Friday, 10 April 2015

Hooked on magic


I usually blog about being a filmmaker but I also infrequently blog about being a film fan.

This blog is all about the film that (like it did for many others) changed my life, and left me wanting to tell stories myself.

In 1977 I saw Star Wars at the Colchester Odeon cinema.
But, back in 1977, it wasn't as simple as it is today.

So, rewind back to the months leading up to the film and I was pretty excited to see it.

At that time publicity was limited to a few magazines and television features. No internet and no movie hype.

When the movie finally opened in the UK I was like a coiled spring. Unable to contain myself.
I'd started collecting the comics and was desperate to see the film.
I poured over every picture in the comics imagining how it would be.
I also collected bubblegum stickers of Star Wars that I saved up my pocket money for.
The hours I spent looking at those!!

My Dad, who used to catch me out by surprising me, casually announced we would go to see the film.

I can still remember trying to get my coat on in a frenzy of anticipation. I was beside myself.
It's just as well he played it so cool, because if I'd have been told any earlier I imagine I would have been absolutely unbearable!

So we drove down to the town.... (and here is where people under 30 will look puzzled)
The queue was so big for the film that we had to go back home.
I was distraught.

You see back then, a cinema only had one screen, or maybe 3, at a push.
And you couldn't book in advance!

The trick was, if the queue, that stretched from the front door of the cinema, went beyond the bus stop then you knew you'd never get in.

I think we tried a few more times. I think we even joined the queue on one occasion to be told it was full as we approached the front doors.

Thankfully my Dad was persistent (he's a sci-fi fan as well) and we made it inside those hallowed doors.

As we got to the front, I can recall staring at the lobby cards on the way in and my eyes devouring every detail. Photos from movies back then were difficult to come by, and I stared and stared. Wishing it could move.

Finally we were inside.
And when that Star Destroyer flew over the top of the screen I was hooked for life.
Even today, that moment makes my heart thump and tears come to my eyes. It's a reaction that can't be controlled.
That 8 year old boy remains inside me to this day.

Oddly, I've never wanted to make a film like that. I'd much rather be a fan. I never want to destroy that magic. And it IS magic to me.

And one day I hope that magic will light up another pair of eyes.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Learning to Breathe. Very nearly there.

We locked the picture for the film this week, which means that the film's narrative is now set in stone. No more tweaking. Its a big milestone.
There was a time when I used to tinker until the very last minute, but there actually comes a point where you just have to say "thats enough" and sign-off on the fact that this is the film that people will get to watch.
No other version, except this one.




So now we enter the wonderful world of sound, and I mean wonderful, because its one of my favourite parts of the process.

In film we treat the picture and the sound elements as completely separate entities in post-production, coming together at the end to create a whole film.
But for now, foley, ADR, sound design, music composition and song writing and recording, and the final sound mix will be on the agenda for the next month.

We have songs from the UK, USA and Trinidad to include in the film, and I'm very happy to be sprinkling in a few tracks from exciting new talent, as well as more established talent.


Music will be provided by the super-talented Laura Rossi, who is one of more all-time favourite collaborators.  Laura always watches the film and immediately knows the right kind of vibe thats needed.  When Laura's tracks start appearing over the next few weeks it will be one of the very best periods of creativity, and I am always thrilled to check my emails (ordinarily I greet incoming emails with a sense of dread)

Then late in April we will bring it all together in 5.1 Dolby surround, and put it together with the graded picture.

I shall then go and have a long lie down before I jump into 1953, and my next film.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Learning to Breathe - A labour of love

Its nearly March 2015, and we shot the film back in July through to September 2014.  Thats a long time!

The post-production journey of this film has been a little more complicated than most, but I'm happy to say that the end is very much in sight, and the film will be finished within the next two months.

As I write this update (something Ive not done for a while) I am about to watch the new cut of the film.
I was lucky enough to be able to hand over editing duties to the editor of my last feature film, whom I trust implicitly with my material.
I approach the viewing with some trepidation, but mostly excitement to see what he has done with the material.
Earlier cuts of the film revealed that we did indeed have something special on our hands, but I was really happy to be passing the film to someone who I knew would bring that extra bit of magic to the film, taking it to another level.

