THE MAKING OF - THINKING OF NOTHING
After graduating from film school at Bristol University (M.A. Film & TV Production) in 2007, I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to direct one of the final dissertation films on 16mm. The competition to direct was quite fierce at University. My pitch involved the use of locations that transpired to be unavailable during the allocated schedule, so I shelved my script idea and opted to work as the Production Designer for someone else’s film instead.
I very much wanted the chance to realise my potential as a writer/director and I needed a show reel of my own work. So I set myself the task to make a short film in order to test my directorial vision and prove to myself that I could do it. Having lived Bath since 1995 I have many friends, mostly musicians, actors, dancers and artists. I was certain that I could make a short film on a small budget, through borrowing props and negotiating with local business to use their premises as locations in exchange for a credit.
The Duckworths, an unsigned band based in Bath, are a group of young photogenic and talented musicians, writing and performing their own material. The style and composition of the music has been described as ‘weird rock 'n’ roll with elements of doowap, country, jazz, reggae and classical’. I first saw the band playing at an open mic night in Bath and was rather struck by the surreal nature of the lyrics that seemed evocative of colourful mental pictures. The idea to make a narrative style music video appealed greatly because of the apparent freedom from the constraints of capturing sync sound and to have a free reign of visual interpretation of the music. I approached The Duckworths and suggested that I make a DV music video for them to show on Youtube that we could both use to promote our future career interests. Of course they agreed, but I was aware that they might have thought that I didn’t have what it takes or that I wouldn’t see the idea through to completion. I investigated funding opportunities and made an unsuccessful SW Screen funding application. Yet, undeterred I resigned myself to the challenge to beg, borrow or blag the requirements in order to make this film happen. I ended up paying £350 out of my own pocket to fund the design, props, costumes, travel and catering.
I chose “Thinking of Nothing” the first song written by the Duckworth’s together as a band. My initial interpretation of the poetic lyrics and clever phrasing was that the song seemed to describe some kind of whimsical journey. I was rather influenced by Neil Jordan’s film “The Company of Wolves” at the time and I was particularly interested in his ideas about script structures that unfolded stories within stories. I wanted to apply similar ideas to a surreal music video and use narrative to progress the lead character from one story setting to the next. I thought that the idea of making a live action adult version of one of my favorite childhood cartoons would be quite tantalizing. Mr. Benn seemed to be the most appropriate premise, where the band’s front man could embark upon an Alice in Wonderland type of fantasy, involving various costume changes and different scenes revealed through the vehicle of a magic mirror. The use of design to convey the narrative was a major factor; I wanted images to overlap and use back projections in order to create visual effects.
I had a variety of settings in mind. I was regularly employed as a décor artist for theme parties with a local nightclub promoter, so I knew I could borrow a casino set with red velvet drapes for free. Other ideas came from the music itself; the brass sequence evokes an atmosphere of the Wild West and the band had already said that they wanted to appear as cowboys or gunslingers. I devised the treatment and storyboards and made preparations to start production, calling meetings every to discuss ideas and to keep the band inspired.
I had been working with the talented character actor and MC, James McDonnell, on practically every film I had made before I went to film school and as a close friend of The Duckworths he became the obvious choice to play The Shopkeeper in the Mr. Benn story.
The first shoot was in January 2008 in the spacious ‘Love Lounge” at the back of our local pub, The Bell on Walcot Street in Bath. The first day of filming was really a huge test to discover if everyone would get along as a creative group. So as not to put pressure on the situation, I devised the storyboard and shooting plan for just one scene, (the casino) with the aim to produce enough footage for a ‘pilot’ film. If circumstances were to dictate this as our first and last day of filming at least I could deliver a finished product.
The day before shooting I borrowed some lights and a Sony PD150, the set was dressed and several extras had promised to turn up for the next day, everything was in place and ready to go. Suddenly, a spanner hit the works as the leading lady, a burlesque dancer Militsa Stojanovic, phoned me in tears to say that her father had just suffered a stroke and that she would not be able to film with us. This unforeseen catastrophe forced me to consider canceling the shoot. I remember sitting at the bar with my head in my hands when someone suggested that I ask Kara, the pub’s accountant who happens to be fabulous dancer with an identical twin! With renewed hope and inspiration I persuaded Kara to help and subsequently found her to be a very comfortable match opposite Lawrie Duckworth the band’s front man and lead character. The opportunity to introduce an identical twin into the story also made for some fun re-writing!
