Director Ben Wicks on Blowing Dad with a big musical number
We catch up with Ben Wicks, director of new concept short Blowing Dad, who talks to us about preparing a big musical number on a shoestring budget, shooting on a closed off street and pitching for TV.
Blowing Dad (save the chuckles for the film, please) is your new concept short intended as a pitch for a television series – what’s it all about?
Blowing Dad is a comedy drama that I co-wrote with Alistair Bathgate late last year. It centres around two dysfunctional, down on their luck brothers (James, a failing writer who just wants to get his musical off the ground and Gary, a professional triangle player in an amateur orchestra) who are given the daunting task of scattering their father's ashes. We wrote most of the script over several takeaway curries and lots of beer, not dreaming to make it so soon or into a television series!
It's a world away from what I am used to writing and directing, I tend to favour drama - mine and Alistair's last writing project was a short called Snapshot - a family drama about how a grandson struggles to come to terms with his grandfather's diagnoses of Alzheimer's (based on both of our experiences with grandfathers suffering from the life changing disease).
How did you go about casting your James and Gary?
We actually cast the film before writing the first draft, which is an unusual process for me. I approached Ewen MacIntosh (Keith from The Office) during the plot outline stage and he joined pretty much there and then. We also cast Harry Culverhouse (Cunty Sykes from Fresh Meat) around the same time - this was fantastic for us as writers as we could mould the character around the actors. Our other actors all came along after the script had been written - they were a mixture of actors I had worked with before and those who auditioned.
There's a big musical number in the film, which is a rarity in low-budget short films. How did the song and choreography come together? How did you prepare?
Yeah... when people hear about the musical number they all think we were mad to do that! I remember I had come out of watching La La Land in the cinema and instantly called Alistair and proposed the question ‘Shall we add in a musical number’ - he had watched it a few days before me and simply and rather loudly replied ‘YES!’, we spent the next few minutes on the phone laughing at each other - we always had James as a failing theatre writer who wanted to get his musical made - so we decided to add in a dream sequence where he wonders what his musical would be like.
The song is an original song written by Richard Storry - he lived with my two producers (Sarah & Jeremy Culverhouse) 20 odd years ago and they remembered him writing a song in his bedroom back then - so they approached him and before I knew it, he was down to Winchester with new lyrics in hand to present the song to us. It's safe to say we fell in love with it instantly. It really is a classical big opening musical number tune.
I was lucky enough to be contacted by Joseph O’Brien around the same time as Richard coming on board. Joseph is a very talented composer who agreed to re-orchestrate and arrange the song for us - with inspiration from the classic MGM musicals and hints of La La Land - he created something far beyond what I ever expected. Both he and Richard made the whole thing a reality.
Choreography came from Charlie Sapey and Chrissy Finn at Intergr8 Dance in Winchester. They were an absolute joy to work with - we had around 40 dancers in total - who met twice weekly to rehearse and what an excellent job they did. Their commitment and dedication to the project was unrivalled and they make the whole sequence that extra bit special.
When I first started creating my visual document for the project, I had a clear idea in my head of how I wanted the musical number to look and feel - their choreography allowed me to think/dream even bigger and make the vision a reality. I am so proud of what the whole team achieved.
The logistics involved in filming that scene must have been immense. Can you tell us about the shooting of that sequence? Where did you film? How long did it take, etc?
Shooting that sequence was, by far, the best day I have ever had as a director on set. There was a fantastic atmosphere all day - all the cast and crew, who worked a solid 12 hour day (and then some…), gave it their all for every single take and it was that attitude that has made the musical number such a success.
Sarah Culverhouse, my producer, worked tirelessly to secure a full road closure for the shoot - which we shot in Winchester - this made it possible to get a variety of shots and for the dancers to have more space to perform in. The residents of Avenue Road were all fantastic, moving their cars to a car park (which we arranged for them) for the day and to put up with loud music from our playback system blaring out the song time and time again on a Sunday!
We shot a lot of the sequence with 2 (and sometimes 3) cameras, which made it fun for our script supervisor….. having shots we could perfectly match cut to made the edit a lot simpler.
We went into the day with a fairly basic ‘essential’ shot list - both my DoP (Jan Solberg) and I met on several occasions on the road and mapped out shots that were essential - we also attended every rehearsal so that we knew the dance inside out. Whilst we didn’t have a defined shot list, which allowed us to be slightly more creative on the day (but a headache for my First AD, Elizabeth Lobach), we arranged camera rehearsals ahead of time so that we could look over certain shots and foresee any issues that may arise on the day.
We were lucky enough to also secure confetti cannons for the shoot - our wonderful Art Director (Laura Smith) secured them from a company she used to work for - they added a whole new magical dimension to the sequence…. although we soon discovered confetti is a pain to sweep off the road- especially when it had to be done quickly to reset for another take!
Now that the song and dance is over (boom boom), what advice would you give anyone looking to shoot a low/no budget musical?
You need to be seriously prepared. I was planning out that particular scene for several months even before we had choreography sorted. We spent several meetings out on the road working out all the logistics of having 40 dancers on set with a full playback system and confetti! The production and AD teams were fantastic and were thorough in their organisation of the sequence.
I think you also need to know exactly what you want and decisiveness is key - perhaps that sounds pretty basic and obvious, but its paramount when you have such a huge weight on your shoulders to get something perfect - especially when the whole concept reel relies on the musical number to be the stand out, unique selling point of the series.
I spent many evenings watching musical numbers that feature in films (much to the annoyance of my girlfriend - I’d spend the mornings humming various songs from musicals!), this allowed me to really breakdown the coverage / angles and come up with a style that was unique, but true to the genre - the biggest inspirations for the musical number in Blowing Dad varied from 500 Days of Summer to Hairspray!
As this is a concept piece rather than a stand alone short film, what are your plans for it once it’s finished?
We are very fortunate to have several people/companies already interested in the concept and turning it into a television series. Once the concept piece is complete, we will then send that to our various contacts with a treatment and supporting documents in the hope of a commission next year - so keep an eye out for ‘Blowing Dad’ hopefully coming to your screens in the not so distant future.
What made you choose to make this for television?
If truth be told, we never intended to! We first wrote this a short film that was to be entered into the festival circuit - however, as the story progressed, and we started to pitch the idea to some industry professionals to get feedback - they all pretty much said the same thing ‘That would make for a great comedy series’ - so we did exactly that. We have outlined the first series - 6 x 30-minute episodes, with the option for a second series of the same format.
Also, television has become so popular - especially with the emergence and subsequent reign of Netflix and Amazon - television series have never been so popular. It also gives us time to create characters and plot, rather than having to rush a story to fit it into whatever time-frame the film festival we are entering deems suitable.
And finally, do you have any more film projects lined up after, er, Blowing Dad?
I have several small directing gigs booked for next year, but I think I have the musical bug! My company, Shoreditch Pictures, has just been funded for a new drama/musical short, ‘The Secret’, which I am writing with Sarah Culverhouse, set in a quaint English town in the heart of World War 2, when a black American troop are stationed in the town and a young, married woman falls for one of the GI's. We are shooting that next year and will be sending that out to various festivals.
I am also looking for some theatre to sink my teeth into - try my hand at something new - I’ve always been passionate about theatre and feel I’m ready to make my first dive into a project!
Along with that, I am developing a new thriller/drama for television with Alistair Bathgate along with several other ideas with my long-term co-writer and business partner, Sarah Culverhouse.
You can follow Ben on Twitter: @BenWicks1992.
You can follow Shoreditch Pictures on Twitter: @ShoreditchPics