Back to Back: The Making of the “Back to the Future” Sequels

With the runaway success of the first instalment, there was no way that Universal Pictures weren’t going to make another Back to the Future, with or without creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. So after confirming that Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd were willing to reprise their roles as Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown, the producer and director got together to thrash out story ideas.

They knew from the fan mail which had been pouring in that they had to pick up the saga where they had left off: with Doc, Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer zooming into the future to do “something about your kids!” They soon hit upon the idea of an almanac of sport results being taken from 2015 into the past by Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), resulting in a “Biff-horrific” alternate 1985 which Marty and Doc must undo by journeying into the past themselves.

Gale’s first draft of the sequel, written up while Zemeckis was away in England shooting Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, had Biff giving the almanac to his younger self in 1967. Marty would don bell-bottom trousers and love beads to blend into the hippy culture, meet his older siblings as very young children and his mother Lorraine as an anti-war protestor, and endanger his own existence again by preventing his parents going on the second honeymoon during which he was conceived.

Upon returning from England and reading the draft, Zemeckis had two main notes: add a fourth act set in the Wild West, and how about 1955 again instead of 1967? “We could actually do what the audience really, really wants, which is to go back and revisit the movie they just saw,” Zemeckis later explained. “That is the thing that excited me most, this idea of seeing the same movie from a different angle.”

Adding the Wild West act ballooned the script to over two-and-a-half hours with an estimated budget of $60 million, far more than Universal wanted to spend. So Gale revised the screenplay, expanding it further with a neat point in the middle where it could be split in half. As two films, each budgeted at $35 million but shot back-to-back over 11 months, the project was much more appealing to the studio. However, it was still a bold and unusual move for Universal to green-light two sequels simultaneously, something that it’s easy to forget in these days of long-form movie franchises planned out years in advance.

A sticking point was Crispin Glover. As Marty’s father George McFly he had been a difficult actor to work with on the first film, and now he was demanding more than a ten-fold pay increase to appear in the sequels. “Crispin… asked for the same money that Michael J. Fox was receiving, as well as script approval and director approval,” according to Gale. He gave Glover’s agent two weeks to come back with a more realistic offer, but it didn’t come. Glover would not be reprising his role.

Jeffrey Weissman in prosthetic make-up as George McFly

Gale accordingly made George dead in the Biff-horrific 1985, and Zemeckis employed several tricks to accomplish his other scenes. These included the reuse of footage from Part I, and hanging cheap replacement actor Jeffrey Weissman upside-down in a futuristic back brace throughout the 2015 scenes. Life casts of Glover’s face taken for the ageing effects in Part I were even used to produce prosthetic make-up appliances for Weissman so that he would resemble Glover more closely. “Oh, Crispin ain’t going to like this,” Fox reportedly remarked, and he was right. Glover would go on to successfully sue the production for using his likeness without permission, with the case triggering new Screen Actors Guild rules about likeness rights.

Make-up was a huge part of the second film, since all the main actors had to portray their characters at at least two different ages, and some played other members of the family too. A 3am start in the make-up chair was not unusual, the prosthetics became hot and uncomfortable during the long working days, and the chemicals used in their application and removal burnt the actors’ skin. “It was a true psychological challenge to retain enough concentration to approach the character correctly and maintain the performance,” said Wilson at the time.

Filming began in February 1989 with the ’55 scenes. To save time and money, only one side of the Hill Valley set – still standing on the Universal backlot – was dressed for this period. The company then shot on stage for a few weeks before returning to the backlot in March, by which time production designer Rick Carter and his team had transformed the set into a gangland nightmare to represent Biff-horrific 1985. In May the company revisited the Hill Valley set once more to record the 2015 scenes.

When the real 2015 rolled around, many were quick to compare the film’s vision of the future to reality, but Gale always knew that he would fail if he tried to make genuine predictions. “We decided that the only way to deal with it was to make it optimistic, and have a good time with it.” Microwave meals had begun to compete with home cooking in the ‘80s, so Gale invented a leap forward with the pizza-inflating food hydrator. Kids watched too much TV, so he envisaged a future in which this was taken to a ridiculous extreme, with Marty Jr. watching six channels simultaneously – not a million miles from today’s device-filled reality.

While the opening instalment of the trilogy had been relatively light on visual effects, Part II required everything from groundbreaking split-screens to flying cars and hoverboards. This last employed a range of techniques mostly involving Fox, Wilson and three other actors, plus five operators, hanging from cranes by wires. While every effort was made to hide these wires from camera – even to the extent of designing the set with a lot of camouflaging vertical lines – the film went down in VFX history as one of the first uses of digital wire removal.

But perhaps the most complex effect in the film was a seemingly innocuous dinner scene in which Marty, Marty Jr. and Marlene McFly all share a pizza. The complication was that all three roles were played by Michael J. Fox. To photograph the scene and numerous others in which cast members portrayed old and young versions of themselves, visual effects wizards Industrial Light & Magic developed a system called VistaGlide. 

Based on the motion control rigs that had been used to shoot spaceships for Star Wars, the VistaGlide camera was mounted on a computer-controlled dolly. For the dinner scene, Fox was first filmed as old Marty by a human camera operator, with the VistaGlide recording its movements. Once Fox had switched to his Marty Jr. or Marlene costume and make-up, the rig could automatically repeat the camerawork while piping Fox’s earlier dialogue to a hidden earpiece so that he could speak to himself. Later the three elements were painstakingly and seamlessly assembled using hand-drawn masks and an analogue device called an optical printer.

The technically challenging Part II shoot came to an end on August 1st, 1989, as the team captured the last pieces of the rain-drenched scene in which Marty receives a 70-year-old letter telling him that Doc is living in the Old West. Four weeks later, the whole cast and crew were following Doc’s example as they began filming Part III.

In order to have open country visible beyond the edges of 1885’s Hill Valley, the filmmakers opted to leave the Universal backlot and build a set 350 miles north in Sonora, California. The town – which had appeared in classic westerns like High Noon and Pale Rider – was chosen for its extant railway line and its genuine 19th century steam locomotive which would form a pivotal part of the plot.

Joining the cast was Mary Steenburgen as Doc’s love interest Clara. Initially unsure about the role, she was persuaded to take it by her children who were fans of the original film. “I confess to having been infatuated with her, and I think it was mutual,” LLoyd later admitted of his co-star. Though the pair never got involved, Part III’s romantic subplot did provide the veteran of over 30 films with his first on-screen kiss.

By all accounts, an enjoyable time was had by the whole cast and crew in the fresh air and open spaces of Sonora. Fox, who had simultaneously been working on Family Ties during the first two films, finally had the time to relax between scenes, even leading fishing trips to a nearby lake. 

The set acquired the nickname “Club Hill Valley” as a volleyball court, mini golf and shooting range were constructed. “We had a great caterer,” recalled director of photography Dean Cundey, “but everybody would rush their meal so that they could get off to spend the rest of their lunch hour in their favourite activity.”

There was one person who was not relaxed, however: Robert Zemeckis. Part II was due for release on November 20th, about halfway through the shoot for Part III. While filming the action-packed climax in which the steam train propels the DeLorean to 88mph, the director was simultaneously supervising the sound mix for the previous instalment. After wrapping at the railway line, Zemeckis would fly to Burbank and eat his dinner on the dubbing stage while giving the sound team notes. He’d then sleep at the Sheraton Universal and get up at 4:30am to fly back to Sonora. 

The train sequence had plenty of other challenges. Multiple DeLoreans had been employed in the making of the trilogy so far, including a lightweight fibreglass version that was lifted on cables or hoisted on a forklift for Part II’s flying scenes, and two off-road versions housing Volkswagen racing engines for Part III’s desert work. Another was now outfitted with railway wheels by physical effects designer Michael Lantieri. “One of the scariest things to do was the DeLorean doing the wheelie in front of the train,” he noted in 2015. “We had cables and had it hooked to the front of the train… A big cylinder would raise the front of the car.”

