Tartan 14- Far From the Apple Tree - DigitalFilmmaker Magazine Spread
The full transcript can be read below:
Far From the Apple Tree
Why will this project be of interest to readers of Digital FilmMaker?
I think our team have managed to pull together a unique project. A drama feature that’s been partly shot on 35mm, for £15K, everyone was paid a little and we did it all in 9 days.
What had you done project wise in the lead up to this?
For 18 years I’d worked as a 2ndAC on film and latterly as a DIT, mostly on features. I’ve been lucky and have worked with, and learned from some great people over those years, which has helped me with what I do now. For the last 4 years I’ve been directing my own features as side projects.
I was lucky that one of those features, Big Gold Dream – a documentary on DIY Music was picked up by the BBC and received some very kind press, as well as positive festival screenings. Before that I’d made a couple of very small micro-budgeted dramas, which were mainly learning curves. This new film was to really be a combination of everything I’d learned so far. I don’t ever see one film as being anything other than a small part of a bigger overall picture. As long as you learn something from each one, which then helps you with your next one then it’s a success to me. Good reviews are nice, bad ones not so good but believing in what you do and seeing a progression is far more important to me.
Who has done what on the film?
We were lucky to have a fantastic cast and crew whom I’d mostly previously worked with. Choosing an understanding crew is vital and 50% as important as experience. For us though we had a very experienced crew who all understood the project was slightly different to what they were used to.
Our actors were:
Sorcha Groundsell as Judith (Iona and BBC1’s Clique)
Victoria Liddelle as Roberta (The Outlaw King and The Loch)
Lynsey-Ann Moffat as Suzy (Angels Share and Outlander)
Adrienne-Marie Zit as Dr Penelope (Outlander)
Margaret Fraser as Dawn
Scarlett Mack as Anne-Marie
Ben Soper wrote the script
The producers are Steven Moore and Olivia Gifford
Our Cinematographer was Simon Vickery
Our 1stAD was Kath Wishart
Our editor is Andy Morrison
And we had great support from many friends for the other crew roles. Too many to list but all great.
And how did that utilise your individual skills?
We had such a good team I didn’t have to do too much; they did all the hard work!
I wanted the shoot itself to feel like a one off event, almost is if the process of the making was its main purpose.
In terms of individual skills it was important to try and unlearn the methods we’d all been trained in. I think there’s an irony within the film industry – which is supposed to be one of the creative fields – that there has to be a rigid discipline and exact way of doing things otherwise you can’t make a ‘proper’ film. There’s a very fine balance here though.
I genuinely believe you can end up with really creative and unique ways of doing things by working outside your comfort zone. There are however reasons for the strict hierarchy and discipline of a film shoot – in most circumstances to be fair – and mostly when large amounts of money are at stake because after all it’s show business.
There are definitely times when freeing yourself from rigidity can benefit the film in positive ways, and this is what we thought would benefit the subject matter best. Not everyone copes with this in the same way, and rightly so because it can be very frustrating for a boom operator for example to have to put up with a director seeming to be self-indulgent. I know this myself from being a crew member, but even then there are learning experiences to be gained for all.
So what's the film about?
Ha, that’s a good question. The film is the story of a struggling artist, Judith. She’s very unsure of herself and lacks confidence in her abilities, although she does have talent. The subtext of the film is really an exploration of what makes someone an artist – is there something beyond just talent which makes a truly great artist.
Judith is offered her big break by being offered a residency at the home of a once world-renowned artist, Roberta. As expected, there is more to this offer than initially seems. Due to the loss of her daughter, Roberta has suffered an inability to produce what she calls ‘anything of worth’. She’s lost her muse. They form a bond over their duel crisis – Roberta’s loss of her artistry and Judith’s search for what she believes is the key to her producing great work. All appears to be going well until Judith becomes aware of the presence of Roberta’s missing daughter, who looks remarkably like Judith.
Who wrote it and what inspired that?
The film was written by my friend Ben Soper. I’d worked with Ben a lot as his cinematographer on a number of music videos. We have a lot in common in our film tastes, and as Ben also writes separately from his directing I got in touch with him to see if he’d be interested. Luckily he was.
I gave him a number of themes I’d like to explore, a feel and a rough genre and he came back with some ideas and suggestions. From there we just kept on bouncing ideas between us until Ben had enough material to write a script.
My previous drama films had explored structure, which is something I’m very interested in, and very keen to react to anything too formal or conventional. But from my drama writing inexperience it’s very easy to get yourself confused and messy. And definitely true for the viewer. Basically there is a very fine line and I’d previously crossed it too far the wrong way. A lot of this being reactionary to the documentaries I’d been making following very standard storytelling structures. Though I have to add that’s what suited the stories best, which should always be the case.
