Monday, 19 October 2015

How making films with your childhood friends prepares you for the future!

(At least, it prepares you for the future if you choose to be an indie filmmaker!)

Teenage me, back in the days when DV tapes were 'the future'!

    Every two months, I attend a local 'open mic night' for filmmakers called Five Lamps Films. It's a vital night for me and my fellow local creatives - and for many new filmmakers, as it offers a platform for their work they may not otherwise have. Five Lamps have shown many of my films in the past, and I hope they will continue to do so for many years!

    One thing I love most about going to Five Lamps is when they show films by amateur and first-time filmmakers. On the one hand, I see techniques I used to use, which makes me incredibly nostalgic and reminds me how much I've learnt over the years. And on the other hand, if a first-time filmmaker shows their work and it's already better than mine, it gives me a good kick up the arse to improve!

    There's one thing that filmmakers will always do when they start out: they use their friends, and often themselves, in their films in place of actors. Most filmmakers I know did this (my frequent collaborator Neil Oseman even made a fun documentary about it), and I'm no exception. 

   There's pros and cons to using your mates (or even your family) instead of actors. On the one hand, you end up with some treasured, slightly embarrassing memories you can watch back in the years to come. 

   On the other hand, it in no way prepares you for the reality of using actors, or for the nitty-gritty details such as agents, union regulations and those all-important release forms. You never think to make your friends sign contracts because you think they'll always be in your life, and that you'll always get along. I made that mistake myself, and for that reason, a lot of my early stuff can never see the light of day.

    But surprisingly enough, there are a few important, useful things you pick up from directing your friends in films when you're first starting out. I learnt a few valuable lessons back then, which I still remember when directing actors today. Here are the key ones:

Cardboard Sauron!
1. Working with a low budget

    Indie filmmakers often have to work with low budgets, but when you go out into the world with your first camera, you have no budget at all (apart from whatever's left of your pocket money!). So you learn to be creative with nothing - and that's a skill which sticks with you. When you're a kid with a camcorder, your friend's parents' house become a change of location, and curtains and cardboard can be used to make costumes.

    I have a prime example of this: when I got my first ever DV Tape camcorder (which felt like 'the future' at the time!) I wanted to practice using it by making a 'comedy' version of Lord of the Rings. I asked my dear friend Josh to make the armour for the film; he was instructed to make the armour out of cardboard because, as I explained to him, the costumes would be funnier if they looked low-budget.

   Next thing I know, Josh had created detailed, scalloped, surprisingly accurate Sauron armour... out of cardboard! Needless to say he is now very popular in LARP circles.

2. You don't always get the cast you want... but you can adapt!

   One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a director is when they don't get the actor they wanted. Or you cast someone in a film, spend a long time building up the character with them, then they pull out of the project last minute. It happens all the time, particularly with low budget productions, and sometimes it can work out for the better. Either way, you need to be prepared for it, and you need to accept actors who you may not have previously considered.

   When you're making films with your friends, you learn to accept whoever you can get, and work with them. Even if you wanted a woman in their 50s and you only have your 12-year-old drama classmate willing to play the role - just change their costume and make-up, and do the best you can!

Me and my oldest friend, Fred, in an early film. Character ages: late 40s. Our ages: 16/17!

3. They tell you when you're being a cow

   I'll be the first to admit it; directors can be divas. We spend months, if not years, obsessing about our projects, putting every waking breath into them, and sometimes we forget that our fellow crew-mates don't have the same emotional investment.

   But, if you're making films with your friends, they won't let you push them too hard. If you're being over-dramatic, they will tell you . What's more, they will laugh at you. You have to be nice to them because they're your friends - and they're working for free! Keep that same attitude when you're on a professional set, and you'll think twice before making unfair demands.

4. You learn to cope with drop-outs

   This is a similar lesson to number 2, but it's still important. Sometimes you lose actors from a project. It sucks - but if you made films with your friends when you're a kid, it certainly prepares you for this occurrence!

   When you're young, making films is treated like playing a game - even if, to the young director, it is their 'piece of art'. Your friends will find numerous reasons to leave - they've fallen out with a fellow cast-mate (or you, if you're being a diva), they've broken up with one of their fellow cast-mates, they have homework to do, they have teenage stresses... sometimes they leave for no greater reason than "I'm bored of this now." 

  But you recast, you adapt and you carry on. You learn to be innovative; if someone dropped out of my early films, I'd just double up and have two or three characters played by one actor (with a clever use of camera angles). You'd be surprised how often people still use that technique in the 'industry'!

Me, taking my 'art' very seriously for a 16-year-old - unaware that my 16-year-old friend Jack is about to attack me with a large umbrella!

5. You never forget to have a laugh

   When you take your first steps into the world of filmmaking, you're dreaming of the future, and the first time you press record feels like a momentous occasion. The truth is, it's not. 

   We all take our films too seriously - even when you're somewhat further on in your career - and you need to learn to enjoy them. A shoot is over in the blink of an eye, and today's stresses are tomorrow's anecdotes, so there's no point creating a bad atmosphere.

  In the early days, when your mates are your cast, there's always laughter. People will ham up a line, look into the camera, and generally muck about - which they'll do even more so if you let it wind you up! So you do learn to have a laugh - and that's something you can remember to do on every film set, whenever the moment calls for it. 