The film’s insurance company was unhappy about the risks of putting Michael J. Fox inside a car that could potentially derail and be crushed by the train, so whenever it was not possible to use a stunt double the action was played out in reverse; the locomotive would pull the DeLorean, and the footage would subsequently be run backwards.

The makers of Mission: Impossible 7 recently drove a full-scale mock-up of a steam locomotive off an unfinished bridge, but Back to the Future’s team opted to accomplish a very similar stunt in miniature. A quarter-scale locomotive was constructed along with a matching DeLorean, and propelled to its doom at 20mph with six cameras covering the action. Marty, of course, has returned safely to 1985 moments earlier.

Part III wrapped on January 12th, 1990 and was released on May 25th, just six months after Part II. Although each instalment made less money than its predecessor, the trilogy as a whole grossed almost $1 billion around the world, about ten times its total production cost. The franchise spawned a theme park ride, an animated series, comics and most recently a West End musical.

But what about Part IV? Thomas F. Wilson is a stand-up comedian as well as an actor, and on YouTube you can find a track of his called “Biff’s Questions Song” which humorously answers the most common queries he gets from fans. The penultimate chorus reveals all: “Do you all hang out together? No we don’t / How’s Crispin Glover? Never talk to him / Back to the Future IV? Not happening / Stop asking me the question!”

Back to Back: The Making of the “Back to the Future” Sequels

Back in Time: The Making of “Back to the Future”

Spaceman from Pluto is a 1985 sci-fi comedy starring Eric Stoltz and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd plays Professor Brown, an eccentric scientist with a pet chimp, who builds a time machine out of an old fridge. Stoltz portrays a teenage video pirate, Marty McFly, who is accidentally sent back to the 1950s in the machine. After almost wiping himself from existence by endangering his parents’ first meeting, Marty returns to his own time using the power generated by an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert.

Fortunately this movie was released in some alternate version of history. In our timeline it went through a number of changes in writing and production to become the blockbuster classic Back to the Future.

For co-writer and producer Bob Gale it all started when he came across his father’s highschool yearbook and realised that, had he and his father been peers, they would never have been friends. Spotting the comedy potential in the concept of a teenager going to school with his parents, Gale sat down with co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis to develop a script. 

The pair knew they needed a time machine and decided that it would be created by a backyard inventor rather than some government organisation. “I can’t really put my finger on when I stumbled on the idea of time travel,” said Gale in 2002, “whether it was from watching The Twilight Zone, reading Superman comics, or when the H.G. Wells Time Machine – the George Pal movie – came out, but I do remember being totally fascinated by that film.”

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis & writer-producer Bob Gale

Getting Back to the Future made proved challenging. Most of the studios that Gale and Zemeckis approached found the script too sweet and innocent compared with the typical R-rated teen movies of the time. Disney, on the other hand, felt that the mother-falls-for-son plot was too taboo. 

Making matters worse was the duo’s less than spectacular track record. Their first two feature films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, were both box office flops. They even had the dubious honour of writing the least successful film of Steven Spielberg’s directorial career so far, 1941.

Everything changed when Michael Douglas hired Zemeckis to direct 1984’s Romancing the Stone. The adventure romp was a hit and suddenly everyone in the notoriously fickle Hollywood wanted Back to the Future. Spielberg, who had always loved the script, signed on as executive producer and – after a false start at Columbia – the movie was green-lit by Universal Pictures.

Studio president Sid Sheinberg requested a number of script changes. Professor Brown became “Doc” and his chimp became a dog. Marty’s video piracy (which would have explained his possession of the camcorder with which he films the time machine’s test run) was written out, as the studio were understandably unwilling to promote the revenue-slashing crime.

Sheinberg also hated the title Back to the Future and wanted it changed to Spaceman from Pluto, a reference to the comic clutched by the Peabody children after the DeLorean crashes into their barn on arriving in 1955. Zemeckis and Gale turned to Spielberg to help them dodge this title without offending Sheinberg; his solution was to send a memo saying what a big laugh they all got out of Sheinberg’s joke. The studio president never mentioned it again.

The title Back to the Future was retained, but the barn scene did prompt another change. By this point the writers had realised that an immobile fridge was not dramatic or practical as a time machine, and were searching for a suitable vehicle for Doc to build it into. They chose the slick, stainless steel DeLorean with its futuristic gull-wing doors so that the Peabody family could mistake it for a UFO.

Budget concerns drove the elimination of the A-bomb scene. Shooting on location and building the miniatures of the bomb and its test tower were estimated to cost $1 million. Switching the power source to a lightning bolt not only saved this money by keeping all the action in Hill Valley, it enhanced the time metaphor represented by the clock tower as well as giving Doc an active part in the climax rather than being stuck in a blast bunker with a walkie-talkie.

The filmmakers’ first choice for the role of Marty McFly was Michael J. Fox, the 23-year-old star of sitcom Family Ties. But that show’s creator, Gary David Goldberg, refused to even let Fox see the Back to the Future script, fearing the actor would love it and resent Goldberg for not releasing him from his Family Ties commitment.

A disappointed Zemeckis accordingly began screen-testing other actors, eventually narrowing the choice down to C. Thomas Howell (best known for the coming-of-age drama The Outsiders) and Eric Stoltz (who had appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life). It seems that Sid Sheinberg was Stoltz’s most vocal advocate. Gale recalled the studio president declaring: “I’m so convinced that Eric is going to be great in this part, if it doesn’t work out you can recast it and start all over again.”

No-one expected that to actually happen.

Filming began on November 26th, 1984. The logistics of transforming a real town into Hill Valley in both 1955 and 1985 were daunting, so instead production designer Lawrence G. Paull adapted the town square set on Universal Studios’ backlot, which had originally been built for the 1948 film noir An Act of Murder.

Special effects supervisor Kevin Pike had taken three DeLoreans and, working to concept art by the legendary Ron Cobb amongst others, fitted them with a variety of aircraft surplus parts and other junk to create the iconic time machine. The “Mr. Fusion” generator added to the vehicle in the final scene started life as a coffee grinder.

Cast in the role of Doc Brown was Christopher Lloyd, whose prior roles included a Klingon commander in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a psychiatric patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and five years in the sitcom Taxi. In another alternate timeline he wasn’t involved in Back to the Future either, having binned the script in favour of a stage role in New York; it was his wife who made him reconsider.

Basing the character on the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Lloyd made the Doc larger than life. Eric Stoltz had a very different approach, a method approach, focusing on the serious aspect of Marty’s out-of-time predicament and apparently ignoring the fact that he was starring in a comedy. “Eric didn’t get it,” camera assistant Clyde E. Bryan remembered in 2015. “Eric didn’t understand the physical, pratfall type of humour that Bob [Zemeckis] was looking for.”

By the sixth week of filming, almost halfway through the schedule, Zemeckis knew he had a huge problem. After conferring with Gale and his fellow producer Neil Canton, the director asked Spielberg to come to the editing suite and watch the 45-minute rough cut of everything that had been shot so far. All the filmmakers agreed that Stoltz had to go.

Unwilling to have Universal shut down the film and suffer the attendant negative press, Zemeckis kept filming with Stoltz for another week, with most of the cast and crew unaware of the situation. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Canton worked out exactly how much reshoots would cost ($4 million) while Zemeckis and Gale went back to Goldberg at Family Ties, begging him to let Michael J. Fox take the role. Goldberg agreed on condition that the TV show would take priority. Fox himself claims to have merely weighed the script in his hand before agreeing to do it.

