the crew never having worked on a pro set before. I think that's pretty impressive.

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Production (Days 5-8)

Day 5.

No energy. Spluttering. Sweating. No set for me. I stay home and write up and post some blogs, do some emails to keep things ticking over, make a couple of calls and watch some comfort film and television. I'm assured it went well but it sucks to not be around. I did however realise that when I posted days 1-4 I did so without consulting my notebook so here are some things from that period I wanted to mention. 

Did I Write That?

I was listening to some dialogue that had been rewritten and reworked the previous day. I heard James (playing John) read a line and he phrased it oddly, or so I thought. It worked, but I didn't think I'd written it that way. When I questioned it the cast and Justin both assured me I had and that they loved it the way it was written. It was a genuine surprise and a single word completely changed the tone and meaning of the line. It's darker now. I thought all my dark was out. A strange sensation indeed. (Day 1. Scene 1.)

The Drama Has Gone

Jem Mackay is a colleague of mine at the School of Film & Television and he is our sound recordist. He has been an amazing collaborator. You never know what people are going to gel with your way of working, regardless of how professional they are and Jem is incredibly professional. Jem gelled with us instantly and he's been a godsend to the production. Chilled, imaginative and diligent we have really been blessed. He's also on the same page in terms of filmmaking and creativity as us and that's something I think is key for the students on the project who I hope will gain a different perspective on creating cinema. There was a beautiful moment on Day 3 towards the end. While we were waiting for the tide to come in and Justin to set a shot, Jem asked if we could re-record some foley. He was asking me because my beloved dog Bailey was in the film that day, wolfing down a picnic and Jem wanted to get the wolfing moment perfect. We found a secluded section of the beach and Jem and student assistant Reuben set to work. A few sniffs then I handed Bailey the sandwich. Jem was chuffed with what he got and after the recording he was talking to Reuben who (I think) asked about doing what we'd just done in a studio, in post-production. Jem replied that while technically you could, you'd never be able to recreate the environment as it is and then, beautifully, said 'and the drama would be gone'. It was a moment that reminded me of the value of this whole enterprise. Jem is spot on. There's something that is unseen and unheard and intangible that occurs on a set, at the the time of shooting. It all needs to be captured there on the film or even on the card. It can't be recreated in post. It is hard to describe but real filmmakers know it's there and they go after it. It felt so good to hear Jem say that because he's right. The drama is here, it's in the air, as we shoot this thing. It's happening now. Get recording. (Day 3.)

A Friendly Visit

I forgot to mention a visit by my friend and boss Kingsley to the set. That was remiss of me. I've known Kingsley a number of years now and have worked for him for three. It's safe to say that without his encouragement, support and faith this would not be happening. I would not be typing these words while I listen to Cannonball Adderley. I can't begin to describe how it felt to have him visit and see the whole thing, the 'real stuff' as he calls it, in action. He's been an amazing friend and, in helping steer this project, an incredible boss. I can't believe it was only 3 years ago I was asleep on his sofa bed in his spare room having just started this job.

I Wouldn't Do This On A Professional Set

One of the most interesting aspects of the production aspect of the project has been being able to talk to students about what they have been doing while they have been doing it. It's been great to be able to guide them when they've made mistakes or things that would stand out on a 'professional set' that might hamper their chances of being asked back. To be fair the majority of students have responded really well and sought to change the ways they've done things. Some however have responded with the phrase or a variant of 'I wouldn't do this if I was on a professional set'. Our set is a professional set, run with humour and manners and grace but without some of the draconian ramifications of 'professional' sets. It personally felt like a real insult to hear that from a variety of students and made me think that maybe a key element of this project is on-set dismissal for incidents that would see the same result in the so-called real world. I don't like to operate like that though, so maybe I will just take it on the chin. One irony of it though is recalling how often students, sometimes the same students, lament to me in tutorials how their peers don't show respect or pull their weight or feel invested in assessed projects. It's definitely an aspect of the project that needs work if it is to continue because sadly I think a lot of film directors and their HoDs are significantly less tolerant than we are.

