Friday, 21 November 2014

Memories of Tori Amos

Hi Everyone,

   It's been hectic down my end as always, juggling my work at Dynomite Productions alongside my freelance jobs and fiction-based dalliances - and trying to fit all that around domestic jobs such as cleaning out the guinea pigs (I have two now)! So I'm going to keep today's blog post brief, with two pieces of major news:

   1) The Night Owls extended cut edit is nearly finished (with a new video diary about that to be released soon).

   2) Stop/Eject is on the long list for a BAFTA nomination.

   Yes, you read number 2 right. How amazing is that news? For saying we weren't even nominated as 'best' anything during our time at Raindance, me and Neil weren't expecting to get this far! And it's so, so unlikely that we'll be nominated, but even being on the long list is such  an honour. Keep an eye on the film's Facebook page for more news as and when it happens.

   So, moving on to the purpose of today's blog post... 

   Last month I entered a short (15 second) film competition, to create a video for none other than the ethereal Tori Amos, and her recent song Weatherman. Here is my entry below:

   The themes for the video were 'nature and memories of love', and I wanted to give it a go for two reasons; Firstly, I've been wanting to make a film for a while based on the fact that almost everyone has a camera on them, and the ability to capture the moving image, 24-7. Which is why my entry uses a mix of mediums - HD, SD and even phone footage, all of which was blurred slightly and converted to 4:3 to give it a nostalgic feel (aided by the Lana del Rey-esque film burn transitions).

Hint of a cameo in Weatherman
   I even appear briefly in the video, in a section of 'phone footage' from my old Blackberry. This was footage of myself and my boyfriend, filmmaker and composer Edward Harvey, shot when been together less than two months (which is hard to believe, looking at how intense we seem in the footage!). That footage meant a lot to me, and I didn't really intend on releasing it, but it seemed fitting for this video, so in it went!

  Some of the standard-def footage is from one of my first cameras, and there's clips there from my early attempts at music videos. Which brings me to the second point as to why this competition was important to me; The first music video I ever shot, aged around 16/17 (I don't remember) was made for a Tori Amos song.

  The track was her cover of The Cure's Lovesong, and of course it was a fan-made piece rather than a commissioned one. It was shot in my high school, with an old school chum who appeared in all my early videos. I used the sepia setting rather than changing the
Screengrab from Lovesong
colours in post, which is something I'd never recommend doing these days, and it was exported as a heavily pixelated 4:3 SD video. And it didn't have a set narrative; was made up from various shots and images that I thought were 'pretty'. So some of it looks very immature now, but it's interesting to see how many motifs from that video have lasted with me over the years.

   I put that video online privately for storage reasons, and I don't mind showing it to you guys on request (although it's rather cringe-worthy these days!). But I doubt I'll ever release it. There's something else important I've learnt to do since shooting it; get release forms signed at all times!

   I never thought I'd get the opportunity to show that old video to Tori, even though I shot it for her as much as for me. So when I decided to use clips from my old work in this 15 second film competition, I jumped at the chance to use some shots from Lovesong (all the sepia bits in my above entry are from that).

  The competition closed on the 31st October, and I haven't heard anything from Tori's representatives (although Mercury Classics did share the video on Twitter). So I can only assume that I haven't won, but that's okay. I was just really happy to give it a go, and to have the chance to look through all that old footage! I also liked the finished result enough that I might expand on it, and use it for something else in the future. I already have an idea in mind, for when I get the time.

   Right, enough nostalgia. Back to work for me. I'll be in touch with you guys again when the new Night Owls video diary is released.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Production Assistants - those unsung heroes!

Hi All,

    So last week, I did two things for the first time. Firstly, I worked on a genuine medieval-style fantasy set for the first time (not including my 16-year-old self's attempt at fantasy-comedy, The Lord of the Things). This is something I wanted to do ever since I first saw Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 00s, and decided that was what I wanted to do with my life.

   As I got older, I found smaller dreams to be more accessible - drama films and short fantasies were easier to achieve. I've said to people, "I'll make a proper fantasy film in 20 years", which I've been saying unchanged for at least a decade without getting closer to my goal. But with Ren, and her previous film Born Of Hope, inspirational director Kate Madison has made such dreams a reality, today. And walking onto the Ren set - created inside a disused factory near Cambridge - made my inner child dance with delight.

   Ren is an exquisite project, a web series of the highest quality in spite of its low budget, and I expect to see it on sites such as Netflix in the near future, without a doubt. See the teaser trailer below for an example of its calibre:

    So when DOP (and my frequent collaborator) Neil Oseman invited me onto the Ren set, I had the opportunity to do something else for the first time. You see, from graduating university more than four years ago, I have worked constantly in 'leading' crew roles - editing promotional films, heading the Art Department, and even Producing & Directing. Unlike most people, I didn't work my way up the power chain from the bottom level. Meaning, I have never been a Production Assistant - commonly known as a 'Runner'.

   But I have used runners before, and happily ordered coffees from them without a second thought, which goes against my number one Director rule of 'Never ask someone to do something you're not willing to do yourself'. So working on Ren gave me the opportunity to correct that error on my part.

