Not-so-Mini Productions Actor and Producer April Kelley: the filmmaker's dream becomes reality
Ever wondered what it would be like if you took the plunge and made those filmmaking dreams a reality? April Kelley of Mini Productions has just returned from LA having done exactly that. Arriving with no set, no crew and no cast – just her written film, producing partner Sara Huxley and director Rosie Westhoff – in the space of one month April made her film and had a life-changing experience along the way.
For as long as I can remember and long before I pursued this career, I’ve always wanted to move and live in Los Angeles. Don’t ask me why, I can’t articulate it, it’s just a very special place and feels like home every time I go… *pause for barfing*. So, if you had told my 7 year-old self that in 20 years time I would be making a film that I would star in, produce and bloody write she’d probably have laughed in your face and asked to go back to Disneyland, even for just one minute.
Let’s start with a little backstory…
My manager, Shane in the States asked me in the middle of 2017 (the timeline is important, stick with me) if I ever thought about writing or directing. He got the acting and producing but wanted another string added to my bow. I’ve never had any desire to direct, nor do I think I have the right to ‘just decide’ to direct. It’s a craft you have to seriously graft for and I have far too much respect for my director chums to jump into it myself. That said, I thought with the right team around me, I probably have a story in me to tell.
This currently untitled project, let’s call in “B” for now, is the story of two twenty-something year old friends, Belle & Jessie, who go on a booze-fuelled weekend to help Jessie get over a recent breakup. Lines begin to blur between them when the always hetero Jessie, in her drunken, post breakup loneliness kisses bi-sexual Belle. And of course it’s Belle’s fault right? “B" is not a love story but a story about the complexity of the female friendship and not making the ‘B’ in ‘LGBT’ silent.
As a bisexual woman in the industry, I can’t help but feel that the ‘B’ in ‘LGBT’ is simply there to make the acronym roll off the tongue with ease. More often than not, what appears to be a bisexual story turns into a tale of experimenting or just ‘a phase’. When you have the uncertainty of labeling (which we, as humans so desperately need) and the added complexity of the female friendship, it can very quickly end in awkward, cringe-worthy circumstances (for both parties).
I’ve always been open when it comes to sexuality and very happy to answer questions my friends build up the courage to ask when they’re drunk. But, what happens when that drunk friend wants to push her own sexual boundaries? You’re friends, you’re comfortable in each others company, no doubt you’ve snogged before. What do you do if the advances are more? That’s what I’m exploring in B.
Having heard these stories from both sides and experiencing my own, I’m fascinated by the ‘what if’ and the twenties social panic. What if, as an LGBT woman, you stop the advances to protect the friendship – the rejection still ultimately might hurt the relationship. Or, what if you – in a drunk fit of lust and ‘fuck it’ attitude – go for it. What if 30 is looming and you don’t know what or who you want for the future but feel pressure by the life clock? Tick-tock.
As I said, it’s complex, but just because it’s complex shouldn’t mean we avoid fulfilling the stories of bisexuals. Life is complicated, but we don’t get lazy with other stories but defaulting them as ‘a phase’. And this is why I’m giving the ‘B’ a voice in B – my writing debut.
Enter Rosie ‘The Aussie Dream’ Westhoff. I had seen her film, Crush earlier in 2017 at BFI Flare and immediately fell in love with it and her. Haven’t seen it? Rectify that now.
We met one September evening in 2017. We had two G&T’s and by the time we left we were shooting a film in LA next year. When you know, you know, eh?
Roll on the beautiful carnage which then ensued…
Development and pre-production commenced and I went out to LA in March 2017 to suss out how the hell we were going to pull this off. Thankfully, during that trip I met who would become our US Producer… Pocket rocket, Katie Rotolo. Without her, this film would have never happened, having a US producer on the ground who is as passionate and skilled as she was invaluable and I’ll be forever indebted to her. We ploughed on as planned to shoot in June 2018. Which then got pushed back to August 2018… But let’s not make a long story longer.
In the two months leading up to what would be the day we flew (side note, didn’t book flights until 2 weeks before leaving) it was like any other production: budgets, raising finance, drawing up treatments, shot lists, casting, scouting locations, putting feelers out to crew, adjust body clock to LA time (stay up until 2am/3am every night here in the UK).
