Part 1: How It All Came About
This whole thing started when I attended a scriptwriters event back in June. Props must go to Euroscript, who host them for free every couple of months, as an incentive to sign up to their courses (which, to be fair, look pretty useful…I’m just cheap!). The free events are pretty good too. I learned quite a lot about how film festivals work, and in particular, Cannes.
Euroscipt have an of association with the annual London Screenwriter’s Festival, which begins next month. From a website link, I came across the 50 Kisses competition. The premise is pretty simple (write a two minute script set on Valentine’s day and featuring at least one kiss), the prize potentially life-changing – winning scripts are filmed and cut together into one feature-length film, which will be shown nationwide at cinemas.
So I entered. Originally, I was going to write as many scripts as I had ideas for, but due to other ‘commitments’ (i.e. procrastination), I only entered one script (which you can read here). Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get through – a combination of the fact that the premise would have been difficult to film and the fact I didn’t use Final Draft to write the script (these competitions tend to have high numbers of entries, so almost any little thing could be enough to get you disqualified).
It wasn’t a big thing really, although having subsequently read the winners, I’m really surprised at the final choices. There are some incredibly poor efforts, both narratively and cinematically. But hey, who am I to judge? Anyway, what is cool about the competition is that the winning scripts are published, and film-makers can choose one to film as their entry to the competition. A great idea, and an interesting way to bring creative people together.
I’d met a couple of keen photographers recently, and one had suggested making a film for a bit of fun. When I mentioned 50 Kisses, everything seemed to click. It was the right balance of fun, film-making and experience, with an added bonus of entering the competition.
We decided we’d read through all fifty scripts, discuss the ones we liked and see if we could agree on something we all liked. Task number one then: pick five scripts from the fifty…
Reading fifty scripts is an interesting exercise in itself. Even without being a (jaded) writer, you begin to understand a little about the ‘business’ of creativity. You reduce someone’s hard toil down to a set of criteria: is it filmable, is it interesting and memorable, does the story work? It’s impossible to hold fifty different ideas in your head, so you reduce them to a simple motif: this is the one with zombies, this is the one that runs backwards, this is the one with the bomb…
Such is life. People in the ‘business’ of movie-making know that our minds function this way. Just look at any film poster: the images, the tag lines, the one sentence recommendations. All the years of effort and skill used to make a film, all boiled down to a an image and a few words.
But I digress. We had to choose five from the fifty. And we did. For my part I chose five scripts I thought were well written and could be made on a budget of zero pounds. Having said that, looking at my choices, there’s definitely a theme that links them. I’ve chosen scripts that focus on characters rather than events. So no zombies or bombs.
The first meeting of our group of budding film-makers happened in Camden in August. The seven of us sat around a large oak table in The Edinboro Castle and explained the reasons behind the shortlist of scripts we had each chosen.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a broad selection of favourites. I think even the inexperienced among us realised the choice of script was based, at least in part, on the realities of our set-up: no-budget, not much equipment, amateur film-making skills. From each top 5, we whittled the scripts down to three that we all agreed were achievable:
Her and Him – A stand-out script purely for the reason that it had a reverse chronology. Like a mini-Memento or Irreversible, it starts at the end and then explains how things got to that point.
Nothing Ventured – This was possibly my favourite of all fifty scripts (with possibly one or two others). It is a simple tale of a florist on Valentine’s Day. Only two characters, with realistic dialogue and a nice little twist at the end, it felt like the perfect fit for our group.
The Cyclist – Another straightforward story, this time about a cyclist falling foul of a scheming couple. Not a memorable script for me, but it was easy to visualise and, most importantly, was something we all felt we could make.
So, from the final three, we had to decide which would be taken forward into production. I was one of the more experienced of the group with regards to film development, so I made a suggestion. Because the scripts were so short (two pages), we could potentially develop two. That way, if something major happened with one of them (something ALWAYS happens when making a no-budget film), we had a second ready to go.
But which two would it be?
After a decent discussion, there was a general agreement. We would film Her and Him, or a version of it at least. As a contingency, I recommended developing Nothing Ventured as well, just in case of a disaster (a common phenomenon in no-budgetville). The decision made, we all sat back, took a sip of our beers, warmed by the excitement of making a film.