During the lunch break on Thursday, January 10th, 1985, halfway through filming the DeLorean’s test run in the car park of the Twin Pines Mall, Zemeckis called Stoltz into his trailer and broke the bad news. By the following Monday, Michael J. Fox was Marty McFly.

The young actor’s schedule was exhausting. He would wake at 9am, work on Family Ties from 10am to 6:30pm, get driven to Universal and shoot Back to the Future until 2:30am. Any scenes that required Marty in daylight had to be filmed at weekends.

Nonetheless, Fox somehow managed to squeeze in guitar lessons in preparation for Marty’s performance at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. He already had some experience with the instrument, but was determined to learn to play “Johnny B. Goode” note for note so that he could finger-sync perfectly to the pre-recorded track. Marty’s singing voice was provided by Mark Campbell, while the energetic choreography of his performance incorporated the signature moves of Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as well as Chuck Berry.

The scene is one of the most memorable in the movie, but Zemeckis and Gale were very worried about it during editing. “It’s the only scene that doesn’t advance story or character, and we didn’t know how that was going to play,” said Gale. A preview screening in San Jose removed any doubts; the audience loved “Johnny B. Goode” and everything else about the movie.

After a second preview, this time with Sid Sheinberg in attendance, Universal realised they were onto a winner and moved the film’s release date up to the July 4th weekend, paying through the nose to accelerate post-production.

“I want it to be violent,” Zemeckis told the animators creating the effect of the DeLorean breaking the time barrier, “something akin to a Neanderthal sitting on the hood of the car, chipping away at the fabric of time in front of him.” The hand-drawn cell animation combined with built-in lighting on the car and actual fire trails that had been captured on location, plus additional pyrotechnics overlaid after the fact, created the signature effect.

Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri assembled the largest orchestra in Universal’s history to record Back to the Future’s iconic score, and a tie-in single was provided by Huey Lewis and the News. The latter took a couple of attempts to get right; Lewis’ first submission was a minor-key track that didn’t work at all, according to Zemeckis. It was only after the filmmaker showed Lewis the skateboarding scene that he understood the upbeat mood required and composed “The Power of Love”.

Fox was away filming a Family Ties special in England when Back to the Future was released. He was surprised to get a call from his agent telling him that it was the biggest film in America. It spent 12 weeks at the top of the US box office charts and quickly became part of popular culture, with even Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior giving speeches about taking the country “back to the future”. To date it has grossed almost $400 million.

Summing up the film’s appeal in 2002, Gale offered: “There’s something very special about this story that everyone can identify with, the idea of trying to imagine what your parents were like when they were kids – that just touches everybody.”

When Back to the Future was released on VHS in May 1986, fans noticed a small change from the theatrical version. There as expected was the DeLorean’s lift-off and departure to the future – originally intended by Zemeckis and Gale simply as a joke on which to end the story. But now, sandwiched between that final scene and the end credits, was a caption.

The caption read: “To be continued…”

Back in Time: The Making of “Back to the Future”

“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” Retrospective

“I’m going to carve your heart out with a spoon!”

“Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an ax or a…?”

“Because it’s dull, you twit! It’ll hurt more!”

Alan Rickman’s scenery-chomping Sheriff of Nottingham may be widely considered the best thing in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but there is plenty more to enjoy in this classic action romp even now, 31 years on from its release.

“There was gold on the page,” claimed executive producer David Nicksay of the screenplay by Pen Densham and John Watson, which he read in early 1990. Both Fox and Tri-Star were working on their own Robin Hood movies, so Nicksay’s comparatively small company, Morgan Creek Productions, had to move fast to avoid being buried at the box office.

Director Kevin Reynolds was hired for his previous collaborations with Kevin Costner, having given the star his big break on 1988’s Fandango as well as directing part of Dances With Wolves. Following a scant ten weeks of prep, Reynolds launched into shooting Prince of Thieves against the ticking clock of the approaching winter.

The English weather was as cooperative as you might imagine, but no-one could have predicted that unusual winds would cause Heathrow to divert all its flights over the Buckinghamshire forest standing in for Sherwood, playing havoc with the sound. 

Kevin Costner – who had coincidentally been offered and turned down Fox’s Robin Hood – arrived from the Dances With Wolves editing room just three days before filming began. His very first scene required him to jump out of a rowboat on the Sussex coast and wade to shore, even as his woollen cloak soaked up half his bodyweight in water. Later he spent four days immersed in the freezing waters of Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire, for the sequence in which his character battles Little John.

The crew also shot in Wiltshire, Northumberland and even Carcassonne in France, but never set foot in Nottinghamshire. The film’s most derided geographical anomaly is the stop-off at Hadrian’s Wall, which somehow falls on Robin’s route from Dover to Nottingham. 

The character’s accent is also geographically challenged, partly due to a disagreement between the two Kevins about whether an English Costner would be distracting for audiences. The result is best summed up by the man himself on the DVD commentary: “Well, there’s my dumb-ass accent. It was something I wanted to do, and I wasn’t very good at it.”

Test screenings were positive but showed that Rickman’s sheriff – whose part had been beefed up by Reynolds in last-minute rewrites – was more popular than Costner’s hero. The producers insisted on redressing the balance in the edit, leading to Reynolds storming out and a 2009 director’s cut that reinstated Rickman’s extra material. (The two Kevins got over their differences in time for 1995’s Waterworld… and I’m sure they’re both very glad about that.)

Legendary cinematographer Doug Milsome ensured that Prince of Thieves’ visuals were beyond reproach. To capture sweeping views of the forest hideout he mounted a Wescam – a camera stabiliser typically used for helicopter shots – to a truss erected between the trees.

The famous arrow POV shot, hurtling through the woods, took a week to plan and execute. A static arrow was blue-screened over a travelling forest plate photographed at a stately one frame per second. Originally intended just for the trailer, the shot caused such a buzz amongst the public that it was written into the film itself.

Another highlight is the score by Michael Kamen, who based his love theme on an actual medieval tune. For the tie-in single, Bryan Adams and his keyboardist Mutt Lange took that same theme and added lyrics, turning it into the power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”. The track garnered an Oscar nomination and won a Grammy, and spent 16 weeks at the top of the UK charts, a run still unbeaten today.

The achievements of the film itself were more mixed. Alan Rickman bagged a Bafta for his spirited turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, while Kevin Costner won a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor, and Christian Slater was nominated for Worst Supporting Actor. The lacklustre reviews did no harm to the box office though; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the second-highest grossing film of 1991, surpassed only by Terminator 2: Judgment Day. 

And what about the other Robin Hood films that Reynolds and co had raced to beat? Tri-star’s project never left the starting blocks, while Fox’s effort, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman and exec-produced by Die Hard’s John McTiernan, went straight to television. In fact the only film to challenge Prince of Thieves for many years was the Mel Brooks comedy, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. This parody is surely the ultimate evidence of Prince of Thieves’ cultural impact.

“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” Retrospective

“Citizen Kane” Retrospective

For five decades in a row, Citizen Kane was voted the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s International Critic’s Choice poll. Although pipped to the top spot by Vertigo in the latest poll, there are still plenty of filmmakers, academics and fans who consider actor-director Orson Welles’ 1941 debut the very pinnacle of cinematic accomplishment.

The spoilt son of a hotelier and a concert pianist, Orson Welles found fame in 1938 when he directed and starred in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds which was so convincing that thousands thought it was real and fled their homes. Not long afterwards, RKO, one of the five big studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age, offered a generous two-picture deal to the 24-year-old who had never made a film before and didn’t much want to.

12 months and two abandoned concepts later, Welles teamed with screenplay-fixer Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose past projects included The Wizard of Oz, to script the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper magnate based on William Randolph Hearst. The pair went through five drafts, making changes for creative, financial and legal reasons (hoping to avoid a lawsuit from Hearst).

