David Buchanan, the writer and director of The Prime Location, talks to us about the making of his existential comedy which was nominated for Best Film as part of our Judges 6 last year.
Back in September, a 15-minute short that I wrote and directed called The Prime Location was chosen as a finalist at the inaugural Exit 6 Film Festival. The film is a comedy about a lonely poet with two obsessions: his deep-seated phobia of joggers and his love of property search websites. Attempting to escape the joggers, the poet travels inside one of these websites, we explore what he finds there, and (as you might reasonably expect from a comedy) hilarity ensues.
Filmmakers put a lot of work into making what they do seem effortless. We want you to believe that these pictures have just magically appeared on the screen. The whole point (unless you’re being deliberately post-modern about it) is that the mechanics of the story should be invisible, and that nobody should be aware of the hours of labour that went into perfecting it. However, there is a risk that comes with this, which is that up-and-coming filmmakers might get the wrong end of the stick, and believe that the idea just popped out fully formed. We see so many polished, finished products that it’s easy to believe that if the idea doesn’t ‘work’ immediately… we must be doing something wrong…
That’s how I usually feel, in any case. But in the end, six years passed between my film’s initial moment of inspiration and its première screening at Exit 6. Six years may sound like forever, but I’m going to spend this article trying to convince you that it’s worth taking the time to develop your idea properly, even if it takes you bloody ages. Because I believe that – beyond box office takings, gushing reviews and fame and fortune – the real measure of your film’s success is how clearly it communicates your original idea to the viewer.
I am so convinced of this that I’ll say it again: the real measure of your film’s success is how clearly it communicates your original idea to the viewer, just as the measure of a pen’s success is how smoothly it puts ink on the page. You’ve had a brief flash of inspiration – great! What next?
One morning in spring 2010 I had been sitting on a park bench in North London when, out of the blue, I had been overcome with – what was it? Loathing, disgust, fear? Whatever it was, it was certainly a feeling of deep antipathy… for a jogger. As he huffed past me, there was something about it that chilled me to my very core. However, when I ranted about this to my friends, I was met with total incomprehension. “What’s wrong with keeping fit?” they all said. I was forced to concede that, no, there’s nothing wrong with keeping fit. And yet I had felt this repulsion so deeply, had known it with more certainty than I had known anything in a long time. This sweaty man running in the park was somehow emblematic of the society we live in.
Anyway – and this part is crucial to the development process – I promptly forgot all about it and got on with my life. I would still flinch whenever someone jogged past me, but I had other things to worry about.
Development of the idea
Later that year, I ended up moving to Los Angeles. Starting life in a new country is challenging, and can knock you off your stride for a while. Sometimes I would get homesick, and on certain maudlin evenings would find myself scrolling through Rightmove.com or similar sites, ogling houses for sale back in the old Green and Pleasant. Obviously none of them were remotely affordable, but I still enjoyed exploring them and absorbing their Englishness. These houses reminded me of who I was and where I came from.
Before long 2012 came around, which was the year that we lost the great Chris Marker. To celebrate his life and work, a nearby cinema had organised a retrospective: Not just La Jetée but also lots of little essay-films he had made later on, in the 1990s and 2000s. I went along to learn more about him, and was thrilled to discover how economical, how engrossing, and how personal these films were. And his use of still photographs in La Jetée was extraordinary: there was something so haunting about it, and (crucially for an indie filmmaker) it was also a technique you could do super cheaply. Sorry, did someone say “cheaply?” Boom! Development breakthrough! I would make a cinematic essay using still photos in the style of Chris Marker. And it would be cheap.
I realised that my voyeuristic little excursions on Rightmove.com actually lent themselves perfectly to this still-photo technique. All those pictures of houses you could never afford… they sucked you in, they fuelled the imagination. So I started writing…
Drafting, drafting and then drafting again
The first draft was totally, painfully sincere, almost like a teenage diary. It explored my sense of homesickness, what it meant to be English, the ways we live vicariously through our screens… and the whole monologue would be read as voiceover, cut together with photos of empty rooms. I re-read it and thought, “Wow, no-one would want to watch this. It’s so pretentious it’s almost funny.” Why not just admit that, yes, I probably am slightly pretentious, and play it for comedy? I could create a character who was an exaggeration of my own ridiculous tendencies. That way, I would still be able to explore the ideas I wanted to, but they would be framed in a more accessible way which would help get the audience on-side.
