Five Important Lessons that I used on my feature film ‘The Journey’

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By Lance Nielsen

Back in February of 2012 I contacted Chris Jones, a friend, whom I had not seen in some time with a book publishing question. I had been a writer / director mainly in Theatre for some time at this point and had been attached to do a feature film which found its funding falling apart from underneath it in 2008. It was one of those projects where everyone thought it was going to happen, but then it didn’t (five times no less) and I was left disappointed and disillusioned and had taken a job editing a book series for a friend of mine. At that time, with a wedding looming with all its financial considerations I had no intention going back into film making and climbing that seemingly impossible hill to success and stability. Little did I know that when I told Chris I had left the industry and he asked ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ how much my life would change, and change it has in all sorts of ways.

Being held that cold weekend was the Guerrilla Film Makers Masterclass, everything Chris had written in his books, updated for the digital age and crammed into a two day workshop.

‘You probably won’t learn anything new, but it might re-energise you…’ He said. Chris was wrong on the first count, and right about the second one.

This intense two day seminar is not for the fainthearted. It was however revitalising, refreshing, funny, uplifting, useful, collaborative, encouraging and above all it was informative. Chris did two things that I found uniquely clever during his presentation – Firstly he encouraged people to network by having them ask simple questions to those sitting on their left and on their right, and also by getting people to move during the breaks. One of those questions was phrased ‘Introduce yourself to the people next to you, tell them what you do, and ask them how you can help them on their project…’

‘Sorry? What was that last part again?’ Cried someone from the back of the room.

You see, some people got that last part, and some people didn’t. Yes I was one of many writer / directors in the room but was I willing to help some people on their films where I could put myself to best use? Hell yes I was! At this stage I didn’t even know why I was there really, and believe it not, I have never really liked the whole networking thing. You feel like some leeching tart at a party going from person to person asking people where there from and what they do. Here however Chris made that easy but setting off the whole thing from the point of collaboration. This changed the whole atmosphere of the room for me. Up to this point I had only met people who simply wanted to talk about themselves and really didn’t care who I was or what I had done, it is often the case that at such events you will often encounter the most forceful personalities first and they’re not always the best. So…

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Lesson number 1 – Network & Collaborate – You may well have a script in your bag that you know is the next best thing since sliced bread, or an actor hunting for a gig but I bet you don’t know everything there is to know about film making? No one does, because you never stop learning. Collaborate with other people, give up some of your own time to work on others projects, because if you’re going to ask the same of others you need to be prepared to do it yourself as well. This will gain you many friends and allies in the long term and firm up your contacts and network for your own projects. Some of these people will even become lifelong friends, you may even have to add another table to your already bulging wedding seating plan, as was the case for me! To Collaborate you’re going to need to Network, just go up to people say hi, and let them know you’re looking for projects and find one that seems interesting, pick one where you’re going to learn something. Or just say – Who wants to make something? I am in! You’ll be on set for a short within four weeks tops.

At the beginning of the event Chris challenged people to stand up towards the end of the second day and make a commitment to taking ‘Massive action’ in order to make things happen. He wanted people not just to come to his workshop, say thanks for the money and let them go again, he genuinely wanted people to get off their arse and make films, anyway possible and by putting them all in the same room he was making it possible. Now when Chris mentioned this at the beginning I barely noticed it, he said he was going to make a commitment himself and I was more curious to know what that was more than anything, I didn’t give it a second thought at the time.

Later that day I met the chap who was to become my DOP. ‘I suppose what you want to do is also direct…’ ‘God, no way’ he replied. ‘I have been looking for a DOP to be a long term collaborator with for years, how about it?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a good script?’ He replied.

I didn’t, but I did have the sense to bring a portfolio of my work on the second day.

