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Venice Biennale

It would be nice to do something political (AIS 22)

The Guerilla Film Makers’ Handbook
Chris Jones, author of the highly acclaimed The Guerilla Film Makers’ Handbook shares with Filmwaves his experience of film director, producer and tutor. By Marco Zigiotti

Chris Jones started his filmmaking career in his teens and produced a multitude of Super 8 horror movies. He met fellow filmmaker Genevieve Jolliffe at Bournemouth Film School and the two wrote the highly acclaimed The Guerilla Film Makers’ Handbook. Together they formed Living Spirit Pictures and Jones directed their first two features. Filmwaves – How did you get into movies? Chris Jones - I started as a filmmaker in my home town of Wigan in the North West of England, where nobody is a filmmaker. I started making Super 8 zombie horror movies when I was about 15 or 16. I’d make the film and then screen it at lunchtime to the kids at my school and charge them to watch the movie. I used to make a profit. Nobody told me how the film business worked, but it seemed logical to me. You make the film, it costs x amount of money and you have to sell x amount of tickets to pay for it in the first place, then make a bit more on top so that you can make something else. I recycled this process a couple of times until I made my first turkey. I went to film school, but did not get on well. At the time the college (Bournemouth) was like a sausage factory for BBC social realist short films. I was into die hards and aliens and they were into My Beautiful Laundrette. I lasted two year before I met my business partner Genevieve (Joliffe) and left. Within six month we were on set shooting our first American-style-allaction- thriller starring Harrison Ford’s kid brother. I was 22 and Genevieve 19. It was a £100,000 film funded by a distributor and shot on Super 16 then blew up to 35mm. It was a complete cock up from beginning to end. The film was taken by the distributors and sold, we did not even know it was released. A friend of mine one day called me and said: there is this film with your cast but it is not called The Runner it’s called Survival Island. But we cut our teeth on The Runner, we learned a lot about the craft of filmmaking. Then we went on to make White Angel, which is a serial killer thriller and cost £11,000 to shoot. FW - How did you manage on that budget? CJ - We got deals for everything, shot all in one house, we owned our own Steenbeck so it did not cost us anything to cut it and all the sound was transferred by television companies. All we really paid for was the stock and the processing. We shot on Fuji because, unlike Kodak, they gave us a good deal. FW – And the Fuji vs Kodak quality controversy? CJ - One of the most frustrating things with independent filmmakers is that they are fixated on the technology of filmmaking, things like the grain, the framing, etc. and rarely they say: is it any good? No it’s boring. The whole concept of making a film is that you are telling a story and when they start asking questions about scripts it’s way too late. I also think that it is because a lot of boys make films. Boys love their toys. And I am the same, here I am editing with my own Avid Xpress DV. I am into toys too, but I have learned over the process of making three films that the only thing that is important is: is it a good story? Is it well told? Everything else is window dressing.

FW – What was the reception of White Angel?

CJ - White Angel was cruxified by some critics, other people liked it. Financially, it was a disaster for us. We were even arrested for various boring reasons, like fraud, because we kind of claimed that the film was bigger and grander than it was. We were put on surveillance, they watched us leave the country, we were going to film festivals and they thought we were buying drugs. We had a night raid... This went on for six months and was bit of a nightmare. And while sitting in our cells I thought: we really need to write a book about all this, and that is how the Guerrilla Film Makers Handbook came into being. It was a way of venting our spleen about the nightmare scenario we endured. And after that we decided to make Urban Ghost Story that we finished in 1998. FW - How much was the budget and how did you finance Urban Ghost Story? CJ - It was around £240,000 and most of it came from our executive producer who invested in our previous films. Although this time we could have afforded to use 35mm, we chose S-16 because Genevieve never directed before, the lead was a thirteen year old girl and we really didn’t know what was going to happen. For all these reasons I made the executive decision to shoot on S-16 so that we could burn filmstock.

FW - And now you are working on your fourth movie, what is it about? CJ - It’s a rite of passage film about a deaf girl and a boy dealing with bereavement. FW- Quite different from your previous films...