   So what did I learn about the humble but vital role of Production Assistant from an inside view? Well, the main surprise was how little I ended up on set during filming. There are always a million jobs which need doing behind the scenes, and Production Assistants are often hidden away helping things run properly. I was always kept busy, which was great, often doing set decorating and making bits of costume (under Production Designer Amanda Stekly and Costume Designer Miriam Spring Davies respectively, both of whom were an absolute joy to work for).

   And the few times I did make it onto set - which looked absolutely stunning - I found myself at a bit of a loose end. Ren was such a well-oiled machine that every job was being attended to, and I was in danger of getting in the way of the fast-moving, busy crew.

   The other thing I learnt about Production Assistants is how multi-talented they need to be. Because of my Art Department background, tasks such as painting thatched roofs and sewing cloaks came naturally (to an extent), but these tasks were also asked of Production Assistants who were completely new to film. 

Sanding wood on the Ren set. Photo: Kevin Hudson
   Production Assistants also need to be physically fit - moreso than I am - as jobs included moving a fireplace and hacking at wood with an axe!

   Production Assistants have to have incredible short-term memories. When you do a drinks run, if more than four or five people put in an order, it can be tricky to remember how many sugars go with which crewmember. And when you're asked to go and fetch something - such as scissors - you need to remember where it is, and you need to find it, amongst the many rooms and mountains of props. This is something I failed at - more than once I went back to person who'd sent me away, and asked where the item was that they wanted! But the other, more experienced Production Assistants seemed to have a photographic memory of where things were. It was like they were wizards!

   When I've used Runners before, I've grown accustomed to calling breaks when myself and the core crew wanted them, and to discovering tables full of food waiting for us. But of course, for every table of food, there's a group of people rushing round making sure it's ready for when the director is. So, as a Production Assistant on the Ren set, I had to help cook - including the dreaded onion-chopping - and I had to clean the mountain of pots left over when other people went back to set. It wasn't my favourite job, but still an important cog of the larger filmmaking machine.

   So, what have I taken away from all this? Well, for one thing I'm lucky that my first experience of Running was on the Ren set, because everyone was so lovely - and surprisingly humble. They made me feel very welcome, and constantly showed their gratitude for my work (and everyone else's). They weren't in any way elitist; Kate broke rank constantly by helping to paint the set, and she personally picked me up from the station. And I often saw the producers getting their hands dirty by cooking and doing the washing up themselves. Like I said, a seriously lovely team.

    And I've learnt to respect the Production Assistants more on my own projects. When you're on the 'core crew', it's easy to keep going through long hours and late nights, sometimes even working through lunch, because you're passionately involved in the story. A Production Assistant often comes late into the project, and sometimes they haven't even read the script. So, as a director, you need to support your Production Assistants, and kindly push them, if you expect the same dedication. That's what I need to do in the future.

  So let me take the time to praise the people who have been Production Assistants under me as Producer or Director over the years: Kurtis Baker, Paul Baker, Laura Cann, Tommy Draper, Steve Giller, Laura Iles, Stephanie Murphy, Kevin Nightingale, Maria-Luisa Piliero, Ellie Ragdale, Freddie Saddington, Sam Tansley and Dimitri Yiallourou. Round of applause. You are the unsung heroes behind my work.


p.s. Find out more about the great Ren, and the amazingly talented team, via their website and Facebook page. Thankyou to Kate and Neil for giving me the opportunity to be part of your family for four days. I can't wait to see the finished result.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Raindance Film Festival - First Impressions

Hey Guys,

   So last time I posted on here, I left you all with some wonderful news. After almost a year of waiting, hoping, praying, and rejection-facing, Stop/Eject got accepted into a film festival. And not just any festival - Raindance Film Festival, one of the biggest festivals in the UK, and the biggest independent festival in Europe. So this news was more than a bit wonderful!

At the Stop/Eject screening at Raindance
   I've been following the work of Raindance for a while now, dreaming of the day I got a film screened there, so there was no way I wasn't going to attend. Sadly the film's director, Neil Oseman, was committed to a film shoot during the festival dates (he's DOP-ing the fantasy web series Ren), but I knew that he would be there in spirit, and I had every intention of telling people this when introducing  Stop/Eject on the 30th September.

   I went down to the festival two days ahead of the screening, to help spread the word about Stop/Eject and to generally revel in the experience. When it came to the screening itself I was joined by the film's co-writer Tommy Draper, and star Georgina Sherrington - as well as my special guest, Sarah Lamesch, the female lead of Ashes. The air was buzzing and, needless to say, the film went down very well. I don't think I'll ever tire of seeing it on a big screen - I hope that we get chance to show it on one again soon!

   So, what did I think of the festival? Did it live up to my long-gestating hopes? Well, that's what this blog post is about. I'm certain that everyone who attends a festival takes something different away from it, because it's the kind of experience you shape for yourself. But here's my thoughs on one of the 'indiest' festivals on the block - and tips for anyone who wants to attend in the future.

   I've been to a total of five film festivals. Three smaller/regional festivals - Film Directing 4 Women International Film Festival (which screened The Opening Night), Bradford International Film Festival, and Derby Film Festival (which screened Ashes) - and two 'higher end' festivals - Cannes, and now Raindance. So I instinctively started making comparisons between this latest festival and my time at Cannes.

