Tartan Features has a new film, it's most ambitious drama yet.
(TF) Tell us a little bit about how Far From the Apple Tree came to be
(Grant McPhee) My day job is in the film industry but removed from directing so I try and dedicate a little bit of each year to making my own projects. For the last two years I've been concentrating on finishing off two feature documentaries on independent music. One (Big Gold Dream) has just been screened on BBC and the other will be released very soon so I've been a little documentary-ed out. I had time off, I hadn't made a drama for a few years and I'd been inspired by the subjects of my documentaries so decided it was the right time to make a new film.
I like working with the same people, which can often be very difficult in the film industry because of schedules but everyone I wanted to work with was amazingly free so it felt like the right time to make something. So we picked some dates...
I'd approached a friend, Ben Soper about a script which could be made with minimal location changes and workable within a small budget. I had some themes and ideas but really after having chats about a story left the rest to him. I like to work fast so from initially speaking to him and completing shooting probably took less than 3 months. The previous feature dramas had been largely improvised, and because they were written and shot in a very short space of time (one film was completed in under a month, including writing and the 5 day shoot) there were some story issues. For this film I wanted a solid story with strong dialogue to minimise my preferred improvising approach and try working in a different way.
Steven Moore and Olivia Gifford, whom I've known for a long time were the number one choices for producing. They already work in the film industry and because they are so good we probably could not have made something so ambitious. We settled on a budget, allocating 2/3 to cast and crew, and the remainder to make as big a film as we could with what was left.
I had an idealised cast in mind and Steven and Olivia pretty much managed to get everyone we wanted. We got Sorcha Grounsell as our lead, who I'd seen in Iona and Clique and thought was great. The rest of the cast consisted of Victoria Liddelle, Lynsey-Anne Moffat, Adrienne-Marie Zitt, Margaret Fraser and Scarlett Mack. We were so lucky to get such an experienced and good cast; and they were all incredibly patient with me.
Crew-wise I made a decision not to shoot the film myself, which I'd always done previously and persuaded a friend, Simon Vickery that he'd have a lot of fun if he came along (I think he's only forgiven just me now). Ben McKinstrie was as our editor. He's has cut all my other dramas, understands the style I want and puts up with a lot of craziness. Also central was having a very experienced 1st AD and we got Kath Wishart. She very kindly agreed to help us out – which was amazing as we had a very tough schedule to complete and wouldn't have done so otherwise. Our other HoD's were Lesley Ann Halls for costume, Paul on sound, Emma Leigh Porter for Make-Up and Eve Murray for Production Design. We had a very small crew of camera assistants, AD's and Production Assistants who'd I'd all enjoyed working with before, and they all worked super hard
Really I had a fantastic team to give me the support and experience I needed and could not have asked for more. I can't stress enough how important to the film it was having the right people there, their support and creating the atmosphere we needed, it just would not have happened otherwise.
We set ourselves up in a big old house, we had an achievable script but we set ourselves a challenge to make it difficult fun. I just don't see any point in doing something that does not push you. The process of making the film was as important to me as the end result - and in many ways the complement each other. It's a slightly ideological approach but I think it's important to think of the bigger picture of an independent film industry rather than just the success of yourself and your own film.
What's it all about?
Well, this is from the press release and probably explains it better:
“Far From the Apple Tree stars Sorcha Groundsell (BBC's Clique, Iona) as Judith, a struggling artist who lands her dream job of working for a renowned and sinister visual artist named Roberta Roslyn (Victoria Liddelle). Judith's new job allows her the opportunity to view and catalogue Roberta's work – archiving but learning her alchemical techniques as she delves deeper and deeper into her past.
Throughout her work Judith discovers a secret left on the cutting room floor – a mysterious woman who looks very much like herself. The woman is revealed to be Roberta's missing daughter Maddy, and who's presence is still very much felt throughout each frame of the unraveling archive. Roberta informs her 'That Maddy is coming home'.
As Judith becomes more engrossed in investigating the mystery of Maddy the more she starts to appear to take on a new persona, a persona which seems to be gaining her a new level of artistic inspiration. Judith is left with a difficult choice - should she stay and finally have her own art exhibition, promised to her by Roberta or should she leave and go back to her old life as a struggling nobody. A battle is being fought between her soul and the creative force which might destroy her but also lead her into the new life she has always dreamed about.”
It's pretty strange but allows for some interesting visuals which I wanted to explore. I wouldn't really say it's like anything but I suppose there's elements of Nic Roeg's editing style, the psychological drama of early Roman Polanski and the folk horror/cinema fantastique of The Wicker Man.