Looking back, this was probably the first and last time we were all happy. What has followed that fateful meeting has been a mix of angst and stress, and quite a lot of it my fault…
Not all of it has been down to me. Making a film with no budget is skating out onto thin ice with weights attached to your pubes. It’s not a question of if, but rather when, something will go wrong. With no contracts, and no money to pay for things, everything is done on gestures of goodwill. And you know what they say about good intentions…
(It’s probably worth saying that no-budget film-making also grants you the greatest freedom when it comes to creative decisions, limited only by your ingenuity to realize the narrative in whatever way possible. When you begin make films with other people’s money, inevitably you also make concessions).
So…Her and Him. The script. I didn’t like it. It was a cool idea (a reverse chronology), but it was at the expense of character motivation. Admittedly, getting anything worthy into two pages is a Herculean task, but what I can say? I like characters that live and breathe off the page.
There was one other thing in the script that caught my eye: the idea of immortal beings mingling with us normal folks. Recently, I’d got into reading the Sandman comics, so the idea was stuck in my head. I decided that it would be cool to have Cupid and the Devil in a room together, chatting about decidedly human traits like love.
First, though, I had to convince the director. With my writing hat on, I’m not an easy person to work with. I’ve pissed off dozens of competent scribes in my time through my approach.
You see, I have a very particular way of collaborating, which doesn’t seem to sit well with the mores of sensitive writers. When I’m in development, I like to interrogate ideas until they fall over. I love to brainstorm, throwing ten or fifteen story ideas around, fitting pieces together into a mosaic. There’s no way to be precious about work in this way. It either works or it doesn’t. If a story has a weight and a rhythm to it, if it feels alive, then I’m happy. If not, then it’s a piece of shit, no matter what the writer went through to come up with it.
This was my approach for the 50 Kisses script rewrite also. My method contrasted wildly the director’s iterative approach. Cue half a dozen angry emails and a total of five different versions of the script.
Sigh. In the end we let the group decide. Curiously, they chose one of my versions, in fact the only version that was solely my own creation. Perhaps you can get something worthwhile into two pages after all…
I had written this draft of Her and Him almost from scratch. Gone was the reverse chronology (sadly), gone were the ill-defined characters (gladly) and gone was the dialogue that jarred in my head (or at least reduced…).
I’d become fascinated by the idea of immortals discussing human philosophy and culture, a residue of reading Neil Gaiman et al. I thought it would be fun to have Cupid and the Devil discuss the merits of love and evil, whilst at a St. Valentine’s Day fancy-dress party dressed as themselves, no doubt enjoying a wink at the camera as much as anything written by Joss Whedon (whose name, ironically, appears on a T-Shirt in the original draft).
It wasn’t a story I was massively keen on to be honest. This sort of thing benefits from a longer running time within which to establish such pop philosophies. But it did have a sufficient weight to the story; a beginning, a set-up, a reverse and an end. My writer’s conscience soothed, I moved onto re-writing a draft produced by the director.
Again, I tried to add some character and some recognizable narrative development. Also though, I tried to keep as much of what the director wanted in there as well. Pretty much all the characters from original script remained in there, with a little more smutty humour (Inbetweeners-style) and some motivations for the events that happen. You can read this version here
I really thought this version, Version 4 no less, would be the script we would film. It’s a lot closer to the original, and it was the version the director wanted to make…well, kind of. He actually produced a fifth version of the script, using my narrative as a basis. This one is now, thankfully, forgotten.
But the group had spoken. It’s kind of strange looking back now too, because everybody thinks my version is the original from the competition, which is both a compliment and a kick in the head to me…
Part 2: The Master Plan
We were now officially into pre-production. Almost immediately, one of the team dropped out due to personal issues, leaving six of us. All remaining eyes now focused on the various things required to turn our script into reality:
A great location saves you time and effort on set design. It also helps with anchoring the story in the real. I was really hoping that, in a city the size of London, we would find somewhere that matched the extravagant imagery I had in my head. Nothing quite matched up though, despite an extended period of research. I was also forgetting the golden equation of film-making: money = choice. We settled on an upstairs room at a cafe in Camden. We came across it quite by chance whilst having a meeting there. It felt like a good fit. The room had good light and lent itself well to a flat/house party look. Additionally, it had an outside area that could double for a balcony. After lengthy wrangling with an erratic owner, we managed to secure use of the cafe after hours for one night only, free of charge.
