Posts Tagged ‘Dead Meet’

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2017 Part 1 – “Dead Meet” and Learning from Your Mistakes

December 22, 2017

I kind of feel like a watershed has broken this year. 2017 has been full of more ups and downs than a group of manic depressives at a swingers party and yet I feel like I’m coming out of it in a better place than I went in. In an ideal world, I’d have blogged about this throughout the year, charting the ups and downs as they happened, but since I’m shite at this whole blogging thing, I’ve found myself at the end of the year with 12 months of stuff to cover. So I’m going to do this in parts. You can think of it as the traditional end of year blog post in chunks or me doling out the posts I should’ve made this year, but all at once. Take your pick.

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Let’s start with “Dead Meet.” For those who don’t know, “Dead Meet” was my action-comedy short film calling-card-to-be that I wrote in 2014, shot throughout 2015 and endured an extended and laborious post-production throughout 2016. But this year the flick was finished and I breathed a massive sigh of relief.

In spite of it’s painfully drawn-out post-production (due to multiple pick-ups, VFX issues and a score that took a while to come to fruition), I’m proud of “Dead Meet.” It isn’t perfect and I made a few crucial mistakes as a director (more on that in a minute), but there’s a lot that works that very easily couldn’t have.

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The fight scene in the bathroom is consistently seen as a plus point by audiences. While it’s obviously not on par with some of the best action sequences Hong Kong, Hollywood and elsewhere have to offer, it’s better than many straight-to-video indies and TV series’ efforts and is proof that the approach we used to create it was the right one. And when seasoned stunt professionals like Dean Williams like the way you do things and shoot the action, that’s a great compliment! The fact that Francesca and Dean are both keen to work with me again is also testament to both the approach we used and the results we achieved.

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The gunfight also works well… which is frankly amazing! This was a scene made possible only because it was storyboarded at the eleventh hour when I didn’t get all the action extras I was hoping for in the same place on the same day. The final gunfight was shot a bit here and a bit there over three days and it kinda shows with it’s cutting back and forth edit pattern. But it works, the sense of space is preserved and there’s the same musicality to the gunfight that we strove for in the martial arts sequence.

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The characterisations are frequently complimented and Francesca, particularly, is given a lot of praise for her ability to play a character with layers of performance (actor playing an assassin playing a normal woman on a date).

So all in all, I’m pleased with how the film came out, but it’s protracted production did take its toll. For most of last year and a fair chunk of this, I started to lose motivation and self-belief. With the only project on my slate in post-production hell, I didn’t feel like I could move forward to the next one without the closure a final render and a festival screener would bring. So when the film was released on YouTube back in June, shared over social media and the feedback was coming in, I felt much better about myself as a filmmaker.

But the feedback was mixed.

Amongst all the aforementioned praise for the action, acting and overall quality of the film (like this lovely review), there were a few negative comments. Criticism is hard to accept for any creative, but it’s part of the job. You have to be objective about it, take every comment and try to put it in context. Did they hate the film because of some pre-judgmental belief? Did something in the film rub them up the wrong way? Was it not what they wanted or expected? Was the film mis-represented in its promotional materials? But most of all… was it actually bad? Did I make a bad movie?

Daniel and Dom check playback on the Ronin

It’s always tough to prise the truth from audience feedback, because most audiences are unable to articulate why they didn’t like something. Often, they mistakenly attribute blame to things they understand, rather than the thing that really got to them. For instance, many people criticise the Star Wars prequels and blame Hayden Christensen’s acting for everything, when the reality is that the script was poor and the directorial decisions were ill-conceived- even a very capable actor would’ve delivered a less than great performance under those conditions. Audiences blame the actor because acting is something they understand- the script, the directing, the editing and other aspects of the production are something of a practical mystery to them, so they’re hard for the average Joe to pinpoint as a problem.

But as I said before, I did make some mistakes on this film and it’s quite likely that these mistakes led to the negative feedback. Some are minor things (a few missing shots here and there, some continuity errors, the director’s ipad in the background during the fight scene…) that audiences generally don’t pick up on that only I or other filmmakers are likely to notice, but a few were pretty fundamental affairs that could (and some might say did) derail the film.

The biggest was that I intentionally made a twenty minute feature film.

