Writer and Director Serena Chloe Gardner shares her experience of successfully navigating the Film London & BFI 'London Calling' funding initiative with her short film 'Blackout'.
London Calling - what's that?
To be fair I’d heard whispers of what ‘London Calling’ was about on the nervous lips of filmmakers at various social networking events but assumed, like most that I wouldn’t be good enough to apply.
‘London Calling’ is a premier short film scheme run by Film London in partnership with the BFI and every year fund up to 20 short films with £4k to £15k (the latter BAME) to those most deserving.
One Autumn evening in 2016, I thought “what the heck, they can only say no” and applied. I had a short film piece called ‘Blackout’ which tells the tale of a young carer as she battles her way through the social care system whilst looking after her mentally ill mother. Not your every-day subject but one that was personal to me and I’d hoped would shine a light on the experience for others.
I was delighted to find out a month later in Nov that I had gotten through…the first stage at least! The lucky 500 (so I’ve been told) we’re summoned to meet in a hall in Waterloo where we we’re given a talk on what it takes to make shorts successful at festivals (keep durations 10 minutes and under), not trying to squeeze a feature into a short, how many rounds of qualifying there would be (about 4) and what would be laying in wait upon successful inclusion into the funding scheme, which included a showcase at BFI Southbank in front of industry professionals – not bad! We were then sent off to our respective London boroughs to meet our mentors, which for us was the Eastern Edge Film Fund.
About 6 teams had been chosen from my respective borough of Waltham Forrest and we were told then that only 2 teams would be getting through (argh!). Instantly we all became enemies! Just kidding, everyone was super friendly and just as nervous as the rest. We were all tasked with another re-write of our scripts and upon this feedback would be given.
There was a lot of boring back and forth stuff about the re-writes (what were they talking about, it was already a perfect script, no?), but in the meantime another glaringly obvious little snag came to light... I was the only one there without a Producer - heavens! In the past I’d always produced my own films, but under heavy warning from Eastern Edge, by Christmas I was to find one as the task of being writer/director would be more than enough without Producing on the side.
Finding a Producer that would work for free was hard (note: on this scheme Producers/Directors/Writers cannot be paid). I tried newer producers that were in the last year of graduating film schools but they were too busy with course work so I managed to talk my best friend (and Project Manager) Nasreen Cullen (who had also previously worked with me on set) into taking on the challenge. Luckily she accepted - little did she know the amount of work that would be heading her way!
So we were on track and all we needed to do was win the pitch at the 'not so scary' Film London offices - I’m kidding it was terrifying - and we were in! Bish! Bash! Bosh! Film made! Not quite...
The first practice pitch went awfully. We were so upset, but we were not prepared. Never having pitched much before I didn’t know what to expect but thankfully this was just a practice run. We then turned into military mode, and back on went my acting helmet! We each made scripts and ran rehearsals every night until the pitch. Timing ourselves to get quicker as we went. Our pitch had to be exactly 5 mins including story, pre-production outline, budgeting and a showreel with talk from the DoP. So, we did it, we were on form, went in and pitched what we had practised. Then, after a slightly scary panel of questions for the next 40 minutes, we came out thinking we had lost. Luckily after a gruelling 24-hour wait, we finally got the phone call – we had won the £4k funding and we’re going to make our film! Woohoo!
Over the next few weeks we (I say 'we' because my Producer reluctantly then became my therapist) went through a gruelling set of re-writes. Continually questioning the characters, the plot holes, the flaw in my lack-of-going-to-film-school skills, questioning my sanity all the way and even re-writing up until the day before the shoot (much to my Producer’s dismay during Pre-Production we eventually shot version 17 of the script). Our mentors really had high expectations of us and wanted every part of this story to be simpler, less complex and more contained. Slowly my story became less about my lead character’s struggle with the social care system and more about her relationship with her sick mother. I was happy with this but did feel I had much more to say.
Meanwhile, Pre-Production was handled very gallantly by my Producer with many hurdles along the way. Firstly, the money isn’t handed out to you in one lovely lump sum like you would imagine. This is drip-fed to you slowly throughout the Pre, Prod and Post on the completion of milestone tasks along the way so scheduling becomes key. Luckily we had crowdfunded the film through Indiegogo (as it became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to make the film for £4k) and managed to secure an extra £6k in funding through crowdfunding.
London as a backdrop itself became hazardous when it came to negotiating locations. We needed a council location, most of which are managed through an organisation called “Film Fixer” who are not keen to assist when it comes to lowering their fees for a days shoot for a lovely bunch of Film London competition winners. One council wouldn’t even take my Producers call! Fortunately, with the assistance of our mentors and some moaning, we were able to negotiate a cheaper day rate for use of an estate - but only 10 people including cast and crew on set at any one time mind! …er…check! We filmed ‘Blackout’ over 3 days in May, which was the last weekend we could shoot in time for the FL deadline. No issues on the shoot days what so ever and one day we even finished early!
The film went straight into Post-Production with our amazing editor Miguel Javierre Lloro. This process was not as straight forward as I had imagined it to be. Our mentors really wanted the film to be the best it could be and do well at the festivals (this meant keeping to a strict 10m39s in length so I’m super proud to report that our final film ended up at 9m7s *high five!) and accounted for endless reams of feedback. I had to step back from this process somewhat as I had started to become very emotionally attached to the film and it’s feedback so let Miguel hold the fort together and lead the ship into the final version of the film. Which I’m happy to say I’m very pleased with.
Our film showcased at BFI Southbank on 8th September 2017 almost a full year since first applying. It was amazing to see what everyone had done with their projects and for the funding they received (most of which had topped up funds themselves) and can gladly say that our film is now part of a league of films that have played a huge part in launching some very successful careers (Riz Ahmed for one).
I am delighted to have been a part of this scheme, for all the ups and downs, as it has taught me more about pitching projects, getting a tougher skin and making your film be the best that it can be. I wish I had done this sooner! If anything it has now spurned me on to continue down this path and hopefully create more work. I am more determined than ever before!
Blackout won ‘Best Short Film’ and ‘Supporting Performance in a Short’ at this year’s Southampton International Film Festival.
You can follow Serena on Twitter: @SerenaChloe
You can keep up to date with her projects by following: @SecretGardenPic
You can also visit the Secret Garden Pictures website for more info.