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How To Make A Feature Film By Accident


I know what you are thinking. ‘Nice work on the glib, click-bait title. Now what is your article really about?’ And yes, you have a point. Making your debut feature is, of course, a monumental undertaking for any filmmaker and is never something that pops out of thin air, fully formed, as a pleasant surprise. But believe me when I say that for the first two acts of this story, I wasn’t making a feature film at all. I was doing something completely different altogether.

The Promise

I can distinctly remember sitting in my first film class, many moons ago now, and staring at a film poster on the wall opposite me. It was the arresting black and white image of Jack Nance in David Lynch’s directorial film debut, Eraserhead.

All around me other sixteen-year-olds boasted about the kind of filmmakers they would one day become. They fantasized excitedly about their creative vision and the cinematic stories they would, in no doubt, be telling in the not-too-distant future. But as I looked at Jack Nance I was hit by a cold little lightning bolt of awareness: “All these kids are deluded.” I thought to myself, “Filmmaking is hard!”

I was awakened to the harsh reality that most (maybe all) of these kids, so loud with ambition in this class-room, will, one by one, fall away and get ‘proper jobs’ and never make a film in their life. Possibly me included. “Maybe I too am deluded!” I thought to myself.

It was a thought that immediately filled me with a sublime dread.

In that moment I decided to make a promise to myself. Before I die I will make at least one film. It might be extremely low-budget, it may never find much of an audience, it may never make a penny. But the important fact is, that I will have made a film. Just one film if needs be. But I would be a filmmaker.

The Reality

Fast forward twenty or more years and the ‘just one’ film had still not materialised. Not through want of trying, I may add. Many feature scripts had been written and pitched. Some getting developed a little, but so far nothing on screen. Sure, I had written and directed plenty of shorts and even documentaries, I was working in television, but none of this satisfied the promise I made to myself at sixteen.

I did have a script that felt like my best chance yet at a feature film. It felt like ‘the one’. It was called ‘Routine’ and was a dark comedy-drama about a failed stand-up comedian who, one night, takes his entire audience hostage at gunpoint. We got pretty far down the road with screenplay drafts but once we really began to break it down and work out a realistic budget, it became clear that this project was a little beyond my reach. It would require a more substantial budget than I would be able to muster, to truly do the story justice.

Fine. It would get made eventually, just not quite yet.

Maybe I should firstly work on a smaller project. Something more manageable that would still showcase my writing and direction and hopefully work as assurance when setting up ‘Routine’ at a later date. I had been writing an episodic comedy-drama called ‘The Old Man’. It was really coming on nicely. It felt good. It felt funny. Maybe this was a project I could start making right now, shoot in on shoe-string, release it on the internet, get something out there!!

Not Writing A Film

It felt good! I could do this! It was a long-form narrative, something I could really get my teeth into but not as daunting as a feature film. ‘The Old Man’ was about two estranged brothers who have to re-connect and go on a trip to scatter their father’s ashes at the top of a mountain (called The Old Man) in The Lake District in the north of England. It was a very contained, emotional two-hander. It was small. It was doable.

I wrote the series and the story seemed to fall naturally into eight episodes. As I was writing it for web-release, the episodes ended up being anywhere between 8 and 15 minutes long. Also I felt no pressure to conform to feature screenplay conventions. The story rolled out very freely and the characters developed organically. I was having so much fun writing it. I was having so much not writing a feature film!

The plan was we would release the series on the internet for free to maximise our reach. Maybe it would go viral! Maybe it would reach the right people who might like it and ask what else I had! And I had the feature film. I had ‘Routine’!

Not Shooting A Film

I began to cast the series. I began to pull in old friends as crew. I hunted for locations and found an incredible collection of cottages at the foot of The Old Man, the hill the characters of our series had to climb. It would cost me just under £3,000 to have this location for a week. Eye-wateringly expensive to me but it was perfect for the series. The place would dramatically elevate our production value. The location was stunningly beautiful.

I bit the bullet and put down a deposit.

The location was booked about ten months in advance of shooting. ‘Perfect!’, I thought. Plenty of time for pre-production, to cast the series, to raise money. The wheels started rolling. However, as the first block of shooting got closer, the prospect of getting a crew up to the remote location (about 300 miles north of my home in London), and on a very small budget, began to seem rather scary.

Budget Vanishes

We were working to a very small budget as it was. This was, after all, only supposed to be a test piece, a calling card to help grease the wheels when trying to get funding for my ‘Routine’ script. But even with trying to keep costs down we were still looking at between 15 and 20k to shoot for a week in the Lake District. The problem was I only really had about 8k. So corners were cut and all of my ‘Do It Yourself’ Indie Filmmaking strategies were deployed.

