November 19, 2017

The making of a low-budget feature film by Tom Betts

Here’s how my friend Gav sums up my artistic output: Tom Betts makes film. I.e. one film. Singular. I have been working on Secrecy, my debut feature, for more than half a decade and this is the abridged story of how that happened.

 

January 2006. I’m 26 years old. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at this age. I’ve directed some shorts of varying quality, been through a couple of development programmes but my Bafta cabinet remains empty and I am invisible to IMDb. I am a sucker for stories of plucky young filmmakers getting their first movies made on a shoestring: Kevin Smith shooting Clerks in the store where he worked; the Blair Witch guys working wonders with sticks, camcorders and terrified actors; and Robert Rodriguez, The Rebel Without A Crew, signing up for experimental medical treatments in order to fund El Mariachi. I announce I am about to join their freewheeling ranks and put out a call for potential cast and crew in the Cardiff area. Though I don’t use the label at the time, this is the beginning of YEAR ONE.

 

By the summer I’ve assembled a small gang and a shootable story: the search for a missing person by a potentially dodgy one. With the exception of the lead role (played ably and patiently by Adrian Walsh) most parts only require a day or two of acting so it’s not a huge commitment for cast members. In July, the shoot begins. Evenings and weekends. Production is easy to schedule at first: with the whole film in front of us, we cherry-pick the scenes everyone’s available for and shoot those. (Later on, when we need specific people in definite locations on precise dates to finish the thing, I learn the downside of this strategy.) Our cameras roll in rented flats, borrowed offices, friendly nightclubs, Cardiff Prison, Flat Holm Island and dodgy bits of Riverside.

 

Did I mention we’re improvising? Though the plot is mapped out in detail on two metal boards from Ikea, actual dialogue and camera placement are often worked out on the day. This is a fun and often fast way to work, but will necessitate some pickup photography down the line. More than once. Guess what? We’re now in YEAR TWO.

 

Editing begins in earnest. Finally free from the shackles of film continuity, Adrian grows a beard. Meanwhile, in the edit suite (my front room) I question the wisdom of shooting this much material with two cameras running simultaneously. I also spend increasing amounts of time thinking about the page-a-minute rule. The screenwriters amongst you will know that if you use Hollywood’s traditional formatting, one page of your finely-honed script will on average equate to sixty seconds of screen time, giving you a rough idea how long the resulting movie will last. But since we didn’t have a script, I’ve been going on gut instinct that we had about a movie’s worth of plot. I’d seen breakout indies Tadpole and Following skate around the 70-minute mark, so knew that was around the minimum length for a theatrical release etc. The first cut of Secrecy is 66 minutes long and yet excruciatingly slow. I realise we’re not quite done. Adrian shaves off his beard.

 

YEAR THREE. Edit, edit, day job, edit, ill-advised side project, edit, emails to cast and crew about all this editing I’ve been doing. Edit. Finally screen an improved cut to the team. Reactions are positive, but the film is now about an hour long. If I tell industry people it’s a feature they might laugh at me. And because it’s structured like a detective story – Adrian discovers clues about missing man Sean’s disappearance then follows them up – it’s not really feasible to insert new scenes or subplots to pad out the running time. I resolve to think outside the box. First Thought: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is preceded by Hotel Chevalier, a short film that’s a self-contained story but also connected to the main feature. Second Thought: my actor friend Des is currently living in Tokyo and has a lot of free time. I am now completely outside the box and I have a plan: I shall finish my homemade tiny-budgeted feature by MAKING AN ENTIRELY NEW SHORT FILM IN JAPAN.

 

This turns out to be quite hard. I’ve never been to Japan, don’t speak Japanese, am pretty much broke and have a very poor track record at persuading cultural institutions to give me money. However, I am a championship-level googler and eventually find a few key contacts in Japan and the Japanese community in Wales. They very kindly act as referees on my grant application forms, and mere days before the beginning of YEAR FOUR, we receive our first cheque from Wales Arts International. I jump up and down on the spot. In an unprecedented run of good fortune, two more grants follow from Japanese funds. To plug the remaining gap in the very lean budget, we hold a raffle-centric fundraiser event featuring live music, free alcohol and the cast of the film gamely performing an adaptation of The Usual Suspects live on stage.

 

The reviews are mixed for this largely unrehearsed piece of theatre but it does the trick: around 3 weeks later a bunch of us are in Tokyo making the rest of our movie. I’m not saying you should always trust people you meet on the internet but it works out really well for us – our Japanese cast and crew turn out to be talented, hardworking and hospitable. We shoot almost all of the new storyline (also centred around a disappearance) in three and a half days, grabbing footage in an airport, convention centres, on bullet trains, by the Pacific Ocean and in dodgy bits of Shinjuku. For the first time it feels like directing is my full-time job.

 

By the end of the year the new material is edited, subtitled where appropriate and combined with the original Cardiffian bit. Just before Christmas we screen a work-in-progess cut of the extended film as part of the Japan-UK 150 series of events. It seems to go pretty well, and I promise everyone I’m just going to tinker with a few bits then sort out the final sound mix and picture grade. DONG! Welcome to YEAR FIVE.

Year Five grabs hold of me (metaphorically), shakes me hard (so to speak) and tells me as forcefully as he/she can: stop expecting the film industry to help you finish this film. While you wait patiently for meetings, callbacks and completion funding, camera technology is advancing, your hairline is retreating and your more entrepreneurial peers are cracking on with annoyingly fun-sounding projects. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

 

2011 is YEAR SIX. I turn 32 years old. I stop tinkering, adopt a triage-style approach to post-production, replace my wishlist soundtrack with licensable music and commit to a trailer. At the time of writing it looks like we’ll be in at least one cinema as a proper piece of programming before YEAR SEVEN. Fingers crossed. I have been wrong before.

 

 

Secrecy will be showing at the Chapter cinema, Cardiff on Sunday 04/12/2011 and Monday 05/12/2011 – for more details and to book tickets, visit www.chapter.org.

This article was originally published at http://www.hackflash.co.uk’

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