Craig-James Moncur : TF4 -Skeletons Q+A
Craig-James made one of the earliest Tartan Features, Skeletons. Here he discusses how it came to be.
You're background is as an actor, how did you get involved?
I always had a love of performing. In fact, from as young as I could remember all I ever wanted to do was act. From about 14 years old I was trying to get in and around the professional acting scene by finding an Agent to represent me, not easy when you have no experience.
My high school drama class used to have Actors showreels in their archives as teaching examples; I remember noting down a number of Agent's contact details from the labels on front of the tapes, in fact, the 1st Agent I ever contacted now represents me. I suppose my persistence paid off in the end.
I got my break in to professional acting in the early 90's, there was no indie film scene in Scotland like there is today and I got very lucky. I am honest enough to admit that. I had a teacher at my old High School (Craigmount) that had previously worked as a TV Actor in the 80's and was still well connected.
One day, he received a call from a friend that was still working in the industry as a Location Manager. A BBC Drama called "Looking After JoJo" was about to go in to production and the Producers of the show were looking for two young Actors, they decided to contact school drama departments across Edinburgh.
To cut a long story short, a group of us attended an improvisation workshop in front of the Producers and two of us landed roles in the production. We later found out it was to star Robert Carlyle, who had just completed a little known film called "Trainspotting". And obtaining that credit on this production opened a door to secure my first acting Agent. The statement "Its not what you know, its who you know" summed up my first opportunity perfectly. I still had to impress but luck and knowing the right people helped opened the door.
What made you decide to switch from being in front of the camera to behind it?
By the time I had decided to move in to the production side of the business my work as an Actor had begun to slow. Essentially, although I didn't realise how significant it was at the time, I was a "child" Actor. I inevitably hit the odd age between 24-30 where I looked too old to play a teen and too young to play an adult. I had to make a change. You have to be mentally strong to keep pushing on as an Actor, it is an uncertain form of living and to be honest; I was just fed up of someone else controlling my destiny. I was essentially always waiting for the phone to ring.
In terms of becoming interested in production, whenever I had been on sets, I generally had more in common with the Crew than my acting colleagues. I didn't really like the bubble that I existed in when I was a performer. I felt a bit useless at times; everyone else was running around mad and I wasn't even allowed to leave set for a drink of water. There was always someone there to do something for me. I understand why, when time is money you cannot have people wandering all over the place but this wasn't a life that I was used to. I like to be busy and with my acting career, I was becoming less and less so.
This isn't to say I didn't enjoy my time as an Actor, I honestly did. It was my dream, I had a good taste of it but as is often the case, it isn't what you expect it to be. The good times were good but the slow times were painful, it takes a toll on your mental health when all you want to do is perform and there are limited opportunities to do so.
As the years went on, I decided I was going to try and make my own short films. I wanted to make films that were edgy and exciting. So, I decided to take control of my own destiny and 7 years later I am now well and truly engrained in the production side of the business…
Was it easy to make contacts with like minded crew/creatives. How did you go about this?
It was tricky at first, I had been so focused in finding work as an Actor, 10 years flew by and I suddenly realised, I literally had no contacts on the production side of the business, I knew no one. Even though I got on great with crew members, I hadn't taken any contact details.
I started doing research, I tried to find other filmmakers in Scotland who were doing things I liked. After a number of unanswered emails I thought, right; the best thing I can do is get a camera and start making things, I'll learn as I go.
So thats what I did. One thing I had that made me different to a lot of indie filmmakers was that I had an extensive contact book of Actors. This meant that even if my initial attempts at filmmaking were raw, they still are to an extent, I had solid on screen performances. After sending my films in for local film nights I got a break at an evening in Edinburgh called Write, Shoot, Cut.
This was a night that was run by a fellow filmmaker, Neil Rolland. I had been aware of Neil's work for a while and he was one of the few people who seemed to be willing to give advice and reply to my messages. I really liked his films, like my own, they were dark and sinister. I actually owe a lot to Neil as it was at this film night I started to make a lot of my initial contacts. I am a shameless networker so this evening was the perfect platform for me to build relationships...
Describe your early filmmaking efforts.