Stop/Eject promotional materials - I had to buy a bigger bag!
    When I came away from Cannes, my biggest regret was that I was under-prepared. I ran out of flyers quickly and hardly had any promotional materials to hand out - and I only had screener copies my films on a Blackberry. For Raindance, I definitely didn't make that mistake. I ordered a hundred Stop/Eject flyers, complete with screening details, plus fifty flyers for my upcoming Night Owls, and Neil stocked me up with press kits, DVD and Blu-Ray copies.

   I made sure to litter the festival venue -The Vue Cinema, Piccadilly - with the flyers, as well as handing some out in person. But, since my main goal was to make people watch the film at the screening, (and since I went home shortly after said screening), handing out DVD/Blu-Ray copies of the film would've been counter-productive. And for one reason or another, I didn't end up handing out any press kits, either. So I just lugged round a big, heavy bag of promotional materials, which tired me out much faster. Note for next time: be prepared for every scenario, but don't overload yourself unnecessarily. 

Me, Tommy Draper and a Stop/Eject flyer outside the Vue, Picadilly. Photo by Tony Bullock.

     Which brings me to my next point. If I lived in London, or if I was staying in a hotel nearby, it would've been easier for me to drop stuff off when I didn't need them - and to freshen up inbetween visits to the Vue! I had decided to save money (and raise my social levels) by sofa-surfing with different friends during my trip - and because of this, and all the various trains I was hopping on/off, I was a bit put off from attending the evening events (I even turned down my place to the prestigious Boozin' & Schmoozin' party). And unfortunately, as with Cannes, it's likely that most business is achieved at night.

   What did I learn from this? Well, I'm not going to say that these festivals are best for people who an afford to stay in hotels for nights on end, because that's a small majority. But I can see Raindance being a festival which particularly benefits London residents - people who can pop in and out as they choose, and people who can promote their film screenings to local people well in advance.

   If, like me, you're just passing through the festival - heavy bags in hand - then there is a sanctuary. Throughout the festival, Raindance HQ opened their doors to filmmakers - providing comfy seats, free WiFi and coffee (plus pastries and fruit at 'brunchtime'). As with the UK Pavillion at Cannes, it felt extremely welcoming, and it was easy to talk and network with other people sheltering there. Not only was it lovely to see inside the Raindance building (it has a wonderful 'backstage' look with old velvet cinema seats lining the walls), but the 'filmmaker cafe' offered extra advantages for its attendees. For anyone carrying a DVD copy of their film (as I was), there was a TV and player, which makes it easy to show your product to potential buyers if you're lucky enough to get a meeting there. Raindance also arranged for guest speakers to come into the cafe, such as an industry set & prop builder who shared some great advice with me.

    The only downside to the Filmmaker cafe? There were often only a handful of filmmakers there, and once I'd successfully chatted to them all, I had to leave my free coffee and venture back to the Vue. And once there, I definitely had a feeling of "we're not in Cannes anymore" - in Cannes, it was very hot, and a lot of people were quietly sat by the sea front, so you could easily slide up next to them and start a conversation. But inside the Vue, it was packed, and it was loud, with young excitable faces everywhere you looked. So networking in that scenario was a bit of a challenge, but it helped give Raindance Film Festival one heck of an atmosphere! To use that word again: it was buzzing.

Stop/Eject in the Raindance programme. Fame!
   When I went to Cannes, I shadowed Neil the whole time, and I cannot recommend enough having a 'festival buddy'. That way, whenever you need a bit of time out - to get away from the 'buzz' and find a quiet cafe - at least you have someone to go with you. You can talk to them and plan out your next move, rather than just winging it. I don't think I'll attend a festival alone in future (as I was for the two days before the Stop/Eject screening), but I suppose it does force you to be more sociable. That's advice for festival attendance in general, not just Raindance.

   Any negative thoughts on Raindance? Well, not really. It was very different to what I'm used to, but that's certainly no bad thing. The only thing that frustrated me was the fact I didn't understand the process of booking free passholder tickets. This is NOT to say that the Raindance team did a bad job, (they worked amazingly to make sure I had a free pass at all, as I requested one last minute), but more to say that, personally, I didn't understand the booking process. 

   Tickets in general would sell out quite fast (I was too late to get a ticket for the screening of Fourever, for example, which looked great) so in the end I chose to book & pay for my tickets in advance instead. I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Yes, that is Michael Madsen!
  That one minor niggle out of the way, let me say what the best thing about Raindance is. Unlike most film festivals, Raindance is also a film school, and so the events and lectures they host are first class. They're worth getting a pass for, perhaps more so than the films. I attended two lectures on UK funding (one of which was just a general introduction, so I didn't learn much new, but the second one really opened my eyes to some new possibilities) and I tried my (shaking) hand at pitching in Live! Ammunition. That was like X Factor with film pitches, where the 'judges' (industry members) don't mince their worlds at all, so I can definitely recommend it from an audience position. If you're going to pitch, genre-based pieces seem easier to explain in the allocated two minutes, because you can keep things snappy, and use a lot of (that term again) buzz words. But even if, like me, you have a drama film to pitch, how often do you get the opportunity to introduce yourself to representatives from Fox Searchlight and Curzon - and surprise celebrity judges (in my case, Michael Madsen!!!)?

Second in the queue - and looking very nervous - at Live! Ammunition. Photo by Raindance.
     So, those were my thoughts on this year's Raindance Film Festival. I'm so delighted to have attended, and I definitely want to go again if they'll have me.

