Join Stu Willis, our very own champion of all things Indie, as he hooks up with upcoming filmmaker Clive Tonge, director of SUNDAY BEST, to discuss his work so far and hopes for the future…
Stu: Obviously the UK indie genre scene is something a lot of our readers are interested in, both as spectators and – in many cases – potential contributors. Could you talk us through your own journey so far: through your beginning in filmmaking, and through your first couple of shorts?
Clive: My journey began a looooong time ago. At 46 years old I am probably the oldest newcomer in town. And possibly the slowest learner. Over the years I have done many different things –played in bands for years, had a million jobs, had some long periods of unemployment (I was a teen in the 80’s – grim). After my rock’n’roll dreams faded I started photographing bands. Not due to any great photography skills – more because of who I knew. I had access. Then digital came along and I moved on to making videos. Eventually I studied Computer Animation (I can’t animate tho). But having a life, going through stuff – that is my most valuable asset. My first film – an animated short called ‘Emily and the Baba Yaga’– came about because I knew a talented bunch of friends. We all had the desire to make a film, something of quality for our showreels. So we got together and made it. The most important thing about making a film, for me, is having a point. Why tell this story? Why now? Having well thought out, intelligent answers to those questions is so important because that’s what funders want to know. It also helps no end with the marketing. With ‘Emily...’ the point was to tell a post-feminist, modern version of a fairytale. The Grimm Brothers, Disney, modern kids TV all sanitised and ruined fairytales. I realise this may sound boring and academic but what it all boiled down to was this – let’s have a kickass, female heroine who isn’t afraid to cut her enemy to pieces. And ‘chick with chainsaw’ is headline grabbing and new.
The success of ‘Emily...’ led to me being picked to direct a script for the UK Film Council’s ‘Digital Shorts’ scheme. ‘Love Lesson’ was made to see what I was like on-set. To see if I was able to handle a crew and actors. The challenge became even greater because the cast was mainly kids. Having a background in animation proved to be invaluable because I storyboarded every shot (I cannot draw much beyond stickmen). This is something I would advise every indie film maker. Storyboard everything. It means you have a ‘first pass’ at directing your film by yourself. And storyboards work every time. Stu: What type of exposure did those shorts get, and what doors did they open for you?
Clive: ‘Emily and the Baba Yaga’ played in festivals the world over and, for the team who made it, was a huge success. It won an RTS Award beating some pretty big competition. On youtube it currently has over 300,000 views.
‘Love Lesson’ was produced by Scott Mann (The Tournament) and went on to be included on the UKFC’s promotional DVD as one of the top ten directors to look out for. This film has the honour of actually earning me some money. The princely sum of £18!
Both films got small distribution deals and were shown on TV in Canada, Spain and Portugal. However, the contacts I made on those projects have served me well as I am working on features with the producers of both films right now.
Stu: You’re based in the North East of England ... how much of a hindrance do you think that’s been to your career?
Clive: Funny how you word this question – like the North East must be measured in ‘hindrance’.
Sure there are more jobs in London and Manchester. But I was never really interested in being part of a big crew. Film making for me is something I love. The North East is where I’ve made all my films and contacts. Of course if Hollywood comes knocking I’ll be off. But for struggling indie film makers, the regions outside London are where it’s at. There’s less competition and a greater sense of community. This means that it’s easier to climb up to the top of the tree. Imagine competing for funding in London where there are a million hungry wannabes. If I was living down there I doubt I would ever have made a film. I’d probably be a damn sight richer and have a ‘career’ but I’d never have the chance to be interviewed as a film maker by SGM.
Stu: SUNDAY BEST was apparently made on a budget of £500. That’s amazing. Could you speak a little more about that?
Clive: As I said – it’s all about the film making ‘community’. Everyone knows times are tough. Money is scarce so we all have to try harder to achieve anything. But there are talented, hungry people out there. A local college (Cleveland College of Art & Design) provided make-up, sets and costume people. In return I delivered a talk to their film students. Ben Race (DoP) had a weekend free and was up for shooting a bloody horror. The actors and crew are either good friends or people I emailed and asked to be involved. Nobody said ‘no’.
