Sisyphussy

For a while I toyed with calling my nascent film production arm Sisyphus Films. I even had a little logo depicting a guy pushing a film can up a mountain. In the end I abandoned this because a) it sounded arse-grindingly pretentious; b) that image already appeared in my beloved Lost In La Mancha; and c) as someone who’s likely to be working in digital for most of my career, there’s something annoyingly hipster-y about fetishising celluloid.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been reminded of how apt that myth is for the filmmaking process. Partly because it’s such a slog – and a lonely one at that. No matter how great your collaborators are – be they actors, crew or just encouraging friends – the reality is that most films are the result of one individual pushing them across the finishing line. This isn’t auteurism, the director viewing him/herself as the creative genius. It’s just the reality. All films need that voice, that one determined, passionate voice.

But for me the hardest part of the filmmaking process – and the most Sisyphean aspect – is keeping momentum. Keeping going when there’s no sense of progress, no feeling of achievement and nothing but a bloody great mountain ahead of you.

All of this is a long way of saying that progress on my new short has been a bit slow lately. It doesn’t help that it’s the summer holidays, so I have children belting around the house; add to that a house move, an Ashes series, trips away and a car that seems ready for the scrapheap, and pretty soon the idea of editing a film seems vaguely ridiculous. But the fundamental problem is that I stopped in the first place.

As a writer I’ve always been a fan of giving your work time to settle. When I finish a script I like to leave it for a couple of weeks before hitting print and re-reading it. Adds perspective. And so I had a similar theory with the short – after doing a basic cut and needing to reshoot some inserts I figured I could leave it for a while and come back refreshed, ready to see all sorts of new connections, ready to cut out baggage I’d previously fallen in love with. But those weeks turned into months, and now the prospect of returning to the film fills me with dread. I’ve even made a music promo in the meantime, just as a way of doing something creative other than the short.

How could I have avoided this? Well, deadlines would help. I never had anything like a specific festival in mind for this short. Although the film was being made for a competition I withdrew from that because the Terms and Conditions were a little… fucked – something that has since been proved now the competition has closed… But it is one of the problems with owning your own kit – there’s always the temptation to put stuff off, to shoot additional footage later. It doesn’t exactly encourage professionalism.

So as I start to draw up a proper schedule for getting this thing finished, I at least know I’ve learnt a valuable lesson from this short – namely the importance of momentum. Getting a film going is a massive endeavour, getting it started a massive achievement. But keeping momentum until it’s actually finished – that’s the key.

In fact I may even call my micro-studio Momentum Pictu – oh… hang on…

My Budget

So we finished principal photography on my new short film. I’m shattered, physically and emotionally. My flat, the site of all sets, is only just about starting to look like a family home again. But I do have that buzz you get from having pulled off the ridiculous organised coincidence that is a film shoot.

There will be lots more on the shoot, the prep and the actual process of getting there, but for now I wanted to talk about one specific thing, something that I touched on a while ago.

There’s so much advice out there telling us all to ‘just make films’ with gloriously apocryphal tales of Colin being made for £45, Tarnation for a couple of hundred dollars.

I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams, but I think it’s really important to be honest about just what a pile of bullshit these stories are. Here’s why:

For my short, I was able to use my own flat as a location, with rooms being dressed to fit the needs of the story. Even using junk around the house and borrowing stuff from friends, I probably spent about £50 on ‘stuff’ here. Then there was the cost of my family vacating the home for the duration of the shoot. As nowhere nearby was suitable, they stayed at a hotel (£60), ate at restaurants (£50) and in order to keep my two young children happy we had to buy odd books, DVDs etc (£20).

Then there was the cost of feeding my very small cast (2) and crew (3) – again, about £50. Add on the travel and costume expenses of my actors (£30 – a steal…) and you have a grand total of £260. This is a conservative estimate. All for a 6-hour shoot of a relatively straightforward 3-minute short film.

Now. Many of these expenses could have been avoided. The food was expensive take-out rather than home-cooked. If you don’t have a wife and children to move out your home you can save there. Although it’s also worth noting the above calculations ignore the grand or so I’ve spent on building up my equipment collection.

But the point is – in case it wasn’t clear first time round – those £45 stories are bullshit. I don’t blame the people behind them for publicising their films on that basis – good luck to them – but please don’t believe them.

Of course – you can make a film for nothing. Had my film literally been two actors in a room talking then yes, it wouldn’t have cost a penny. But assuming you want a little more than that in your film, please be prepared for spending a little money – like many a Hollywood production, once the camera starts rolling it’s amazing how easy it is to solve problems by throwing money at them.

My Blood

So in the new film there’s going to be some blood. Lots of it in fact. Done tastefully of course, but still. Buckets of the stuff.

I did a few searches for online fake-blood recipes, but ended up making my own weird mixture. You’re welcome to try it, but I accept no responsibility if you die as a result. Although given the ingredients, terminal tooth-decay is more likely.

