Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Lessons learned

We did something today that we should have done a long while back.

Before Tuesday’s auditions started, Jake and I had a meeting with the Economic Development Marketing Officer for Hampshire County Council.

Not the easiest to decipher of job titles, but as far as we can tell her role is to act as a dating agency between film-people and places-to-film-in. In Hampshire. And presumably with money involved.

We talked zombies. We explained our situation. And now she’s going to dip into her extensive contact list and try and find us somewhere to film.

Really? That simple? Maybe you should have done this a while back, Phelps.

Thanks. Lesson learned.

To be fair to us, we did get in touch back in February, at the time of the first location hunt. We dropped her a quick email, and we got one back with a couple of suggestions. They didn’t pan out, but then our original college happened. As shallow promises of unfulfilled glory shone down upon our heads, we moved on.

An email is just a task waiting to be completed. What schools are friendly? How about these? Question answered; mail deleted; zombies forgotten. But discussing the project in person means that the Resurrection behemoth now occupies a space slightly further forward in her mind than it would have otherwise done. We’re now an assignment, a challenge to her professional network and skills of persuasion.

And this is not to say that we’re expecting the highly awesome college that we looked around on Friday to fall though. Quite the contrary. But recent experience has shown us that when it comes to moving eggs about the place two baskets are definitely better than one.

Lesson learned. Bitten.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Kicked into the long weekend

Do you ever have those weeks where you never quite manage to catch up with yourself?

Week one of auditioning is now behind us, and Jake and I are officially delighted. Delighted and knackered. From the initial 176 applicants (and a mere 670 emails later), we have been entertained and impressed exactly eighteen times, blown-out without notice five times, and been left with two permanent grins.

Grins made even more painful by a visit to a prospective location on Friday late-afternoon, as we snuck into another local college just before the half-term break.

This is how we should have done it first time round – meet up with the head-teacher and the estates manager first, tell them exactly what we’re after, and see what they think. Once the boss is on-board everything becomes easier and quicker. This particular college has a pedigree of performing arts, and they seem incredibly relaxed about welcoming the undead onto their premises this summer; the meeting itself lasted only about ten minutes, after which Jake and I were invited to tour the college grounds at our leisure and check out where we’d want to film.

Damn – schools without kids in are creepy places. Add a bit of post-apocalyptic debris and turn off all the lights, and there’s a horror film to be had here.

This place was genuinely fabulous. It had the same eccentric and mismatched architecture and bizarre elements that we loved so much in the last college; probably more so. There is an awesome hall within which to house the zombie horde, labyrinthine corridors peppered with alcoves for key lighting, and a whole load of rooms with something unusual about them. Is it standard practice nowadays to have hot-plates in the staff-room?

And the debilitating location angst takes a dip towards the green zone.

Next week starts off with more of the same, albeit it with a spare Monday stuck in there somewhere which my girlfriend called shotgun on before I could laden myself up with zombie-related activities. Round two of auditions kicks off on Tuesday morning, and we hope to have our cast nailed down by the end of the week.

So just before I get harangued away from the computer and encouraged to fritter away my quickly-evaporating free time, another enormous thanks to everybody that came down to audition for us, and to Philip and Scott from the Royal Oak for letting us bogart their basement all week. Charmed nervousness regarding the rumours of hauntings in the hollows proved to be unfounded, but then again we haven’t played the audition tapes back yet. Brave.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Gore-ditioning

It turns out that I’m quite a fan of actors.

Day two of what is going to be a full week of casting is now behind us, and these last couple of days have been some of the most fun I’ve had working on the project so far. Sat in the bowels of what claims to be the “oldest pub in Britain” (an accolade that certain pubs in Nottingham and St Albans might well dispute), people we’ve never met before have been arriving, serving us up our written lines on carefully-chosen platters, and putting enormous smiles on our faces.

And what I enjoy most of all is that this is one of the few occasions that we get to chat about the screenplay in the same terms that we did when we originally wrote it.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m very much the reluctant director. The thing that lured me into this whole movie-making game has always been the writing, and I thank whatever God is still talking to us since we started this project that Jake is there to take care of the “look”. Ask me to pick out which prime I’d want for a particular shot, or my preferred colour palette for the mise-en-scene, and you might as well be asking me the name the constellations in the night sky.

