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To lose a lot of money in film making easily, it’s probably better not to have any film making heritage at all. In this respect I was well qualified.
Growing up in rural England, we had no TV in our house. Ever. I realize this is hard to imagine for some of you, but my parents, resolute in their principles to protect us from an insidious corruption, had ruled that no altar to the BBC would ever grace the corner of our living room. Television was ‘worldly’ and a gateway to all kinds of lusts and other unmentionable things. Having a radio was OK, though. Apparently, lust didn’t travel so well through the radio waves. Without a TV, I was left in a social vacuum when it came to pop culture. Friends at school would look at me incredulously when I had never heard of the most famous celebrities. One summer, I took a job in a local factory. I was in the men’s room staring straight ahead at the tiles, like my neighbor, and as he finished and put everything away, he commented, “Hey! The king is dead.” “The king?” I responded, quite convinced that we still had a queen. “You know, Elvis!” I gave my best, “Really? How interesting!” look, having vaguely heard his name but not really having any idea exactly who he was or what he’d done. In our house he’d not only left the building, he’d never actually entered it. Yes, you may well be incredulous, but I could bring up some significant Biblical character like Joash, and unless you went to Sunday School as a kid, you’d know him about as well as I knew Elvis. With no TV at home, I was forced to wander up the road to my best friend, Leigh, and watch his black and white TV.
At first, I was fascinated by any program that was being shown: news shows, cooking shows, or political broadcasts. It was all equally amazing to a TV-deprived kid. Sometimes, I ended up watching shows when Leigh wasn’t even there. His parents were really friendly, and I’d sit in his front room enjoying the program until I felt too awkward to continue. Knocking on his door and asking “Can Leigh play?” came to mean “Hi, can I come in and watch TV?” Leigh’s father tried to guide my tastes a little by letting me know about the best football games or when interesting movies would be shown. Charlie Chaplin in The General was one I remember, but otherwise, I watched a mixture of old war movies and comedies, like Laurel and Hardy. Most of my fascination was simply the novelty value. Leigh was already long past the novelty stage and wanted me to play another installment of our favorite prisoner of war game outside, something which my father had played for real just 25 years earlier. Strangely enough, I noticed that my parents suffered from the same TV attraction. Whenever they visited friends where the TV was left on, they were glued to the set. When the soccer World Cup was on, they went next door to the Italians who had just purchased an amazing color telly. This was all very well, but their home always smelt funny – a strange mixture of margarine and tomato sauce. They had a couple of pet canaries and a cage, but they didn’t seem to be connected. So, watching TV usually involved having a couple of birds flapping around your head. This decidedly detracted from the experience, and I preferred Leigh’s house where they ate real British food and usually watched TV without having to dodge low-flying birds.
The restrictions on moving pictures in our family wasn’t limited to TV. We were also not permitted to visit our town’s only cinema. This was also a den of iniquity, and judging by some of the film posters outside, I could see why it had been placed off limits. However, I was a bit suspicious that this blanket restriction might also be excluding some harmless and interesting viewing.
When I was 12, I gathered up some courage, made sure no one was watching, and sneaked in to watch a film called The Lost Valley, or maybe it was The Last Valley. Anyway, the big screen was (as I would have described it at the time) ‘brilliant.’ However, the film didn’t really hold my attention, probably because I was paranoid that at any moment someone might turn the lights on, and my heinous crime would be exposed. Some of the cinema’s mysterious allure wore off, but as I wasn’t struck down dead on exiting, I decided I might try it again. A year later, I was turning 13 and needed somewhere to go with my first ‘girlfriend’, Susan. I approached the cinema with feigned casualness, furtively looked around to make sure no one I knew was near the entrance, and quickly entered. A certain Steve McQueen, apparently someone famous, was racing cars in The Grand Prix and wasn’t anywhere near The Lost Valley, so it was a little better; however, I was a bit distracted by Susan and can’t remember anything about the movie.
Casting is one of the more fun aspects of film directing; at least, I think so. You meet interesting (and sometimes weird) people and briefly your screenplay creation is brought to life. Suddenly, you realize that your project might actually become . . . well, real! It’s also the beginning of directing. Finally, after all these supporting activities, you actually direct actors. I’m now going to put a damper on all your excitement about finding the perfect cast. Hopefully you cast to get the best possible performance, but this probably has nothing to do with getting the best possible return on your film. Let’s say you cast an actress who is better than Meryl Streep (unlikely) or an actor who is better than Hugh Grant (definitely possible in my case). Yes, the performance is brilliant, but in regard to getting your film sold, it has zero or near zero effect. A film poorly acted by star, Suzie Sofamous, will simply sell a whole lot better than the same film brilliantly acted with Nigel Nobodynozeme.
