Mark A.C. Brown on making his zero-budget indie feature Guardians
Mark A.C. Brown, writer and director of new indie feature gem Guardians, talks to us about shooting his first feature on a shoe-string, the shorthand of collaborating with creatives he's know for 15 years, and the reaction to the film since hitting the festival circuit.
Hello Mark, thanks for taking the time to chat to us today. Can you please tell us all about Guardians, what it’s about and where the story came from?
Oh Hai Mark! Guardians is a comedy/thriller set in the East End of London. It’s essentially about two idiots who are thrown together as live-in guardians of a 200 year old townhouse. And soon an odd couple comedy moves into ridiculous thriller when the house comes under attack from unseen assailants that may or may not be ghosts, gangsters, sex pervs or politicians.
The idea came from the intense frustration of being a jobbing screenwriter who’s hard work was either not made or made badly. So after one too many false starts I decided to go it alone and do it myself. No money just friends and favours. So I took what I had, the house and the cast, and I formed a story around them. Being friends with lots of actors means I’m fairly familiar with the Guardians scheme where under-qualified people (usually actors) are placed in large old houses as half arsed security to keep out squatters. And the house in which I live is pretty big and very characterful. The genre was always going to be comedy and due to the atmospheric feel of the house the ghostly thriller element kind of wrote itself. So I wrote a one page breakdown and sat everyone down to see if they were all up for it. Which they were and so we picked 10 days when everyone was free and got going.
You’ve made short film projects before, including Stained which was part of the very first Exit 6 Film Festival. How did shooting this feature compare to those projects?
I was usually just the writer on our short films, but I always wanted to direct. I never had the confidence or faith in my abilities to do so and so I left it up to other people. That was until I directed Mike Shephard’s script A Political Life, an absurdist comedy that Mike wrote after breaking up with a girlfriend. We shot it in one evening after we had emptied out the flat that he and said girlfriend used to live. Something clicked in my head then where I saw onscreen the things that I had in my head. But it was such a small film and was before things like FilmFreeway were around so it didn’t get much of a life other than being screened by Cannes in a Van. I didn’t direct anything significant again for while. Then I wrote a short script called Corinthian that was meant for someone else to direct. But I guess from the way I talked about it and the drawings that I did made people see that maybe I was the man for the job. So after some persuading from my fiancee Victoria I jumped back into the directing pool.
Fortunately, I had Fred Fournier in there with me as co-director. He is much more technically adept than I am so he was able to translate all the tech stuff that I had no clue about. Anyway, I was very happy with how it turned out and it did well on the festival circuit and so my confidence grew and my desire to direct again grew. When it came to Guardians I just wanted to replicate how I did the shorts over a 10 day period. The speed, the atmosphere. I probably did more prep on Corinthian than I did on Guardians. Partially that was because Suzanne Smith, the DOP, is a busy person always working and so we could only get together intermittently but I think it’s also because I knew the house so well and I knew Suz would get what we needed instinctively. And she did.
The most amount of thought went into schedule as we were working around people’s working lives. That was a huge difference from the shorts. Jumping from 1 day to 10 meant people's lives had to be factored in. Our 1st AD Joe Starrs did a fantastic job of staying sane whilst having to constantly change the schedule when things popped up unexpectedly. And he was invaluable on set keeping everyone on track. All in all it was a pretty pleasant shoot. Time was short so we had to constantly be thinking on our feet and be ready to change stuff at the drop of a hat. But we got through it and got most of what we needed.
You’ve got a great group of actors and comedians you’ve worked with before, many of whom feature in Guardians. How did having that prior working relationship help production?
That was also invaluable as the short hand that I had with them and the fact that all the parts were written for them meant I didn’t have to do much on-set directing for performance. They all knew what I wanted and so we blasted through the dialogue pretty damn sharpish. It also helped that we could rehearse on location. We all came from theatre and that’s how we treated it up until the shoot. Like a play. Learn lines. Dig into the script and see what is and isn’t working. Block it (a bit). And they are all pretty good improvisers and in some cases writers in their own right. So any stumbling blocks were easily negotiated with a quick chat and a tweak or two.
