“Wait, I’m sorry, we need to do what?” I stuttered into my phone, covering my other ear as I pressed the handset against my temple,
“…but that’s ridiculous! I don’t know any trumpet players. Certainly not in Cyprus.”
We were two weeks away from flying out to shoot a project that had, by that stage, been a year in the making- and it looked like the wheels were coming off. It wasn’t the first time, and I’ve since discovered it wouldn’t be the last, but at that moment it felt pretty fatal.
The first time I thought all our plans were doomed to failure had come three months before. The previous year my friend Phaldut Sharma had met a group of ex-pat Rat Pack tribute artists in Cyprus, and after he showed me some footage he had captured on a camcorder I fell in love with their world – a surreal combination of HP-sauce and high-hats, suntans and swing. The plan was to compare and contrast this world of untrained artists singing for their supper with the glamour of the real-life Rat Pack and the ego of a trained, but ‘undiscovered’, professional performer. We wanted to weave Paul Shah into this world, filming sequences throughout Cyprus with the real world Rat Pack tour as our canvas. We needed to be nimble, to film scenes guerrilla style in streets and at shows, and Paul Shah was to be the audience’s eyes and ears, the relatable outsider…. and then he got cast in Eastenders. And that changed everything.
Knowing he would be getting attention on the streets from British ex-pats and holidaymakers, we faced a dilemma: attempt to cut around it and pray street scenes weren’t interrupted too often, or lean into it and see what opportunities it would create. After all, an actor who has had some mediocre celebrity meant our three strata of performers would be even more clearly delineated – and the central question of the piece, ‘What does it mean to call yourself successful?’ might be strengthened by the change.
The live show
So we changed our plans slightly, adapted our backstory and we were a fortnight away from flying out – when it looked like the live shows weren’t going to happen at all, at least not with a live band. All that work for nothing! Without a live band, we weren’t convinced we should even go out to capture the footage. We’d met the musicians by then and those guys simply had to be involved. After frantic phone-calls and emails a solution was proposed – one that involved Phaldut himself taking on some responsibilities as a producer of the live show, leading to my (eventually fruitless) quest for a Cypriot trumpet player. Once again this meant changing our backstory, but it also meant the stakes for ‘Paul Shah’ would be higher: as a producer his character would be personally invested in the show and not just an actor for hire.
Over three weeks of shooting, sculpting the storyline around what happened each day and identifying the themes of the piece as they arose, this mantra of reacting to a situation, accepting what was offered up by circumstance and not trying to dogmatically persevere with pre-conceived ideas was tested and tested again. When we thought we knew what might happen next, it invariably didn’t. Even when it did, once we got the footage back into the edit that didn’t always mean the drama translated well to the screen.
A year after we returned from Cyprus we had cut down 200 hours of footage into an 80-minute feature, and there were whispers of interest from commissioners. It looked like the path from this point would be far from easy, but at least it would be well trodden – but when those whispers turned into conversations, and those conversations eventually resulted in “no, thank you” we weren’t sure where to go next. The traditional route for an Indie feature is festivals, but film festivals can be expensive to enter, they can be a very long process and there is of course far from a guarantee of distribution at the end. Having spent three years making the show we had all but run out of money, and we wanted an audience to see the fruits of our labour as soon as possible.
Around this time, we became aware of the explosion of high-quality web series being created. High Maintenance, Broad City, Supreme Tweeter – for the first time I found myself engaging with content created specifically for online, independent distribution. Could this be the answer? We could release episodes periodically, allowing people to discover the story in bite-sized, internet friendly instalments which would give the show a far greater shot of slowly finding its audience. On top of this, our licensing costs would be kept to a more manageable level. But would our film work episodically? Not without a radical rethink it wouldn’t – but once again we found that reacting to circumstances creatively helped us refine the project further. Specifically, an episodic structure heightened the plot points on Paul Shah’s journey, and adding a narrator – step in the fantastic Steve McFadden – meant we were able to embrace the ‘reality TV’ aesthetic even further.
Time and again we have been faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, towering hurdles on the path to finishing our story. Some of these we jumped over, some we crawled below and others have forced us to change direction entirely. Without this willingness to embrace change, I’m confident we could never have released I Gotta Be Me. This model has allowed us to build up enough of an audience to fund the final four episodes of the series. The changing and reacting is still on going though. Looking at the analytics (Kickstarter tip – install Google Anayltics on your page and check it daily) it became clear to us that we were getting a lot of new traffic each day, but failing to convert many people who were just discovering the show into backers. So, once we passed 100% we introduced a new offer to entice people who were just finding out about the show – back us for £4 or more and get priority access to the entire ten part series as soon as it’s completed.
With this release model we are able to be completely flexible to our audience, even creating new content based around their contribution. Ironically, our Kickstarter success may yet enable us to take the series to some of the emerging web-film festivals that have started popping up in the last few years. If we do, and I Gotta Be Me continues to go from strength to strength, I’m sure there will be many more problems along the way, and they will feel just as deadly as all the others…but if I’ve learnt anything from this project it’s to embrace each challenge as an opportunity. If you really want to make your film, nothing should stop you. In our experience, often that ‘fatal’ wound contains the silver bullet you were looking for.