Tartan Features - "Wigilia: A Christmas Eve Story". Q+A With Director Graham Drysdale
Tartan Features 4 – "Wigilia, A Christmas Eve Story" will be screened as our Alternative Christmas event in December. More details to follow....
In the run up we thought we'd share part of our Q+A with it's director Graham Drysdale. The Q+A is part of our ongoing 'How We Made...' series which we will post after the screening. It will contain a whole lot of information that should hopefully help you when you make YOUR Micro Budget Feature. And making your Micro Budget Feature should be your New Year's Resolution.
In the meantime we hope you enjoy Graham's Q+A. There's a lot of great advice in here:
Year Zero: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into film and TV
Graham Drysdale: I was at ECA in the mid-late 80s. Originally I studied painting but then I saw people wandering around with video cameras and that looked more exciting, so I swapped schools for 3rd & 4th Year.
There was no real film course then and only 3 students including me, so we just got on and made what we wanted – pop videos, animations, arty shorts. Via the Fuji Film Challenge we were given some 16mm film and told to make a short drama, so we borrowed a noisy old Arri BL from STV and taught ourselves how to use it from books in the library. But we got so carried away by the actual filmmaking process that we sort of forgot to think too closely about what type of film we were making, so it ended up like a short episode of Take The High Road… Great fun though and our trips to the lab and dubbing studios in London were eye opening. We made another 16mm film in 4th Yr which was much better but then that was that… I graduated without much of a clue as to what to do next.
While signing on I volunteered as an arts/video worker in Craigmillar, Edinburgh and through that met a Psychobilly band – Sharlot and the Rogues – who wanted a video made for a BBC competition… which we won. The judge was Lol Crème and when we met him in London at the prizegiving he asked me to send him some stuff but by the time I did he’d moved to LA, so that lead fizzled out.
I then worked with the Grassmarket Project Theatre Company from 1990-92 as a video cameraman/production assistant/actor on 3 Fringe First winning plays – Glad, Bad and Mad – which toured Europe. Jeremy Weller, the director, built up the scripts through improvisations with the real life participants/actors – Glad: homeless people, Bad: young offenders, Mad: mental health patients – I recorded these improvisations and then transcribed them for the next rehearsals. The whole 3 years were a great experience where I learned a lot about life but I realised I wanted to get back into filmmaking.
YZ: Lovely is your best known film - so far. What's the story behind it?
Lovely was made when I was at Napier doing a post grad in the late 90s. All the students had to vote for the 4 films they wanted to be made on the course and Lovely sneaked in at number 4. The script was based on a temp job I’d had at the Western General where I delivered medical results to different depts. of the Hospital. I found myself saying the same things over and over again, “Here are the results for…” and not much else, so I felt a bit invisible. There was also a tea trolley girl going around the wards which I’d see every day and then my brother told me about a tea trolley which went round his corporate office, so the idea kind of grew from there – a film about a tea trolley girls last day at work before she becomes a typist.
Generally, the films I love are not purely realistic, they take you somewhere else – e.g. the films of Powell & Pressburger or Fellini – and that’s what I tried to do with Lovely, to heighten the situation – so the language was sparse, the décor was sparse and beige, the action was repetitive… and there was a dance sequence.
Anita Vettesse made the film. Her face is a picture throughout, you can just tell what she’s thinking. There were a l-o-t of casting sessions and we thought we had someone but the casting director at the Byre theatre said I should contact Anita, so she was the last actor we saw, I think.
Lovely was shot by the late Scott Ward who was brilliant and fastidious. He didn’t say too much but he made me think about every shot choice because I didn’t want him to give me that slightly quizzical look, as if to say “are you sure?...”
We finished the original shoot without shooting the end scene, well, we hadn’t written an end scene. While editing we tried to write an end and shot one which didn’t work… and then reconvened one year later to shoot the last scene. Ends are difficult! But it all worked out.
It was selected for EIFF, then bought by Channel 4/FilmFour. The British Council supported its festival run which enabled me to visit Aspen, Chicago and New York. It sold to the Independent Film Channel in America and to this day I still get emails every few months, “Did you make a film called Lovely…” which I really appreciate. They keep you going in the dark times. And the festival wins qualified it for an Oscar nomination.
Lovely - The full film
Y: Why such a long break between your films? What have you been doing?
Yes, people would ask me “what have you been doing?” Always a punch to the stomach.
