Marc Price on the bravery that comes with naivety in filmmaking
Marc Price, writer and director of cult zombie smash Colin and recent sci-fi blast Dune Drifter, talks to us about the making of his £45 first feature, the magical moments that come when making any film, and the strength in not yet knowing what you're doing as a new filmmaker.
Marc Price, if you don't know, is something of a hero in independent British filmmaking. Writing and directing features with budgets ranging from next to nothing to £500K, he has been knocking out features in different genres since his break-out zombie hit Colin in 2008.
We recently met on the Clubhouse app, where currently you can find a host of film creatives joining in for a natter and to offer advice from wherever they are in the world. That is where our paths crossed, but what set Price off on his filmmaking path back when he started out?
"When I was younger, I wanted to be an oceanographer. I saw Jaws and I thought, 'Sharks are great!'. Then I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and thought, 'Whales are f*****g great too!'. I like diving too. I thought, yeah, I could do this. Then some poor advice led me away from a sensible career in science, where I would probably own a house by now or live in the Bahamas. Instead I thought, 'Okay, I'm probably not going to do so well at that. Maybe I'll do film instead."
"When I think about it, what really got me excited about filmmaking was definitely audience response. The few short films I'd made in school were made for our English class. I remember not having a clue what I was doing, so I thought, 'I'm just going to make them react'. If I can get someone to spit blood on that wall, that would really surprise people. So I started doing stuff like that, and the reactions were amazing. I became very addicted to that audience response without being aware of it at the time, and it built from there."
"I got my first camcorder when I was 21 and I forced my friends to get together and we just played around. My directing skills back then were pretty much, 'Can you do that again, except not s**t?'. From there you learn and pick stuff up. So, yeah, I think it was bad career advice, I should have been the oceanographer [laughs]!"
From what started out as spitting some blood onto a wall came Colin, a DIY zombie indie feature following the title character as a recently turned zombie making his way in the new world. It followed Price's first short films, Nowhere Fast and Midnight, and was produced for just £45. It took all the tricks in the indie toolbox to make the film feel far removed from its budgetary constraints.
"I knew I wanted it to feel big. We knew it was really quiet up in Collier's Wood, which wasn't too far from where we lived. We knew the sun would be up early, so we could go there about 6am and it would look like the middle of the day. We bought a couple of newspapers and scattered them around to make the streets look a little bit worn in. We noticed that all life stops at about 7ft in London, so if you've got certain low angles, you could film on a quite busy street and get away with it for the most part because people steer clear of a dude lurching around with a camera. We'd get our wide shots earlier and then get closer as people started coming on to the streets. It all helped really bring it to life.
"We did any crowd scenes or any big big sequences on weekends when my flatmates and friends were around. We wanted the feeling that when Colin joined a big crowd, you kind of lose him in it. He's just part of the zombie horde. As an audience you hopefully don't know where he is, so you've got some concern, and also the perspective shifts a little bit to a more to see what humans are up against. I quite enjoyed those moments where he would disappear into a crowd and you wouldn't see him for about five minutes of an action sequence, but then emerge again at the end."
"It's not how I'd necessarily write something now, but when you're younger and braver, you do things like completely remove your main character from a big action scene and then come back to it later on."
Much of the ingenuity of the film's production came in the sound effects that were created and mixed after the shoot was completed.
"We didn't even have to worry about sound. There were constant planes, constant cars, constant people, but knowing straight off the bat that I was going to build everything up in sound in post made it easier. We shot it like an 8mm movie, just didn't worry about sound.
"It was just me working on a desktop computer, which I was doing alongside the shoot. I would run downstairs and record a sound I needed on the camcorder mic, as that was all I had, then come back and mix it in. I'm not a mixer, so I could only do things with volume. I wouldn't manipulate sound or anything. I was using a very old version of Premiere that would make my computer crash if I tried to mix, so it was just volume [laughs]!"
"The main thing we did that worked quite nicely, was that I wanted to have the constant sound of gunshots. As it was a UK-based film, I thought it would be interesting because guns aren't a thing here. You'd know it was the armed forces, or people kind of closing in on zombies to execute them, you'd know it was dangerous. So I thought we could have a constant sound of distant gunshots. I tried mixing something but took me a day and I ended up with two minutes of material, which I couldn't do for the whole film. And then it was coming up to Fireworks Night and, so I recorded that and edited out all of the obvious firework sounds and traffic noise. I recorded an hour of that, got it down to two 8-minute files, and that's my layer track for the whole film."
Back on set, there is one particular day that stands out in Price's mind as one of particular achievement. It was filming one of the film's larger sequences, and it included an unexpected visit from the police.
"There's a moment where Colin wanders into the street and a bunch of people are taking down zombies, ushering them into a corner and beating the shit out of them with wrenches and stuff. It was our second big sequence with zombie extras after the first we'd filmed, which was a house siege scene. There's a lot of good will when making a zombie film, but when everyone has been covered in sticky, gooey stuff for a few hours, they get over being a zombie very quick! Luckily we had enough people come back for this next sequence."