When I first started I really had no idea what I was doing, so, as an experiment I decided to turn a short poem I had written in to a monologue to camera, it was titled "The Banker". I managed to pull a favour and bag a location at the Merchants Club in Edinburgh. I cast an Actor that I had met through Gumtree in the form of Michael Daviot. I knew as soon as I had coffee with him, he was perfect. I filmed and edited the piece in a day and uploaded it to youtube. Overnight it gained over 100,000 views, I thought, this filmmaking isn't so hard, I would soon realise I still had a lot of learning to do…
After this I thought, I want to make a feature, so I did. I pulled together 7 or 8 of my good friends that were Actors and proceeded to shoot. It was just me and my camera, we managed to wrap the film in about 10 days. It was only when I got to the post production that I realised I had a problem. I had bought a new DSLR a couple of weeks before shooting and although the footage looked better than my previous films, I didn't know that the camera had a built in Auto Gain Control setting. All of my audio was hissing like mad. It took longer to fix in Post Production than it did to shoot the film itself. In the end, it turned out OK; but I never made that mistake again. Although, I still maintain to this day that mistakes are the best way to learn.
6 years on I have now shot 2 features and about 16 shorts, as well as DOP'ing around 15 projects written by other people. They are all varying degrees of competency but I am genuinely proud of them all.
You'd made an early feature but what led you to make Skeletons? How did the script come about?
After the issues highlighted above in my first feature "Walter", I was determined to get it right. I was a couple of years down the line and my skills had improved 10 fold. My friends kept asking me "When are you going to make another feature". It felt like the right time to do so. As well as improving my own competency I had now met enough people on the production side to deliver a much more solid attempt. The idea for Skeletons was developed and I cast the Actors.
There was an "outline" script but I wanted to make a feature where the lead characters in particular said almost nothing, so on paper it was mainly direction. I wanted to make the film all about tone and observation. I wanted the audience to build a picture in their heads about who the characters were, even though they knew nothing about them, before completely smashing their perception at the end of it all. All of my films are an exercise in misdirection. That is kind of my filmmaking mantra...
How did you go about funding, scheduling and finding cast and crew for the film?
At the moment I self-fund. I run a corporate film business as well so I put a lot of the money I make back in to my kit. I can then use it to improve the quality on my own productions, the upside is that I have no rental costs.
Apart from that, I am hugely reliant on favours. I am a big believer in using my energy in productive ways and surround myself with others of the same mind set. As such a lot of the Actors gave up their time for free. They then used the content generated to their advantage to secure their own Agents and land roles in popular TV shows.
They could have said no, they would have been fully entitled to do so; but by taking a chance and getting involved they opened a door for themselves. Personally, if I have a spare day, I would always choose being creative than waiting around for a phone to ring.
I think that is the major lesson I have learned from Acting. You have to be motivated, be productive and create your own destiny. The next opportunity is just around the corner but if you continue to stay still, you will inevitably miss the bus...
Describe your process of shooting -Scheduling; days; problems which occurred and how you worked your days?
Generally speaking I don't really do formal production scheduling on my own films. I think that probably comes from starting as a self shooter and being a visually motivated thinker. I can visualise what I want in my head, I can explain it to people but I am fairly dyslexic so I struggle to write things down.
On set, I generally work on 6-8 hour shooting days. I believe Acting, like life, is energy; So unless you are going for the, all my Actors are knackered angle, I find it best to work in sensible bursts. That is just what works for me. I am not opposed to working long days, I did 16 hours average when I was acting (and when I worked in Catering) but similarly, I know how I felt at the end of these days.
Life is about motivation, I am much more motivated with a good nights sleep than I am going to bed at 1am and then getting up at 6am again. You have to keep people fired up. I
One area I often get compliments on from Actors is about my style of working with them. I trust Actors, I listen to their suggestions, I don't always accept them but I know if I cast someone in my film, they will most likely have done their own hours of preparation. I will generally play out the scene and just watch. If I see something I like, I will make them aware of it. Sometimes they don't even know what they have done. I think that is key to good Direction, first and foremost, observing, and then feeding back to the performer. Letting them know that you appreciate all the little details.
In terms of problems, the only ones I really encounter are the ones I place on myself. I am fiercely ambitious and sometimes don't even realise how difficult I potentially make my life. For example, with Skeletons, the film was meant to be limited to around 3 locations, all residential. By the end of it we were on buses, shooting in saunas, shooting in youth hostels, graveyards, working mens clubs, multi-story car parks and a whole other host of places. It was a much bigger scale of production than I had originally visualised but in the end we achieved it.
