Whaam! Shorts 3 - Stalactites
‘Funding is a limitation, and for short filmmakers it’s not a necessary limitation'
Whaam! Shorts 3 is 'Stalactites' by Alison Piper
Stalactites is the fantastic debut short by Alison Piper. It was turned down for traditional public funding which would lead many filmmakers to give up. Instead, this lack of funding inspired Alison to become more determined to make the film.
The following Q+A with Alison reveals the whole story - from rejection to inspiration and eventually festival success.
It also acts as a 'how to' for anyone wishing to do something similar, with links to fantastic resources such as her Script, Storyboards, Directors Notes, Press Kit and Synopsis.
For more updates on the film and Alison please check out her webpage here - http://www.alisonpiper.com/stalactites/
Stalactites is your first drama film. You work as an assistant director primarily, so where did the idea of directing your own film come from?
I’d wanted to be a director for a long time but it just seemed like this really dark art – like a dense blackforrest gateau with no discernible recipe. I decided the best way to learn was by watching the ‘grown-ups’ do it. I stared working as a runner about four years ago and really liked the AD dept – I like organising and I thought it would be a great way to earn a living and learn the mechanics of filmmaking. I couldn’t have made ‘Stalactites’ without the experience I’ve gained working as an AD, or without the friends and contacts I’ve made through work.
You'd tried twice to go down the traditional funding route for the film but were turned down both times. Can you tell us about that experience – was it disheartening, did you feel like giving up, what made you carry on?
I applied for New Talent funding from the SFTN – I was so certain that my film was right for the funds and that I’d be selected – ha! When I didn’t get through I was hugely pissed off and at the time I felt like giving up. It took a while to realise that I shouldn’t let that rejection hold me back. Yes, I had industry experience but I didn’t have a strong portfolio of self-funded narrative short films - the only work I had to show were artist’s moving image works, so why should they trust me with £10,000 for a narrative short?
---View the SCRIPT here---
Was it a make or break moment? Did it feel like you had a lot to prove, and if so in what way did that manifest?
Yes, it was a make or break moment, getting the funding was completely part of the plan and had been for months. It sounds silly but it took be a week to adjust to that rejection and to accept it. One day the curtain lifted. I often try and solve problems by inverting them and I had this ‘eureka’ moment where I realised that funding is actually a limitation and that without it I could do anything I wanted if I was clever enough. I decided to make Stalactites with what I could afford, which was £500. As soon as I gave myself that budgetary restriction I was excited and motivated again. In hindsight Stalactites was very well funded, just not with money.
Did you seek help elsewhere?
No – I decided not to crowd fund because I didn’t have enough confidence in my abilities, which I was fine with. It was my first film and I wasn’t comfortable asking friends and family for money when I had no idea if the film would be any good. Stalactites was to be sleeper film that could just quietly die a death if it was awful, and nobody would ever know….
What's inspiring about the film is that not only did you not give up but you aimed to make it still without compromising. You had a name actor (Kate Dickie) and an exec producer in Wendy Griffin. How did you manage to get these people to help with the film?
I phoned them and pitched to them, it was terrifying! I phoned Wendy first, I prepared and practiced what I was going to say, I had everything ready so that if she asked to see any material I’d be able to send her a script, storyboards, a synopsis and logline, and a budget. I was so nervous but I picked up the phone and introduced myself, asking if I could pitch my short to her and if she liked it, would she help me? At first she must have been baffled like, ‘Who is this crazy women phoning me out of the blue?’ but, to her credit she humoured me and listened and I reckon at one point realised that yes, I was crazy but I was also serious about making the film. I bombarded her with all my material and a week later she offered support. Wendy helped me with crewing up, with contracts and clearances and with general advice. Having somebody with her experience at the end of an email was invaluable and gave me the confidence to see the project through.
I knew Kate because she played one of the leads in a film called ‘For Those In Peril’, a low budget Warp X feature shot on the East coast of Scotland. That film was my first ever job as a runner in 2012 and probably still my favourite job to this day. Kate is a heart-breaking actor, but above that she is one of Glasgow’s best humans. Back then I was right at the bottom of the ladder and she spoke to me with the same humour and kindness that she did with everyone else, regardless of their status on the crew. And so, three years later I reached out to her and sent the script to her agent and she agreed to be on board – I couldn’t believe it! This industry is strong because of actors like Kate who take a chance on first time writers and directors, I learned so much from her about the nature of performance.
How did you plan the shoot? How long was it, where did you film?
Stalactites only has the production values that it does because of my contacts through work; I have a lot of talented friends who offered to help for free. My experience as an AD meant that I could bring industry practices to my own project, but on a smaller scale. To that end my first film had to be logistically simple because I was directing it and producing it myself and so I wrote something set in two rooms with two characters. We shot it in two days over a weekend. The film is eight minutes and five seconds long.
Most of my time in prep was spent finding hilarious ways to get things for free. I spent A LOT of time on the phone. My experience cold calling Wendy confirmed for me that emails only get you so far and that phones get things done. I also had a lot of luck. For example, I was banging my head against a wall trying to get a hospital room location on the ground floor so that we could light through the windows. Time was running out and it became clear that we’d have to make the set instead. I wangled a room in a community centre and a friend and colleague kindly donated lots of her medical props but I couldn’t find a hospital bed anywhere, Perry Costello knew I was looking for a bed and one day I got this manic, excited phone call from him – he’d flagged down a van on its way to the scrappy because he’d seen a hospital bed in it. Did I want it? Yes! For the small price of £10 they dropped it as his unit. At the end of the shoot we scrapped the bed and got our tenner back. The fruits of my labour were born in a series of fortunate events just like that one.
