work in progress…
Wigilia is a film I produced and was also the cinematographer for. It was directed by my friend, the very talented Graham Drysdale.
This post is how we made it, why we made it and how you too can make your own feature film in 5 days -if you want to that is.
It’s a long entry but it’s written so you can dip in and out. Hopefully there’s a lot of information that’s useful if you’re planning to make a film, or at the least some advice not to take.
There’s a little preface by myself and the more useful parts are:
Interview with Director Graham Drysdale
Interview with Producer Steven Moore,
Interview with 1st AD Matt Cooper
Interview with Duglas T Stewart.
At the end there’s a little about the cinematography, post production and how we made it available to the public (including the many distribution struggles).
The Little Preface by Myself:
After making my first feature ‘Sarah’s Room’ I showed it to a colleague – Neil Rolland who became incredibly supportive as he shared many of the ideological ideas behind it’s creation.
Some of these ideas led to us coming up with a modern day twist on Quota Quickies. The intention being to create interesting Scottish Feature films that not only could be created on a micro budget but also have a built in training and scalability factor to help emerging filmmakers move onto larger or industry films. We called this Tartan Features. Neil left shortly after but the idea still remains as ‘Year Zero Filmmaking: Tartan Features and Whaam! Shorts’ with a still revolving cast of contributors.
Back in 2013 we realised Sarah’s Room was not the film which would convince people to rush out and make their own feature film by itself. To show the concept worked we needed more films so we set about finding others. I badgered Neil into directing one himself, I’d make another and we’d find someone else to make a third.
It’s important to stress that these films were not just about churning out zombie or gangster films, they had to be different from what was currently being made in the Scottish independent film community. The first person I thought of for our third film was Graham Drysdale. I’d met Graham when he worked for Pilton Video (now SEE) and remembered he’d made a fantastic short a good ten years earlier.
Lovely, this film was really unique and stood out at a time when Scottish Shorts were at their most prolific – that prolificness which would ironically lead to the stereotyping of miserable people wandering around council estates. Graham’s film however was warm, charming and clearly the work of an individual voice.
Although I’d not seen him for a while I was aware that he’d moved back into education and felt strongly this was the Scottish film community’s loss – although the students would greatly benefit and do. This was another aim in the as then unwritten Tartan Features manifesto – to seek out the voices whom the bigger industry did not seem to take the effort to. So we got in touch with Graham….And the start of Wigilia began.
I had three weeks off during December 2013 and January 2014 so thought it would be a good idea to film all 3 new features back to back, helping produce and being cinematographer on all three. Sometimes what seem to be good ideas are just fitting in what you can in the short time you have to, a small metaphor for all our films.
Neil’s film ‘Take It Back And Start All Over’ was filmed in December. It’s in my opinion a great little film and takes auteur filmmaking to new levels with Neil writing, directing, producing and acting – all in 5 days. None of this was intended though, just the realities due to circumstances – including the lead actor pulling out days before.
We were i credibly lucky to have a fantastic crew on all 3 films. Steven Moore came on board to do the real producing and without him and the rest of the amazing cast and crew we could not have made this film.
I’ll likely repeat and rephrase this many times – because I genuinely believe it – but one of the great advantages of making these types of film is that a level of rawness, mistakes and humanity inevitably fall into them due to the circumstances of their creation. These elements can not be found in films made by committee – which unfortunately is what happens in the vast majority of Scotland’s larger funded films. It’s a shame and another parallel I see in comparing independent music to independent film. Some of the greatest music recorded was not polished but made to the best of their makers ability and that shines through the music.
The main reason why I believe this happens is that we no longer seem to be allowed to make mistakes. This situation of fear of failure is not only held by filmmakers but more troublesomely for those in charge of the pot of gold. Fear of failure results in a lack of risks and that it the antithesis to exciting filmmaking. David Lean and Powell/Pressberger all started in quota quickies – and all made their mistakes there.
Wigilia, however is completely unique. As a non creative producer on it I can be free to be as gushing and complimentary as I like without sounding like I’m from LA while talking about my own film.
Wigilia is a film that will confuse and confound. And that’s great – that’s what the Tartan Features idea was all about, making films the other Scottish Film Industry wouldn’t.
The DIRECTION – Q+A With Graham Drysdale
Tell us a little about your background and how you got into film and TV
GD: I was at ECA in the mid-late 80s. Originally I studied painting but then I saw people wandering around with video cameras and that looked more exciting, so I swapped schools for 3rd & 4th Yr.