Since it was meant to be a Valentine’s party, the main focus was on heart-shaped objects and general party clutter. A process of harvesting useful objects from each of our respective homes began, and almost anything remotely connected to partying or love was considered…well, within reason 🙂
Good clothing choices help enormously. Actors love looking and feeling the part. Writers get all excited about having characters stand up off the page. We were very lucky in that one of our group had a day job in theatre, and knew exactly how to approach costumes and fittings. Some small costs were going to be involved in securing Cupid’s wings and bow.
Sadly, we had no particular expertise in the make-up department. We decided that, since there was no particularly dramatic or lavish make-up required, we would leave it to the actors to sort themselves out.
At the risk of sounding like stuck record, we had no money, which meant acting like a shoe salesman every time we needed something, greasing palms and promising glory to all who would aid us. Bleurgh! I feel dirty thinking about it…
But I digress. There was one final piece to the puzzle: the talent. We weren’t sure what to expect on this front. I’ve been to many auditions in my time, but never really sat on the other side of the desk. Our ad hit the usual websites early in September and we waited with baited breath to see if anyone would want to be in a two minute movie for no money. Our plan was to shoot at the end of the month, or early October, which would give us time to do second auditions (if necessary) and, hopefully, rehearsals (which should be essential for all films, but, as the duration was so short, we felt we could wing it if needed).
The level of response to our advert surprised us all. Nearly 90 applications in total. Interestingly, there was quite a disproportionate gender split, and one can only theorise that it was caused by the stereotypical look of some of our characters. We had about fifteen male applications for the four male roles, and only five for the lead. So even just turning up for the audition guaranteed each prospective Cupid at least a 20% chance of success.
The auditions were great fun, for all involved. We had hired an upstairs room at a pub, which afforded us both a private place to let actors act, and a prominent location that was easy to find. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve got lost going to auditions. Once I ended up at the wrong audition. But that’s another story…
Our potential leading ladies were excellent. We had a great range of interpretations, and even had a couple who brought their own props (I always respect actors who understand that auditions are more about being memorable than being perfect for the role). Ditto for the men and women auditioning for lesser roles. Some real thought and effort went into the performances.
Cupid, however, was proving to be much more difficult. We wanted a particular look: overweight, unshaven, scruffy. But the more specific the criteria, the smaller the pool from which you can draw. The guys who turned up were all new to acting, and didn’t quite get the type of character we wanted.
How do you solve a problem like Cupid?
A second round of auditions passed without finding someone to play Cupid. We knew we’d have to rethink our options. The director had a suggestion: during the first auditions someone trying for a minor role had caught his eye; an actor with great comic timing and a kind of unstoppable enthusiasm for performing. I watched his audition tape and had to agree. It was casting against type, but it might just work…
Suddenly, we had our players. We had our location. We had storyboards, equipment, and a collection of items for wardrobe and set dressing. We’d also managed to recruit a production assistant to help with some of the organising. All of a sudden it felt a lot like we were actually going to make a film.
It all seemed a bit too easy…
If there was a weak link in the chain, it was our relationship with the owner of the cafe where we wanted to film. Ms. Proprietor (not her real name) had been enthusiastic and receptive when we first pitched our idea, but as the weeks passed, she grew more and more hesitant. Initially, we were able to reassure her our intentions were honorable, that we would be considerate and professional, and that we would hold meetings and an after-party at the cafe to compensate her in some way for letting us film there. But either through some sense of insecurity, or some poorly conceived idea that she could extract money from us, Ms. Proprietor began to change the rules of the game.