It is amazing how many people are willing to help you with something if you just ask, even if you had next to no budget. In fact, that is one bit of advice I always give to aspiring filmmaker's. "Never be afraid to ask, the worst they can say is NO!"
What was the most difficult aspect of the actual production?
I think the most difficult aspect for me was taking on multi-roles. This was a much more ambitious project than I had originally set out to make. I had next to no budget and as such I was working as Producer, Director and Shooter. In all honesty, it was too much. I have since accepted that teamwork makes the dreamwork. I now work with a team of fellow professionals under the banner of Relentless Film Collective and since getting together life has become a lot easier.
Describe how you dealt with any issues – technical, crew personalities.
In terms of issues I am really pleased to say that there weren't any, outside of the ambitious locations etc. I am big believer that film sets have to be harmonious and as such, I only work with people I like. This may sound simple but it is true. Film sets can be intense, they have enormous pressures at times, you have to be focused and it doesn't take much to upset the apple cart.
As I said earlier, there are always people willing to get involved in your projects; but you have to be sure they are the right people for you. This is true of all contributors whether it be in front or behind the camera. I like to work with small crews that don't mind pitching in. It is ok to have defined roles but sometimes things need done, if you can get everyone working to that ethos, a small motivated crew can achieve the same as a much bigger one...
10) How did you find dealing with other actors. Was it easier coming from an acting background? Did you find it difficult to let go of any part of the characterisation bearing in mind you wrote the script?
I love working with Actors, I have also been fortunate to work with some really talented Directors (and some bad ones) and as such, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't for me. I really didn't find it difficult to let go on this particular project as a big part of it was literally to let the Actors create and experiment. That was the beauty of working with such few words. I wanted the film to have long moments of tension and reflection. I wanted the Actors to come up with their own quirks and personality traits and I think it really shines though in the film.
What was your approach to the technical aspects? DP, camera choice, lighting?
Skeletons was the first time I had ever "lit" one of my films. I had just invested in lights and was keen to use them so this was the first film that really allowed me to experiment with lighting profiles. I wanted every scene and character to have their own themes and colours associated with their lives. I shot most of the film on my Canon L-Series 24-70mm. I know a lot of people in film favour primes but as I work fast and didn't have a Camera Assistant at the time, I generally favoured zooms for my work-flow.
In terms of camera, I started shooting the film on a Canon 5D Mk2 but by the end of the year I had upgraded to shooting on a Canon C300. Looking back. I wish I had known then what I know now about working as a DOP. I am immensely proud of Skeletons but I know if I was to do it all again it would be a much glossier and stylised film. Having said that, I am inspired by Noir and foreign cinema so maybe the darker murkier tones are more true to this genre.
I guess that is the crux of being a filmmaker, you are constantly improving your skills so a project that is 6 months old will often feel dated. I guess that is part of the problem with constantly seeking perfection. The chances are, you will never do so. You sometimes have to remember, even though you have seen your film a million times, it will be a first for your audience...
What was your post process?
Post was an interesting one on this film. I was actually editing sequences as I went. So, when we wrapped after a shoot day, I would go home, transcode my footage in to pro-res 422 and get cracking with cutting. By the time shooting had wrapped I had essentially assembled the entire film. All that was left was the grade.
After I had the film locked I sent it to Composer Philip Curran and he did an absolutely phenomenal job of scoring the piece. As so much of the film was about tone, music played a huge part in the project. Phil designed character themes which developed and grew as the film progressed.
When he let me here the overall theme I was absolutely blown away. I just brought everything together. It looked and felt like a real movie. It was the first time I had looked at one of my projects and thought, yes, this is what filmmaking is all about…collaboration…
After finishing the film, which was a great achievement you moved on to other projects. Why was this? What do you intend to do with it now?
I constantly have to keep moving. I am the same in life as I am in filmmaking. I love new challenges and telling new stories. I know people often spend years touring and promoting just one project. I have a 1000 ideas I want to achieve. I don't really do this for any form of financial gain. I just love to get my films out there. More often than not I put them online and let people gravitate towards them.