There was no real film course then and only 3 students including me, so we just got on and made what we wanted – pop videos, animations, arty shorts. Via the Fuji Film Challenge we were given some 16mm film and told to make a short drama, so we borrowed a noisy old Arri BL from STV and taught ourselves how to use it from books in the library. But we got so carried away by the actual filmmaking process that we sort of forgot to think too closely about what type of film we were making, so it ended up like a short episode of Take The High Road… Great fun though and our trips to the lab and dubbing studios in London were eye opening. We made another 16mm film in 4th Yr which was much better but then that was that… I graduated without much of a clue as to what to do next.
While signing on I volunteered as an arts/video worker in Craigmillar, Edinburgh and through that met a Psychobilly band – Sharlot and the Rogues – who wanted a video made for a BBC competition… which we won. The judge was Lol Crème and when we met him in London at the prizegiving he asked me to send him some stuff but by the time I did he’d moved to LA, so that lead fizzled out.
I then worked with the Grassmarket Project Theatre Company from 1990-92 as a video cameraman/production assistant/actor on 3 Fringe First winning plays – Glad, Bad and Mad – which toured Europe. Jeremy Weller, the director, built up the scripts through improvisations with the real life participants/actors – Glad: homeless people, Bad: young offenders, Mad: mental health patients – I recorded these improvisations and then transcribed them for the next rehearsals. The whole 3 years were a great experience where I learned a lot about life but I realised I wanted to get back into filmmaking.
Lovely is your best known film. What’s the story behind it – background, influences, success, how you feel about it now.
Lovely was made when I was at Napier doing a post grad in the late 90s. All the students had to vote for the 4 films they wanted to be made on the course and Lovely sneaked in at number 4. The script was based on a temp job I’d had at the Western General where I delivered medical results to different depts. of the Hospital. I found myself saying the same things over and over again, “Here are the results for…” and not much else, so I felt a bit invisible. There was also a tea trolley girl going around the wards which I’d see every day and then my brother told me about a tea trolley which went round his corporate office, so the idea kind of grew from there – a film about a tea trolley girls last day at work before she becomes a typist.
Generally, the films I love are not purely realistic, they take you somewhere else – e.g. the films of Powell & Pressburger or Fellini – and that’s what I tried to do with Lovely, to heighten the situation – so the language was sparse, the décor was sparse and beige, the action was repetitive… and there was a dance sequence.
Anita Vettesse made the film. Her face is a picture throughout, you can just tell what she’s thinking. There were a l-o-t of casting sessions and we thought we had someone but the casting director at the Byre theatre said I should contact Anita, so she was the last actor we saw, I think.
Lovely was shot by the late Scott Ward who was brilliant and fastidious. He didn’t say too much but he made me think about every shot choice because I didn’t want him to give me that slightly quizzical look, as if to say “are you sure?…”
We finished the original shoot without shooting the end scene, well, we hadn’t written an end scene. While editing we tried to write an end and shot one which didn’t work… and then reconvened one year later to shoot the last scene. Ends are difficult! But it all worked out.
It was selected for EIFF, then bought by Channel 4/FilmFour. The British Council supported its festival run which enabled me to visit Aspen, Chicago and New York. It sold to the Independent Film Channel in America and to this day I still get emails every few months, “Did you make a film called Lovely…” which I really appreciate. They keep you going in the dark times.
Why such a long break between your films? What have you been doing?
Yes, people would ask me “what have you been doing?” Always a punch to the stomach.
After Lovely I got a script to the last 8 of Channel 4’s Short & Curlies competition but it didn’t make the final 4 and I couldn’t raise the funds from other sources. I then got a job in the production dept. of a Hollywood film shooting in Scotland and I found it the most dispiriting, depressing job… and I don’t know, I just sort of fell out of love with filmmaking for a bit. Looking back maybe I was naïve, expecting too much, expecting people to knock on my door, offering work. It doesn’t happen like that. Well, not until Mr McPhee called.
I worked in a call centre for a couple of years then went back into community arts and worked as the coordinator of Pilton Video’s short filmmaking scheme involving adults from Edinburgh’s urban aid areas. One of the films made on the scheme won the Jim Poole Award for Best Scottish Short and that job led me into teaching at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh where I am today. Through another of Pilton Video’s schemes I made a short Stuck in 2007 which won an award at the Chicago Int. Film Festival.
