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New Films. TF13 and TF 18. Filmmaker Q&A: Graham Hughes on A Practical Guide to a Spectacular S

We're delighted that Graham Hughes's latest film – Death of a Vlogger - will join Year Zero Filmmaking as Tartan Features #18.

Graham has a very long history with Tartan Features, going way back to 2014 when Write-Shoot-Cut presented a revolutionary series of Scottish independent feature screenings, including A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide.

In fact, his history with us goes so far back that we can't actually remember why APGTASS was never a Tartan Feature in the first place. It shared most of the cast and crew of the original wave of features and he shares the same vision and ethos, which makes this all a bit of a puzzle.

We thought we'd rectify things by making A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide an official Tartan Feature - TF #13, where it replaces his Evil Spirits project - a little more on this film later.

We're absolutely delighted that Death of a Vlogger, Graham's new film will join our ever growing list of home grown DIY slaps-in-the-face to an industry which is gradually recognising the importance of micro budget filmmaking. They didn't do it so we had to.

Death of a Vlogger will add more fuel to that fire. We're stoked that someone with as much talent, drive and creativity is making a film which is sure to upset the suits, ties, white-middle-class-males AND the red carpet of the old industry. It's all starting to feel a little UKIP over in that world, with their desire to recreate the glories of the past or letting us all know our place.

This is now, this is Year Zero and this is the future of exciting Scottish Filmmaking....

We spoke to Graham about his latest film, as well as his current thoughts on A Practical Guide, 5 years after it was made.

Tell us about your new film. What's it called, and what is it about?

Death of a Vlogger is a horror-mockumentary about a vlogger who gains viral fame when one of his videos contains an alleged haunting. The story follows Graham as he investigates this haunting and deals with the side effects of being famous on the internet. It’s told in a traditional documentary format, including interviews, ripped YouTube videos, archive materials and new footage, whilst also functioning as a traditional horror film with tension-building set-pieces and scares.

You do a lot of work for BBC Social/Short Stuff, and have had quite a number of viral hits. What have you taken from these, and other social media into your latest film?

Well, the whole idea of the film stems from my experiences of making content for the internet. I love the internet, but it really brings out a nasty side in a lot of people. There’s a weird kind of anonymity that the it affords people, it’s like the wild west. My initial interest was to make something that commented on the addictive side of the internet and social media (something I’ve personally experienced), but as I wrote the focus has shifted. Those two aspects are still heavily in the film, but the more I wrote, the more the film became about fake news. The idea that you can’t believe most of what you read and nothing can be taken for granted. Every tweet, news article or blog has to be researched to make sure what you’re reading is true. I figured a fake documentary was a good way to explore this concept.

On the subject of other areas of work impacting on your films let's talk briefly about Evil Spirits, which was lined up to be a Tartan Feature. I know you got very close to filming but it never happened in the end. How did you know when to call it a day, and did you use any work from this for Death of a Vlogger?

I ultimately bit off more than I could chew with Evil Spirits and spread myself too thin. In the month before we were due to shoot, we had a number of people drop out of the project, as well as our main shooting location (it was a one-location film). This last month became a scrabble to keep everything from falling apart. It got to two weeks before the planned shoot, when I realised that while we could still force it to work and shoot everything we needed, the chances of it being good were slim and the chances of it being great were practically non-existent. So I decided it was best to save everyone’s time and the budget by pulling the plug. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I was so exhausted and strung out I cried that night, I think partly from relief more than anything else. The only work that has carried over from Evil Spirits to Death of a Vlogger (aside from the occasional prop) are the lessons that have been learned.

Back to DOV: very few films manage to straddle the fine line between comedy and horror successfully, but you seem to have pulled this off. How did you approach this?

Well the comedy in Death of a Vlogger is there but it’s thin on the ground. Because I’m trying to make something with a strong element of realism, the comedy has to be natural. All the comedy comes from the characters and their reactions to the story. There aren’t any one-liners or slapstick (okay, there’s some) moments, but a story like this is naturally going to be pretty silly. I think if this film didn’t have any funny parts, then it would seem less real.

There's a lot of mixed media in the film and a very fine line between reality and fiction, again something which is very difficult to pull off well. What was your approach here?

