FSTT 1: AUGUST 2018
After making two, yes two, Thingys, I have decided to give in and take up the challenge of making a budgeted feature film. To clear up any confusion, Thingy is what I call one of my zero budget feature films. I’ve been making them for fun and screening them for the general public in whatever venue would let me do so for free. The first was Django Away! in 2014 and the second was Freelance Giggle-oh which I finally finished at the end of last year. Exposition done. On with the plot!
My Canon XH-A1s has been glitching my footage more and more regularly and I’ve made the decision that I’d need a new camera if I want to keep filmmaking. I’ve had the camera since 2013 and it was old even then! The reason I got it was because it was MiniDV, a generation older than the SD card camcorders that were already becoming obsolete with DSLR’s coming out, so it was significantly cheaper at only £750 on eBay. It took me a while to squirrel some money away for it from my commissions but it was worth it. It has a great zoom lens, the same as the one on the newer model, as well as XLR inputs for easy sync sound. And I figured that no one will ever see that it was a MiniDV camera when watching the Thingy and that if I don’t work within my means no one will EVER see a Thingy. A good step towards making a feature.
It also turned out to be a terrific camera in different weather conditions. I’ve filmed in the rain, snow, the heat and cold and had no issues with it. Great battery life too. But that was five years ago and as the glitching means I can’t take any more professional commissions, I can’t earn money to buy a new one. I don’t even have enough to rent one for that matter! So a day job and applying for funding it is! I have no idea how to “raise a budget”, as they say, so I’ll have to find out how to do it as I go along. A mixture of trial-and-error and the confidence of ignorance awaits! But other people go down this road and seem to do well so I don’t see any reason why I can’t as well.
I had some fun screenings of Django Away!, and Roberto has organised a preview screening of Freelance Giggle-oh at a cinema in Milan, so hopefully it will be well received and we can talk about Carboluce distributing it. Roberto hasn’t mentioned anything like that so it could turn out to be a one-off screening. I’ll have to wait and see. But I put so much into Freelance Giggle-oh I can’t see how I could follow it. Maybe the Thingy has run its course.
As for a day job, I’ll do a teaching CV and send it around the local colleges and see if I can get any hourly paid work while I go into “development hell”, as they say. Consistent income would be a relief after the last few years as it is becoming less and less fun wheeling and dealing my way to the next commission, especially as the commissions have become further and further apart. My wife Rose and I are finding ways to make ends meet, but I would like those ends meeting to be the prerequisite for each month so running the household can have more fulfilling activities for her and my 6 year-old daughter, Emily, than “how do we stretch the food budget?” and “how can we avoid using petrol?”.
To keep track of my coming experiences, I have decided to keep a diary. I have found that looking through the Django Away! book brings back all the feelings I felt throughout the project, from that world I created, and I’d like to have such a document for all my projects. Maybe it could also, one day, provide inspiration for other aspiring filmmakers, much like the diaries of Robert Rodriguez and Spike Lee did for me when I was making Django Away! The following pages will be filled with ideas developed, people met, movies pitched, funding secured, production produced, post-production productioned, distribution distributed, demographics reached, ch-ching ch-chinged and challenges overcome. What will the future hold? Only time will tell but I am VERY excited.
I ate an egg for my breakfast.
Now that I have made the decision to make a budgeted feature, what feature will this be? I think it will be a film that I won’t act in as I want to be a Writer/Director from now on. Maybe me playing the lead role is something that is not appealing to moviegoers, even on an underground cinema level?
I’ve had a fun idea for a basketball movie set in a fictional Northern City. It’s called 5th QTR and will be like White Men Can’t Jump meets The Royle Family, with scams and gameplay aplenty. It’s primarily about the absence of winning though. Thinking practically, this has too many logistical problems to do on a small budget: too many characters, locations, costumes, etc. Definitely not a micro budget first feature. I can’t even get it off the ground as a Thingy! I’ve done a few casting calls and no one has applied for it apart from Janet Lilley, an actor and on-set paramedic who has done small parts on primtime TV. But I can't find anyone else! So it must be one for further down the line. I’ve had a few other ideas too, but the one my mind keeps coming back to since I finished Freelance Giggle-oh, is Happy Returns. It’s about a bored wife who is stuck at home and feels neglected by her freelance-working husband. The two characters obviously spring from a boredom I sometimes feel about my domestic obligations and my personal frustrations with working as a freelancer. But these feelings have been growing into their own characters as I imagine the scenes and I only loosely identify with them now. They have become their own people.