We used a casting agency. Each day I would trudge over to the top floor of a brick building in North London where Mad Dog Casting had set up auditions. It’s a bit like opening presents. Each one is different, and you never know, the next one you unwrap could be the perfect gift. The range of talent even at this low budget level is amazingly varied. For some, the die is cast in the first few seconds of meeting. The whole audition is a waste of time for both of you. Head shots can be amazingly deceptive. I sometimes wondered whether the photos were of the same person. In contrast, meeting the right actor feels excellent from the start. My two lead actresses, Annabelle Wallis and Laura Donelly, are currently playing in top British TV series alongside well-known stars. When they auditioned, they were clearly a cut above my previous candidates, but no matter how talented someone is, the person must suit the part you have in mind and looks are the first filter.
I videotaped all the auditions to the delight of my mother-in-law who had more fun than me just looking over my shoulder each evening as I reviewed the day’s takes. Her opinion was also very useful, coming from the opposite sex and an older age bracket. Although I was confident in my own ability to judge acting, my assessment of male good looks is rather lacking. It didn’t take long to find my leads. I think this more than anything stoked my enthusiasm for the filming to come. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Before we head off to England, we’ll need to address the issue of image. After all, this is the film world, and you’ll want to look like a ‘legit’ filmmaker if you’re to have any street credibility. You don’t want to be strolling across London Bridge in your nineties jeans, wiping pigeon poop off your shirt as you head off to interview your first producer candidate.
HENRY: Nigel! Hey look, here comes that film director!
NIGEL: I don’t fink so mate, he’s got pigeon crap on his trousers.
The key to looking legit? The business card. Getting 250 business cards printed up with your name and “Film Producer” written below in fancy script is a most wonderful thing. This alone will cement you firmly into a place of fame and authority. I had 500 made up, just to be sure, and they’re still very useful. Just the other day, we were at a restaurant with a wobbly table, and I found the cards can be used singly or doubled up. You’ll also want an exciting picture to go on the cards, on your production folder, and on everything to do with the movie. All this increases the reality factor, i.e., you really are going to make a movie.
My movie involved an old Porsche, an old church in the country, and our hero. Unfortunately, I hadn’t cast yet. So there was no face for my hero. But no problem, my nephew is a fine looking young fellow, so with the help of Photoshop, I simply made up a picture of him standing by a picture of an old Porsche I found on the Internet. I then pasted it all onto a country lane with a church in the background. It turned out rather well, and I had it placed in the corner of all the business cards. Armed with these classy cards, I strolled confidently across London Bridge.
HENRY: Nigel! Hey look, here comes that film director wot gave me ‘is business card.
NIGEL: Brilliant mate! Look at his spiffy jeans with that white splodge pattern. I wonder if he’d let us be in his movie?
April 2006 came and saw me on the plane to London with a full schedule ahead of me. It was a bit lonely, but I just pushed on figuring this was how it would be until I had my crew together. This next phase was probably the most difficult. You step out from your private writer’s cave into the hustle and bustle of London and have to wear a totally different organizer hat. The places you go, the people you meet, and the agreements you make are all new, and there’s no one to say, “Good job, mate! You’ll soon be shooting day one.”
My first challenge was where to meet my prospective producer candidates. I could hardly say, “Hey come on back to my mother-in-law’s for tea and an interview.” (Actually, once I had a little more confidence, they did just that . . . except it was my brother’s house.) Initially, I had thought of hiring one of these bogus offices where clients come to a lavish foyer and meet you in a room that you have rented for 1 hour and stuck your sign on the end wall. But the cost was too high. I would just have to wing it. For the first interview, we met at a pub, for the second at Starbucks, and for the third at a motorway café. If you’ve ever wondered whether you can run a film business from coffee houses. Yes, you really can. It’s quite easy.
Discovering the right person is tricky. I consider myself a good judge of people, but I was alone and had no one with whom to compare notes. If I got this wrong, the whole project could go downhill really fast. The applicant I met at the Motorway rest stop almost pleaded for the job, but I wasn’t sure she could actually do it. It was never clear to me whether she had organized her last film or simply watched it being organized.