But ask about the narrative and I’m back where I belong. The roles that certain characters play in the story, how our protagonist is slammed through his arc by the actions of others, motivations and inferred back-stories… it’s the planning that went into writing the screenplay, and it’s exactly what actors want to talk about.

It’s a welcome reminder that our 87-page swearing marathon is more than a list of locations to dress, or props to find, or SFX gags to cost up.

So, in case any of them have tuned in to read this, a heartfelt thanks for making the trip to our provincial back-water and letting us taste the potential film behind the screenplay. Some great talent has passed through our pub basement, and I look forward to three more days of the same.

That said, being on full-beam from dawn to dusk is draining on the batteries. It’s Director-Andy that’s been auditioning the prospective cast and throwing out the curve-balls, but it’s Producer-Andy that then has to deal with the day’s work that’s waiting for him at 5:00.

But after that’s all done, it’s that bloody Writer-Andy that then insists on me tossing off five hundred words into a blog. Bullied.

Friday, 20 May 2011

All pork and no action

If you listen very carefully, you just might be able to hear the sound of one of those wheels coming off.

The exhaustive winning streak had to end eventually, and today finally brought us one of those production set-backs. This morning our school location fell through.

This had seemed like a done deal, but at the eleventh hour our Location Release contract terms and the length of the shoot were just too much for the school to accept. The contract is based on the standard template from the Guerilla Film-Makers Handbook, and is open to discussion; however there’s not so much we can do about the amount of time it takes to make a movie. And so that was that.

But the weird thing is that the bad news almost came as a relief. Finally we have a definite answer, albeit not the one we were hoping for.

The whole business of film production moves so fast, and the worst thing is the not knowing something. We celebrate the “yeses”, we move on the “nos”, but the “maybes” just stall the process. At that point you are ceding control over the project time-line to someone else, who may not be all about the zombies. On a high-budget movie everybody gets paid, and it’s much more of a business transaction; on a low-budget shoot like ours you rely on love and passion to bring it to the screen.

We adapt and we overcome. And if we’ve learned one thing from Watergate it’s to always have a back-up plan.

When despondency threatens to set in, you need to send in the heavy hitters, and today was ultimately made splendid by the fruits of some of Jake’s earlier tarting. The working week ended with a visit to the constituency surgery of Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne (lib), who clearly has better things to worry about at the moment than chatting to a couple of local film-makers.

And the man was the absolute sweetest of all fellows. I suppose that it’s difficult to convince thousands of people to leave their warm houses and put a cross next to your name if you’re not the personable type, but he gave us one of the most productive twenty minute bursts of chat that we have had since starting the project. Without us even raising the subject he offered to hook us up with a possible financier, and then he gave us the benefit of his intimate knowledge of the local educational establishments.

He is all about one school in particular, which has a long-standing commitment to performing arts. And any email to a head-teacher that starts with an introduction from the local MP is likely to survive longer in the inbox.

The only downside is that he declined our offer to zombie-up and join the horde.

So, all in all, it’s difficult to know how to feel about today. Thankfully we have found articulation in seasoned pork rind. While smashing a post-work Friday pint at the Charmed boozer of choice, an otherwise perfectly satisfactory bag of scratchings spawned this hairy monster at the bottom of the packet. Taste after taste of salty pork goodness, followed by something we simply weren’t prepared to swallow. I think I’ll dispense with the standard sign-off and just let the snacks do the talking.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The easiest route to the C++

As the 12 hour production days become 16 hour zombie marathons, my blogging window starts to suffer.

Yesterday started at the standard 9 am as the freshly-recovered Jake arrived at Charmed Central, and ended at about 1:30 am this morning when we finally got back to Winchester from a trip to that London to hook up with our gore guys. By which time I was beyond even Tweeting.

Not that I’m complaining – yesterday was all about the dismemberment and splatter, and time spent planning that is never dull.