I really like the idea of making a movie in the Frustrated Housewife genre, a Shirley Valentine movie, but it being about her inner life rather than the events of her challenging her family’s status quo. I think there could be a good audience for this as there are not many movies that will be like how I imagine Happy Returns will be.
I see the day-to-day scenes as being shot in black and white, like the visual dynamics of La Haine, with colour sequences to show memories and fantasy in an emotive light. It will also have a very happy ending, in the resolution of the emotional arc, like Amelie. I want people to feel floaty and full of optimism once the credits have rolled! I don’t know how to describe this, but I see the structure of the film having a repletion of selves of the lead character, like she sees herself at different points in her life and can see how certain feelings that she thought would be permanent have passed but not as literal as that sounds. Subjective and mysterious, like Lost Highway or The Double Life of Véronique.
I have been watching a lot of European films lately that happen to star women in the lead role: Audrey Tautou, Liv Ullman, Julie Delpy, Adriana Ugarte. These characters are, if not sexually active, sexually experienced but still retain an innocence and romance. How can I capture this quality for a British audience? What I don’t want to make is a bland film that follows the prudishness a lot of British cinema does when it comes to sex. Amelie is sexually aware/active, but it does not make her view of the world any less romantic. I feel a sensation that these things are often seen as mutually exclusive when it comes to English language cinema, that the loss of virginity is replaced by a pragmatism that masquerades as realism. I want my movie to explore sexual desire in the unrecognised absence of romance. As a testing point, I’ll write some sexual scenes into my treatment and see what the reaction is with funders, producers, etc. If they find them interesting or would at least be prepared to discuss their inclusion in the movie, then I know I’ve found someone I can work with.
Ideas and imagery of scenes aside, the notion that I’m really in love with is the idea that the audience sees the lead character being seduced by a character through her phone, a character they think is an erotic dancer that she is fantasising about. The film plays out as if she is caught between staying in a romanceless relationship or leaving to fulfil her sexual needs. But it turns out that the person she was actually communicating with was the husband and that they had made a secret arrangement to spend a well needed night of lust together to express their love. What the audience thinks is about sexual frustration turns out to be about a lack of romance in day-to-day life. By using recognisable plot devices to set up the jeopardy that is never really there, the film can show that the desire was really for romance. That is the journey I see the character going on and the sea that I feel the tributaries will lead to. I want love and romance to save the day!
My aim is to cast Gemma Arterton in the lead role as I think she is a wonderful actor and an actual movie star in the photogenic and charismatic sense of the phrase. I have also not seen a movie of hers that I really loved in the way I love Amelie or Three Colours Red: a movie that has a unique visual vocabulary to frame her performance in. I would cast Mathew Baynton as her husband to support her performance as I feel he would be a wonderful screen father and surprising as the real man behind the sexual texts and messages as most people know him from kids TV. He also has charm and handsomeness that is untapped, in my opinion.
Well, all this aside, I’ve got to start learning about what I don’t know about so I’ve signed up to a Filmmaking Bootcamp at The Sharp Project tomorrow so I should learn all I need to know. The Sharp Project is not a project at all, but a film and TV production studio space just outside Manchester city centre. I was based there when I storyboarded for Victoria Wood for the TV version of That Day We Sang in 2013 and I have not been there since. My instincts are telling me to not go back, both physically and artistically, but I'm putting this down to nerves and taking up the challenge nonetheless.
Not a good day. Too hideous a day to describe but here I go anyway! I woke up with an itch on my face, the feeling of a cold sore about to blister. Not a good start. Still, I had my LED treatment device that I got from Boots which can stop the tingle turning into a blister if I get it early enough. So I told myself it was nothing to worry about and gave the itch a few blasts before leaving the house.