In terms of what I would like to do with Skeletons, I would love to try and get some kind of online distribution, I think the cast and crew deserve their work to be seen. I watch most films on online platforms now and I think this is the way forward for indie filmmakers. I think Skeletons sits in an interesting place. I haven't really seen any other films like it. I am not sure if that works in its favour or not...
14) Obviously there are limitations working within a small budget. What positives are there to be gained from working on micro-budget features?
The big plus for me in working with a small budget is that you keep a level of control that a funded project doesn't allow. As soon as money gets involved, the more people that have a say. Your project can often feel like it is grinding to a halt when opinions start getting thrown about, you loose the fluidity.
The amount of times I have heard Writers and Directors talking about how money ruined their project is unreal. What I would say is, I don't want to make movies for nothing forever; but I think you need to be sure that the right people are involved. A lot of people who are willing to put up money are not often creatives. They expect something back from their investment, that's how life works. Professional filmmaking is a business.
I recently had a concept picked up for a TV show. The production company loved the idea, wanted the rights but they wanted their own writer. This happens a lot in Film and TV. So, working as an indie with no budget allows you to do what you want to do. This is not a luxury that is often afforded once someone decides they want to fund you.
What do you think people can gain from working on a feature which they cant from working on a short?
I think they gain a more realistic experience of "The Industry". The pace of working on a feature for me is a lot faster and a lot more intense than that of a short. With a short film you can generally shoot and wrap in 2 or 3 days. Working on a feature, I think you learn to make certain sacrifices. For example, maybe you only have access to a location for one day and you have to achieve 8 pages of your film, which is a lot by anyones standards.
Most strong shorts fall in to the 10 minutes or below category. If you work on a minute a page, you often shoot more in one day of a feature than you would on 2 days of a short. I think you learn discipline and are much more focused working on a feature.
Distribution is always the most difficult aspect of promoting and getting a film out there. What are your thoughts on this part of the filmmaking process?
I'll be honest, it is the part I know least about. I think that is often why I simply put my films online, which is actually a really bad thing to do. Distribution is probably the most important part of filmmaking.
I believe there is an audience for every film. It is just how you go about finding it. If you are making a film on a shoestring, the likelihood is that you don't have a marketing budget. If you think about the a lot of Holywood films, the movie doesn't often match the hype.
The reason we end up going to "blockbusters" over indie films is often because we are tricked in to thinking they are better films than they are. This is why marketing and distribution is so important for indie-film, without it, you are just lost in a sea of content.
What advice can you offer to anyone embarking on a micro budget feature?
Be sure it is the right idea. Making a feature is a hugely exhaustive and emotionally draining process, you will love and hate it in equal quantities. If you are approaching your film with a view to selling it, make sure there is a marketplace. Filmmaking, like I said earlier is a business, if someone thinks that they can sell it, it has a better chance of being picked up. And finally, be sure that you actually want to do it, there is nothing worse than not completing a project. So many filmmakers start work on a feature and for years later are haunted by the fact they never actually completed it...
What's next for you?
Making more films and continuing my own professional development, I am always looking to learn improve, its what keeps me going. I am collaborating a lot these days with fellow filmmakers and working as a Director of Photography. It is the filmmaking process I love and if I can help others to achieve their own projects, I will.
I like to be the person who wasn't there for me when I first started, filmmakers need support, not just financially but in terms of skills and experience.
In terms of productions, I have a couple of features that I have written that are in the early staged of pre-production. I I have less of a focus now on doing everything myself and finding new ways to increase my productivity through collaboration. I was the Writer behind these, I am happy for someone to take my script and have a bash at Directing and Producing. I look forward to seeing what they do with my work...
19) You work in a collective. What benefits do you get from working with these collectives and movements?
It lessens the load, allows me to focus on one discipline and allows others to develop their own chosen skill-set. It also lets me meet and work with new people. By increasing my network, it leads to exciting new opportunities and like I said near the beginning, "Its not what you know, its who you know".
If you always work alone, you will become insular and your development will suffer. Since opening up to collaboration, the quality of my own product has increased dramatically. You don't see many professional film crews consisting of 1 person. The collective allowed me to identify other motivated individuals who share a passion for film.
It is more fun working with friends than on your own...