Thursday, 31 May 2012

A Few Dolours More

Four steps forward, maybe only two steps back...this is progress!

After very reluctantly deciding that the hotspot on the wall in Vicky's footage really wasn't acceptable, I had to face the fact that I still hadn't actually shot anything that was going to appear in the film. Not only that, but I was also facing having to tell Vicky (and Lucy from the previous week) that it needed to be done again.

On the plus side, I had ironed out the final kinks in the set-up on a very minor shoot, and now had three talented actresses coming to deliver (slightly) more substantial lines. I was lucky to get them, and only sorry they weren't available for something more substantial. Still, six whole lines to go in that can...

Except they had to cancel the night before.

For perfectly good, professional reasons, it's true; they were involved in a play which had taken up all of their concentration for some time, and the morning of the shoot was the day of the final performance, and they didn't feel they'd be able to do me or the play full justice with their energies spread so thin. Still, good reasons notwithstanding, very dispiriting. I looked forward eagerly to getting even one second of footage in the can...
And with the help of Mishkin Fitzgerald, lead singer of alt/punk/goth/classical band Birdeatsbaby, this was achieved! A whole ten seconds, probably - maybe even twelve...! Mishkin is not an actress, but performed creditably in a tiny role in one of my previous films (not available online pending festival submission) and took direction perfectly. Footage! Finally!

The rest of the last week has been spent rewriting, going over the niggling little bits of the script I've been trying to ignore because I know there's something not quite clear, or the line is weak, or overwritten, or a slight non sequitur...

And all the while trying to ignore the fact that one of my three leads is not available even for a readthrough until mid-June at the earliest, and one of the secondary leads has an audition for the Edinburgh fringe...the price of working with good performers, I guess.

So I had to abandon my plans for anything like a full-cast readthrough before beginning to shoot the bulk of the film.


I have cast the lead, after over two months of 'Yes!' then 'Nooooo'... (Not a very long time, you might think, but quite long enough to spend on an emotional rollercoaster, particularly with an unofficial deadline of July for completion of shooting!)
So, I present to you Talia Cohen, who came my way through what might be called good karma; a meeting with a young man on another set where I was helping out, who, when I described what I was looking for in a lead, said: 'I know someone who fits that description...' Talia has specialised in musical theatre (for which she's just received a rave review in the Brighton Fringe) but a quick reading confirmed her serious acting chops, and (almost) best of all, she wants in on the production side and brings several eager helpers with her.

And we have a (nearly all) main cast readthrough this afternoon. More on that soon.

Is it actually happening? If the world ends between now and 2pm (EST), you'll know who to blame...

(p.s. Birdeatsbaby are currently touring the USA. If you're reading this on the other side of the pond, go see them - they are astonishing...)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Raindrops Keep Fallin' (except when the shoot is cancelled)

As this entry will be something of a catalogue of setbacks, I thought I should start with some good news.

I have some footage in the can. True, it will amount to about five seconds of screen time once edited, and true, there is a slight imperfection in the shot, but the latter can be put down to it being POV of an amateur's camera (in the context of the film), and I'm going to celebrate the former anyway...

Vicky (Victoria Smith) in relaxed pose during the otherwise tense and exhausting 15-minute shoot

This was supposed to happen over a month ago. I needed a new camera for the bulk of the film, but a chunk of it consists of interviews filmed by the protagonist in the service of her academic work, and I reasoned that it would fine for those shots come from the kind of camera she would actually use. This was another of my cunning ploys to spread out the workload and get ahead of the game while I was waiting to accumulate enough cash for my Canon DSLR.

Except in the middle of March I got a letter telling me there'd be extensive work going on around the building for 5 weeks. (I am using my flat for these shots as they all have to be in the same place and I have around 30 'interviewees' to shoot - and nowhere else would be readily available at short notice) So - scaffolding blocking the light and men conversing loudly about football a mere five feet from my desk. Not ideal. Scratch getting ahead of the game.

So, as well as working towards shooting a short that had already been postponed once and was due to act as a warm-up/dry run with the DSLR, I pursued the main casting for the feature. The casting had been done while I was writing the screenplay; that is to say, I knew exactly who I wanted and I wrote with those actors in mind. Obviously there was the strong possibility I wouldn't get everyone, but I had lots of good second choices.

My first choice for the lead was an excellent actress who had a background in stand-up comedy, who thought when I first (very vaguely) mooted the idea that she would be pretty much free after the Brighton fringe. As this is my first feature film, it seemed somehow inappropriate to offer the lead to someone via an email or a phone call, so I tried to set up a meeting.

And tried. And tried.

It wasn't anyone's fault. She just got suddenly very busy with comedy bookings, and did try to keep in touch and make it to the appointments we arranged, but...anyway, I lost three weeks with this running around before it became clear she was just going to be too busy until at least the end of August.

