An interrogation amongst three low level criminals turns into a fierce nationalist debate in Sam McMullen’s hilarious black comedy The Cocaine Famine. Derived from Brian Martin’s play of the same name, The Cocaine Famine is driven by three terrific performances and packed with plenty of visual humour. McMullen cuts with pinpoint decision throughout his short, evoking the wonderfully absurd visual style of the Coen Brothers. Directors Notes spoke with McMullen who breaks down how he took Martin’s text from script to screen stylistically through the use of distinct lighting and single shots, and financially through a serendipitous crowdfunding campaign.
I read that The Cocaine Famine was inspired by a play, how so?
The Cocaine Famine began as a short play written by my good friend Brian Martin – who is also the star and my co-producer on the film. A parable about colonialism dressed up as a black comedy crime caper, the play was commissioned by Theatre 503 as a response to another play about British imperialism. It landed well with the audience, making them laugh and think in equal measure. As a single scene in real time and in one location, Brian was encouraged to explore the idea of turning it into a short film. This is where I come in.
How did Brian feel about you adapting it? Did you pitch him a take?
Brian and I had been friends at Trinity College Dublin, and I had also produced one of his plays. Brian’s work was always filled with a lot of emotion, existentialism, and very dark humour while dealing with heavy topics in an unexpected way. I had just graduated from the directing fiction course at the NFTS and was looking for a solid short to make while I developed my first feature. The Cocaine Famine was perfect. Already a brilliant script, the minimal work needed to adapt it for the screen would allow me to focus on the visual adaptation from stage to screen, and on the performances of the three central characters.
It’s a short driven by a group of hilarious comedic performances, how did you get all three actors on board?
Performance-wise, I was blessed to already have Brian – a graduate of LAMDA and as brilliant an actor as he is a writer and producing partner – for the role of Jacko. For Niallser, we recruited one of our best pals from Dublin, and my flatmate at university, Manus Halligan. Manus is a rare talent of an actor, equally capable of making you laugh and cry. The final piece of the puzzle was Glenn Speers, a Northern Irish actor who was amazingly believable as a cockney hard nut. Glenn was just finishing up in The Ferryman play, and agreed to jump on the project.
Given that you were adapting a play what key visual decision did you make in translating it to a piece of short cinema?
I started with three key visual concepts to make sure that this never felt like a play on camera: Firstly, very few wide shots. Wide shots are great for setting the scene, but in a single-location set like this, it’s unavoidable that they end up looking like a stage. We use wide shots very sparingly, and mostly to reintroduce the space once a lighting change has happened. The real masters of the three-handed, dialogue-heavy scenes, are the Coen Brothers. I watched a few of their films again but especially Fargo, and listened to Roger Deakins speak about his strong preference to stay inside the eye-line triangle and shoot the characters in strong single shots instead of over-the-shoulder two shots. So, I set this as a rule for us to follow.
Wide shots are great for setting the scene, but in a single-location set like this, it’s unavoidable that they end up looking like a stage.
Secondly, continuously transforming the space with lighting. Even though the film is a pretty pace at thirteen minutes long, I thought that we needed to find a way to continuously transform the space so it didn’t get boring. Since the film is in real time, the only way to achieve this was to build lighting changes into the script. In the play, the whole scene had happened in the warm glow of a single lightbulb hanging over Andy (the Englishman). My first change was to find a way to smash that lightbulb as soon as possible. This turned into the most slapstick gag in the whole film and guaranteed the biggest laugh at every screening we’ve ever had.
This meant I could change the temperature of the whole scene by forcing the characters to find another light source, the strip lights. This cools the whole scene down, makes the situation feel more threatening, and we add to this when Jacko opens the freezer, bathing the scene in blue light for the final act. The idea being that the colder the light gets, the closer we get to the deadly finale. The other little lighting change was a last minute addition, Manus owned a ludicrous party bulb that we used to put in our bathroom for parties. I wanted to add in another silly joke straight after the lightbulb smash, and we decided that the party bulb could be just that.
The lightbulb smash is such a great moment. How did you tackle the other visually comedic cues?
I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright’s films Shaun Of The Dead, Scott Pilgrim, and especially Hot Fuzz. Real masterpieces of visual comedy that don’t simply rely on the actors or the script to provide the laughs. In theatre you can’t control where the audience is looking, but here we have total control to use the edit as a comedic tool. There is an excellent video on the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting that describes his visual comedy much better than I could here. The lightbulb smash is a perfect example of this in the film.
You raised your money via a crowdfunding campaign, how was that process for you and your crew?
