Serena Chloe Gardner, filmmaker and Exit 6 panellist, chats to April Kelley and Sara Huxley of Mini Productions about their work, their history and their goals.
Today I was joined for a lovely chat with Sara Huxley and April Kelley from Mini Productions. I have been dying to chat to these two very inspirational women for a long time and when you read this interview, you will know why. I hope you find this piece as inspirational as I did and hopefully it will give you the kick in the bum needed to restart your career with a bang in 2021.
To give you a bit of background, Mini Productions started nine years ago, in 2012, with the intension of nurturing creative talent. Fast forward to 2021 and they are now BAFTA and BIFA nominated producers, having just released their debut feature Rose: A Love Story, which premiered at the prestigious BFI Film Festival. In less than ten years they have put themselves firmly on the map of ‘ones to watch’ in the next few years.
First of all, what’s the story? How did you two meet?
AK: Sara went to Rose Bruford and I went to ALRA and we both had a mutual friend that I grew up with and did the drama school audition circuit with. I started the company in the second year of drama school because we were doing a module on ‘What are you going to do when you aren’t acting (that wasn’t soul destroying!)?’ and I presented ‘Starting your own production company’. The tutor pulled me aside and asked whether I wanted to come back next week and present something more realistic. So, I registered the company two weeks later and I haven’t looked back.
Then while things were ticking along, I thought ‘I don’t want to do this by myself’ so I met up with our mutual friend and I mentioned that I want to work with someone, and he suggested Sara. I found her on Twitter, slid into her DMs and the rest is history.
SH: Sometimes when we get drunk, we read back each other’s first messages.
You have certainly come a long way since that first meeting. What do you feel is your ‘Mini Manifesto’ moving forward and what would you like the company to achieve now?
SH: Every Christmas we get together and write down a list of all our goals for the year. Our goals for this year is to produce our second feature and to move into working in TV. We’ve been freelancing in TV purposefully to learn how to do it. We have a couple of TV concepts that we shot this year, (which are also short films in their own right), which form part of a bigger concept series that we are so passionate about and really want to make. Having worked in TV now, I can see that it is possible.
Being able to hold our own in meetings is also important. Freelancing in TV is great because you learn how to budget, shoot, and deliver to channels. The finance and delivery side are very specific, so it’s important to consolidate these skills so we can sit in a meeting and hold our own. It’s vital commissioners and financiers take you seriously when pitching your own projects.
AK: My mum built it into me to network and when I started the company, I knew nothing about finance, so I started targeting financial directors of the companies we wanted to speak to. If you just ask to buy someone a coffee and have a chat to them for twenty-minutes, everyone’s very British so they usually say “yes”. Then you have that connection.
Have you had mentors along the way?
AK: We’ve had champions that have always supported our work, like TV producer James Dean, who’s now Executive Produced our last three shorts.
Tell me about the power of creating short films before moving on to Features and TV?
SH: I would say, do not underestimate the power of a good short film. In terms of learning how to do different genres, crew networking and learning how to make scripted. Suddenly all your networks from a short film go off into the world and then before you know it, they come back more skilled and it’s a joy to be able to work together again at a higher level. They become the people that will help you out or can put you in contact with others that can. Cut your teeth in shorts! All of our experiences in shorts have been invaluable and worth their weight in gold.
AK: It’s so important on that first journey with short films to get to know the film festival circuit. We now have dialogue with festival directors now, which is great when you have a new film that you are wanting to get out there.
Are you still producing shorts?
SH: We’ll always do shorts, we shot two this year. As long as we love it and love the script. It must be a passion project or be fully funded.
AK: Famous names attached to the project help too!
You’re both very good at finding emerging filmmakers and championing their creativity and bringing it to the screen. Do you actively go out and seek these filmmakers or do you wait for them to find you?
SH: We don’t actively look for shorts anymore. The last two that we did, April wrote. They’re both topics close to our heart, that we really wanted to speak about. We feel we’ve paid our dues with shorts now but if people send them in and they’re really good it would be hard to say no. We’re always curious and struggling turning down an amazing project we’re excited about!
The jump from shorts to features is quite a mighty one that often daunts filmmakers. How did you find this leap?
SH: It definitely helped doing shorts first but there is always still more to learn. Looking back now on our first feature, I definitely would have added a Production Accountant to the budget! I was the Line Producer and the Production Accountant and one of the producers! Likewise April was producer, production manager and coordinator. We learned a lot and now I know exactly what the production accountants do but it almost killed us because all roles are a full-time job, and this meant we were stretched elsewhere. I wouldn’t change anything though because we learned so much. If you would have told us at the beginning we would have been like ‘woah, this is too much’. It’s much better to be slightly ignorant and jump straight in. Next feature though, we will be bringing in some more manpower.