After Lovely I got a script to the last 8 of Channel 4’s Short & Curlies competition but it didn’t make the final 4 and I couldn’t raise the funds from other sources. I then got a job in the production dept. of a Hollywood film shooting in Scotland and I found it the most dispiriting, depressing job… and I don’t know, I just sort of fell out of love with filmmaking for a bit. Looking back maybe I was naïve, expecting too much, expecting people to knock on my door, offering work. It doesn’t happen like that. Well, not until Mr McPhee called.
I worked in a call centre for a couple of years then went back into community arts and worked as the coordinator of Pilton Video’s short filmmaking scheme involving adults from Edinburgh’s urban aid areas. One of the films made on the scheme won the Jim Poole Award for Best Scottish Short and that job led me into teaching at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh where I am today. Through another of Pilton Video’s schemes I made a short Stuck in 2007 which won an award at the Chicago Int. Film Festival.
YZ: So, Wigilia. How did that come about?
In February 2013 I met Grant McPhee at Scott Ward’s funeral. I’d met Grant through Pilton Video who he was now busy working in the industry. Sometime later Grant called me up, “Do you want to make a film?” Like a fool I said no, I couldn’t possibly, giving some reasons. But he wouldn’t give up. A few months later he called,
“We’re making a film in January no matter what.”
“I don’t have a script.”
“Doesn’t matter, improvise.”
That was that. I couldn’t get out of it. I was forced to make a film. I’ve subsequently realised, or been told by my better half, that that’s the best, or only, method to get me to do anything. I need a deadline. A scary deadline.
But I have to say, who would call you up and ask you to make a film? And put their own money into it? Not many people. So I’m eternally grateful to Grant for giving me that kick.
YZ: Was it exciting to make a film in 5 days?
Was it exciting? It was terrifying. I had the outline of a script which I presented as confidently as I could “this is what will happen but I’d like us to improvise …”
I wasn’t aware it was going to be quite so big – crew-wise – and I suppose in real terms it was a pretty small crew but they all seemed so professional – they were working on films all the time, not me, so I felt I had to up my game. You’ll have to ask them what they thought!
YZ: Where did the idea come from?
I knew the film would be shot in January, downtime for the industry. I think Grant suggested shooting in a posh flat. So I asked myself what happens at that time of year – obviously Christmas & New Year. I knew the film had to be shot in one basic location – with no crew moves – and with a limited number of characters. So what can happen in a flat over Christmas? Obviously it must be the classic scenario – Polish Cleaner meets Bad Penny Brother of the flat owner. I was desperately looking around for Christmas/New Year ideas and discovered the Polish Wigilia (vi-ji-lia) Christmas Eve celebration which leaves an empty chair at the table for the Unexpected Pilgrim. That sounded like a drama waiting to happen.
YZ: How did you choose the cast?
I approached the Polish Cultural Association in Edinburgh looking for Polish female actors and they gave me the contacts for 2 theatre groups in Glasgow. I then met 2 actors separately in one night and Iwona just stood out. It was a bit like meeting Anita when I was making Lovely, I just knew she’d be right for the part.
Searching for script inspiration for the Bad Penny ‘artist’ character I was looking through Youtube clips of Daniel Johnston and in the ‘up next’ column popped Duglas and the BMX Bandits. I just took a chance and dropped him a line via facebook. He watched Lovely and said yes… which was a relief as we were really up against the clock.
Duglas T Stewart! Why did you choose a singer for your film?
When I looked at the clips of Duglas on Youtube he seemed like a charmer, a real performer, he acts out the song as he sings it, so I thought he’d be an interesting choice. It was a huge leap in the dark, I’d never met him before I asked him to be in the film but the looming deadline made me just go for it.
Pre – Production
The Script. Please explain the process of how you wrote the film. Did you start of with a solid script, or an idea, or did it evolve?
I had an outline of what would happen and how the characters would meet but there was no dialogue.
How much collaboration did you have with the actors?
The script was developed as a complete collaboration with the actors. They both seemed to enjoy that way of
How was that process?
We’d swapped a few emails and then met the day before the shoot on location to talk about the general story. Every morning we’d rehearse the action and then shoot after 4pm.
What other factors did you take into account regarding the script and the constraints around it?
The location itself. Steven, the producer, found the flat, so we used what was there to develop the story – the dining table – the balcony – the kid’s bedroom, etc.
Was it in any way liberating?
It was liberating because we just had to do it. We had to dive in. There was no choice. It had to happen. Everyone was there waiting. We needed to come up with something to film.
What were the plus points working this way?
The actors were always involved, there wasn’t any sitting around waiting, we were always on the move.
What were the downsides?
We weren’t really aware of the length of the film.
What else was required/done in the pre production?
There wasn’t much time for pre-production – some art direction, choosing the actors clothes. Iwona made all of the food used in the film.
