Thursday, 6 January 2011

Filmmaking and Me Part I – The Formative/College Years

Art School/College was a breath of fresh air to me. After the hell that was school, college offered me something I hadn’t had in quite some time, a chance to be myself.

The two years I spent there, was truly one of the best times of my life and aside from one blip – I fell for a girl I couldn’t have (although years later I did have, but then I found I didn’t want) I look back on it with enormous fondness.

I met there a couple of kindred spirits and developed a strong friendship them. One of these people shared my love – actually by now – obsession with movies. His name was Clayton.

It’s true to say we hit it off straight away, as well as our love of films, we shared the same quirky – if a little dark – sense of humour and boy, did we love to laugh.

Clayton and another friend, Neil, started going to an evening class in our second year on video/filmmaking. Both of them had a keen interest in it, but filmmaking still wasn’t on my radar. At this time, I still wanted to be a comic-book artist.

In truth though, I had become frustrated with drawing comic-books and I couldn’t quite figure out why so I continued with my ambition regardless. Then we were told in the early part of 1994 that we would get the opportunity to create our own design brief for our final assessment. Much like I had done a few years earlier at school.

This was it, I thought. This was my opportunity to finally commit the time to making ‘The Stranger’ comic book a reality. For my brief I’d decided I was going to create ‘The Stranger’ Issue #1, although, I still had that nagging frustration in the back of my mind. I’d made the decision, but I couldn’t help feeling it was the wrong one.

I don’t remember exactly how the next bit happened. Neil, Clayton and I had been talking about our proposed projects. I forget what Neil wanted to do, but I remember that Clayton wanted to do a cell animated piece. After much discussion we collectively came up with the idea of doing a joint project; an animated trailer for a movie about……’The Stranger’!

I suddenly got very excited about this. So much so that I immediately dropped the notion of the comic-book, which was actually quite telling. I was going to come up with the script and the character designs. Clayton and I were going to come up with the storyboards and we were all going to draw the animation, with Neil in charge of the colouring if I remember correctly.

We then took the idea to our tutors, who refused point blank to let us do it. Now I was a brash and arrogant little shit back then and stubborn to boot. Actually I probably still am, but I’d like to think I’ve mellowed a bit ;). I would not take no for an answer and after a few weeks we were given the go ahead, I think more to watch us fall on our collective asses than anything.

So it began and spiralled downhill pretty quickly. I storyboarded it and came up with various designs, but we couldn’t make decisions about anything and couldn’t seem to get our act together, except to choose the music we were going to use, which was an Elliott Goldenthal track from Alien3, something that Neil introduced us to, although this would later change to a Brad Fiedel track from Terminator 2.

I think the magnitude then hit us about what we were trying to achieve and in animation given the timescale we had. To produce a two-minute trailer (which was the aim) was impossible.

We had to admit defeat. It was then that I turned to Clayton and said, “You know, we have the script and the storyboards. I know nothing about video, but is there a possibility of doing this live-action.”

Clayton got that devilish glint in his eye, which he had more often than not. “Yes” was his answer. Now I don’t remember exactly why, but it was here that we parted ways with Neil. I think it was a brief falling out, but I don’t remember the circumstances that surrounded it.

Now Clayton and I approached our tutors to explain the situation and our plan. It was met with ridicule and even more opposition, but again I wouldn’t take no for an answer and eventually we got our way. Now we had even more to prove.

At this stage we enlisted the help of another person, Darren. While Clayton and I concentrated on the film, Darren was to come up with posters and cinema standees as his project, based in my initial designs. Essentially we were going to market it as if it were a real film.

Then it really began. We started shooting and after watching back the first few shots that we’d filmed, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised why I had become so frustrated with my comic book drawings. They were static and in my head the images were always in motion.

Now I was really hungry for it. Clayton taught me how to use the camera and we’d just shoot anything that was in keeping with the storyline.

It had been decided that I would play the lead – Nathan – and we enlisted the help of our friends Steve, Fleur, Claire and one of tutors, Pete (who would play the villainous General Bamforth) to represent the other characters.

I’d acted in primary school and was very good at drama throughout my school years. Although my drama teachers had encouraged me to be involved in the school plays, my presence was not welcome there by the other students. Besides that, the thought of being on stage terrified me. In truth I was a closet thespian and suddenly I was given a chance to have a go and boy, did I relish it.

I was suddenly discovering a love of filmmaking, not just reading about it, but actually doing it and not just one role, but multiple disciplines. It was an exciting time and on top of it all, Darren was doing a wonderful job on the posters etc. I had no doubt this was going to be awesome.

In addition to all of this Neil was also doing his own film, a silent black and white movie cut to the song, ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Genesis and he asked me to act in it. I went from no acting experience to two jobs in a short space of each other. I was on fire!!!

How the hell we were allowed to make films on what was actually a graphic design course still baffles me to this day.

