Another new Tartan Feature under the Year Zero Filmmaking revolution.
Benchmark 6 will be directed by David Cameron Newbigging and he has given some excellent insight into his background and thoughts on the Scottish film industry, funded shorts and why you should be making films. A must read for anyone interested in making films.
1. Tell us a little bit about Benchmark 6.
The term “Benchmark 6” is the Ministry of Defense’s classification for a worst case scenario accident with a Trident nuclear submarine.
The film is a fictional documentary that takes place ten years after a Benchmark 6 accident. It looks back on the day, details what happened and shows the effects on people that live in Scotland and beyond.
I’m currently writing at the moment and doing lots of research. Scientifically and logically I want it to be as accurate a portrayal as possible.
It’s a very personal film. I live near the nuclear base and I go to bed every night knowing that there are nuclear reactors sailing past my house as I sleep. One of my earliest childhood memories is looking across the Clyde at the glow of light coming from behind the hills, the glow from Faslane and Coulport. I remember asking my dad what it was. I was terrified when he explained it to me, I must have been about 5 years old. I still look at those hills every day. Hills full of monsters that could wipe out all of humanity.
It’s speculative fiction, human drama. A real horror movie.
2. Why have you decided to shoot it on a micro budget?
Man, this is the question isn’t it? Why? I think that’s the most important thing you have to ask yourself. I’ve been on a long winding journey to get to this point. My last feature was a micro-budget film and I guess I saw that as a stepping stone to bigger budgets and bigger things, but you know what? That’s all an illusion.
I think you have to look at film in Scotland, or any art form for that matter, as a spectrum of activity. On the left hand side you have community filmmaking, education, outreach, participatory projects etc anything that’s being done to benefit people. On the right of the spectrum is television, funded shorts and features, big studio films, anything that’s being done to make money, or to get you to that point. In the middle is the artist. In the middle is micro budget filmmaking. That’s why they are so exciting. You can borrow from any point on that spectrum for your project, you can take what works for you and chuck away all the bullshit if you want to. You can come up with your own answer to “why?”.
So for me it’s the freedom. A film like this would be difficult to fund as a participatory project, because I think it would become very political very quickly. The same goes for tv funding or other right side streams. I don’t think that anyone would touch it, or if they did, you would very quickly find yourself in a situation where you were being told what to say, or at the very least you would feel pressure to toe a certain line.
3. From your experience of traditionally funded films, other than the obvious access to money what do you think the biggest differences are?
Well, I directed my last traditionally funded film way back in 2008. So I’m not sure what the experience of going through a traditionally funded project would be now, but I can speak for what I feel looking back on what I went through.
I did two shorts through the Cineworks scheme, which is what the Scottish Film Talent Network is now I suppose. It was great. There was a talent pool where you received training and made partnerships. You were encouraged to think about development through to film festival plans right from the beginning. There was a legitimacy given to what you were doing and the work you were making. I traveled the world for a while going to festivals with my films. I consider those three years some of the most formative of my life to be honest. Even though I have a degree in film and media, I doubt I would still be making films now without that scheme. It was ran through GMAC at the time too and I think that had a lot to do with it. They were advocates for us.
Back then the average age of a first time feature director in Scotland was 45. Imagine telling a musician they can’t record an album till they’re 45? So there was a problem there. Because it was publicly funded and it was coming from the right side of the spectrum, you were being presented with a road that maybe got you directing a feature in your 40’s. Because that’s the time it will take to get your script developed and win enough awards from shorts to convince everyone you can do it etc etc.
Also, I think for myself, there was an expectation that you had to make a certain kind of film. Stylistically and content wise it had to feature certain elements before a “real” funder would touch it. Commissioning by committee. You could very easily end up being commissioned to make a short that you didn’t really want to do.
So there was good and bad. I’m not sure how much of this applies now and I’m sure things have changed a lot. I think traditional funders can see themselves as curators and arbiters of taste and quality. You have to decide if you want to play that game. They can be difficult level bosses.
At the same time, it may all sound exciting and dynamic making a micro-budget feature on your own with no traditional support, but remember - there are rules and ways of doing things for a reason. Without that talent scheme, without GMAC’s support, I wouldn’t have learned half of what I know now about making films. The network and the scheme were more important than the films in some ways and that’s what needs to be replicated for micro-budget work outside the traditional routes. That’s why TF is so important I think.
4. Even outside of Tartan Features many people are deciding to shoot their own micro budget feature. Some with great success. Why do you think this is happening? Is this something the film industry at large should be helping with, like the microwave scheme in England?
