Let’s start off the usual way by having you introduce yourself to everyone and tell us all a little about yourself. Not as far as film work goes, but on a more personal level.
Okay, I’m 24 years old and I live in a city called Wolverhampton, which is in the middle of England. Film is a big obsession of mine – my favourite films would include: The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver/Goodfellas. My favourite bands right now include: Flaming Lips, Interpol, Pixies. My favourite author at the moment is Chuck Palahniuk. I love eating at Quiznos and my pet dog’s name is Gemma – too much information??
You made four short films before you made your first feature, The Boy With a Thorn in His Side. Tell us about those and how they prepared you for doing your first feature.
My first short was: ‘The Money Tree’ – which is about a lonely postman who discovers a tree with money growing on it, as you do. Next is: ‘Death by Chocolate’ – a comedy about a man obsessed with chocolate, naturally. Then I made: ‘Blind Man Freddy’ – a drama about a blind tramp who befriends a youngster with tragic consequences. Finally there’s: ‘My Necrophiliac Bride’ – a comedy about a bride who….well, you get the idea!
Making shorts is a great practice ground to make mistakes and improve as a filmmaker before making a feature. These films helped me develop a distinct voice – all but one of these shorts is comedic in tone. I also grew in confidence as a filmmaker which helped before making: ‘The Boy with a Thorn in His Side’.
You actually wrote the first draft of Boy With a Thorn back in 2001. How did it change between the first draft and how the film came out in the end? Is there anything from it’s original conception that you changed or took out that you later wished you hadn’t, or things that you changed that you feel came out for the better?
The first draft back in 2001 was a pretty poor effort in hindsight – I was still learning as a screenwriter – but there was a good idea there and when I came to rewrite the story in 2004 I kept the basic story and the main theme of teenage alienation – I just tried to improve on the characters, dialogue, plot etc. I also tried to make the script as funny as I could – hence Billy’s parents became more eccentric – that’s one aspect of the script I changed for the better.
How did you go about assembling your cast?
I advertised for actors on various filmmaking websites, but I already knew who I wanted for a lot of the parts in the film. I had worked with Alec Sedgley on a short film the previous year and felt he would make a good Billy Heinlickburger. A few actors had appeared in my previous short films such as Sue Kimberley who plays Billy’s mother – she had appeared in ‘Death by Chocolate’ back in 2003.
When you look for cast members and have to ask people to work for free, do you find that some people are put off by that or are most of the people you dealt with ok with it and just eager to be in a film?
Actually I found that working for free wasn’t a problem for the actors who appeared in the film – most if not all were just happy to appear in a feature. They get to put that on their CV’s so they benefit from the experience – we all made the film in order to further our careers I guess. Of course being paid would have been great, but I never got any complaints.
You shot the film in 17 days. When the actual shooting was over, did you feel like you had gotten everything that you wanted to, or did you feel like you had to sacrifice some of what you wanted to get in there or even some of the quality due to the time constraints?
The time factor was a big problem during the shoot – each day you have so many scenes to shoot in such little time so it felt I was being rushed, but that was the only way to get the film complete in those 17days.
There are a few scenes in the film that I cringe at – and that’s purely because we we’re up against the clock and didn’t have time to do more rehearsing or more takes. After the film I honestly didn’t know if we had everything covered or not, but we made it – by the skin of our teeth!
The interviews with Billy’s parents were largely improvised. Was that an on the spot decision to allow them to improvise or was it planned from the beginning to allow them to do that? If the interviews were originally scripted, how does the scripted version compare to the improvised version?
The interviews were scripted from the beginning, but I told the actors to improvise and go where ever they wanted to – stuff like Jurgen talking about his sex life and taking Viagra were all improvised. If you compare the scripted version to the improvised version you’d see a few similarities – basically the actors took the material and moulded it into something funnier than I could ever have written! For me the parents are the best thing about the film – I got so much more out of their performances than I expected.
You took your film to the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. How was that experience for you and what was the biggest thing you took away from it?
I learnt an awful lot from Cannes – I learnt that you shouldn’t go there if you’re a young, sensitive filmmaker because the people watching your film will simply rip it to pieces. I wanted to screen ‘Boy with a Thorn’ there because I had spent a year on the film and wanted as many people to see it as possible. But you shouldn’t even think about taking a film to Cannes unless you have a strategy in place in terms of marketing, publicity, etc – all of which costs money.