So I approached another actress, who turned out to be embroiled in theatre work for the summer, and spoke to another, and emailed another (and another), and found one on Casting Call Pro who was very excited about the project and all ready to go when she got some call-backs and some regular corporate work (it's very unfair having to compete with people who can offer money).

I could go on. The upshot of it is that as of today I still don't have a leading lady, although (not crossing my fingers because then I couldn't type) I feel confident that I will have one by next week, based on the events of the past few days.

Why not take full advantage of Casting Call Pro and other sites (even Gumtree) I hear you ask? Well - my first priority in casting this film was to give back something to those who had worked with me before, a chance (however slim) for the extra exposure a feature-length film can bring. And the second factor that influenced me was the matter of trust - it's no easy thing to approach a stranger who may have professional credits behind them with the line 'Look, I've got no money...'. (You may take it for granted that, except for the cameo interviewees, I wasn't approaching anyone whose acting hadn't already impressed me).

Well...among the performers of my acquaintance, an unfeasibly large number seemed to have work in the Brighton Fringe, which was another delaying factor. One actress whom I was desperate to get for a key role couldn't find time to read the script for 5 weeks - then turned it down. (And this on the same afternoon that my Casting Call Pro find said she couldn't do the lead.)

Add to this that it was becoming clear that £500 I was owed for a video job (that was going to pay for the body of the DSLR) wasn't going to materialise, and that the short film, after much buttock-clenching over the unreliable weather, was called off 16 hours before shooting because of cast illness. I had already express-ordered memory cards and batteries and borrowed money from friends to make sure I had the DSLR fully kitted up in time. I had been wrestling with the complexities of shooting 14 pages out on the Downs in just two days, and was confident I'd worked out a realistic schedule. After all the setbacks in getting the feature film up and running, I was raring to go. When it didn't happen, I comforted myself with the fact that weather forecast was terrible for the weekend, anyway.

It rained twice, on the Saturday. Lightly, for about 15 minutes each time.

It probably doesn't sound like much, told like this. But then there was the very talented actress who expressed an interest in the project and loved the script, but then said she wasn't sure she could commit to the time, being in London, despite her previous avowal that her work was very flexible. I'm not blaming anyone; at every stage people have been concerned that they might let me down, which is commendable; I just wish it hadn't kept coming after such enthusiasm and assurances that they'd be available.

And then there was the excellent, previously always-available actress who just a month ago had to get full-time corporate training work to cover her mortgage...

But enough.

Two of the most important people I wanted said yes immediately, one without even finishing the script, I have lots of free music from local musicians as well as a talented duo up for composing a score, feedback for the script has been overwhelmingly could all be a lot worse.

Except my sound equipment has started to play up. So (until I got an incredibly generous offer from a work colleague) I was facing a stark choice between getting new gear or eating for the next month...

I can only imagine how low my stress levels might have been the last three months if I hadn't been engaged on this project. This is what I mean about the cost of this work; for me, the most important thing is that people are happy, and while I'm struggling to cast the remaining roles I'm aware that some people have been waiting for weeks for something to happen, that I need the best possible performer for the lead but I also need someone who's got a lot of time, that one of the roles is such that there appear to be no candidates left to fill it...

I brought it all upon myself. Fair enough. But, for a project conceived as a reason to celebrate, to make me feel I wasn't just wasting my time, I do feel the universe could have been a little kinder...

To finish, a shot of lovely Lucy Shaw, in the initial test for the interviewees, which will have to be reshot due to the ureliable sound equipment, in order to match the way I'm going to have to shoot everything from now on.

Moan over. Next time; sets, locations...and a shorter post, I promise.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Worth a thousand pictures..?

"The three most important things about a film are the script, the script, the script" - Oscar-winning director Fred Zinnemann

I am that oxymoronic creature, a filmmaker who's not particularly visual. I suppose many if not most filmmakers get started through a love of images; personally, what really interests me, as Tom Stoppard once said, is "what people say to each other", and why they say it - or in some cases, don't. My scripts are dialogue-driven - and my films are character-driven.

I lean too far in that direction, I realise; I am gradually learning how to say things without words. Often in a readthrough of a script it becomes clear that some of the words are unnecessary. But I suspect that what actors look for in a script, initially, is interesting dialogue that is expressive of interesting character - acting, at root, is surely about exploring the human condition. And even if verbal communication does in fact constitute a fairly small percentage of how we actually express ourselves, it's the means that most people use to present their chosen image of themselves. That image can be contradicted by their body language, or their actions - but that's only interesting if we have the words to compare.

And if this was a script, I'd cut everything above and start here...

In writing short film scripts, often in my case for film challenges, you work within certain parameters; you write for the people who are available, you limit the locations and characters (er, except when you don't because everyone you ask says 'yes' and you feel bound to include them...) - in short, you work with what you've got, and you use your limited resources in such a way that they become strengths.