The story’s fictionalised press baron, Charles Foster Kane, dies in the opening scene, but his mysterious last word – “Rosebud” – spurs a journalist to investigate his life. The journalist’s interviews with Kane’s friends and associates lead the viewer into extended flashbacks, an innovative structure for the time.

Welles himself took the title role, spending many hours in the make-up chair to portray Kane from youth to old age. Inventive, non-union make-up artist Maurice Seiderman developed new techniques to create convincing wrinkles that would not restrict the actor’s facial expressions. Sometimes Welles would be called as early as 2:30am, holding production meetings while Seiderman worked on him.

“I was just as made-up as a young man as an old man,” Welles said later, noting that he wore a prosthetic nose, face-lifting tape and a corset to satisfy both his own vanity and the demands of the studio for a handsome leading man.

The young auteur – who directed part of the film from a wheelchair after fracturing his ankle – was not easy to work with. Editor Robert Wise said: “He could one moment be guilty of a piece of behaviour that was so outrageous it would make you want to tell him to go to Hell and walk off the picture. Before you could do it he’d come up with some idea that was so brilliant that it would literally have your mouth gaping open, so you never walked. You stayed.”

Welles was keen for his film to look different from others, drawing on his experience of directing theatre. The leading DP of the time, Gregg Toland, jumped at the chance to break the rules. Influenced by German Expressionism, he was not afraid of silhouettes and bright shafts of light.

Welles cast many of his Mercury Players – a theatre repertory company he had set up himself – who he knew could handle long takes. He insisted on a large depth of field and often shot from low angles to mimic the experience of a theatre-goer, specifically someone in the front row looking up at the cast. This required many of the sets to have ceilings, unconventionally, and these were made of fabric in some cases so that the boom mic could record through them.

Special effects were used extensively to reduce set-building costs and avoid location shooting wherever possible. One example is a crane-up from a theatre’s stage to a pair of technicians watching from the flies above; the middle part of the shot is a matte painting, bridging the two live-action set pieces. In another scene, the camera travels through a neon sign on the roof of a building and down through the skylight; the rooftop is a miniature, the sign is rigged to split apart as the camera moves through it, and a flash of lightning eases the transition into the live-action set.

“We were under schedule and under budget,” Welles proudly stated in a 1982 interview. He cheated though, because he asked the studio for ten days of camera tests, citing his inexperience behind the lens, and used those ten days to start shooting the movie!

When Citizen Kane was premiered in May 1941, William Randolph Hearst was not fooled by the script tweaks and took the title character as an unflattering portrayal of himself. While he was unable to suppress the film’s release – though not for the want of trying – a smear campaign in his publications ensured it only enjoyed moderate success and that Welles would never have the filmmaking career that such a startling debut should have sparked. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Citizen Kane received the critical acclaim which it still holds today, 81 years on.

“Citizen Kane” Retrospective

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Released 40 years ago, Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi adventure Time Bandits remains a supremely imaginative film, defying conventions of plot and never talking down to its target audience of children. Let’s take a time portal back to 1981 and find out how it was made.

“I was broke. I had to write something fast,” Gilliam once said of the film’s origins. By other accounts he conceived Time Bandits when Brazil’s development stalled due to financier Denis O’Brien “not getting it”. (O’Brien was George Harrison’s partner at Handmade Films, which had originally been set up to fund the Monty Python feature Life of Brian.)

After dreaming up the idea of a knight on horseback bursting out of a child’s wardrobe, Gilliam jotted down a mere two sides of notes under the characteristically whimsical heading, “The film that dares not speak its name: a treatment… not a cure”. After describing the opening sequence, in which ten-year-old Kevin is whisked through a time portal by a rabble of robber dwarves while pursued by God, the treatment brazenly states: “And so starts this terrific attempt to get the movie moneybags to part with a few million bucks.”

The moneybags were not convinced, however. O’Brien took Gilliam’s script, co-written with Michael Palin, around LA and returned empty-handed. It was then that O’Brien and Harrison decided to put up the film’s $5 million budget themselves, with the ex-Beatle even mortgaging his office building to do so.

The script was ambitious, featuring as it did a tour of historical settings from the Napoleonic Wars, through Sherwood Forest and ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and from there into the “Time of Legends”. This last sequence finds the protagonists aboard a boat which turns out to be a hat worn by a giant. Although this might seem a classic product of a Python’s imagination, Gilliam in fact admits to stealing the idea from a book by fantasy artist Brian Froud, who would go on to be a conceptual designer on Time Bandits’ nearest thematic neighbour, the Terry Jones-scripted Labyrinth (1986).

Palin wrote the part of Robin Hood for himself, but O’Brien insisted on casting John Cleese to improve the film’s box office prospects. Palin instead took the role of Vincent, hapless lover of Shelley Duvall’s Pansy. It was Duvall who was hapless, however, when Gilliam climbed some scaffolding to demonstrate to his cast how to fall correctly and ended up landing on her.

Amongst the actors playing the eponymous Time Bandits were Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, Jack Purvis, who played a number of Jawas and Ewoks in the same franchise, and David Rappaport, whose extensive credits include episodes of The Young Ones, The Goodies and Not the Nine O’Clock News. A seventh bandit, Horseflesh, was cut over fears that Disney might perceive a Snow White rip-off and sue.

“I always thought of it like the mini Pythons,” said Gilliam of the bandit gang. “There was the leader, then there was the second one who really thought he could do it better…”

Meanwhile, the screenplay specifically called for the Greek king Agamemnon to be “none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature”. O’Brien, who played golf with Connery, simply offered the part to the man himself. The cheeky Pythons accordingly updated the stage direction to read: “none other than Sean Connery, who it turns out we can afford”.

Nonetheless, creativity was in much greater supply than money, and Gilliam employed clever editing, reverse shots and miniatures to capture his vision within the budget. “I don’t think that there was anyone in American who believed that film cost less than 15 if not 20 million dollars,” O’Brien opined in a 1989 documentary.

O’Brien was not always supportive, however. He wanted to cut certain controversial moments like Vermin (Tiny Ross) eating rats, but Gilliam fought him. “There was a point where I threatened to burn the negative,” the director admitted in the same documentary.

O’Brien particularly hated the famously downbeat ending. Kevin wakes up in his own bed during a house fire, and is rescued by none other than Sean Connery. Connery himself suggested this second role after he proved unavailable to film Agamemnon’s scripted reappearance (and death) in the showdown at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

The controversial moment comes after Connery’s firefighter departs; Kevin’s parents touch a piece of concentrated evil and immediately explode. O’Brien was forced to withdraw his objections to this shocking twist, however, when a test-screening audience chose the ending as their favourite part of the movie. While many fans of Time Bandits might agree, Gilliam believed that the test audience were simply trying to say that they were glad the movie was over!

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Next month, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30. Made by a director and star at the peaks of their powers, T2 was the most expensive film ever at the time, and remains both the highest-grossing movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the sequel which furthest out-performed its progenitor. It is also one of a handful of films that changed the world of visual effects forever, signalling as it did – to borrow the subtitle from its woeful follow-up – the rise of the machines.

No fate but what we make: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

The original Terminator, a low-budget surprise hit in 1984, launched director James Cameron’s career and cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the sequel was green-lit, mainly due to rights issues. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, Cameron handed executive producer Mario Kassar his script.

Today it’s easy to forget how risky it was to turn the Terminator, an iconic villain, an unstoppable, merciless death machine from an apocalyptic future, into a good guy who doesn’t kill anyone, stands on one leg when ordered, and looks like a horse when he attempts to smile. But Kassar didn’t balk, granting Cameron a budget ten times what he had had for the original, while stipulating that the film had to be in cinemas just 14 months later.

