I have dreamt of directing a feature film for over 20 years. Having finally completed a ‘no budget’ feature, it had a theatrical premiere and limited cinema release this December and was released on demand on the 14th and will even be on supermarket DVD shelves on the 28th.
So with a ‘no budget feature’ how did I go from daydreamer to feature filmmaker? I invested 6 years of my life, that’s how. Obviously not a full 6 years, I had to sporadically freelance to keep paying the rent and finance time off/the movie but once I committed telling everyone my intention, I was invested mentally and ‘on call’ until it was done
A cool but high concept, expensive and slightly risky script I had been attached to in 2014 went into turnaround. That experience, and knowing how long it took just to make a short with no money, meant I looked at the end game first and worked backwards.
The film HAD to get made and it HAD to be distributed. Needless to say the first option would be to make a horror, next a Brit gangster. I’m more into crime thrillers, from London and know a bunch of dodgy people and locations, write what you know and have access to! “What if a White Van Man was a Hit-Man and he was on a job at Christmas?” Ok, I have a hook, let’s go…
I had bought a beaten up old white Transit van in December, with the intention that I’d write a feature length script in the first three months, and hopefully shoot the film that year. I did grind out an awful expletory draft in those first three months, and then shoot a proof of concept using the opening scene. Using notes from friends who had read it, I continued to re-write between jobs, script writing was slow going but I was committed to getting it right.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 365 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM: No. At best a rough first draft script, a 5 mins taster and a rapidly de-valuing Ford Transit Van creating tensions with my neighbours.
I decided I needed a harder deadline and decided to go the Berlinale/EFM with my script and teaser to wow the film industry. Despite repeated mental breakdowns over my second act, I ploughed through and we had a read through end of January. It went ok with some things landing and others not, it gave me confidence and time to do some quick tweaks
Turns out the EFM is rather large and overwhelming. None the less I pitched it to a few people who were polite and showed interest then never read the script – probably for the best. One producer called Judd Tilyard said he would, when we met in Cannes a few months later he told me it wasn’t very good but asked if I had any other ideas. By the end of the year Silent Night was stagnating.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 730 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM No. At best a rough first draft script that was now on a shelf, a 5 mins taster on a private vimeo link, a van that now didn’t start and my neighbours no longer spoke to me.
I had started to develop another idea with Judd, as I was following any lead that would get a first feature off the ground. However, the two actors from my teaser Bradley Taylor and Cary Crankson wanted me to look at the script again saying it wasn’t as far off as I thought and urged me to take off the shelf. After re-reading with much fresher eyes, I agreed.
I met Judd again in Cannes and after discussing the new idea I’d been working up said “oh by the way, I’m going to shoot Silent Night even if it means putting the camera on my shoulder and doing it for no money”. He said well if that’s the case, I may as well focus on that and he’d help if it was ‘no budget’ – this meant costing up to a bare minimum and only paying when we had to.
I work shopped the script with them and Judd, completely changing the first act and fleshing out the rest of it.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1095 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM: No. But a script that was gathering momentum, a producer attached a defunct 5 mins taster on a private vimeo link, £50 from Webuyanyvan.com who scrapped the transit.
The script was all but finished by the summer. However, I decided to give it to a script editor, someone who had never read it before and told them they had free rein. He cut out about 20 pages and I put back in about 8 where I felt a bit of my voice had been trimmed out, we were good to go.
I started with locations, we had 18 to find, gulp, I thought this was supposed to be lo/no budget? They were all within a 5-mile radius from my flat in Tulse Hill, meaning I could recce or return to them easily and quickly, as I was playing the local boy card and face-to-face always worked better.
Once I chipped away at that list I looked at casting. Although I had shot a taster with Bradley and Cary as leads, the producers flagged they wouldn’t sell the film and could damage the chances of release. A tough decision but ultimately the time we needed them for (Bradleys character was on every page) plus having access to them for pick ups, quickly brought us back on track. Their available time and commitment was valuable to getting it made.
I’d never casted before but when you call up agents, and know you’re shooting in 8 weeks time you have a certain confidence of now or never, that’s what they want to hear – all agents only go to their clients if a film is actually happening so if you’re principal day of photography is set it comes across in your voice and they take it seriously, that’s how we got Frank Harper.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1460 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM: No. But a finished script, a start date, cast and crew and a second beaten up old transit van.
Pre-production ran until we were out of time and it just became production. Some days we were still recce’ing locations in the morning before the crew turned up to shoot later in the afternoon. We’d always planned a few pick up days, as the overly ambitious shoot wore on, shots dropped, it became a full week of pick ups!
Wrapping in late February and straight into an edit, giving us an idea of how those black holes should be filled, we picked up our final week in April. Between Bradley, and myself anything outstanding like bridging shots or general cutaways, were played by him. We tried to get a decent cut ready for Cannes but it was a stretch, we did however cut a shiny trailer that got a good response in the market. We even had a sales outfit want to take us on from that cut which was very encouraging.
As the year wore on our post was a bit patchy as various people came on board but were hooked away on other jobs meaning we had to restart sounds and VFX a few times.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1825 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM: No. A decent rough cut and a good trailer.
It’s fair to say this was a weird year for many reasons. No longer with the drive a hard deadline brings this was a tough year to get over the line. However we knew as we were positioning our film as a Christmas one it had to be picked up by latest August.
Driving the last bits home, with a mix being done in Australia and a grade in London while I sat in Berlin, we started to get artwork made up. We struck a deal for UK distribution which being such a British film was vital and then we did indeed have a very hard deadline. Slapping on the logos and legals, all the fun parts of tying it all up, one bonus was that our Cannes trailer still did the job we only had to tweak a couple of spoiler type shots and make pre-watershed versions.
Considering the disparate nature of our post we were surprised and relieved when the labs said it had passed delivery, I guess you cold say by mid October we had a completed feature film.
Now the real work was to begin.
In December 2020 6 years after I had bought that first van, Silent Night was seen on a big screen number 1 at the Genesis London with 5.1 surround sound to an audience of over 200 people. When the credits rolled there was a prolonged round of applause. Job done
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 2190 DAYS
COMPLETED FEATURE FILM: Yes. Whoop Whoop!
- My number one advice to anyone trying to make a film with no money is to get started. It’s going to take longer than you think.
- ‘No budget’ means you ARE going to have to spend money but only once you’ve exhausted your time on the free/cheapest options – that takes time.
- ‘No budget’ means you AREN’T going to get paid therefore you’ll often have to down tools to go and get paid elsewhere – that takes time.
- A way of mentally taking the power back is recognising that your time is very valuable so if you can commit to spending it on your film, then technically you have finance/funding in place.
- Keeping it local with cast, crew and locations keeps it achievable.
- Don’t buy a van until your script is finished and you’re ready for production but if you do then it might just help you finish your script.