How much preparation is needed to successfully launch a film?
When I was about sixteen I saw Alan Parker’s ‘Midnight Express’ for the first time. When I emerged, blinking and speechless, devastated by the juxtaposed human extremes of light and darkness and drained by the sheer overwhelming emotional experience back into daylight and the real world, I realised that what I wanted to do with my life, was to try and make films that might affect people as profoundly as that film affected me. I also believed a small voice deep inside me that assured me I was not being given this ‘film production’ dream lightly and that I had ‘the stuff’ necessary to do this.
I became a director and for many years I was successful in TV drama. I directed many series episodes and a TV film of Wuthering Heights for ITV; my work even won a Best Drama Bafta, but despite this, my TV career foundered and a few years ago, just after the aforementioned award, it vanished completely. I did and still do, if I’m honest, find this very challenging and perplexing, but it did also make me face up to the fact that I had not actually been true to the dream that formed as I emerged from that cinema all those years ago.
I decided that I must be true to myself, to my dream. I developed and wrote a comedy script with an actor friend, based on some truly extraordinary experiences he had as a refugee fleeing the Balkan conflict and new to the UK.
‘Tea Shop Asylum’ was very well received as a script, but it was also pretty quirky and a difficult sell. Still we attached John Hannah, Joanna Lumley and Sophie Okonedo and got some money to make a pitch trailer from the Film Council.
You can view it below.
Initially this went well and the film was 80% funded when for reasons I still don’t comprehend, our substantial sales agent declined to get involved in any way with helping us to secure a small pre sale and the financing subsequently collapsed. Despite several further attempts we never managed to put it together again, but I learned a valuable lesson from this, that you only get one chance, so you have to do it right or wait several years until it has been forgotten before you try again.
Truly I now know, it is an act of prodigious will, faith and passion to bring an independent work of fiction to the screen and I applaud and bow down before any and all who have succeeded because it is no small feat. To succeed and actually make any money is an even greater achievement, as the cards are stacked high against you.
But, as is said, what doesn’t kill you in film production, makes you stronger. It also leaves you with many wounds, but you learn from those, you become more adept, tougher, more capable and unless you give up, more likely to succeed.
So having written and planned and schemed and forged contacts, I am now ready to try again with a new project in a new genre and I have prepared as thoroughly as I know how.
Once more unto the breach…
‘Dark Glass’ was, I thought, a horror film, but I now realise it is a bit more complex than that. It has a redemptive ending and the underlying premise is about confronting your demons, so as to be free of them. So it is probably better described as a supernatural psychological drama. These aspects crept in during the process of writing and rewriting and as I become ever more involved in the story, I found that I was adapting it to express some ideas that I have come to believe were true.
The American poet Robert Bly wrote a small and beautiful book called ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’. With enormous subtle grace, he expounds a view that we lose parts of ourselves via damaging or traumatic experience and there comes a time, when in order to continue to grow, we must reconnect with those lost aspects of our personality. This resonated strongly with me and grew to be expressed in the story as a powerful spirit, that appears only in reflections and forces the characters to face their own individual demons. Those that do, survive, those that don’t perish. The spirit is actually conceived as benign, but you would never guess it as it does not respect death as anything other than just another transition. The end result is a story that functions on some levels as a horror and explores the desperation of human extremes, while pointing in the direction of and finally reaching a place of understanding and redemption. It is I think, a convincing and unusual cross genre work that could break out of its niche into the broader market, which was exactly what I was hoping to achieve.
So with this script in hand, how could I turn it into a living breathing actual film, that finds financing and a market and turns a profit? Well some of that will have to wait for later blogs and I’m not quite there yet, but I can tell you what I have done up to date.
Firstly I needed a name to give the project credence.
I have worked with John Hannah in the past and like and have enormous respect for him as an actor. I actually wrote the script with him in mind, so my first step was to see if he wanted to be in it. Happily, he agreed. Access like this is not available to everyone and was only available to me as I had worked with him in the past. That said, a name is incredibly important if you want to be differentiated from the slush pile and I know there are many actors who are happy to give a small amount of time to a project they like, if you can find a way to get to them.
Financing is a nightmare and there are sharks everywhere whose principle interest it appears, is filling their pockets at your expense. I have always thought though that the UK tax incentive via the Enterprise Investment Scheme is an excellent and fair way of financing, both for investor and film maker, so I determined I would use that approach and researched and wrote a financing strategy which I submitted to the HMRC. On my second attempt I got approval. It is something of a tragedy that abuse of these schemes by well known firms for the purposes of tax avoidance, have poisoned the well and made it much more difficult for the smaller more well intentioned outfits to attract investors. That aside, I know EIS and SEIS really is a godsend for producers and it is still possible to secure financing that way if the project is convincing, so I decided to proceed.
Next, to generate advance marketing and associated income for myself once the film was complete, I determined that I would write and self publish a novel based on the script. In November 2014, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and completed a 54,000 word book which I have been editing for the last six months. It has just been published via Bookbaby and is now available in all major online stores including Amazon, iBooks and Barnes and Noble.
Pitch trailer’s can be incredibly effective in generating serious interest; they demonstrate ability, tone, show conviction and can bring all necessary parties to the table, so I would seriously recommend them to anyone. I knew I had to have one, so in early December 2014 we found a window in John’s diary and managed a one day shoot. My DOP owns a Sony F55, so we used that, begged a suitable location, rounded up a tiny crew, borrowed some old Canon 35mm cine prime lenses (same as James Cameron shot Aliens on) and shot it all in about 8 hours at 4k. A very exhilarating day indeed.
So finally, earlier this year, after over fifteen months work, wracking my brains to do all that I could to make this project stand out, I had a script, a book, a star, a trailer and a financing plan and it was now time to go and talk to the money men.
As I mentioned earlier, we are not there yet, but some exciting progress has been made since then and in my next blog I will outline what that is and how the extensive preparation put in, seems to be bearing fruit…