Even with some expensive sequences cut – including John Connor sending Kyle Reese back through time in the heart of Skynet HQ, a scene that would ultimately materialise in Terminator Genisys – the script was lengthy and extremely ambitious. Beginning on October 8th, 1990, the shooting schedule was front-loaded with effects shots to give the maximum time for CGI pioneers Industrial Light and Magic to realise the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

Rather than CGI, the T-1000’s head in this shot is a chrome model lifted into frame by a crew member.

To further ease ILM’s burden, every trick in the book was employed to get T-1000 shots in camera wherever possible: quick shots of the villain’s fight with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in the steel mill finale were done with a stuntman in a foil suit; a chrome bust of Patrick was hand-raised into frame for a helicopter pilot’s reaction shot; the reforming of the shattered T-1000 was achieved by blowing mercury around with a hair dryer; bullet hits on the character’s torso were represented by spring-loaded silver “flowers” that burst out of a pre-scored shirt on cue.

One of the chilling full-size T-800 endoskeleton puppets created by Stan Winston Studio for the Future War sequence

Stan Winston Studio also constructed a number of cable-controlled puppets to show more extensive damage to the morphing menace. These included “Splash Head”, a bust of Patrick with the head split in two by a shotgun blast, and “Pretzel Man”, the nightmarish result of a grenade hit moments before the T-1000 falls to its doom in the molten steel.

Traditional models and rear projection are used throughout the film. A few instances are all too obvious to a modern audience, but most still look great and some are virtually undetectable. Did you know that the roll-over and crash of the cryo-tanker were shot with miniatures? Or that the T-800 plucking John off his bike in the drainage channel was filmed against a rear projection screen?

Plenty of the action was accomplished without such trickery. The production added a third storey to a disused office building near Silicon Valley, then blew it up with 100 gallons of petrol, to show the demise of Cyberdyne Systems. DP Adam Greenberg lit 5.5 miles of freeway for the car chase, and pilot Chuck Tamburro really did fly the T-1000’s police helicopter under a 20ft underpass.

Chaotic, confusing action scenes are the norm today, but it is notable that T2’s action is thrilling yet never unclear. The film sends somewhat mixed messages though, with its horrific images of nuclear annihilation and the T-800’s morality lessons from John juxtaposed with indulgent violence and a reverence for firearms. “I think of T2 as a violent movie about world peace,” Cameron paradoxically stated. “It’s an action movie about the value of human life.”

More Stan Winston puppets were used to depict Sarah’s death by nuclear blast in her nightmare.

Meanwhile, 25 person-years of human life were being devoted by ILM to the T-1000’s metallic morphing abilities. Assistant VFX supervisor Mark Dippé noted: “We were pushing the limits of everything – the amount of disc space we had, the amount of memory we had in the computers, the amount of CPUs we had. Each shot, even though it only lasted about five seconds on the screen, typically would take about eight weeks to complete.”

Robert Patrick shooting reference footage for ILM’s animators

The team began by painting a 2×2” grid on a near-naked Patrick and shooting reference footage of him walking, before laser-scanning his head at the appropriately-named Cyberware Laboratory. Four separate computer models of the T-1000 were built on Silicon Graphics Iris 4Ds, from an amorphous blob to a fully-detailed chrome replica of Patrick, each with corresponding points in 3D space so that the custom software Model Interp could morph between them.

Other custom applications included Body Sock, a solution to gaps that initially appeared when the models flexed their joints, Polyalloy Shader, which gave the T-1000 its chrome appearance, and Make Sticky, with which images of Patrick were texture-mapped onto the distorting 3D model, as when he melts through a barred gate at the mental hospital.

The film’s legacy in visual effects – for which it won the 1992 Oscar – cannot be understated. A straight line can be drawn from the water tendril in Cameron’s The Abyss, through T2 to Jurassic Park and all the way on to Avatar, with which Cameron again broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. The Avatar sequels will undoubtedly push the technology even further, but for many Cameron fans his greatest achievement will always be Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its perfect blend of huge stunts, traditional effects and groundbreaking CGI.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

“Superman II” Retrospective

At Christmas 1978, when Superman: The Movie opened to enthusiastic reviews and record-breaking box office, it was no surprise that a sequel was in the works. What was unusual was that the majority of that sequel had already been filmed, and stranger still, much of it would be re-filmed before Superman II hit cinemas two years later.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-book icon had made several superhuman leaps to the screen by the 1970s, but Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget feature film. Producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer father/son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind purchased the rights from DC Comics in 1974 and made a deal to finance not one but two Superman movies on the understanding that Warner Bros. would buy the finished products. Salkind senior had unintentionally pioneered back-to-back shooting the previous year when he decided to split The Three Musketeers – originally intended as a three-hour epic – into two shorter films.

After packaging Superman I and II with A-listers Marlon Brando (as Kryptonian patriarch Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (as the villainous Lex Luthor), the producers hired The Omen director Richard Donner to helm the massive production. Donner cast the unknown Christopher Reeve in the title role, while John Williams was signed to compose what would prove to be one of the most famous soundtracks in cinematic history. Like many big genre productions of the time – Star Wars and Alien to name but two – Superman set up camp in England, with cameras rolling for the first time on March 24th, 1977.

Tom Mankeiwicz (creative consultant), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Richard Donner (director), Pierre Spengler (producer). Brando is dressed in black to isolate his head for the Fortress of Solitude hologram effects.

“We were shooting scenes from the two films simultaneously, according to production conveniences,” explained creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz in a 2001 documentary. “So when we had Gene Hackman we were shooting scenes from II and scenes from I, or when we were in the Daily Planet we were shooting scenes from both pictures in the Daily Planet, while you were in that set.”

Today – largely thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – we are used to enormous, multi-year productions with crew numbers in four figures, but the scale of the dual Superman shoot was unprecedented at the time, eventually reaching nineteen months in duration. It was originally scheduled for eight.

“Dick [Donner] never in the course of the picture got a budget; he never got a schedule,” claimed Mankiewicz. “He was constantly told that he was over schedule, way over budget, but nobody told him what that budget was or how much he was over that budget.”

Given that overspends were funded by Warner Bros. in return for more distribution rights, Spengler and the Salkinds were watching the value of their huge investment trickle away. So despite Donner’s popularity with the rest of the cast and crew, his relationship with the producers became ever more strained, to the point where they weren’t even on speaking terms.

Richard Lester directed iconic Swinging Sixties films like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Knack… and How to Get It”.

Ilya Salkind suggested bringing in The Three Musketeers director Richard Lester, who agreed on condition that he would be paid monies still owed to him from that earlier film. By some accounts his role on Superman was that of a mediator between the director and the producers, by others he was a co-producer, second unit director or even a back-up director in case Donner cracked under the pressure of the endless shoot. “Where does this leave… Donner?” asked a newspaper report of the time. “‘Nervous,’ a cast member says.”

Eventually, with the first movie’s release date looming, the filmmakers decided on a change of plan. Superman II would be placed on the back burner in order to prioritise finishing Superman: The Movie – and get it earning money as quickly as possible. At this point, three quarters of the sequel was already in the can, including all scenes featuring Brando and Hackman, both of whom had had contractual wrap dates to meet.

Superman: The Movie was a hit, but Donner would not direct the remainder of its sequel. “They have to want me to do it,” he said of the producers at the time. “It has to be on my terms and I don’t mean financially, I mean control.” Of Spengler specifically, Donner was reported to bluntly state, “If he’s on it – I’m not.”

