Writer/Director Damien Cullen and Producer Leilani Holmes are currently crowd funding an ambitious short film production “Clowning Around” via Indiegogo. Their thoughts on the bedrock of successful project creation follow.
If you make films for long enough or that are good enough then sooner or later you will end up speaking about your work in front of an audience. But how do you do that with credibility, before a film is ever made, is the challenge of crowd funding and exactly the challenge we faced when I became a producer for my friend Damien Cullen’s epic short film Clowning Around, and we needed to source a budget.
Something Damien said to me in our initial meet up really sparked the answer. He recalled a time we’d worked together on a project when I’d sorted out an issue with a young member of crew not being allowed into a bar for some reason. I forgotten all about this but, apparently, I’d marched over to a very big (I’m only five foot tall) and very adamant bouncer and told him I needed him to let her in. And he did! Damien said that’s why he wanted me on the producer team. I realised that I had, because of being deadly serious about my work and the people I worked with, earned some respect from the bouncer and also from Damien. Damien too held respect in my eyes because of who he is and the things he’s delivered working with me before on my projects, especially as Producer of my short film, Transference. I realised right then that the collateral for collecting monetary support for this project was going to be us, and our team!
I’m not the only producer on Clowning Around. Damien and myself are collaborative filmmakers and we know the value of inclusiveness when it comes to making independent films on virtually no budget. People really matter most of all in those circumstances and to get the right people along for the ride with you, you have to deliver what they need in return. That is usually, in lieu of payment (if you don’t have resources) to be able to give people a project that they can be proud of being part of creating and/or that will help them in their future endeavours (credits/experience/exposure), and if you can give something fun, distinctive, and allow people to engage into the process then the support follows. Apart from Transference all my projects have been made on little or no budget with help that I have endeavoured to earn. What we really put on the table under those circumstances is our credibility.
And the same thing goes for crowd funding. Looking at lessons I’d learned from my own experience as a backer of crowd funded projects, Damien, Graham Inman and myself, and a production team full of ideas, have worked together sharing our knowledge to find perks for Clowning Around that give a variety of investment levels, are fun, interesting and acknowledge the trust placed in us. So far it’s been nerve wracking, exciting and a very rewarding experience. In fact, for something that begins with needing money, it’s priceless.
Leilani Holmes is a professional UK actor who screenwrites, directs and produces film in her spare time. www.leilaniholmes.co.uk
So far “This is my Egg” (2002) and “Parental Control” (2007) are the only directorial film credits I have. This doesn’t count the 50-odd short films I have worked on in roles from gaffer to editor to producer, but these are the only two that I would claim as ‘mine’ in the sense I would say, this is ‘my film’.
The main reason is that I am a bit of an all or nothing type of person. I need to know that the films I claim ownership to will provide reward for all those who have worked on, helped or supported throughout, and that fear of failure, of letting them down, means that unless I have absolute faith in the idea, I don’t persist with it. Creating collaborative projects where peoples travel and food only are covered means I am going to ask a lot from them and the end product has to be deserving of their effort, as well as be something that improves me as a filmmaker.
I wrote “Clowning Around” four years ago, and it has been improved through various forums and producers over eighteen drafts. It was an idea that always had visual potential but I wanted it to be more than that, so started (for the first time in my career) to put the script out there for people to constructively criticise and openly give ideas to.
Taking on other ideas itself is difficult to start with, as your ego wants people to say “this is perfect as it is” and my immediate reaction to changing a script is that it means they can’t visualise it in the same way I can, but whereas before I would stubbornly refuse to take on too much feedback, this time it made me question why they weren’t getting it?
Once I got over my ego and started to adapt and re-post the script, the feedback getting more and more positive, by the time we got to draft eleven I started to think “right, I am ready to make this film” so got a producer on board and we held auditions for the supporting roles, which we then cast provisionally as we had no shoot dates.
