What Makes A Good Film Good?

I had an email from a friend of mine, Jase, who asked me a question I thought I’d write a blog post about.

I’d be interested to hear from you, perhaps as a blog post subject, as a filmmaker, what makes a good film good, and a bad film bad? Are there times when you may be writing a script, and you just have to give up, cos it’s not good? If you’re almost through shooting a film, and you’re suddenly not happy with it, do you just cut your losses and quit, or keep moving and finish it, having a final cut you don’t like.

Obviously no-one goes out to make a flop. What happens through the whole process, and at what point do people decide to either give up, or continue making the film?

This is almost an impossible question to answer. I’m sure much smarter, much more experienced people have tried and also failed.

The thing with this is that movies are completely subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. I don’t like Napoleon Dynamite, yet it’s a massively popular film. I wasn’t totally convinced by The King’s Speech, yet Oscars abounded. That’s not to say that either of those are bad films – I enjoyed The King’s Speech, but wasn’t overawed by it. Napoleon Dynamite is a slightly different story.

I think the answer to Jase’s question is that you have to trust your instincts. And to trust your instincts, you have to hone them. Read scripts. Watch movies. Don’t just read films you like, read films you don’t like. Figure out why you reacted negatively to a film. Why do you want to turn it off? Why did you love it? What was it about the film that sucked you in and kept you watching? Figure out what makes you tick as an audience member and you’ll start progressing as a filmmaker.

Be prepared to be your own worst critic. But don’t be afraid to acknowledge if your work is good. If you get excited about your work, chances are there’s something in it. If you’re struggling to write it, figure out what it’s missing. But don’t depend on your own opinion. Talk to other people about it. This is so important. These other people are your audience. Find out if they like your idea. Pitch the idea to other people and see how they react. If their eyes light up and they want to know more, there’s a sparkle in the idea. If they nod politely then change the subject, then maybe you need to work on the sparkle a little more. There’s no point in making a film if you aren’t thinking about the audience.

If you stop believing in your project, stop working on it. Put it to one side, let it rest in a drawer and move on to something else. The more work you do on something you don’t believe in, the harder it becomes to fix. You remember the hard slog it was to get it to that point and become reluctant to undo your work. Give it breathing space. Let your head clear. Come back to it later when you’re refreshed.

It’s rare to get to the point where you’ve nearly finished shooting a film and realise that it’s rubbish. It has happened though. In Hollywood, actors will get fired or the whole movie will be reshot. In low budget filmmaking world, that’s not an option. But, in low budget filmmaking world, if you’ve managed to inspire enough people with your words and script and vision for the film to come on board and help you make it, then perhaps that shine is coming through again.

Once you’re in post production, it becomes almost impossible to let go of something if it’s not working. I’ve lost count of the amount of productions I’ve worked on where editors, sound designers, visual effects artist, almost every department in post complains about how dire the project is. How awful the film is. But they’re going to make their element the best it can be for their reel/for money/for pride. Post production often feels like the final stretch. If you can just get through this bit, then the film will be done and finished and reap all the prizes at every festival known to man.

It doesn’t always work like that, of course. It would be great if it did.

You just need to remember why you wanted to make the film in the first place.

I think the elements of what makes a good film good come down to this:

Good script.
Good director.
Good producers.
Good actors.
Good heads of departments.
Good rushes.
Good sound.
Good editing.
Good music.
Good visual effects (where required).

You put all of those in a jar and shake them up, you’ll most likely end up with a good film. They’re not all that hard to find, either, you just need to know where to look. Reverse them and you get the elements of a bad film.

But me, personally, I always aim for great films. At the least. That way, even if I make buckets of mistakes along the way (which I always do), I’ll always end up with a film that’s good and a whole bunch of lessons for how to get even closer to great the next time around.

Pre-Production: Organising Auditions; A Cautionary Tale

Operation: Playstation

This week has been entirely flat out for me. Not only did we lose a day to a three day weekend (trust me, I am not complaining about that in the slightest!), but my ‘normal’ nine-to-five job has kicked up a notch in the past two weeks and it’s all go go go at work as well as go go go with the film.

Mind you, that’s just how I like it.

As you know if you read my post earlier this week, we’ve started organising auditions for actors to find our perfect Abby, Max, Des and Lucy. Finding actors to work for free is a hard task but I completely love casting. I think it’s something about knowing that when someone walks into a room, they could be the person who is going to BE the Max I created in my head nearly a year ago. Or they could totally transform Lucy into someone who I hadn’t even thought that she was. Not to mention the kinds of people you meet in auditions – I don’t know if you know this, but people are fascinating. Especially actors. Actors have a kind of zing about them. They always seem to get along quite well with my imagination and I end up writing a film for them to be in.

