I’m fascinated to learn what Toronto’s lo-budget filmmakers can learn from Elliot Grove. I managed to catch up with him in between his busy travel schedule. My name is Tiska Wiederman and I run the Raindance Postgraduate Film Degree programme out of my loft here in Toronto. I’ve known Elliot Grove since 2011.
Few people know more filmmakers than Toronto’s very own Elliot Grove. After completing an art degree from Toronto’s Central Tech he left for Europe in the mid-1970’s armed with a certificate in cire perdu – lost wax bronze casting the ancient art of the greeks. He worked on stints for Henry Moore and Anthony Caro before an industrial accident damaged his eyes.
In the early 1990’s Grove was at a loose end and started what has become Europe’s oldest and largest independent film festival – Raindance Film Festival. Twenty years ago he founded the British Independent Film Awards. During his quarter-century at Raindance Grove has published three industry standard texts, and produced over 150 short films and now eight features, The latest being the action thriller Amber.
I sat down with Elliot on Skype and grilled him on what independent film means to him and what he has on offer that is unique and special for filmmakers trying to break out here in Toronto.
TW: What’s the scene like right now in London?
Elliot: There is something about working and living in London right now that can really get on one’s nerves. Everyone is moaning about the economy and the shortage of money. Then the last coalition government abruptly shut down the UK Film Council in 2010. The howls of protest have been deafening. The BFI has bravely announced the start of their film policy which they’ve gallantly turned into a reality. Then there is BREXIT and the recent British election that Thersa May screwed up.
On top of that, the weather really sucks in London.
[TW: It’s not been all that great in Canada, either]
TW: We hear here that the money is still there in the UK, but there are different gatekeepers
Elliot: I meet producers all over the world. In Europe. in Asia. In North America. The common complaint is not about getting the money it’s about finding the right sort of projects to fit the money that one has.
But do you know what? There couldn’t be a better time to try and launch your screenwriting and filmmaking career.
I am guessing that Toronto’s lo-budget filmmakers have the identical problems their British colleagues have.
TW: What’s low budget filmmaking?
Elliot: How low is low? Doesn’t it mean you don’t have much (or any) money?
What does low budget mean to the money men? I’ve worked on productions with millions in the budget, and there never ever is enough. When I worked as a scenic artist the line producer was always shouting at you to hurry up so there wouldn’t be any overtime payments. We used to dawdle at the end of the day cleaning our brushes because a few minutes over the hour was worth half hours pay. Sometimes they made us throw our brushes out because it was cheaper than paying the wages for a half hour!
Here are some low budget filmmaking tips.
TW: A feature movie made for £50.00 ($75.00) screened at Raindance 2009?
Elliot: This is true. This eensy weensy feature film was made for literally nothing, premiered at the Cannes Film Market in 2009, and ended up getting distribution in over a dozen countries. We also had a movie in 2012 that was made for just €500.00 which got theatrical distribution in Germany. It’s called Heavy Girls. Then, of course, there was 2016’s Tangerine – shot on an iPhone.
I have produced features with budgets between a few hundred to several tens of thousands. They’re all low budget. The trick is selling them. And I’ve produced a low budget feature that sold to Spain for $5,000 – the same price a $2mil picture sold for.
TW: What is the secret of a low budget movie’s success
Elliot: Films that sell need to be a genre. Genre helps the distributors know what kind of movie you have made and gives them a really good idea of how to market it as well.
I know that this is not a popular concept in art house circles, or in the realm of the worthy where ‘drama’ is king. It’s important to realise that all stories are dramas. It’s the genre that defines the type of drama or story it is.
We are also looking forward to a rare visit from Kim Hudson who lays out a new way of looking at character and story from a feminine perspective.
TW: What are your favourite low budget movies?
Elliot: This list of my favourites changes all the time, but here is my current favourite low budget films
TW: What are the basic elements of low budget movies?
Elliot: Low budget filmmaking may be the name of the game, but it doesn’t mean you have to make them with shaky camera movements. Using new camera technology like DSLR, or your cell means that the problem of quality image capture has plummeted. Your cell phone takes 4K! When I started Raindance in 1992 digital cameras with that quality cost tens of thousands.
To make a really good low budget film, the type of film that will launch a career, is totally dependent on the script.
TW: Are there special tricks for writing for low budgets?
Elliot: The elements that cost the most time and money making a film are: moving the crew from location to location, and the number of shooting days. It stands to reason, therefore, that if you have a limited cast, with a very few locations and a shorter shoot you can keep costs down.
The trick is to write a stage play for a limited cast – I’d say three or four characters. But when it’s filmed, make it look like cinema. Reservoir Dogs, Night of the Living dead, 12 Angry Men, Rope, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are all examples of the “take 12 kids to a house and chop ’em up” theory of low budget screenwriting and filmmaking. When you see these films you are far removed from a staged play experience, aren’t you?
TW: What are your views on European film training?
Elliot: Film training everywhere seems to be descending into academia where the studies tend to be very inward looking and self-serving. The actual techniques used by filmmaking tend to be very basic. The best way to learn is by doing. Trial and error. And by watching films and reading scripts.
[TW: How has this shaped the Raindance Film Training programme?]
Raindance courses are designed to give people practical information from working filmmakers. This distinguishes what we do from most other film education programmes. In addition, when someone calls up to book a course, we often suggest they take the money they are going to give us and go and make a film instead.
[TW: But your courses are so cheap!]
Maybe we should raise our prices!
Seriously though, there are still excellent film schools in Europe and North America.
TW: What can I learn at your weekend Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking class?
Elliot: When I started working in film, I realised it was all about deals. The producer was always writing cheques. I then saw that these cheques fell into about 40 different categories, be it for the camera, actors, editing and so on. So really filmmaking is writing a series of cheques!
Day One I explain how to keep those cheques as small as possible and put value for money on the screen.
Day Two I will explain how to turn your film into a movie using the powerful tool of publicity which hopefully will turn you and your film into this years cult classic, as well as detailed discussion on raising finance, pitching and distribution.
TW: What about social media?
Elliot: Social media has revolutionised filmmaking and distribution. There are two kinds of filmmakers who cross my path: Those who loathe and abhor social media and would never be caught dead with a Twitter account, and those who embrace it. Social media is here to stay.
Successful filmmakers today need to have a clear and profound grasp of social media and learn how it can assist their film and their career.
TW: What is the biggest mistake you see filmmakers make?
Elliot: There are three basic mistakes I see over and over again:
– a terrible script
– uncleared music rights
– they don’t realise that their friends cannot act
TW: What was your biggest mistake making movies?
Elliot: I hate to say it, but I have made every single mistake in the book.
[TW: And lived to tell the tale!]
Elliot: We’ll see!
TW: What is your advice to someone wanting to make a movie?
Elliot: Get a script, get a camera. Any camera. Get some tape or film stock. Point the camera at actors and expose your film stock to actors.
That’s really what filmmaking is all about.
TW: Why should Toronto’s lo-budget filmmakers spend several hundred dollars on your weekend Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking course? You teach that I can make an entire film for that amount of money!
Elliot: It’s true that the course isn’t dirt cheap like some of the filmmaking courses out there. But what you do get is my quarter century experience making movies with filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Christopher Nolan for next-to-nothing. What you’ll get, more important than the many no-budget shooting tips is the attitude you need in order to turn your movie into this year’s cult classic, and how to use that experience to launch your career. As did many previous attendees of this course in Europe and America.