Low-budget independent films can be very un-stable ventures. They can often be uncertain foundations on which to build. I learnt this the hard way the morning I found that the 8k of budget I thought I had – fell through. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we had nothing. Nothing but a location, a location that had now been paid in full to the tune of £2,800. I had to tell the cast and crew that the series was no longer happening. We would just have to pick up the project at a later date, when we had the money. The heart breaking aspect of this was that, so close to the shoot, we would lose our location and the money spent on it.

In desperation I even started writing a new script that I could shoot with a friend of mine. Just the two of us, in an ultra low-fi mode. At least then I would have something shot at the location!

Whatever It Takes

It was my Director of Photography, Rami Bartholdy, who talked me down. On a phone call he pleaded for me to do anything, whatever it takes, to get people up to the location for that week and shoot. In his eyes the location was too good to waste. I went back to our cast and crew and proposed that we shoot on deferred payments. I promised to pay for their travel and all their food. They would live for a week in a beautiful location. They would be treated like royalty. Apart for one actor, who left the production, everyone agreed and the shoot was back on. There was just the small matter of re-casting one of the leads a week before shooting.

All this considered, to get everyone up there for a week would still cost £3,000 in addition to the £2,800 already spent on the location. This was still, to me, a painful out-going. I was a father of three, we were a single-income family as my wife was still at home with our two-year-old son. Money was an issue. In fact, this shoot was putting us at rock-bottom. And this was only the first block of shooting. The second block of shooting in London would be more expensive. Suddenly, making a series to be released for free on the internet felt like a crazy target for us to be aiming at.

The Back-End

I was on a call with my producer friend, and off-loading some off my stress about the ‘The Old Man’, when we began to discuss the idea of the project being released as a feature film. If that were to be the case I would at least have an opportunity to make some of our modest budget back through sales or streaming. Making money on the back-end would give me a fighting chance of keeping my chin above water. I took a look at the scripts and read them through sequentially.

Damn it. They worked as a feature. They worked really well.

I had been making my first feature film all along. Without really realising it. By accident.

A swift re-write began and all episodes were combined into one feature script. It was a fairly simple job as all of the episodes fit so well into one another. Like jigsaw pieces of a feature screenplay that was there all along.

Honouring A Promise

So we went to the Lakes and shot our first block. It was a breath-taking location indeed. My new problem, however, was getting our crew to the top of the mountain on which I had set many of our key scenes! It all seemed perfectly fine when I was sitting at my desk, tapping on my computer and eating biscuits. But on the day I arrived at the location, and looked up to see the peak of The Old Man, the reality suddenly hit me. The mountain just seemed so high. It was going to take us two and a half hours to reach the top from our base location. It all had to be done on foot. Our camera and sound equipment all had to be carried by hand.

It was a challenging shoot to say the least, but the feeling of working on my first feature film was intoxicating. The results, through the hard work of our small but dedicated crew, were amazing.

Wisdom Of Youth

You think you know it all when you are sixteen. But there really is something to be said for the wisdom of youth. Maybe, as you get older, you end up losing a lot of instinctive wisdom. You give up on certain ideals, ambitions and boldness and you replace them with responsibilities, perceived ‘realities’ and fear.

The poster that the teenage me was staring at, Eraserhead, represented a director who dedicated his life to his first film. He made it as if it were the last film he may ever make. He rolled film whenever he could scratch the money together. He answered to nobody. It took many, many years to make with no real destination in sight. None, that is, except the completion of the film and the truth of the world he was building. The film was everything.

Even my sixteen-year-old self, with all his lack of experience as a filmmaker, knew that feature films just don’t get made ‘by accident’. And during the early production of ‘The Old Man’ I had that teenage promise in mind much of the time. It doesn’t matter how it’s made. It doesn’t matter if there’s money or not. You just have to start making it. Just make the film. Just one film. Otherwise you will regret it.

Well, we are still trying to raise money for our second block of shooting. If you can spare the time please visit our Kickstarter and maybe even come aboard and join us in bring our low-budget indie feature to the big screen! Please consider becoming a supporter if you can. It would be a pleasure to have you with us.

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Monica has a BA in Journalism and English from the University of Massachusetts and an MS in Journalism and Communications from Quinnipiac University. Monica has worked as a journalist for over 20 years covering all things entertainment. She has covered everything from San Diego Comic-Con, The SAG Awards, Academy Awards, and more. Monica has been published in Variety, Swagger Magazine, Emmy Magazine, CNN, AP, Hidden Remote, and more. For the past 10 years, she has added PR and marketing to her list of talents as the president of Prime Entertainment Publicity, LLC. Monica is ready for anything and is proudly obsessed with pop culture.

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