Wigilia. How did that come about
In February 2013 I met Grant McPhee at Scott Ward’s funeral. I’d met Grant through Pilton Video but he was now busy working in the industry, shooting, making money! buying his own gear, etc.
Sometime later Grant called me up, “Do you want to make a film?” Like a fool I said no, I couldn’t possibly, giving some reasons. But he wouldn’t give up. A few months later he called,
“We’re making a film in January no matter what.”
“I don’t have a script.”
“Doesn’t matter, improvise.”
That was that. I couldn’t get out of it. I was forced to make a film. I’ve subsequently realised, or been told by my better half, that that’s the best, or only, method to get me to do anything. I need a deadline. A scary deadline.
But I have to say, who would call you up and ask you to make a film? And put their own money into it? Not many people. So I’m eternally grateful to Grant for giving me that kick.
Was it exciting to make a film in 5 days?
Was it exciting? It was terrifying. I had the outline of a script which I presented as confidently as I could “this is what will happen but I’d like us to improvise …”
I wasn’t aware it was going to be quite so big – crew-wise – and I suppose in real terms it was a pretty small crew but they all seemed so professional – they were working on films all the time, not me, so I felt I had to up my game. You’ll have to ask them what they thought!
Where did the idea come from?
I knew the film would be shot in January, downtime for the industry. I think Grant suggested shooting in a posh flat. So I asked myself what happens at that time of year – obviously Christmas & New Year. I knew the film had to be shot in one basic location – with no crew moves – and with a limited number of characters. So what can happen in a flat over Christmas? Obviously it must be the classic scenario – Polish Cleaner meets Bad Penny Brother of the flat owner. I was desperately looking around for Christmas/New Year ideas and discovered the Polish Wigilia (vi-ji-lia) Christmas Eve celebration which leaves an empty chair at the table for the Unexpected Pilgrim. That sounded like a drama waiting to happen.
How did you choose the cast?
I approached the Polish Cultural Association in Edinburgh looking for Polish female actors and they gave me the contacts for 2 theatre groups in Glasgow. I then met 2 actors separately in one night and Iwona just stood out. It was a bit like meeting Anita when I was making Lovely, I just knew she’d be right for the part.
Searching for script inspiration for the Bad Penny ‘artist’ character I was looking through Youtube clips of Daniel Johnston and in the ‘up next’ column popped Duglas and the BMX Bandits. I just took a chance and dropped him a line via facebook. He watched Lovely and said yes… which was a relief as we were really up against the clock.
Duglas T Stewart! What on earth made you think he would be the right man?
When I looked at the clips of Duglas on Youtube he seemed like a charmer, a real performer, he acts out the song as he sings it, so I thought he’d be an interesting choice. It was a huge leap in the dark, I’d never met him before I asked him to be in the film but the looming deadline made me just go for it.
Pre – Production
The Script. Please explain the process of how you wrote the film. Did you start of with a solid script, or an idea, or did it evolve?
GD: I had an outline of what would happen and how the characters would meet but there was no dialogue.
How much collaboration did you have with the actors?
The script was developed as a complete collaboration with the actors. They both seemed to enjoy that way of working.
How was that process?
We’d swapped a few emails and then met the day before the shoot on location to talk about the general story. Every morning we’d rehearse the action and then shoot after 4pm.
What other factors did you take into account regarding the script and the constraints around it?
The location itself. Steven, the producer, found the flat, so we used what was there to develop the story – the dining table – the balcony – the kid’s bedroom, etc.
Was it in any way liberating?
It was liberating because we just had to do it. We had to dive in. There was no choice. It had to happen. Everyone was there waiting. We needed to come up with something to film.
What were the plus points working this way?
The actors were always involved, there wasn’t any sitting around waiting, we were always on the move.
What were the downsides?
We weren’t really aware of the length of the film.
What else was required/done in the pre production?
There wasn’t much time for pre-production – some art direction, choosing the actors clothes. Iwona made all of the food used in the film.
How much planning went into the shoot before hand?
We knew we would shoot for 5 days. We knew roughly what we would shoot on those days but there was no schedule.
Did you have a schedule/1st AD?
The AD watched rehearsals and then organised the schedule based on that. I always felt a bit guilty that we didn’t have ‘pages’ to show him, he was always a bit in the dark but he seemed to embrace the process and was a great help.
How much improvising did you have?