First, she asked to change the dates of filming. No problem we said. Then she changed her mind about how many days we could film, from two to one. OK, no worries we said. Then she became resistant to us doing any kind of set dressing which might damage or mark her cafe interior. Hmmm, that will need a bit of work, we sort of said. Suddenly, we couldn’t be trusted to be left unsupervised in the cafe. We’d need to pay for a member of staff to remain on site while we filmed. Begrudgingly, we agreed. Then the amount of electricity we would use became a problem. Then a security deposit was requested. Then the hours in which we could film were reduced again. Then-
It was time we came up with a plan B (not the singer).
By the time we’d made the decision to cut loose of Mrs. Proprietor, we were only a few days from our planned shooting dates. Crisis! We were in need of a new location, and fast. There wasn’t enough time to court another cafe or bar owner. We’d have to go with our contingency plan, which I’d recommended we have, just in case anything like this happened. I’ve learned the hard way with filming. You need a plan B for everything: actors, location, crew, equipment…if it can fuck up, inevitably it will…
We had a choice of two other locations, both the homes of crew members. Neither were perfect, but with less than a month to the competition deadline, we had to roll the dice.
Andrew, our producer and coordinator, had the flat that best resembled what we needed. As a bonus it also had a balcony, which was essential for the second part of the script.
So the calendar rolled over to October 1, and we all gathered (after our day jobs naturally) to spend an evening pretending to be Louis B. Mayer. Well, I did; everyone else is much more sensible.
Time on a film set, when you’re in the thick of it, warps and twists out of all proportion. Hours can disappear in the blink of an eye as your schedule slips toward oblivion. Conversely, minutes waiting for a light to be adjusted, or for a camera to playback, can feel like all eternity.
I remember looking at my watch when we were all finally assembled. It was 6:05pm. By the time we got the first take in the can it was 7:35pm. Ninety minutes to set up two lights, two cameras and wardrobe two actors. Crazy…
At one point during that first night of filming, there were around 15-20 people in the flat. It was a logistical nightmare. It’s at times like these that all your planning can go up the spout. Having been in these situations before, I did my best to keep everything moving. I’m sure I came across like the biggest prick in the world, on some huge power trip, shouting and ordering people around. This wasn’t my intention though. I didn’t want to be barking orders, particularly when it was meant to be a fun experience for all involved. For some reason though, I get absorbed in the moment, the challenge, to such an extent that more civilized notions such as respect and empathy don’t enter the equation.
It also became visibly apparent that our ‘experienced’ director had, in fact, never directed a film before in his life. He had the look of a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps a fish out of water; sweating profusely, struck dumb at the back of the room, unable to make any decisions or take control of the situation.
That cliche about throwing someone in at the deep end as a test of character? It holds true in film directing too.
In the end we needed two bites of the cherry to get the job done. We were slow to set things up, and there was a constant difference of opinion on the best way to shoot. So it took two days of filming instead of one. And even then, despite my constant nagging to anyone that would listen that we needed much more footage, we ended up with barely enough useable film to cover even the most important sections of the script.
Sometime during that second evening of filming, tired and weary after weeks of concentrated focus, I finally admitted defeat. The script was going to escape us, and we were going to end up with a distinctly average looking film. But I was tired of looking like a maniac, trying to explain my point of view 4 or 5 times, only for it to be ignored. I decided I would take a back seat, and let the rest of the team finish the film the way they thought it should be. I, after all, was only the writer…
Part 3: Nothing Ventured
It was around this time that I started thinking about the other script I’d developed as a contingency. It seemed a terrible shame to let that go, particularly now that I felt I’d failed with Her and Him.
The script for Nothing Ventured had sat looking at me on my desk ever since I did a spit and polish rewrite some four weeks earlier. It was a good script, one of the best of the 50 selected for the competition. It was written by an Australian television producer, Nina Haerland, and it fit the confines of the running time and the budget well. The original worked fine without my changes, by the way. I re-wrote some of the dialogue to make it more informal/dramatic, and slimmed it a little to let camera and actions take the place of words.
