Just a couple of years out of college, Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley raised £25,000 ($39,000) to shoot their first feature “Black Pond,” about a family that invites a stranger to dinner, and then finds itself accused of murder when he dies at their table. They released it themselves last fall, to see if it would make any ripples.
Thanks in part to a bold bit of casting, it did much more than that. Following nominations for the British Independent Film Awards, the Guardian First Film Awards and the Evening Standard British Film Awards, the project was crowned by a BAFTA nod for outstanding British debut.
At 25 and 26, Sharpe and Kingsley are the youngest-ever nominees for the prize. Whether or not they beat their better-known (and much older) rivals Ralph Fiennes, Paddy Considine, Joe Cornish and Richard Ayoade, it’s a gilded start to their filmmaking careers.
At Cambridge they were part of the famous Footlights revue, whose alumni include Julian Fellowes, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ayoade, and “Inbetweeners” stars Simon Bird and Joe Thomas, who were a year ahead of Sharpe and Kingsley.
After their post-grad show at Edinburgh, Sharpe spent a year in the Royal Shakespeare Company, then a season in the BBC primetime soap “Casualty.” Kingsley started as a runner at a commercials house, and within a year had worked his way up to directing.
In their spare time they shot a short, “Cockroach.” A producer saw it and offered them $80,000 to make a feature. The offer fell through, but their ambition remained intact.
For “Black Pond,” another university friend, trainee theater producer Sarah Brocklehurst, helped them scrape together $30,000 by writing to everyone they could think of, to which they added $9,000 from their own pockets. Then they applied for EIS tax shelter status, and consulted Ben Wheatley, director of “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” about how to make a self-financed feature on a shoestring.
Sharpe and Kingsley conceived the story together, and Sharpe wrote the screenplay, including a part for himself as the daughters’ creepy flatmate. They directed, edited and produced the project together. The result is an eccentric, visually lyrical comedy of repressed English middle-class mores.
“We didn’t set out to make a film in any particular style,” Sharpe explains. “We like things to be funny, but we don’t like them to be just funny. We wanted it to feel quite real. Aesthetically we had no template, which perhaps comes from not having to pitch it to anyone.”
Having nobody to tell them what they could or couldn’t do led to their boldest decision — the casting of Chris Langham in the leading role. Langham, who played a hapless cabinet minister in BBC satire “The Thick of It,” was convicted in 2007 of dowloading child pornography, served three months in prison, and hadn’t worked since.
“We were of the opinion, having read enough about it, that he should be allowed to work,” Sharpe says. “When we were writing the script, his character from ‘The Thick of It’ was always a reference, so after a few other actors turned us down, we thought, why not Chris?”
Langham’s role has inevitably attracted attention. But Sharpe says they weren’t courting publicity. “We just wanted to make the best film we possibly could. We didn’t have a sales agent putting up money, so we didn’t have to pander to the cynical, cowardly way of thinking. It’s not been nice from a personal point of view, because Chris is a friend now, but I haven’t even thought about it from a professional standpoint.”
They invited everyone they knew to their cast and crew screening last April because they thought it was probably the only time the film would ever get seen. “But instead we walked out thinking, that wasn’t so bad,” Sharpe recalls. “The audience reaction gave us the confidence to try and move forward.”
After several distribs turned the film down, it was accepted for the Raindance Film Festival. Then Sharpe and Kingsley booked one week at London’s Prince Charles theater in November. The critical response was beyond their wildest dreams, triggering a steady stream of bookings from theaters for Q&As and runs of a few days. Sharpe admits he has no idea about the box office take, but says investors should at least get their money back.
Now a DVD and VOD distribution deal is in the works to take advantage of the BAFTA publicity. The pic will get its North American premiere at SXSW in March.
Sharpe and Kingsley are now firmly on the industry’s radar, and negotiating a deal to make a contemporary adaptation of Voltaire’s 18th century picaresque satire “Candide.”
“All we want is for someone to give us the money to make our next couple of films,” Kingsley says.
Despite their relative inexperience, Kingsley says he and Sharpe feel ready to step up to a more professional shoot, yet they’re loathe to leave the constraints of a tight budget; target budget for “Candide” is a still-modest $2.3 million.
“There’s a lot of waste in conventional production,” Kingsley says. “With less money you have more control. With a bigger budget and a bigger crew, one’s vision can get watered down. So accidentally we might have landed on a better way of making films.”