I recently completed my second low-budget feature, The Mirror, and thought I’d share some of my experiences in the hope they could prove useful to fellow filmmakers trying to get similar projects off the ground.
It had been two long years since my first feature Blooded (2011) had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release by the (now defunct) Revolver Entertainment. Despite the release of Blooded being a painful affair, I was itching to direct another feature film, and soon. I was inspired by watching VHS (2012) to make a found-footage film, which appealed because it seemed a cheap, quick way to make a film – plus the grubby, lo-fi aesthetic worked especially well for horror. I decided to empty the savings account (with, I should add, the full support of my better half) amounting to £10,000. I had a budget. Now I needed an idea.
When I read the article about two North London flatmates who had rescued a Victorian mirror from a skip, and were subsequently terrorized by supernatural phenomena, I tracked them down and paid £500 for the story over several pints at O’Neill’s in Muswell Hill. Why did I not fictionalize the whole thing and make it without their permission? Because the guys were an invaluable font of knowledge about the actual events (having suffered through them) and I knew their endorsement of the film would reap PR rewards later. Plus they were great guys, and even let me see the real Mirror (pic right) before it was shipped to an anonymous buyer – the only bid they received after listing the item on eBay as a ‘haunted mirror’, attracting 20,000 views in just 24 hours.
You can see the short interview I did with the flatmates here.
There’s a saying: ‘casting is 90% of directing’. For The Mirror, this was especially true. I’d made the (potentially ruinous) decision to improvise the entire film a la Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
My first (and most important) hire was Gillian Hawser, who’d cast Blooded. Gillian is one of the gatekeepers of new film talent, and over the course of two days we saw 40-50 up-and-coming young actors for the three roles. Gillian has a sixth sense when it comes to casting; I quickly learned to heed her advice and our choices – Jemma Dallender, Nate Fallows and Josh Dickinson – did the film (and themselves) proud. Listen to your casting director. They really do know best.
I had just four weeks to find a location. I visited hundreds of flats but without success: when the owners heard ‘horror movie’ they had a sudden change of heart. Despite my assurances, the mental image of arcs of blood decorating their pristine walls and carpets proved too much.
Time was ticking, and the elusive perfect location/understanding landlord combo was starting to look impossible. It was a depressing time, particularly as I’d booked the cast and crew, and I’ll admit to briefly considering cancelling the entire project. Then I spoke to a miracle-working agent at Foxtons called Amie Roberts; within days she had found the ideal location, a warehouse-style flat off Old Street in East London. The landlord was of the ‘if you break it, you fix it’ school of thought, which suited me fine. He wasn’t much of a horror fan, he confessed – his preference was porn. I paid Foxtons a £350 finders’ fee, a fraction of what a location scout would charge. The only drawback to the flat was a lack of furniture; a company called David Phillips gave us a reduced rate in return for a credit. Two burly Lithuanians arrived one day, kitted out the entire flat in record time and disappeared, reappearing at the end of the shoot to empty it again.
Here’s a list of our crew (production, not including actors/post-production), the minimum you’d need to shoot a film like The Mirror:
Director – Ed Boase
Producers – Hamish Moseley, Chris Parsons
DP – Keidrych Wasley
Make-up – Natalie Wickens
Sound – Ryan Jay, Greg Ovenden
Prosthetics – Tim Quinton
Runners – Danielle Wright, David Stone
We shot over nine days from 9am-6pm. I opted not to do night shoots for two reasons: I have a young family I wanted to see in the evenings, and night shoots would have meant paying for taxis. As it was, the crew arrived by Tube, and I simply reimbursed their travel. The downside of not doing nights was the need to ‘black out’ every window for nighttime scenes, which was a time-consuming (and tedious) process. For a scripted film, it would be relatively simple to schedule the nighttime scenes in a single block – ie. to film everything in one go, over the course of 1-2 nights – but as we were improvising, and the story took new directions each day, we weren’t able to plan ahead much more than a day. This was a downside of making the film in this way; we must have put up/taken down the blacking (bin bags/black sheets) 10-15 times during the shoot. On the last occasion the crew erupted into spontaneous applause.