Well the approach was that I am a vlogger, so the footage for the film is literally being shot by a vlogger, in the way that I would have done it anyway. The blend of reality and fiction is a useful conceit, as it allows me to play myself, use already pre-shot footage and a few other handy aspects that save time and money.

For camera formats, there’s a bunch. Predominantly the film is shot on my phone (an iPhone 7). And the footage that is shot by the documentarians in the film is being shot by Kevin Walls on his Canon C100. There’s also a bunch of ‘stock’ footage ripped from my YouTube channel which is anything from my last phone, to my first MiniDV camera.

You also star in the film. What made you decide to go down this route?

So this kind of gets to the whole ethos of this project. While I was right in the middle of the collapse of Evil Spirits I watched a film called The Dirties. It’s hilarious and impactful and heart-felt, and it cost about the same as I had for Evil Spirits. The main difference though, is that while I was trying to make my film look like it cost ten times its budget, The Dirties had entirely embraced their grass-roots budget and given it a look and feel that reflected that. They didn’t waste time trying to make it look super-polished, they just worked within their means. So, about half a year after Evil Spirits fell through and I was ready to face filmmaking again, I came at it as a sort of Rodriguez list: what did I have to hand that I could make a film with? From there, everything came naturally from what was at hand. I’m not the best actor, but I can play myself pretty convincingly and I’ve vlogged for years. Also I’m always free and available when I need myself to be. I can shoot in my flat, I can use old footage of myself because that’s what the story requires. It can be shot on a phone, because that’s also what the story requires. I wanted to fit the story around the budget and means, rather than stretch the budget around the story. And so far it’s been the most relaxed film project I’ve ever worked on.

It's interesting you talk about embracing the budget. Having a micro budget film standing on the same pedestal as features with budgets of hundreds of thousands of pounds more is very tough as the general public are not so used to seeing these films, and often find the lack of fairy dust difficult to accept so naturally you can receive unfair reviews when seen side-side to the latest Marvel film. How do you deal with unjust criticism?

I took me a little while to be okay with this kind of thinking. And I think I mostly am, particularly if you’re talking about the general public. Of course most of the viewing public won’t have seen a film that lacks that kind of polish, so you can’t really hold it against them. It’s the reaction from the Scottish film industry that gets me down. After Practical Guide screened at EIFF, I bumped into a member of the screen department of Creative Scotland who had just seen the film. I put them on the spot and asked what they thought of it. After a moment’s pause, they said “it was a good effort”. That was all. Then they left. Micro budget features just aren’t really seen as valid features. So how do I deal with that? I drink a lot, I guess.

Still on the subject of different budgets competing, do you think that local distributors (for example, local film festivals and regional television) could play a bigger part in helping the public to accept films that are perhaps seen as rougher around the edges? I don't mean that in a negative way, just referring to what we can do with our tiny budgets.

I find it surprising that regional television doesn’t seek out more local films. I’m sure most of us would jump at the chance for a TV broadcast, and I’m sure most would not charge as much as they should (I’m also sure a lot would offer up their work for free). I was heartened to see STV showing Colin Ross Smith’s micro budget crime series The Crews last year. More of that please.

Turning to A Practical Guide for a Spectacular Suicide, what were your aims for the film? Did you reach them?

My aim was to make an indie festival darling that went on to win hearts and awards and got me a sweet LA agent and follow-up film commission. My more realistic aim was to make something that didn’t suck, that everyone involved could be proud of, and have the film screened to a decent number of people. I think I landed somewhere in the middle, definitely leaning towards the latter. The film was generally well-received with audiences and critics, and I’m certainly proud of it. It did screen around the world and has been getting a solid viewership since it was released on Amazon Prime. It’s continuing to find an audience in Scotland with a screening at the CCA last year and a follow-up limited release this Autumn through Hans Lucas’ Blueprint. On top of that it was picked up by a new Texas-based distributor, who are currently planning a limited DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD release in the States. Given its £3000 budget, I’m pretty happy with what the film has achieved.

After the EIFF screening and the BAFTA New Talent nominations what were your expectations? What more do you think could have been done from the Scottish film industry to help the film? There obviously were people who saw the true value in the film but why do you feel you had to distribute it yourself in the end?