CJ - Yes, though it’s – temporarily – called Rocketman and Vampire Girl. I am very excited by it because it is a major departure from previous work. With Urban Ghost Story I realized that what I wanted to make as a twentytwo year old filmmaker is not what I want as a 35. I still like aliens and die hards but I don’want to make them anymore, I have changed. I am not saying I’ve grown up because that would imply that aliens and die hards are in some way immature. Good and bad films are not defined by genres. "The whole concept of making a film is that you are telling a story and when they start asking questions about scripts it’s way too late. I also think that it is because a lot of boys make films. Boys love their toys"

FW - I agree, but what do you mean by good films?

CJ - There are films that I like and I don’t and my likes and dislikes are different to yours. Take a movie like Raging Bull, universally held by critics as one of the greatest movies ever made. But what is the greatest movie ever made? To my mum and dad it is Gone with the Wind, but I can’t sit through Gone with the Wind. Others may say how great Derek Jarman is, but I can’t sit through his films either. The reason I am telling you this is because I have been on the receiving end, with people telling me I am a terrible filmmaker, while I am really forgiving of everybody’s filmmaking because even in the worst film somebody has put a lot of hard workin it, and all I can really say is: I don’t like it, rather than: this is rubbish. FW - But you may like or dislike a film according to some criteria? CJ - Well, am I engaged? And interested? When the movie ends have I just been some place else for the last two hours? The thing is: why do you like green over red? About a Boy, for instance, was speaking to me as a 35 years old, but I don’t know if I would have liked it at 22. My mum would not get it. Not everybody is going to like every movie. Only occasionally you have some movies that go broader.

FW - Is distribution the real big problem?

CJ - The one big problem that people talk about, which is this notion that the exhibitor will not screen your film, I’ve never come across. What they do do though, is they’ll pull you if don’t perform. Rather, I think one big real problem is marketing. The buzz word here is Internet but the Internet is only a good place holder, for people who are already interested in your movie, you do not get the occasional browser. The noise floor is so high that you need to have those half pages in Time Out and the broadsheets. I don’t have a secret on how to break through, apart from making a great film, and get as many people as possible to see your film in the opening weekend and telling them to tell everyone to go and see it. Obviously, there must be something about the film that the audience responds to. Which often is a magical thing. You can work on the script, the actor, in the edit but whether that chemical thing happens... For example, I saw Lock, Stock… and I did not like it, but I was sat with an audience who connected with it, and I wondered whether I was missing something. That film did not speak to me. And I don’t think you can predict that. However, on the marketing side they got Vinnie Jones on a massive poster everywhere with two guns and that appeals to people. If you have no budget all you can do is to try and get stuff in newspapers and magazines. You just need to set up a press screening and your film will be reviewed by almost everybody. You can get features in most magazines by just coming up with an angle. For example in Urban Ghost Story we decided it must be psychic, a ghost story with a director who is a spiritualist, an interesting slant so we got a full page in The Guardian. You have to be creative and sometimes lie through your teeth. But everybody else does it. Your level of cast will also get you into the press. Which is another reason why I was pleased to have on board Jason Connery because whatever he performed he would get press coverage being the son of Sean.

FW- So, what if you cannot afford a poster?

CJ - You have to. There is always money to be found somewhere. Andrew Rajan the director of Offending Angels did not have any money. But he persisted and got his film out. This is not a business for people moaning they have no money, you have to find it. And surely you can. People’s resourcefullness and tenacity always astonish me. It cost £1500 to make a poster, £1000 for the BBFC certificate and £1000 for the print. It’s not a lot of money. FW – Why, in your opinion, are many British movies not released? Is it something to do with a kind of quality judgement or something else? CJ - I think there is a number of issues. The first is that many films are not up to scratch. We go beyond likes and dislikes here. Some are just incompetent. Badly shot, badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed, overlong. People moan about American films but often with them there is a kind of quality control stamp, and generally you are not going to get bored. The heinous crime of independent filmmaking in this country is to bore the audience. Let’s take acting, if you put Mel Gibson on the screen you can afford to be a little more baggy because Gibson holds the audience by himself as an actor. But if you put some wannabe actor in exactly the same scene I am bored much faster. Also, American films are just better crafted. Never mind the artistic side of it. British filmmakers don’t have fifteen script editors, or the DoP who has won three Oscars or an editor who really understands about pace. These are amazing craft people. Local filmmakers have instinct and are a bit naive about making a film. I totally include myself, with my first film I would say: watch the grass grow, it is more thrilling than watching my film.