I won’t bore you with the admin nonsense that passed for a day’s work until mid-afternoon. Thankfully Robbie-the-Gore stepped in with an invitation to his workshop in Deptford, and the day positively blossomed from there. A couple of hours later, after a guided tour through zombie heaven and about twenty deconstructed take-downs, and the three of us were in a pub in Waterloo to meet Adam-the-DFX.

Then it all got a bit hazy.

I’ve mentioned before that the horror romantic in me is all about the in-camera splatter. It’s what I fell in love with as I grew up in the 80’s, before computers came along and made everybody’s life safer. But this naïve romantic now has to share a brain with a pragmatic producer, and he can be a real ball-buster when he wants to be.

Why can’t we just fire off a bunch of pangos inside someone else’s school when a zombie gets shot? What’s wrong with filling a room with a shallow pool of blood? Why do we need to worry about hiding a supposedly amputated leg if we can just chop the real one off?

Producer says no. The git.

So Jake and I brought the prosthetics guru and the digital wizard together into one place. And plied them with beer. How can we make the join between their respective disciplines as seamless as possible, to forge the perfect fusion of Latex and software?

At last we got to feel like film-makers again, rather than email shepherds. Although that could have just been a contact-high from all the solvents in Robbie’s workshop. Jake woke up with 101 additional lighting solutions, and this morning the prosthetics order went in. Cash got transferred, and we are officially rolling.

But then, how can you say no to this fellow? Cuddly.


Monday, 16 May 2011

The weakest Link

Today ended with a slightly more manic burst of activity than I was expecting.

It’s been an otherwise slow day in Charmed Central, as the cosmos attempts to re-assert some balance after the extraordinarily productive week last week. Jake rocked up at 9:00 sporting the fruits of a nephew-infected lergy, and by 9:05 it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to get his full attention on the task of bringing the walking dead to the big screen.

We dealt with our immediate missions. And then we sent him home.

Although, now I come to reflect on the day, we did get quite a lot done before the fever finally bubbled over. Crew postings for a sound guy, Production Designer and wardrobe manager went up on Shooting People and Talent Circle, much running around trying to find a place to stay while we’re up in London at Chris Jones’ Guerilla Film Makers’ Masterclass in early June, and at least thirty minutes of solid moaning about the eleventh-hour postponement of our eagerly anticipated trip to the Houses of Parliament.

Damn, did it feel good to be able to have a proper moan again.

So, after a leisurely afternoon keeping on top of my emails (for a change) and bringing all the business paperwork up to date, I was all set to settle down for a relaxing evening.

And then somebody tapped me up on LinkedIn.

I guess everybody is on LinkedIn these days, even though it doesn’t look nearly as fun as Facebook (and I have to ‘fess up to struggling to find much in the way of entertainment there either). When LinkedIn started a few years back, I gave it the absolute minimum amount of effort required to set an account up. And then I completely ignored it. Every so often an automated email arrives from somebody asking me to link up with them. I push the Accept button. Job done.

So it was with the same casual disregard that I clicked the Accept button in an email this evening.

And then it struck me… a professional from within the entertainment industry, with whom I have been trading a few emails recently, can now see my profile. Untended, unloved and unfinished, like my enthusiasm for gardening made digital. Not only that, but according to the limited and poorly-punctuated information available, I’m still designing phones for a living.

Tell me, just how serious is this zombie project, Mr Phelps?

So bang went my chilled Monday night as I mowed and weeded through my personal LinkedIn undergrowth, in good time for tomorrow morning’s inspection. But, I’m pleased to report, that while Andy’s patch isn’t going to win any National Trust prizes, at least it now looks like you could have a barbecue on it without catching something. And can I please leave this laboured gardening metaphor behind now?

That said, one of the benefits of running your own company is you get to award yourself a job title. “Head Honcho” won out narrowly over “Über Daddy” and “Grand Fromage”, although I see my role as encapsulating elements from all three disciplines. Autocratic.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Acting, baby

In-between our recent bursts of under-entertaining winning, this week Jake and I have also been rocking through the casting process in earnest.