I had the shivers just pulling up to the gate of The Sharp Project. I had a strange feeling being there, like no time had passed since I was there discussing visual ideas with Victoria. An on-set memory rushed back: an assistant camera operator asked me who I was, to which I replied “The Storyboard Artist”. “But TV Dramas don’t use storyboards” they replied before walking off. “Well, I guess this isn’t the usual TV drama” I thought as I looked down at my boards for all the musical sequences over two time periods that I’d drawn for Victoria so far. Back in the moment, and in the moment was how I was trying to feel, I waited in reception with everyone else. I could see everyone was very pleased to be there and excited for what the day ahead might hold. I started to get the feeling that I was the only person there who was on their own, or at least didn’t know anyone else there. My face itched, I could feel bubbles forming around my bottom lip.
Once I was signed in along with everyone else, we were guided through the white corridors, past the production room where I’d worked, into the main central hall and canteen. By the till I saw a familiar face. The life-size waiter prop that was made and used in That Day We Sang. I remember how the MDF prop was cut out and painted at the last minute when it was realised that the straight-cut transition from a dramatic scene to a musical number meant a waiter disappeared. To solve this, the MDF waiter was made so the actor would turn into an ornament when the film’s musical number started. At the wrap party, the waiter was given to the Sharp Project as a gift by Victoria. It was a funny moment that matched the feeling of relief, closure and fulfilment the cast and crew seemed to feel now that the film was “in the can”, as they say.
It now stood next to the till with the day’s menu bluetacked to it. My face itch felt like it must be coming to the point where the blisters get wet and soggy so I went to the toilet and did some more LED treatments. In the mirror I could start to see quite a few blisters around my mouth, an area larger than the LED treatment could cover in one go, so I hid in a cubicle and did a few of the 2-minute treatments across the area: from the centre of my bottom lip to the corner of my mouth. I then looked in the mirror and could see the blisters were not just around my lip, but on my chin, jaw and cheek, an area about 6cm across. My body was telling me something but I rationalised that it was just pangs of uncertainty and I would get into the swing of things once the day started properly.
The first part of the day was a talk by Rob Speranza, the head of the South Yorkshire Film Network and a producer in his own right. It took place in an area outside one of the large sound stages which looked to be used for rehearsals and the like. It was decked out cabaret style, with chairs set at round tables in front of a large flatscreen TV. The tables were also set with gift bags for everyone in attendance. As I chose where to sit, my itching face reminded me to look for somewhere where the right side of my face would not be easily visible. Part vanity, yes, but I also didn’t want to distract anyone from the talk with the weeping hideousness of my face that now felt like it was cooking itself with the heat from the blisters. It was at this point that I was struck by how incredibly bright the room was! I found a small table to the right of the presenting area that I could feel a bit more inconspicuous and less self-conscious and slouched behind the gift bag on the table in front of me.
As Rob Speranza took the floor and began to outline his "25 Skills Every Producer Must Have" talk, I made an effort to forget everything that was on my mind and concentrate on Rob. A native of Brooklyn, NY, he talked passionately and directly about what he felt were the skills needed to successfully produce a film. I made detailed notes throughout but one thing that really stuck with me was his perspective on films and money. He talked about artistic integrity and money as not being mutually exclusive, which I had heard a thousand times, but his perspective was it’s great to have artistic integrity and money can be made from it so you can pay to take your art to a higher level. Do the art and the business can follow. It sounds strange to say it now, but I’d never thought of it in this way before.
I came away from Rob’s talk with a pad full of notes and a head full of optimism. And as my face felt like a bubbling flesh omelette, weeping grease over too much heat, I decided to quit while I was ahead and go home at lunchtime like any great artist. For some reason, on the drive home, the feelings of optimism melted with the realisation of how much I didn’t know how to do when it came to funding a feature. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but now I had a better idea about what I didn’t know about. A sadness came over me.