Did everything go smoothly? How did you deal with problems on the set, if any arose? Did you enjoy the process?
Everything went really smoothly. I wasn’t working in January and February so I had two months dedicated to organizing the project. I’d spent so much time anticipating disaster and solving problems in advance that on the weekend of the shoot was I was quite relaxed… I think! I didn’t deal with any problems on set because I was sheltered by the ADs. Being an AD myself it was weird to know that a lot was probably going on that I didn’t know about.
What was the post production plan? Did you do it yourself, did you wait a long time after the shoot?
I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it myself – I wanted to learn from an experienced editor so I pitched the project to Aldo who was an acquaintance through mutual friends, he liked the idea and agreed to edit the film - I learned an incredible amount about post-production workflow from Aldo and even more about storytelling.
Back in prep I’d organised a good deal through 422.tv for a colour grade and sound mix. I phoned Sharon and we talked about the sonic narrative, I asked if it was something one of their junior sound designers might be interested in if she could give me a good rate. I was very lucky, and I’m very earnest, which I sometimes get slagged for but I reckon it’s that quality that made people go, ‘OK, I want to help you and I know you don’t have any money so we can do it for this…’ I think over-selling yourself doesn’t work, I was always honest about my inexperience and I think people took kindly to that.
How did it feel to have made your first short?
Amazing. It’s such a long process, it was a year from script to delivery and so staying positive about the project for that long took a lot of energy. It’s only getting a strong festival run now, two years after I started this thing. Being writer / director / producer I really had to be my own cheerleader so at times I’d look back and think ‘I can’t believe I actually managed to do this.’
What's also inspiring about this film is how successful it became. You've had screenings at Glasgow Short Film Festival and recently Aesthetica. Did you feel justified in carrying on after been told it would not be traditionally funded?
Getting in to GSFF and ASFF gave me the validation that I was craving. Sometimes I hate the film and can only spot problems with it and so talking with people that liked the film and wanted to show it at their festival was motivating. At Aesthetica I met the guy who programmes Encounters, which Stalactites was rejected from. He actually remembered the film and told me what he liked about it and what he thought wasn’t strong enough, he gave me some great tips on how to improve storytelling.
How do you think this film has progressed your career?
A career is a long trek up a munro with countless false peaks. At the beginning you think so much about the summit. Challenges like this remind me that the climb is the best bit, and the climb lasts decades. I now have more confidence in my ability, I know I want to keep making short films and hopefully features one day. I’m now more eligible for funding in the future and I’ve learned an incredible amount about the filmmaking process. Before I started I didn’t know anything about clearances and even less about post-production workflow. Now I know what time you have to get up in the middle of the night if you want to speak to a book publisher in the US and convince them to clear a title. I learned by stumbling my way through it and so next time it’ll be much easier. (Next time I’ll design my own book covers.)
The film was essentially made off your own back. How important do you think it is to push forward with ideas when there seems to be very little in the way of established schemes?
I feel that as creative people living in a privileged western nation we feel like we ‘should’ be supported in all we do. It’s easy to moan about Creative Scotland and the way they allocate funds, (I have done many times in the past!) But if you watch some of the films coming out of Syria at the moment it’s incredible. These people have nothing but they’re telling beautifully crafted stories with no funding and with the limited technology available to them. Realising that good story telling doesn’t actually require funds was a huge step for me. You don’t need money to prove yourself. Social media doesn’t help either because we all read about successful and well funded filmmakers who are younger than us and doing it better, and they’re not one in a million, they’re on in ten million. It’s toxic to compare yourself to others. DIY is the future, and it’s good for your mental health!
What do you hope that Whaam! Shorts can do for emerging filmmakers?
I hope that Whaam! Can help emerging filmmakers create better stories by shedding limitations. Funding is a limitation. An Arri Alexa is a limitation, you get your hands on one and all you can think about is how your film is going to ‘look’. Maybe we should re-think the concept of funding and celebrate short filmmaking as an art form that shouldn’t need a lot of money.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking of doing what you did – essentially new directors who are wondering if they should take the plunge?
Do it. It’s a cliché but embrace failure, don’t’ be afraid to do something because you’re afraid it will be shit. It probably will be, but you’ll learn a lot. Find a producer and surround yourself with as many people as you can who are more experienced than you in their chosen departments. That money you had earmarked for expensive kit? Spend it on time. Take time off work and watch films. Watch them again, cut by cut, figure out how many set-ups it took to film the scene, where the camera was placed in proximity to the actors, at what angle, and how often they swing a lens. Copy them. Don’t direct actors with adjectives; suggest ideas and scenarios to provoke emotional responses. Thoughts induce action.
What's next for you? Would this next project have been possible if you had not decided to take your filmmaking career on your own terms.
I’ve been working industry hours all year so I’m going to take time off in February and March and write something new!
I also have a really short idea that I’m going to apply with for HIGH5@5, which unlike other funds, I’m actually eligible for. However, this time I’m not depending on it. In this instance I’d be interested to learn how to make a film with the strings of Creative Scotland attached. I’ve already made a film with autonomy and so making a film and also navigating the relationship with a funding body would be a learning experience. If I were successful and received the funding it wouldn’t be a necessity in terms of realising work, just a shifting of the goalposts.
And you can view the film here for a week (4th Dec-11th Dec)