From the 170 applicants, we have whittled down the list to the people we want to chat to; we’ve had to leave a whole bunch of talent behind that doesn’t quite match our characters, and it’s been heart-breaking at times. But after five days of filtering on an industrial scale, we’re good for round one. The venue has been procured, the initial invitations have gone out, and the enormous spreadsheet has been carefully tended. In another chickens-home-to-roost moment, we are suffering the organisational overhead for writing a film with an ensemble cast of ten main roles, and we have needed to break the casting into two blocks. Damn - without Excel this whole film-making process would have been doomed from the off.

And taking advantage of the whole everything-falling-into-place thing, we hooked up with a potential Continuity guy and a Gaffer yesterday, and now have two more delightful green boxes on (yet another) spreadsheet. James and Massimo – a big welcome to Charmed Central, gents. Two safe pairs of hands and the kind of entertaining company we’ll be grateful for at 4:30 am as the Red Bull wears off.

And that’s probably me done for today. Jake and I are about to head back to the forest to catch the Evil Dead, playing as part of the Winchester Film Festival, although I am going to make sure Jake sits next to the grumpiest-looking tree. It’s finding someone broadminded enough to take the splinters out that worries me most. Violated.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Falling upwards

As an instinctive curmudgeon, this week has really been trying my patience.

It’s like those Victorian fairground games with the moving layers of precariously balanced coins, just waiting to fall down into an impressive but strangely elusive pay-out. Jake and I have spent the last few weeks feeding the machine; this week gravity is on our side and we’re reaping the rewards.

Over the course of two days we’ve essentially nailed down our two filming locations (and regular readers will appreciate the burden that has now been lifted, from my back especially). On Tuesday we got an OK-in-principle from the head-teacher of our sixth form college and met up with the Estates manager, neither of whom appear to have a problem with us decorating their school with the undead. And then today we fell in love with a forest.

The really appealing thing about the sixth form college is the enthusiasm of the head of media, Rich – a lover of all things cinema and a genuine fan of the genre. Jake and I spend weeks on end willing ourselves back into battle with the enormous production monster, and it is like catching a ray of morning sunshine when you finally meet someone that reflects a bit of that passion back at you. Somebody else gets it. Gold dust.

And then today we met two of the coolest people on planet Earth – Kate and Geoff, owners (and denizens) of a whole bunch of acres of tree just outside Winchester. A forest perfect in every way. A clearing where our intrepid characters set up camp? Got one of those. A field of long grass to conceal a man-trap and a particularly ineffectual zombie? Yours for a bottle of Jack Daniels. A whole bunch of branches to hang corpses from? Goes without saying. If Geoff can master the walk-of-the-dead over the next couple of months, we may even be able to bring you cinema’s first dread-locked zombie; his first bit of homework is to sit through the Evil Dead, which is playing there as part of the Winchester Film Festival this Friday night.

No prizes for guessing what Jake and I have planned for after-school on Friday.

And it goes on. Tomorrow we’re meeting our Continuity guy and a possible Gaffer, next week we’re off to Parliament, and we get to hook up with the effects guys again, blah blah blah.

Yeah. That’s the problem – no one wants to read about how well everything’s going. The essence of drama is rooted in conflict, after all. No doubt something will come along soon to snap the wheels off the Resurrection wagon in a more entertaining way; until then, anybody needing to laugh at misfortune and ineptitude could do a lot worse than digging out last week’s Doctor Who on the BBC iPlayer. Bitchy.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The route of all evil

Now I understand where all the money goes.

There is a myth in low-budget film making that once you’ve got your camera and a place to film in, you’re pretty much good to go. Edit it on your laptop, and there’s no reason why you can’t turn a feature around for the price of a round in the pub at the wrap party.

Damn you, Colin-the-£45-movie. I don’t believe a word of it.

And while Jake and I know a bunch of highly awesome technical people that live in the environs, what we lack are ten talented and enthusiastic actor pals waiting to hand across their August to us. So to redress the balance, today has been a crash course in how to stop hard-fought investor cash making it as far as the big screen.