  And now to hang up my Raindance Filmmaker pass with the others in my collection!


p.s. don't forget to stop by the Stop/Eject website - !

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Bye, Bye Birdcage/ Visual Motifs in My Work

Hey Guys,

   So, last month, something wonderful happened which I hadn't expected. I got regular work at a production agency called Dynomite Productions (who I mentioned briefly in my last post) which meant that, after publicly moaning about having to do a non-creative day job, I was finally able to leave it.

   It was amazing and disorientating to walk out of those doors for the last time. It was a place which I felt had become a part of me - albeit one I was unhappy with - and I was facing a brand new chapter, which is always daunting. But at the same time I felt peaceful, which is rare for me, and it's a feeling that hasn't gone away yet.

  So I'll be doing at least three days a week at Dynomite, and monitoring Night Owls or looking for freelance work around those days, as soon as I've finished my most recent commissioned videos for The Oramics Machine and Wan2Talk

   (You can hear me talking about taking the plunge and leaving regular work, in the latest episode of Luke Kondor's The Storyteller's Podcast.)

(Above - bird cages in Ashes and Night Owls)

   And I realised something recently; one part of this big change, this new chapter, is that I'll have to retire one of my filmmaking motifs. You see, I made a vow that every time I made a film while I was still 'trapped' in a job I disliked, I would feature a birdcage, or similar imagery within that film. As it happened, I was only at that job for just over two years, and since I tend to release one film every two years, I only managed to use this imagery twice - in Ashes and Night Owls. Ashes featured birdcages heavily on the wallpaper, and Night Owls' set designer Anya Kordecki did work a bird cage into the dressing for that film, but it'll be shown most blatantly in the close-ups of the female character, Mari, because she has a large birdcage pendant attached in her hair (thankyou MUA Charlotte Price!). 

    I didn't manage to work this imagery into any of my client videos during this time - as these films weren't expressions of my self - but I did manage to suggest using bird cages in the set dressing of Neil Oseman's latest film, Amelia's Letter (which I was costume designer on), when he said he wanted a visual theme of the lead character being trapped.

   Retiring one visual motif isn't too bad a thing when I have quite a few I use, and will continue to use. And here's my opportunity to celebrate (and deride) those motifs. If anyone's watched more than one of the films I've worked on, you may have spotted the following reoccurring images...

1) Writing on the Walls

(Clockwise from above: Concept art for Fireworks, dir. Ollie Caswell; Still image from Jar of Angels, dir. Crash Taylor; on-set photograph from Ashes; Concept art for Stop/Eject, dir. Neil Oseman)

   This is more of a production designer motif of mine, but also the one which I've probably used the most. I've discussed this motif in a standalone blog post, so I won't go into too much detail about it here. Basically it's inspired by graffiti, by a love of words and the semiotics behind them, and it all stems from a scene in Forces of Nature which has been stuck in my head ever since I was a kid. This can perhaps be seen as a writer's motif as well, as I worked wall-words heavily into the plots of Jar of Angels and Ashes when I wrote those screenplays. 
(Above: typed word in Deep Red Sun)

   Looking even further back, to some of my earliest work (one of which - a fanmade music video for Tori Amos' Lovesong cover, which I've never shared online), I have featured close-ups of written words, be they hand-written or typed on a screen. You can blame Baz Luhrmann for that inspiration!

2) Isolated Central Female Characters (Often Accompanied by Voiceover)

(Left-right: Deep Red Sun; The Opening Night; the Ashes teaser trailer; Ashes)

   This was a reoccurring theme in the films I made as a teenager, and also the first three films I made under the Triskelle Pictures signature - Deep Red Sun, The Opening Night, and Ashes - a trio which I affectionately nicknamed the 'Lonely Girl Trilogy'. Narration would often be used vocalise their thoughts, partly because it gave me the opportunity to write poetically, and partly because it helped to make the characters look isolated - for whatever reason - to the point that they'd rather listen to their thoughts than talk to other people. 

   All three parts of the 'Lonely Girl Trilogy' had an element of myself in them, and were exaggerated reflections of events from my youth, so that's why they revolved around a central female character. I think I've got all of this out of my system, closing on Ashes, the most disturbing of the three. Night Owls features two equal characters, male and female, and is dialogue-heavy rather than relying on (the somewhat easier) voiceover. But it's a technique I still fall back on in my commissioned films, as you'll see in the Wan2Talk promotional video when it's released.

3) Roses

(Left-right: rose imagery in Lovesong; The Opening Night; Ashes - roses in the set dressing, and burning in the end credits)

   I love roses - I love the classic romantic symbolism of them, and the stereotypical way they're used in gothic imagery. And I'm sure that watching American Beauty in my late teens only made this obsession worse. That's all there is to it - and that's the only reason roses appear in a lot of the films I've directed. But I do like the irony of using them in scenes where romance turns sour, as I did with the dying/burning roses in Ashes.

4) Mirrors (and Water)

(Left-right: Deep Red Sun; behind-the-scenes on The Opening Night; Ashes)

   I'm a sucker for mirrors in films, and I love the visual power of reflections as well as the symbolism. I can't imagine this motif going away any time soon - I love it when the characters take the time out to really look at themselves, and evaluate who they are at that exact moment, for better or for worse. I think this was inspired by Alain Resnaiss' Hiroshima Mon Amour, although the first film I properly used it in, Deep Red Sun, used visuals inspired by the work of Maya Deren.