This was in 2009 and unfortunately due to various other commitments we couldn’t seem to get the project off the ground and it started to make its way back to the ideas shelf. I still continued posting additional drafts though. as one thing I know is that persistence is crucial, if you allow yourself to be talked out of doing something or disheartened so easily, it was probably best you didn’t do it in the first place.
In 2011 it resurfaced again during a conversation with Leilani Holmes, who had been following the script on the www.ottfilms.co.uk forum. Leilani had been very positive about the film and as the budget was the only real stopping point, raised the idea of crowd funding to get the money. As we and new producer Graham Inman started building the ideas for an IndieGoGo campaign, we thought a great way to showcase the film would be to create some still images to show people the visual tone and ambition of the film.
So after four years of development and persistence, we were finally getting into the creative aspect of bringing these characters to life. After meeting Bill Thomas (who I had seen in another short film “Vincent” by Mazin Power) and Matthew Jure (who I worked with on Carlo Ortu’s short “The Man Who Stopped”) in the rather informal setting of a pub, I was confident they could do the roles, but it was more a case of seeing if they were on board with the kind of project we were making. Both showed immense interest into the script and had taken the time to think about the characters, their backgrounds and how they came to be what they are. I have done formal auditions, but I am starting to find that this doesn’t work for me as much as getting to know the person, rather than the actor.
For the head of departments, I immediately checked the availability and interest of some previous people I had worked with in DoP Azul Serra, Production Designer Bianca Turner and 1st AD Greer McNally as we had all worked well on two shorts previously and it is good to get a core group of people who understand each others working process. I do also like to bring in a few fresh faces though, to expand the network of the crew and so there isn’t an over familiarity so I put ads on various crew sites and through this, spoke to costume designer Katerina Dipla, who had worked with my friend Tim Hawkins on some of his short films.
What I like about all the people who got on board was that they go above and beyond to come up with ideas, not just sit there and wait for it all to be done for them. Over the course of preparing the stills shoot, their input was invaluable, and how they have all shaped the characters and improved what we have, has been fantastic. For example, originally Bonzo (the lead role) was going to be a traditional ‘hobo clown’ with oversized trousers and a tatty jacket, but Katerina’s mood board presented an image of a clown who was in an ‘all in one’ outfit, which alluded to a more romantic style of Pierrot clowns, but at the same time reflected his simplicity and child like demeanour. Kirsty’s input took Mr. Fernelli’s makeup to a Bowie-esque aura, which gave him the poise and presence of an entertainer. Bianca’s ideas about colour palette gave us a firm footing so that all departments had something to aim towards and Azul’s idea about a comic book which showed the back story to the two characters rivalry has made not only an excellent perk for our IndieGoGo backers but also helped the actors to understand how I see the characters forming.
I have tried to be as open and honest with all involved and listen to any ideas people have, whilst at the same time ensuring that the tone and core ideas about the film remain somewhat consistent. This is not something I find easy, but in my experience the best way to work with talented people is to allow them to be creative as possible and rein them back in, rather than limit them to start as when people know their contribution is valuable, they will give you more back. This has extended to our backers too, as we have had feedback on our campaign, the script and the images we have presented.
With every project, as well as try to make the best film possible, my aim is to improve as a filmmaker and the collaboration element is what I am both working on and most proud about “Clowning Around”. I have always believed that I am in the school of if I am offered 100 ideas and reject 99 it’s still 1 idea I didn’t have before. In practice this is trickier than it sounds, as you have to decide which are the right ones to go with and for people not to take it the wrong way if you reject their ideas.
By including more people in the process though, we will have a film that all involved can be jointly proud of and perhaps my two prior films mentioned will be the last films I make that are ‘mine’ and I’ll just continue to work on films that are ‘ours’.
Damien Cullen is a professional UK TV Producer and freelance Director, Editor Producer and Filmmaker. www.damiencullen.co.uk
Clowning Around is currently being funded via www.indiegogo.com/clowningaroundfilm and more details, blogs and video diaries can be found on the project website at www.clowningaroundfilm.com