Well, having won a BAFTA NT award previously, I had measured expectations as to what the results of that would be. It was my first time at EIFF however, and I was a bit more hopeful of the outcomes of that one. In the end it didn’t lead to any real tangible results though. But as Mark Duplass says, “the cavalry isn’t coming”. EIFF have been very supportive of me as a filmmaker though. Looking back, I think I didn’t seize the moment like I should have. That said, the week Practical Guide premiered was one of the most stressful of my life. I looked like a walking corpse by the end of it. I think realistically, the Scottish film industry (to what extent there is one?) could help with just more general support. For instance, take Creative Scotland. People are making the films without budgets. And some of them are good! What would be really useful is for them to act as a sort of quasi-sales agent. A loose sort of representative of the film, they could use their years of expertise and relationships to foster connections for the film, be it execs, festivals, genuine sales agents or other. Maybe a better term would be that they could be Champions of Scottish Films™. It’s maybe the case that as I mentioned earlier on, the film wasn’t liked by Creative Scotland. But surely there are no-budget Scottish features out there they would like. There’s so many of them, and I’ve yet to hear from a no-budget feature filmmaker that has went on to have a relationship with Creative Scotland. If their criticism is that these filmmakers have somehow bypassed the system and they don’t know how the business works, then show them. They’ve got half of it right. You know, the part where they need to be able to tell a story. Help with the other part would be nice.

Was there something in particular that made the screenings at EIFF so stressful?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because two of my friends have not long ago been in similar circumstances. I feel like all filmmakers at some point reach a sort of “coming out” film, where you’re the debutante for everyone to see for the first time. Practical Guide was by no means my first film, but it was the first that played at a festival as big as EIFF. It was the first where national newspapers were talking about it and it was being seen by many industry professionals. Everything up until that point kind of flies under the radar. This is the first time you’re really being exposed to the wider filmmaking community on a professional level and on an international scale. Every premiere of any project you work on is stressful, but your debutante film is different. Practical Guide had some negative reviews, and they were my first. After the festival ended they were all I could focus on and I believed, genuinely believed, that my filmmaking career was over before it had truly begun. As they say, you only get one shot to make a first impression, and I felt that I had blown mine. Time passed, I remembered all the positive reviews and feedback, all the people that had loved the film, and ultimately how much I love filmmaking... and I got over it. But it was a long and difficult process for me.

The film has often been seen as controversial regarding the title, imagery and subject matter. What are your thoughts on this?

I’m actually surprised at how un-controversial it has been so far. I thought the reaction would have been more vocal. There was a particular debate on Facebook recently over the film getting its release at the CCA. A handful of people were taking offense at the title and artwork. A few other people came to the films defense. Fortunately for my conscious, everyone in the conversation that had seen the film was coming to its defense and all of the people that were offended were people that hadn’t seen the film. Any discussion is useful though. I feel the more we can take the taboo of discussing suicide away, the more it will help people.

What did you take from making A Practical Guide and the experience you had with Evil Spirits into the making of Death of a Vlogger?

Well I feel that in some ways Practical Guide built up my confidence and Evil Spirits knocked it down again. I felt really good going into Evil Spirits and probably some of that over-confidence set the project up for failure. Because of both of those films I now know what I can cope with, what I can achieve and how much I can pull off on my own. It just occurred to me that when I’m talking about lessons learned or making these films, I’m almost always talking about it from a producers perspective. Which is annoying because it’s something I never wanted to be. But I guess as a no-budget filmmaker you have to wear a lot of hats, and arguably the most important is the producer hat, because without that the film won’t get made (unless you can find someone really capable and excited about your script that will wear that hat for you).

So yeah, over The Big Slick, Practical Guide, and Evil Spirits, I’ve gotten to grips with the nitty gritty, everyday business of just making it happen. Scheduling, script breakdowns, budgeting, workflows, marketing documents and so, so many emails. The writing and directing is the fun part, but the hardest and most useful lessons have always come to me in the producing department.

What's on the horizon for you? Do you have any more films in the pipeline?

I’ve got a lot on the boil, but nothing solid at the moment. I have an idea that I really want to start writing once I’ve wrapped production on Death of a Vlogger. It’s a kind of mix between Green Room, Home Alone, and The Expendables. In the meantime I’m keeping focused on Practical Guide’s imminent release, getting Vlogger completed, and hopefully making some more music videos, and sketches for the BBC.

You can watch the trailer for Death of a Vlogger here.

A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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