The coming weeks will be all about refining the film.  Finalising the soundtrack, including the composed music by Laura Rossi, and a collection of songs from musicians from UK, USA and Trinidad!   Our wonderful actors will be recording songs too, and polishing off some of their dialogue. Foley will be recorded, sound effects created and it will all be mixed to create a unique world that we have all created.

Whilst all the sound elements are being refined, the picture will be graded, taking our lush Caribbean landscapes and making them pop on the screen, and making our principle characters look even more gorgeous!

Along the way there will be a test screening, which will help answer any clarity issues with the story.
Its not my favorite part of the process, by any means, but its an essential one, because everyone involved in the production either knows the script/the personnel or even just "likes" us.  So, its important to strip that away and have a theatre full of people not connected to the production who know nothing about what they are about to watch, to view the film "cold".
Only then, can you objectively say that the film makes sense!  Or at least gauge whether its working.

I can't wait to show everyone the film!


Thursday, 18 September 2014

The best crew

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm not given to being terribly demonstrative online or in public.
I tend to keep my communications personal, preferring to talk in person.  Somehow, it feels more heartfelt to me, and besides... I'm a private sort of person.

The reflective blogs Ive written these last few days have been the result of an outpouring inspired by the incredible shooting experience of Learning to Breathe.

This last one, for a while, finishes a series of blogs with something very dear to my heart.  The crew.

I've worked with all sizes of crew over the years, with varying degrees of experience.  but, hand on heart, I have never felt so connected to a crew as I have done with this film.

Many of them are people I have known for sometime.

I began putting together my core crew who came to Tobago with me back in February.
These were people who I trusted, loved and wanted around me during a shoot I envisaged as being intense both physically and mentally.

I didn't ask around.  I wanted these people, and I was beyond lucky that they came straight onboard and understood exactly what I was trying to do.

In some cases the crew were stepping way outside their comfort zones, in a professional sense, but not once did they falter.

When we arrived in Tobago, the family atmosphere, I had hoped to foster, was immediately evident, and a strong unit was quickly formed that seemed utterly unbreakable.

Being in a somewhat undeveloped country it wasn't all plain sailing.  loss of electricity and water plagued our days, but not once did I hear a complaint or a lack of enthusiasm for the job.  Extraordinary.

My own relationship with each of these wonderful people is already known to them, so I won't go into this private area, but suffice to say I owe each of these people a debt i can never hope to repay. Although I will give it a bloody good go!

A month later we were back in London, and the core crew were joined by a larger group of people, adding to the skills and expertise onset.

Every single person on that set was either selected by me or recommended by a trusted source.
Every single on of those crew rocked very very hard.

In to the mix were a contingent of students who were seeking experience on-set.
I can say with certainty that ALL of these students will be bright shining stars of the future.
their professionalism and enthusiasm was extraordinary, and I will be keeping tabs on each and every one of them!

So, this reflection on working with an amazing crew, ends this current set of blogs, as I head into post-production on the film.

My next film looms large, and with a substantially bigger budget and bigger canvas to play in, I would have no hesitation in recommending every single one of my Learning to Breathe crew to the producer.

If you are a production manager or line producer and you are looking for brilliant crew members get in touch.  I have some gems for you!



Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Dream cast.

I've recently taught workshops on working with actors, and students always seem very wary or even fearful about the actor/director relationship.

Hopefully by the end of the workshop those same students feel a lot better about the collaborative process between filmmaker and actor.

Having just shot Learning to Breathe, I find myself reflecting on the collaboration that I had with my two lead actors Natalia Warner and Sam Hazeldine.

I met Natalia during a long casting process where I promised myself to exhaust every possibility and have no prejudice about particular look.

