Talking Film – Duncan Nicoll
Duncan Nicoll is a film-maker from Dundee, whose short film Crowman premiered at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and which has been screened at various film festivals around the world. Set in a brutal rural landscape following an unspecified disaster, Crowman focuses on the relationship between a father and son in a world that sees them as outcasts. The broodingly bleak dystopia depicted by Nicoll channels a very British form of future-shock which becomes a rite of passage in a fractured society that looks troublingly not too far from now.
First of all, can you tell me a bit about the background to Crowman and some of the thinking behind it?
Like pretty much everything I've written, Crowman initially came from a single image - that of a man scraping up a dead crow from a country road and putting it in a bag. His son is there with him too. That was Crowman and Crowboy. I don't know where it came from, it just bubbled up from my subconscious, I suppose.
At the time I was working out in the Angus area and had a 40 minute drive through the countryside every day. The landscape became something that shaped the story as well - particularly in the winter when the trees and fields are bare - it looks pretty bleak and desolate. On several occasions doing that drive, I passed crashed cars that had skidded off the road into fields, one time, a car that was lying upside down on its roof on a long straight stretch of road.
There's always guys tearing along these back roads, tailgating you, overtaking you at ludicrous speeds, so I started thinking about some way that Crowman and his son would come into conflict with some boy racer-types and what the outcome of that conflict might be. I wasn't bullied as a kid, but there were a couple of incidents that happened to me that also fed into the story, which brought that element of a father protecting his son into it. 'Broken Britain', financial crises and austerity were also an influence on the broader world the film takes place in, extrapolating the way things are now and imagining the rural economy collapsing, widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, and how everyday life might become a struggle for survival.
At first, watching it, it reminded me of these dystopian kids TV dramas in the 1970s, where the very British landscape it occupied made them seem more real, somehow, but then obviously Crowman moved into more grown-up territory. Clearly something has happened, though it's never made explicit. How hard is it to capture that air of unspoken menace in something so short?
Yeah, I remember Heartsease/The Changes and that sort of stuff.
There's a line when the boy asks Crowman where he thinks the soldiers are going as they pass them on the road, 'The city I reckon, it's getting bad there,' is his reply. I'd imagined that in the world of the film, the cities are descending into chaos, there's food riots and all sorts of bad stuff going down there. In the country, they've pretty much been abandoned, the rural economy has already gone, wiped out by some kind of pandemic that has affected crops and livestock. The people have been left to fend for themselves.
In that respect, I was definitely more concerned with hinting at rather than showing what has occurred. The main thing is what's going on between these people, now, in the film. In the script there was a bit more to suggest the extent of what was happening in the broader context. There were dead livestock lying bloated in the fields, but which wasn't achievable in budgetary terms. There was a sequence where Crowman and Crowboy walk past boarded up houses and abandoned buildings with rusty old farm equipment piled up outside them. We had locations for this but just didn't have time in the schedule to shoot it.
I think the lack of normal everyday stuff going on around them helps create that desolate feeling - no cars going past, no tractors or animals in the fields, no people or houses in the backgrounds. That's all mainly down to care in selecting the locations, the framing of shots and a lot of waiting for vehicles to pass by when you're going for a take.
We did have great support from the farmers whose land we shot on, they were very accommodating, allowing us to use stretches of road, farm buildings, cattle etc - even building fires for us when necessary. In film-making terms though, Alan McIlrath's cinematography, Matt Cameron's grading, Gregor Fletcher's sound design and the music by Robbie Ward and Gavin McGinty really helped to create that atmosphere as well.
How long did Crowman take to make from conception to completion?
I had the initial idea about five years ago, then wrote a very sparse first draft about a year later. I didn't do anything about it for quite a while, and it wasn't until I heard about SFTN's Scottish Shorts scheme a few years later that I thought I should maybe go for it. I stripped it back to a one page synopsis, applied with that, and got shortlisted. There was a development programme consisting of three two-day sessions over three months in early 2015, and in that time I rewrote the script. There was feedback from the execs on the script in progress at various points during that process. During that period I also hooked up with producer John Fairfield, the final submission and pitch was April I think, we were selected and shot in July. We finished post production around the end of October 2015.