The important thing to remember is that, if no one is getting paid then people have to gain something else from the project. The students wanted a credit and an appearance on IMDB. The DoP (also a director) who wanted a break from his own feature project. The actors wanted a showreel film that looked great so I made sure that happened (I learned how to colour grade). The sound man had just moved to the area and wanted to build contacts.
I believe a happy set is a productive set. So the single most important factor in keeping spirits up and getting the absolute best out of people is to feed them. Good food. So the biggest single spend was on food.
Stu:... And what of the film’s influences? I loved the fact that it felt very British, but in an unforced 70s way. Was this something that was consciously strived for?
Clive: This was not consciously strived for. My love of horror films began in the 70’s and I am British. It couldn’t happen any other way.
Stu: You had a small but very talented crew working on SUNDAY BEST. Tell us about the actors. They were magnificent.
Clive: Yes they were. Everything in the film hinges on the performances. Bill Fellows is probably one of the few people who can honestly say he earns his living solely off acting. And it’s easy to see why. He’s had a massive range of experience and his professionalism rubbed off on the other actors raising the bar. Bill is an old friend and he signed up because we have never worked together before. Valerie Shields I found on the internet. At first I was concerned that such a sweet natured lady might not go for some of the things required by the script. But Val was game and she looks amazing. Andy Squires is a name to watch out for. I’ve never met a more committed actor. If I told him to eat raw liver, shave his head bald and run off a cliff he would immediately come up with five ways of doing it in character. He’s just finished his first feature – another horror – and I’m certain he has a great future ahead of him.
Stu: You organised a night local to you at arts centre The ARC. What was the format of the evening, and how did it go?
Clive: The format was horror shorts picked from different categories – from student to international. The evening was a big success and had the biggest audience of any of the Arc’s shorts nights. This proves there is an audience for the horror genre. And more importantly – an audience for films they have never seen or heard of. I’m hoping to do another similar event. Maybe even a night where we show great horror features that didn’t gain a wide cinema release.
Stu: Has SUNDAY BEST played at many other festivals yet? I imagine it would go down extremely well at the likes of Dead By Dawn and Abertoir ...
Clive: Er... it was rejected by Dead By Dawn. Not sure why as I was convinced Sunday Best would be right up their street. I will be submitting it to Abertoir when their submissions open in April. It’s awaiting response from a bunch of festivals right now. I guess the one I really have my eye on is Screamfest in LA. How sweet would it be if a £500 film made in a dark corner of Sedgefield made it to LA. But, since Sunday Best is pretty much hot off the press it hasn’t screened at any festivals yet. So watch this space...
Stu: Any aspirations to make a feature film? If so, what do you anticipate being the biggest hurdles (other than financial, clearly!).
Clive: Wow do I have aspirations to make a feature. I’m dying to make a feature. Although I cannot reveal anything at the moment, I am pretty close to getting a green light on a feature right now. The biggest hurdle (this project has been in active development for about 5 years) is the fact that I am an unknown director. That scares investors who are now more cautious than ever. Nothing carries more weight that having made a feature before. And I haven’t. But I directed a high-budget promo version of the film which has attracted some real interest. The script is one polish away from done. I’ve never been this close.
And there, without wishing to sound arrogant, is what I believe to be my greatest quality and the one thing that is an absolute, essential requirement for any aspiring film maker. Tenacity. It’s the one thing I can truly brag about. That although I came close many times, I never gave up. Trying to make a feature can be humiliating, frustrating and seemingly impossible. But keep going. Get used to the laughs of derision from friends and family. Develop a thick skin. Rant and rave but keep believing. Because with tenacity the hurdles simply don’t exist and there is no better feeling than ‘it’s going to happen’.
Special thanks to Clive Tonge.