Friday, June 30, 2006

"Shit, the Greek...!"

Made the trip to Bradford the other weekend, along with Chris, Gareth and John Ross, for the last day of the 5th Festival of Fantastic Films at the National Museum for Film, Photography and Television. ‘Through A Vulture Eye’ was playing in the short film screening, but we also wanted to go up to check out some of the rest of the programme. We got there early, with an hour to spare before the first film, and so ended up going in to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibtion which happens to be running at the same time of the festival.
It was great – sketches, storyboards and original models from films such as Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of The Tiger, Valley of the Gwangi and Clash of the Titans. These are the kinds of films I grew up on – watching them on TV and at the cinema over and over and even now, seeing them brings back a prickle of excitement.

The first screening we went to see was Robert Fuest’s ‘The Final Programme’, an adaptation of a Michael Moorcock novel from the early Seventies. Fuest introduced the screening and was great – he described the whole mad story of how the film was funded and developed – involving him basically acting out the whole story, gunfights and all, in front of a group of potential moneymen. When he was told that he wouldn’t be able to make it for the money available, he went away, talked to a few people, made some deals and came back proving that he could – even if it meant him designing most of the film himself.

The film, screened in a wierdly faded archive print which gave everything a pinkish tinge, was nonetheless fantastically enjoyable. Deliberately loose, playful and loopy, the film bounces from one improbable scene to another, carried along by the urbane and irascible Jon Finch as Nobel Prize winning dandy Jerry Cornelius. It’s full of hilarious moments and has a real sense of the inherent daftness of science-fiction, which it constantly exploits. My favourite moment was a great fight scene between Cornelius and a character called Dmitri (“Shit, the Greek!” is the opening line) which was both outrageous and strangely realistic (Cornelius at one point yells out “Help me, I’m losing!” in a defiantly unheroic manner.) It was a really good start to the day.

After a quick cup of coffee, it was on to the shorts. Tony Earnshaw, the festival director had suggested that I could do an intro to the film if I wanted, so I did, then gave a little background to the film afterwards. A couple of the other filmmakers also introduced their films which served to give some context to what we were seeing. The shorts, as they usually are, were a mixed bag, but it was good to get to see some other UK and foreign shorts – me, Chris and Gareth are already on the hunt for things we can bring to the next Mayhem.

With only a quick break, we were back in for a new print of ‘Theatre of Blood’, which John hadn’t ever seen. ‘ToB’ was one of the first horror films I really remember – I think back when I was a kid they used to show horrors late at night on Saturdays and there are certain scenes from the film that really stay with me – Michael Hordern’s death, stabbed repeatedly by a group of tramps in a warehouse, his blood smearing the polythene; Robert Morley as a camp theatre critic being forcefed his own poodles – as well as bits that I couldn’t remember – Vincent Price in a giant afro as a camp hairdresser seems to have been entirely wiped from my memory. It’s a great, funny, horrific, mad and effective horror film, one that really goes for it in a way that not many films do nowadays.

The final event we saw was Robin Hardy’s introduction to The Wicker Man, which was quite entertaining, but went on quite long (hour and a half) – and because we hadn’t really eaten since breakfast, we ended up leaving early, not watching the film (which we’ve all seen enough times anyway) and going for a really nice curry over the road.

It was an enjoyable day – good to see some British stuff with that inherent edge of madness which I like – and it made us wish we could have seen more of the festival. It also gave us some ideas for what we might try and do with Mayhem – the talks by the filmmakers were really interesting and it would be great to try and do something like that here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


We finally got word yesterday – nearly five months after being told we had been chosen for the scheme – that our DVShorts Plus project ‘Deliver Me’ has been okayed by the UK Film Council, which means that we can finally maybe start to get working on it again. (When I say ‘we’ it’s not some weird affectation – I mean me and my producer Tina Pawlik).

We need to sit down with Em-media – our particular exec being the new Development Executive Paul Welsh – and talk to them about the next stage of development for the project. It’s going to take a while to get my head back into the project again – it’s been so long since it was at the forefront of my working brain that I’m not sure that I’ve got the feel of it at the moment. Maybe the lay-off from thinking about it will do it good – it might give me a chance to look at it a bit more objectively and maybe make some improvements, or get some clearer thinking about how to go about making the thing.

I seem to have been talking a lot about development this week. On Friday I met up with a filmmaker called Sam Hawker, who I met on a course on Directing Drama, which I used to teach, first at Intermedia, then at Broadway. He’d asked me to have a look at a new film which he put together for college, which he’s thinking of remaking, partially because he’d had to make it in a rush to meet a deadline and partially because I think he thinks he can get some more out of it – which I absolutely agree with. It’s a two-hander, with, coincidentally, a similar set-up and theme to a new film that has just come out ‘Hard Candy’ (I haven’t seen it yet, so couldn’t tell him exactly how close the two are.)