Day 6.

Back on set. Got a lovely welcome back from some of the crew and cast. Today was a long day on what was intended originally as a day off but that the weather put paid to. We caught up quite a bit, capturing what we couldn't on the Friday. Then, following a carvery we headed for a late night outdoor shoot where we did another pick up (from night 1) and 1 specific scene. The student crew did really well on what was a long day but we wrapped early, well, 1am. Personally it was great to be back even if I was flagging by the end of it. I took Bailey again and it was great to have him on set. I definitely see myself as the kind of producer who brings his dog to set.

Day 7.

So yes, I'm the kind of producer who brings his dog to set. Rain stopped play a lot of the day, but we managed to get a really great walk to Chun Castle, which is near our location. Oh, the shoot. Another good day. At the carvery last night Justin and I had sat and reworked the schedule. We felt that we needed to spread some of the scenes around to focus on certain things at length. It took a while but we felt the benefit today as we got some really great footage of a really key scene. Our actors have been amazing. The students have been gobsmacked by their ability and they have brought a beautiful atmosphere with them. They are all in. Not just the performances but the spirit of the venture. They are friendly and generous with their time. We are really luck to have them.

Day 8.

Back at the same location for the third day. Today the weather isn't our friend so we will have to find time for a few short external bits. Most of the day is dedicated to another key scene and the student crew again pull out all the stops, rising to the occasion and trying to emulate a standard set by our actors and HoDs. The film contains some really intimate and emotionally raw scenes, one of which - the final scene, we shot today. They have shown great professionalism throughout when faced with material probably more challenging than anything they've worked on to date. Maybe they aren't really paying attention, but I think they are, and are just doing a really good job. 

 

 

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Pre-Production 4 (Final Days)

That was a Monday no-one was expecting. Lead actor James arrived on the Sunday evening, as did Justin, and we all congregated for breakfast to start the week of final preparation and production starting, only to hear that our DoP Ryan had been detained at Heathrow. 

He flew in from Memphis and let slip he was making a film, not working on one mind, with friends. Seven hours of waiting including a long interview and his entry was refused. 

Maybe we should have expected it but the fact was we were a HoD down and 3 days away from first scene.

What happened in the wake of that though was symptomatic of how Justin and I have always worked - rolling with the punches, figuring it out on the fly, making a new plan. It was also symptomatic of one of the most rewarding aspects of this whole experience, which has been working in Cornwall. People are nice. They want to support your work and your project and they want to do it on your terms in your budget. It's been amazing to call food and catering companies and venues all over the county and just have them say 'sure, I can do that, what do you need?'

I didn't know many people locally before this but I knew one filmmaker called Ryan Mackfall who I messaged about the DoP situation and he put us in touch with someone he'd worked with a lot, also called Ryan, who miraculously free for the whole shoot. He is not really replacing our Ryan because it's late in the day to come in as DoP but it's brilliant to have such a supportive and easy-going pro around to be a conduit between Justin and the student assistants.

The students have been fantastic the past couple of days as we have geared up for wheels up. Long days in a rehearsal room as we have finalised equipment, schedules, costumes and the link. They've done what they have been asked, been patient, and asked good questions. They've been a dream so far.

It was also humbling to listen to Justin discuss the film as a whole when we sat down and discussed the schedule. He really gets the jagged, fluid, dreamlike aspirations of my script. He's interested in making something real, and raw, not safe and polished. That's so exciting to me.

And now we go.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Pre-Production 3 (Logistics)

Following a five-hour blitz fuelled by burgers, curry, coffee and whisky the schedule and catering was smacked into shape. Personnel were allocated and actor contracts were sorted as a 1am haze descended exhausting and exhilarating us. It's time for energy, not excuses. 