A more promising candidate was a real go-getter, a fast talker who made me tired just listening to him. He wanted “$1000 cash in his pocket “ all the way through pre-production, so he could strike deals as we needed. He talked competently and detailed exactly the steps he was going to take, describing examples of past success on his recent horror film. You’d be amazed at the prospective applicants who say, “Hey, I’ve just finished some excellent work on an erotic horror film entitled Table Saw Massacre 3 With Rubber Gloves, and I would be perfect for your Christian-flavored epic.” Anyway, this guy said his brother was a ‘weird Christian type,’ but his personal coefficient of Christianity was zero or minus 10. I actually thought he would get the job done, but his whole approach was too much for me. I could see him calling me at 3:00 am to go location scouting and letting me know about the great deal he’d just got on a bent table saw.
The third applicant, Sarah, I interviewed in my brother’s front room. She was tall and had worked at the BBC. I was impressed; I mean here was someone I could look up to. She talked about her connections. One of them was a pilot who could get us aerial shots if we needed them. She seemed proficient and pleasant, and I put her at the top of the list. (With your candidate, you might want to ask them “Why, did you leave the BBC?”)
The next day, I hired Sarah, agreeing to pay her way too much money. After getting Sarah started, I spent the rest of the week driving around the county of Wiltshire while my long-suffering brother took me location scouting in and out of various chapels, churches and cottages. The ball was rolling. So, I flew home to DC, a smile on my face as befitted the experienced film producer I had become.
Now, in preparation for talking about all our vehicles, you should understand a little bit about the flow of money during film production. Here’s the picture. On a table you have a pile of money and down below you have a drain. Then you hire an accountant to monitor the activity between the two. I was very unclear on this picture (mainly a focus issue), and if you’re going to successfully lose wads of money, you should be, too. We hired a production accountant, who for reasons of economy (oh the irony!), was going to perform her duties remotely from Cornwall (about 100 miles away). I think the procedure was along these lines:
1. We would enter our expenditures on a spreadsheet
2. We would send them off to Cornwall
3. She would copy the figures into her spreadsheet
4. At the end of shooting she would would send us her spreadsheet and
. . . invoice us for £1000
Folks, if you can get this kind of accounting work, I highly recommend it, and Cornwall is gorgeous in the summer time.
With hindsight we should have had a single, uncompromising person with hawk eyes and a firm hand to monitor all things financial on the set. Do you want to buy a roll of tape for £47.99? Go and see Hawk Eyes. A strange thing happens when your employee is tasked with purchasing items with your money. The amount of effort expended to get a decent bargain evaporates, and objects he would never consider buying with his own money are suddenly just perfect. This is how your film crew buyer and moped salesman will interact:
FILM CREW BUYER:
Yeh hello, we were looking for an old moped that no one wants.
Alright mate, yeh. Got a bunch of junk ones out back. Take your pick. I mean, just take ‘em off me ‘ands.
FILM CREW BUYER:
Fantastic. Out here?
Now hang on a sec. Aren’t you wiv that film bunch, doin’ that movie?
FILM CREW BUYER:
uh . . .
See, ‘cause actually these ones are real classics, worth a fortune. But I’ll tell you what, you can ‘ave this one ‘ere wot needs a tiny bit a work for only £495. Special price just for today.
FILM CREW BUYER:
Oh, er OK. Yeh great
I mean, once you find a rear wheel, it’ll be a cracker.
I guess the feeling that some nameless corporation is funding everything is hard to shake especially when you come from a more socialist mindset. The other surprising thing, (and there are lots of them once you get into the virtual reality of filmmaking) is that sometimes your crew would present you, the director with gifts. And you think “That’s really thoughtful.” Sometimes they would bring me my favorite chocolate, Minstrel candies. I would be crunching thoughtfully through the chocolate when it would occur to me to wonder who had actually paid for these. I mean, did I just buy myself chocolate?
There were other gifts, too. Every take begins with the clapper board slating the start of the scene, “Scene 23, Take 5!” and down comes the black and white arm, “Snap.” One day, the crew very kindly indicated that they had a special present. Opening the packet revealed a customized clapper board complete with the movie name Right Hand Drive across the top, my name, and the year etc. It was very cool, and I still have it. At the end of production, I was looking through our accountant’s spreadsheet. “Item 112, Custom Clapper Board, £95.99.” I’m quite generous when it comes to me!