Or: Do I need a name actor for my micro-budget movie?
There is a simple answer to this. If you can, and it’s not a complete deception, then it’s probably the right thing to do. But if you can’t don’t worry about it; micro budget filmmaking is not just about lowering the barriers to entry for emergent filmmakers; it’s also about trying to rewrite the rules and develop a new business model as we discussed in a previous article (Why make a micro-budget movie?).
Since the advent of the 8 reel feature film, the movie business has always been about big budgets, big risk and potentially big rewards. As a result the accepted business model has been that with few exceptions movies are financed on the name recognition of the stars (and to a lesser extent on the track record of the director or the scale of the CGI as in ‘Jurassic Park’). That’s because brand recognition helps consolidate the marketing strategy and mitigates financial risk. Because the stars appear on screen, they are clearly the most recognisable element of brand and their names become as important as, if not more important than, their acting abilities.
If you are an aspiring filmmaker it is clearly an attractive idea to think that you might secure the services of a well-known actor at a knock-me-down price to play a cameo role and them sell your film off their name through traditional distribution channels – and get discovered. It’s clearly been done before and will be done again.
If you can persuade a name actor to help you out without breaking the bank and ripping off everyone else in the cast and crew to pay for them, all well and good. However for most emergent filmmakers the chance of persuading one of Scotland’s A-list actors to participate in your film is a hard ask. If you succeed it may boost the commercial appeal of the film to distributors, but it may cause disappointment later when the audience realises that the star only makes a small cameo appearance in the film in which they are billed as a star. Unless of course it’s a really great cameo, like Billl Murray in ‘Zombieland’ this can backfire.
When it came to producing ‘Timelock’, we decided that rather than setting out to write a cameo to attract a name actor that might unbalance the narrative, we’d instead take the alternative strategy of hiring the stars of the tomorrow. Our reasoning went like this. If you are serious about making micro budget or very low budget films as a business proposition – as opposed to buying in to the pipe-dream of making a one-off hit that will lead to a big Hollywood deal – then you need to think more about creating a house style, building a business and making your money back over a number of years rather than trying to sell the rights to your film at the earliest opportunity at a knock-down price in order to recoup whatever you can. Taking a long-term approach to potential recoupment means that you concentrating on writing a solid screenplay for a screenstory that can be shot on a minimal budget with a highly dedicated cast and crew who are signed up to making a film with integrity that will help develop their talents or screen personae.
In our case the writer/director David Griffith had worked before with Alton Milne on a highly inventive short-film ‘Head on Backwards’. This three-minute short-film has built up a cult following over several years and David was therefore keen to work with Alton again. Indeed he often talks about ‘Timelock’ as a 93 minute sequel to ‘Head on Backwards’. Though still relatively unknown to Scottish audiences, Alton has trained with two of the most prestigious acting studios in the world. Alton first went to New York to study at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York, which numbers among its alumni such giants of cinema as Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brandon, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro and Sally field, and more recently has studied with Ivana Chubbock. As a result Alton has developed great method and application to add to his native talent and work ethic.
Having written the part of Callum Coyne with Alton specifically in mind, David Griffith asked his lead to suggest an actor of a similar calibre to play the other lead character, Mark Kerr. Alton immediately suggested John C Gilmour, one of Glasgow’s most respected stage actors, who also tutors at Strathclyde University’s theatre studio where David teaches screenwriting. David, Alton and John immediately hit it off. The producers recognised that the clear chemistry between the two main actors was more important than name recognition and that was the way we preceded with the rest of the casting. Since our aim was to make a film that would provide a ‘leg-up’ for everyone involved, we looked for up and coming actors rather than established players.
But nothing ever works out exactly as one expects , and in spite of our efforts to be star free, we unexpectedly ended up casting a former ‘Dr Who’ star in a minor part. Line Producer Ryan Hendrick had previously worked with the actor Hamish Wilson, who played Jamie opposite Patrick Troughton’s Doctor back in 1968, and suggested he would be perfect as Donald, the night porter. And indeed he was, turning in a wonderful Kubrickesque cameo which greatly assists the tone and flow of the tense and claustrophobic narrative. If his Illustrious past helps bring in the Dr Who fan base, we will all be delighted.
David Griffith will be writing more about the process of making ‘TimeLock’ and the opportunities and challenges of micro-budget filmmaking on an industrial and cultural level in forthcoming blogs. Sign up to the RSS feed in the top right hand corner of the page to receive our blogs via email.