People just want to tell stories. For a great many reasons. Some people just think it’s fun, some have a need to do it, others are searching for some kind of North West Passage out of the current film business and away from public funds and offshore tax havens (which is another discussion all together!) A lot of people are butting up against the level bosses and deciding to go around them. Most people just want to learn I think.
The film industry in Scotland needs to get it’s act together when it comes to this. We should absolutely have a scheme like Microwave. Do you know that you can apply for Microwave from Scotland? As long as your producer is in London. That means that any economic benefit from your film goes down south and supports more of the same down there. That’s not a bad thing, it would just be nice to have it up here too!
The usual suspects just need to get out of the damn way. Set up a scheme with a talent pool. Actually, talent is such a loaded word anyway, call it something else. Give people the training and experience that I got from Cineworks. You could do it with a large number of people with a small budget. Then get out of the damn way and let them make their films. Stop deciding what is or isn’t going to be a good film. Stop wasting so much energy on that. Let the chips fall where they may. They are going to do it anyway; give them a head start!
5. Still on the subject of taking things into your own hands. Do you think rather than necessity people are shooting their own features because an infrastructure is becoming available, or something else entirely?
I think there’s a lot of truth in the old cliché about technology. Camera technology sure, that plays a part in it, but that’s a bit of a trap I think. There were cheap cameras available years ago too. I think it’s more to do with distribution. Digital cinemas, online platforms, that kind of thing. I think distribution is the elephant in the room, the one big unanswered question. More people are making things because there are more, easier, routes to getting it seen.
I’d love to see a group of filmmakers in Scotland get together, pool their films together and start their own distribution company for micro-budget films. How exciting would that be? And it’s not just online. There are 29 independently owned cinemas is Scotland. There are loads more theatres. There are opportunities there that are not being developed at the moment, but people are waiting for something to break through.
6. Why collaborate with Tartan Features?
You are advocates for Scottish films and filmmakers. That’s immensely important right now.
7. What are your hopes for the film? Many Scottish micro budget features have been very successful of late, do you think this could become another?
I can see a lot of support for Trident where I live. There are a lot of arguments for the nukes that I find very illogical. The job creation argument for example. That make no sense to me. EB White said the scariest thing about nuclear weapons was not the destructive power but “the speed of man’s adjustment to it” . I think people need to be reminded what is on their doorstep. And not just the missiles, the reactors too.
Politically it’s the right time to make a films like this. I think it could add a lot to the national debate around our future.
8. How have you financed the film?
I haven’t! It will be mostly crowd funding. There’s going to be fundraising events too I think. I’ve been asked about public funding, doing it as a community project, but I don’t think it’s the right fit at the moment.
9. From your previous feature, what lessons have you learned?
All of the hard ones, that’s for sure!
Tell the stories you want to tell. Really be honest with yourself. I used to think this was a bit of a cliché, but I think it’s very true now. Just make what you want to watch. There are no rules in the micro budget realm. There are no terrible ideas, there are only your ideas and other people’s ideas.
I was lucky enough to briefly speak with Garth Edwards a few years back and he said that making a film was like playing darts, you throw your dart and aim for the bullseye. He thought that a micro budget film was like throwing the dart then painting the bullseye around it where it stops. If you don’t like the rules, change them.
Micro budget films are like the Kobayashi Maru of filmmaking, for all you nerds out there.
Any size of story can be told with the littlest amount of resources. Don’t sit around complaining that you need a big budget. Work out a way of telling that story with nothing. Sometimes that’s what makes it great.
Keep yourself healthy, physically and mentally. Making a feature is a huge step up from shorts. Surround yourself with not only good people, but people you trust, people who share the passion for what you are making and more importantly; the way you want to make it.
Talk to sales agents at the beginning. Send them treatments before you shoot anything. There are agents out there that will talk to micro-budget filmmakers. You can learn from them.
Get a good production team. I’ve made the mistake of trying to do that myself and direct a feature film at the same time. You’ll disappoint yourself and the film will not be as good as it could have been. Get people that are organized and know how to organize a shoot.
Don’t get bogged down is flashy new cameras or technology. Work out what your story needs and use the right technology to enable you to tell it well. You don’t need to shoot on an Alexa if it doesn’t benefit your story. Big chunks of Benchmark 6 will probably be shot on mobile phones, because that’s what the story demands. Ideas are far more important than mega-pixels.
If you are taking money from anyone, understand what you are giving away for that money. The project and your film can very easily become about something other than what you intended. And that’s OK if you are OK with it.
