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.




Friday, 1 August 2014

Number Four

For the last month I've been in Tobago, filming feature film number four - Learning to Breathe.
With filming in Central London scheduled for later this month, I'm taking a moment to rest and reflect on what's been one of the most challenging shoots of my life thus far.

Every feature film, at every scale, is always physically and mentally demanding.
Especially if it's your own script.

Even those around you don't quite realise the level at which it consumes you, and just how exhausting a process it is.

Every day when you're making a film, you have to be positive. Be the cheerleader, the motivator. Even if you have your own doubts, or insecurities.   Perhaps you simply have a head ache?  Doesn't matter.  You have to be professional.  Be calm and clear and focused. No matter what.

And whilst those thousands of questions and problems fly around your head, you must always have a smile for that 1001th question. No matter how insignificant it may be.

By the time you've done a few films, and maybe had some praise, you feel confident in your ability, but the sheer act of carrying 100 pages of script with you daily and overlooking every single department really is challenging.   
Perversely, when you're doing it, it feels overwhelming at times, but when you're done, you miss it like a drug.
Maybe because it's so all-consuming it leaves a big hole to fill?

Being grounded and pragmatic helps.  Having the support from loved ones also helps.

For Learning to Breathe I decided to operate one of the cameras too.  A decision I took to get closer to the actors and the action.
As if writing and directing wasn't enough!!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not moaning. It was a personal choice.  But it's very much a one-off.   It was right for this film.
It helps having a great crew and knowing the second camera was in safe hands too.

As for the film itself, my natural mix of modesty and self-preservation mean I will leave the promotional stuff to those who do these things better.

So far.  It's been gruelling. Yes.
But there's magic.
And plenty of it...


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

What is a feature film?

Its an odd time to be a filmmaker.

I've made three feature films to date and am shooting my next one shortly.
Inevitably, there are questions that arise...

How much do you talk about it?
Who should you tell?
How should you tell them?
and...
Does anyone give a shit?

(that last one usually crops up on a Monday)

When I started, if you said "I'm making a feature", people would almost drop to one knee and bow their heads in deference.
There was a genuine awe about the process and it felt very special.
The truth is, nowadays, anyone can make a feature film.
Take a domestic HD camera and shoot something thats 90 mins long.  Bingo!   Feature film.
Crowdfunding has empowered people to fund their own films, and online distribution platforms means you can reach an audience, albeit on a severely reduced level.

I'm not judging this trend, just acknowledging it and wondering what impact its having on the nature and perception of the feature film.

To be honest, parts of it make me feel uncomfortable.
When I started I had to fight REALLY hard to justify why I was making my first film and had to work very very hard to get investment and then distribution.
So, the fact that anyone can go out there and make any film without any quality control is a problematic one.
But you could also argue that it means that true artists can now make their work without restriction.
I mean, what do those suit-wearing investors know anyway, right?

For me, a feature film is precious.  From its inception to release. It has to be protected and nurtured and then released to the world carefully and in just the right way.
For low budget filmmakers they have to be so careful.  If you have an online presence you could be seen to be begging. For funding, for support, for an audience... and the film then starts to feel like it's not good enough for someone to pay to see.
There's no greater turn-off for a movie audience than the word "please".  Not when you're up against the studio movies with their "The GREATEST movie of our time" quotes on their posters.
If you're a paying punter you want some assurance your £10-£20 of hard earned money is going to be rewarded with a good cinematic experience.

I'm curious to see where all this leads.

The production and distribution model in the UK is on the brink of collapse.
That's no exaggeration.  Look at the box office for the UK films released in the last 2-3 years.
At the time of writing, Starred Up, a heavily promoted, well reviewed, and widely distributed film, has under performed.  It's just one of a line of films that has UK distributors scratching their heads.
With the physical media market drying up as well, and margins from online distribution a fraction of physical media, its getting harder to justify budgets for films.

Movies in the UK are now dropping under the £100k production budget level, because, frankly, they don't recoup their investment.
Sales agents and distributors are now dictating the kinds of films being made.  So called "made for market" films.  A daft policy, given the 1-2 year turnaround of the average feature, rendering any market-led concept out of date.

As a cinema goer, why would I pay £10 to go see a "made for market" sub-£100k movie, when I can see a slick big budget Hollywood movie, or a decently funded and artistically driven European film?

Something has to give.

As more feature films are made, the onus is on the filmmakers to come up with movies that rise out of this over-populated sea of content.

In a world where even Terry Gilliam is turning to Crowd-funding and Crowd-led distribution, we have to really question where we are headed as filmmakers.





Saturday, 15 February 2014

Onwards.

I'm going to overlook the huge gap since i last blogged and dive on in.

The last 8 months since the last entry have been full of stuff.  Best I keep it that vague.
I prefer to be positive, and thats what prompted this blog entry.

I find myself fighting a persistent mystery illness that threatens to curtail my filmmaking, but due to my innate stubbornness I'm going to carry on anyway, even if someone has to prop me up on set!

I'm shepherding two movies to the big screen at present, one a much bigger one that I've ever been involved with before, and is now part of a much greater machine than me, with exec producers and all that lark, so its journey will take a little bit longer.  But that's okay.  
Inevitably, those are the kinds of films you can't talk about without press releases etc, which I'm not really a fan of, but I understand the sensitivity involved.
If I were to say something about Kate Winslett it would annoy the grown-ups, wouldn't it?

The other film is another personal labour of love that takes me even deeper than The Man Inside (if thats actually possible).
This one shoots very soon and will be the first film in a long time that I will also shoot myself.  Meaning, I will operate the camera myself.

Whilst making The Man Inside I found myself wanting to be even more part of the process.
Quite often, you sit behind a monitor or stand offset with a portable monitor, and then you interact with the actors after a take.

I decided for this next film I wanted to get closer, and that meant going back to my roots and getting right in there with the camera myself.  making it an extension of me.
In many ways it means I won't so much be directing, as closely collaborating with the actors. 
Able to establish an intimacy, so that we are telling the story together.

I find it all very exciting. The idea of exploring new ways of filmmaking, and breaking down the barrier of camera and emotion, so there's a real purity to the storytelling.

The film is called Learning To Fly and is being shot in Tobago and London this summer.

I'm looking forward to sharing more about this film soon.