I know what you’re thinking, "wow, these girls really prepared and managed to do it all from the UK". Rosie and I landed in LA on Wednesday 15th August 2018 with no cast, crew or locations… Yep. What could possibly go wrong?
Before we get into the LA part of this story, let me share with you some UK/US production differences and how we tackled them… No surprise here but, yes it cost more to shoot over there for all the obvious reasons, but we do get more dollar for our pounds. We paid everyone minimum wage and favoured nations. One thing we learnt is that you can get away with a hella-lot more in the UK and we’ll never take that for granted again. They are on you like a hawk out there and rightly so, it’s bloody Hollywood. You need a permit for everything, and not just a permit but a bunch of approvals, signage and probably a special location dance for all I know. You don’t just get insurance for the project as a whole, you have to draw up individual insurance certificates for each element. And they do this via an online form #snazzy.
You can legally work up to 12 hours per day not including a lunch break (that’s an additional hour compared to UK shoots). Flying over my make up and costume girls and charming them to work for free basically costs the same as hiring people out there and I was keen to have a couple of familiar faces around me in a foreign country. Carpooling is key. Make Giggster your best friend. Respect the unions, even if they do make your life a living hell. Everywhere shuts at 2am so plan your wrap party accordingly.
Anyway, I digress. Day one, jet lag wasn’t an option on this trip, although I’m sure Katie would have preferred us to sleep on that day rather than huddle around our laptops saying half sentences and blinking profusely to stay awake.
That first day we established we would attempt to shoot 5 days within a 2 weeks period. Great, sure. I FaceTimed a slightly wine fuelled costume designer and dear friend Ella Gaskell later that day who simply went ‘I’m on SkyScanner, lets do this, doesn’t matter when you’re shooting, I’m coming out and we’re doing it.’ Gawd bless that women. Our first crew member.
The Thursday and Friday were spent in Katie’s car travelling all over Los Angeles scouting for our five locations, via the wonder that is Giggster. We had nailed one already, thanks to my Mum’s best girlfriend who lives out there (and that only cost us a bottle of tequila #winning).
We met some incredible people, even better dogs, heard some insane stories and ate a lot of Mexican food, all while getting lost on several occasions and discussing the intricacies of bisexuality.
We secured a 2-4-1 location whilst driving to our next stop, it wasn’t planned – we zoomed right passed a connivence store, pulled a U-ie and it was love at first sight. I remember nudging Katie in to doing the talking because, obviously, she knows how filming in the States works but she turned to me and said ‘you have the accent, they’ll listen to you’. She was right… and this was mine and Sara’s greatest asset throughout the entire shoot.
Locations. Sorted. Tick. Time to find cast.
Cast had been our Achilles heel for months. It’s one thing finding a good actor, it’s another to make sure you can create the chemistry of best friends in the space of a week. Enter casting dream, Heather Basten. We gave her a week to post the job, trawl through the submissions, receive the self tapes and get them in to chemistry read with me on Tuesday 21st August. We saw excellent, funny, talented people but it wasn’t until the last person (typical) walked through the door did we realise in cliche fashion that they were ‘the one’. Ariana Anderson, New Yorker now living in LA. Their talent is one thing and needs no bigging up – you’ll understand once you see the film, but they low-key secured the role for two other very important things 1) we clicked immediately and 2) they can take and tell a dirty joke, in fact one of the first interactions was rude. BFF’s.
Whilst all this was going on, a crew was forming, slowly but surely and it was a crew jammed packed of incredible women. Yep, we were feeling pretty smug. It was at this point I managed to confirm and book the flights for my go-to UK make up girl, Helena Jopling. This was a close call because dates were clashing, but we made it work, thankfully, otherwise she wouldn’t still be my friend now. I can’t lie though, at this stage of production I had handed everything over to my partner in crime, Sara ‘my wife’ Huxley, who along with Katie was handling this. I was just very lucky to hear all the people who were joining us on set.
On the note of Sara; up until a week before flying out I had tackled, built and dealt with everything. I always knew she’s be coming out with me (us Mini’s stick together) but I never anticipated how much of an utter hero she was going to be. She took everything off me, I handed it all over and she and Katie gave me the one thing I didn’t think was going to be possible – the chance to be a creative. During the shoot I was oblivious to anything that might have been going slightly awry (everything from losing our gaffer at 10pm the night before a shoot day to generators failing). So, Sara and I have two very different tales of how the shoot went but I’ll be forever grateful that she allowed my experience to be the best of my life. Why Producer’s don’t find a partner, we’ll never fathom, but we know they’re near on impossible to find, Sara’s like a rare Pokemon card… I wouldn’t trade her for anything.