Be safe – I cannot emphasize this enough. Be safe. Don’t do anything risky without the proper people to help. Without insurance, training etc. Just don’t.
But the most important of all – don’t be an ah. You’re making a film, not saving the world or performing brain surgery. It’s supposed to be a bit of an adventure at the micro budget level. Don’t turn it into a slog.
10. Tell us about the process for your last feature? It seems very inline with what TF and others are doing.
My last feature was shot in 2012. It’s a horror called Dying Light. We finished it literally the day before Microsoft announced the game of the same name.
It was written by my good friend Gordon Mclean, who I’ve collaborated on lots of other films. Gordon and myself had this idea for a feature we could do for £5,000 and still pay everyone. It was going to be a closed room horror with a very small cast a crew, but aim to make something that looked slick with the latest technology. At the same time, I was involved in setting up RIG Arts with some other artists. We all lived in Inverlcyde and thought that there was room for a new arts charity there. When the charity was up and running I realized that I could do something that I had always wanted to try – fund a feature film through non traditional means and run it as a participatory community project.
So instead of doing the film ourselves for £5000, we were lucky enough to get £50,000 from the Big Lottery fund. We took in 20 young people from Inverclyde and ran a three month training scheme to give them a taste of making films and the different roles in the crew. Then we hired experienced heads of department and made the film with the young people as crew. It was a feature version of Jumpcut, although I didn’t know about that at the time.
It was an exciting time. It looked like I had cracked a new way of funding low budget features in Scotland. I had the idea that you could do one per year with new talent and also run it as a training scheme for out of work and disengaged young people. It didn’t work out that way though. I fell out with the other artist at RIG and I sadly had to walk away from it all.
Some of the young people have went on to great things though and it really worked for some of them.
The idea was sound I think, but it needed the right people around it. It would be very interesting to try it again with the right support. I think it’s the kind of thing that an organization like GMAC could do really well with the right resources.
The film hasn’t been released. I’m talking to a sales agent in the US right now that’s interested in taking it on. Perhaps it will become a Tartan Feature and I’ll release it online in the future, who knows. You can see the trailer and a behind the scenes documentary that the young people made here:
Behind the scenes
11. What are your current thoughts on the Scottish indie and emerging film scenes?
I think that’s the better way to describe the film community in Scotland. It’s a film scene, not an industry.
I look at the comic book scene in Scotland, which I’m lucky enough to be a small part of too, and I see lots of talented people making cool things, unencumbered by rules and expectations. I see audiences developing around them, events and companies that are doing things differently. I think the new emerging micro-budget film scene could learn a lot from the comic scene. It would be great to see some cross pollination of talent and ideas too. There area lots of great indie comics that would make great indie films.
Groups like Tartan Features and FIS are really encouraging. I think it’s time that we all got a bit militant and stopped waiting to be funded. I’d love funders to be begging us to be part of our projects because we went out and proved ourselves, instead of filmmakers begging them for money.
There’s been a revolution going on in Scottish society in the past few years, and I honestly think the film scene has largely ignored it. With groups like TF being the exception of course. Where are the films about modern Scottish identify? There’s a huge middle ground to be explored in Scotland. We have a very cinematic country. We need to get back to telling stories about ourselves again.
You can make a feature for £1000, yes. But £1000 is still a lot of money if you don’t have it. Especially if you are young. I think we need to focus more on young and first time filmmakers. That’s where a breakthrough is going to come I think. When I was accepted to Cineworks I had really done nothing of note. I don’t think I would get accepted to a funded scheme now with the same experience I had back then. I don’t like that.
12. And what are your thoughts on the future?
We’re living in it! The world is like a William Gibson novel. I love it!
I’ve got a new company, Miracle Pictures. We are currently trying to get funding for a scheme for young first time filmmakers in Inverclyde. There’s Benchmark 6 of course, hopefully that will take off in some way. I’ve got a stack of ideas for new films, most of them micro budget features. I’d love to work with Gordon again on something, but possibly direct it together this time. I’m working as a storyboard artist at the moment, so I want to develop that and work on bigger projects. I’ve also got a sci-fi graphic novel that I’m working on called Breakaway.
For the film scene I think it’s important to keep exploring new ways of working. To not be content with the current paradigm and to make films that have some heart to them, that are actually about something.
13. When do you plan to shoot?
As soon as the script is ready. I had initially planned to do it before the end of the year, but we’ll need to wait and see how funding pans out. I need to get my act together, the ways things are going the nukes might be gone by the time I’m financed!
Thanks and good luck with it all. We will be giving regular updates on the progress.