How much planning went into the shoot before hand?
We knew we would shoot for 5 days. We knew roughly what we would shoot on those days but there was no schedule.
Did you have a schedule/1st AD?
The AD watched rehearsals and then organised the schedule based on that. I always felt a bit guilty that we didn’t have ‘pages’ to show him, he was always a bit in the dark but he seemed to embrace the process and was a great help.
How much improvising did you have?
The script was totally improvised. The dialogue was never written down, maybe just the odd queue line to start a new section.
What were the thoughts after the first day?
Relief. It wasn’t a disaster. The actors seemed to gel. The crew seemed engaged. The action looked good on the monitor.
Did you watch rushes at night and change plans for the next day?
I can’t remember watching rushes. Footage was being conformed downstairs. We definitely discussed the next day and what was likely to happen.
Did you enjoy the process?
I loved the process. Scary but – it sounds a bit dramatic – it made you feel alive. Being ‘on’, constantly having to make decisions.
Good memories? Bad memories?
Generally good memories. There are always things you think about after the event but that’s all part of the learning process I guess. Bad memories? The last day probably wasn’t as productive as it could have been. We were outside shooting walking & bridge sequences. There was probably too much wandering around.
How did you work with the actors?
I met with them mid-morning to talk and walk through the days shooting. As the film was set at night and the flat we were shooting in had one wall of floor to ceiling windows we couldn’t shoot until it was dark, around 4pm. Then we’d shoot ‘til 10pm.
How did you choose the crew?
Grant & Steven chose the crew. I was worried they’d look at the lack of script and just laugh but no, everyone contributed.
What were the working hours?
For me, morning til night. For the actors 11am – 10pm. For most of the crew slightly less.
How did you motivate the crew/How did you keep yourself going?
I don’t know if I ever felt I needed to motivate the crew. They were all totally engaged. Maybe they were intrigued by the process and not knowing what was going to happen next? We generally ate well and there was always a cast and crew evening meal. Most of us slept at the location – apart from the actors.
What did it feel like when you realised you'd made a feature in under a week?
It felt like an achievement. I remember feeling a bit emotional saying goodbye to the crew after the get-out.
What was the post-production plan?
We had an editor lined up soon after the shoot finished and the plan was just to finish as soon as possible.
Did you need pick-ups?
Yes, we discovered after the first edit that the film was 50ish minutes long – too long for a short, too short for a feature – but it an open ending so there was the possibility to add another episode to complete the story.
Duglas’s appearance had changed over the year so there was no possibility to shoot an immediate continuation of the first Wigilia, it had to be another time. So we shot for another day – 2 sequences – the brothers meeting and then Duglas (Robbie) meeting Iwona (Agata) again.
After editing the pick up scenes we then decided that we needed a short sequence after Robbie falls asleep in Wigilia Pt. 2 to connect to Agata’s entrance, so we shot a dream sequence over an afternoon on Dunbar beach during the summer.
How involved were you with the editor? How much collaborating did you do?
There were 2 editors involved with the rough cut – one cut Wigilia Pt. 1 over a few months. I’d generally have a look once a week and give feedback. The rough cut of Wigilia Pt. 2 was edited over 2 weekends and I was there all the time.
The fine cut was completed by Shaun Glowa over a number of months and I’d pop in regularly to see how it was going and add my tuppence worth.
All the editors were working on their day jobs – editing – so a big part of post-production process on low/no budget films is finding the time when the editors are available.
What advice can you offer for emerging directors, or established directors from your experience?
As the Hibs motto says – Persevere
The joy of low/no budget films is that you don’t have any industry norms to cling to. Everything can be, has to be, re-thought to suit the film you’re making and the resources you have.
Find a supportive filmmaking team who are up for the challenge and aren’t power hungry. I’ve worked on many shorts film shoots over the years that were beautifully organised and produced but the final films weren’t so great. Sometimes the organisation overwhelms the films, the producers forget they’re supposed to be trying to make a film, everything becomes rigid, or priorities are skewed to things which don’t help the film.
Generally every film I’ve made has changed & developed during the shoot and generally these changes have improved the film. I once produced a Tartan Short while working at Pilton Video and the funders came down on us like a ton of bricks when we mentioned a few possible script developments during the shoot. To my mind that’s not a creative way to work. The film should evolve from the script, to the shoot and then the edit. Not everyone thinks this way, maybe for good reason, Films and TV shows need a schedule but I always look, perhaps romantically, at Fellini or directors from the French New Wave who could shoot for a week or two and then abandon their film / plan if it wasn’t working but come up with another plan and shoot that. Maybe that depends on low budgets and creative producers?