The script was totally improvised. The dialogue was never written down, maybe just the odd queue line to start a new section.
What were the thoughts after the first day?
Relief. It wasn’t a disaster. The actors seemed to gel. The crew seemed engaged. The action looked good on the monitor.
Did you watch rushes at night and change plans for the next day?
I can’t remember watching rushes. Footage was being conformed downstairs. We definitely discussed the next day and what was likely to happen.
Did you enjoy the process?
I loved the process. Scary but – it sounds a bit dramatic – it made you feel alive. Being ‘on’, constantly having to make decisions.
Good memories? Bad memories?
Generally good memories. There are always things you think about after the event but that’s all part of the learning process I guess. Bad memories? The last day probably wasn’t as productive as it could have been. We were outside shooting walking & bridge sequences. There was probably too much wandering around.
How did you work with the actors?
I met with them mid-morning to talk and walk through the days shooting. As the film was set at night and the flat we were shooting in had one wall of floor to ceiling windows we couldn’t shoot until it was dark, around 4pm. Then we’d shoot ‘til 10pm.
How did you choose the crew?
Grant & Steven chose the crew. I was worried they’d look at the lack of script and just laugh but no, everyone contributed.
What were the working hours?
For me, morning til night. For the actors 11am – 10pm. For most of the crew slightly less.
How did you motivate the crew/How did you keep yourself going?
I don’t know if I ever felt I needed to motivate the crew. They were all totally engaged. Maybe they were intrigued by the process and not knowing what was going to happen next? We generally ate well and there was always a cast and crew evening meal. Most of us slept at the location – apart from the actors.
What did it feel like when you realised you’d made a feature in under a week?
It felt like an achievement. I remember feeling a bit emotional saying goodbye to the crew after the get-out.
What was the post-production plan?
GD:We had an editor lined up soon after the shoot finished and the plan was just to finish as soon as possible.
Did you need pick-ups?
Yes, we discovered after the first edit that the film was 50ish minutes long – too long for a short, too short for a feature – but it an open ending so there was the possibility to add another episode to complete the story.
Duglas’s appearance had changed over the year so there was no possibility to shoot an immediate continuation of the first Wigilia, it had to be another time. So we shot for another day – 2 sequences – the brothers meeting and then Duglas (Robbie) meeting Iwona (Agata) again.
After editing the pick up scenes we then decided that we needed a short sequence after Robbie falls asleep in Wigilia Pt. 2 to connect to Agata’s entrance, so we shot a dream sequence over an afternoon on Dunbar beach during the summer.
How involved were you with the editor? How much collaborating did you do?
There were 2 editors involved with the rough cut – one cut Wigilia Pt. 1 over a few months. I’d generally have a look once a week and give feedback. The rough cut of Wigilia Pt. 2 was edited over 2 weekends and I was there all the time.
The fine cut was completed by Shaun Glowa over a number of months and I’d pop in regularly to see how it was going and add my tuppence worth.
All the editors were working on their day jobs – editing – so a big part of post-production process on low/no budget films is finding the time when the editors are available.
What advice can you offer for emerging directors, or established directors from your experience?
As the Hibs motto says – Persevere
The joy of low/no budget films is that you don’t have any industry norms to cling to. Everything can be, has to be, re-thought to suit the film you’re making and the resources you have.
Find a supportive filmmaking team who are up for the challenge and aren’t power hungry. I’ve worked on many shorts film shoots over the years that were beautifully organised and produced but the final films weren’t so great. Sometimes the organisation overwhelms the films, the producers forget they’re supposed to be trying to make a film, everything becomes rigid, or priorities are skewed to things which don’t help the film.
Generally every film I’ve made has changed & developed during the shoot and generally these changes have improved the film. I once produced a Tartan Short while working at Pilton Video and the funders came down on us like a ton of bricks when we mentioned a few possible script developments during the shoot. To my mind that’s not a creative way to work. The film should evolve from the script, to the shoot and then the edit. Not everyone thinks this way, maybe for good reason, Films and TV shows need a schedule but I always look, perhaps romantically, at Fellini or directors from the French New Wave who could shoot for a week or two and then abandon their film / plan if it wasn’t working but come up with another plan and shoot that. Maybe that depends on low budgets and creative producers?
Wigilia: Interview with Producer Steven Moore. How To Make a Feature in 5 Days
You’ve worked on a number of micro budget features shot over a short amount of time. This one was different as it had no script to schedule – such an important process of producing a micro budget. How did you deal with that?