"No one could really fight and we didn't have stunt coordinators at the time. So everyone picked their partners and worked over what they were going to do. They all had instruction not to swing a real f*****g wrench or crowbar at anyone, and then I just shook the camera like crazy to make it look like chaos. Anything that looked good, I would isolate and put in the film. It wasn't arbitrary shaking, everything was designed to a degree so that I could try and capture an energy, and it worked really well. I remember coming away from that thinking, 'Wow'. Then a cop showed up.
"I took the tape out and gave it to a zombie so if they confiscated the camera, we wouldn't lose the footage. I wandered up with the camera rig and he said, 'I've come here because of reports of a riot.' We'd checked with everyone in this little cul-de-sac if it was okay, but someone thought it was funny to call the cops. I said, 'Oh, no I'm just making a film. We're students.' I didn't have a good lie. I didn't have a f*****g film school I could say I was from. He just said, 'Oh, cool. Better leave you to it.' I asked if he wanted to be in it and he said, 'I gotta get back to the office, ain't I? I'm just glad it's not a riot because I don't think I could handle this all by myself!'. So, we carried on filming! That whole day felt like an achievement [laughs]."
The film subsequently received a lot of attention from the industry and enjoyed a brilliant audience response, all of which thrusted Price into new territory in terms of the distribution and business end of film. While he has nothing but kind words to say about how Kaleidoscope has looked after Colin, Price does wish more behind-the-scenes content could have been included across all the releases.
"There's a special edition of the film, but I there's a making of I wish I'd put on the other DVD as well. Now, I would like more people to watch that than the film, which is weird, because there's a lot to get over. We talk about how we did it, all these low-tech tips and tricks that we've used. Sometimes stuff like that can give other filmmakers the confidence to try. That's the thing that I'm probably most passionate about, making sure that others who aren't sure if they should make something, actually just try. If I can contribute enough encouragement to new filmmakers to just give it a go, I'm happy."
Price's most recent feature, Dune Drifter, is a different kettle of fish entirely from Colin. The film is a sci-fi thriller about the survivor of a crashed starfighter trying to stay alive on a desolate alien planet in limited life support. Completed during the pandemic, with a festival run that included a premiere FrightFest, the film is now available on Amazon and DVD, boasts some great miniature and in-camera visual effects for a film with a modest budget.
"David Ross was the first first person I spoke to about Dune Drifter. A friend of mine sent me his show reel, and I thought it was incredible. We messaged, we got on quite well. I met him at the screening for my other film Nightshooters and asked, 'Do you think you could do a space battle, if I could only get this much money, and make something work if we just had two miniatures?' He said, 'Yeah, I think so'. So I pitched him Dune Drifter. Working with David is one of the highlights of that film. He would send me stuff that I would think is amazing, and he'd then say, 'Oh it's not finished yet.' Brilliant, such a great experience."
"I've also got one piece of footage from the shoot that makes me so happy. It was our last day, and it was a shot of Phoebe Sparrow flying the spaceship. We sprayed some water on the windshield, and the idea was we had this really powerful fan that was going to blast the water up, but it didn't work. So we decided instead let's do the bit where she goes through clouds, so we got a CO2 fire extinguisher and started blasting that, but what that did was pushed the water droplets up a little bit then froze them instantly. It was very small effect, but that's what would happen at that altitude, so I thought that was pretty f*****g amazing. So we just ended up with this really beautiful shot that worked really nicely and it was one of those lovely bits of fortune.
"Someone actually filmed us filming that. So, you've got Nicky Evans there with his shirt off in the sweltering hot room blasting a fire extinguisher at the spaceship, I'm shaking the camera like crazy, my AC Oliver Pearson Pajtra is wiggling the light to try and give it a sense of movement and scale, and Phoebe's jumping up and down on the spaceship of risk of falling through the floor and into our downstairs flat. Then we get the shot and there's this elation at the end of the take when the fire extinguisher runs out of CO2. So much of making a film is a bunch of people coming together and finding magical moments."
Unfortunately, the happy memories of the making the film didn't stretch to its release. The cut of the film initially released by the distribution company, was not one that the director had planned to go out.
"The version that was released is not my edit, funnily enough. I think there was a bit of an error in the mastering of the film. My version was meant to go on VoD, DVD, and the like, but for some reason, a heavily censored version was put out everywhere. I believe my version is on the DVD as a special feature called the Producer's Cut. I don't know who signed off on that, but that has nothing to do with me. Very, very distressing after so much hard work."
With that in mind, and a career filled with similar moments off set as well as on, if Price could go back to the start and give himself a piece of advice, what would it be?
"It's hard because I know I just blindly ran into everything. There wasn't a grand plan, there wasn't thinking ahead, because essentially what filmmaking is, is time travelling, right? You're in a moment, shooting an element, just like a little piece, trying to predict how that will go into the bigger picture, and then hope that will play to an audience. Back when I was doing Colin, I didn't think that far ahead. I was just thinking, 'Oh, it'll be really cool if this works, and if it doesn't, we'll try something else tomorrow or next week'. I wasn't thinking ahead enough, so I kind of think in a really weird way that was a strength.
"So to go back and tell myself to think more about what's going to happen might actually undo the stupidity that became valuable lessons. So I would go back in time and just marvel at how much more hair I had [laughs], and let me let me f**k up exactly as I did all the way because I'm quite comfortable with how things have played out up to this point [laughs].
You can follow Marc on Twitter: Marc_V_Price