I'd mentioned that the first two dramas were not so strong on story - which was intended at the time so really wanted to spend time on developing a believable story in an unbelievable situation, something that would have a real sense of drama and allow for really strong performances. In some ways it's a genre film but I didn't want to go down the route fully so there's a bit of a neo-realist element in there. Ken Loach and Kenneth Anger. Really, nearly everything in the film is about contrasts, including the making of it.
What issues Did You Have working with such a low budget?
A good majority of micro budgeted feature films, especially genre ones tend to position themselves in a 'we're trying to make this as much like a Hollywood style film as we can in order to impress financiers to allow them to give us money for us to make a bigger film after this' but we took the opposite approach. We used the opportunity to make a film that we just wouldn't be allowed to make with executive producers overseeing, and that's pretty freeing. It allowed us to play outside the rules, experiment and be creative and I think that's healthy. I think that's what many of these films should be about. It's probably a reaction to my day job where I do get to work on big films and see what can go wrong there when success and business is required. I'd proven I could make a (relatively)successful 'straight story' with Big Gold Dream so wanted to push and try something that was a bit different, even if it failed.
It's important to be clear that there's a distinction between a film being popular and financially successful and a film that can achieve good reviews and strong press coverage, but not necessarily make people rich. There's also a difference between what could be described as vanity publishing and self financing. People fund films for a variety of reasons. We had a duty to those involved to not make something that is a self indulgent experiment. The film had to be collaborative and while the intention was not to make a lot of money there is an intention for it to be successful in other ways and that's what independent films can allow.
Limitations can sometimes be good and big budgets can prevent you thinking in more creative ways. We could easily have written a standard script, followed it to the T and made our lives simple. But that's boring. I wanted to do something that would push myself and everyone involved, I think the best bits of the film were when everyone pushed themselves to think that little bit harder. So limitations is probably not the right word.
Other than money, our biggest fight was time (which was because of the lack of money). We had 9 days to film and we had a super strict 10 hour working day. On top of that the script called for some extremely complicated scheduling. Central to the story was our characters working their way through a moving image archive. The archive would be seen on screen, the actors would also be in it, it would also reveal a story and the script called for it to be old – so would in theory be made from film and old video formats. We had no time to send to a film lab in London (or the money). We could have cheated and used VFX but that's not much fun so we decided we would make our own film lab.
The third day of the shoot called for the first use of the archive. I'd made experimental films in the past with gerry rigged film chemicals but would not have time to do this over the first two days. Luckily we met an amazing couple who go by the name Avant Kinema (Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian) who were up for collaborating, which was super for us. They were experienced in the exact look we wanted so they kindly came along and worked with our amazing dancer Ashley Sutherland. This allowed us to create the extreme look – and have it ready in time for it's first appearance in the film. And the process was very complimentary to the heart of the film which was incredibly important. It's great to meet new people, and especially like minded people so we were delighted to have them on board.
In addition we used a vast array of different formats. There was a complicated set of rules for different formats and aspect ratios throughout the film, which we had to stick to. Some would be obviously archive and as the film developed things would become less obvious and clear for the viewer, and occasionally they would be changed to trick the audience. Eventually the audience would not be sure what was real or not.
We shot principally on Red cameras and had a camera assistant panic inducing amount of other formats. 35mm movie, 35mm stills, Super16, Standard16, Standard8, Super8 – all with variations on processing and stock. The video formats were Betamax, Sony 3-Tube cameras, Pixelvision, a reel to reel 70's video and miniDV.
The tools and cameras were also props so part of the developing and telecine-ing had to be filmed live for use in the film. i.e. the actors would operate cameras, film processing and telecine. But it did result in some very unusual scenes. Mihail Ursa and Lucas Kao managed to create a shot where we can see the film negative developing in a darkroom; which I don't think has been seen anywhere before. And it was pretty difficult to do but their inventiveness allowed us to do it. It would have taken a few moments to do a cgi-shot but it had to be real for this film.
I wanted to create an atmosphere that was in fitting with the subject so we were allowed to have 75% of the schedule 'as is' and 25% to experiment. It didn't always work as we were so stretched for time but most of my favourite parts were from this extra 25%.
It was tough being so regimented when I'm used to working in a slightly more documentary style but learning compromises was really helpful for future projects.
Really, we had no issues as such. We'd always set out to embrace them and allow it to add to the film rather than thinking we were loosing something through lack of money.
Cast and Crew photo
Redline (35mm Emulsion in)
Home processed 16mm