(Left-right: water in Lovesong, Deep Red Sun, and Night Owls)

   Another similar image I've used less regularly is that of water, which could be seen as a natural mirror. This is more a motif from when I used to write novels (something I'd like to return to one day); I realised that in my writing, whenever a character was about to reveal or discover something, there'd be water involved - an ocean or pool, heavy rain fall, or someone would have a glass of water. Purely by accident, water became a symbolism of truth, and I used it frequently in my teenage films as well as Deep Red Sun. It was used in the original Night Owls film I made - then called I'm Your Lady - and returns now, with the introduction - the revelation - of Mari in the rain.

   Taking this all into account, you can understand why I was so chuffed to work as costume designer on Anglo Klaxon's The Trial - a sci-fi film where people need to be submerged in water to gleam the truth from them!

5) Picture Frames 

(Clockwise from above : Deep Red Sun;  The Opening Night; me, photographed by Rei Bennet; Ashes opening credits;  photo of the Stop/Eject set dressing by Tommy Draper)

   I think this is an extension of the mirror imagery, as they often feature good frames. But using frames also represents that this is a glimpse into people's lives - or a snapshot of them. And I like putting people inside frames - as I did in my 2011 promo shoot with Rei Bennett - because it symbolises film as a 'moving painting'. Or perhaps I just like frames, and all of that is a bit of a crock?

6) Old Music Players

(Above: tape players in Crash Taylor's Jar of Angels, left, and Neil Oseman's Stop/Eject, right)

   This isn't one of my motif's per se - more of a notable coincidence - but both the films I produced in my early twenties (sans Ashes, because I toned down my producer credit there) featured tape cassette players. Stop/Eject used a tape recorder throughout, going beyond the role of hero prop, and Jar of Angels featured a tape recorder heavily in one of the most memorable and scary scenes. 

    The tape player in Stop/Eject was the brain child of director Neil Oseman (and resulted in me doing calligraphy on hundreds of tape cassette inlays for the film), so I didn't cause it. But I was co-writer on Jar of Angels, and I did write the tape player into that film. I started my work on Stop/Eject the day before Jar of Angels went into production, so neither one inspired the other; it really is just a coincidence. But, as I was production designer on both films too, I suppose it's also become an accidental designer's motif!

(Left-right: the debated record-player shot in Halo Haynes Unplugged; screengrab from the Sheena Holland promo; a similar shot in Night Owls)

   Although I've not worked tape players into any films I've directed (and I don't intend on doing - I've seen enough tape cassette imagery to last a life time!), I have featured record players three times, and prominently. The opening shot of the Halo Haynes Unplugged music video was her putting on a record player. This was shot purely because there was a beautiful old record player in the antique centre where we filmed - and I used it as the opening shot of the video to show that music was about to start. But feedback on the video criticised the fact that a) there was no record on the turntable, and b) when the music did start, it came from Halo's guitar, not the player.

  So, when Night Owls featured a record player scene (as it has done from its early days as I'm Your Lady), I said to DOP Neil "make sure you get a close-up shot of the record on there, to show that it is there!!"


   With my first feature film in the script stages now, I wonder how many of these motifs will pop up there. As with previous drafts of the screenplay, it appears that I'll be using all of them to an extent. Apart from bird cages. When I walked out of that day job for the final time, I said goodbye to that motif.

   So what will replace birdcages in my films? I don't know; I never intentionally set out to start using a motif (apart from the birdcage one itself). I have a feeling it might be feathers, since I have a lot in my hair now. It seems an appropriate thing to follow on from a birdcage - they could represent freedom, after all. But, since Mari has a great number of feathers in her own hair in Night Owls, perhaps I've already started using this image, and I'm yet to know what kind of motif it will turn in to, if it will turn into one at all.

   Right, time to get back to my commissioned edits. I hope you've enjoyed this lengthy insight into my work. But I'll leave you with one piece of news:

    Neil and myself discovered recently that our beloved Stop/Eject got into Raindance, the biggest independent film festival in Europe! Obviously this is amazing news (and worthy of a bigger blog post if I find time) so I invite all of my readers to join us at this prestigious screening. Information and a link to buy tickets are here - the screening is just over a week away, on the 30th September, so you'd better be fast if you want to come! Whoo!


Monday, 7 July 2014

Night Owls - 5 Things that Defined the Shoot

Hey Guys,

   I've been meaning to talk about the Night Owls shoot for a while. Or rather, to rave about it. And now that all the behind-the-scenes photos have been released (the final batch coming from Dimitri Yiallourou, who was on set for the full shoot) it seemed like as good a time as ever to say my piece.

   But to stop myself from waxing lyrical for an untold length of time, I've limited myself to only talking about five things. Five things that defined the shoot for me; that I'll always think of when I look back on those two-and-a-bit days in May 2014. And most importantly, five things that you may not be immediately aware of. So enjoy!


   One thing that myself and my talented co-writer Tommy Draper tried to do was to work various subtle references to classic literature into the script (as well as one or two not-so-subtle film references which you'll see in the finished film). Amongst these was one Tommy put in during the second or third draft of the script; a reference to The Wizard of Oz.