For FFTAT I wanted something that was far more orderly but still gave scope for experimenting with structure, time and editing techniques. Ben is far better, and more experienced in this area than I am so I was very keen to follow his lead on a structured script. We arrived at a synopsis that had a strong and simple story – which would be around 75% of the film, with the other 25% being improvised.
And who produced it and pulled the project together?
The film was produced by Steven Moore and Olivia Gifford. Steven was the Production Manager, and Olivia the Studio Manager on Outlander, the time travelling TV series set in Scotland. I’d worked with them both many times before, and Steven had produced my first drama. I got in touch with both as I knew they were the best people to realise this, and pull everything together.
Really without them the film could not have been made as it is. Steven dealt with acting agents, contracts and Olivia dealt with schedule, locations and budget.
We also had Charlotte Hailstone as Production Manager and Claudia Vickers as Production Co-Ordinator who both dealt with the day-day issues which would inevitably arise. I could not have asked for a better and more supportive production team.
Did you have much in the way of money to play with?
We had a shooting budget of £15K. £10K was for the crew and £5K for everything else. Steven and Olivia were really experienced with budgeting which meant we could do a lot more with our small resources than you’d expect on such a small film.
Having a very experienced 1stAD like Kath was also incredibly helpful. Although we had room for experimenting, the schedule was rock solid and kept us on an even keel. We had no scope for running over , reshoots or overtime as we just could not afford it. Time is the biggest killer with your budget.
The script was doctored to suit our shooting locations. We had two locations really – a big country house where we could film for 8 days, and a gallery where we filmed for one. The house was big enough for everyone to sleep so that meant we saved on travel, petrol and accommodation fees. Our shooting hours were standard UK 10 hour days. Although we only had 9 days to film it was important that we did not overwork people, it’s mostly counter intuitive to getting the best from people.
We asked a lot of very big favours which really helped stretch our budget. Everyone was really positive and helped us out as best as they could. Our approach was to try and offer at least a token gesture rather than asking for everything for free, and I think people responded really positively to that. Our aim is to try and make a sustainable indie industry so we wanted to offer at least something back.
We made sure that cast and crew were paid what little we could afford, that they were well fed and looked afte. We wanted a happy atmosphere as that always translates into the final film. Once we paid crew we worked backwards from that to see what we could do with the remaining money for the rest of the film.
One of the overriding thoughts behind our budget was rather than thinking we were facing an uphill struggle to create something which could compete with Hollywood, we used it to our advantage to do something you’d not normally be allowed to make by execs. It was very liberating. I’ve been a crew member on many films and had seen first hand how visions can be neutered by accountants and executives. There’s always a conflict between a vision and the reality of selling a film. We just went with the attitude of being brave and bold and always going with the ‘we’d never be allowed to do this normally’ viewpoint. Being independent should be used to its advantage, not as a limitation for lack of money. This is the time to learn and experiment.
Of course that should not mean being self indulgent. You do have a responsibility to your cast and crew for working on this film and you should be aiming for a good film. Again, it’s finding the best balance.
And what were your kit choices for this film?
Well, a lot of cameras and kit! Really, a lot!
Our lighting package was incredibly minimal. We had one 2.5K HMI, a small Kinoflo and a pile of RedHeads. I think Simon did a pretty incredible job with what little he had to play with. Other than time and budgetary reasons we needed speed. A lot of the sets were lit for 360 degrees to give us the opportunity to get the required coverage in the short amount of time we had.
Compromises had to be made, and I’m grateful that Simon went along with that approach. It’s very difficult for a cinematographer to compromise their work, but at the end of the day we got something that looks good, unique and was made on time. I’m also a great believer in your limitations allowing you to think in more creative ways, and that really comes across in our film.
The story primarily deals with Roberta’s film archive, which Judith has to log and transfer. Along with being central to the films themes that story device allowed us the opportunity to create many textures and moods and to be creative by using different cameras as paintbrushes.
Judith, inspired from Roberta’s work herself starts to film around the house, so with the archive, flashbacks, dreams and what is being seen in the present we were able to weave a tapestry of different formats representing different realities and times. We set up rules with formats and aspect ratios representing certain realities, which meant we could fool the audience later by breaking the rules once established.
Our main cameras were Red One’s filming in 2.39:1 4K.
We had Simon’s 6K Dragon, which we used for a heightened sense of normality.
For unsettling the audience we filmed some scenes on 35mm, and Super16. We wanted the audience to question if they were watching archive or real-time, but very subtlety.
For the archive itself we used Betamax, Home Processed 16 and 8mm, Pixelvision and scatterings of old Tube driven broadcast cameras. We also shot a lot of minidv. Some of the cameras were very battered and old but it gave us some very interesting and unique looks due to them malfunctioning.