You mentioned you made the film without a budget. What was it like trying to pull a feature together without any significant resources?
Money was always a huge stumbling block for any project I’ve been involved with. Whether it was investors promising us the world and giving us a handful of shit instead or people wanting more than we could possibly get or us just not having a clue where to find the money trees. It was always the thing that killed us and so I took it out of the equation. I had a (very) small amount set aside for a different project that never happened. It was meant to make up one of 5 or 6 small investments in a single film. But when it didn’t happen I thought ‘I reckon I can do a whole film for that.’ Originally I thought we’d just use iPhone’s and be super lo-fi but in the end we managed to get two 5D’s for free. We got most stuff for free. We paid a good amount for catering but that’s it really. Ultimately we did spend a bit more than I first anticipated but it’s still the cheapest film around I think. It’s not something I plan on doing again though. I don’t like not paying people and had they not been friends I’d known for 15 years then the film wouldn’t have been made because of that. It was a convergence of mutual circumstance where those involved knew that the film was the payment. But now we need actual payment. Since we shot Guardians several of us have had children and so working for free is no longer an option.
The film is on the festival circuit now and been well-received. Can you tell us about some of the reactions you’ve had and your experiences of the festivals it’s shown at?
It’s been a great ride so far. Our first festival was in the US (the Genreblast Film Festival) and we had a great time there. It seems to play well in America. Maybe it’s because of the Britishness but it’s always gone down well and the majority of our awards are from there. We came away with 3 from Genreblast and suddenly we were like ‘shit, people might actually like this.’ We’ve done a good few fests now and the reaction has generally been very positive. The experiences from our point of view differ from fest to fest. Some are better than others. But that’s usually down to organisation. Ramsgate International Film & TV Festival was great as it was unexpected. We didn’t think our film would go down well with that demographic but they loved it and gave us Best Screenplay. And Brenda Blethyn quoting my film back to me was definitely a highlight. What’s been great is going back to festivals where we have had shorts with a feature. So many fests (Exit 6 included) have been so supportive and keen to see what mad shit we’ve been allowed to put into a full length film.
What’s the plan for the film post-festival run?
We are currently in talks with some distributors for it’s online release. So the hope is that it will be available on the usual platforms by the end of the year.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during production?
I’m not sure I learned anything I didn’t already know. People were a bit skeptical that I could do it for the money that we had but I knew we could and so I guess I must have learned a few things beforehand. It was more putting into practice the things that I had gleaned from other projects. The what to do and what not to do’s. The main thing is work with good people. Make sure they are better than you at what they do. And also on set chemistry can not be under estimated. You can have the most skilled people in the world working for you but if you don’t get on and don’t understand each other then you’re climbing a hill from the off.
What advice would you give to any filmmaker looking to make that jump from shorts to their first feature?
Take what you have and what you can get and go and do it. Too many people wait for the right amount of money or the perfect set and more often than not those things never appear and before you know it you’ve wasted a couple of years of your life for nothing. Filmmaking is more accessible than it’s ever been so just do it. But know your strengths too. I see too many films with bad scripts. As a writer this pains and insults me. There are a million talented scriptwriters out there not being used because some director, actor or producer thinks they know how to write. Or they don’t want to complicate things by bringing on an actual writer. Or they don’t want to pay them. If the project is good and the people are good a writer will want to do it and they will be open to negotiation. Like any aspect of filmmaking writing is a profession and so you should use a professional.
Exit 6 will be hosting a special Q&A screening of Guardians at Vue Festival Place on Saturday 23rd June at 7.30pm.
You can follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkACBrown
You can keep track of Guardians on Twitter: @GuardiansBHF
For more info about Guardians you can also visit the official website.