My only brief, was that whoever I cast had to have a powerful effect on me as soon as I looked them in the eye.
That indescribable charisma or lightbulb.
It was vital for the part, because the audience have to fall in love with the character as much as the lead male character.

I saw lots of fabulous people for the role, but in truth it was difficult to put Natalia out of my mind.   She sat down opposite me and there was my character.  Completely different to how I pictured her, but there, nonetheless.

The next step was casting the male lead.

I met Sam Hazeldine a few weeks later.
I had looked at photos of him online, had sneaky looks at clips of him in films and TV shows, and one part in particular I was bowled over by.  An American show called Resurrection.   Sam had this deep haunted look in the show that made me pause the image and keep staring.  I hoped he would be as cool in real life!
When Sam sat down his eyes flicked up to mine and I felt my stomach flip over.  Sam has the most extraordinary eyes.  They are so powerful and suggest such complexity.

The weeks that followed, the meetings, the discussions, the ideas...  All convinced me that these two actors were the only choice.
There was even a moment where a draft of the script I wrote provoked a strong response from the actors, but I quickly came to realise that they were so invested in the material, and it had touched them so deeply, that they were quite simply being protective.

After all.  As a writer/director, what would you prefer?  Two actors going through the motions or two people who will fight for the integrity of your work!!

The film was shot with the script as a template.  A basis for us to explore the characters.
Some scenes could be improvised, some scenes as written.  Sometimes we even made a couple of scenes up on the day.

What really struck me about Sam and Natalia, was that whenever I had a lens on them, I could only ever see the characters.
There was no process, no mechanics.  Just the truth of the characters and the situation.

The two principle characters in Learning to Breathe are very complex parts to play.
To portray a relationship break-up you have to invest in both characters and sympathise with them completely.  It is absolutely vital, or the audience will simply not care.  And then you don't have a film.

I was blessed to have two actors who are both naturally very likeable, but also bring all the complexity needed to the screen.
The trick is that you don't always have to agree with the characters choices in their story, but you have to feel for them.

To all aspiring filmmakers, I urge you to strive to find these kind of actors.  Actors that will become the characters.  Trust me... it makes your life considerably better.  To know that every decision thats made. Every moment thats brought to life, is borne from an instinct that is rooted in the truth.

Its been an exhausting film to make on so many levels.  Having to wear a lot more hats than usual has been very gruelling indeed.

But when I look at the footage now, I have the comfort of knowing that no matter how hard a scene was to shoot, Sam and Natalia always delivered.




Sunday, 14 September 2014

Reflections

I found myself staring down at the river Thames on Friday night as we filmed the last scenes of Learning to Breathe on Waterloo Bridge.  Much like the character Noah does. Reflecting on what had happened over the last few months of making this film.

Usually when you make a feature film you are faced with a great many problems and obstacles that you have to overcome, but this one had more than most.
So much has happened. Thing connected to the film, and things outside of the film.  It's been a tough time.
But then given the nature of the film it was always going to be a tough one.

I wrote the film in January and somehow everything fell into place very quickly.
I knew I wanted to make this one for some time, but wasn't brave enough.  So by the time I was ready it erupted from me in a matter of days.
Like The Man Inside, I reached into myself and wrote a personal film. Not biographical, but one borne from experience.   It was like taking a state of mind and translating it to film.

The film explored heartbreak. That savage and brutal time in your life when your heart and mind run riot and out of control. 
I wanted to capture that roller coaster of emotion.  To transpose that feeling of the rug being pulled from under you onto celluloid. Not for any catharsis, but to see if I could capture it.  Like a wild animal.
But not just to make a dreary sad film.  Instead to show how the violent shake-up of heartbreak profoundly transforms you. Makes you see clearer and more vividly. How... It can make you better.

And so, to filming it in July and September.

I decided early on I wouldn't just direct.  I'd produce and shoot myself.  Keep everything under my control to ensure I wasn't swayed from my very clear vision.
This would be a one-time deal.  At this point in my life I can handle it.  But it was only for this film.

So, I found myself composing a shot, lighting a shot, focusing a shot, directing a shot... Basically, doing everything.