As an aside: it’s interesting to note that Nina rewrote Nothing Ventured based on suggestions from both the competition organizers and the general public, producing two more versions. Both of the subsequent drafts are weaker, in my opinion. She added a third, and unnecessary, character to give the twist at the end more of a surprise. I disagree with the need for such misdirection. In my humble opining, the twist at the end works not because it’s a huge surprise to the audience (they’ve seen this type of thing before) but because it opens the door to allow the audience to think about the backstory for what it has just seen. How long did Jack have a crush on Kate before he thought of this as a way to tell her? How many times did he walk past the shop? What was going on in Kate’s life that she had not noticed him before?
With my input into the production of Her and Him marginalized, I decided to follow up on some of my own suggestions and do pre-production on Nothing Ventured v1.1. If nothing came of it, or it was too difficult to film, I’d drop it. But since all it required was two actors and someone to hold a camera, I figured I had nothing to lose.
On reflection, it was amazing the how easily the pieces for this came together. I did a little reconnaissance on florists in North London, discovering the perfect one less than half a mile from my house. The owner, Lisa, was amazingly helpful, and really open to letting us film (a completely different experience to the Her and Him saga).
I found the perfect leading lady from one audition. I knew Vicki was right for the role as soon as I saw her. She looked exactly how I imagined Kate the character would. The leading man problem was solved quickly too. It made sense for me to play the part of Jack, as this would cut down the need for auditioning male actors and mean one fewer person to worry about on the day.
So, within a space of two weeks, I had a second film prepared and ready to go…
Shooting Nothing Ventured was a world away from the experience of trying to film Her and Him.
One of the reasons, I think, was that I had no-one to blame but myself for anything that wasn’t as I wanted. I’d found the location, auditioned the actors, created the shots, co-written the script, was acting in it…if it turned out to be a terrible piece of shit, fingers could only point in one direction.
The other reason, of course, was the fact that I had some really talented people to help with the things I couldn’t do: some inspired acting by Vicki Lee Taylor, beautiful photography by Becky O’Connor, and pretty much everything else (including supporting artiste) by Clara Bennathan. When people trust your decisions and share your viewpoint it allows you to go further with your ideas. Consequently, we produced higher quality work with fewer people and less equipment than we did on Her and Him (just my opinion of course). The whole day was one of those electric moments where experience, skills, planning and focus blend together into a slice of hyperreality.
It was not without its struggles though. We battled unusually bright October sunshine, which made lighting with consistency all but impossible. Add to this the raucous noise of a typical Saturday afternoon’s traffic, meaning that we finished up with very little useable audio. Oh, and continuity? Well, let’s just say that, if you watch the finished film, you may well notice the world’s first magic stepladder, which has the power to appear and disappear at will in the background!
Epilogue: Edits and Credits
And, as soon as it had started, it was over. From zero to hero to zero in a little over two months. Well…that’s not entirely true. There was, of course, the editing to do.
It’s always a shock to people like me that the film doesn’t magically assemble itself after shooting. But the actual filming is merely one-third of the pie, nestled in-between the pre and post-production bookends. I’ll be honest, I’ve never edited a film before. And if I have my way, I never will again. Not alone at any rate. The process is something akin to the solitary prisoner building perfect matchstick replicas of worlds he can never see again.
Ditto the music and foley. I fancy myself something of a sonic expert after having produced or performed music for the past twenty years. But scoring for film, and creating sound effects are specialized skills.
Somehow though, despite suffering near-blindness caused by staring at a computer screen for 16 hours a day for a fortnight and the near insanity caused from listening to the same five or six lines of dialogue over and over and over until the English language lost all meaning, I ended up with a finished film. Two, in fact, although I very much took a back seat during the Her and Him editing. And whatever your opinion of them (let’s face it, compared with some of the entries into the competition, they look rough as hell), 8 weeks ago these films were ideas in my head.
The whole experience has inspired me to go further. Starting in January, I plan to make a new film every couple of months (I’m actually in pre-production to make one as we speak!). They might all be terrible, some might not even get made, but the structure and groundwork has been laid by the 50 Kisses competition (insert relevant Field of Dreams quote here…), and I intend to use the momentum as best I can.
As a last note, I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in helping to make the films (too many to write out sadly) and to all the well-wishers along the way. Kind words and kind actions on their own are effective, but when they combine, great things really can happen.