A lot of the effects could be achieved with VFX and grading but I wanted to do it all live for a variety of reasons - one being it’s fun and another that it gets you thinking in different ways. There were a few more complicated shots, such as using infrared cameras and lights to shoot film negative being developed.
As the archive would be seen live on screen– and also to get some more interesting textures – we had to create our own film lab to develop and telecine the footage. We set this up in a room in the house.
Our friends Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian (AvantKinema) filmed some for part of an archive unit, and Mihail Ursu and Lucas Kao also did a lot for a second unit. Our schedule was so short we had no time to send the film to a real lab and wait for it to come back. It did complicate matters, especially as parts of the movie were films within films within films.
It was slightly perverse to create such extra limitations on a film which had already begun with heavy limitations. I don’t see the why you should play things safe and go for the simple option.
Where does it sit alongside the rest of your portfolio of work?
Hopefully everything is a development. I don’t see the point in just doing the same thing. There are definitely repeated themes in everything I do, mostly working with textures and multiple formats. I like dong things to learn so each film is always trying something different and be an advancement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know the films don’t appeal to wide audiences but I’m fine with that now. As long as a couple of people find something interesting or appreciate something then I’m happy. I can’t imagine anything I do having large queues outside the local Odeon, but that’s OK with me. If someone is inspired, commercialises something we’ve done and makes a success then I’m delighted.
It’s important to have a unified body of work. There might not be any similarity between the first and last things you do but there should be a link between each one. Ideas and approaches do change but there should always be something of you in your work.
So where are you with the film right now?
We are very close to picture lock. Our original editor had to leave as they were offered a very long running drama, which they rightly could not turn down. We had to bring in a new editor, Andy Morrison who has done a fantastic job being thrown into the deep end with a lot of crazy footage and ideas at. Although there are always points of seeming disaster I think looking back things happen, or you subconsciously adapt them to work best for the film. Andy has brought great experience and ideas to the project.
Our score is nearly finalised. We are working with an experimental musician – Shawn Pinchbeck who has done scores for The Corporation amongst others, and he is collaborating with Rose McDowall, who we are delighted to be working with. She has worked with a very diverse range of musicians over the years including Psychic TV, Death in June, Coil, Current 93 and fits in perfectly with the vibe of the film.
Regarding getting the film out to the world we’ve got some very interesting options.
How is it looking at this stage in the game?
We’re delighted with what we have so far. There’s still a lot to do but I think that it holds up very well to larger films. Not Marvel, but that’s not what we want.
And how do you plan to promote it given that this is such a competitive marketplace?
We have a number of options, dependent on a few factors. Sometimes you have to think what’s best for those appearing in the film, those who’ve worked on it and for the film itself. Which can all make many conflicts of interest, with tough decisions that may not be ideologically what you’d like to do yourself.
While we could distribute it ourselves it would probably be of more benefit overall to have it handled by someone external. This would give it greater exposure and in the long term give future projects the scope to be dealt with more independently. And that’s where we’re currently aiming for. We’ve spoken to some filmmakers we greatly admire who we are hoping will come on board as executive producers. At the moment things are evolving and moving quickly. But it’s good!
Can you tell us about the other projects you've been working on?
I keep myself busy. I’ve just finished a film called Teenage Superstars, a documentary on 1980s Independent record labels that features bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain. It’s just had its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival with a second screening at Raindance. We’re currently just waiting on its US release and a UK BBC Screening for later in the year. As they contain a large amount of music and archive it’s a very long and difficult process to licence everything properly so nothing can be done quickly. Luckily we have a great team who’ve massively helped me out. It’s just not something I could do on my own.
Concurrently I’m working with some line-minded people outside of the UK to try and establish an independent distribution network – something that will allow filmmakers to work together and to get their films seen more widely around the world, by working collectively. The idea would be that it cuts out any middleperson, doesn’t cost anything and gives filmmakers – and their films - a far wider reaching presence. A bit like a co-operative using small networked teams who swap and promote each others films in different geographic areas.
I’ll probably aim for a smaller feature drama myself at some point so I can learn something new.
You have to be reactive to your last film so a lot will depend on how this one does.
How do they differ from this one?
On the surface the documentaries are very different. They are well structured (thanks to editor Angela Slaven) and quite formal in presentation. Subject-wise they pretty much always carry similar themes to what inspires me to make dramas, which is usually a group of independent artists working together to square up against major record labels. They might not always win but they do try.
From those documentaries I’ve met a lot of inspiring people from different areas of the arts. There are many parallels between music and film but I don’t think are utilised enough. There’s a goldmine of information, ideas and work from musicians that can help us as filmmakers. I take a lot of inspiration from music and musicians.