As for payment, I won’t go into exactly what everyone was paid – but suffice to say no-one was paid more than £150/day.
Two tech things I would recommend when shooting a found footage film:
- Make sure you have a remote monitor so you can watch what’s being filmed; otherwise you’ll have to review each take, wasting valuable time
- Make sure the cast have radio mics; if the visuals are lo-fi you’ll need amazing sound to ensure a decent viewer experience
The post-production budget for Blooded was £35,000. For The Mirror, I had around £2,000. Despite having no contacts there I sent an email to the NFTS (National Film & TV School) asking if there were any genius sound editors willing to work at rock-bottom rates. I got a call from Dean Humphreys, head of post-production at the NFTS, offering to do the entire job onsite, and to do it within my budget range: needless to say, I gratefully accepted. Dean is a relatively recent addition to the NFTS, and is rightly idolized by his students – he sound-mixed Polanski’s eight most recent films.
I also came across a talented young colourist, Matt Falconer (who had done impressive work on a friend’s short) who did a fantastic job grading The Mirror from his home office, also adding some subtle VFX to enhance the make-up (reddening bloodshot eyes, adding zombie-ish veins) – all for under £1,000.
By December 2013, ten months after I’d read the original mirror article, I had a finished film.
Sales and Distribution
I’d not had a good experience with Revolver Entertainment over Blooded (I’ve since discovered there are few people who did). The error we made with Blooded was rejecting the advances of sales agents in the belief we would make more money dealing direct with distributors. Big mistake. We never saw any money for Blooded from Revolver (always, always accept a Minimum Guarantee – it’s the only money you’ll probably ever receive).
With The Mirror the first job was securing a sales agent: High Point Media, who have a great track record selling similar films. The sales agent won’t pay you for the film; it’s their job to get the best sale to a distributor, from which you receive a cut (after their costs). So far they’ve sold The Mirror to Matchbox Films in the UK, Australia and NZ. An important step in securing High Point’s interest was to create a short sales promo – half trailer, half ‘best of’ footage – which meant they could quickly gauge the film without having to sit through its entire run time (83 mins). You can see the sales promo (which is spoiler-ish) here.
A high-profile festival is one of the best ways to get word out about your film, and Frightfest is unparalleled in the UK horror scene. I was really thrilled when it was accepted for this year’s festival. The Mirror will screen on Saturday 23rd August at 6.10pm and you can book to see it here. I’ll be welcoming the two flatmates onstage for a Q&A about their terrifying experiences, and we’ll also be giving away the mirror from the film to a lucky audience member.
The bizarre story behind The Mirror featured in a page 3 Evening Standard article on 23.7.14, which you can read here.
The film has also been positively reviewed by Gore Splattered Corner, which you can read here.
Here are three things which, if I did it all again, I’d change/do better/not do…
- The Old Street flat was perfect in every way but one: I’d only seen it for ten minutes prior to shooting, and was blissfully unaware that a major building site was nearby. During the shoot, heavy drilling would frequently ruin takes. Initially the landlord offered a choice of two flats; had I realized how disruptive the building site noise would be, I would have opted for the other flat.
- I didn’t properly explain to Jemma (Dallender) how involved her prosthetics would be, that it would take 2-3 hrs to apply, and that she would be blind whilst wearing it. She handled it like a pro, but it was the source of minor tensions.
- There are two major nighttime sequences in the film which were filmed several months after principal photography in the backyard of the amazing Millennium FX; when you finish a shoot, people move on, and it’s an effort to reassemble them months down the line. Also, it’s frustrating to edit a film and have to insert titles saying ‘Scene Missing’. I should have knuckled down and pushed to do those night scenes during the main shoot.
So hopefully that’s been a useful insight into making a low-budget horror. If you get a chance to see The Mirror, I hope you enjoy it. I’ll make a point of reading the comments section, so if you have any questions or comments, I look forward to hearing them.