And indeed Donner was not. The Salkinds had no intention of acceding to his demands. Instead, the former mediator Richard Lester was hired to complete Superman II, and Donner received a telegram telling him that his services were no longer required. “I was ready to get on an airplane and kill,” he recalled years later, “because they were taking my baby away from me.”

Master of miniatures Derek Meddings wets down the New York street. Many miniature effects were reshot simply so Lester could claim directorship of them.

Meanwhile Brando was trying (unsuccessfully) to sue the producers over royalties, and demanded a significant cut of the box office gross from the sequel. Rather than pay this, the producers elected to re-film his scenes, replacing Jor-El with Superman’s mother Lara, as played by Susannah York.

It was far from the only reshooting of Superman II footage that took place. Ironically, given the earlier budget concerns, Lester was permitted to redo large chunks of Donner’s material with a rewritten script in order to earn a credit as director under guild rules. Major changes included a new opening sequence on the Eiffel Tower, Lois Lane’s realisation of Clark Kent’s true identity after he trips and falls into a fireplace, and a different ending in which a magic kiss from Clark erases that realisation from her memory.

Some of the reshoots included Lex Luthor material, but Hackman declined to return out of loyalty to Donner; the result is the fairly obvious use of a double in the climactic Fortress of Solitude scene. The deaths of Geoffrey Unsworth and John Barry, plus creative differences between Lester and John Williams, meant that the sequel team also featured a new DP (Robert Paynter), production designer (Peter Murton) and composer (Ken Thorne) respectively, although significant contributions from all of the original HODs remain in the finished film.

Comparing his own directing style with Donner’s, Lester told interviewers, “I think that Donner was emphasising a kind of grandiose myth… There was a type of epic quality which isn’t in my nature… I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness.” Indeed his material is characterised by visual gags and a generally less serious approach, which he would continue into Superman III (1983).

Although some of the unused Donner scenes were incorporated into TV screenings over the years, it was not until the 2001 DVD restoration of the first movie that interest began to build in a release for the full, unseen version of the sequel. When Brando’s footage was rediscovered a few years later, it could finally become a reality.

Footage from Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen test was incorporated into the Donner Cut to show Lois Lane discovering Clark Kent’s true identity. Although causing some minor continuity errors, the scene is far more intelligent than Lester’s rug-tripping revelation.

“I don’t think there is [another] film that had so much footage shot and not used,” remarked editor Michael Thau. A vast cataloguing and restoration effort was undertaken to make useable the footage which had been sitting in Technicolor’s London vault for a quarter of a century. Donner and Mankiewicz returned to oversee and approve the process, which used only the minimum of Lester material necessary to tell a complete story, plus footage from Reeve’s and Margot Kidder’s 35mm screen tests.

Released on DVD in 2006, the Donner Cut suffers from the odd cheap visual effect used to plug plot holes, and a familiar turning-back-time ending which was originally scripted for the sequel but moved to the first film at the last minute. However, for fans of Superman: The Movie, this version of Superman II is much closer in tone and ties in much better in story terms too. The Donner Cut is also less silly than the theatrical version, though it must be said that Lester’s humour contributed in no small part to the sequel’s original success.

Whichever version you prefer, 40 years on from its first release, Superman II is still a fun and thrilling adventure with impressive visuals and an utterly believable central performance from the late, great Christopher Reeve.

“Superman II” Retrospective

“Stop/Eject” Festival Results

se-festivalsLast year I blogged about how one of my films, The One That Got Away, fared at film festivals. I promised to do the same with Stop/Eject…. well… better late than never!

To recap The One That Got Away’s results, at a total cost of £71 I entered this three minute puppet film – which cost almost nothing to make – into 36 festivals, choosing mostly those with no entry fee, just middleman costs. It was accepted into just two.

Stop/Eject was a bigger production, though still a DSLR short with an entirely unpaid cast and crew. It was financed by two crowd-funding campaigns, one in preproduction and one in post, which raised around £4,200. Although the second campaign’s budget included money towards festival entries, we later opted to run a third campaign from which we raised another £600 for additional submissions.

I had decided early on that I wanted to go all-out for festivals with Stop/Eject, entering all the top tier ones and then a number of smaller events too. The British Council has a list of ‘key’ festivals (you can apply to the Council for travel funding if your film gets into one of them), and it’s also worth checking out the lists of Bafta- and Oscar-qualifying festivals.

Over a two-year period, producer Sophie Black and I submitted Stop/Eject to 47 festivals, at a total cost of £772. Some submissions were direct, but most were via platforms like Withoutabox, Shortfilmdepot and Reelport. Wherever possible we sent online screeners, but some festivals only accepted physical DVDs or Blu-rays, so the £772 includes postage costs, but not duplication; see my breakdown of the film’s post budget for that info. With the exception of Aspen, we always entered before the Early Bird deadlines so as to pay the lowest fee and have the greatest chances of being programmed, because festivals do not wait until the final deadline to start filling up their screening slots. The most expensive entry was Berlin at £45 (€50), but at the other end of the scale a few festivals, like Torino, were free.

Our first official selection, Raindance, came almost a year after we had started submitting. Full disclosure: our exec producer has worked for Raindance and put in a good word for us. Nonetheless, we were delighted and we hoped that screening at a top tier, Bafta-qualifying festival would bring us to the attention of festival programmers around the world and lead to at least a few invitations and further selections.

But it was not to be. Another year of rejections followed, by which time we had run out of top tier festivals to enter and moved down to smaller ones which had piqued our interest for various reasons, or been recommended to us.

We were eventually selected for six more festivals: Fargo Fantastic Film Festival, Southampton International Film Festival, the Underground Film Festival in Corke, the Short Cinema Festival in Leicester, Worcestershire Film Festival, and Beeston Film Festival. We were nominated for awards at three of these events, and ultimately won Best Drama Short at the Underground Film Festival.

If you’re keen to know all the details, I’ve put together a spreadsheet of all the submissions we made, the costs of entry, middleman fees, and results. Download it here.

Were those seven official selections worth the £772? Effectively we paid for seven screenings at £110 a pop. Or to look at it another way, we paid for seven laurels for our poster at £110 a pop.

With producer Sophie Black and co-writer Tommy Draper at the Short Cinema Festival
With producer Sophie Black and co-writer Tommy Draper at the Short Cinema Festival

Many have posited that the whole film festival circuit is a con, that festivals have become gatekeepers in the way that studios and agents once were – check out this very interesting article. At the very least, I do think the odds of submitting cold to a top tier festival and getting in are astronomically low.

One interesting little side effect was that, thanks to our Raindance selection, we were able to submit Stop/Eject for Bafta’s Short Film Award. We made the long-list for the award, meaning that we were one of fifteen films from which the five nominations were chosen. To be honest I’m a little relieved we didn’t get nominated, because then I might have felt obliged to use the exposure to push my directing career, rather than focusing on the cinematography career which I’m so much happier in now.

Finally, if you haven’t seen Stop/Eject and want to judge its festival-worthiness for yourself, here it is…

Click here to view more Stop/Eject-related posts.

“Stop/Eject” Festival Results

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

Last week filmmaker Sophie Black‘s crowdfunding campaign smashed through its target. I asked her to share the story of how Songbird, starring X Factor contestant Janet Devlin, raised its funds. And if you’re interested in contributing yourself, the campaign is still running here. Take it away Sophie…

In all honesty, I was dreading the thought of crowdfunding for Songbird. I’ve worked on more fundraising campaigns than I can count (for myself and on behalf of other directors) ever since the early days of the format. Back then, it still seemed unique and exciting, and it was a little easier to reach your goal. Nowadays, everyone and their dog seems to have a funding campaign, raising money for films, inventions, albums… even personal ventures such as holidays and weddings!

