Essential tips for low-budget British indie film success – |
The gritty, enterprising films that have formed the backbone of the British industry, alongside the glamorous Bond movies and Lean epics of their day, are still shown in retrospectives around the world.
The kitchen sink realism of Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach have provided an alternative to Hollywood, an alternative that seems to have come around again as a new savvy wave of filmmakers hew films from meagre funds that put big-budget flicks to shame.
One such film – Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit? – is testament to these celluloid champions, who overcome obstacles that would bring many to their knees in order to bring their vision to the screen. Writer/director Mark Jeavons could have given up during the journey and, such were the trials and tribulations, nobody would have thought less of him.
When I spoke to Mark recently after a Stateside trip to present the film at American film festivals, one could sense he had been on a long road. Nevertheless, his stubborn nature and inherent talent is symptomatic of our island mentality and something that goes far deeper than most film fans would know about from national media coverage.
Mark said: “Conception was towards the end of 2005 and we shot it in August 2006 over four weeks. Everything that can go wrong on a film set did go wrong. At the end of the four weeks, we had about 60 per cent in the can and all our budget had gone shooting on 16mm.
“It all went tits up and, for the next couple of years, I struggled for completion finance. We were close to canning it and turning it into a short film, but I stuck to my guns. I got some finance in 2009 and shot the rest of it. Post-production took nearly all of 2010 and distribution was sorted last year.
“We got a guy who worked on Doctor Who to do the prosthetics and we had a few others as well. They worked for next to nothing and I am really pleased how the special effects turned out. I have changed a lot as a person over the years after making Pete Blaggit. The guy who started out in 2006 is not the same guy now. I don’t just want to be known as the guy who made Pete Blaggit, though.”
What next for Mark then after the marathon journey to the promised land of distribution?
“It’s all about funding at the minute for my next film The Dream Courier. We have a really talented team on board and we are trying to get some name actors, which will help in getting people to invest. It’s baby steps at the minute. A long hard road lies ahead, but I am used to it.
“We have been put off by the terms and conditions of Creative England. It seems like there is no creative freedom. I know a few other filmmakers that feel the same. Creative England is the same as it was before the name change, to be honest. There is not a lot of regional funding other than that, so we are looking at established production companies with a track record.
“Having been to LA, it is a business and they are constantly looking for scripts and films. Being based in the West Midlands, for me, is like being in the wilderness. It was a shock to the system and made me realise I need to be in London or LA.”
What else can we learn from this new wave of enterprising British independent films?
From this writer’s point of view, one thing low-budget filmmakers should try to focus more on is linear story telling. I have sat through a few films that jump around different timeframes, instead of concentrating on telling a good story well. Plot twists are all well and good, but a rookie or sophomore effort should be able to demonstrate a story simply and powerfully told.
One such film that left me scratching my head continually was Cuckoo, which was a shame considering the name cast involved like Richard E Grant and Laura Fraser.
I am not one of these people that want their movies served up on a silver logic platter; but I don’t want to be racking my brain at every turn to understand the plot or character motives. If there is a science-fiction element involved, then the chances are that your story might need a time jumping element to prosper, but I think it should avoided in more straightforward genres.
Stilted dialogue is another area low-budget filmmakers should concentrate on avoiding. One of the better films I watched on my Brit indie journey was Confession. This was the perfect example of judicious casting and natural dialogue. It didn’t appear rehearsed to within an inch of its life, the characters talking like you would expect yourself to converse in everyday settings with a dash of humour or veiled threats.
Another ambitious film that benefits from sharp dialogue is The Drummond Will, a beautifully played black-and-white comedy set in the country that had me laughing away. Its playful absurdity and upbeat score harked back to British comedies of old and just goes to show what a tight script and quality comic actors can bring to a genre where Britain has an enviable track record from years past.
It cannot be stressed enough how important dialogue is to elevating films above the numerous choices that your average punter will face at the cinema, rental shop or online. If one can draw the audience in with believable characters from the outset, they will provide a great deal more leeway in terms of the plot.
It’s worth taking time learning to pick up on the cadence of conversation. Not only will it give you much needed distance from your script, but it will help you write flowing dialogue that doesn’t feel forced or shoe horned in to advance the story.
Also try to create a world that people maybe haven’t seen before in film or, at least, a world that hasn’t been given due respect by flashier mainstream filmmakers. The devil really is in the detail here and your unique insider view of a particular job, industry or milieu can truly make your film stand out. The mental health aspect of Confession and writer/director Viv Fongenie’s enterprising Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World, for example, adds an intriguing extra layer to the relationship drama that binds the stories together.
Don’t be afraid to make your story claustrophobic in setting like The Disappearance of Alice Creed or the underrated Sus, which used a few rooms to create a wonderful sense of creeping dread before going beyond the four walls as the climax built to a crescendo. The raw performances of A-list talent in these tense three-handers just shows what a great script and achievable locations can do on a smaller budget.
Famous actors have lots of down time in between the bigger budget films, TV and theatre that makes up the lion’s share of their schedule. They are crying out for gritty or funny scripts on their home soil, away from the Hollywood movie machine, that they can sink their teeth into. Write juicy parts that avoid cliché and you will be doing yourself a massive favour when it comes to the funding stage.
Gemma Arterton may not be everyone’s cup of tea; however she displayed real acting chops in Alice Creed that helped to build on the promising turn she delivered in the bigger-budgeted Tamara Drewe. She should be applauded for working with fresh talent, much like her Creed co-stars Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston who have been mainstays of several great British indie films in recent years. The Sus combination of classy veteran character actors Ralph Brown and Clint Dyer with rising star Rafe Spall also worked a treat in a powerful race-themed story set on the night Maggie Thatcher came to power.
Aim high and you will be surprised at who will buy into your vision. Creed writer/director J Blakeson did just that and can now look forward to the career he envisioned when he first put pen to paper or fingers to laptop.
Cinematography and lighting are other facets of filmmaking that can help shine a winning light on your film. The vivid black and white shots employed by gutsy writer/director Sam Holland and talented cinematographer Lucio Cremonese in Zebra Crossing are key to the film’s success, alongside the feisty central performances and electric editing.
Music is a tricky area when it comes to low-budget films as there is the temptation to either go full blast or tack it on at the end. Please take it seriously as a winning score can help boost your film’s chances of securing distribution. Naturally a soundtrack is more than likely out of the equation unless you have musical friends, who can produce one for little or no money up front. A score, though, is worth investing money in especially with the slew of talented composers itching to work in this country.
Finally shock value can often make you stand out from the cinematic crowd. Kill List is an intense watch that had me looking away from the screen on several occasions due to the violence and creeping dread underlined with a very classy score indeed. The performances were so real and script bang on that it truly got under my skin. It has blazed a trail in worldwide film circles with writer/director Ben Wheatley now very much on the film radar after his interesting debut Down Terrace and latest critical smash Sightseers.
Try to follow these simple rules and you should stand a better chance than most of getting noticed amongst the hundreds of films made each year on these shores and beyond. Mark Jeavons saw the light at the end of the tunnel, kept his head down and realised his ambition with Pete Blaggit. I, for one, am glad he did. Now it’s your turn.