   Although I won't reveal whether or not Mari (played by Holly Rushbrooke in the final film) decides if there is in fact "no place like home". But in the final scene, we do show her suddenly donning a pair of ruby slippers.
Those glitter shoes! Photo: Elly Lucas

  I was handling the costumes for this film as well as the direction, which seemed easy enough since there was only two characters and I had months of notice. So a beautiful pair of red sequin shoes were ordered well in advance. But then we had to re-cast the part of both Mari and Kent very late on into production, and I was left with a last-minute dash to replace any missing or mis-sized items of clothing a couple of days before the shoot, on top of everything else I had to prepare. Lesson learnt there!

   The petite Holly has aptly petite feet. And, try as I might, I had a very tough time finding red glitter shoes in her size last minute. So I had to buy a pair of red shoes and coat them in glitter myself.

   The result looked fairly ok on camera, but this haphazard approach meant that the shoes were forever 'malting'. Holly couldn't move her feet at all inbetween takes of her feet, for fear of spreading glitter all over the porch. It had been raining overnight and the loose glitter was seriously sticking to the wet stone - we had to wipe it down as best we could inbetween takes.

  And of course this meant that everything which came into contact with these shoes (in spite of my attempts to wrap them up) got coated in glitter too. It would be walked onto set, got stuck to costumes, and even appears on the actors' faces in a couple of takes - although that's one for the eagle-eyed among you to spot! But worst effected was my house, where the 'glitter-bombing' first took place. I officially wrecked (or rather glamorised) our washing up bowl, and I'm still finding bits of red glitter on my own clothes to this day.

   Speaking of "no place like home", this line caused one of the most hilarious bloopers during turnover on the final scene. I'll save that one for the 'making-of', but for now, I want to apologise to my DP Neil. We were laughing so hard that I didn't hear his repeated cries of "is that a cut?!" as his arms started to buckle from the weight of the camera rig!

Neil works his magic - and sets the lighting tone for the shoot. Photo: Elly Lucas

2) PLAYING GOD (with weather and daylight!)

   It's in the title: Night Owls is (mostly) set at night - meaning that all the windows of our beautiful grade one listed location had to be blacked out for the shoot. And with long shoot days and long scenes to shoot inbetween breaks, myself and my crew hardly saw any daylight. Which meant that you'd often see people yawning in the afternoon, and a lot of surprised faces when we checked our watches and saw how early it actually was. It was a truly surreal experience.

Holly in hosepipe rain. Photo: Colin Smith
   We also had to create the impression of constant rain during an otherwise sunny shoot (apart from the one time we wanted to film the sunshine, at which point we had to wait for the real rain to stop. Sod's law). A lot of this will be added into the soundtrack but it did mean that poor Holly had to spend most of the evening on day one soaked by hosepipe water. She was definitely a trooper!

   In one scene, we had to see the early morning sunshine start to appear - so that the scene would seamlessly correspond with the following sunny one outdoors. This affect was a group effort involving a relay team of about five people sending hand signals to Colin, the gaffer, so that he new when to change the lighting. At least, this is the method we settled upon after realising that me bellowing "SUN!!" at the top of my voice somewhat ruined the cosy tone of the scene!

Those all-important-rehearsals, in the garden. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou


   I wanted to make this film for years (and Tommy's been encouraging me to make it for years now, too), so I just got my head down and did everything I could to do just that. And with such a busy, roller-coaster ride of a pre-production period, I devoted every moment I could to my preparations, and never really sat back and thought about how big an undertaking it actually was.

   It wasn't until after we'd done a whole day of filming, and were about to start the second day, that I suddenly realised, "oh shit, I've never actually done this before!"

A brief moment of nerves. Photo: Elly Lucas
   True, I've directed plenty of times. But most of these have been smaller projects, with voice over ruling in place of heavy dialogue, and I hadn't directed dialogue since my teenage years. Even then it was for amateur theatre, or films with my best friends in. This was professional actors (one of which is a regular on Emmerdale), with a full crew and thousands of pounds worth of equipment surrounding me. Eep.

   I had a moment of what can only be described as stage fright. I was sitting with my trusty folder, planning today's scenes, and I was suddenly hit by nerves, and doubt (of my own abilities, not anybody else's). But then the rest of my team arrived, and I shelved all of these fears for later, and got the job done.

  The second day left me feeling slightly detached for another reason. A very cute but very loud dog had kept me up most of the night, so I was somewhat sleep deprived (yet again!). Hence my reason for powering on through and taking each moment at a time.

  But there was one point where I shouldn't have 'winged it', and I'm happy to share my mistake here in case you guys learn something from it. Now, usually I'm a stickler for rehearsals, and had done vigorous rehearsals with the original actors together, plus independent rehearsal with each new actor, and I'd done run-throughs for the scenes on day one.

  At the start of day two, we did the aforementioned porch scene (with those shoes). It was a simple scene, just a few lines and one main piece of movement. I am guilty of being complacent, and just assuming the actors could play it out for camera straight away. But of course, these actors hadn't met each other until the shoot, and all my laziness got me was confused looks and mild irritation during the take. 

  Needless to say, for the following scene, we had a lengthy rehearsal in a separate room while the camera crew prepared the set. And it's a corner I will never try and cut again!
Directing Holly Rushbrooke on set. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou


   Any filmmaker (or at least any filmmaker who cares about their project) will strive for 'personal perfection' - to get what they see on screen as close to the image in their head as possible. Occasionally this makes us closed off to every suggestion of change, even if it's for the better; a common trait which can be known as 'babying'.  Not only does this mean we may miss out on potential improvements for the piece, but it also makes us less able to accept criticism from peers, possible buyers or even critics. Which can only lead to misery.