When I got home, my wife took one look at my face and told me to go to bed and rest. I must have been quite a site as she had never said this to me before in all of our 15 years together.
My cold sores have gone full blown Pepperoni & Three Cheese! I woke up to find the area larger and weeping even more than yesterday. Rose advised a doctor's appointment as soon as possible. She was having a hard time looking at me, my face was such a state. “There’s nothing they can do, I just have to wait for them to heal” I said. I’ve had cold sores all my life and I’ve tried every remedy and only found the LED light to be in any way effective at stopping them blistering. “Well, I think you should try because I’ve never seen anything like that before”. So I called up the doctor’s and got an appointment for 11am.
When I entered their office for the appointment, the doctor did a double-take at my face before quickly composing herself and inviting me to take a seat and explain what my symptoms were. After explaining the obvious I asked for any advice to help my face heal as quickly as possible. Almost clandestinely, she said that there was something she could give me but that they only give it out in extreme cases. Whether or not I classified as an extreme case she did not say but as she was already writing out the prescription, I didn’t feel the need to ask.
“This is Aciclovir, an antiviral medication that should speed up the recovery. Take one tablet five times a day for five days and you should see some results within a few days”.
“That’s amazing!” I said, knowing that far smaller cold sores I’d had had taken far longer to heal than that. “Thank you very much.”
As I waited in the chemist for my prescription, I began to hope that they would at least dry out by the weekend. As I tried to look casual while I covered my jaw, the late stage of the healing crossed my mind, the part when the skin tightens and splits open each time you laugh. “If something cracks me up while this one is healing, I’m likely to turn my head inside out!” I thought.
I then messaged Nici, the manager of the basketball team I play for, and made up an excuse why I couldn’t go to training that night. No way I can sweat without stinging my face off not to mention looking like the walking dead! Hopefully these pills will work and I can go next week. If I miss sessions, I really feel the difference in my stamina the next time I play. And I love playing basketball!
These pills are miraculous! My face has already dried out and the blistering has reduced a lot. At this rate, they will all be gone by next week! Why can I not have these over the counter? Maybe I should hang around the park at nighttime and see if I can score some. I’d probably get beaten up.
Sorry for the lack of updates, but there has not been that much to report. Aside from avoiding going out in public while my face healed some more, I’ve been pulling my ideas together for Happy Returns. Mainly by making bullet points of events in chronological order of the film. I took my daughter Emily to see Hotel Transylvania 2 at the Manchester Printworks today while Rose went for a mop chop.
It was great going to the cinema with Emily. She is such terrific company and an avid moviegoer just like her father. We sneaked in our treats and had quite a few giggles, some at the movie and some between ourselves. I do wonder why the cinema never has many people in when I go these days.
I think my face has healed enough to go to basketball training tonight. Those guys play hard and missing time makes it harder to keep up, especially as I’m a good 17 years older than most of them. I love playing at the training sessions though and I find myself closer to my inspiration when I play regularly so it is definitely worth any aches and pains.
I met with a young musician called Lewis Wright today. I put an advert out to try and find a backing band for doing live shows. I’ve always wanted to combine comedy and music, like Ken Dodd, and be able to move between comedy routines and singing. I’ve been hoping to meet a sax player, a keyboardist and a drummer and build up a fun set to start playing music venues rather than stand-up clubs. I didn’t really fit in that setting and even though I don’t think I’d fit in a music venue, I do think being closer to a party would be a step in the right direction.
I met Lewis in Manchester at a cafe. He seems like a very centred person who really knows what he loves about playing music. He plays sax, along with just about every wind instrument I’ve ever heard of. He plays in a classical group but also wants to find something which it is a little less formal.
I managed to convince him that I was less formal and that getting some other musicians together at a rehearsal room and putting a set together would be a fun way to spend a few Sunday afternoons. After agreeing to send him some tracks of the kind of stuff I had in mind, I promised I’d let him know when I found some more musicians and we would go from there.
I think I’ve met a special person. Someone with talent, enthusiasm who listens and has opinions. I can’t wait to work with him!