NUFilm Productions – How we scrapped our big project and made a new (and good) short film in three days | For Assessment | Process and Development

After screening the rough cut of The Actor, it became clear that our tutors weren’t happy with the film. While the other groups had given us some positive and supportive feedback, and had commented on things that didn’t work but could (relatively easily) be fixed and improved, the tutors didn’t share this opinion. I was the only person in the group that didn’t quite agree with the tutors – I insisted The Actor was good enough and could be fixed. Now I realise the film may have been good enough technically, but it lacks something very important – a soul.

So while we were in our group–tutor meeting, the main suggestion was to keep the same concept for the film, but change the location and cast, and maybe rewrite some of the story. Work with one character, use the location as a character, and make a simple but effective film. I was initially resisting – I couldn’t see ‘a guy in a pub’ (an idea Ross Varney suggested) as a legitimate concept, I couldn’t see how we could make it in such a short time (less than a week), and I absolutely couldn’t see how it may be better than the result of our 8-week efforts.

Thankfully, the group stepped up after the meeting. We initiated a big discussion on our Facebook group, talking honestly about what was good and bad in the group, what had gone wrong with the production of The Actor, and what we really wanted out of this short film project… After the big argument, two things became clear: we had disappointed ourselves, and it was time to make NUFilm Productions proud.

So on the next day, we started discussing possible ideas. We went through re-pitching some of our old ideas, trying to fit them with this new ‘guy in pub’ idea, trying to find an angle that could work with the location and a single character. Initially, there was the idea to make a film about a guy reflecting on life, the struggles and revelations, but we didn’t quite feel it was a good fit. At some point the theme of war started appearing – and it kept reappearing, with people redefining and refining the concept and how it could fit. We decided to go ahead with the ‘veteran remembering his times in war’ idea, and went ahead to make it happen.

Seb and Ben started developing a story and re-writing a script based around this idea; Sophie started researching sound and music for war-themed films. We went on a recce in the Whitefriars Olde Ale House, and decided it’s the perfect location for the film. I had the task to look for an actor. Initially we had the idea to use the WW2 as our war, so we had to find quite an elderly actor that would be believable enough as a war veteran.

But how do you find a 65+ year old actor that lives locally, is willing to work for little or no pay, and is available at a short notice? I started panicking, thinking there was no way these people would be online, or if they were they’d not check their messages on time… I was thinking, should I just go around town, search for places elderly people might gather, and pitch them the idea. I started browsing local actors on StarNow, and soon my fears got confirmed – there were no actors listed there that were old enough for our WW2 war veteran.

Luckily, everyone else had kept on working and developing their ideas. First, Sophie came up with the idea that we can change the war we’re referring to from the WW2 (which is a cliché, admittedly), to something that is more up-to-date, and actually being discussed at the moment – the Falklands War. I was a bit unsure at first as I had no idea what this war was about, but we decided it could work better, so we left it hanging in the air.

Around this time, Seb had shared with us a draft of the war themed script. We were all relieved to find the script wasn’t talking about any specifics, and it was a more general reflection on war and what it does to people and to life. And it was good! The dialogue (ok, actually monologue) was strong and really resonated with us.

This made all the difference. We discussed  a few quick suggestions for improvement, but the style would remain the same. Then we decided as a group we can focus on the Falklands war as a reference, and that we didn’t need such an old actor. I had already found a few actors I could contact locally that fit the 60 + / – age range, so I got on with that. I was focusing on actors with little experience in film and some in theatre, that are not doing this entirely professionally (that’s not their main income), and are more driven by the passion and curiosity than by the ‘job’ side of it. This proved the right direction to take – the actors I contacted responded relatively quickly, and seemed interested – even though some of them couldn’t make it, and others just weren’t the right fit. I did put up a casting call too, but there were no responses – so I’m happy I went ahead with contacting them proactively – I think that’s what got us the actor we worked with at the end.

Once we arrived at the location, we started setting up the equipment. Me, Rebecca and Ben decided how we wanted to set up the camera, what angles to use, we also agreed to use the tracks for tracking in and out of the film. Then I spent some time with Sophie figuring out the sound in the room. It proved quite noisy because of the proximity of a busy street just outside the window, but we found a way to work with directional microphones to minimise this. At that point we also figured out that Sophie can’t work on her own with the setup we had chosen, so Seb took on the role of boom operator for the day. Gemma was busy filling out all the relevant forms, dealing with the budget and doing all the paperwork for the production.

The visual team then started filming some cutaways of details around the pub that we might use. It was a good chance for the crew to get to know the location, without being under pressure to deliver amazing shots. I met up with our actor Ken, and from then on wanted to focus on making him and the crew feel as comfortable as possible. He actually didn’t need that – he was already prepared, and had brought with himself the exact attitude that we needed. We sat down and spent a good half an hour discussing the script and his performance, how each line would be delivered and why. I tried to put him in a space where he’s playing someone who’s already had a close encounter with a war, and had also lost a relative in battle. Now, he’s seeing the current events and wars abroad and he’s trying to keep himself together, living this isolated life and spending a lot of time on his own, with his beer in the pub.

I think it helped him put himself into that space. He had a few questions around the script and we even changed a few lines after his suggestions (and a discussion with our scriptwriter Seb). It was really important for me that we three were on the same page with the story, so we can make sure the film is made well.

Later, after checking how the crew was doing, I came back to Ken, and to my surprise he asked me to sit with him, and be ‘the camera’. He really owned his role, and after he had rehearsed his lines he wanted to have a few run throughs with the director. I will be honest – one of them was so good I shed a tear. Or maybe it was because of the whole emotional state of the moment – collaborating with someone so dedicated to doing things well, and to making my vision happen.

We discussed how the scenes would be filmed – whether separately, in groups, or all in one go. Initially, I had made a scene breakdown which suggested lots of cutting and resetting – but after having seen Ken’s performance (which was him going through the whole script), we decided the best thing to do would be to either film the scenes in the same order they appear in the script and group them by emotional state, or shoot everything in one go, and make a few run throughs of the whole script to cover midshots, closeups and wideshots where needed.

It wasn’t hard to convince the crew – especially after they saw his first rehearsal on set. So we started filming, and it was literally capturing all the small details of his breathing, his pauses, his eyes… Most of what is said in the film is not in the text – it’s where the silence is the most painful. I think we did a good job capturing that.

In the version of the script we used, there were scenes where his lines would be interrupted by the sight of people moving around him at unnatural speed. We had an idea how to get extras, but after we had filmed Ken’s takes, we decided this wasn’t needed – the film was saying enough already, and this would be an unnecessary complication, and possibly a distraction from the main story.

What we did know, was that in the edit we wanted the sounds of a battlefield as the background track under his monologue. Sophie did a great job of sourcing the right sounds, and after deciding which takes to use, I created a simple, yet I hope powerful soundscape that supports the monologue.

I think it is safe to say every single member of the crew, including Ken, was 100 % dedicated and passionate about making this film good. And we did. I think the film will keep viewers engaged, and will leave them feeling differently after watching it. Most importantly, this film has a soul. And this is all that really matters.

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