Small Creatures Flies The Nest

Image

Martin Wallace and Rutger Hauer in Milan. Small Creatures won the 20th Century Fox H.E. Award for Best film at I’ve Seen Films 2012.

When Small Creatures finally infested iTunes earlier this month I breathed a huge sigh of relief; a weight was lifted and I felt like I’d got a bit of my life back. Making a £50k feature, guiding it around international film festivals and picking up a few awards on the way is no mean feat.

There are 131,041 individual frames in Small Creatures and boy don’t I know it. Though I have not spent every one of the 1613 days between April 2009 and September 2013 working on Small Creatures, hardly a day has passed when I didn’t have to do a least one thing for it. In fact, many of those days were 18 hour slogs trying to inch SC to the point where it was as good as it could possibly be. That averages out at just over 81 frames per day, or 3.3seconds.

For me, getting it onto iTunes was (symbolically, at least) the welcome end of a this long and grueling process and the chance to contemplate the Sisyphean task of beginning a new film.

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”

Rutger Hauer as Ray Baty in Blade Runner

Image

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tie My Laces! Wipe My Butt!

Image

The initial entries to this blog have chronicled the birth of Small Creatures back in 2009, but today I’m going to jump right up to date and even look a little bit into the future. Nevertheless, the idea of the film being my cinematic offspring is no less pertinent.

I’ve just come back from LA where Small Creatures was given the Grand Jury Award Honourable Mention. Next, the film is up for the Michael Powell Awards at the Edinburgh International film festival.

All good? Yes, but sadly none of this generates any money. In fact, servicing the film so that it can compete in festivals (posters, couriers, subsistence etc) all costs money; not to mention the time spent researching, applying and liaising with the fests.

So, although I was thrilled to have ‘finished’ Small Creatures in November 2011 (after a two year slog that nearly killed me), it seems there’s an endless list of thankless tasks when it comes to trying to give the film a bit of a platform, a chance to connect with an audience and hopefully – finally – a way to recoup costs. And frankly, at times, with its incessant whining for attention, the film begins to drag you down, until you begin to resent it. It’s like a millstone around your neck; you wonder why you ever bothered.

When recently I reached such a low point (whilst recovering from ankle surgery, struggling around on crutches with blistered palms, sunburnt in a sweltering LA and lodging in the noisy hotel where Janis Joplin topped herself) I was spared from tipping into full meltdown and following in Janis’ espadrilles when I was suddenly reminded of what has now become an almost legendary expression in our house: Tie my laces, wipe my butt!

Although it’s blatantly a daft phrase which has now become a joke at home, I once uttered it in all seriousness as a protest – desperate and close to tears, suicide, murder or both.

I’ve got four kids and when they were small we’d driven to Spain for a six-week camping trip. Inevitably, it’s a pressure cooker: to keep themselves from getting bored, the kids instinctively take it in turns to piss you off, naively unaware of the cumulative effect that’s gnawing away at you, turning you into Jack Torrance from The Shining.

So, on the back of mammoth drives, practical disasters and after being hassled and harried by a long succession of tedious demands from tiny mouths (including requests for the tying of laces and the wiping of butts), I reached rock bottom and yelled the immortal words out loud, a broken man in a static caravan….

It was years before anyone in our house dared to recall that dark moment – let alone test the water by giggling at the absurdity of it all. But now it’s out in the open and rightly deemed to be one (of the many) touchstones of the deep bonds that tie a family together in a way that no amount of democratic agreements ever could.

It was only reflecting on this – the way something traumatic can imperceptibly transmogrify into something humorous – that, in my hour of need in LA, gave me solace and reminded me I needed to take a deep breath and accept there was still a long way to go with Small Creatures; gave me hope that, in the fullness of time, maybe my current despair would yet raise a smile.

Nevertheless, right now, Small Creatures seems to have gone from being my bundle of joy to being something akin to a clingy, unreasonable, whinging, snotty-nosed toddler. I’m sick to death of it; sick to death of tying its laces and wiping its butt. Sick to death of its inanimate dependency. This is not what I thought I was getting into when the film was conceived, back in March 2009; not the vision I had when I made the final lurch to ‘complete’ it in 2011.

So, as the film prepares to take it’s UK premiere in eminently flattering circumstances at Edinburgh, I cling to the perhaps vain hope that one day soon Small Creatures will fly the nest, leave me be and allow me to simply be a proud parent, basking vicariously in its self-perpetuating glory.

Then, maybe, finally, in my old age the film will perhaps become profitable and the proceeds can go towards the costs of caring for my spent body, the tying of my laces and other such personal needs.

How I Gave Birth To Small Creatures Pt#3

Image

It was early July 2009 and despite being tired, I was feeling VERY optimistic about this little £50k film we were making. Ok, the script was a bit ambitious, but it was good and I’d fix a few things as we went along. The young cast were great, the production team well organised and the HODs way more experienced than I’d originally envisaged.

By God, I done it – I’d set-up  a little feature – just like I said I’d do, three months earlier. Boy, was I feeling pleasantly smug. But of course it didn’t last.

Just before we began shooting our co-producer (the only one in the production team to have ever done a feature before) got offered a high paid job and took it.

‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘we’ll cope.’ But, the truth was, we had no choice; our roller-coaster had reached the top of its creaking timber gantry.

In addition to writing an over ambitious script just days before filming, I was determined to a) shoot largely in chronological order to aid the young performers and b) only give the 14 year old actors 30 pages at a time, so as to keep them keen, since they didn’t know the full story.

Even now, I’m convinced these were good ideas, but for a production already bulging at the seams, they would prove to be yet another burden that would almost bring this monstrous creation to its knees.