   There were lots of things along the way which diverted from my original vision. Due to monetary constraints, we couldn't have the original location we wanted, instead accepting one which we could get for free and - again due to costs, amongst other things - we weren't able to change the location when we did get it. Meaning in a set where a man dwells in a darkened, 'crumbling' house - surrounded by books, wooden furniture and anything else which looked old-fashioned and autumnal-coloured on camera... we had to have bright yellow walls.

  And, as a frequent set designer as well as a director, you can only imagine how much that niggled away at the back of my mind throughout pre-production.

  For a while, this seemed like the worst thing about the production; the only thing that was stopping it from being in sync with the 'perfect' vision in my head. But then we lost one of the actors. Followed by the other.

  Both of these actors have become friends of mine. I knew that they could do amazing work, through their previous work (some of which I was involved in first-hand) and through hours of rehearsal time for this. They had built up an amazing chemistry together and I was looking forward to bringing what was now 'our vision' to life.

With Jonny on set. Photo: Dan Lord
  What's more, both actors loved the project. Neither wanted to leave the project - particularly after all their hard work - and it was so sad when they both had to do so due to conflicting engagements.

   When we lost the first actor, then we had a new 'worst case scenario'. I was teetering on the edge of pulling the project for fear of it dying a death, held on course only by my producers' calm words, and the fact that so many people had supported the project and put their money into the pot. And then when the second actor left, it was definitely too late to get off the train; the locations, crew and equipment were all booked, we certainly couldn't afford to get them all again if we cancelled everything, and we would lose the money spent in the process if we did. We had no choice but to re-cast both parts.

   But losing such vital parts of my original vision helped me to see it more objectively. I just had to get it done, get all the pieces into place quick, no matter if it didn't match what was in my head quite as closely as before. And you know what? I think this made me a better Director; more so than ever before, it felt like a project which everyone put together, in spite of the odds, and it meant that I had to be open minded. Because what had been in my closed mind was partly gone, and I didn't have any more time to wallow.

   And of course, Holly and new male lead Jonny McPherson were amazing. They brought something completely original to the parts, having come in so freshly, and had a different but equally great chemistry to that of the previous actors. And because I was forced to have an open mind, I could now observe these new interpretations, and help weave the best characters for these actors, in this situation. They may not be the two characters exactly as I saw them when I started, but it doesn't matter. They might even be better.

   What's more, it certainly made the yellow walls seem like less of a disaster. We even worked a line into the script just before shooting which pointed a knowing finger at how superficial I'd been about them.

Our 'film family' gets a visit from BBC Radio Derby's Andy Potter. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

   This is something I've mentioned before, but truly a point at the heart of what made the Night Owls shoot such a special one.

   There's a group of people I call my 'film family' because I work with them so frequently and so well (including Neil, Tommy and Chris Newman - although Chris wasn't available to join us for this one - amongst a couple of others), and I got to have most of those people on set with me. Plus there were people I've worked with a few times, such as Richard Winter and Charlotte Price, and it was lovely to have them back on set with us. Combining all this with the fact that the producers brought their own frequent collaborators onto the pot, meant that there was a lovely warm feeling of friendship and familiarity floating round the set. And newcomers such as sound recordist Adam Fletcher, the behind-the-scenes team, and of course the actors, fitted into this dynamic really well.

   This sense of family was made all the more poignant by the fact that our actual families got involved with the project too. Tommy's wife Sam Draper, my Mum Joy, and my Grandma Margaret, all spent days baking and making fresh food towards the catering. Mine and Anya's Dads did a few back-and-forths with the pieces of set dressing. And the owner of the location we shot in - and also stayed in - was my very own Godmother, Helen Kirk. She (and her lovely family) made us all feel extremely welcome, helping to enhance the happy and relaxed atmosphere on set. Needless to say, by the end of the shoot, she had at least two more honorary god children!

The producers and cast with Helen (middle) & Emily Kirk. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

   So those are my thoughts on one of the most lovely and creatively satisfying shoots to date. I only hope that the finished footage will encapsulate all of these elements (and looking through it, I certainly think that it will do). 

   The only two people who had less-than-happy experiences on set were Neil and Holly; the former being 'forced' to shoot the entire film handheld, to create the warm and gentle movement of popular indie features (until his back nearly gave up), and the latter, who as I said was made to stand under hose-pipe rain, in the dark, for hours (needless to say her performance is very convincing, particularly with her trembling, dripping hands). And yes, I am guilty of pushing both methods of torture on these people. But hopefully their shining work will make up for it.

   And besides, what are film families for, if not to suffer through hardships together (and to make one another endure such hardships in the first place!)


(Don't forget to follow the Night Owls Facebook page for news and updates as soon as they happen!)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Summer Update 2014

Hey Guys,

   I'm notoriously bad at blogging these days. It's something I'm determined to get back into once I establish some sort of routine in my life. But I thought I'd pop back on here to quickly tell you all what I've been up to lately (and to show potential spammers that this blog is not inactive!).

