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.
“WHY (ON EARTH) MAKE A MICRO-BUDGET MOVIE?”
— YOU MAY WELL ASK!
Everyone who knows anything about producing knows that making a feature film on a tight budget is like a short dash across a high wire, and it’s not as though I’ve not written or worked on a low-budget feature film before. So why did I take on the challenge?
There are four main reasons:
1) As a screenwriter it’s a sad truth that one spends more working on projects that don’t make it to the screen as projects that do. Indeed as I tell my students on the Writers Factory and Strathclyde University Screenwriting evening classes, the relationship between a professional screenwriter and his or her work is like that of an impoverished Victorian parent towards their children – only one in seven make sit to maturity. And that’s if you’re really lucky. So any opportunity to protect one’s babies and take more control of one’s destiny is a very attractive proposition.
2) As a screenwriting tutor one is often asked about possible career routes one might take. A decade ago I’d tell students that they should consider making a few shotgun shorts with their friends as calling cards and to gain a little festival exposure. However, as digital technology has developed, more and more people have been making – and wanting to see longer movies. Just as I made a few shorts a decade ago myself, I increasingly felt that it was incumbent on me to put my money where my mouth was and show that it could be done.
3) I got lucky. A few years ago, the Canadian director Bruce McDonald asked me to take a look at a screenplay he had written with actor Hugh Dillon as the sequel to Hard Core Logo. I sent him some comments and before I could say, “Rock and roll is fat and ugly” Bruce hired me to rewrite it. Then Hugh Dillon landed a role in a major Canadian TV series ‘Flashpoint’ and the sequel was dead. Then in 2009 Bruce told me that he was bringing his intellectual Zombie movie, ‘Pontypool’ (which I also worked on) over to the Edinburgh International Film Festival and wanted to know whether I had any thoughts on how to revive the Hard Core Logo sequel idea without the lead character from the first movie. Without providing any spoilers, my solution was quite tangential and involved making Bruce the star of his own movie (albeit a Bruce McDonald from a parallel reality). Though I liked the idea a lot, I expected that the Canadian financiers would find the sequel too oblique. To my surprise they didn’t and the project sailed through the first finance meetings and I was in funded development. When this happened I told myself that if the film got made (and I got my percentage of the budget on the first day of principal photography) that I would invest the proceeds in a micro-budget feature. I therefore wrote ‘Hard Core Logo II’ and ‘TimeLock’ in tandem between July 2009 and February 2010 when “Hard Core Logo II’ went into production.
4) Though there is a lot to be said about following your dreams of being a writer director, taking control over your own destiny, making films you love and proving a point; however, I also believe that digital filmmaking represents a great opportunity to make interesting and edgy movies that push the boundaries of film language. While I have nothing whatsoever against Hollywood or bigger budget British movies per se, I do think that the good ones are too few and far between. While I can understand that executives in established film industry want to protect their position by producing ever more spectacular movies for 3D and IMax, I also know that there is still a great hunger among audiences for good screen stories that are well executed whatever the budget. In a country like Scotland there is only room and funding under the old film-making paradigm for about six low-budget feature films a year – of which only one or two will gain any significant theatrical distribution. Micro-budget filmmaking and online distribution offers an avenue to greatly increase the film output. The main reason for making the Tartan Noir TimeLock was to see whether it was possible to make a thought provoking feature-film with wide appeal without ripping off the cast and crew. In short my main aim was to make a film that would make its money back so that I can produce my next Tartan Noir feature, ‘Dark Stranger’ on a higher budget.
So that’s why I did it – and why I hope with your support to do it again!
David Griffith, writer and director of TimeLock
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 them by email.
WHAT IS TARTAN NOIR?
Tartan Noir was a term first coined by crime writer James Ellroy describing Ian Rankin as “the king of tartan noir” on a book cover. Though no one seems to be able to remember which book cover it was, the name stuck and has now been used to describe a whole sub-genre of crime fiction particular to Scotland and Scottish writers such as Lin Anderson, Christopher Brookmyre , Alex Gray , Allan Guthrie, Alanna Knight , Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Denise Mina , Ian Rankin and Manda Scott. Most of these writers, however, would argue that Tartan-Noir describes works that draw on the traditions of Scottish literature, particularly two seminal works from the Nineteenth Century: Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from 1886 and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner from 1824.
What most critics describe as being common to works of Tartan Noir is that they deal with the duality of the soul as well as issues of damnation, redemption and salvation. Though well established now as a sub-genre in books and TV adaptations of Inspector Rebus, Tartan Noir is not a term commonly associated with Scottish movies. The one notable exception is Danny Boyle’s ‘Shallow Grave’ from 1994 where three friends discover that their roommate has died leaving a suitcase of money under his bed. Their narcissistic greed then fuels a downward spiral of mutual suspicion and self-destruction. Though the film does not focus explicitly on issues of duality the meltdown of the film’s most interesting character, David played by Christopher Ecclestone certainly manifest elements of self-deception, self-delusion and self-justification that I would argue are central to the Tartan Noir genre.
Though it is true psychological mirror games (along with the more common Freudian secrets) feature strongly in other ‘Noir’ works, they have a particular resonance in Tartan Noir due to the history of sectarian conflict in Scotland and tendency amongst some Presbyterians towards ‘antinomianism’ – the heretical idea that faith alone is sufficient for salvation. This often results in the deeply contrary notion that if you are sufficiently God-fearing then morals do not apply to you in the same way that they do to others less God-fearing or from other faiths. Doubtless this heretical viewpoint was what the writer William S. Burroughs was referring to in his ‘alternative’ ten commandments when he stated, “Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch. His word ain’t worth a shit — not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.” Though faith in God may be on the wane, religious or sectarian association as a badge of position is not and such self-deception, endorsed by this historic misconception of religion, can still be seen in many walks of public life – not least the behaviour of certain bank directors or football club owners in justifying their negligent or immoral acts.
The character of Mark Kerr and Callum Coyne, played by John C Gilmour and Alton Milne in the new feature film ‘TimeLock’ (wri/dir David Griffith) exist very much in this world of self-deception. Though neither sees it in themselves, each man is well-defended within their armoured suits of ‘manner’ and self-justification. It is only through the unexpectedly personal conflict that ensues that they will be forced to face their failings.
‘Timelock’ premieres at the GoNorth Festival in Inverness on June 6th. To attend the screening, please book your place now as a festival delegate.
We are delighted to announce that the Timelock will premiere in Scotland at the GoNorth Festival in Inverness on June 6th
TimeLock film was shot on a micro budget in just 11 days so the cinematography was quite a challenge.
After long discussions with the writer/director, David Griffith we decided to take a bold approach that would give the film a strong cinematic style whilst also allowing us to film in such a short time period. The concept was to limit the point of view shown on screen to only the two principle characters – this helped focus the film on the encounter between the two characters, increasing the tension and claustrophia that builds up as the night progresses. This also limited the amount of coverage required for each scene, which enabled us to work much faster.
As the film progresses I gradually brought the angle of the lights lower and lower creating a more unnatural look. By the end of the film I was going for an all out low-key lighting style from the great days of film noir, albeit in colour.
The film was shot on first generation of video shooting DSLRs. After working with RAW images and negative scans to then work with the very heavily compressed footage from these cameras was a challenge. I did the colour grading myself and surprisingly the heavily compressed footage actually held up quite well.
The film is now being sold around the world and will hopefully be seen in film festivals soon and on DVD.