The market has become over-saturated, and it’s more likely that your campaign will get a reaction along the lines of ‘not another one!’ rather than the intrigued enthusiasm you’re looking for. I’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of funds I’ve been able to raise over the years; my most recent campaigns, for the films Ashes and Night Owls respectively, were only able to raise between £800 and £2000, and even those amounts came after a hard fight.

However, if you want to get a film made, and you can’t afford to finance it yourself, crowdfunding can be a lifeline. There are very few funding resources for independent films, particularly short ones, and when my traditional funding applications for Songbird all proved unsuccessful, I was left no choice but to face crowdfunding again.

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For me, there was one condition to running another campaign; I wanted someone attached with a fanbase. It’s clear by now that the most successful campaigns have someone involved with a good online following – be it the lead actor or even a director with a decent level of buzz around them. Another independent filmmaker I know, Helen Crevel, recently raised over £5000 in a couple of weeks because she had Doctor Who star Colin Baker attached to her film. And I’m sure we all remember how well Zach Braff’s fundraising campaign went, starting a chain of big-name campaigns.

Janet Devlin was a name that came up early on in pre-production for Songbird. Writer Tommy Draper had her in mind during some of the first drafts of the film, and I’d also been a fan of her music for a while, so I was aware of certain similarities between her and the lead character of Songbird, Jennifer. She also has a beautiful singing voice, so we knew that the musical elements of the film would be in safe hands. But, creative reasoning aside, if you had to just look at the casting from a business perspective, Janet has a huge online following across Youtube, Twitter and other social media, and her fans are very vocal and proactive in their support of her work. For all these reasons and more, we are very, very lucky to have Janet on board – and from the moment she announced her involvement in Songbird, the amount of interest in the film doubled – as did the amount of followers on the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page!

Even with those initial seeds sewn, myself and my team still launched the crowdfunding campaign with some trepidation. We had an early boost, as we were able to raise over £1000 within the first 24 hours. By the next day, we were on £1500… and then it stayed around that mark for about a week. An early sense of security was immediately replaced by doubt and fear, as well as emails from backers asking what would happen if we didn’t reach our target. There was always a certain amount we needed to raise in order to make the film, and as we’d set up our Indiegogo campaign to give us whatever funds we raised, even if it was too little, we were putting ourselves at risk of a fall.

Between myself and my core team, we had managed to raise a small amount of the budget ourselves before the campaign started (less than £1000) so we were able to drip-feed this into the campaign on and off in small amounts to keep it appearing active when we needed to. But we tried to keep the momentum going in other ways; as well as the standard social media posts morning, noon and night (the ‘bugging’ element of crowdfunding that no one really likes!), producer Laura Cann contacted relevant online magazines who might be interested in the campaign – fans of independent filmmaking as well as fantasy – and we both posted the campaign in relevant Facebook groups and forums.

We also maintained interest in the film by releasing new videos about it every time we hit a certain benchmark in our funding campaign (£500, £1000, £2500 etc). For added intrigue, we kept the title and content of each video secret until the subsequent one had been released. This was a technique director Neil Oseman and I first used during the post-production funding campaigns for Stop/Eject; it worked well then, and gave our followers some nice insights into the production, so I was keen to do it again. But there was one mistake we made back then that I didn’t learn from; once again, I didn’t get all of the videos ready ahead of the funding campaign. I did the first two/three, thinking we’d have plenty of time before the next target was reached. What happened next scuppered that plan…

Although the first surge of donations was unexpected, the people who donated were, to a degree, ‘accounted for’: they were people we knew, people who had supported our campaigns before, or film fans keen to find out more about a new film. These are your target audience for a standard fundraising campaign, and the type of people you usually expect (or rather, hope) will donate.

But behind the scenes, Janet’s fans had been slowly sharing the campaign page on social media, and the amount of ‘tweets’ and ‘mentions’ had grown steadily. Tommy helped aid this by making a list of people he noticed regularly shared Janet-related news, and he encouraged them by contacting them and thanking them, or by asking them directly to contribute. Janet and her team had also been working hard, not just behind-the-scenes but in effective public posts; as well as sharing her fans’ tweets, Janet posted a photo of herself writing the songs for Songbird, with a link to the campaign in the comments below. This gained more attention than any repetitive sharing of the campaign page alone would do.

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Eight days into the Songbird campaign, we were stuck at around the £1500 mark still. I was producing a corporate shoot in the middle of a field that day, with minimal signal, so I didn’t pay much attention to my phone or the campaign. It didn’t seem overly active at the time. By the time I got signal again, we had nearly reached our target. We had suddenly had a surge of big donations – some in the £100s, as we had received on day one, but even a couple of £1000s. Two days later, we had not only reached our goal, but we had surpassed it by £2000. As I write this, the current total is just over £10,000. We asked for £7,500.

Getting more than you ask for isn’t all fun and games; it means that the cut Indiegogo (or whichever hosting site you use) will be much bigger, so you need to prepare yourself for that. Also, unless you double your budget, your new funds won’t be enough to boost every department of production, so you need to be clever about how you spend it. It can be good to think about things you didn’t have before, that you can now afford (most people forget to budget for post-production and festival entry fees in their initial budget. Going over target can enable you to think about that properly for the first time) rather than upgrading elements you already had. The other, final downside is that you need to be careful about where you put the money once it’s ready to be transferred; you can’t have amounts as big as £10,000 moving around your bank account without making sure its accounted for down the line!

But, these minor inconvenient truths aside, my team and I are of course ecstatic about having smashed our goal. We’re beyond-words grateful for all the support we have received so far. We went from being rejected for funding to raising 134% of our budget within a fortnight. And, with the unpredictable nature of crowdfunding, all I can say in conclusion is that it’s down to three things: 1) having a popular name in the lead role, 2) my core crew working damn hard every day, and 3) a good old dollop of flukey good luck on the end. Having Janet’s fan base behind us is a privilege, but I like to think that personally keeping a good online presence and supporting other independent filmmakers over the years might have given us a boost too, even if it was on a smaller scale. Because the first person who donates to your campaign – be them your friend, your colleague or even your Mum – is just as important as the person who takes you over your target.

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

Kate Madison Interview

Kate demonstrates the action. Photo: Laura Radford
Kate demonstrates the action. Photo: Laura Radford

In the autumn of 2014 I served as director of photography on Ren: The Girl with the Mark, an incredibly ambitious short-form fantasy series, and have since been assisting with postproduction in various ways. Now that season one of the show is complete and ready to show to the public at last, I took the opportunity to sit down with director Kate Madison and ask her about some of the unique aspects of the show’s production…

Kate, many people will know you as the director, producer, co-writer, actor and general driving force behind Born of Hope, a Lord of the Rings fan film with over 35 million YouTube views. Did that film’s success open any doors for you, and what was the journey from there that led you to want to make a web series?

Born of Hope potentially opened doors even if they weren’t visible doors, in the sense that although it didn’t result in Hollywood coming calling, it created a a bit of a buzz and it became known in the industry. Myself and Christopher Dane [the lead actor] did start work on a fantasy feature film script called The Last Beacon and spent time trying to pursue that avenue. That then led into another feature film idea, so we were looking down the route of a feature film rather than anything else, and spent what felt like a number of years just not going anywhere.

I started thinking, what can we actually do when we don’t know investors or people with money. We concluded that with the internet – there’s an audience there, our audience is there. The crowdfunding thing which worked for Born of Hope is online, so we need to go back to that.

Many people will ask, “Why fantasy when there are so many cheaper and easier genres?” How do you respond to that?

For me, film and TV is about escapism, so I enjoy action-adventures and comedies and historical stuff – things that are not Eastenders. Fantasy is a huge genre. To me it’s a way to have the freedom to do whatever you want. I can take things I like – historical things, costumes, set design – and the joy of fantasy over period is, you can go, “I’m going to use this Viking purse with this medieval-looking helmet!” I like the freedom of fantasy. You can still have a character-driven, interesting story, set in somewhere fantastical, or even just a forest. There’s no dragons or creatures in Ren – so far – but the options are there, that’s the joy of it.

