An Ideal Host – Making a self-funded feature film
I’ve been part of the Sandbox family since 2012, working in various capacities as an editor, motion graphics artist, animator and composer but always with the ambition of getting into directing and creating my own projects, something the company has always been fully supportive and encouraging of. In my spare time I’ve been known to make musicals with my writing partner Tyler Jacob Jones. We’ve had success with our productions at Perth Fringe World and in 2018 I finally managed to convince him to try and use our same collaborative process for a no budget film production.
We need concrete deadlines in order to get anything done. Honestly, most of our work is the result of last-minute panic. Fringe World is typically at the start of February so, I followed that timeline and pre-emptively booked a farm house in Donnybrook for two weeks in January 2019, with the hope that set filming dates (during the holidays when actors could potentially be available before Fringe World) would help prioritise the creation of the script. It was wishful thinking but the mantra for this whole endeavour was to plow ahead with whatever resources we have available and get to the end, no matter the result. If this was to be a glorified showreel piece, so be it. We will have learnt for the next time (and I could use the credits).
Tyler and I had been discussing ideas for a story over the last few years but knowing the location meant we could build the script around what we knew was there. Writing didn’t start in earnest until mid October, much like our Fringe shows. It was slow going, so again I set a deadline, a reading of the first draft at the beginning of November. We barely managed to get a screenplay finished in time, (I was 40 minutes late to the reading collecting the printed scripts) and after the feedback from that we had a month left for making minor tweaks for a second draft.
A tip for first time filmmakers: don’t make a movie without a producer. Tyler and I both love creating but the organising is another matter. We managed our theatrical productions with very limited cast, and simple costumes and props that were more representational than realistic. Unfortunately that doesn’t cut it for the screen. We spent a crazy month sourcing costumes, props, learning about prosthetics and make-up and trying to find a cast and crew that would be willing to give up two weeks of their holidays to work for free.
Here’s another tip for first time filmmakers: don’t make a movie without a cinematographer. With the help of Sandbox producers I managed to find a sound recordist and a caterer (if actors were working for free, they should at the very least be provided food and accommodation) but alas, a director of photography was harder to come by. Sandbox cinematographer extraordinaire Tim Fitzgerald was kind enough to make a location scout with me and offer some ideas on how to light the awkward space. I made a trip to Ikea to buy some lamps and a trip to Bunnings to buy some floodlights and that was my whole lighting department. The rest I’d have to figure out with my DSLR.
The actual shooting is a blur. We had so much to get through each day we barely had time for one or two takes per set up but as the crew only consisted of three people, moving around was very quick. On average we would start after lunch, shoot from 2pm to 5pm, break for dinner then shoot from 7pm to 10:30pm, hopefully getting 3 or 4 scenes done. That gave me time in the morning to read what scenes we were shooting that day and try and organise what props we might need and plan a little how to block it. It was all very haphazard and I would collapse onto the couch (part of the set that doubled as my bed) each night even while the cast and crew would continue to pack up or socialise around me (see photo above).
Once I got into editing I was more at home. Though finding usable footage in the mess I had shot was sometimes challenging. I would tinker away on the film on weekends and sometimes during evenings after work (when there weren’t movies to go see). It took a few months before I had a rough cut and then I got to work on cleaning it up and starting the visual effects. I was still struggling to find the tone and see if the story and comedy was landing. Starting to write the music score proved difficult too. I would easily become disheartened and refuse to look at it for months at a time. So once again, I had to set a deadline. I would enter it into my favourite local film festival, Revelation, even though it was a long shot it couldn’t hurt to try. There’s no way I’d let this take longer than a year. I’ve got other films to make!
Entry deadlines were about three months out so I had to get a move on. That’s where Sandbox and Soundbyte came to my rescue. The crew at Soundbyte were finishing up work on a television series which was a mammoth job. They allowed me to piggy-back off that momentum and get some sound clean up happening whenever there was downtime. They worked miracles saving dialogue recorded in less than ideal conditions and pulled out lines that I never even knew were there even after having seen the footage hundreds of times.
The same goes for colour grading. My little DSLR can get by but shooting in a field at night in the country with nothing but a cheap floodlight standing miles away doesn’t give you much to work with. Jaemie Manners at Sandbox managed to bring out details I didn’t know were captured and helped find a deceptively simple look to the footage that is then subtly corrupted as the story unravels around the protagonist. This slow morph from one style to another was a beautiful way of visually depicting how the film evolves from genre to another. And he did it all in his spare time between jobs!
Those last two weeks were a mad race to get everything mixed and exported and everyone involved went the extra mile, and then some, to see it get over the finish line. They even got The Backlot to let them do the final surround mix and colour grade tweaks there! After almost a year of working alone on my laptop, being with a team in a cinema and seeing it all come together was surreal and an experience I’ll never forget.
That’s what I love about working with this company. When we’re passionate about something, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it done, no matter the obstacles. This film doesn’t exist without all the extra time the team generously donated to turn what should have been a simple showreel piece that’d never be seen by anyone, into something that was accepted and programmed into the first festival it applied for. I’m both terrified and ecstatic that you’ll all get a chance to see it and forever grateful to the team for coming to my rescue and seeing it across the finish line with such enthusiasm. Here’s to the next one!
Watch An Ideal Host until July 19th 2020 on Revelation Film Festival Couched website. Sandbox are proud to sponsor this event and are offering a 25% discount on the ticket price. Simply enter SandboxCouched when purchasing your ticket here.
For more on An Ideal Host watch the Q&A with Revelation Film Festival Director Richard Sowada.