On this occasion, I had the privilege of filming the actor Toby Longworth, a close friend and admirer of The Duckworths. I had no idea that he was going to come along on the day, so Toby’s appearance within this first mini pilot film was brief. When it came to the final edit however, with six or seven extra scenes added into the story, the casino sequence had to be radically shortened. The progression of the narrative was vital, yet the scene had to remain dramatically functional within a much shorter timeframe, so unfortunately Toby didn’t make it to the final cut. His shots were quite lengthy and engaged, involving action aside from the through line of the narrative. In retrospect I should have placed him closer to the end of the crowd in the tracking shot, so at least a brief momentary appearance would have been possible albeit a frustrating waste of a prominent actor (and potentially overlooked by the audience). So I decided that the best possible course of action was to cut him out completely. I wrestled with this decision at length but I think my reasons were sensible and benefited the film in the long run.
The first day of shooting was a great success in terms of the performances and the collaborative creative process was enjoyable for everyone. Afterwards, I was disappointed to discover that some of the footage was slightly underexposed, so key shots needed grading in editing that added a sepia tone to the scene. When I screened the rough pilot, everyone was genuinely impressed and agreed to commit to five or six more days of filming in order to shoot the full Mr. Benn story.
The most difficult aspect of the production was trying to get everyone together at the same time. I persisted patiently to coordinate everyone involved, we all had work commitments, or someone was going on holiday, getting married or hung over! This meant that the shooting occurred with two or three months in between dates, so there was a real concern for continuity. I found myself rewriting scenes on the spot because someone didn’t show up on the day. I had an intermittent crew with varying levels of commitment to the project. I was often frustrated with myself and overtired as I tried to do too much by myself. I really should have spent more time to find other people looking for crew experience. So, making this video was a baptism of fire where I made a lot of avoidable mistakes. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about dealing with the unexpected and discovered new strengths and weaknesses as a director.
The best day was shooting at Burnham on Sea, Berrow Beaches. This sand-dune beachscape became our Wild West location. I knocked together a crude shack ruin from old pallets and organized a van, a rickshaw for transporting kit on the beach and a picnic with a few bottles of bubbly. The weather forecast was bleak, but the rain didn’t come and the sky was overcast, giving good colour saturation and a consistent light source. We had a really good fun day out and we kept shooting until the tide the came in.
I spent my birthday dressing the set for the fancy dress shop, at The Yellow Shop in Walcot Street. I am very thankful to The Little Theatre Cinema in Bath for allowing us to film their projection room and exterior. I am also very grateful Tom Nesbitt, the designer of the pedal car, for undertaking the much needed restoration especially for it's appearance in the film. The sixth shooting day finally concluded in February 2009. I then had to face the new challenge of learning how to use Final Cut Pro in order to edit the footage.
The finished film premiered at ‘Back to Mine’ nightclub in Bath on May 7th 2009 and the response was utterly electric with overwhelming appreciation and applause. The film was invited for critique at the Branchage Film Surgery in Covent Garden in August 2009 and was received with much acclaim and praise from the panel. The film was praised as impressive for a low budget production with good evidence of planning. The panel also noted a (completely unintentional) Kafkaesque quality about the film with a canny sense of impending anticipation about what will happen next. These comments confirmed to me that I am working along the right lines and have encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a professional director. Since then I have entered the film into several competitions and film festivals. The Falstaff International Film Festival in Stratford upon Avon awarded ‘Thinking of Nothing” Best Music Video in November 2009. More recently Sky 219 is scheduled to broadcast the film on Super Shorts on My Channel to five European countries.
The band was very happy with the results and I was quietly satisfied to have proved my worth to them in some regard and seen the project through to a successful conclusion. Although I made them get up really early in the morning and I had to be firm with them in order to get the job done I think that they really enjoyed the experience and had fun acting.
The film has proved it’s worth as an effective show reel, enabling me to convince a business client to hire me to make a web commercial to demonstrate their product online. I have just completed this first commercial contract and the company is now considering a second commission with me. I have also been working on a new short drama script in collaboration with another writer.