Filmmaker Q&A: David Newbigging on Darkness Comes
Brand new to Amazon - and Tartan Features - Darkness Comes is David Newbigging's debut feature film. The film's production acted as a crash course in filmmaking for a group of young people local to the film's set in Greenock. We chatted to him about the making of the film and inclusion in the industry.
Tell us a little bit about Darkness Comes - how did it come about?
Darkness Comes was originally titled Dying Light. I worked for years in community arts companies and third sector arts organisation. I had always thought that the model of community projects could be used to make a feature film in a different way, if you could find someone to fund it. So that’s where it came from really, it was designed to be done as a micro-budget community project with young people. That’s why it’s set in a single location etc, to make it more manageable. The film came out of the framework doing it that way set.
Darkness Comes was your first feature as a director - what made you want to take the jump? Did you ever feel really ready for it?
I had wanted to make a feature for years. It always seemed like the logical way to go. You don’t start a band just to make singles. Gordon [McLean, writer and director] and myself had done a few funded shorts with Scottish Screen and done our own things, directed commercials, won a BAFTA New Talent award. So we felt ready. What I wasn’t ready for was making something outwith the funded system. You have no support and there is no money to buy support either. So things just get compromised in all directions. It’s a shame that there isn’t support for micro-budgeted films in Scotland, it would really solve a lot of the diversity problems in this country if younger people, people from under-represented backgrounds could be supported to go out and make a full product and give them the space to make sure it’s good.
I feel ready to do it now that I’ve done it once before, is the honest answer.
You shot Darkness Comes in and around Greenock and you received £50k of National Lottery funding to offer training to 20 local young people. Where did that idea come from and how confident were you that it could be done when you applied for the funding?
It came out of what I was doing at the time. I had been involved in GMAC Film, doing shorts and also working with young people making community films with companies like Fablevision. I had always wondered what you could do if you combined the two and used the filmmaking process to engage some young people in a large film project. Do a project where the product is just as important as the process and make that work for everyone. Not care what everyone’s background is and what they know, just get together and tell a story. So when I started my own community arts charity with a few other artists, it was one of the projects I wanted to try for funding. When the Big Lottery’s Young Start fund opened it seemed like a perfect fit. I was lucky that it was!
I was very confident that it could be done for that budget. Like I said before, we had designed it so that it could be done and my experience working with young people told me what they would be capable of if they were just given a chance.
How was it to film with such a big team of newcomers and relative newcomers to the industry? It must have been quite a juggle to balance making your first feature on a micro-budget with the film school aspect!
Yes, absolutely, it was a major juggling act. The young people were amazing. They really got into it and put their heart and soul into the project. We ran three months of workshops where they made their own shorts to train. They came in and helped with building the set. They were involved in casting. We had talks from industry pros. A lot of the training was about encouraging them to tell their own stories after the project was done. You’ve got to remember that Inverclyde is not a place where this kind of thing happens. A few of the young people had some film/tv training but most did not. They were really the most amazing group.
A lot of the challenges came from the fact that even though we had designed the film to be made in this way we were still trying to do something which required a bigger budget. Some of the professional crew that helped on the film were frustrated by this because they were used to a more professional approach, which is understandable.
I was also doing my job at the arts company at the same time. It was a really stressful time!
If I was doing it again I would want a bigger budget. Not just for the film, but for the young people too. One of the major things that we didn’t have was a member of staff that was solely responsible for making sure the young people got the most out of the project. I was always being pulled in different directions and things got compromised.
What do you think that the trainees got from working on Darkness Comes that they wouldn't have got as part of a film or TV drama with a bigger budget?
In my mind the project was never a job training scheme. It was a community arts project. The process is different. This wasn’t a job, they were there because they wanted to be and because it was fun. It was about inspiring people to go do their own thing, whether that is some proper training or work or making their own films.
Some had a great time and went on to bigger things and some didn’t like the experience and went to do something else. But I think the process was hugely positive for them, but you would really have to ask them!
One of the young people if now a Production Manager for Lime Pictures in London. Another works for Serious Facilities. A few others have worked on big shows here in Scotland. For a few of the young people the project fit really well into schemes like Hit the Ground Running, which they went onto after Darkness Comes.
One of the main ideas was to have some legacy for the project. So we encouraged the group to stick around after the film was finished. They setup Pan Breed Productions, a voluntary group and I helped them apply for funding. It’s still around and has about 40 odd members now. They make their own shorts and I try and get them involved in anything that I’m doing. They made some amazing shorts films, including one called Dirt that screened with Darkness Comes and the local cinema.
A recent report said that the creative industries are "socially closed" and "dominated by white middle class people" - with the relative freedom that micro-budget filmmaking can do you think there's a place for filmmakers to be socially conscious and actively work to address this?
Yes. In my experience it tends to be the people in positions of power, people that can decide weather you succeed or fail, that are part of an ideology that excludes interesting voices. I’m reluctant to say “class” because I’m not sure that’s right. But there are definite gatekeepers who’s decisions and positions need challenging.
There are only six short films commissioned in the WHOLE COUNTRY each year. UK wide schemes ultimately have their own agendas that very rarely fit with Scottish culture or creativity.
I’m sick of seeing people try to make super-hero movies on no money or whatever. You’re not going to make anything that stands out. I read a headline in the news this morning that Donald Trump wants to start his own space army. Reality is out-doing you. I want to see these people get angry and use their skills to talk about the world around them.
I think micro-budget films can really create a space to do things differently. Both subject and production wise. Darkness Comes did one of those things and could be a step on the way to doing both.
I don’t think my next film, Benchmark 6, could be financed normally. It can only be made as an independent micro-budget film, because of the subject, who I want to work with, who I think the audience is. None of that fits anywhere else.
I just don’t see where any new voices are coming from in Scotland, other than through making micro-budget films. When has it ever been any different? It seems to me that everyone who has a “proper” budget in white, well-off and in their 40’s. Imagine music was like that!
After you made Darkness Comes, you started on fictional documentary Benchmark 6 [TF #12], another micro-budget feature. How has your perspective on the possibilities of micro-budget filmmaking evolved through that process and since then?
I’ve not finished Benchmark 6 yet. There’s a 8 min short out there that’s basically the first act, it’s screening at the Southside Film Festival next month. I’m working on the rest right now.
If I want to make films in Scotland micro-budgets films are really the only way I can see to do it. I think a lot of my peers feel the same. I’m not eligible for Creative Scotland support, there’s no private finance to speak of here, so what do you do? In a way it’s quiet liberating, you just go tell your stories and get them out there.
We're at a point where anyone can make anything. Music, film, theatre, visual arts. There are no technical barriers anymore and there are no creative ones. You can just go do it. The gatekeepers are irrelevant. They’ve just convinced us they are still necessary. We’ve got to get over that.
On the flip side, micro-budget filmmaking can really push you to your limits - how do you keep yourself motivated when you're playing with a small pot of cash? I’ve got to believe that the story I’m telling is important. I guess Darkness Comes isn’t really. But the way in which it was made was.
What's next for you?
I’m working on getting Benchmark 6 finished. After that I don’t really know. I work as a storyboard artist when I’m not making films. I think I’d like to focus on that for a bit. I have a few ideas I’d like to do as comics, but there are a few films brewing in my head too. I’d like to do more films about everyday Scotland, particularly about growing up here in the West.
Darkness Comes is available to stream now on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
The short version of Benchmark 6 screens at the Glad Cafe on June 1 as part of the Southside Film Festival.