Hi Film Folk!
Today sees the DVD release of the BAFTA-nominated, black comedy BLACK POND, a film which follows ordinary British family ‘The Thompsons’ after a stranger dies at their dinner table and they are faced with accusations of murder.
You’ve just got back from SXSW 2012, premiering Black Pond for the North American audience. How has your US experience been so far? Have you found new collaborators or investment partners?
America was great. The audiences seemed to like the film. We did wonder whether such a ‘British’ film would translate to a US audience but the things the film talks about are pretty universal, so it didn’t seem like a problem in the end. Our next film is already set up in the UK, so we were mainly talking to studios just to say hello. And then if any ideas come up in the future we know who to go to. It was quite inspiring – the US film industry seems to have a greater sense of excitement and optimism about filmmaking than we’ve found in the UK. But obviously we were meeting people with their inspiring, exciting, optimistic faces on!
How did the idea of Black Pond come about? It started as a short right?
The film is very loosely based on a play we wrote at university with a couple of friends. We started trying to turn that into a film script, but realised that (what with burning castles and helicopters etc) it would be far too complicated and expensive for a first foray into directing a feature. So we decided to take the core characters from the play, strip the whole thing right down and to tell a story that was much simpler and easier to shoot. We also found an an obituary about a man who secretly crept into people’s gardens to mow their lawns or paint their sheds. We found it funny how he was doing nice things but in an incredibly creepy way. So that was a strong influence on the character of Blake, who is the stranger that befriends the Thompson family.
What we ended up with was quite unexpected in a way. But it’s a funny thing because you don’t actually have much control over how a story plays out. You need to have the discipline to throw away the ideas that are bad or unrealistic, but it’s not like you can force yourself to have a good idea. You kind of just have to wait for the ideas to arrive. It’s about getting yourself out the way. It’s a pretty simple plot overall. Something weird happens to a dysfunctional family, courtesy of a sad man.
Back in 2011, what encouraged you to follow through with the development and production of Black Pond?
We shot the film in 2010, and finished editing in February 2011. It began as an experiment to see what would happen when we made a film. We’d made a half hour film called ‘Cockroach’ in Japan in 2009. It was just the two of us, with no crew. And it turned out much better than we thought, so we hoped that approaching a feature film with a similar no-budget philosophy might work out quite well.
The script was written knowing that we wouldn’t have much money to make it. So we confined the story to a couple of houses and some woods – places that are basically free to film in. We had a crew of four, which is unusually small. We used a wheelchair instead of a dolly. We had good prime lenses but no zoom, so we were forced into shooting in a particular way. But restrictions are always helpful.
Apart from the final sound mix, we did all the post ourselves. A lot of the time we had to learn as we did it. Basically we just did most of the jobs ourselves and had a very generous and hard working cast and crew. The film was edited on our laptops, and we’ve been living like students for a couple of years, putting everything we’ve earned from our day jobs into making the film.
It helped that there were two of us to keep each other going. We’ve always found that, once you start something and you’ve put a lot into it, you kind of just find the energy to see it through.
Who were your influences on the story and/or style of filmmaking? Past or present? If any.
Tone-wise, we didn’t set out to make a comedy. We didn’t set out to make a thriller. We didn’t set out to make a dark film. Nor do we think of Black Pond as any of the above. There were some funny lines. Funny situations. Sad lines. Sad situations. We had actors who we knew were sensitive to comedy and had good comic instincts. But some of the scenes play out funnier than we imagined and others ended up being quite unsettling when, at the time of shooting, we thought it was hilarious. It also depends on who’s watching obviously. We didn’t want to make a this-kind-of-film or that-kind-of-film or even a film-in-the-style-of-anything-in-particular. We just wanted to make a good film.
Will, you have worked as an actor. What are your two cents on being involved in all of these processes at once? Did you find it difficult?
I guess it was difficult because we were tired! But I’ve never really seen the various aspects of film making as different disciplines particularly. I didn’t train as an actor. I kind of think of it a bit like when you’re in a band. You write the songs. And then, if there’s an instrument in the song that you can play, you perform it. And if there are other instruments that you can’t play, then you get other people in to perform it with you. Tom and I between us have a wide range of skills and we just try to make the most of them in whatever we do.