SM: This was by far the biggest challenge. Usually for my job everything comes from the script in terms of budgeting and scheduling. Without that you are lost. However we set out with a very clear remit. Keep things small, minimum cast and contain it to one location if you can. Graham had a framework for the film so we knew roughly where he wanted to go with it. We scheduled our days around the key stages in the framework. Such as “Robbies Arrival” / “The Dinner scene” etc. Once we recognised these key points we then allocated time to them.
What were your crewing considerations?
SM: We were very lucky on this film and managed to get a highly skilled crew together. Everyone was taking a step up within their departments. This is usually one of the biggest attractions to a crew member for this type of project. After having many meetings with Graham and Grant I got to know them both very well and from that you can try and figure out who would work well with them. Obviously you want crew that are technically good but for a rather sensitive project like this we had to make sure that the crew we picked would fit within the dynamic and tone of the film.
What did you take to Wigilia from your previous experience that you may not have had if you’d not worked with experienced producers in the past?
I think the key thing was making sure a clear structure was in place and managing personalities. Also managing the directors expectations is a key. Knowing when to intercept and when to sit back and let others give their input.
How did the shoot go? Were there any problems and if so how did you deal with them?
Overall the main shoot went very well. I don’t remember there being any problems with the filming process. However there were issues after filming that we can get into later.
On any size of production there’s always the conflict of the practicalities of a production – i.e. getting the film finished and completed on time and budget versus the artistic integrity of the director/writer. How did you deal with this?
Luckily we had a realistic and practical director on this shoot. As we were self funding this one any compromise we had to make was discussed and resolved amicably. The key skill I think I learned on this production was the need to make sure the little funds we did have went to making a difference to the end product. The cliché of spending money on screen makes sense but sometimes it isn’t that simple. The fairly big proportion of our budget went on crew welfare such as catering. I don’t think it would have been the same production if the crew didn’t feel looked after. Also issuing key documents such as schedules and unit lists make the crew feel they are working on something slightly more polished and not a student film.
What contracts did you have to produce for the film?
The main contracts we issued were for cast and crew. These were very standard generic contracts.
Why do you feel it’s so important to try and stick to tried and tested methods of production, even when working outside of the conventional film industry on independent productions?
I think by sticking to these methods set level of attainment that is recognised by all crew members. People are generally more confident in the production if these methods are used. Providing a structure especially in pre production such as: Recces / Production Meetings / Tone Meetings / Pre Lights not only benefits the smooth running of the shoot but also gives confidence to all crew that we are going through the proper channels.
Why do you feel productions such as this have a place in the film industry?
I feel the way we now consume content make these types of productions even more attractive. I don’t think this type of filmmaking is ever going to sell out cinemas but a voice can now be found by having it available on Amazon and Netflix. It seems budgets for high end TV and film keep getting bigger and in my opinion the market will soon be saturated with these shows. I think there will always be a need for these productions but I think audiences will be much more susceptible to less polished perhaps more authentic films.
What’s the most important aspect of shooting a micro budget feature from a production perspective?
I feel the most important aspect is that although there is little or no money on the production but that it is being ran well and professionally. There is a danger to have a make do type of attitude when making such films but that can sometimes lead to laziness and corners being cut. Such as the health and safety of the crew. If things are well planned and properly thought about rash decisions can usually be avoided.
What advice can you give to emerging producers who are considering making a micro budget feature?
Although this film is perhaps not a good example.. but get the script in shape well ahead of filming. Being involved in the process at a very early stage can manage the expectations of the director. Also try and come up with solutions rather than just say something just can’t be done. Stick to a couple of locations and be as self contained as you can. My biggest advice would be to set a date to deliver the film and stick to it. Make sure enough money is allocated to post production. The main shoot of this film went very smoothly however we made the error of not setting a date for completion. Even if its just as a small gesture try and pay your crew.
Wigilia Co-Star and Pop Star Duglas T Stewart talks about his experiences in acting, working with directors and his thoughts on Independent filmmaking.
How did you get involved with Wigilia? What were your thoughts about appearing in a film?
DTS: I got a message on social media from the director Graham and I don’t get many acting offers and so I was intrigued. When I met graham I instantly liked him. That’s very important for me as a motivation for wanting to do something. Straight away I thought I’d enjoy spending time in Graham’s company and because he seemed like a good person I suspected there would be other good people involved too and I was right. Graham told me that he had thought of me when creating the role so it felt like the Dad’s Army style of casting where I’d be playing almost a heightened version of me or at least someone not that different from me in some ways. Of course that can be tricky in someways too.