AK: I would say always trust your gut.
SH: Through having this experience, we’ve learned to know our worth. So often women can naturally be apologetic for getting the opportunities that they are worth when pitted against male execs and financiers. We often shy away and say that we’re so grateful that we’re here (which is true) but having had that experience now we’re like ok ‘Here’s our worth. This is what we can bring to the table’ and we’ve only got to this point now through our almost ten-years of experience, by learning our worth and getting better.
Let’s chat about your wonderful short film Treacle which you shot as a co-production in Los Angeles. What was your American experience, and would you film in another country again?
AK: It was financed by the UK with the practical help of Katie Rotolo as our ‘on the ground’ US Producer. I would still say it was one of the best experiences of my life.
SH: Yeah, it was amazing.
AK: I’m very grateful for the film that we managed to make.
SH: We would 100% film in another country again. Loved it. The permits were a bitch in LA but apart from that the crew were amazing.
AK: It’s worth nothing that on all our short films. It’s completely ‘favoured nations’.
SH: Everyone is equally as important. The runner is equally as important and the DOP. If you have a bad runner the whole production suffers and if you have a brilliant one it lifts people up, so I think it’s a good ethos.
How have you changed as Producers in your own right now?
SH: We definitely don’t have time for ego’s anymore and this definitely shows the journey. Before when we’d worked on stuff that was not ours and people were rude to us, we would just take it. Whereas now, we’re like ‘That’s fine, we just won’t work with you again’. There’s no space for people like that. There are too many talented people that care and are lovely and deserve to work.
How does Mini support new opportunities for people looking to work in film?
AK: In terms of our last short films, we’ve tried to reach out to female directors who wouldn’t normally be given an opportunity.
SH: We like to use our trusted crew members, but if they can’t work due to availability then we always ask them for referrals and love it when we’re referred someone who is stepping up or wants the opportunity to show what they can do.
How many features would you take on in a year now at Mini?
SH: 2-3 max.
AK: We have 2-3 (films) on our slate at the moment. We never overload the slate.
SH: Raising money for a feature is a full-time job so it’s irresponsible to take on too many at the same time. Especially with how all the SEIS stuff has changed. It’s just not realistic. You have to work really hard to make your feature the best version it can be and that’s really a full-time job. Unless you’re a massive company, saying you have 5-10 features on your slate it just irresponsible for a smaller production company.
AK: A good reason to have 2-3 different films on your slate, (e.g., different genre’s), is so that when you’re having those conversations with people, if they don’t like one, you can shop the other one.
And how do you decide which of those 2-3 films take priority?
AK: Just when you think one film is going to go, it’ll still be there so you just keep chipping away at all of them until one falls into place and happens.
What advice would you give to new Producers or Filmmakers out there eager to start their own production companies?
SH: I would say: create your own work. Make your own stories and work within the networks that you already have available to you. We do quite a few talks to students in film schools and they have access to so much equipment and resources that will be harder to get their hands on once they leave the school. So, what are you doing on the weekend then? What other stuff can you shoot? Try to be as resourceful as possible and find your people because that’s how you get work made. Also, don’t be afraid to do work for free to get your foot in the door.
AK: Let ‘No’ fuel you because you’re gonna hear ‘no’ a lot. Don’t let it dampen you. Let it fuel that fire to actually prove them wrong. And if you’re just coming out of school, just make something, anything. It’s probably gonna be pants but at least you’ve done it, you’ve got the first one away, because once you’ve made something, you’re a filmmaker.
SH: There’s this amazing book called Atomic Habits that I’ve been reading and there’s an analogy about the practice of atomic habits, which is doing small things every day. There was this photography teacher who told one class they have to take the perfect photo by the end of term in order to get an ‘A’ and they told the other class to hand in hundreds of photos by the end of term, the more they do, the higher their mark will be. Above and beyond all the people who gave in hundreds of photographs, who tried and tested options, were the best photos across the board. It’s the same principal with writing, the same principal with shooting, the same with creating any work. If you take a scene or a short and you do it again and again and learn to re-do it and edit it a bit, that is how you become a filmmaker. When I read it, I thought of April and I so much, because doing it again and again and again, without giving up, really has taught us so much. And we have had so many no’s and rejections, but there’s always something you can improve, you’re never going to make the perfect product. So just keep going.
AK: There’s always going to be someone that loves your work and someone that hates your work and if you can get used to that you’re fine.
You can follow Mini Productions on:
You Tube: Mini Productions