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Lesson Number 2 – Have some clear goals and objectives

Now you can apply this lesson both to coming to an event like the GFM, and also for the planning of your shoot. When I went to the GFM, it wasn’t until the last third of the last day that I started to wonder if the reason I was there was to make a decision about trying to make one last film, something that was doable and realistic within a budget I knew I had. Now some of you will already be making plans for a film of some kind. You might not have the script yet, but you have decided a few things like – short or feature, genre, possible budget and so on. So my answer to my DOP should have either been ‘Yes I do have a great script and it’s about…’ or ‘No, but I have a great story, here is the idea, and I am about to write it…’ or perhaps you have the idea and you’re going to find the writer at the GFM. As it happens I went to the GFM on a total whim. So I had none of these things planned at all, if I had, I would have got a great deal more organised in a far shorter space of time and I am 100% certain the film I am halfway through would be in post-production if not finished by now.

So we got to the end of the weekend and Chris passed the microphone around to people and to cut a very long description short, I was the last person to speak and made a commitment to making a feature film with 10k and recruiting as many people from the room who were interested. The room went nuts and I got my Composer, two Runners, Stills Photographer, my First and Second AD’s, Art Director, several Producers, my DOP and an Editor. Most of these crew were at my wedding a year later. I stood up without thinking about it, right up until the last second I didn’t even have the conscious thought to do it, I just did it impulsively, because if I had thought about it, fear would have gotten the better of me and I would have said nothing. There is no doubt that moment changed my life.

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Lesson Number 3 – Make a bold statement and stick to it.

This is what Chris means by taking massive action. If you say ‘I’m going to make a feature film!’ in front of 500 people, it’s hard not to follow through on that. Just take action and do it, whatever your pledge is. Within 6 weeks of making that statement I had written two full length new scripts, within a year, I had written three more. I also worked on three other films in a variety of roles for people I met at the GFM. It took longer to get going on the feature, simply because we started off on one project and then I decided to change and do a different story which meant more to me, but I still followed through on the commitment I had made to myself and now we are over halfway there!

So why did I change my mind on the choice of project? As I was pouring my meagre savings into this film, I knew that it was my one shot at making something that was special to me and I also wanted it to be a good and important film which I could later talk about passionately and eloquently. So instead of opting to shoot the cheapest film possible in one or two simple locations I boldly decided to make a film set on a Greek island and off to Greece we went!

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Lesson Number 4 – No plan survives contact with the enemy

As our shoot approached,  some extra money promised fell through and we knew we didn’t have enough money to shoot the script we had. We had to book flights or cancel, and I knew if we cancelled we would lose momentum, the shoot would never happen, people would leave the project, and it would be game over. We also had to move our lead actor, Jason Flemyng, into a supporting role due to other commitments. Our plan was to bag the first 25 minutes of the script, plus as many other scenes as possible, even that didn’t work due to a boat being too small and another actor only being free for one day instead of three.  So we came back with 50% of the film, but content that was very hard to cut into a trailer. When you’re faced with these changes always go with the option that gets you the most footage in the can. Chris will tell you never to leave your set with an incomplete shoot, and this is a rule you should never break, however we broke it because the alternative was no film at all.

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Lesson Number 5 – My most important piece of advice – Take risks, but be realistic!

Looking back, knowing everything I know now, I would have re-written a much less complex and demanding version of my original script, so we could have got it all in the first shoot and all on one island (We are filming on two!) If I had been very pragmatic I would have gone to Greece to make a really nice 30 minute short version of my feature film, but for me pushing for a feature was the right decision at this time in my life and I didn’t want to spend all my savings on a short, so ultimately, despite the hardship, heartache, toil and trouble, the feature was the right decision and now we are prepping for the second half. Be realistic about what you can achieve and think about not only what you want to achieve for yourself, but also for all the people, cast and crew that are going to be working with you on the adventure, remember it’s their film too! Be of no doubt, it is an adventure and if you’re going to stand up and make a commitment then get ready for the ride of your life!

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Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
My movies www.LivingSpiritGroup.com
My Facebook www.Facebook.com/ChrisJonesFilmmaker
My Twitter @LivingSpiritPix


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