Which is kind of exactly what happened on the last short film I wrote and directed. ‘Operation: Playstation’. I had met an actor through auditioning him for a role the year before. Dylan was amazing and I fought really hard to get him cast in the film, but in the end he looked too young for the part (casting is all about the right LOOK as well as good acting!). But the two of us stayed friends and one particular time, a year later, we met up for a hot chocolate and I asked him if he’d read a script I’d been working on. He read it right there in front of me (always a risky move for both parties) and I couldn’t stop smiling when he started laughing at different points – it was a comedy so that was the right reaction. He said he thought it was great and I told him that I wanted him to play the lead because I’d written the script with him in mind as the main role.

His eyes lit up and he immediately agreed. Thankfully.

With Dylan on board, I was confident that we’d be able to get the other roles fairly easily. After all, the main role of Jack was the character that the whole film hung on. As we moved forward in pre-production, I put the call out for actors. Admittedly, it was technically a ‘student’ film, but it was my graduate film and barely anyone else working in the crew was a student – I pulled favours with crew I’d professionally worked with to help me out. Deliberately downplaying the ‘student’ side of it (I was treating it as a professional short film, after all), the ad was up for ten minutes before I had my first application. Over the next 24 hours, I probably had around 50 actors apply for the various roles.

I sorted through the headshots, viewed showreels and read cover letters to see who I thought would be good to see. There were people with a lot of experience, people with not so much, but I wasn’t too bothered by the lack of experience – if they can do a good job then it doesn’t matter.

I replied to about 30 of those 50, asking them to come in for an audition.

Of those 30, 15 booked in times.

Of those 15, 4 showed up on the day.

Sobering, right? I don’t even remember anyone ringing to cancel their time – people just didn’t show up. I’d asked Dylan to come along to the auditions, so the majority of the day the two of us ended up watching videos on YouTube.

But of those 4, 2 were great.

So I offered them the roles.

After specifying the shooting dates on the casting call, on the audition information and confirming they were still available, one of them declined the role because she was in the middle of a three week holiday.

The other actor didn’t show up to rehearsals and never returned my calls or texts.

CRISIS. We have no cast, besides Dylan. I talk to Dylan about it, who is very aware of how close this is to turning into a car crash, when he says he can talk his mate into taking a role. He’s an actor too. Plus, Dyl’s girlfriend is an actress. Then I realised that I knew a group of people from high school who I’d done drama with who might be interested as well.

Between the two of us talking to people we knew, we found the cast we needed.

And you know what? The acting is the strongest part of the entire film. In every single role.

Before you ask, the film still needs to be graded (sorry guys!) and it’s currently at home in Australia feeling lonely and abandoned, so no, you can’t watch it online anywhere. But what this did do was LOWER MY EXPECTATIONS. Not in a bad way, in a realistic way.

‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ has had about 90 applications for cast. Amazing. Because we’re restricted by time in the space, I whittled that down to 18 (which was incredibly difficult because there were so many who were dancing on the maybe line). Of that 18, 16 have booked in for auditions and an extra 1 has apologised because the time clashes with another project she’s rehearsing for.

I’m really happy with that hit rate so far. But I’m being realistic.

I’ll post a blog on Monday and let you know how it goes. And I’ll break down how I went about organising the auditions. I just wanted to post about how catastrophically wrong they can go – and you guys can say that it happened to a friend of a friend of yours and mean it.


I am incredibly pleased to say that we are one step closer to making With A Little Help From Our Friends! I say one step, however, this week a couple of steps have gone forward and the film is looking like it is definitely going to happen which is exciting because for awhile there I didn’t think it was going to get off the ground.

Firstly, we have a Director of Photography – my friend Jamie has been foolish or brave enough to agree to shoot the film for me. I’ve actually blogged about him before (here and here) and I really love the style he shoots his work in. All the work I’ve seen of his has an almost dream-like quality to it but still manages to balance the real world within the frame as well. I’m looking forward to talking to him further about the kind of style I’d like for WALHFOF, but at the same time I trust his judgment as a cinematographer and a filmmaker and am confident that we’re going to get some absolutely gorgeous images come shoot days.