   It doesn't matter if your actor is 'Bob from up the road' or Al Pacino - we have the best vocation in the world, so revel in it, and always try to spread warm feelings to those around you.


Modern-day cameos. Left: the adult Jack on the set of Stop/Eject, as the driver of the infamous car (photo by Paul Bednall), and Right: my friend Ryan, from my old hometown, making a brief appearance in the upcoming Hubris music video.

   So, in closing: your friends do start you off on your journey, and they teach you some vital skills for the future. But that isn't the last thing they do for you. No matter how 'big' you get, or how many awards you receive, your childhood friends will always remember the day you made them dress up in curtains and head to the local park. They will remind you of your roots, and keep you humble.

   And if you ever need an extra for a film, they'll be there for you again (if you treated them well when you were kids, that is!). Just remember to buy them a beer afterwards.


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Fantasy Films and the Modern Audience

Jupiter Ascending had many moments of visual beauty.

   A few weeks ago, I finally watched Jupiter Ascending. I'd heard and read all the terrible reviews, but it was heralded as the first original sci-fi/fantasy film in years, so I was still excited to see it. I sat down with two of my favourite people and a bucketload of Chinese food; the perfect movie-night setting to absorb it in.

   Unfortunately, the reviews were accurate. While the film had a lot of great visual ideas, it moved so fast that we didn't have time to take them all in, or - more importantly - care about the characters.

  After the film finished, my friend made an interesting point, which has been stuck in my head ever since: "It's a shame we didn't watch it in the nineties. It probably would've been awesome." I know what he meant, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

   For those of you who aren't fantasy film fanatics like me, here's a quick bit of history...

   The Lord of the Rings films were, in my opinion, the last great fantasy films (I've already forgotten Avatar, and the Hobbit trilogy were more of a LOTR aftertaste than films which stood on their own merit). They fell at the turn of a new millennium, a clear cut-off point for what had gone before. No similar film has matched them in commercial and critical success since then. But, in retrospective, LOTR was just as much the end of an era of fantasy films as it was the start of a new age: the dawn of adaptations, sequels and franchises.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy - was it the end of the era, or a sign of things to come?

   Between the late 1970s and early 1990s (but particularly throughout the 1980s), there were a string of fantasy films which are all now known as classic examples of the genre; Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story, The Princess Bride, Willow, Dragonslayer, The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal, to name just a few. Some of these - such as The Princess Bride and The Dark Crystal - took a while to build in popularity, but all of these films are very important to a lot of people.

   (Going back a little further, you could say that these films came about due to the magical brilliance of Ray Harryhausen and other genre pioneers in the 60s. But that is a story for another day.)

   Looking back, these films had a lot of flaws. Legend (1985), for example, is bizarre and riddled with continuity errors, and the horns on the 'unicorns' wobble when they gallop. But somehow, when looking back on these films through rose-tinted glasses, these flaws add to their charm.

Legend: We loved it, even if the 'unicorns' had wobbly horns!

   A classic example of this is Flash Gordon, a sci-fi fantasy 'space opera' with outrageous set pieces and corny dialogue. This film is now seen as a cult classic, loved because of his flaws. Whereas Jupiter Ascending - in many ways, a similar film - is lauded.

   Were we more willing to see past the cracks in films back then (perhaps because there were no better options)? Or does time add sparkle to the rough edges?

   Or is the problem CGI? Even with fantasy films, audiences are only willing to suspend disbelief to a point, and practical effects can help ground characters in otherworldly settings.

   Take another recent example: Snow White and the Huntsman. Kristen Stewart is a bit of a 'Marmite actor', but I don't mind her, and above all I enjoyed the film's sword battles and fairy-filled woodlands (so reminiscent of Legend and Willow, although both of these used practical effects for the fairies and still hold up fairly well in this area). The film did fairly well at the box office and received some average reviews - the box office equivalent of someone shrugging their shoulders.

Magical forests in 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman
   I don't think Snow White and the Huntsman was worse than many of the fantasy films I cherished as a child (in the case of my beloved Hawk the Slayer *, it's decidedly better), so what went wrong there? Lead actor aside, would it've been received better if it was made with practical effects, or do modern audiences simply not respond to fantasy films like they used to?

   Has the genre had its day - and did that end with the last millennium?

   Perhaps, in years to come, people will look back at Jupiter Ascending with more fondness. Unfortunately, as a film not good enough to be great, and not bad enough to become a cult classic, it's likely that it will just be forgotten. Which is worrying for fantasy fans.

   Jupiter Ascending really needed to be a success; with it's flop status, it's unlikely that studios will be willing to fund any more original fantasy or sci-fi films for a while. And so the stream of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboot and 'reimaginings' will continue.

   I hope that peoples' opinion on the matter will change, and that we'll have another wave of great original fantasy films in cinemas. If not, what am I aiming for in my career?

    For now, there's plenty of classics to re-watch, and at least TV seems to have picked up the ball from where cinema dropped it. There's always Game of Thrones, and fairytale soap-opera Once Upon A Time. And one day soon there'll be Ren.


*for all you Hawk The Slayer fans out there (and I know it's not just me!), there is a sequel trying to get off the ground, entitled Hawk The Hunter. Their Kickstarter campaign was sadly unsuccessful, but you can follow their page for news as it happens.