   Back in April, when Night Owls was heavily in pre-production, we found time to create a little music video for The Oramics Machine (the band of Ashes sound mixer Ian Cudmore). It was a lovely, straight-forward shoot - all shot in one day and almost completely to schedule - so there isn't too much to say about it. But I'll still try and do a 'story from the set' post when the video is released; if for nothing else, then to rave about the amazing lead performance from Katie MacMillan, and to share more of Aperture Alternative's stunning behind-the scenes photos.

On location for the Hubris music video. Photo credit: Ben Wood at Aperture Alternative

   I'm currently in the process of editing that video (having not found any time sooner) and we're looking for a September release, at which point we should hopefully be airing a public screening at the venue in which it was shot. Keep your eyes on the events section of the Triskelle Pictures website for details of that as soon as I have them.

  Then, at the start of May, we finally shot Night Owls. We had a particularly difficult run during the last couple of weeks of pre-production, full of twists and turns, and I don't know how I would've coped without the hard work and soothing words of my producers, Sophia Ramcharan and Lauren Parker. But then the shoot itself went wonderfully, and I will definitely be writing more about the experience when I am able to.

   I have a place in my heart for most of the films I have worked on (particularly those which I directed, such as Ashes and The Opening Night), but Night Owls was such a blissful experience that it immediately propelled itself into my top three film shoots, alongside Stop/Eject and Margaret. Having a group of my regular collaborators back alongside me, along with those brought in through the collaboration with Stella Vision Films and Team Chameleon, meant that those two-and-a-bit days of created eternal night-time felt like a (somewhat bizarre) extended family event. So I definitely have more to rave about on the subject.

   Richard Winter (who I worked with a lot in 2011, most notably on Jar of Angels), now has his capable hands on the edit, meaning I'm having to sit on mine. In the meantime, we're releasing all the behind-the-scenes photographs - staggered over weekends - with some great images by Dan Lord of Forecast Designs and Elly Lucas (who I've been dying to work with for years!) already on the film's Facebook Page. We've got loads more to release, so make sure to give the page a like to see those.

Behind-the-scenes on Night Owls. Photo credit: Elly Lucas
   Then, just over a week after Night Owls wrapped, Ashes screened at Derby Film Festival. It was wonderful to be able to play in my home city, and the fact that it was at Quad - one of the best places in the world to us - made it even better.

   It was quite a small showcase of films, making it feel rather exclusive, and there were some seriously great pieces shown alongside Ashes. So, in spite of my cheeky and valiant effort to fill the screen with supporters and sway the audience award (a good number of local filmmakers came along, and Neil came over from Hereford for the screening) there were no wins for us this time. But the screening at Derby Film Festival brings the number of festival tags on Ashes to two - currently neck-and-neck with The Opening Night - and we're still waiting on the results of many other entries (as we are with Stop/Eject) so hopefully I'll have more to shout about in that area in the future.

   While I'm on the subject of festivals, other films I've worked on as a costume designer are certainly doing well in that aspect. Anglo Klaxon's sci-fi film The Trial has been accepted into three great genre-based festivals, and YSP Media's Love & Other Chairs is available to view for a limited time only on Viewster online festival (so don't miss the chance to see it), and has just been accepted into Thurrock International Film Festival too. So massive congratulations to everyone involved in both films.

   I may have not won anything at Derby Film Festival, but that didn't mean a trophy didn't come home with me. That same evening, local film team Enigmatic Productions - including my partner, Edward Harvey - won the 5Lamps Films 24hr Film Competition with their humorous short Macho Dan. And my team of supporters was there to fill the room with giddy cheers when the winner was announced!

Winning Sally's book at Bradford Film Festival
   All in all, a great day, and another one which I've been meaning to write about properly. I particularly want to review all the great films screened in the 'Eat My Shorts' section with Ashes. But the longer I leave it, the less sense it makes for me to do so. We'll have to see.

   Derby Film Festival wasn't the only one I attended recently. Back in spring, around the craziness of organising Hubris and Night Owls, myself and Tommy Draper had a road trip to Bradford Film Festival, where I not only won tickets for us to see the inspirational Sally Potter in conversation, but I also won a copy of her book. And her written words of guidance were seriously helpful as I prepared to direct Night Owls.

    That brings us up to the current projects. Apart from checking in on Night Owls' progress, this will be a very client-based summer, with promotional videos in the works for Ashes' supporters Wan2Talk, and for the exotic and wonderful author Emilly Ladybird. I've also been doing some (perhaps) temporary work for Dynomite Production Agency, which will keep me busy until August at the earliest. So I'm in the - somewhat lovely, somewhat frustrating - situation of having to turn down projects, even though I've had a lot of offers recently, and some of them would have been seriously amazing to work on.

   I'm also attached to direct a piece for Flitter Films, called Her Song, which should be a lovely experience because it's a wartime romance/ghost story set on the Irish coast! Currently the lead actor attached is a lovely lady called Aislinn De'Ath, who I've met with a couple of times, and whom I look forward to working with. Aislinn and Flitter Films are currently trying to raise funds for the project, but all going well, we should start shooting in autumn.

   The only other news is that this latest surge of work has meant that I will soon be making Triskelle Pictures a ltd company. I'm able to declare my additional income and will shortly be knee deep in paperwork for my first ever tax return. Boring news for you guys, but for me it's wonderful to be at this next big career step.

   Now, back to the grind. And I will try my darndest write about it all again soon!