How Not to Make a Feature Film
Back in 2005 I was one hell of an ambitious filmmaker. I had made a few short films at that point, and I even had my first feature film (The Boy with a Thorn in His Side) screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.
But that wasn’t enough for me. That first feature was shot on a shoe-string budget and didn’t really set the world on fire. So I was determined to make another feature, a film that would improve on all the mistakes I’d made last time round. A film that would be entertaining, different and hopefully original.
The script that I came up with was called: ‘Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit’ (yep, I like long titles!) which was about an angry wedding videographer who’s having a mid-life crisis who then gets abducted by aliens. It was a weird blend of comedy plus sci-fi, and I wanted nothing more in the world than to make the film in 2006. Everyone who read the script said it was ambitious. They weren’t wrong.
Pre-production began at the turn of 2006. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to fund the film and as the months rolled by closer towards the proposed August shoot, I was getting more and more desperate. So I got a few credit cards. More than a few to be honest. I got twelve credit cards. That’s right: 12. At the time, my philosophy was: “Heck, if it’s good enough for Kevin Smith then its good enough for me.” Told you I was ambitious.
We also found a lead actress who was willing to invest in the project. We had a budget of £30k, which meant we could just about afford to shoot on super 16mm. I was the sole producer, as well as writer and director. Not a wise thing to do.
Actor Adam Rickitt signed onboard for the lead supporting role. Adam was an ex-soap star in the UK (Coronation Street) and was the star of that particular soap when it was attracting over 8 million viewers per week back in the early noughties.
Pre-production was difficult, but all the hard work was out of the way and now the shoot was supposed to be the fun part. Everything looked good and positive. That didn’t last long.
Cameras rolled for four very long weeks in August/September. We had over twenty crew members, over fifteen cast members and on the first week of shooting about fifty extras.
The experience was brutal. It was like a train wreck at times; everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Equipment broke down, locations fell through, certain cast & crew members became enemies rather than friends.
That’s when filmmaking stopped being fun for me.
It was the most stressful experience of my life. But I asked for this. It was all my doing. On the bright side we were getting some fantastic scenes in the can and everyone knew we were creating something special. There was also several cast & crew members that bonded closely throughout the ordeal, and we had some very talented people working on the project.
The budget ballooned throughout the shoot to £50k. Filmmaking is like a drug at times; you have to keep on shooting no matter what. That’s why I asked my parents to borrow cash to keep on shooting the film.
Not my proudest moment as a filmmaker, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, we didn’t get everything shot in those 4 weeks because of one thing or another. In fact, we only got about 60% of the film in the can.
So at the end of what was a very tough shoot, I was left in debt, scarred for life as far as filmmaking was concerned and with just over half a film completed.
2007 & 2008
Throughout 2007 and 2008 we shopped a trailer for the film to funding bodies, distributors, sales agents, production companies – but we couldn’t get anyone to invest more money into the project. I wasn’t working throughout these years, just focusing on trying to get this damn film finished one way or another.
But I was heavily disillusioned by the whole experience and apart of me didn’t want anything to do with it. It was like a big black cloud hanging over my life that had put me in a state of flux; unable to move forward until the film was completed.
All that ambition and desire that I had in 2005 had disappeared.
There were times when I came close to quitting – that seemed like the obvious choice throughout these barren years and a lot of people questioned why I was still bothering trying to get it finished. But I had to get it finished. I couldn’t have gone through all that strife and strain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day.
Somehow, by hook or by crook, I scraped together enough money to enable us to shoot the remaining scenes in 2009. We shot for 2 weeks in May and then 2 weeks in November. We still shot on super 16mm but this time it was a very guerrilla filmmaking experience. Gone were the big crew, expensive lighting equipment, catering, and extras.
We just had to finish it one way or another.
And we did. It was far from smooth sailing; we wrapped on the last day of shooting at 4am in a cold, dark barren warehouse in the middle of winter. But I was overjoyed with emotion, full of adrenalin. I remember getting home at 5am surrounded by camera gear, elated that we’d done it.
The end was in sight.
Nothing is ever that straight forward however. Post-production dragged on for most of 2010. The music score took six months, as did the sound design. We also had to ADR pretty much the entire cast. But on November 16th the wait was over and we held a cast & crew screening. Over a hundred people turned up to support the film.
It was an emotional night; a relief more than anything just to be able to say that the film was finished. Everyone honestly had nothing but positive things to say.
And so here I am in 2011, armed with DVDs of a feature film that has taken up five years of my life and left me close to bankruptcy at times with a total budget of around £60k. But you know what? It was worth it. I’m proud of the film despite all its faults. I don’t have any regrets.
I’m starting the daunting process of trying to secure distribution, but I know it won’t be easy. Self-distribution might very well be the route we go down eventually. It’s tough, but I’m going to keep on trying.
What have I learnt throughout this crazy adventure? Lots. Too much to mention. I’ve learnt a lot of filmmaking lessons that I won’t be in a hurry to make again:
Never produce your own film.
Never fund a film on multiple credit cards. Kevin Smith was an exception.
And I’ve learnt a lot about myself throughout the process:
I guess it’s all been one big lesson in humility if you look at it from an objective point of view: I’m not the ambitious filmmaker I once was, that’s for sure. Making this film was like making a series of mistakes, but the film is already a success in my eyes, regardless of where it goes from here.
It’s a success simply because we finished it, rather than abandoning it half way through. If you have enough drive and determination and persistence, then you can do it.
Mark Jeavons has proved himself to be an original and uniquely creative voice in filmmaking who has great skills at producing quirky characters and engaging storylines.
‘Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit‘ is a huge leap in Mark’s career, showcasing his technical ability and working with a talented ensemble cast.
Mark also has several other feature films in development, which you can learn more about at: www.sepiafilms.co.uk