The process of making this project in this way has thrown up a number of factors that needed addressing in serious ways. In the moment it is draining to be going over the minutiae in terms of tender documents and contracts one minute and organising the catering on an 11-day shoot for about 20 people per day the next but that is the nature of independent filmmaking and the lessons have been valuable in terms of understanding if this idea has longevity. 

The support has been superb from the School of Film & Television. Amazing really considering what I've asked to do. I can't quite get over it. However the reality is long days of producing a feature film and being the educational coordinator, oh and the screenwriter. But I wouldn't change it. 

Well, maybe I would change bits.

Is it just us? Is it just the way Justin and I work? Is it the same with all creative teams or are we just supremely bad at delegation and trust? There have been communication issues on all sides due to workload and finding the feet of the project. Also, there has been getting to know the students as people and working with 'students' as crew. 

The students are fascinating. Some come armed with excuses. Some go all in. Some aren't phased at all, some don't seem bothered at all. It's fascinating. A lot of the logistical work has fallen to Justin and me. This has in part been down to students declaring to do something and not following through, or taking too long. Others have waited eagerly just to be on set. Others don't seem interested in the opportunity at all.

There's nothing wrong with any of this of course, it's merely project observation. They are students, young people. The result has been a couple of students rising through the ranks as they have carved out and created opportunities to shine and impress and have an impact. There's great value in just doing a task on time and well that is often under appreciated.

I've bruised my feet, maybe a tendon. I've been trying to get around as best as possible. It's been made more difficult by needing to walk my dog twice a day but I've managed. Now as it's healing I have to try and remember how to walk properly again, hoping my muscle memory will kick back in and the tension and overextension that has been placed on other areas will ease. I'm sure there's a metaphorical or analogous meaning in there somewhere. 

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Pre-Production 2 (Casting)

It happened a while back now, but the memory is fresh. We spent the day in London with some really talented actors looking for our cast. 

The day was really inspiring and more than anything so far kicked up the dust and made this heady thing real and right there. One of the most satisfying parts of the day was hearing from actors of their appreciation for our process. We don't really know any other way to do things.

There were four of us. Myself, Justin (director) and two Steves. One is one of the producers, Steve Clarke. The other is an old friend of ours Steve Maclean who was there to help the actors, to guide them through the day and crystallise what was needed. He's mentioned on these pages as the person I go to after Justin for feedback on my writing so having him in the room with actors trying to reach for the characters I had written, knowing the impact they had on him, was positive. 

We read about 12 people. They read in pairs and in fours, sometimes. We asked them to be there for 2 hours each. Over that time we wanted them to read with other actors (not us), to do some improvisation, and just to talk. We wanted to ask them questions and answer theirs. They all appreciated the fact that they got the chance to read with other actors, to develop scenes and come at them from different angles. The result was an intense day with some really eye-opening moments for me as a writer, to see what happened in people's interpretations of my words. I love that feeling, seeing the work go off in different directions than anticipated. 

We cast for four roles from all the actors present, trying all in both the lead and supporting roles and feel like we hit a really sweet spot in terms of chemistry and the group and couple dynamics. As always it is a bittersweet process. One actress in particular brought some really strong ideas and sensitivity and imagination to her reading of the lead woman, Alice. However, seeing our eventual Alice with our eventual John (an actor we dearly wished to be as good as we'd hoped and boy did he deliver) it was clear the direction we needed to take. It's hard and sad though, to see talented people come your way and not be able to work with them. 

Our eventual Alice, Katharine Davenport killed it. She came in 'off book' and just nailed it. Such sensuality, such strength, such sadness. She knocked her John (James Barnes) sideways and really made him work. All day there was one line that none of the actresses delivered as I had imagined it to be delivered. I was at the point of feeling that it was a line that didn't work, which often happens. However Katharine just destroyed the line. Steve M and I kept glancing at each other throughout her audition. A reprise of the looks we had swapped seeing James do his thing. When Katharine left, the room was in agreement, there was our Alice.