Sam’s an enthusiastic and dedicated young filmmaker, with some Higher Education and short course experience. He really wants to learn and to develop as a filmmaker – so far his main experience has come through making his own films and working on a few others. It’s a traditional route in some ways for a Nottingham filmmaker, although Sam maybe has less of a peer group talent pool than some of us who ‘grew up’ as filmmakers together. But I’ve often thought that maybe there should be something more - not necessarily a film school, but at least some kind of set-up whereby up-and-coming filmmakers could get some kind of tuition/mentoring/practical advice on how to develop their techniques.

The Directing Drama course I ran at Intermedia/Broadway for a couple of years was at least partly designed to try and address this. I suggested the idea and wrote the course to attempt to fill a gap which I could see in the development of filmmakers in the region. It had seemed to me that people could make a few films, learn to develop their technique up to a certain point – often without any kind of structured training or advice – and then had the opportunity to apply for the ‘first tier’ schemes that were being run – things like DVShorts and Three Minute Warnings. But in taking those steps forward, often what seemed to be ignored was any notion that their filmmaking technique might benefit from some development. Often on these schemes a lot of focus is put on script development, but the development of storytelling through the filmmaking itself doesn’t seem to be addressed. (I’ve already written a little about this before...)

This isn’t to say that the filmmakers’ own developed technique should be chucked out or changed – in fact, quite the opposite, I think that those techniques should be refined and developed - and one way to do that is to work on creating a strategy for development which looks at concentrating on directing as well as screenwriting. Filmmaking isn’t just a case of hiring an experienced crew in to turn a developed script into a well-produced finished piece– it’s about a filmmaker attempting to communicate a story to an audience, and finding the best way to do that. And the best way is the way that serves the story best, the way that makes an audience want to keep watching and listening. And often that’s nothing to do with production values or highly polished scripts – it’s to do with the filmmaker knowing how to use the tools at his or her disposal. And that knowledge comes from experience, not only of making films, but of studying films, of breaking them down and seeing how they work – not only at script level, but at every level – sound design, production design, editing – not seeing these elements as things that are grafted onto a script, but as growing out from the story itself.

I think there can be real benefit in filmmakers having the opportunity to explore their filmmaking techniques, and to study the techniques of others. It’s always really helped me. I’m not advocating that filmmakers need to have their hands held in order to direct a film – but it often seems in this region, weirdly, that the skill of directing is the one that is least considered when projects are being developed. Maybe I’m wrong; after all, it’s been a few years since I’ve been in that position. And maybe I’ll get the chance to see if things are any different once I get started on ‘Deliver Me’.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A jaded eye encrusted with bilious wakey-dust

I’m off to London tomorrow to have a meeting about a potential new project. I’m not sure I’ve actually got anything appropriate for it – since I heard about it, I’ve been trying to dredge up some of the odds and ends of aborted/unformed ideas that I usually have buried in the mud of my back brain, and scattered about on the hundreds of notebooks that live in loose piles on my desk and in my bag and in the inside pockets of jackets I’ve long since stopped wearing.

Despite coming from London, and having the bulk of my family still living there, I don’t actually go down there that often. It’s a question that often gets thrown at Nottingham filmmakers – ‘You ever thought about moving down there?’ – but most of the filmmakers I know don’t really seem to be interested.

Maybe because Nottingham has never really had much of a solid connection to what most people would consider to be ‘the industry’, but there doesn’t seem to be that much of a feeling that London is something to aim towards. This can lead to accusations of parochialism and a lack of ambition, but I think it’s down to a different kind of sensibility. I think you head for London if you want to be at the centre of things, if you want to feel like you’re where the majority of ‘things’ happen. For me, I’m quite happy not to be at the centre of things. I like being on the outside, on the fringes, making work in a way that isn’t necessarily ‘the industry way’.

The difficulty is that there is always a pull towards a more ‘industry’ way of working. If you want to stay in Nottingham and work with the people you’ve always worked with, there is a perception from funders that you aren’t willing to take the next step up, to become a ‘proper’ filmmaker. It’s a conversation I had recently with Chris Cooke – how much do you keep your way of working as your opportunities (and budgets) grow larger in scope? Do you work with crews/cast from outside the region because they’ll help you learn different ways of working, or do you stick with what you know? The latter option again lays you open to accusations of a lack of ambition, even an arrogance, but then the idea that someone who is more based in ‘the industry’ will know better than you how to make films isn’t something that I necessarily go along with either. Maybe it all just comes down to people, and to their sensibilities – you try and work with the best people possible for the particular project that you’re making, regardless of where they’re from.

I would argue that the fact that a lot of filmmakers in Nottingham haven’t been through film school, or worked their way up from runners on big productions, or even had a full-time job in the industry, has been one of the major factors in the development of the particular filmmaking culture in this region. Last time I was in London, I had a number of people say to me how they had heard great things about ‘the Nottingham scene’ and were really interested in how it worked and how it came about, and I think that it’s only when you go to other places that you realise how particular to Nottingham (and maybe the East Midlands in general) the filmmaking sensibility is.