Having a laugh on set with Nick Cornwall (Dagron). Photo: Laura Radford
Having a laugh on set with Nick Cornwall (Dagron). Photo: Laura Radford

There was an enormous amount of goodwill and legions of volunteers who helped with Born of Hope. How important were those people, and finding others like them, when it came to making Ren?

Hugely important! Born of Hope could not have been made without a ton of volunteers, having no budget at all. With Ren, because we were in a similar position – which was a shame really, after all that time we still hadn’t got a big enough budget – we again had to rely on volunteers to make it possible!

There was an incredible sense of community, of shared ownership and very high morale throughout the production of Ren. Was it important to you to foster those things?

It’s incredibly important to keep morale high. I think it’s slightly easier when people are volunteering because they’re there because they want to be there and not just for the pay cheque. I was very keen to let everyone have fun on the project and also to have fun myself, because these projects are incredibly hard. So if the work was all done for the day, OK, I’m allowed to switch off now and grab a Nerf gun! People were staying there [at the studio], so they wanted to have a good time in the evening.

If we work a little later because there’s a break in the middle where we’re having a laugh, that means you can go later because everyone’s chilled rather than slogging away and not feeling like they’re enjoying themselves.

When people are volunteering, it feels like [the project] is everybody’s, and it is. People would come in and help and maybe end up designing a dress. The joy of filmmaking for me is the collaborative nature of it. There’s always someone behind you with an idea. You don’t feel like you’re ever on your own completely. If you’re at a loss, then someone else – whether it’s the DoP or the runner – [can suggest things].

A panoramic view of Ren's village set. Photo: Michael Hudson
A panoramic view of Ren’s village set. Photo: Michael Hudson

Very few micro-budget productions have their own studio, but Ren took over a disused factory for several months. How did that come about, and what were the benefits of it?

The benefits were through the roof, I’d say! We wonder if the project would have happened without it.

As we were going through budgets and scouting locations, we realised how difficult it was going to be [to shoot on location] – the logistics of making the village look like the village in the script and what if it rained for that week [the location was booked for]? It was just terrifying.

We started to think, is there another option here? It was just luck that Michelle [Golder, co-producer], on a dog walk, got talking to someone who knew someone. He mentioned this place in Caxton which was really big but we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and we could just take it over. We were going to get a really good deal because it was sitting empty. It was twice as much for six months in Caxton in comparison with six days on location. And we would have the freedom to build whatever we wanted! There was all this interior space we could build in but also have costume rooms and production offices.

I’ve always loved the idea of having a place to work where everyone can come together. It’s fantastic nowadays that you can communicate with people all over the world, but you can’t beat a face-to-face conversation with someone and being able to look at the same picture and point at it and talk about it. It meant we were able to achieve a lot more in scope but also in quality.

Kate contemplates one of the interior sets. Photo: Ashram Maharaj
Kate contemplates one of the interior sets. Photo: Ashram Maharaj

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the production was creating a medieval village from scratch. Building the set, sourcing enough extras and costuming everybody were three massive challenges. How did you tackle those?

I live in Cloud Cuckoo land sometimes I guess! The set build, I thought, “It’s fine, we can do this, we can build this circular wall essentially with a few alleyways going off it and fill it with some market stalls.” Chris was in charge of building the set, and did an amazing job with a bunch of volunteers that came back over and over again. Although we bought a bunch of materials we made use of an amazing site called Set Exchange which is a sort of Freecycle for sets and we found a bunch of flats on there – that helped a lot.

Populating the village was always going to be challenging. Suzanne [Emerson] who also played the role of Ida got heavily involved in helping to find extras. She’s involved in a lot of the amateur dramatics in Cambridge. It was probably horrible [for Suzanne and Michelle] but an amazing miracle for us that we’d finish shooting one day and go, “You know we’re actually going to shoot that tomorrow and we need some people,” and then the next morning you’d turn up and people would show up to do it. We had varying numbers, but there was never a day when no-one showed up.

Supporting artists line up for a costume inspection in the car park of the Caxton studio. Photo: Michael Hudson
Supporting artists line up for a costume inspection in the car park of the Caxton studio. Photo: Michael Hudson

As for dressing them – we grabbed all of the Born of Hope costumes, Miriam [Spring Davies, costume designer] had a bunch of stock stuff as well. We ended up buying a bunch of things from New Zealand, from a costume house called Shed 11 that did Legend of the Seeker. The Kah’Nath armour came from Norton Armouries; John Peck – who had been involved with Born of Hope supplying stuff for orcs – I called on his good will again.

It was lovely to make the hero costumes from scratch. Miriam and I would go through the costume designs and then we went and looked at material. Chris and I randomly on a holiday to Denmark found some material we really liked for Karn’s tunic. Ren’s dress – I bought that material ages ago and it had been sitting around. Miriam and I took a trip to the re-enactors’ market as well. And we went to Lyon’s Leathers, spent what felt like a whole day wandering his amazing storeroom and picking out stuff for different characters, for Hunter’s waistcoat and Ren’s overdress, and we got the belts made there.

Discussing shots with me on set. Photo: Michael Hudson
Discussing shots with me on set. Photo: Michael Hudson

I’ve heard you say more than once, “If it’s not right, it’s not worth doing.” How important is quality to you, and how do you balance that with the budgetary and scheduling pressures of such a huge project?

I’m not very good at compromising. If we’re going to spend months and months working on something that none of us are going to be happy with or proud of then it’s a waste of time and we might as well stop now. I think it’s probably that I’d like to be off in New Zealand making Legend of the Seeker, so I treat it as if I’m doing that I suppose, and I try not to let the budget or circumstances stop us from doing that.

I knew that most of the things are achievable. You know, to put together a costume that’s weathered well and looks really interesting is not hard to do, it just takes more time to do than buying it off the shelf and sticking it on, but the quality difference is so extreme. People will be much happier with you in the end if you’ve worked them hard for an amazing outcome than if you’ve worked them hard and it looks rubbish.

Sophie Skelton as the eponymous Ren. Photo: Alex Beckett
Sophie Skelton as the eponymous Ren. Photo: Alex Beckett

Most filmmakers are making stand-alone shorts or features, though the medium of web series is growing. Do you think it’s the way forward? Do you think there can be a sustainable career in it?

Ren is going to be an interesting experiment – can people watch something that, if we stuck [all the 10-minute episodes] together would be a pilot for TV – will they watch that on the web in the same way they would watch a TV thing or will they get bored and go and watch cats?

It is a new field. Although web series have been going on a long time, it’s still growing, there’s no funding in the UK, there’s no obvious way of having revenue from it, because the online platforms like YouTube, the advertising revenue is absolutely minimal as a percentage of views, and there’s only so many t-shirts you can sell. We struggled to raise money for the first season and we only raised enough to barely scrape our way through while putting in our own money.

Unless it does amazingly and maybe garners the interest of a big brand or sponsorship, if we’re having to crowdfund every time and we can’t crowdfund the huge figures that we’d need to make this, then it might not be the way forward for Ren and we might need to figure out a different thing… [unless] we get picked up by a bigger corporation like Amazon or Netflix.

We’ll see how this first season goes. We’d love it to become sustainable and a show that we can keep putting out and people can enjoy, but this is the experiment for that I suppose.

You can watch Ren: The Girl with the Mark for free, Tuesdays at 8pm GMT from March 1st, at rentheseries.com or on the Mythica Entertainment channel on YouTube.

Kate Madison Interview