The supporting roles will be taken by the actors Sebastian Badarau and Bean Downes (a native of Cornwall) who each took those parts into new and unimagined territory and we just saw them as this couple that John and Alice spend a fractious evening with. 

The experience of the casting stayed with me for a few days after, right there, at the front of my mind. I feel fortunate to have found a group of people to embody these characters and I'm really excited to get to know them as people and to see them work with Justin as we rehearse and shoot. It's getting real. In truth it got really real the day I saw the faces of the characters come to life.

 

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Pre-Production 1 (Locations)

The ghost of Peckinpah dragged us west and south. We visited one of our key location possibilities for Wilderness near Morvah in Cornwall and discovered it sits next to the setting of Trencher's Farm. 

Morvah, St. Buryan, Lamorna. We visited them all, looking for real opportunities and to draw on some of that maverick spirit. It was good to use that Straw Dogs energy as we bounded round the county even though our destinations and choices were mostly our own and very different, just as our tale is very different. 

Godrevy, The Roseland, St. Mawes.

The bottom of the road. 

It was encouraging and enlightening to spend time with students this week on the project. For me, it was a reminder of the distance between theory and practice. I teach the distance and I teach a lot of practice, in theory. To come face to face with the dusty realities was fun. It was also interesting to see how embedded so many top-level industrial ideas are in film students. I'm not sure where all that comes from. There's an expectation of a lot of time, money and a particular way of doing things that simply isn't redolent with how things get done in the main. It made me wonder if I was partly to blame and if I hadn't been completely thorough, complex and diverse in my teaching, and has caused me to reflect harder on my teaching practice. 

The students themselves are mostly engaged and interesting. One joined Justin, Bailey (my dog) and me on the road trip. Others came out for the script breakdown and on Monday evening we met them all away from the University to try and build the kind of crew camaraderie that will be needed to pull this off.

Now it's on to confirming locations, doing the risk assessments, further breaking down the script and starting the hunt for costumes and props. Oh and casting, that's next.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: Keep On Truckin'

It's been a big fortnight. We've sent out the casting call for the final day player we need and selected the actors we want to see in our big casting day for the lead and main supporting roles in a couple of weeks time.

We've hit the somewhat inevitable point in a creative project where the available funds don't match the original vision and projection. When I created this pilot I thought maybe we could turn it round for a certain amount of money. However, due to a variety of immovable factors - shoot time mainly, student crew numbers also - doing the project in the original planned form will cost more than I thought it could be done for.

This has resulted in the common creative project dilemma of reworking what the project is to align it with the available money. So we are doing just that. It's hard because of the proximity to the production period and the emotional and physical stress that the project is resulting in. 

However we are still on, we are still committed to finding a way and creatively the project is really exciting. So even if going forward the Filmmaker In Residence model has to evolve its parameters I am still only six weeks away from shooting my first feature. The School of Film & Television at Falmouth University is still supportive of my crazy plan and eager to make it work and happen as best it can. This is quite incredible in so many ways and I wonder what form it will take in the future once we get through this and work it all out.

That's for then though.

Now. The student crew is confirmed and we are all meeting up tomorrow. They are excited and eager, asking questions already, and raring to go. It feels good to be approaching production again.

Filmmaker In Residence Project: We're Making It Now

It was a real treat to be up past midnight sorting through cast applications and watching self taped monologues for the roles of John and Alice in Wilderness, the feature film we are shooting this Spring.

It was a reminder of the last time Justin and I set about making a film, a time that feels a different life away but also jarringly present as the emails fly back and forth and the to-do list never feels dented. The joys of production loom.

The crew is pretty much sorted. We've worked through most of the student applications with only a few to go next week. The heads of department are pretty much locked with some exceptionally talented people on board. 

We've whittled down to a core set of potential actors and set a date aside for casting. 

1 location and 1 location/base have been secured. 