How hard was it – or not – to get people on board, both at a practical level with actors, etc, and with funders?
The film was funded by Creative Scotland through SFTN, with a budget of £10K, the same as the other shorts produced through the scheme that year. John brought most of the crew onboard, people who had worked with him and his company Flyboy on various shorts, music videos and corporates over the last few years. They were keen to get involved with the film and put in a lot of work.
With that budget you just can't pay people the proper daily rate over a five day shoot, so everyone agreed to do it for a set fee, which was humbling to say the least. Myself and John, as well as a few other key cast and crew, didn't take any payment. With those sort of budget restrictions, there will always be people who turn down the offer of work, and that's fair enough because we all want to get paid something. I guess you just hope that whoever you approach sees something in the project they like.
I'd wanted to cast Liam Brennan as Crowman. He'd been in my short 'feetsteps' years ago, but we'd lost touch. Luckily I managed to get in touch with him again and he agreed to do it. Nathan McHallam, who plays Crowboy, we found through Perth Theatre Arts, who were really helpful when we were looking for young actors to audition. Stewart Cassidy, Shawney Henderson and Ellie Reid had all worked with John before and Spencer Mason came from Dundee Rep's youth theatre.
Angus Miller was suggested by Dan Portman who had worked with John before, and was potentially going to play the part of Deek. All of the main cast and HODs had to be vetted by SFTN before production, but that all went fairly smoothly. I think the hardest thing to find was the crows. We ended up getting Stewart Milne, who does falconry displays, to source and train them.
Where has Crowman been seen? You were recently in America with it, weren't you?
It premiered at EIFF in June this year and has gone on to screen at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal and Screamfest in LA, and there's a couple of festivals we've submitted to that we're still waiting to hear from. John and I attended Screamfest this October, which was a great experience. One of the good things about being part of SFTN's scheme is that they submit to certain key festivals for you, all the big ones like Sundance, Palm Springs, Berlin etc.
Unfortunately we didn't get accepted to any of them, but for them to cover that cost was great, as submission fees mount up very quickly. Despite not getting into those big ones, screening at Fantasia and Screamfest was brilliant, as they're two of the biggest and most renowned genre festivals in the world.
What's your background as a film-maker? What other films have you done?
Since I was a kid I'd always wanted to make films. Growing up in Broughty Ferry near Dundee in the 1980s seemed about as far away from that possibility as you can get. I used to read magazine articles about Spielberg and Sam Raimi making Super 8 films when they were young, but I didn't have access to a camera and home video hadn't really come in yet, not in an affordable way anyway.
After leaving school I did a year in college, then went to work for a special effects and model making company in London. That was a great experience in terms of getting on-set to see how shoots worked: mostly commercials, some pretty big budget ones on sound stages in Pinewood and Shepperton. I got laid off eventually and came back to Dundee to do a degree in Sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. I'd intended to try and get into film-making while there, but there wasn't much support for it back then.
After graduating I moved to Edinburgh and started doing anything film-related I could: helping out on other peoples films, doing short courses and night classes, and that eventually led to me getting some funding to make an animated short called 'Block'. The first live action short I wrote and directed was 'Horsehair' in1998 and followed that with 'Paw' and 'feetsteps' in 2002/3. These were all funded through various schemes: First Reels, Prime Cuts, Eight and a Half and DigiCult, and have screened at various festivals around the world.
For the next few years after that I kept getting to the shortlist stage in funding competitions but never actually got selected. By then I had kids and needed to work, so I just basically stopped applying to them. I didn't write anything new for several years until I wrote Crowman a few years ago now.
What are the outlets for short film dramas just now?
To be honest, I don't know what the best outlets for short films are now. You make the film, try to get it screened at as many good festivals as you can and hope that it will lead on to something else.
What's next for Crowman in terms of being able to see it? And what's next for you as a film-maker? More shorts? Or a feature?
We're holding off putting Crowman out online until we've heard from the last few festivals we've submitted to. After that I guess it will be freely available. I'd like to do another short, ideally with a bigger budget, but my main focus is developing Crowman into a feature. It was always a short to me through the whole writing and development process, but as we progressed into the actual shoot and post-production, I started to get ideas about how it could be expanded into something longer form. I'd like to see more of that world and more of those characters.