FW- What is your practical advice, then?

CJ - In terms of the story you want to tell don’t be ambitious. Be ambitious on your fifth film, but right now learn how to have two actors talk and edit that so that it works as a piece of drama. So many new filmmakers fall over because they just can’t master the simple craft of filmmaking. What is sound? They say. Oh, it’s dialogue and fx and music. They are not aware of the subtle editorial decisions you can make in sound to enhance the story. This is not something you can think about when you are not sure whether that shot cut with that other shot. Why doesn’t it work? Because I have broken the line. Oh, I didn’t even know the line existed. Personally, because I did not have that kind of experience I made a "I think there is a number of issues. The first is that many films are not up to scratch. We go beyond likes and dislikes here. Some are just incompetent. Badly shot, badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed, overlong" terrible first movie. I was overambitious, I tried to make a big American style action thriller for like six quid. The point is, why would anybody watch Die Hard the £100,000? They’ll watch Die Hard the £20 million. Plus, it stretched the production too much because we used too many locations. Keep it all in one place, you cannot afford to move your cast and crew. Other things I learned were how to make a reverse shot that cut in the editing room, the importance of depth of field, etc. Another pitfall is not getting enough coverage, simply not having enough shots to make the scene work. You film a scene and it feels good, later in the cutting room you see it’s boring, all those big pauses that felt really important now feel really boring, but we do not have a Reverse or a Cutaway in order to get rid of that pause. Finally, you need to have your script sorted and clear in your head. Everybody who says that script is not important need to go and seek therapy. FW- Is this a problem of training or is it that so many more people are making films today? CJ - I am a great proponent of the university of life, one sad thing is that I see a lot of filmmakers who do not necessarily learn from their mistakes. One problem with filmmaking is that it is so difficult that it is akin to saying: tomorrow I am going to climb Mount Everest. It requires a quite staggering degree of ego and self belief and then the ability to be critical, honest and brutally self-analytical of your work. I think it is a really hard thing to do. Watching my first film is like having my skin peeled off.

FW - But first films are not necessarily bad.

CJ - Well, I think there are two kinds of filmmakers. The genius and the craftsman. Someone like Tarantino exploded into filmmaking, he is brilliant, not because he learnt it. You see, I meet many people you know they are never going to make anything worth watching, I have no right to say that, it’s just my opinion. And then I meet other people and think, this guy only made a half hour film and I know he’s a better filmmaker than me. You can learn the craft but talent is what God, or anything, gave you. I invested my time learning the craft and hoping that the art will come out. Tarantino is so great on the ‘art’ side that doesn’t matter how good a craftsman is because he has a lot of great people helping him.

FW - What else do you have up your sleeve?

CJ - I am writing a book, The Movie Blueprint. It’s not a guide to the art of filmmaking but to the craft of filmmaking. It’s the whole filmmaking process from A to Z. It’s like a cook book, it’s a combination of recipes and diary: get up Monday morning and do these 10 things. All you have to add is a bit of money and talent and at the end of it, if you go through all of the steps, you’ll make a movie. Whether it is any good it will be down to you as an individual but at least you made it with the least amount of fuss and waste. The problem is that the publisher will only fund me up to 400 pages and I need 650. I am getting sponsorship from a lot of people in the film industry. Some people in the industry know that this is what we need, because some are sick and tired of new filmmakers shooting a movie without talking to postproduction beforehand and creating a heap of headaches they’ve got to help you fix. A typical one would be shooting at 24 instead of 25 frames per second. If you shoot at 24 just write bigger cheques for everything. But what is frustrating is that I cannot get public money for this book project. The Arts Council say I am mainstream, the Film Council cannot support publications. I am putting together a book that speaks to the masses, used by the masses, which is an educational tool and I don’t get a penny of public funding. Isn’t this project within the remit of many of the publicly funded bodies?

FW - When will we be able to read it?

CJ - It should be out this Autumn.

Interview by Marco Zigiotti