Week one of shooting began well enough – though from day one I knew we were going too slowly. However, there was something much more significant I was unaware of: a major, pre-existing dispute was rumbling in the camera department between two people who hadn’t been told the other was on the job; nobody knew they were mortal enemies till they began to snarl at each other whilst obliged to work in close quarters. One of them had to go and a costly replacement was shipped in 220miles from London at short notice. And yet more money we could ill-afford began to seep away.

So, things were getting grim but there was still a major kick in the balls I had yet to endure and it was only day#4 of the shoot. A careless crew-member had left their FULL script in the kids’ dressing room, so now my big motivational idea was trashed – the kids knew the whole f***ing story and immediately lost focus. In addition, they were now mini-stars and began competing with each other to flirt with the female crewmembers.

Towards the end of week one we switched to nights (my script had a lot of night…) and things went down hill even more rapidly. The young actors struggled to stay awake, never mind keep focused; we slipped even further behind schedule and I knew some of the stuff we’d shot was lousy.

I pushed as hard as I could to put things right, but nothing made any significant difference. I began to have out of body experiences. I recall vividly (after already going into overtime by a couple of hours) being asked by the 1stAD for my opinion on how to compress everything else we had to shoot that night into some single, magical shot that would allow every bleary –eyed member of cast and crew to go home after a heavy week, with some people still needing to travel hundreds of miles that night for a brief weekend in their own bed.

I paused for a long time before answering; because in my head, I was rehearsing how best to put it (i.e with maximum sarcasm) that such a shot was unnecessary, since we’d be scrapping the whole f***ing film. Mulling those sentiments around my frazzled mind gave me some kind of perverse pleasure – in an instant I could put everyone out of their grumbling discomfort; there was satisfaction to be had in killing this monster that presumed it was going to continue to drag me in deeper.

But another part of me sensed that I was on the verge of making a rash, prima donna type statement, mostly born of frustration and petulance. The whole thing was on a knife-edge. Did I have the balls to pull the plug?

The 4am breeze chilled my burning eyes. I bit my tongue, came up with an half-arsed idea to end the night’s filming and the monster lived.

How I Gave Birth To Small Creatures Pt#2

It was May 2009 and we’d set a date for four weeks shooting in July, when the kids were on vacation. I had some amazing cinematographers and HODs gagging to get involved, truck loads of gear on offer at minimal cost. Casting of the three, 14-year-old leads was uncovering some exciting, unknown talent. I went back to the guys with money and asked for another £25k on the same terms. Of course they gave it to me.

In retrospect I can see the whole endeavour had become my Frankenstein’s monster – a lumbering, dangerous brute of an enterprise with a will of it’s own. I’d conjured something amazing that now had it’s own precarious energy and trajectory. I was sitting astride it like gnat on a velociraptor.

In late June 2009, I was about two weeks from principal photography on my debut feature, which, at that time, was called Nowhere Fast.

Not only was I both producing and directing it, I was also writing it. Or rather, NOT writing it.

I was so busy with the financing, casting, crewing, costume, locations etc that I kept putting off actually writing the script. But I was confident of the story and that was enough, right?

No. But at the time I didn’t realise that; and besides everything else was SO much more demanding and seemingly urgent.

With my days crammed full feeding my Frankenstein’s monster, I took to writing through the night with only my kid’s hamster for company (You’ll notice it also has a role in the film).

Finally, a couple of days before we started shooting, the script was done. Kind of.

It was a decent script but it was way too expansive for the money we had. I tried to comb it through to weed out anything superfluous but some things (eg certain expensive and distant locations) just wouldn’t go away without compromising the whole.

But only a fool would have derailed everything that had already been paid for and committed to. So, wired from sleepless nights and the incessant, abrasive scraping of hamster wheels, I jumped with both feet into a four-week shoot.

How I Gave Birth To Small Creatures Pt#1

In 2009 I was writing several spec features. Suddenly, I stopped. It hit me like an anvil – I was wasting my time. Although my ideas were great and my writing accomplished, I realised that my tastes were very much ‘niche’. Contemporary films that many tastemakers considered great, I often thought tedious, average or worse. I was out of step.

It was March and I decided I wanted to make a microbudget feature in the summer; what was the point of polishing scripts that I thought were strong, only to have them overlooked by some gatekeeper who’s tastes I didn’t share? So began a series of naïve and reckless decisions and actions that resulted in me giving birth to Small Creatures.

A few years before, I’d been gob-smacked by an amazing film called Rosetta by the Dardenne Brothers.  That was the kind of film I wanted to make. My plan was to have the film finished by Spring 2010. It was going to be a spartan production, turned around quickly, with the minimum of fuss. I figured £25k would be enough for a miniscule crew and cast, shooting documentary style.

I made a handwritten note in the front of my preproduction file – Be Bold.

We were in the middle of a global financial crisis and interest rates were rock bottom. I found some wealthy people and promised them a 10% return in three years. Of course, they gave me money, no problemo. So far, so good.

I’m in Liverpool (in the Northwest of England 220 miles from London) and although plenty of films get shot here because it has centuries of great architecture, there’s no filmmaking infrastructure to speak of. I used my documentary and music video pedigree to put a call out and assemble a great team. Looking back, I now realise I didn’t know ANY of them beforehand. This was massive mistake.

I knew from the start that I wanted to pay people rather than go down the deferrals route. I was serious about making a good film and determined to sell it. I didn’t want the hassle of managing the whole deferral thing. As the team grew, so did the technical possibilities and creative ambitions. So the film began to creep imperceptibly from my original, spartan model, into something semi-industrial. I realised £25k wasn’t going to be enough.

But things were going well. I couldn’t stop now…