I approached my feature script in the same way. I was - so I thought - ferociously cunning: I came up with a format that would involve a number of scenes (interviews direct to camera, phone conversations, bridging shots) that needed only one character onscreen, and thus could be shot at almost any time, contributing to the running time without involving major scheduling headaches. The interview scenes were also conceived as a payback for performers who had worked with me before - there were obviously a limited number of featured/leading roles, but this way everyone got to have the screen to themselves, if only briefly. If you're working with no money, goodwill is your strongest currency.

Oh, and a decent script, of course.

My first thought was - 'Keep it fast-moving. Don't give the audience time to even consider whether they might want to look at something else.' But then it struck me that many films I have found utterly compelling do things in exactly the opposite way; they take their time, allow the audience time to really empathise and feel with the characters. One of the most gripping things I've ever seen is the initial meeting of Cynthia and Hortense in Secrets and Lies, and far from being a succession of quick dramatic cuts and intense close ups, it's pretty much all one shot. It's the acting (and the writing) that draws you in - so much so that I didn't even notice it was a single shot until I'd seen it a couple of times.

I didn't quite go that route. After all, if you have no money, and you are your own art direction department, you have a duty to entertain. The script I wrote is romantically-comedic in tone, if not in actual subject matter - make people laugh and they will forgive a lot. (At least, that's the theory)

Which seems an opportune moment to insert my joke:

How many writer/directors does it take to change a lightbulb? One, because 'This is my project, damnit!'

(One can imagine a slightly more Zen-like variant: insert the word 'auteur' instead of 'writer/director' and there's no need to even answer...)

So: I wrote a script, thinking carefully about how to minimise scheduling nightmares, utilising sets/locations that I knew I already had or could easily get, and creating characters for performers which played to their personalities and/or individual acting strengths. I worked over the script, editing and rewriting much more than I ever had time to do for a challenge film, and even deleted a sub-plot, something which cost me a lot of funny lines. I went over and over the script; I submitted it to about ten readers to get feedback, which was pretty much uinversally positive. In the meantime I was working on pre-production. I had my own flat as location for the to-camera interviews, with a plan to start them ahead of the main shoot, I had a large pool of interested potential cast members, I was buying a new camera and had a postponed short film slotted in as a good warm-up exercise. I was ready to go.

Of course, that's when things started to go awry. But I need to fortify myself before I can endure going over that...

p.s. It occurred to me only after I nabbed the quotation for this post that Fred Zinnemann is responsible for one of my favourite dialogue-driven films of all time. Adapted from a play, of course. I do sometimes wonder if the theatre would be a better home for me...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Brother, can you spare a lifetime?

Just to be clear, from the start; the title of this blog does not refer to money. I came late to filmmaking as a vocation, but over the past 3 years, I've made 14 short films with the Brighton Filmmakers Coalition and been involved in a dozen more in one capacity or another. Most of these films have cost almost literally nothing and none of them have made me (or anyone else, as far as I know) any money. That's not what it's about, of course. To do this sort of thing the passion has to be there first - and I would guess that even for those involved in spending or being paid millions of dollars, the passion is what keeps them going, not the paycheck. (Maybe I'm naive.) And those of us who do it for no financial gain - what do we have except the passion? If guerilla filmmakers do often dream of mega-budgets or directing film stars, what lies at the root of that vision is surely a love of the process, the medium?

Bob Dylan said success is getting up in the morning and going to bed at night and in between, doing what you want. I spent my birthday two years ago up on a hillside directing the final scene of a film, and in some ways it was the happiest birthday I've ever had, simply because I didn't have a moment to think about whether I wanted to be anywhere else, or doing anything different. Happiness is absorption, someone else said.

It's a sad fact that money drives our civilisation and dictates so many of our life decisions, but the only thing money is really good for is getting you to the point where you can forget about its existence and just do what you want to do. The measure of how much you love something is how often you do it for no money - and how hard you'll work under those circumstances. It's beyond lovely to get paid for something you enjoy, but if it's a real passion you won't think about pay - only whether the work interests you.

All of which pseudo-philosophical rambling is really only a preface to this:

With my half-century looming, this year I decided to give myself something to celebrate, a solid, considerable achievement - a big target to aim at. So I decided to make a feature-length film for no money. Not that the complete lack of funds was a matter of choice. More accurately, I decided to make a feature-length film even though I had no money to do it.

Five months into the year, the project could hardly be described as being firmly on track, but it limps along. It is my constant companion, my greatest preoccupation and my most reliable source of stress. This blog is intended as a diary of sorts, charting the progress of the production. Since I've started this account rather late in the day, some sort of review of events to date would seem to be in order. It has been a bumpy ride.

But that's for next time.