 

FAKE BLOOD RECIPE

Makes loads.

1 Jar Golden Syrup (cheapy version) – £1.

1 Bottle Red Food Colouring – £1

1 Bottle Blue Food Colouring – £1

Warm water

 

Tip the golden syrup into a large bottle. Add a SMALL amount of warm water and stir. This will loosen up the syrup. You want it to coat the back of a spoon but still flow – syrup on its own is far too thick.

Then add the whole bottle of red colouring and a DROP of blue – just to take that nasty Hammer-Horror brightness off it. Stir the mixture round. You may want to add a drop more water, but go easy. If it’s too runny, add more syrup.

Once done it can sit in a fridge until you need it. The great thing is it’s completely non-toxic and edible, which is great as the stuff inevitably ends up in someone’s mouth. Also it stays glossy and shiny even once it’s dried, meaning you can shoot for about half an hour without having to reapply it.

So far (see disclaimers above…) it hasn’t stained anything and washes off instantly with plain water. The only downside I can see so far is if used in summer you’ll be smothered in bees and flies, but maybe that’ll add to the realism…

My Cast

So we’ve now done the auditions for the new short film, provisionally titled Anniversary. I don’t want to be too specific about the audition process as I don’t feel it’s fair to the actors, however I think it’s worth making some general observations about the whole acting thang.

One of my co-pilots on this film (job titles are a relic of old-school filmmaking…) has a background in performance poetry. As such he cheerily inhabits a world where nobody makes any money from what they do, where even big names acknowledge that they need to do something else to keep the wolf from the door. But this is great for me, because I too often inhabit the filmy world, where everyone maintains this facade of hard-arsed bottom-line-ism. So it’s nice to have someone next to me who sees the best in people, who reminds me that on the whole creative people like creating because they’re creative people.

This is the case with actors. I think a lot of novice directors are terrified of actors. Mike Figgis tells a great story of working on The Sopranos in his essential book Digital Filmmaking. If someone with his experience gets the shakes, pity the rest of us. Yet the thing to remember with actors is that they are creative people – just like you. That buzz you get from writing a new scene, coming up with an idea for a movie, sketching out a storyboard? They get the same thing from acting. They want to act. Scripts and directors are their fuel, the elements that want to work with them to create something together. The more I think about it, the more I realise the genius of Cassavetes in concentrating so much on actors – if writers and actors could form a little union together, the rest of the industry would be on its knees.

A final point – for writers specifically – if you have a longer script, such as a feature or TV pilot, consider arranging a read-through with proper actors. For me, one of the most inspiring aspects of the casting process was discovering the enthusiasm amongst actors for reading new work. And I cannot overstate how important it is to get your work read out loud. I read dozens of scripts as favours to fellow writers, and time and again come across pages of dialogue that are practically unreadable. Reading it in your head as you type isn’t the same as saying it. See, I care so much I’ve used bold.

So consider adding a new stage to your writing routine – write, redraft, read-through, redraft. Just reach out to your local theatre/amateur dramatics network, be honest and polite, and start making connections. If nothing else, it’ll get you out the house.

My Next Short Film

So I’m making another film.

After spending a ridiculous amount of time doing the last one, I planned to do something quick and simple as a follow-up. A little character piece, maybe one actor doing a monologue. But then I saw details of the FrightFest 666 Shortcuts to Hell competition and now I’m doing a full-blooded horror comedy, auditioning dozens of actors, organising chainsaws and making gallons of fake blood in my kitchen. Nothing like having a plan.

When I saw the ad for the competition I thought great – a deadline to give me a bit of impetus, but enough time to come up with something decent. But then I had a late change of idea for the script; I made the mistake of telling someone about another idea I’d had bubbling away for years, they lit up and said I had to do this one and here I am.

If all this sounds like I casually make films all the time, I don’t. This is scarily new for me. The first short was me, the camera and a friend who happened to be able to act. By comparison this short is my first brush with actual filmmaking – i.e. getting hold of locations, sorting out auditions, organising a crew of sorts. It’s exhausting, I’m glued to my BlackBerry, often replying to emails at 2am. I’m conscious that the creative side of the project is suffering – so much time is dedicated to practical things I’m worried that the little details and subtleties of production design are going by the wayside. The perils of doing it all yourself. But the bottom line is I’m making a film.

I’ll post separate pieces on each stage of production, preproduction etc. For now I’ll leave you with as much of a conclusion as my frazzled brain can manage.

One of my favourite comfort films – my film version of a warm jumper and chocolate biscuit – is Lost in La Mancha. This may seem weird because on many levels it’s an incredibly depressing film. And I don’t watch it for any kind of schadenfreude, revelling in someone else’s failure to get a creative project made (sadly I know a lot of creatives who would enjoy it for that reason…)

No – what I love is the simplicity. For all the money of Don Quixote – over $40m – you still see the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. Guys hammering wood together. Storyboards and sketches. Gilliam with a blank sheet of A4, writing Contracts? whilst all around him scratch their heads. You get the loneliness of directing – the sense that for all the perceived glamour, much of the time you’re on your own, trying to believe that this enormous undertaking – this dream – will get made, will become real. It reinforces the definition as a director as ‘the person who has to care more than everyone else.’