We raised the money entirely from an Indiegogo campaign. About £2500 production budget (with nothing left for post or festivals). Brian is brilliant at rallying people to get involved in a collective project, so while he took charge of raising the money, I went about spending it on everything in front of and behind the camera. Once the film was complete, we held two screenings in London and Dublin, to try to raise the money to pay for our post-production (which had been done on an IOU basis) and to pay for a serious festival run. By this point, we knew the film was pretty funny, and people were enjoying it, but without the clout of any public funding body behind us, we needed to do everything to find an audience for the film. We managed to raise a further £3500 to settle our debts with our collaborators (everyone got paid on this film) and to send the films to festivals.
We knew the film was pretty funny, and people were enjoying it, but without the clout of any public funding body behind us, we needed to do everything to find an audience for the film.
We were very lucky that Brian had been working with people like Aidan Turner, Michael Grandage, and Jonathan Pryce around the time of developing the film. They each contributed very generously to the project, and are credited as exec producers. Aidan especially has a very loyal following online, and it would be remiss of me not to thank his fans who spread the word about our fundraiser online. #aidancrew really worked hard for us, and we’re very grateful.
How did you source your crew? Did you work with a lot of familiar people?
The creative team was mostly filled with friends I had made short films with before. The DoP Hamish Anderson had shot two of my films at NFTS, while the Production Designer Lili Lea Abraham had designed my very first short film. The entire post team were friends and collaborators from NFTS. We didn’t have a lot of money to pay everyone healthy rates, so I was very lucky to be able to call on this deeply talented and generous crew.
The only glaring omission was a producer, or even production manager, to help run everything that wasn’t on set. It was a quick shoot anyway, but having to produce and direct at the same time was something I’m keen never to repeat.
Where did you shoot and why did you choose that particular garage?
The film was shot in my girlfriend’s parents’ shed at their home in East Sussex. The play had been set in a run-down garage in a city, but this shed was so perfect I managed to convince Brian to alter the setting in the script. This unlocked some moments for us, as we began to adapt moments in the script to match the location. The freezer being the most significant narrative addition, but also the wall of tools. The whole crew of 17 people stayed at the house, my amazing girlfriend (and now baby mama) preparing food for everyone and making sure everyone was settled to be able to do their best work in such a short space of time. We shot everything in two very knackering days.
As you mentioned earlier so much of the comedy comes from the performance locking in with the edit, how did you tackle post-production?
I am a serious planner when it comes to film. I edit a lot for my day job at BBC Creative, so when I put together a plan for the film I do so with the edit firmly in mind. This plan is never immovable, as better ideas often come up on set where everyone is at their most creative and focused, but I always refer back to my plan to make sure that I’ve got what I need for the edit. This meant that the edit was a pretty smooth process. Everything fell quite neatly into place, and thankfully I had the brilliant Joseph Comar (a pal and collaborator from NFTS) to elevate it further and give the film its pace and sharpness. My most frequent collaborator is my sound designer Tom Jenkins – along with the composer Tim Morrish. Tom and I had an excellent time seeing where we could add more sound gags in. There are a good number of gags that were added this way, meaning you’re never more than a minute away from another attempt to make you laugh.
A quick word on the music because it brought me in contact with one of my idols, and thankfully was one of those situations where meeting an idol (on the phone) was a glorious experience. The film ends with a track by Christie Moore, an Irish folk legend. We didn’t have the money to license any music, and the record label had quoted us a price that meant this was only meant to be temp music. But I met someone at our Dublin screening who happened to know his brother. I wrote Christy a letter that went from person to person until it reached him. One day I got an email from Christy saying he really enjoyed the film and maybe we should speak on the phone so he could see what he could do for us. After a hilarious 20 mins chat on the phone, Christy said that he wanted his music to be a part of new stories being told, and no record label could keep it prisoner. He immediately emailed his label, and cc’d me in, making clear that he was going to let us use the track for free, and nothing could be done to stop him. I couldn’t be more grateful to Christy for gifting us his music. A great man.
Lastly, how have you found The Cocaine Famine’s reception?
The film has now screened at over 45 festivals and won a number of awards of Best Short Film, and Best Comedy. Our festival agency Aug&Ohr who signed the film up after its premiere at Cork Film Festival, definitely helped us reach a much wider audience than we thought possible. After two years on the circuit, and with a few offers from sales companies to take the film on, Brian and I decided that we’d rather the film be available online for free for all to see and share. Which brings us to Directors Notes, it’s rare that the story of a short film gets to see the light of day, so we’re very grateful for the opportunity to showcase it here, and hopefully grow the audience some more. I hope everyone enjoys it!
The Cocaine Famine is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.