This could be classed as a mistake or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. I started out thinking it was the latter, I’m now fairly certain it’s the former. As I’ve said before, “Dead Meet” was supposed to be a calling card of sorts and since I wanted to direct long-form fiction, I made the decision to pace the film like a feature film, with a slow-burner intro and a definite build into the action scenes. I hoped this would make the film feel like something bigger and help convince people that I could direct a feature. Since Hollywood hasn’t called me yet, the jury’s still out on whether this is the case, but I do know that “Dead Meet’s” slower, more gradual pace and overall structure has probably hobbled its chances with festivals and streaming audiences alike. Short films need to get to the point quickly and engage their audience straight away- festival programmers are looking for any reason to ditch a film, as are online audiences and a slow start is as good a reason as any. Also, the film’s opening scene would probably have worked better as an action sequence- maybe a foot chase- but I never thought of anything that could be done on our budget at the time. I also rushed the character development in this scene and hit the audience with three minutes of expositional dialogue before the first bullet was fired. Not a great start, if I’m honest…

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Be afraid, critics. Be very afraid…

A similar issue is the film’s length. “Dead Meet’s” story was a bit more complicated than just a set-up for the arse-kicking and as such required a bit of screen time to tell. Someone once told me that a single story arc has a finite length- and that length is twenty minutes of screen time. In feature films or episodic shows, this is fine because half a dozen story strands can be woven together to create a compelling narrative. In a short film, you don’t have the screen time to develop multiple story strands- if your film is under twenty minutes, you don’t really have the time for one! And if your film is twenty minutes long, as “Dead Meet” is, you’re going to struggle with getting people to watch it. Festival programmers generally prefer shorter films (ten minutes or so) because they can then squeeze more into any given hour and thus have more films showing. So if you’re aiming for the festival circuit, you need to get the runtime under fifteen minutes and that means sacrificing some part of that story arc. I wasn’t smart enough to realise this when I wrote it- I just knew it needed to be twenty minutes or less because that was the maximum length for a short film as far as many festivals’ submission guidelines were concerned.

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Me at the Mockingbird Cinema for the Birmingham Film Festival screening

Although the film has had more than a few rejections from festivals, it did get into the Birmingham Film Festival and was screened, along with a bunch of shorts of similar length, in front of a small, but enthusiastic, audience. It was a great experience, seeing a film that I’d designed to feel like a feature film projected on a feature film sized screen with feature film quality audio. There was also an impromptu Q&A about the film and that too was well-received. It made me feel better about the whole project, the film and the journey getting there. And while there are still a few festivals “Dead Meet” has been submitted to and may yet play at, it was nice that the most problematic film I’ve ever made had such a good screening with such an appreciative audience.

I almost feel like I can draw a line under the project now and move on to something new, which is a great way to end 2017. A new year, with new projects and new opportunities…

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The “What’s Been Going On?” Post

April 13, 2016

I haven’t blogged in a while. Nothing new there. But it’s not like nothing new’s been going on in my film career, I just haven’t been writing about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. (It’s not like Spielberg, JJ, Ridley and I met up to talk about how awesome my new film was- JJ cried a little, it was very emotional…). I’ve just been lazy with the blogging and slightly less lazy when it comes to film-type-stuff.

So, what’s been happening since the last time I blogged?

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Most of my directing energy has been thrown into my latest short film Dead Meet. I started making this project about eighteen months ago- which is a fucking long time for a twenty minute short! People have met, fallen in love, had a child and learnt the Peppa Pig theme song in that time. And much of the reason it’s taken so bloody long was a series of problems finding locations.

The first location was stumbled upon when I shot a music video for The Midnight Rambler. I’d been talking to the band about doing a music video for a while and there are dozens of ideas, treatments and half-developed storyboards littering my iPad to testify to that. They were really keen to do something off the wall and cinematic- something I wanted to do as well. Eventually an idea took hold- to have two classical dancers tango while the band play their track Inside Out with a little narrative bookend to tie it all together. We knew a keen and capable tango dancer, Rex, and he asked his teacher, Sarah, to partner him in the video. And the location was one of the village halls Sarah teaches in.