I fully appreciate that we are asking a truck-load from our actors. Come and be doused in blood and swear in a school for four weeks, and we’ll pay you in May 2012 (o.n.o.) once we’ve sold the movie. Sure, it’s a rare-ish chance to star in a feature film, and it should yield some fabulous footage for a show-reel, but these guys are taking a lot on faith – faith that Jake and I can create something from the bare-bones of the screenplay that they are going to be happy to stand behind. Their names are going on the DVD box, after all.

We need to treat our cast like they were treasured family heirlooms for the duration of the shoot.

So the first step is planning to accommodate them comfortably and feed them properly.

We’ve always had money set aside for this, but now is the moment to turn these estimates into real figures. Today we have both been mostly on the phone and on the internet; any creative output has been swallowed whole by production donkey-work. Again. And bang goes a third of our accrued cash in one sitting.

I guess this is why people need a separate producer, and ideally one with some entrepreneurial flair; that said, every film-maker that we’ve spoken to has ended up doing it all themselves too. Thankfully, the next best thing is a partner in crime – if Jake and I couldn’t double up on the phone calls with caterers and hotels, I’m pretty certain we’d be drowning in admin all the way through to the start of principal photography.

The real challenge is to make sure that when the Director’s hat finally goes on that someone else is dealing with all the production details. We should better describe days like today as an investment against future angst; that elusive “someone else” is welcome to hoover down any praise for his or her careful planning, but I bet you that any boot in need of a testicle to kick will come straight to find us. Throbbing.

Friday, 6 May 2011

De-minstrelisation

And slowly everything slots into place...

This has been a very entertaining week at Charmed Central, with a few more of the harder-to-complete numbers getting filled into the great game of movie Soduku. We are now working to a known budget, which has demanded a considerable amount of Excel magic and re-working. But we're there. Or thereabouts.

One decision that has made itself is our choice of Director of Photography. There was always the option of offering the job up on Talent Circle and Shooting People, and we’ve had a medium-sized bucket of up-front cash set aside. But with the numbers as they stand, a more realistic option has emerged – Jake. The man already knows cameras from their arse to their iris, so what's the point in him telling someone else what to shoot and then just standing around and watching them get on with it? Chalk one up to the pikeys.

In other news, the script re-write from the Chesil read-through is finished, along with a much more manageable series of take-downs. And yes – that now includes the "simple indoor crucifixion". If anything, the tone of the film has got even darker, and has left us with a more thematically-rich denouement. To die for, it would seem.

And just because the casting call is finished doesn't mean that the crazies have been put off. One of our characters is of African descent, and yesterday someone very kindly applied offering to black-up for the part. Don’t get me wrong I'm comfortable that a little bit of notoriety could work in our favour, but I'm not completely sure if we're ready for that just yet. Church-related angst we can deal with; the wrath of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is a different kettle of fish. Multi-cultural.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Dark mater

So, here are the cold statistics.

  • Number of rounds of mailings to potential investors: 6.
  • Number of enigmatic postcards sent out to potential investors: 48.
  • Number of letters mailed out to potential investors: 157.
  • Number of interests generated: 1.
  • Number of investors secured without the surname “Phelps”: 0. 
  • Number of surviving parents: 1. 
  • Number of investors secured with the surname “Phelps”: 1.

Gawd bless my Mum, with her thoroughly welcome cheque-book. No demands to set up an EIS scheme, or lengthy discussions about RoI estimates; she hasn’t even read the investor pack. I can be as nice (or not) as I want about her here, as she’s never read the blog, or even found where to read the blog, and she probably won’t unless I print it out and post it to her. And then find her reading glasses for her too. She’s just doing what Mums do, the little sweetheart.

As for securing cash from the local business community, our extensive efforts and networking managed to raise the princely sum of £0.00. Not quite enough to make a film; actually it’s not quite enough to justify the postage.

Is this a reflection of the fragile state of the UK economy, or a poor marketing message, or are these typical of the kind of returns that you’d expect from a direct marketing campaign? Whatever, it is safe to assume that local business people of Winchester and the surrounding environs aren’t super-mad for the undead.