Obviously your background is as a performer in a group but did you have any acting experience prior to Graham getting in touch?
I did quite a lot of acting as a teenager and early twenties. I acted in lots of stage productions and some educational films aimed at school audiences. I had done small bits and pieces since then but nothing for years.
You were involved with the scriptwriting. Tell us about how that worked.
Well there was a rough story and the characters but it was just an outline and the script came out of us, Graham, Iwona and me discussing situations but even more so from acting out the situations, improvising and trying to find out where the situations would take our characters. Iwona was so great to work with, she felt so real in everything she did that it was easy for me just to react to what she was doing and saying. My character Robbie is actually quite different from me in some ways but he’s someone who I think is trying his best to be a good person.
How did you prepare for your character?
I tried not to over think it and from Graham creating Robbie with me in mind I sort of knew he was looking for almost a version of me for the role. I didn’t want to impose too much restrictions on Robbie as a character and let him go where the situation seemed to take him. I did think a lot about his story before our characters meet and also about what had been happening to him when the characters are apart.
Tell us about Robbie. Are there aspects of him not shown on the screen that you worked out?
I think he’s someone who has been scared of commitment and put his dream of being a somebody before other aspects of his life. His lack of success has made him a bit world weary and also led to him missing out on some of the best things life has to offer.
What was the process for Graham directing with you? How did that work? How do you deal with aspects of the story or character that deviate from the director or other writers?
Well Graham watches and listens to everything very carefully and was good at telling me “less” if I was being a bit big with stuff. Robbie is an interesting character to play because he is a bit of a performer and so a lot of how he interacts with other people can be a little bit affected by the fact he is performing a bit for them but there are moments where that is stripped away and the tone has to be different and Graham helped me with that.
I didn’t feel there were any points where I felt Robbie should be acting radically different than what Graham felt or from the situations that arose naturally from improvising. There was nothing that came up where I felt I just can’t imagine Robbie doing this.
How do you prepare for each day?
I tried to remove myself as much as I could from the stuff going on in my own life unless there was anything in the background of my own stuff that might be helpful to tap into for some of the emotional stuff.
Is it difficult to switch yourself on, in terms of you being yourself and as soon as the cameras roll you are someone else?
Well going on stage as a performer in BMX Bandits I do that all the time. The Duglas who plays concerts and sings these songs is me but I don’t let any difficult stuff that is going on in my life affect the performance. As I was saying before the only way the stuff I’m carrying around is allowed to affect it is how it can help make the emotional content more real.
Working days are long, with many moments of sitting around while the crew work. How do you deal or prepare for such long hours?
I think I deal fine with that. I don’t really mind periods of just sitting and thinking over stuff. I think that time can be helpful and I like being in the company of the other people being involved. I don’t like being alone. Companionship is important to me.
Do you think it’s important that there are independent films being made in Scotland? If so, Why?
I think a lot of stuff in life feels like it’s becoming less and less individual, more polished but so much that it is over polished and becomes dull. I think independent film or music are places where you can still find original and untamed voices. Sometimes there will be limitations imposed by budget or circumstance. There may be flaws but these days people seems to be frightened of having any flaws and have forgotten that flaws are often the things that make something unique, beautiful and special.
Do you see parallels in your work as an independent musician and working within independent films?
Yes I think there are a lot of similarities particularly in both worlds that’s where you often find the people who are doing it for no other reason than the pure love of the form of creating. Of course you will always get people who have their own agenda trying to use it as a pathway to their own glorification but I’ve been lucky in my experiences of both worlds and met lots of truly wonderful people.
There is often a long delay between finishing filming and the film being released. It’s frustrating for many actors (and crew). How do you deal with this?
It can be a bit frustrating waiting to see the final thing but I’m used to dealing with that as it’s similar to making records.
What advice can you offer for emerging actors?
Carry on dreaming your magnificent dreams and don’t let other people squash them.
Anything else to add that may help would be filmmakers and actors?
Try to always be generous and kind and encouraging to others. You’ll benefit from being that way and so will everybody else.
Interview with 1st AD Matt Cooper
What were the main challenges you saw when presented with the Wigilia concept?
