Coffee_with_Coffee

Every now and then a client and brief come along that remind you why you signed up for this lark in the first place; a project that allows you to stretch your creative wings and achieve the feeling of being a “proper” filmmaker.

That client came along for me recently in the form of the University of Manchester, when Phil and I sat down for coffee with Alex Waddington, editorial and engagement manager for policy@manchester. Alex had a good news story to share concerning one of the university’s academics.

Politics lecturer Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge, along with a colleague at the University of Ghent, Dr Ferdi De Ville, had become heavily involved in the ongoing debate surrounding the EU-US TTIP negotiations, to the extent that in December of 2014 Dr Siles-Brügge had appeared and given evidence before the commons select committee deliberating on the TTIP negotiations based on his and Dr De Ville’s research. The two academics had been researching this topic for some time, but their work had begun to garner widespread press and political attention after the pair published a blog on the subject in late 2013. Those who are interested can read it here.

Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge on set.

Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge on set.

Blogging, Alex said, can often be looked down upon amongst academic circles and not considered a ‘serious’ enough platform for the discussion of significant research. He saw this as an opportunity not only to share a positive story about one of the university’s rising stars, but also as a wider platform to promote blogging as a viable and powerful method of academic engagement.

Having listened to Alex’s story Phil and I were certain it was strong material for a film. We all agreed that in order to really have an impact this needed a bold treatment and that was when Alex brought up his crazy idea. “I was thinking we could make it like a Hollywood movie, and call it It Started with a Blog, you know, like the movie It Started with a Kiss…” (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the general drift)

And so began, for me, a rollercoaster few months, the result of which is piece of work of which I am proud and which I believe serves the client and the brief very well.

It Started with a Blog

What was clear from the start was that producing a film like this would offer up more than its fair share of challenges, but what was also clear to me was that I was going to move hell and high water to make it happen. A chance to take a run at classic Hollywood style studio movie making (albeit without a Hollywood sized budget), from my own script, with good source material, how could I resist?

One of the first challenges to overcome was how to tell a very modern story, about communication in the digital domain, in a mid-twentieth century pre-computer context. Clearly some research was in order.

Whilst the initial client reference “It started with a kiss” provided us with a solid title, the style of the film itself, being a rather zany, slapstick romcom didn’t lend itself to the kind of story we wanted to tell. It was clearly time to get my film nerd on and do a little research.

Blogging, I thought, is essentially a modern continuation of the great journalistic tradition and there is plenty of classic Hollywood material dealing with the subject. It was also quite easy to work Gabe’s story into the classic one man against great odds format that could offer rich pickings from classic Hollywood fare, I’m thinking Frank Capra & Jimmy Stewart here. So I went on a lengthy mission re-watching trailers and clips from the golden age of Hollywood.

Everything began to click into place when I saw, for the first time in many years, Orson Welles’ brilliant trailer for Citizen Kane. It was a trailer that worked as a standalone short and its pace and humour really spoke to me and let’s face if your talking about films concerning journalism it’s not long before Citizen Kane enters the conversation. So, thought I, if I can take the Welles pace and humour, add in a little Frank Capra magic and a dose of Mr Smith/Charles Linburgh earnest and determination, as played by Jimmy Stewart, I’ve got to be onto a winner right?… No worries!

As if that wasn’t setting my sights high enough I still had to fit a story that heavily featured 21st century media technologies into a 1940’s/50’s era piece. For this I looked to one of my favourite contemporary directors, Terry Gilliam, and more specifically to the wonderfully timeless future/retro world he created for Brazil where old and new tech melded together to create an alternate universe where anything might be possible. If we could create props that could make the concept of blogging feasible within a mid-twentieth century technological context whilst not looking wildly out of place, this whole thing might just work.

With all this in mind I disappeared from the office for a few days and after much scribbling of notes and frantic caffeine fuelled brain-dumps to the unfortunate producer, Vinnie (apologies Vin!) I  managed to shape my ideas into some kind of script, which to my utter joy and not a small amount of surprise the client really liked. Over the next couple of weeks it underwent a few minor alterations but the form of the narrative remained largely intact from first draft to approved script and we were soon ready to go into pre-prod.

Ready to roll.

Ready to roll.

It had been decided early on that we would shoot a good portion of scenes against full or partial green screen and use mattes in a similar fashion to how our original reference movies might in order to remain true to style. With this in mind I’d been quite ambitious with the script, featuring multiple characters in multiple diverse locations, two of them international, and it soon became apparent that to remain within budget almost every scene would have to be created almost entirely in post and we’d have just one day in the studio to shoot all the green screen plates.

Although I had done some compositing for sfx before, lighting and directing for complete background replacement was going to be a first for me, I do like to give myself a challenge.

And so it was a few weeks later, casting complete and props sourced (thanks to the amazing art direction of Vari Kenny), that cast and crew descended on Vessel Studio in Liverpool for one heck of a day’s shoot where, with the exception of a few exteriors in Manchester, the entire script was shot in one 15 hour stretch.

 

Below are a few stills from the shoot and their corresponding scenes in the final film.

Car

Gabe takes a drive

Gabe takes a drive

 

IMG_9273

Gabe and girlfriend get serious in the street.

Gabe and girlfriend get serious in the street.

IMG_9229

Gabe and 'Ferdi' talk TTIP

Gabe and ‘Ferdi’ talk TTIP

It’s safe to say I learned a lot from this project. There are many advantages to shooting for complete background replacement. It gives you a great deal of storytelling flexibility, allowing you to work in periods and locations that would be otherwise impossible without vast amounts of budget and a squadron of art department. It also gave me the opportunity keep my full nerd on throughout the production process and I managed to get some kind of visual nod to my original references in almost every single shot during post. Film geek heaven! See what you can spot. However you must be meticulous about how things are lit, positioned and framed in the studio on the day and, as I learned to my cost, have good quality tracking markers every where, not just on the back wall (doh!), otherwise you can end up with a whole host of nightmares when it comes to tracking and keying in post which will swiftly swallow time and inevitably big chunks of the budget you thought you’d saved by shooting this way in the first place.  It’s easy to see why big productions have vast teams of people just to keep an eye on that stuff.

As is always the case with work like this there are shots I would change, things I wish I’d done or written differently, but at the end of the day I have to say I am very happy with the result which can be seen here

As I said at the start of this blog every now and then a project comes along that really resonates with you personally as a filmmaker and I have to thank the amazing team of people who gave their time and energy to help me take this project from a crazy idea to a reality, the client for having faith in my script and especially Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge for being an amazing sport.