The trailer for ‘The Stranger’, was shot, edited and completed in the nick of time and I remember feeling an enormous sense of pride in what we had accomplished, but I think the best was yet to come.

We handed the video tape to our tutors, who with a smirk led Clayton and I to a room to play it. A room filled with about twenty first year graphic design students. I realised at this point that we’d been set up. They didn’t believe in this project in the slightest and were going for maximum humiliation.

So what happened next must have come as much of a surprise to them as it did to me. As the trailer ended there was a pregnant pause which ended with a round of applause.

Whether the students actually loved it or were just being polite, I’ll never know and honestly I don’t care. The feeling that I got was euphoric.

I now knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I left college that summer with a graphic design qualification under my belt and the realisation that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer, or a comic-book artist, but instead a filmmaker. Of course I didn’t have a clue how to go about it.

What I did know how to do was write. So that’s what I did. The very first thing I wrote was a feature length script for ‘The Stranger’. Talk about jumping in the deep end. Surprisingly though, it came naturally. So much so that I followed it up with a feature length script about our time at college, ‘A Movie Lover’s Guide, To Life, Love and Insanity’. The title of which is paid homage to with this blog. My collaboration with Clayton grew. He was very supportive, reading everything I wrote and giving me notes and suggestions that for the most part I fully welcomed. To a lesser extent, Darren was also involved with this process. Darren also had aspirations to write, or so he told me. I never actually saw any evidence of that, despite my encouragement.

I was also reading every book I could get my hands on about filmmaking and writing short films in order to film as ‘practice’. The same frustration that I had about my drawing was creeping back though. The problem was, we were limited by budget. Whatever we shot was on video, with crappy lighting and no production design at all. So, once again the images that I had in my head and describing in my scripts weren’t being realised.

I continued to write regardless.

In 1996 I joined a screenwriter’s workshop run by a local community arts initiative mentored by future ‘Harry Potter’ Director, David Yates. This was a great experience for me as not only was it a very nurturing environment, but David who was a professional Director even then, gave me lots of encouragement and advice, all the while treating me as an equal. We’d often go to the Savoy pub after the session and just talk movies. To do so with anyone was fun, but to do it with a professional Director and a bunch of like minded writers was even better.

I’d confided in David that I wanted to pursue Directing as a career and he openly encouraged me, even watching ‘The Stranger’ at one point, which he said showed a great deal of potential, I’m sure he was just being polite.

With this boost, I decided to go back to college, only this time it would be film school, studying photography, film and television to be exact. It turned out to be a less than fulfilling exercise.

The problem was in the years prior to going to film school I’d taught myself everything they were now teaching me, with a few exceptions of course. The best thing about my experience there was the people I was meeting, most notably my friend Iain.

Iain was actually studying photography there, but I tempted him over to the dark side. He had boundless enthusiasm and although no filmmaking experience, he was keen to learn and eventually would go on to be an award winning Director in hi sown right.

Much like with Clayton, it was a meeting of the minds. It wasn’t long before Iain and another friend Richard were joining Clayton, Darren and I and discussing potential film projects. With the addition of Mark, a childhood friend of Clayton’s, we were establishing quite a group.

The first such project was a film called ‘Hoods’ a.k.a ‘derelict’. We decided to shoot this with no sound on Super8. We had a meeting the week before about what the film would be about and then I was given a week to write it. We were due to shoot on Saturday so I finished the script and printed it out for everyone to read on Friday night.

Because there was no dialogue to learn we went straight into shooting. Doing one or two rehearsals then shooting one shot, before another rehearsal and then the next shot and so on and so forth until the film was finished, basically edited in camera. It was one of the most satisfying filmmaking experiences I ever had, the process was a winner, even if the end result left a lot to be desired.

This was down to the limitations of the camera more than anything. Parts of the Super8 film wasn’t exposed properly which meant part of the storyline ended up being cut because we had no footage and was put together in a different manner when it came time to edit it.

Above all, what was cemented was a very professional, enthusiastic relationship with all involved. In was onwards an upwards for this group and the next challenge was right around the corner, little did any of us know that it would be our undoing.

‘Project Alchemy’ here we come…..

1 comment:

  1. Wow, talk about bringing back the memories! I'd have to say those two years were two of my best as well, even though they also convinced me I didn't really want to be a graphic designer. And now you mention it.. how the fuck did we get away with making films in a graphic design course?! Not a surprise though, we'd spent the previous two years doing project after project our tutors didn't really want us to :)

    I'm not sure exactly how it was I split and did my own film - I think it was probably because I was really up for the animation side of it and there would have been much more of 'me' in it that way. Plus as a film it was always going to be *your* project, so it seemed better for me to find something that would be *mine*. Don't recall falling out about it for long, after all you and Clayton (and not forgetting Steve of course) were all in my little vid. Which is probably in the loft rotting away now, and I couldn't watch if I wanted to as I don't have a VHS player any more!

    You should come round and catch up sometime - I'd love to read "The Movie Lover's Guide" ;)