I find it interesting to witness how some creative undertakings can go through many stages from the initial idea to the finished article. Whether it be a song, a novel or a film it can be intriguing to see the development. I thought I would share some of my own experiences involving short filmmaking. It might entertain, it may even inspire, it won’t take too long to read.
I’d like to use my short Timber! as an example. As I’ve mentioned before, the idea came to me when musing over some of my own and indeed my friends’ good and bad luck with love. It struck me that while many, many films have been written on the subject they always seem to have happy endings and a positive (if not entirely realistic) resolution. Even in a film such as 500 Days Of Summer where it appears it will end on a downer, the protagonist meets Autumn and we are led to believe that she will be the girl for him and they will both live happily thereafter.
Conversely, I wanted to write something where although ending on a laugh, didn’t necessarily mean the protagonist got the girl. I also had certain thoughts floating around my mind such as the well known idea that the more we live the more we realise that life for better or worse doesn’t pan out the way you fully intended or expected and this was something I wanted to explore. I was also conscious that many of the short films I had done in the past had been out and out comedy and satire. I really enjoyed making such films as The Anti-Fantastic Campaign about the overuse of the word ‘fantastic’ in British broadcasting or The Skills Of Conversation: The Heartburn Pause but it was time for a change. The prospect of still using comedy but also including some pathos and human emotion was something I felt compelled to do.
Although I took on the main role, many of the sequences are not based on personal experience. I would never act in such an uncouth way in a pub and although I did once date a girl who looked vaguely French, I would never go to France on a whim. It just meant I could utilise certain storytelling/comedic devices. Here then, is the finished article after which I’ll go in to more detail about how I got to that final stage.
After consolidating my ideas in to a first draft script I was eager to film what I had with whoever I could get on board to help determine what worked, what didn’t and if possible, what new ideas and dialogue could be prized from such a practice. With my Dundonian mate Steve Hally on camera I set aside a Sunday afternoon to do just that. I also roped in my flatmates to play the other roles. It was handy that at the time I was living with my pal Miles Jupp, a great actor and comedian and someone with whom I could workshop ideas. After filming this rough read through/rehearsal, I indeed had new ideas to include in the script and a clearer mind as to what to purge. It’s an invaluable process and I would highly recommend it to those who have a first draft script and want to hone it down. It’s far better to do this than assemble a cast and crew and start filming whilst all the time having a few nagging doubts about your script. As I found, it can also be a damn good laugh and it made for a productive yet fun Sunday afternoon for all of us. It was never meant for public viewing but it is interesting to see some of the ideas contained in the finished film in their embryonic form. There are also parts that never made it but that was the point of the exercise of course. So here it is, the Timber first draft read through/rehearsal.
This was always going to be a big headache as I simply didn’t have enough money to fund the film myself. Due to the fact I wanted it to have excellent production qualities, or as excellent as I could possibly muster, to hire crew and equipment would cost a fortune. I did look in to the official channels to acquire funding but it became quickly apparent there would be a lot of paperwork and absolutely no guarantee of acquiring any money after what would be a long wait. I had spoken to my friend Marisa who also happens to be married to Belle and Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch about funding as she was working for BAFTA at the time . She had been very helpful in giving me information on how to apply for funding but she also said something which always stuck in my mind. It was actually something that Stuart had said in relation to something else but I took it as a call to arms of my own, – “If a story is worth telling, you’ll find a way to tell it”. I thought my story was and with that, was determined to prove it. I also didn’t have the patience to hang around with dwindling hope for funding and so decided to try and pull in as many favours as possible from as many people as possible who were willing to help.
This is where I got very lucky. In 2008 I had worked on a show for Channel 4 with a great crew who I got on with very well. During the filming which took us all over the world, there was a lot of time spent in hotel lobbies, airport departure lounges and indeed long haul flights. During this time I talked at length with two chaps who quickly turned from work colleagues to friends. The first was Stevie Haywood, who would become the sound man and sound editor on Timber!. We spoke for long periods about film, music and many other things besides. I showed him a couple of shorts I had already done and he was impressed. This was also the case when I showed them to Charlie Grainger who was also working on the show as chief cameraman. Aside from the programme we were working on, Charlie and Stevie had worked with Chris Morris, Shane Meadows and on HBO’S Band Of Brothers. This obviously impressed me greatly but more importantly, was further proof of their experience and talent which was clearly evident in the way they went about their work. In order to put some faces to the names, here’s Stevie holding some sound equipment during the Timber! shoot -
And here is Charlie, readying himself for a shot -
They both said that if I was ever planning on doing another short in the future they would help me out by doing the sound and vision as well as supplying the equipment. This floored me slightly as it was such a kind gesture and as I say, a massive stroke of luck on my part. It meant we would be shooting on a DVCPro HD camera along with professional sound gear and lights when the time eventually came to make the film. When it did we had to jig filming around our paid employment gigs, but we managed to set aside shooting dates when we were all free. I am indebted to them greatly as it would have been very difficult otherwise and certainly not nearly as much fun. For the keen of eye you can see both fleetingly in Timber!. Firstly, Charlie is standing at the bus stop when my character screams “Idiot” and Stevie is my golfing buddy in the scene directly afterwards.