The couple of days leading up to the shoot were just as you’d expect, no change there. Two steps forward, one step back. On Monday 24th August, Ari and I had our second rehearsal day; I picked them up in our action vehicle – a sexy, blue 1976 Grand Marquis, somewhere we would spend the majority of our time together (with no AC). We then awkwardly embraced some group yoga (did I mention that Katie is a yoga instructor too?) before Rosie handed me money and said ‘okay, you’re going to Six Flags, you’re going to eat something you’ve never eaten before, bring me back a souvenir and answer these 36 questions’ … Best rehearsal ever, to say the least.
The day before the shoot Ari and I hung out more and that evening I drove over to Katie’s where Sara and Rosie were working too. It was sunset and it just so happened that my drive there was down a long stretch of road with the Hollywood sign in front of me. What with that and then walking into Katie’s apartment to see everyone working away, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had something in my eye.
Time to shoot this bad boy.
By now Ari and I were having sleepovers (yes, our book “How to become best friends in 10 days” will be out early next year) and we’d drive in everyday in our sexy car. When we got to the location on the first day, we arrived and I immediately did a u-turn and skidded off in another direction. Katie called me and said ‘where are you going?’. I had no idea that was our crew, I was so taken aback –there was a bloody four room trailer, huge amounts of kit and a full crew – it was actually happening.
The entire week was incredible. Yes, there were the usual hiccups and stresses – it wouldn’t be a shoot without them but what will stick with me until I’m an old gal is watching a team of people flourish in their roles which they’re so gawd damn good at. There was constant belly laughs, daily bear hugs, singing at the top of our lungs, sad acting, happy acting, choreographed sex scenes, a pink flamingo and a crane, an actual crane for the camera – a shot I never thought we’d be able to do but lone behold, I come on set on the final day and there it is. On that last day we wrapped at 3am, it was wonderfully bittersweet as well as gutting that it was an inappropriate time to have a wrap party. Fear not, we karaoke’d hard a couple of days later.
I got home on Monday 10th September with an achy heart, a zillion Polaroids and a heart bursting with gratitude.
As I said at the start, if you had told my 7 year old self that this was going to happen, that we were going to pull it off and that we were going to be immensely proud and excited about what we’ve captured, she probably would have said “yes, that’s one of my dreams” but no way would she think it would come true. It was hands down the best experience of my life and one I’ll never, ever forget.
I’d like to end this with something profound and not cheesy, but I’m going to fail. I’m very fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to be to dream big and who were aware that they were going to lose me to Los Angeles eventually. Not once did they say this was over ambitious – they knew better than I did – that we’d pull it off. It’s so important to be wonderfully ludicrous with your goals, to not listen to the negativity around you, to maintain laser like focus and to have a dash of ignorance (ah, bliss).
I got to tell a story very close to my heart, my story, with friends and people who quickly became friends. I dedicate this article to them, I’ll spend forever trying to articulate how thankful I am and I dedicate this to you too, whoever might be reading this… Don’t hold yourself back, don’t question yours dreams, if I can do it – you sure as hell can!
Just to conclude on the timeline of events so you can put it in perspective:
June 2017 - Manager plants the seed September 2017 - I meet Rosie and it begins Wednesday 15th August - Arrive in LA Thursday 16th August - Scout Friday 17th August - Scout Saturday 18th August - Review self tapes Sunday 19th August - Scout and decide on locations Monday 20th August - Director’s prep Tuesday 21st August - Auditions Wednesday 22nd August - Crewing up Thursday 23rd August - Crewing up Friday 24th August Crewing up Saturday 25th August - Rehearsals & costume fittings Sunday 26th August - Day of rest Monday 27th August - Rehearsals & make up tests Tuesday 28th August - Final mayhem Wednesday 29th August - Sunday 2nd September - Shoot days 1-5 Monday 3rd September - Universal Studios (bonus) Tuesday 4th September - Wrap party Monday 1st October - Post production commences 2019 - Film complete and begins festival run
Stay posted and keep up-to-date with April's filmmaking journey by following her on Twitter @April__Kelley