There aren’t too many co-directing teams around, what is your collaborative process in pre-prod, prod and editing? Who does what? Is co-directing something you’d like to continue or do you have different ideas of where’d you’d like to take yourselves?
We’ve found it works really well, so we’ll carry on doing it. We’ve been working together for eight years now – we started writing and directing plays and comedy shows together when we met at university. It’s good because it makes us more independent – we can do more stuff by ourselves with a smaller crew – but most of all it means that we both have to like each idea, so the quality control bar is set a bit higher. Having two directors is quite straightforward – the months and months of pre-production and editing are where most of the creative decisions are made. There’s lots of time to discuss every aspect of the film, and so by the time we’re on set, we’re on the same page. The shoot is the shortest stage of the process by far. There’s never enough time, and new problems keep popping up the whole time – so it’s quite handy to have two directors trying to find the simplest solutions to everything.
The most inspiring thing he said was that we weren’t crazy to think we could make a film for the kind of budget and amount of time that we had. His best practical tip was to avoid having costume changes – it makes everything quicker and means you’re less likely to have continuity errors. But in general, there aren’t any great secrets as to how to make a low-budget film. It’s simple stuff like filming quickly (we took three weeks), have a tiny crew (ours was four people – two on camera and two on sound), stick to a couple of locations and do the post production yourself if you can (we did everything apart from the dub).
How did you find your crew? Were they people you worked with or knew before?
Will was acting on TV at the time, and most of the crew were people he’d met on set. Part of the appeal for them was that they could take a step up. For example, our DOP Simon Walton was normally a Focus Puller.
What was your financing process and were there any particular key points that jettisoned cashflow?
Once we’d written the script and cast the film, we made a document that gave information about investing in the film. And we sent that, along with a letter, in the post or via email, to hundreds of people. We got bits from companies. Some bits just from random rich people! We had also been saving up from our day jobs for a year or so, and so we could cover the damage when we went £5000 over our initial £20,000 budget. The casting definitely helped. And the short probably a little too, but to a lesser degree. And check out the EIS Scheme. That was helpful.
How did you go about casting the film?
We generally cast people who we’d worked with before. It was important that we knew they were great actors, and also that they had a healthy attitude to working on a low budget film. For example, Amanda Hadingue, who plays Sophie, was touring alongside Will with the Royal Shakespeare Company – and she’s also set up her own experimental theatre group Stan’s Cafe. We didn’t know Chris Langham before filming, but we’d always thought he would be the best person for the role. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were that he agreed to take part – and it was a huge bonus that he turned out to be extremely generous and supportive on set.
At which stage did the sales agent jump on board?
We didn’t have a sales agent in the UK.
You’ve taken the self-secured theatrical release with the Prince Charles cinema and following independent theaters. Was this always the plan? Wearing the producer’s cap what are your thoughts on alternative distribution/self-distribution models?
It’s hard for anyone to make much money from a small cinema release – but you get much more out of it if you release the film independently. From what other filmmakers told us, and from the contracts we saw, distribution companies have such high overheads that they find it hard to give any money back to low budget filmmakers. So it’s much better to do it yourself – even though it is a huge amount of work. We’ve probably been much more emotionally invested in the project than a company would have been.
What tips/discoveries would you share with any aspiring writer/directors? What advice would you give anybody starting from scratch and looking to make waves?
Go for it. You can only learn how to make a film by making a film. Once you have access to a camera, you don’t need to spend money on anything else. Just keep making stuff. You don’t need permission to make a film, you don’t need to go to film school, and you don’t need to network. If you do good work, people will want to watch it. Don’t be afraid of the fact that you’re going to make lots of mistakes. We made loads of mistakes. But that’s the only way to learn really: to get things wrong and then to do your best to deal with it.
What is next for you?
Our next project is an adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide. It’s an epic adventure comedy about happiness.
BLACK POND is released today (April 16th), at HMV, Fopp, iTunes, Amazon, Lovefilm and all good stores.
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