Legions of microbudget filmmakers capture intimate side of the city
Suddenly, everywhere you look, London is teeming with microbudget filmmakers, hell-bent on capturing the 8 million stories in the naked city with a borrowed camera and a few thousand quid from their friends and family.
While Brits such as Richard Curtis and Stephen Frears or foreigners such as Woody Allen and David Cronenberg bring their sophisticated stylings to the capital’s streets, a diversity of other voices — some raw, but some surprisingly polished — are demanding to be heard.
Pics like Richard Hawkins’ BAFTA-nominated “Everything” (which cost £47,000, or $88,430), Greg Hall’s “The Plague” (a remarkable $6,585, and enthusiastically supported by Mike Leigh) and Menhaj Huda and Noel Clarke’s “Kidulthood” deliver snapshots of contemporary London that brim with energy, vitality, authenticity and commitment.
Paul Andrew Williams’ debut pic, “London to Brighton,” was initially made for just $150,520, although the U.K. Film Council saw enough potential in the rough cut to throw in another $338,670 to polish it off.
It’s the gritty story of a hooker who’s commissioned by a client to find him a 12-year-old girl. She picks up a homeless waif at a London train station, but together they decide to run for it and head for the south coast.
Pic was shot in Bermondsey and Hackney as well as at Waterloo and Victoria stations. “London is a character in itself,” says Williams, who started out as an actor. “There are so many aspects to London, it’s one of the few places where so many different facets and people can be going on around you, but you don’t have any clue about their lives.”
One private investor put up the bulk of his minuscule initial budget. But the pic wouldn’t have been possible without the support of London’s facilities houses, often the unsung heroes of the low-budget movie sector.
“Molinaire did our rushes for nothing,” Williams testifies. “Panavision, Lee Lighting, Kodak — they were all really helpful. If someone’s got two Super16 cameras lying around unused, they will often let you use them for free.
“You can spend two years trying to piece something together, or you could go and do it for a quarter of the money. We made a film for the catering budget of most films,” he says.
Ian Poitier also raised private finance for his debut, “Oh Happy Days,” which has just finished shooting. This former actor, dancer, AIDS activist and advertising exec staged a series of presentations at trendy Covent Garden media club the Hospital to raise the $470,375 minimum he needed to shoot his gay romantic comedy.
It’s the story of two men who have a one-night stand, without knowing that they are about to work together as client and creative exec on an advertising campaign to launch a new happiness pill. It’s a classic tale of sparring lovers with the twist that both are men, and one is black.
But for Poitier, who hails from the Bahamas, London’s diversity and tolerance made it the perfect setting for his tale. “This is a movie about the tension between work and private life,” he says. “Race and sexuality are two things that are not issues in this film. One of the great things about this city is that it just doesn’t come up. I don’t walk into a room and feel gay or black.”
“Someone Else,” the feature debut of commercials helmer Col Spector, was based on his short “New Year’s Eve,” which starred Stephen Mangan (“Festival”) and Keira Knightley. Mangan stars in the full-length version, but Knightley was no longer quite within the price range of a pic whose budget, including deferrals, was $940,750 (and only a third of that in actual hard cash).
Spector raised the money the usual way — “friends, family and a bank loan” — but the fact he was based at Ridley Scott’s commercials outfit RSA gave him a leg up in free backup and services.
Pic is set in the middle-class north London neighborhoods of Primrose Hill and Golders Green, where both Spector and Mangan are from. It’s the story of a guy who juggles and loses two girlfriends, then has to start again in his quest for the right woman.
“It’s a reaction against the cliches of romantic comedies, and written to be made cheaply, because we never thought it would be the kind of film that would get made,” Spector says.
“Budget leads the aesthetic, but you can make a film for not much money without it looking cheap. We shot on 35mm, in 2.35 ratio, with a real cast.”
Shortage of money just meant it took a long time to finish. “Someone Else” actually shot in December 2004, but post took 18 months. “Because of the cheap deals we cut, we were always at the back of the queue,” Spector explains.
Tony Grisoni is one of Blighty’s most experienced screenwriters, but his script for “Lives of the Saints” was sitting in his drawer for 20 years before it was picked up by photog Rankin to make as his directorial debut.
Rankin had persuaded an Italian jeans company to give him $940,750 to make any movie he wanted, on condition that he would cut them a commercial from the footage.
“Lives of the Saints,” which Rankin ended up co-directing with Chris Cottam, is set in the Green Lanes area of north London, where Grisoni used to live until the mid-1980s. It was dominated by Greek Cypriots, but with a growing influx of Kurds from Turkey.
“I wanted to tell a fable, inspired by those early Italian Renaissance paintings that describe miracles, but the faces are people the painter met in the street,” Grisoni said. “The film is clearly set and shot in that part of Haringey. That area felt exciting to me because of the mix of people and cultures — it felt as if there were many possibilities of different types of stories.”
It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the lowering cost of filmmaking that writers and directors will increasingly be able to film the stories they find right in front of them on their doorsteps.
And London arguably has more doorsteps, more stories and more wannabe filmmakers than anywhere else outside North America.