As I sit here with my dining table covered in sound equipment, notebooks, storyboards, filmmaking books, a Fairy Liquid bottle full of fake blood, bin-bags gaffer-taped to the walls… It doesn’t feel that different from Don Quixote.

Actually maybe that’s a bad thing…

My Kit

I don’t like to get too geeky about kit. For me, obsessing over what kit is right or wrong is just another reason to procrastinate, and god-knows there are enough of those already. My only real concerns are affordability and workflow. Affordability means getting the absolute cheapest thing that will last and do the job I want it to. Workflow is about fitting in with what I already have – no point buying an amazing DSLR rig only to find none of your lenses are compatible, so you’ll now have to upgrade those.

I’ve built up a collection of kit over the last year or so largely based on these factors. I’m not an industry pro, so I don’t get to try out all the latest gear. Instead I do tonnes of online research before committing to any kind of purchase.

My biggest discovery so far has been M42 mount lenses. These are the old screw-in fit lenses, thousands of which were knocking around during the glory days of SLR photography. A quick search on ebay will reveal dozens of these lenses, most of which are very affordable (i.e. £25 for a 50mm 1.8). I have a 135mm and 28mm, both of which cost under £25, both of which work like a charm on my 550d. The 135mm came with an adaptor, but these only cost a few pounds.

The great thing about these lenses is their price. They are a wonderful introduction to using prime lenses, and are often faster than modern zoom lenses (both the 135mm and 28mm open to 2.8). My video Going Going was mostly shot on these, and I was very pleased with the results.

If you’re interested in buying these lenses there are a couple of things to be aware of. Firstly they are often decades old. As such be careful to read the fine print on the ebay listing. Old lenses are susceptible to getting dust and mould inside the elements which can be expensive to shift. Second, the focus barrels will be a lot ‘heavier’ than modern lenses, with a damped feel to them. This is actually a good thing – it makes for smoother focus shifts when filming with your hand on the barrel. The downside is that more flimsy follow-focus units may struggle with them – but again, if they’re that stiff the seller should have stated this in the product description.

Of course, none of these will compete optically with a brand new prime (costing hundreds of pounds) – but as said above, they’re a great introduction to primes, and if you’re in the early stages of cranking out shorts they are worth having to give you some options.

My Short Film

So I made a short film.

Portrait Poster

I’d written shorts before, two of which made it into production thanks to the generous lottery funding that used to be drifting around the UK film scene a decade ago. But this was my first as director, my first since spending a scary amount of money (for me at least) on my very own DSLR. And despite filming it in August 2012 it had taken me until now (March 2013) to finish it.

Actually, truth be told, it was mostly finished months earlier, but the sheer panic of releasing it to the world had frozen me into a state of permanent inertia, always inventing reasons not to finish it, imagining the hundreds of missing shots needed for it to work. When actually those ‘missing shots’ were ten minutes’ worth of shooting in a quiet street on a Sunday morning. Sorted.

My aim in making this short was twofold. Firstly, I wanted to make a film. Not think about it, plan it, wonder about it, consider it – I wanted to make it. Second, I wanted to make more films, and the old chestnut about the journey of thousand steps starting with one seemed perfect for filmmaking – until I took that first step, made that first film, I’d struggle to convince people that this was something I could do. I wanted to be able to talk to collaborators from a position of strength, being able to say ‘I did that, now I want you to help me make this.’

The very idea that this is possible is mind-blowing for me. When I first started writing (early 2000s) shorts were still being made on 16mm. My first produced short was shot on a PD170 in standard DV, a format now too rubbish for mobile phones, let alone short film production. Yet now I was able to shoot in 2k, 24fps, on a camera I bought from my local Argos. I edited it using Sony Vegas (the £40 version) with a laptop I bought from Sainsburys for £230. And now people all over the world were watching it and sending me messages to say how much they enjoyed it – crazy.

If you’ve ever considered making a short then stop considering and make it. Now. Go on. Make something with what you have. I had a camera but no sound recorder (at the time) so I wrote a silent film. I worried about finding an actor so I wrote a film that involved minimal ‘acting’ (although I was extremely lucky with Matthew, who was a far better actor than he realised).

But treat the film seriously and plan it like it’s a £1m feature. I did full storyboards and did rough versions of every shot at home to make sure they’d cut together. I focused on stuff that would make the film interesting but was cheap – the idea, the visual comedy. So much of the positive response to the film has been the details – the cards, the flowers. These cost nothing, were filmed in my back yard. Like with the rubber shark in Jaws, you make a virtue of what you don’t have.