Because the documentaries have generally been well received it certainly makes presenting less formally accepted works easier, like a form of entry-ism.
What is your favourite genre and why?
I don’t necessarily have a favourite genre but I do like films which don’t sit easily into a particular area, mostly films which could be presented as Exploitation but tend to be more original. Performance, Zardoz, Blow Up, Girl on a Motorcycle, The Monkees - Head, Yellow Submarine; which I suppose could all be called ‘Pop Films’. I like a lot of films from the late 60s/early 70s which flirted with the pop culture of the day. I suppose there was a European exploitation scene with variations on these kind of films – Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Mario Bava etc . Films that are stylish but have an arty fell to them is what I like. I also really like the French 1980s New Wave – Betty Blue, Subway and the British 80s TV Commercial directors Hollywood films, like Tony Scott.
Are there other genres that you'd like to tackle?
Maybe a comedy.
So what is the filmmaking climate like in your neck of the woods?
Not very good – for majors or independents. There are some very talented people around, producing good work and really trying to help create a strong scene. On a wider scale though I don’t think there are enough people seeing a bigger picture - that for a really creative industry to flourish you need to think beyond just yourself and your own film. Again, this is for majors and independents. Big Brother immediacy has destroyed a lot of our culture.
The more traditionally funded film industry – and I’m meaning funders, distributors, film schemes, exhibitors, writers, directors and producers play things very safe which is understandable as there is only a limited pot of gold here. But without risks being taken films and inspiration become very boring. People need to be allowed to make mistakes to learn from and to produce exciting content, but there’s such a sense of ‘one strike and your out’ around that it permeates every area of the industry negatively. This produces mostly mediocre or derivative work, and that’s a shame. That maybe too harsh - some of it’s actually good and there are some interesting filmmakers but on the whole nothing great ever got made from paying things safe.
Festivals have become very bland, and as they are effectively mirrors to a local industry potential filmmakers only see safeness presented to them. There are some great and inventive people around but they are slowly leaving town, which is a very big issue. An infrastructure for local talent and culture should be of the utmost priority anywhere. The indie scene really feeds into the bigger industry. Most people making the most exciting big films came from an indie background. Festivals still have a lot of power and they are selling out our culture by taking the easy route.
The indie film scene – which should be the exciting counter to the mainstream, where all the interesting risks and original voices should come from is possibly even safer here, in my opinion. I think the worst problem for indie filmmakers is the aim to be like the more traditional mainstream industry. People want to see glitz, glamour and red carpets more than make good and interesting movies. For me the exciting thing about being independent is to use it as an opportunity to experiment and try different things – it’s an opportunity that becomes incredibly rare once multiple execs enter the picture. People here seem very keen to toe a line, compromise and stay quiet when they should be shouting. The El Mariachi syndrome also has a lot to answer for.
There’s also a culture of immediate expectations being met – which I think to an extent permeates everywhere. It’s like the X-Factor or Pop Idol. If something doesn’t happen, like your film being talked and written about everywhere as soon as it’s finished – which just does not happen – people feel they should just give up rather than keep on pushing on. Don’t be afraid of long term plans. You might not find success with your first, second, third or even fourth film but if you keep plugging away you will learn and see some rewards.
While this may all sound a little negative its really more frustration. There is a growing sense of people not putting up with their voice not being heard. A few very low budget indie films have become successful over the last two or three years and this is definitely a good thing. It’s very difficult to be constantly positive and I think people seeing that there is a way to have your film seen is a great thing. It inspires more and more people to tell their story.
Positively, there are people in this area doing good things. It’s tough and can feel like being up against a wall but I think there will come a time when the tide of people trying something interesting comes through. Everything in the film world is cyclical and I think very soon there will be a positive and creative new wave of local indie films which will lead to more exciting big films. Keep being interesting and banging on that wall.
Are you at the stage of making any money from this as yet?
I’m not really driven by money. Of course if a film makes money it benefits all of us and we can look after our crew and collaborators better. If money comes in we’ll give everyone a share.
It’s relatively easy to make a sustainable career in indie-films. To do this you just have to look at what people are watching, how fan communities interact and market to that. Streaming is not very lucrative, and it is a future worry. At the moment you can still make enough to live and make features – if you want.
I’m more concerned about emerging talent struggling to have their voice heard, especially those who don’t feel they should have to make films to order. Like musicians it’s now very much an area for the rich and this immediately results in very talented voices not being heard. I’d like filmmaking to be more democratized. There has been a technological revolution but it’s not enough for artists to live on. I’d like studios and those who have done well to give something back as there are some amazing voices not being heard.