MC: Wilgilia was a unique challenge from an assistant directing and production perspective as, although there was a general story concept, there was no script or story outline when we began shooting. This can be terrifying for a 1st AD as your job is primarily to come up with a clear plan of what you’ll shoot each day (the shooting schedule) and keep the director and shooting crew focused on the task in hand. The idea of the production losing its way or running out of material to shoot is enough to give any AD a sleepless night.
Anyone who has worked on a micro budget production will tell you there are a number of standard problems that come up every time. You only have certain resources to pull from and there are areas that are bound to suffer. While camera, lighting and sound inevitably require proper crewing and equipment (you can’t shoot much without them), my initial reaction was that this production would be a challenge from an art direction and props prospective. I’m also always keen to push for costume and make-up crew, even on the smallest productions.
You’ve worked on a number of micro budget features shot over a short amount of time. This one was different as it had no script to schedule – such an important process in the filmmaking process on any film, far less a micro budget one. How did you deal with this?
All filmmaking is a collaborative process, and in micro budget filmmaking it is essential that your key players are on the same page and working together to achieve the best film possible. Honest communication from the very start will make the biggest difference and establishes a good creative environment as you move forward through the shooting process. We were very lucky to have a director, producer and DOP that believed in the project and trusted one another to see it through.
In absence of a clear shooting schedule, we talked each morning about the ideas Graham had for the characters and their interactions. The first part of shooting any scene is to get the director and cast together to start running the dialogue and block out the action. I then like to invite the DOP to watch the scene, get his input and discuss the general coverage. In this respect we were no different from a fully scripted shoot. The only main difference was in the time needed to develop the action and the organic nature in which the story developed. As someone who has worked exclusively in scripted drama production, I actually found this process to be incredibly liberating and collaborative (there’s that word again). We all found that the more we let go of our usually strict shooting mentality, the more we got out of the scenes we were working on.
My job was to keep everyone focused and pushing forward in the same direction. As a 1st AD you are really serving two masters, the director and the producer. The director is there to be creative, get the most out of the cast and deliver the best film possible. The producer want to complete the production on time and on budget, while delivering the best film possible. My job is to make sure both director and producer are happy with how the shoot is progressing. Give the director all the time and resources to be as creative as they can, but also keep the floor running and moving in the right direction. This was achieved by constant communication with Graham and our DOP Grant McPhee. I tried at all times to take their ideas and put structure on our day as we went along, applying logistical thinking to their creativity.
What were the main challenges presented to you on a day to day basis?
As I’ve said above, we needed to stay focused and pushing forward. There were times where we hit a wall and it felt like we were losing our way a little. It’s vitally important to prioritise your director in these situations as technical crew will often think the solution is to just keep shooting something… anything! This will only exasipate the problem as confusion quickly sets in as to what we’re doing and why. The best idea in these situation is to stop, step everyone down, and regroup with a plan as to what to do next. It also became clear that we all had an idea of what the story was, however we were all struggling to see how it would conclude. We resolved this by stopping and openly asking everyone involved what they thought and where they’d like it to go.
We also faced problems with under crewed departments and, as I suspected, art department and props. The story revolves around a dinner table covered in traditional Polish food and it became a constant process of resetting the table and keeping the food as fresh as possible over a number of days. It really makes clear the need to properly crew each department as best you can. When this is not possible, everyone has to pitch in and help each other out. This is the nature of micro budget shooting and it helps when everyone approaches things in this way.
Did you feel you were able to take anything away from this experience that would be useful when going back to working as a 3rd AD?
I’ve always used micro budget and short film productions as a means to learn new skills with the view to stepping up. Undoubtedly this production taught me to be more flexible in my working practices and view the whole process in a different way. As Yoda said, “you must unlearn what you have learned”. That was certainly the case here. I had to schedule as we shot and constantly try to plan ahead to achieve everything we wanted to do. Every shoot is about dealing with what’s thrown at you and coming up with the best solution and this job helped me further develop those skills.
Any assistant director will tell you that a 3rd AD needs to be able to step up and run the floor at any time should the 1st need to step off. This could be for 5 minutes, a whole scene, a whole day, or the rest of the production. Working as a 1st on productions of this nature is an amazing way to develop the skills needed on a full production and certainly made me a better 3rd. This year I’ve stepped up and worked as a 1st assistant director on a block of Call The Midwife (Neal Street Productions) and Against the Law (BBC). I am in no doubt that the work I’ve done on productions like Wigilia has helped progress my career and prepared me to work at this level.