Secondly, it looks as though we’ve got our location. We’re still waiting on confirmation of dates, but it seems to be a goer. I mentioned here a few weeks ago about the issues we were having finding locations and then spoke in last week’s post about how we were going to tackle a workaround. Jack spoke to the drama school that he had access to and the two of us went on a recce to check the place out on Saturday evening. It’s a really great location and very filming friendly in that it’s quite big with lots of rooms for alternative locations if we need them. There were three rooms that I walked into and immediately knew I wanted to shoot there because it was so visually interesting. Jack is speaking to them to confirm their dates of availability and hopefully we’ll lock something in and away we’ll go!

The shift in location from university to drama school has meant that I’ve had to rewrite the script with the new locations in mind. This, to be honest (and to my relief), wasn’t that difficult. I’d expected it to be a lot harder but the new locations slipped into place really easily. I had to adjust some of the dialogue to fit, changed what the characters were doing in the scenes – from studying books to learning lines etc – and it still stands pretty strongly on its own two feet.

Craig, Jack and I got together on Sunday and had a meeting to touch base on where we are currently at. Craig is confident he can slash the estimated budget we’d been toying with in half, based on our contacts and skills at doing something for nothing. A massive coup came from the fact that we will not have to pay location fees! Because Jack knows the owners of the school quite well and has done a lot of filming in the past, they’re willing to give the location to us for free as long as we work around them with shoot dates. Seems more than reasonable to me. See, low-budget filmmaking is all about cashing in on favours and networking – they’re not lying! Jack is also looking for a space to hold auditions in the first week of September. I’m writing up monologues for the actors who audition to learn that have more of an idea of the character and the type of person that they’re playing and sussing out which other crew roles we might need moving forward.

All in all, a pretty productive week!

Stay tuned to see what chaos unfolds next – as it always does!

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Location, location, lo – what?

Hi all!

Sorry for the radio silence over the past few weeks. I’ve been busy gallavanting around the world with precious little time to post to the blog. However, all is not lost and you guys get a post today!

Whilst I’ve been away, Jack and Craig have been chasing up various bits and pieces. Craig is being very brave and attacking the budget and Jack has been politely accosting universities asking about permission to use their buildings for filming.

Locations are crucial to low budget films and short films particularly. I can always tell instantly that it’s someone’s bedroom dressed to look like an office or it’s a bathroom in a pokey flat that’s doubling for a school toilet block. The key to low budget filmmaking is production value. Just because you have no money, that doesn’t mean it has to look like you have no money. You can cheat so much on film. You just have to think laterally.

The other key thing I’ve found about locations and low budget filmmaking is that you want them close together. Ideally, you only want one location change for the entire shoot. Even better, no changes at all. It costs less money, it saves time and it creates much less stress on shoot day and there will be more than enough of that as it is. So be willing to compromise if you have to.

I’m not going to lie to you, blogosphere. This has been pretty tough. Jack is doing a superb job. Our locations are pretty simple – two classrooms, a library and something that looks like a main entrance to a university. We started brainstorming fairly widely – the script is set at a college, but we thought that we might be able to cheat a high school as one as we had access to one. We listed universities that had a film course that might be a tad more lenient when it came to requests to shoot. We had a list of about six or seven (helped immensely by Jack and Craig’s insider knowledge because I know nothing about London universities) and Jack started from that.

We’ve hit two main problems so far.

The first is money. Most places want to charge us a location fee that is generally over £500. One university wanted over £1,000! In a perfect world, we’d get a location for free. At the moment, both those figures are out of our price range. But, again, we will look at compromise. We haven’t done a recce on any locations yet. If there’s one that’s particularly perfect, we’ll figure out a way to meet the figure if we need to.

The second is that a lot of universities won’t allow us to shoot in their libraries. I don’t particularly understand why. At any rate, we were thinking about looking at a second location for the library but a location move on a shoot where we (in theory) don’t really need to move, I’m not entirely enthused about the idea of it. I’m confident we can find somewhere that will meet all our criteria. It’s simply a matter of digging deep enough to find the location gold or working out a compromise that will work for both shoot and script.

Wish us luck!

Any suggestions on how you handle location hunting? I’d love to hear what you guys think!

And so it goes!

Happy Tuesday everyone! I hope you’re all wonderfully well and being wonderfully creative and productive.

I’m very excited to announce the fact that ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ is 100% back on track, thanks to a couple of people I met at the Guerilla Filmmakers’ Masterclass at the start of June. Say G’Day to Craig and Jack!

