Some Thoughts by a First Time Feature Film Director
Like pretty much all filmmakers, I’ve always wanted to make a feature. Other, shorter, forms of the medium are all well and good, and certainly have their place on the filmic landscape, but features are the epicentre from which they rumble – and therefore the goal of many an aspiring filmmaker. Yet getting to the stage of being ready to make a feature isn’t easy. I’m not sure I even believe that anyone is ever ready. Many directors will tell you that a film is never finished, it’s only abandoned, and I would likewise say that you’re never ready to make a feature: you just jump in.
But let’s face it: it’s always good to learn to swim before you dive in the deep end.
Back in 2005 I came out of University with a BA in filmmaking and a number of student shorts under my belt. My dream, of course, was to make a feature. But I knew I wasn’t ready. Not ‘not ready’ like I was on October 17th 2010, the day before I finally started shooting my debut feature film Life Just Is, but actually, properly, not ready. I needed to develop more as a filmmaker, and as a person. I needed more practice – and a better understanding – of working with cast and crew. And I also needed to experiment more, make more mistakes, and try and find something approaching my own methodology of filmmaking. I never succeeded in the latter, as I quickly realised that each project is different and therefore calls for you to approach it accordingly, but in making those shorts – and in continuing to watch as many films as possible – I did find something approaching an ideology of filmmaking (though one which, I’m sure, will continue to evolve as I develop further as a person and filmmaker).
Once I’d taken the plunge and decided it was finally time to make my first feature, I set about working on the film in much the same way as I would have had it just been another short. My producer, Tom Stuart, is a big believer in script development, so we used the time while we were pulling the funding together to concurrently work further on the screenplay. I’m pleased that Tom pushed me as hard as he did during this time, as the script is certainly better as a result (the ICA Lab that we attended also proved very helpful in moving the script forward). By this time I also had quite a clear style for the film in mind, so I was able to begin communicating this to prospective financiers and collaborators. The style itself had been slowly formulating in my mind for quite some time. As someone who has grown to believe in the necessity of a synthesis of form and content, I had started writing the film without a fixed style in mind, waiting to see first where the script would take me. But as the script developed, my intentions clarified. I’d started working on the film with some very particular aims in mind, and as the project progressed the best way to achieve these aims stylistically became clear, and a definite style was born.
In an attempt to help us secure the funding, we decided to cast the film during this development/fundraising period. With my shorts I had previously done all the casting myself, advertising on sites like Shooting People and Mandy for actors. For Life Just Is, however, I was lucky enough to work with the amazing casting director Jane Frisby. The response to the script from the actors was incredible, and really gave the production team a boost: as well as being the right age for the characters, the actors were also the same age as our target audience, meaning that it was a great way for us to market-test our project. The enthusiasm we received from the actors really helped us through the depressing months of searching for funding. The only downside to casting so early was that other commitments emerged for some of the actors, meaning that our cast line-up had to change. In the long run, though, I believe that these changes worked out for the best, and I couldn’t be happier with our final line-up. In fact, I feel very lucky indeed to have had such great actors to work with.
Once we were green lit and everything had started falling into place, I began to draw storyboard sketches for the entire film. Luckily for me, my crew was able to understand these sketches, despite their poor quality. Using them as a basis for discussion, my cinematographer Yosuke Kato and I visited the locations, and, with his viewfinder as a helping guide, turned them into a more concrete shot list. As part of my director’s prep I also tramlined a script with each shot, so that everyone knew exactly which shots would be covering which parts of the scene. The combination of the shot list and tramlined script meant that my editor, Murat Kebir, had a clear idea of what material he would be getting well in advance, and was therefore able to advise on changes and improvements to my plans.
Of course, photography is only one element of filmmaking, and I likewise went through the script from a sound point of view (writing notes in blue) and performance (writing notes in pencil). There was plenty of other preparation done, both direction and production wise, but to detail all that here would be beyond the scope of this piece. In the month or so running up to the shoot I was pulling 18 hour days, seven days a week, making sure that I was as ready as I could be. But as I said at the beginning, no one is ever really ready to direct their first feature…
The shoot itself was intense. In honesty, we needed more money and more time… but then I think very few filmmakers would say otherwise, regardless of their budget or the length of their shoot. Ultimately, everyone did the best they could, and that’s all one can ask for. The cast and crew were extremely dedicated to the project, and everyone did a fantastic job, working to overcome the limitations and problems that we had.
On a practical level, there was little difference between the shooting of Life Just Is and the shooting of my shorts, but on a conceptual level it required a lot more energy and effort. For instance, making sure there was some emotional consistency to the characters across the entire film took a lot of thought and lot of planning: when you’re shooting one part of a sequence on the first day of the shoot and another part on the last day it’s important to make sure it will flow when it’s all put together. When shooting a short over a couple of days this isn’t so hard, but when you’re filming the scenes several weeks apart, you need to stay on the ball. Only time (and editing) will tell if I got it right!
As I write this piece I am at the end of a week off that I’ve taken to recover from the months of no sleep. Murat, meanwhile, has been organising and transcoding the footage, getting all the files ultra-organised in order to help us in the edit. While on set our DIT, Tom Ruddock, and I filled in logging sheets for him, detailing the file name, slate, take and shot number, and Murat is using these notes to help with his organisation. Tomorrow I will start looking through the rushes, making notes on my thoughts on every take, and from there we will step into the edit. It’s an exciting time, but also a little scary…after all these years I’m only a month or so away from seeing a completed first cut of my debut feature…
I look forward to being able to share the final cut with all of you in due course.