But we’ve got one investor. This gives us two possible ways forward. And one of them is to get a proper job.

The other, thankfully, does involve making a movie, but it breaks a cardinal sin of low-budget film production: investing in your own movie.

Isn’t this just like those publishing companies that you pay to print your un-publishable writing? Or those people that re-mortgage their houses to finance an unwanted invention when they get no love from the Dragon’s Den? If no one wants to back your movie, is it really only because your masterpiece is being universally misunderstood?

Yeah – thanks for bringing that up, Andy. Our major obstacle is the timing. If we want to shoot in a school, we get just one crack at making this film every year – during the summer holidays. In all the discussions we’ve had with other film-makers, finding even comparatively small amounts of investment money is a consistent ball-ache, and it has taken some of them years to get started. So, we can keep going round and around the funding route, or we can trim the redundancy holiday and do it this summer.

It’s a no-brainer, if you’ll pardon the zombie vernacular. A re-working of the budget, and we’re just about there, at least to get us to the end of principal photography. I only hope my Mum realises just how much bad language she’s conspiring to inflict on the discerning masses.

Not that we going to ‘fess up to this next year in Cannes when people ask about the budget – they’ll get the standard “under a million” response. Mum’s the word, eh? Oedipal.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Smurfland and Gomorrah

Just because all the banks are on holiday doesn’t mean that the Charmed offices aren’t open for business as usual.

I say business as usual, but it has been an unusual couple of weeks. Not only have we been splitting our time between zombie responsibilities and the extra-curricular Bollywood Baraat shoot, but people that we need to speak to have been on holiday or incommunicado. And then, just when it was getting back to normal, my cousin’s extended stag party went and collided face-first into office hours.

But, actually, getting a little distance from the minutiae of the project allows one to reflect in a slightly more philosophical way on the nature of low-budget feature production.

Put into terms simple enough for me to understand, classical project planning strives to break an enormo-endeavour down into individual tasks, and then looks for the dependencies between the blocks of work. Complete tasks A and B, and this will allow you to make a decision C and kick off task D. Chuck all the pieces onto a calendar and an über-logic appears; you can see what your critical path is and when to expect everything.

As far as we can tell up to now, film-making is like that but with all the dependencies taken out. There are a hundred different tasks that need to be done, but you never have enough clarity and certainty at any point to get yourself into a position to make a properly informed decision. It becomes a multi-dimensional plate-spinning exercise, fuelled by optimism and obsession, where you are forced to mentally calculate the compounded risks and probabilities of every choice you make along the way, so that you can chase down potentially unnecessary contingency plans and continually re-tweak each element of the model on the fly. And then you have to make sure everything is in one place to be ready to shoot on a specific day.

It’s basically like cooking a Christmas roast with hundred different constituents, knowing that you have to serve it up exactly two minutes before the Queen’s speech starts.

With thirteen weeks to go before the start of principal photography, Jake and I have to start nailing down some of the larger unknowns. You fill in a couple of numbers on the Soduku grid and the overall solution becomes easier and more manageable. And we need to start by sniping off the largest unknown of all – the budget.

Everything hangs off the budget. Once this is written in stone, a whole load of decisions go and make themselves. So it has been decreed that Friday is our drop-dead day. At close of play we will add up whatever cash we have secured, and we will plan to go and make that film.

Four days to chase down a bunch of open financing leads. Such is the glamorous life of a film-maker.

But enough with the boring film chat – I saw something on my cousin’s pre-wedding jolly to the centre of war-torn Bournemouth that shook whatever faith in human-kind that I still had left. A man had been hand-cuffed to what I’m going to carefully refer to as a Little Person, who was himself painted and dressed as a Smurf. If your Best Man is the type that best expresses his love for you by trying to spoil whatever fun you might have planned, it seems that he now has the option to pay to have you shackled to a Little Person for the weekend. This guy then gets to watch you sleep, drink, shit and vomit on a lap-dancer; by eight pm the Smurf and his wrangler had clearly already fallen out with each other. As a lot of you get set to return to work after the long Easter break, know that someone swapped some serious pride in order to make a living this weekend. Spinning.