One year, three drafts and 600 cups of coffee later, I had a juicy script all ready to go. The still-photo section was now bookended by live-action scenes, designed to help us understand the mind-set of the protagonist. The live action scenes were set on the streets of LA, which – wouldn’t you know it – are as overrun with joggers as anywhere in London.
Another year went by and towards the end of 2014 my wife and I decided to move back to London. By now the housing crisis had really started to bite, and the homes on those property sites seemed more unattainable than ever before. I was rifling through old projects and dug out The Prime Location again. The change in context made all the difference. If I set the film in London, where the idea had first struck, it worked perfectly and was, if anything, more relevant. Finally I had complete confidence in the idea, and was able to express it clearly to people.
This made it much easier to pitch the project to actors and other collaborators. William Wolfe Hogan and Bruce Langley both ‘got’ what the story was about, and inhabited their roles perfectly. When it came to the shoot, we usually only needed a couple of takes per shot because they had very quickly grasped who their characters were, and how they would behave in any given situation.
So the shoot was the easy part. What really took time was the editing process, because we had taken nearly a thousand photos (the film’s middle section was recorded in burst mode on a DSLR) and every single one of them had to be put on a timeline and synched individually with pre-recorded dialogue. Thank God, then, for our editor Alice Powell, who tackled this herculean task with patience and good humour, and sculpted the whole beastly lot into a brisk and entertaining 15 minutes. Now, in December 2015, we were ready to hold a couple of test screenings and iron out the last few issues.
There’s nothing like showing your film to a room full of family and friends to bring home exactly what is wrong with it. For the first time you’re able to see your cherished creation from an outsider’s point of view, and you can physically feel the room’s mood changing as the audience reacts to the story. This is the best barometer you can ever have of what works and what doesn’t. In the test screenings we found that everyone was royally entertained for the first ten minutes, but that the energy tailed off towards the end. Talking to them afterwards, there was confusion about what the ending meant. Was it supposed to be happy or sad? Funny or tragic? What had actually happened? The very idea we had worked so hard to impart was being lost on them, and I had no idea why. After the second test screening, another writer pinned me down (not literally) and forced me to dissect exactly what was going on in the ending. And guess what? I still didn’t know. If after all this time I still couldn’t clearly explain what it was about jogging that made me uncomfortable, no wonder everyone else was confused.
The problem was, because the character was at least partly based on myself, if I wanted to understand the ending, I had to examine the impulse that had driven me to write it in the first place. Finally, I had to be honest about why, back in 2010, that jogger in the park had unnerved me so much, and why I had felt the need to escape into dreams of luxury houses. Basically, it meant admitting my own weaknesses and worries.
So anyway, err, I did that. And uncomfortable as it was, it meant I was able to finally say what the film was truly about, and tie up the ending more neatly. The Prime Location was ready to send to festivals, and the team at Exit 6 were kind enough to be the first to accept it.
As the lights went down in the auditorium, I was bricking it. I was about to unveil my deepest insecurities to 100 strangers in Basingstoke. Would they enjoy the film? Or would they just see the ramblings of some self-obsessed neurotic lunatic?
It was a huge relief when the first laugh came. And the second. All told, the screening went really well. Speaking to people afterwards, some of them were pretty baffled by the whole thing, but others were much more enthusiastic, and seemed almost relieved that I had expressed something which they themselves had often wondered. And at subsequent festival screenings, this pattern has continued. Some people just shrug and say the film was “wacky” or “random,” while others seem really touched by it. This situation is both highly rewarding and incredibly awkward: I’m delighted, because I was able to communicate my idea to people, but I also realised some pretty unflattering things about myself in the process.
So is it worth putting all that time and effort into developing your film? If you simply want to get credits under your belt and improve your practical filmmaking skills, probably not. But if there’s an idea that is really haunting you, just beyond your comprehension, something vague yet important, and you just want people to understand… then make a film about it! And let it take as long as it takes.
Or just spend the money on a psychiatrist. It’s up to you.
You can watch some of David’s previous films here.
Follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects @SucculentFilms