I was wrought with insecurity. Not sure if I could do it all. But, I held my nerve and kept going. 

It was intense.  Very very intense.  And without the usual reassurance of a producer telling me I was doing a food job, or my trusted cinematographer, I felt alone and exposed.   Desperate for praise or a note that would give me courage to keep going.
Instead I forged on each day. Forcing myself to be positive and trusting in my abilities.

By the time the London part of the shoot came round I was dreading it.
That's the truth of it.
It had been a tumultuous time and I dreaded it more than I really should have.  It was worrying me.
I dreaded the bigger lighting set-ups, the more complex scenes, and, frankly, dreaded screwing it up.

Again. That reassuring hand on my shoulder was absent.  It was all down to me again to find that enthusiasm and drive. To keep motivated and to motivate others.

It wasn't until the second day of the London shoot did I feel confident again.  Here's why...

The producer of my next film came down to visit.
He sat and quietly watched the shoot and watched the monitor.

Then he took me to lunch and told me what a great set I had. Calm and creative and happy.  He told me how great the film was looking.
And he told me what a great job I was doing.

It was what I had been yearning for.  That reassurance. That confidence in me.  It made me relax and I could feel all the tension in me ease away.
It was the first time on the shoot anyone had said anything like that to me, and it really helped.

We all need reassurance and praise and acknowledgement.
I always try and give it to my cast and crew every day. I know it helps.

Assuming all the roles I have on this film has meant I have had to drive myself every day without that encouragement from elsewhere.

As I turned back, from the river Thames on Friday night, I saw laughter and smiles. I saw people happy to be on my set that I had created all by myself.


You know what?  I didn't do too bad after all.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Almost there...

Time to write another infrequent blog about making feature film number four, which must mean that I should be doing something else instead, but am putting it off.

Now all the Tobago shoot is in the bag, we are gearing up for the London leg of the shoot.
Its a world away from 35 degrees and the lush Caribbean vistas, but I've had a long love affair with London and it has many wonderful virtues of its own.
The London section of the film probably accounts for around 15% of the total running time, but its vitally important stuff and the onus is on the team to meet, if not surpass, the work we have already achieved in Tobago.  Which is no mean feat.

One of the things you get asked a lot is... how is it looking? or... are you happy with it?

Out of all the questions I get asked in the making of the film, this is the one I try and dodge the most.

Firstly, when you're in the middle of making it there's a lot of superstition involved.
Making films is fraught with difficulties that can rear their head at any given time, so you try not to tempt fate by being remotely positive.

Secondly.  Until the film is edited and scored and mixed, I genuinely have no idea how happy I am.
Yes.  I think it looks nice. Yes, the performances are good.  etc etc.  But none of that really adds up to anything until its actually completed and you can watch the scenes unfold in the way you envisaged. THEN you can decide if you're happy.
Ive learnt over time that its better to smile politely and say innocuous sentences like "Yeah... Looks good. Will wait and see when its finished".

Thirdly. And probably most interestingly.  Making a film is a long process.  From conception to completion.  As a filmmaker your relationship with it changes over the course of that time.  One minute excited and in love, the next fearful and insecure, or even falling out of love with it for periods of time.
Its definitely a marathon.
With Learning to Breathe it will be a 12-18 month relationship from first draft through to delivery of the final edit.
Beyond that, there will be festivals, PR and release commitments.  So its a long long time and somehow you have to keep positive and excited about the film, regardless of all the bumps and knocks you get along the way.
Cast, crew, and post-production people come along and are part of the process for periods of time.  Weeks or months. But when you're the director, you're in it for the long haul and you have to keep that bigger picture in mind all the time.
One slip, or one lapse of focus at the wrong time, could undo months or years of work, so you have to keep that kind of perspective and stay as fresh as possible.

Somehow, you have to hold tightly to the thing that first made you excited to make the film in the first place, and to protect the integrity and identity of the film at all costs.

Even though its feature film number four, this is the part that is the hardest of all.