I learnt a lot about the business side of filmmaking and that film is a business as much as it is an art form – it was a big reality check to be honest, but I’m glad I went – I got to see George Lucas in the flesh, not to mention Sharon Stone, so it wasn’t all bad!
You have two other feature films in the works right now. Tell us about those.
My next film is another comedy called: ‘Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit?’ – it’s about a guy who films wedding videos and finds out his ex is planning on getting married too – it’s all about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices.
Then I have: ‘The Illuminati’ in development which I aim to make in the next five years – that’s my dream project which I’ve spent a long time writing. It’s a fresh take on the conspiracy theory genre – it’s very dark, very funny, very different – it’ll take a lot of money to make, but I’m determined to make it sooner rather than later.
What did you learn from making Boy With a Thorn that will help you out immeasurably when it comes down to making these two new films?
I guess the whole experience of making a feature off my own back from absolutely nothing – you go through a lot during the making of a film and learn a lot about yourself as a person and the capabilities you have – what you can and can’t achieve. I also learnt that story is paramount, so is getting strong actors and surrounding yourself with a good, positive crew.
You’ve been wearing a lot of hats as far as being a writer, director, producer etc…, but when it comes down to promotion and getting your film out there, what kind of a learning curve have you had with that and how will you do things differently as far as promoting your new films?
Trying to promote your own film is a mission impossible, that’s what I found – you’re not going to get anywhere publicising a film on your own – you need the help and support of a sales agent/distributor – which is something I failed to do for: ‘Boy with a Thorn’ but hope to put right with: ‘Pete Blaggit’. There’s no guarantee this will happen – all I can do is make the best film I can and be content with that.
I know a lot more now about the business side of making a film – what a sales agent looks for in a film, what distributors want. To get a distribution deal you need to make a really original film that will appeal to a certain audience and that has commercial potential. If you’re serious about having a filmmaking career then you have to plan ahead after you’ve made your film – this is something I think a lot of young filmmakers never take into consideration.
Once you complete your new films, are you going to take them to Cannes like you did with Boy With a Thorn?
To be able to say that I screened my first feature at Cannes is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if the film isn’t successful afterwards and has some kind of a life in the public eye. I’d much rather secure a sales agent/distributor for my next film than taking it to Cannes again, but never say never. I’d love to return one day having made my name as a filmmaker with a film being screened in the Grand Theatre – that would be awesome!
On the production side, what do you find to be the hardest part about making a film, and what’s the most enjoyable part about it?
For me, producing the film in pre-production is the hardest part – there’s so much to plan and organise and if you don’t have anyone to help you then it can be a nightmare – especially if you’re also directing the film.
As for what’s most enjoyable? Probably when the film is complete after so much work has gone into it and you know it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a great sense of achievement and satisfaction to know that you’ve pulled it off and that the film works on it’s own right. No matter who might criticise the film – it’s your film that you’ve made (with the help of countless others) – and no one can take that away from you.
Were there any moments during any of your productions that went so badly that you just wanted to throw up your hands and forget the whole filmmaking thing all together?
For sure, definitely. Making: ‘My Necrophiliac Bride’ was an awful experience – but that’s probably my best short film I’ve made. And: ‘Boy with a Thorn’ was tough at times – I was stressed a lot and had put myself under so much pressure. But you just get on with it and do the best job you can – once you commit to something then you have to see it through to the end, otherwise why bother in the first place?
What’s been your most satisfying moment as a filmmaker?
Probably completing: ‘Boy with a Thorn’ and knowing I didn’t mess it up, that’s hugely satisfying. Also winning an Audience Award for: ‘Death by Chocolate’ at a local film competition was cool. Plus having: ‘My Necrophiliac Bride’ screened at a local film fest and sitting at the back of the cinema, watching over fifty odd people totally loving the film – laughing in the right places, etc – that was something I’ll never forget.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we wrap this up?
I’d just like to say thanks to Rogue Cinema for this opportunity and let you know that you can keep up to date with my filmmaking adventures and watch my short films at: http://www.sepiafilms.co.uk. Stay cool!