Stones came about in a most unusual way. One day I bumped into a super-talented musician, named Alexander McKay, at a friend’s wedding. I’d met him before, when he did a sound mix for a commercial back in my advertising days, so I knew Alex could mix and produce, but I had no idea he could sing and write so well. After Alex performed a few songs, we got into a discussion about different ways to launch Alex’s new career as a singer song-writer. In the early hours of the morning we struck upon an idea – what about being the first musician to make a feature film to launch his album and ultimately his career? At first it seemed crazy, but that seed of an idea quickly germinated into a really strong concept, which being based on true events made it all the more compelling for investors.
First of all, that I made my first feature film – that’s not easy to do! Secondly that it debuted at, and won, the London Independent Film Festival 2016 and headlined at The Recovery Film Festival in South Africa and the 2017 Sacramento Film & Music Festival. Thirdly, it kick-started my career as a film director, proving I could make a film regardless of budget, which gave me the chance to make my next feature film, Iris Warriors, which will premiere in 2018. And finally, this is the first time a musician has made a feature film expressly to launch an album and hopefully his career.
Getting it made! Getting a feature length film with full cast and crew made for £150K was the biggest challenge of them all. Stephen Spielberg said, “You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it”, so that’s what we did.
Filmmaking is all about learning and growing each time you turn up behind a camera.
There has to be a captain running the ship, but you also have to be a people person, and trying to be both comes with its own challenges. You have to make a hundred decisions an hour, and if you don’t get them right, you can be sure you’re going to answer for it down the line. It could be in postproduction, with a journalist, or when you’re standing in front of an audience doing a Q&A. You can’t hide behind the writer, actors, gaffer or spark. It’s at this point you learn that being captain of the ship means you’re accountable for everything that happens on the ship!
You’re never done – nor will you ever be – but there comes that moment when you know you have to move on. I’ve learnt that making a career in film is tough, and the truth is you learn more from the mistakes than anything else. You only know you’re making a film when you’ve been shooting 14 hour days for 3 weeks solid, someone’s brought a stomach bug on set, your producer has gone off with the actors to get coffees while the sun sets, and it’s the only light you have to get the remaining 5 shots to make your day. But even on days like these, I love it, I’m at my best when I’m filming.
We made an early decision that the story had to stand on its own, without trying to shoehorn every bit of Alex’s life story into it. However, the initial outline I had written had so many beats that were similar to Alex’s story, that we were all comfortable developing the story naturally, allowing the story to tell itself. It was still a labour of love – 22 drafts – which was a natural consequence of the three of us working to get the story right, and then shaping it to fit our budget and the locations we had in mind.
We had all seen way too many films with alcoholics throwing up in toilets, so we determined not to go down that route. But at the same time we didn’t want to sugar coat it. Instead, we chose to show it in other ways – Alex lying to people, sleeping rough, losing friends and work, because of his drinking.
The other way we showed the realities of alcoholism was by adding a few little touches that were real anecdotes from Alex, and from Roydon, whose father was an alcoholic. These are subtle things – Jen finding a bottle of booze hidden under the sink, or Alex distributing his empties in the neighbours’ rubbish bins so that they aren’t all outside his house – but they give the story that essential touch of truth.
Compromises. Only having time for four takes when you want ten. Freezing temperatures in the flower shop. Long grinding days. Sleeping in a budget hotel for weeks on end. Being woken at 5 in the morning by the first AD printing out the sides for the next day’s shooting. Praying that our leading lady didn’t crash the van or fall off the bike! Hoping that Alex’s wife didn’t give birth during production – which she of course did!
It’s very hard – there are so many places you can find to spend money when you’re shooting a film! The major areas of expense are cast; crew; locations; cameras and equipment; postproduction. In each case we begged, borrowed, stole and called in favours to get the budget down. So for example, many people working on the film worked on a deferred payment basis; we used Roydon’s flat for several days’ shooting; and of course we haggled like crazy on anything we actually had to pay for. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but we knew we had to find a way to get our first film made, whatever it took. I’d never want to go through that again, but we learned so much, and wound up with a film we are proud of.
So much. As a writer, I learned much more about the process of script to screen to edit. And as producers, Roydon and I learned a tremendous amount about budgeting that has helped us moving forwards – where we are happy to cut budget, where our money is most effectively spent, the types of people we want to work with as crew, and what types of film we want to make. They say you never forget your first time – that was certainly true of making Stones!
And for kicking music industry giants in the nuts. When you buy my album, you’re not only getting a
great album and a free film, you’re also supporting an artist in an extremely challenging time for
musicians, and for that I’m very grateful.
Against the Tide // Closer to the edge