I’m actually really happy with this video. While I didn’t always get the lighting I wanted (because I’m not exactly a great cinematographer and didn’t have the right kit to get the look in camera), I did manage to capture some of the grace and movement of the tango and time it to work with the song. It was only after the band and I watched it that we realised that while it was good, it wasn’t… the band. Somewhere along the line, we’d lost much of the band’s personality and comedic character. The video didn’t reflect the band as they were. So I was reminded of the age-old adage when it comes to music videos- be true to the artist and their music, don’t present them as something they’re not. (Actually, thinking about it, we kind broke that rule with Shokamo’s Bless of an Angel and that worked out great, so maybe the adage is only mostly right!) Plus, the band line-up’s changed and the arrangement of the track has changed, so all in all, this is a video that will probably never see general release. Which is a shame, but it’s what can happen in the ever-changing world of music videos.

On the other hand, sometimes you direct a music video that gets a lot of visibility. Irene Rae‘s See Me For Me was quite a simple shoot over one day in one very photogenic location. It was also a very quick production with virtually no prep and a very “wing it on the day” approach. There was no narrative and the only plan was to shoot a performance section and intercut it with various beauty shots.

What’s nice is that Irene Rae is very marketing-savvy and promoted the hell out of the video, getting it a ton of views on YouTube and good press into the bargain. It’s been a great artist-centric video to have on my reel, with a different style and pace to the other music videos I’ve been involved with. I hope to work with Irene again, maybe on a more cinematic video- which her sound would work really well with.

Sorry, I got sidetracked… Where was I? Oh yeah, the location…

So we were looking for a pub bathroom to film Dead Meet‘s fight scene in and had so far hit a brick wall. We were also looking for a pub- a brick wall of Great and Chinese proportions it seems- but I knew that the pub and the pub bathroom were not necessarily or likely to be in the same place. We needed a bathroom with decent dimensions- partly for the fight choreography we had been developing but also so we could get a camera and sufficient lights in there. So far, no joy- most actual bathrooms were the wrong shape, size or decor or were just downright disgusting.

But the village hall’s bathroom would work. I didn’t fancy having the conversation where I said I just needed to hire the bathroom for a day to film in, so I hired the whole hall. And after months of rehearsal and prep, this was what we shot:

The response to this video has been great. And hats off to Francesca and Dean for their work- we shot Hong Kong style, in sections, where the movements are choreographed with the camera and tailored to edit seamlessly with the shots on either side. This allows for shorter, but more intense takes with more complicated choreography and is quite difficult to do. Dean’s an experienced fight performer and has shot this way before, but this was pretty new for Francesca. She’d shot some action before (and quite a bit since!), but this was something of a baptism of fire. For me too, as it happens. As I’ve said before, I’ve shot quite a bit of action in my time- it was the thing that got me into filmmaking after all!- but not quite with this level of complexity and I quietly felt that this was a test of my skills and my resolve. I needed to prove myself with this fight scene, both to an audience and my own worst critic- me. But the response to the fight, even the rough cut, has been overwhelmingly positive.

With that fight scene in the can, the only thing that remained was to shoot the rest of it. And as I mentioned before, we had more than a few location problems. In fact, we didn’t get to shoot the rest of the film til November.

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I’ll put together a proper Dead Meet post a little later when we’ve shot everything (at time of writing, we have one more scene to shoot next week, then we’re done!), but the short version is that we got most of what we needed, muddled through on the things we didn’t have (enough extras, practical effects, the perfect location etc) and had a pretty good time into the bargain.

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Over this time, I did a few other bits and pieces including multi-camera music shoots for Silver Street Studio’s Aquedukt streaming community. I hadn’t done much in the way of live-mix work before this, although I had done a lot of multi-camera stuff. The general gist is a band come into the studio, we set up multiple cameras (at one point we had five!), all feeding into a software controlled mixer and they play and we stream live over YouTube. It’s been a steep learning curve- for all of us- but the results have been great and should be good long-term work if we can find a strong business plan for it.

I’ve also been busy writing. Two features, two shorts and a web series to be exact. None finished, obviously, this is me we’re talking about after all (“good starter, poor finisher” as some unfortunate and disappointed women might say). And at the moment, I’m trying to work out where to go from here. Will my next big project be a feature or a series? Or another short? I still don’t know and I’ll probably blog about that another time…

Music-related shoots seem to have been the focus this last year and I’d love to keep them a major part of my work. But over the next twelve months, I’d like my focus to be fiction and my directing career. I’ve been slack these last… ooh… eight years or so, and really need to pull my finger out if I’m to get within grasping distance of what I want: the hallowed director’s chair.