 This is Craig.                                  This is Jack.

On Saturday, we had our first production meeting about how we were going to tackle the project. As it currently stands, we’ve set in a provisional shoot date (the end of September) and started talking about locations, cast and crew. We’re all going to chip in to cover the producer duties and on-set, Craig is going to be the First Assistant Director, Jack is in charge of sound and I’ll be directing.

We still have a fair few gaps to fill at this stage, but we do have a bit of time to work with at the moment. I’m going away for two weeks (so the blog will be quiet, methinks), but hopefully the boys have enough to keep moving forward whilst I’m away.

At the moment, we’re following up a few leads to lock in a location. The script is set at a university but we’ve also been considering schools that we might’ve been able to get access to as potential locations. Both Craig and Jack have been goldmines with this – as I didn’t grow up around or near to London, it makes it a little more difficult for me to know about potential locations to have a look at outside of the area I live in. A little insider knowledge never goes astray!

We’re also starting to think about cast. I imagine auditions will happen pretty quickly after I get back from my trip away (possibly the second weekend in August). This also means that I’m going to have to work on extra monologue-style pieces for the actors to read in the auditions, which I’m looking forward to writing. As well as cast, there’s obviously quite large gaps in crew which we’re going to have to start thinking about – at the moment, it is literally just the three of us running the show!

So now that we’re off and rolling, there’s more things to think about. I already know that pre-production is going to slip away disastrously quickly and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to work together well enough as a team to stop anything too chaotic from happening. To be honest, we all work pretty well together as it is.

I have a list of things I need to do that keeps getting longer (as is always the way) but it feels like we’re back on track and moving forward now, so I’ll be stressed, tearing my hair out and panicking but loving every minute of it!

That’s what it’s all about!


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Sharing the Love

Two friends of mine and I are trying something new and different. Just for fun.

Jamie has popped up on this blog before (and he also has his own blog). Leilani hasn’t (but she, too, has her own blog).

One thing we all have in common (other than how awesome we are) is that we combine roles on our films.

This is a side effect of low/no budget filmmaking. Because you generally can’t book in a crew of twenty to thirty odd people, roles are combined so that you can still make something great with seven or eight people. Jamie and I write, direct and edit. Leilani writes, directs and acts. This isn’t always a bad thing; however, I don’t like to write, direct AND edit because I feel as though it brings me too close to the project and I often find that other people can see things I miss because I’m locked onto one way of thinking. Jamie sees it differently – but what’s life without a little conflict?

At a scriptchat session many moons ago when the three of us were chipping in our opinions on working with directors as editors and working with editors as writers etc etc, we decided that we would challenge ourselves to fall away from the habits we’d gotten into – writing and directing; writing, directing and editing; in other words, combining our roles. One of us would write, one of us would direct and one of us would edit whatever film it ended up being.

Jamie chose to edit, I chose to direct and Leilani chose to write.

At the moment, Leilani and I are moulding the script into shape. To be honest, it doesn’t need a lot of work. What does need a bit of work is my temptation to stick my nose in to Leilani’s re-writing process way too much. I’m trying to give feedback as a combination of script editor and director (although, I’m of half a mind to keep my director-y-ness out of it entirely for the moment as I feel as though that should come in to play a little later down the line). I’m trying to make it constructive to push it toward where I think the story is strongest without totally smothering Leilani’s voice and vision for the piece herself.

It’s an interesting exercise to test how well I communicate as a director with a writer. I’ve always directed my own scripts, so it’s strange to try to articulate my ideas to someone else to have them go away and work them onto the page instead of simply doing it myself. It’s also a new experience to work with someone I don’t know particularly well but whose vision and talent I trust. I imagine it will be the same working with Jamie in the edit – but I’ll let you know when I get there. I think it’s very useful to have an understanding of what the other departments on a film have to go through because it gives you a wider view of reality. Don’t expect fifteen minutes in make-up to be enough for a zombie western film set in the middle of World War Two. Don’t expect the edit of a twenty minute film to be turned around in a day. Don’t expect a lighting set-up to take three minutes if you’re shooting in a cave using generators to power the lights.

I’d recommend trying it. At this stage anyway. Leilani might totally disagree with me! But I think this will work because we all respect each other as creatives and filmmakers to make it work – which is very definitely at the core of filmmaking and having a cohesive crew environment.

What do you reckon? Do you share your heads of department roles around or do you prefer to do the bulk of the work yourself? I’m interested to know what you think!


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