Again, this is where my connections came in handy. I became the film’s protagonist as not only did it seem the easiest way to do things but it was a story I had written and I wanted to tell it first hand. However, it still left me with many other roles to cast. It was a no brainer to get Miles involved and through him I got the numbers of some acquaintances of his who were also actors. Through those I got the names of even more actors so there were a few possibilities as to who to cast. What worried me was the fact that I had no money to pay anybody and thought it could be a sticking point. It was then Miles said something to me that gave me the confidence to believe I could get all the thespians I needed. He reminded me that actors want to act as much as possible and due to the nature of the job, there’s a lot of time when they aren’t working. If they are offered a part in a short and they like the script, they are more than likely to say yes. This proved to be the case and I filled all the slots.
My intention was to film all the pieces on the roof on the first day, that way at least it would feel like a productive start and the skeleton of the film, which all the sketches and other sequences would branch off from, would be in the can. I succeeded in doing this even though there was a gardener nearby intent on using a leaf blower which buggared up our sound on a couple of takes until he thankfully moved on. Due to the fact I was the only one appearing in front of camera that day, it wasn’t too stressful and I only had to concern myself with the two man crew of Stevie and Charlie being fed, watered and happy with everything.
I knew it would be more difficult when dealing with all the other actors, more crew and locations on future shooting days and while this proved to be the case, I always managed to get things sorted in the end. The first thing I had to do was secure days with Stevie and Charlie as without them nothing could be done. There was one day when Charlie couldn’t make it but I couldn’t get the actors I needed on any other date. Due to this potential problem I called on the services of Josh Eve, a cameraman I was working with at the time on another job. Not only was Josh good with a camera and a great bloke, he had also toured with The Beta Band as their film projectionist. This was all he had to have on the CV as those who know me are well aware how highly I hold that band in my musical affections.
My HQ through all of this was my desk in my bedroom where phone calls and e-mails were made and sent to everyone concerned until I was eventually able to settle on a shooting schedule. There were times when it seemed I might only be able to shoot one scene in a day which would have been a waste of Stevie and Charlie’s time but by hook or by crook I filled up the days with as many scenes to film as possible. Nothing was shot in sequence with the final day being taken up by the dinner party scene which was filmed on a boiling hot summer afternoon with us all inside and the curtains drawn. I had to buy quite a few bin liners to black out the windows on that one but it worked out well.
With regard to the locations I used, it was simply a case of asking permission whilst assuring those in charge that we wouldn’t take up too much time. For example, we shot in the pub at 10am before it opened to the public. The pints used in that scene were full of 100% proper lager and I had a slightly light head by 10.30am. To give another example, the golf scene was shot at the pitch and putt course in Queens Park, north London. I simply told the guy in charge that what I was filming was an independent venture and that we would only be there for a short while. He was fine with that and let us in.
My biggest concern throughout filming was with the St Pancras sequence. This was integral to the whole story and if we didn’t get it, there would be no pay off at the end. We set out to St Pancras on the penultimate filming day with me quietly worrying in the back of Charlie’s van. I was stressing that due to security measures, we might be forced to stop filming or told to get a permit. It also concerned me that I was going to look suspicious having to walk in to the station, quickly take my jacket off and unravel my shirt to look like I was on my way back from Paris, and then walk out again and passed the camera which would remain in the same position. With all that in mind we arrived in Kings Cross, got out the van and started to film. I remember seeing policemen and station workers everywhere and knowing that if we got just one decent take we could get going. As it turned out, nobody batted an eye lid with at one point a policeman walking straight passed us without the slightest query as to what we were up to. In the end we did three takes with slightly different angles so there was a variety of choice. We then went to the pub as it was a huge relief to know we now had the conclusion of the film in the bag.
By pulling in the contacts of Stevie and Charlie I was able to acquire the services of an editor who they had not only worked with but was a friend of theirs. The fortuitious thing was that Dougie Oliphant (I liked him having that first name) was wanting to break in to more comedic/dramatic work and so saw the experience of editing Timber! as a useful one. I saw it as getting in a great editor for free who had access to a professional edit suite, was great at his job and wanted to edit my film. We worked late in to the evenings when the edit suite was free and up until we needed to get the last train home. We would have got a taxi but we couldn’t really afford to as our homes are in north London and the edit suite was in Richmond. I didn’t mind getting the train as long as I had my music to listen to and a book to read, the simple yet important pleasures.
It’s imperative to use original music if you want to get in to film festivals or be shown by broadcasters. There are many tunes I would like to have used by several artists such as the Stevie Jackson penned Belle & Sebastian song The Wrong Girl over the closing titles or selected cuts by Bob Lind and many others besides. This was not possible as the money to use such tracks wasn’t there and so I called on my friend John Reynolds seen below in his natural habitat.
We’ve been friends since we met as fresh faced eighteen year olds and played in bands both together and apart in Edinburgh back in the day. After I moved to London, John continued to work both in groups and in music production amassing an impressive musical output. A few months before we started filming he sent me a batch of new songs he had recorded. I thought they were great and knew they would fit the film well. I then asked John if I could use them and he was kind enough to say yes. I also snuck in Columbo and Coffee written by myself and my pal Milo McLaughlin. The graphics used to accompany the music in the opening and closing titles come courtesy of Scott Walker aka The Bald Boss. Another friend from the old days in Edinburgh, Scott is an excellent graphic designer and wanted to help. I’m glad he did as they finished things of nicely.
So there it is, the story of how Timber! progressed from the seed of an idea to the finished article. It’s certainly gratifying to have accomplished what I set out to do and I’m glad to say the feedback has been very positive. As is always the case with such creative undertakings, if I was to do it all over again I would make a few little tweaks but overall, I’m happy with the outcome. Time now to think about the feature length version…