Of course, it’s hard to generalise, because there are so many different types of films being made in the region, and it would be impossible to pigeonhole them as having a house style, but I think what is maybe unique is the fact that so many filmmakers co-exist together and work together in such a (for the most part) mutually supportive and uncompetitive way.

Probably because of the lack of any formal industry structure in the region and the general scarcity of funding, people tend to get on with a lot of things on their own. The East Midlands was one of the first regions to really embrace DV technology, and as soon as people became able to first rent, then buy MiniDV cameras, the filmmaking scene really took off, with most filmmakers working for each other as cast and crew in a kind of unofficial bartering system, something that still continues today.

At the moment, and over the past few years, I think the East Midlands has produced a great number of exciting and talented filmmakers. People like Simon Ellis, Dena Smiles, Gareth Howell, Jeanie Finlay, Mark Devenport, Tim Cunningham, Lucas Roche, John Ross and Iain Finlay. In the horror genre, we’ve also got Andy Brand and Owen Tooth, with newer filmmakers like Owen Davies and Cheryl Marshall starting to produce good work as well.

The Nottingham scene has grown quite independently and retains a sense of closeness, at least amongst a certain generation of filmmakers, many of who see and work with each other on a regular basis. However, in the past couple of years, with the dissolution (and absorption into Broadway Cinema) of Intermedia Film and Video – the non-profit organisation which was key in the development of both Shane Meadows and Chris Cooke, among many other East Midlands filmmakers – the sense of growth and development, at least in the sense of there being a loosely-affiliated group, seems to have slowed. Opportunities to make funded films haven’t grown beyond a certain fixed point – once you’ve made a digital short, you’re pretty much on your own – even DVShorts Plus, which is the scheme my new film’s supposed to be developed under is running late (my application, submitted in Jan 2006, was for DVShorts Plus 2005, and the way it’s looking, it won’t be delivered until 2007…), with no other apparent options for progressing in terms of making more shorts.

Of course, maybe some of this is myopia on my part – I see the filmmakers who I’m friends with and maybe place us too centrally in the Nottingham filmmaking scene – maybe there are loads of other collectives or individual filmmakers who are developing furiously that I’m unaware of. But there is the worry that without the developmental support of the existing funding bodies, a whole load of filmmakers will be discouraged from being able to progress in the industry.

Which I suppose brings me back to an earlier point. Which is – do you want to be part of ‘the industry’? Part of me thinks that independence is the single most undervalued quality in filmmaking. Because of the structure of the industry in this country (and I really wish I could find a better term than ‘the industry’ – it makes it sound like we all work in factories), you are encouraged as a filmmaker to view progress and development in a very standardised, centralised way – get a couple of (progressively larger budget) funded shorts under your belt, develop a funded feature, aim for BAFTAs and Oscars.

But that’s not the only route available – if you ignore the idea of ‘the industry’ and just concentrate on making work, there’s nothing to stop you. Well, apart from the lack of funds, obviously, but even this is surmountable. Some of the best, most memorable films of the past three decades have been independent – at least in terms of their initial production – and have come about through filmmakers taking risks and not waiting for funding. It just so happens that in this country, without the stamp of supposed legitimacy that a Film Council or Film Four logo would bestow upon your film, independent films are viewed as the equivalent of the vanity press.

Part of me really likes the idea of working outside ‘the industry’, or at least trying to make work within it on my own terms, without buying into the supposed career path that seems be laid out, and without buying into the supposed ‘glamour’ that the British film industry currently dotes on.

When “One For The Road” came out, the best – and to my mind most perceptive review came from Will Self in the London Evening Standard. As well as introducing the word ‘adipose’ to my vocabulary and talking about the look of the film as having ‘the natural feel of a jaded eye encrusted with bilious wakey-dust.’, he also noted why he thought the film stood outside the norm.

“The British film industry - such as it remains - is all too often distracted by the escapism implicit in high production values. Yet the matted reality of Britain cannot be conveyed by such a high gloss.

In a way, this film is a peculiar allegory of the dilemma of British filmmakers, who, perforce, end up as fantasists pursuing a money man, as long as they remain here.

When new directors do emerge, they are all too often snaffled up by Hollywood, or by a Hollywoodised production, where the involvement of "star" actors determines the investment. There are notable exceptions to this - but they are exceptions.”

I think that maybe if there is a unifying feature among East Midlands filmmakers, then it is maybe this distrust of rejection of this idea of ‘high gloss’ (which isn’t too say that there isn’t a good finish to a lot of East Midlands films, just that it isn’t regarded generally as being necessarily a good thing). Rather than falling for the idea of the ‘glamour’ of filmmaking, maybe East Midlands’ filmmakers remain ‘aglamourous’ – it’s not something at the top of their list of concerns.

Again, maybe I’m ascribing my own feelings to others, to try and come up with a rationale for why so many filmmakers seem to work with and for each other in this region, but I do think that Nottingham’s natural tendency towards outsider status is one of the key elements in the development of a strong, diverse and challenging filmmaking scene.