So what is your involvement with the short films Ribbon, Jasper and Grace?
I wrote, directed, produced and edited all three projects. My background before I started making films was in television, so most TV staff are trained to shoot, edit and manage money. This was a great learning curve for moving into film, and making projects independently. As these film projects were all self-funded, some of the team took on multiple roles too. My cinematographer Steven Heycock is also great at casting, so we collaborate on discovering talent. My co-producer Shereen Billings also has a background in writing scripts, so I always turn to her during the writing process to discuss my ideas, and she often script edits.
Can you tell us how the shorts came about?
I had always wanted to make films, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. In 2010, I was lucky enough to get experience on a 10K funded short film. I wrote a few scripts after that experience, and waited about two years, but couldn’t get a penny of funding to make anything, mainly due to my lack of experience. So in 2012, I invested in a 5D Mark II camera, and started production company Velvet Gold Pictures. The plan was to keep buying film kit, and collaborate with like-minded people with or without equipment that were just eager to make something happen. We have made four short films so far, which have all screened at some great film festivals. When we see our films play alongside a short with a huge budget and shot on fancy expensive cameras, we realise it’s just all about the story, and it really doesn’t matter what format you shoot on.
What’s the general theme and storyline of the films?
My first short film The List was a Comedy. However, I found my feet in writing drama films. The storylines vary. Grace was a coming-of-age film about unrequited love. Jasper was about a father’s failed attempt at reconciling with his daughters. And my recent short film Ribbon was about a mother losing her son to violence. I’m currently in development on a film called Class 15, which is possibly the most personal story I’ve written. Without saying too much about it, the key themes will be about race, the family and dealing with the past.
How long was the writing process for your films?
With writing scripts, I often find a great idea will usually write itself. For this reason, if I start to write an idea and struggle over the details for weeks, I’ll usually abandon it. With a great idea, every detail will usually hit me all at once, and I’ll look forward to sitting down and writing it. The first draft may take a few days, but I only let other people read my scripts once I get on to the third draft. That’s usually when I know I’ll be going ahead with making the film.
Why make shorts rather than a feature?
If I jumped straight into feature films, I know I probably wouldn’t have been ready for what was to come. Short films teach you a lot about the whole process. Through shorts I’ve learned everything from casting, collaboration, problem solving and distribution. For my first feature which I’ve written already, I will use everything I’ve learned on set, and all the great contacts I’ve made over the years to ensure it gets made and seen the way I envisioned it. Everybody should experiment with a few shorts first before the big feature. Just my opinion!
So who was involved on the crew side of things?
I often collaborate with the same team. My cinematographer Steven Heycock has been a good friend for years, and has a strong background in photography and graphic design. All of our film posters, he designed himself. Steve has also collaborated with other talented cinematographers on our shorts, including Sagar Kumar on Ribbon and Farad Painchun on Jasper. My Producer Shereen Billings is always the first person I call once the script is in place. She’s a great collaborator, which is what you need when you’re making projects independently. There are so many others that give up their time to make these projects happen, I’m just very grateful.
And what sort of kit did you use?
The films are usually shot on two 5D Mark II cameras. The lenses I use are Canon 50mm 1.4, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. I’m currently working on a new script, and this will likely be shot on the Arri Alexa camera.
Anything unplanned happen along the way?
Things can go wrong at any stage during the whole process of filmmaking. I’ve scheduled people for auditions, and they didn’t turn up. We have had things go wrong with the camera or sound kit during shooting days. I’ve had hard drives and Mac laptops die during the middle of editing. You really have to have a positive outlook if you’re making films, because things do often go wrong, but you figure out a way to work around it in the end.
You shot on location right? Did that present you with any challenges?
Yes, I have always shot on location. I try to use as many authentic locations as possible within budget. The challenges usually involve sound. We can only control sound as much as possible, but if we turn up to set and they’re drilling down the road, what do we do? We have given money to people to stop their lawn mowing once or twice. Also, if we are in someone’s home or in a shop, we are given a time to shoot, pack up and be out the door, so we must work to their schedule.
Where did you get the interesting cast from?
I usually do open castings and post requirements on my website and twitter, but I’ll also have people in mind from films I’ve seen online or at festivals, and reach out to the actors. I’ll schedule auditions over a weekend and see as many people as possible. My general rule of thumb is if the person is right for the role you just know it. You feel 100%. If you’re just unsure, then you probably need to keep looking.
Did you have much in the way of budget to work with?
All of the projects so far have been self-funded, so I usually won’t have a large budget to put into these projects. I will work with what we have, what we can get realistically, and collaborate with others that want to make something worthwhile. Now that we have built up a strong portfolio, companies are starting to take notice. The next short will hopefully be a funded one!
So where are you with the films right now?
Grace is still doing film festivals and film nights after premiering at the London Short Film Festival last year. Jasper will be screening at the BFM International Film Festival on Saturday 4th July, and then will be off to Africa to screen at Rwanda Film Festival in late July. Ribbon is currently being sent out to film festivals that have world premiere status, so hopefully I’ll have some updates soon with that one.
How do they look at this stage in the game?
The films hold up really well. I didn’t think how well short films could do when they’re shot on small DSLR cameras, but digital filmmaking has really opened my eyes to the possibilities. I was at the Director’s Guild of America pitching my film, and meeting other emerging filmmakers in Los Angeles in February. If I were still waiting on funding to make something, I would still be at square one. You really don’t need a lot of money; just grab a camera and some friends.
Anything you would do differently next time around?
There are one or two shots or certain scenes in the short films that I may have done differently had I had the experience I have now. But it’s best to let it go, and appreciate it for what it is. You just learn from it, and make the better decision next time round. Short films are great for this, as mistakes happen all the time, but you learn from them and nobody loses much.
So what other projects are in the pipeline?
I was selected to be on the B3 Media Talent Lab programme recently, which supports emerging talent. So at the moment I’m doing workshops with experienced filmmakers on a script I wrote called Class 15. I’m hoping to start shooting it this summer. Apart from that, I’m writing a second draft for my first feature film.
And how would you best sum up your latest project Ribbon?
Ribbon is a drama about a mother coming to terms with the death of her son, only to become fixated with a delinquent local boy that looks just like him. It stars two emerging actors, Marian Keogh and Emjay Elitus. I’m looking forward to seeing more from these two.
Digital FilmMaker (UK) Issue. 27, pg. 37-39, by: Rob Clymo, "Feature: The Triple Bill"