It moves forward. As Justin said in a text this morning 'so we're making it now'. It feels real. It is real.

The budget fluctuates. Between the ideal and the actual and the final piece of that jigsaw will be confirming nebulous talk of money from other areas that will help make it achievable on a tiny scale but where it doesn't kill everyone involved. In the scheme of things it is pretty micro-budget but it could do with being more than we originally thought/expressed and that's always a concern. 

The desire to get things made often leads to the promise of the impossible but we may have put ourselves in a position that is irreversible. We shall see. It's all part of the fun. 

It's exciting. This week sees the finalising of casting and confirmation of student crew and getting them to work.

I feel like a filmmaker again.

MECCSA 2016: Paths To The Pantheon

Yesterday I presented a paper from my doctorate on filmmaker education. You can listen to the presentation below and find a link to my slides here.

The content mentioned in the paper will be up online in a new section of the website soon. I'll post a link here when it is ready.


Filmmaker In Residence Project: Into The Wilderness

Don't worry. The title of this blog isn't a bleak prophecy. The film we are making has a a title now. It's called Wilderness.

The whole thing has moved on significantly from where it began. It has shaken itself loose of the shackles of its nucleus and is emerging as somewhat of a beast. The latest entry in the Screenwriting section of the site goes into more detail on the story and the script progress.

What makes this different?

Before Christmas, Justin and I had two good days working on the project. Well, one good day working and one good day reconnecting and talking film and life and the project as a whole. Living so far apart this is necessary as sometimes just ploughing in to the meat of the work without reminding ourselves of our individual lives, traits, insecurities etc. can cause anxiety. 

During the day we spent talking and reconnecting, over lunch at a Pizza Hut buffet (a nostalgic choice for us if ever there was one) Justin asked me a question.

"What makes this different to other films about couples?"

A tough question. An important question. I may have paraphrased him slightly there and I will likely paraphrase myself with my answer, which may read more succinctly than what I said at the time. Although I should say, Justin liked my answer and we moved forward, together, on the project. 

I said that this film was about a couple of things. Firstly it's about getting to an age where you ask yourself a 'what if' question in a relationship that has more meaning than it did before - 'what if this doesn't work out?' The weight of age and past relationships weighs heavy and this moment, with this person, feels like everything and that everything rests on the relationship working. In addition to this it's a film about what you do in this moment, when the space emerges between the real person you love and the projection of them you have created based on your own needs, desires and romantic ideals. That's what Wilderness is about, two people at this point in their lives, asking that question and dealing with that moment.

Practicalities

The casting call is written and will go out next week. We will cast 4 roles from 2 character breakdowns. I will post the casting breakdown here when it is up. We have some people in mind to see and approach. We have updated our Baracoa Pictures website with the film's information and updated biographies etc. We have a plan for when interviews with students who will work on the project are to take place, and applications are coming in. The script sits at 30+ pages (of 60+) and the remainder has been mapped out. It will be complete by the end of January. It's all moving forward. 

Vindication

I was listening to the Close-Up podcast produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center today. The episode featured Tom Noonan discussing Anomalisa and Andrew Haigh and Charlotte Rampling discussing 45 Years. Two things stuck with me. The first was Noonan's comment that 'meaning has nothing to do with the words', regarding the screenplay and the film. This is some kind of a mantra for me on this project (albeit versed more clearly than I have managed in my mind so far). I want there to be space for the director and the actors and the cinematographer and the editor and so on and so forth. I want there to be space for them to create layers of meaning that is rooted in there own lives and comes through their craft. The words uttered are to be only part of it. The second was Haigh discussing how 45 Years was shot mostly in sequence and deployed little coverage, with the cast and crew living near the film's main location, close together. The emotional impact of 45 Years is deep and so much can be felt as related to these decisions, decisions similar to ones we are making with Wilderness. If we can get anywhere near that film's cinematic depth and devastation I will be proud and happy.