Julie Teckman writes about getting involved in the guerilla film making scene in Northampton…
One of the great, if less known, things about Northampton is that it is a hotbed of guerrilla filmmaking with a whole bunch of very talented people based here who write screenplays, produce and direct the process of filmmaking, and take on the myriad of technical roles necessary to successfully complete the pre and post-production elements ensuring that there is something to see at the end.
Guerilla film making is a term defined as independent filmmaking which tends to rely on tiny budgets, small crews and uses real locations as studio filming is far too expensive. In recent years The Film Lab, supported by the Northamptonshire Community Foundation group, has offered opportunities for local filmmakers to get their work screened and shared with the many film lovers locally who don’t want their cinema experience limited to the Hollywood blockbusters and made-to-a-formula British indie films that provide safe seat fillers in our local cinemas. The number of entrants to local filmmaking competitions and the number of applicants on to filmmaking courses at colleges and the University suggests that Northampton people of all ages want to express themselves on the big screen, but how many of us realise just what goes into taking an idea from its basic concept to a finished product which manipulates the emotions of the audience and creates the larger-than-life experiences we take with us from the cinema?
I certainly had no idea how an idea gets to the big screen but curiosity and my belief that acting is simply a case of “know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” as Spencer Tracy was credited as saying (although Noel Coward might actually be the first to have said it…) meant that I jumped at the chance to be a speaking extra in a new movie filmed this month in the Kingsthorpe and Mounts areas.
Boy, was I in for an education!
The film in question is the brainchild of Russ Heyworth, one of the founders of the Film Lab, an award winning group, and a film lecturer at Northampton College.
Its working title is For Love Nor Money and the story is a fast-paced action movie about a man who needs money quickly (I’ll say no more so I can’t be accused of giving too much away). The original idea was converted to a screenplay by Russ and local writer Capel Spence, and, unusually for a British indie film, the script went through a number of rewrites and revisions with input from local writers acting as script doctors to ensure the final script was as strong and tight as possible. Russ says, “the problem with a lot of indie films is that the first draft of the screenplay is pretty much the one that ends up on screen. Writers become very protective of their work and if the writer is also the producer and director, there is little to no chance of any real corrections or amendments taking place.”
At the point that I leapt on board, Russ had gathered two professional actors to play the main roles, a team of professional filmmakers to operate the cameras and lighting, a professional sound engineer, and a group of willing volunteers to act in roles of various size but all crucially important to the narrative (a feature of guerrilla filmmaking is to discard any character who isn’t crucial to the plot during the paring down process). When I arrived at the location, a fascinating emporium in the Kingsthorpe area that I never knew existed, there was a massive light outside the premises creating the lighting needed through the window, and a set that looked like the sort of junk shops the experts visit in antiques shows on television.
Not wanting to hold things up with my tardiness, I arrived at exactly the time I had been given by Russ for my scene on the second day of the shoot, and clambered over a mountain of cables and furniture during a gap in the filming. I was greeted by an only slightly flustered Russ who told me that things were a bit behind schedule and to make myself comfortable while I waited, with the buffet provided by The Bridge and drinks made on a pretty much continuous basis by Lucy Caldwell, the totally indispensable production assistant, set designer, caterer and landlady for the actors while they were in Northampton.
Every sequence was filmed at least six times and from at least as many angles to ensure the best shots for the editing process. The lighting and filming were covered by the Timecode team, Jimmy Bricknell and Dean Alexander, both ex-Northampton College film students who now make films for the top corporations in the world (in fact, they worked on For Love Nor Money in between their current campaign shoots somewhere overseas and glamorous which is arguably the only way to make money in the film industry in this country).
I sat and watched crucial sequences of the tense drama being filmed over and over while the two professional actors, Laurence Saunders and Sarah Beck Mather, both recognisable from their many television roles, did exactly as they were asked, were word perfect every time and repeated their sequences dramatically and efficiently over and over until the technical teams were happy with every element of lighting, sound and movement toward and away from the camera. Between takes they calmly relaxed in the seating area created at the back of the shop waiting to be called again when the crew was ready.
I, on the other hand, was starting to worry about my part – my two lines – and whether I ought to be giving my character a back story and motivation (I’m sure I’ve heard other actors talk about these things…). Russ had simply told me I would be playing Carol, an irritating customer in the second-hand shop looking for a bargain (not a huge challenge to get my head around) but refused to admit I’d been typecast.
The process was slow and meticulous with the team noticing tiny issues that completely passed me by, but after four hours of waiting, there was just one more scene to film before mine. The scene involved a small child playing the daughter of the main character.
The little girl arrived with her mother, her acting teacher and a lady who was checking that the environment was safe for a small child to be working in. The scene was explained to the child and she was given a set of instructions while I thought smugly about W C Fields’ view that one should never work with children or animals and waited for the inevitable tantrum or lengthy wait while she tried to get her small part right. How wrong I was! Our child actor, got her instructions in one, didn’t need to be asked twice and didn’t need to be told about her ‘motivation’ or backstory. She was great and her scene was only delayed by the adults acting with her who seemed to struggle with their roles a lot more than she did.
And finally, just five hours after I arrived, the crew were ready for me and my pivotal scene. Sound engineer, Mark Levien, had to put my microphone under my jumper (it was like a public bra fitting in the middle of a junk shop) and I was set to go.
It was explained to me that all I had to do was take a box (very important prop) off a shelf and ask the simple question “How much is this?” before responding to the answer with a shrug and “Rip-off” before walking out of the shop. I didn’t consider that Linda was the sort of woman who would say “rip-off” but by this time, the crew was tired and I suspected they wouldn’t take kindly to me trying to change the script mid-shoot.
The first take I turned the wrong way to say my line, in the next I said my well-practiced words wrong. The third take saw me knock over some carefully place china plates and the take after that was stopped because the director didn’t like the light switch which was in shot when the camera filmed the leading lady. Once I’d managed to do my two lines properly, the two camera operators, Terence Wilkins and Josh Monie, moved the cameras to another position so the sequence could be filmed from another angle and we started again. This time, I stood in front of the camera by mistake and had to be manhandled into position by Russ who was, by now, giving me instructions through gritted teeth, and four takes on we had the whole (two minute, blink and you’ll miss it) scene in the can(as we say in the film industry).
And that was me done! I said my goodbyes to the crew (who by now seemed like a second family to me) and to Russ who was frantically trying to track down an actor for the final scene of the night, and left them to wrap up a few more scenes before the second of five 18 hour days was complete. Thanks to the fantastic team, which also comprised of Andy Loveridge and local animator Steve Smith who will be adding a surreal touch to the film, and loads of others that I didn’t get to meet on the day, I loved every minute of my experience, despite having to sit around the set for so long and then not being as good an actor as I thought I was.
Russ will now spend August editing the massive amount of material into a half hour film and music will be added by local musicians who will create an organic soundtrack to the narrative. Meanwhile, I will be planning my outfit for the premiere!
For Love Nor Money is being screened twice at the Lings Forum on 21st September, at 7.30pm and then again at 8.30pm. If you get the chance to come along to support local filmmaking at its best and mix with other filmmakers, please save the date.
And with Russ’s careful editing, you may just not see me prove Spencer Tracy wrong!