Torchwood star Gareth David-Lloyd talks to us about his new supernatural web series Black River Meadow, his first crowdfunding experience, learning his trade as a director and how Wales-based productions should look a little closer to home for creative talent.
Actor, director, writer, musician, singer. but above all, storyteller. If the Swiss Army Knife is the versatile, all-conquering tool of practicality, consider Gareth David-Lloyd the Welsh Army Knife of drive, talent and creativity - qualities he has channeled into new web series Black River Meadow.
"The first series is a three-part web horror drama set in the Welsh Valleys and Brecon Beacons. The idea has been bubbling away at the back of my head for over 10 years now, and I eventually decided to get off my bum and put it together on my own. I sent a treatment and a pilot episode to a few companies last year. One was Amazon, one was S4C and another was Fiction Factory. The feedback was generally very positive, but Amazon was the most encouraging, they said they really liked the idea. They didn't think they'd develop it this year but said I should continue to develop it and re-pitch again next year. I saw, as part of their pitching process, you can give them a short film to showcase the tone and genre, to give them a better idea of what you want to do with more than just words on a page. I thought, "Why don't I do that? Do it properly. We'll raise the money and actually open three windows into the world that I want to create by doing a three-part web drama?". I got fed up hanging around twiddling my thumbs and decided to do something proactive and make a decent example of my idea and what I'm trying to create."
Fortunately for Gareth, he wouldn't have to fly solo on the journey across the Welsh countryside, production companies and Kickstarter. Creative collaborator Robin Bell, having worked previously with Gareth on horror series Twisted Showcase, would be along for the ride.
"I'd already worked with Robin who had crowdfunded Twisted Showcase, which is an anthology of independent stand-alone horror shorts, so I knew he had experience in crowdfunding. I thought I'd join forces with him and use him for his knowledge and his writing talent! He's going to be writing for the third episode of Black River Meadow as well."
Initially, he had some reservations about Kickstarting their campaign. Reservations that were actually about crowdfunding in general. It's not something that seemed particularly 'ethical' to him as a way of raising funds to produce personal projects.
"I couldn't get the idea of begging for money out of my head [he laughs]! Begging, "Please, please, give me your money to do my idea." I don't know if it was just something that jarred me a bit but in execution, in practice, it's actually a lot more sound than I thought. Before I've maybe questioned the ethics of crowdfunding a little bit, but I changed my mind once we got into it and I saw how passionate the support was for the project, and how the fans of my previous work were so into the idea, really wanted me to achieve it and really wanted to be part of it as well. I suppose if you've got a load of backers that are that passionate, it's the same as getting a lot of executive producers [laughter]."
Luckily, once all concerns were put to bed, the path was clear for crowdfunding to begin - but what was the reality of campaigning like in comparison to the worried expectation? I'm sure there must have been one or two (or way more) Torchwood fans willing to help out.
"First of all it was really nerve-racking. I didn't know what to expect but I was a lot happier when I saw the passion and support we have for it. The fans have been invaluable in not only making the pledges they have but spreading the word and just sharing, and tweeting, and talking to their friends. I've been really lucky with it in the sense that I already had a fan base there that was passionate about my work. I've enjoyed it as well. I've enjoyed making contact with the fans weekly so giving updates and keeping them included. I think it's fair and I think it's important for anything crowdfunded for whoever's producing it to be transparent and to conduct themselves in a way where they including the fans, and including the backers and in treating them as producers. I've enjoyed doing that and it's been a fun ride."
And speaking of Torchwood, the support of the fans and the experience of working with a number of guest directors (as well as those in other film and TV productions), must have been of huge benefit when deciding to go down that path himself.
"I've been really observant and I've taken a lot on board. That's really helped. The biggest lesson I learned on previous productions has been the importance of being able to speak everybody's language. I don't just mean in a geographical sense, I also mean in the departmental sense. Some directors who come in have really good communication with the cameraman because that was perhaps what they specialized in at college and they know what they're talking about, but maybe they haven't really done much with actors or they haven't already done much with the art departments or wardrobe, so there's a bit of friction there. I always found it really important and the best work was done when a director would come in and be bothered to get interested in every aspect of making something. They were able to speak to an actor in terms the actor understands and to the DOP and in a way the DOP would understand. I think what's really important is to be a patriarch that speaks everybody's language, rather than relying on a 1st AD to translate because lots of things get lost in translation."
It was on the Twisted Showcase with Robin Bell where Gareth would first cut his teeth as a film director on episode Be My Head, putting his skills and theories to the test. And, it's a story to which many a new filmmaker can relate.
"It was my directorial debut and it was for no money. It was a one-day shoot in a garage, it was a very, very student film [laughs] but it allowed me to explore my range of ability, to be in something and direct it at the same time. It gave me a lot of confidence. I think for what we did in that day with the money and the materials we had, I was chuffed, so that spurred me on me on a little bit. I feel I've got the bare minimum of tools that I'll need to at least direct this first script of Black River Meadow."
It was a day that offered lessons equally as important as any learned on the set of the major productions he's been involved with. One in particular, Gareth would pass on to any first time director.
"I kept having to calm myself down. As soon as you get wound up, as soon as you start seeing the film as one huge problem, which is an amalgamation of loads of other problems and try and tackle it like that, you can get yourself into tears and you can sweat and you can't think straight. You end up rushing things and things get lost. It's important just to take one step at a time and be economical with those steps. Not to dwell on anything too much and attack the thing as a whole, but to take each little moment as it comes."
It was previously taking a moment as it comes that lead him to start a band - in large part thanks to James Marsters of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame. It's five years since Blue Gillespie last performed but (I think) I successfully hide my outrage and jealousy at yet another creative outlet for the Welsh Army Knife (I will make that stick) quite well.
"It was a prog metal band that I was involved with tail end of season two of Torchwood. It came about through James Marsters actually. He came over to play Captain John in Torchwood. He was also doing a gig in Cardiff. Me and him were jamming in his trailer one day. He said, "Do you want to come and join us? I need a support act." I said, "Well all right, you know I'm alright on the piano. I can play a bit of trombone and I can sing but that's basically it." He said, "Well, maybe I can play a few songs and do you know anyone that would come play with you?" I did have a few friends I could call on and ask them and they said, "Yes, let's do that one off." We enjoyed it so much working together that we thought, "Let's do an album [laughs]! It was quite high-paced rock music, lots of discontent, lots of venting of demons. By the time we got to the end of the second album and we run out of things to moan about we were all a bit too happy to carry on [laughs]. That was good fun. I was asked the other day whether it was directing or acting or music I liked the best? As long as I'm telling a story from the heart that's sincere, that's honest, then I'm happy. They all have their rewards and merits. If I do too much of one, then I miss the other."
As well as investing time and money into student film projects at the Newport Film School, he's also still open to any project offered to him as long as the story grabs him.
"If a script turns up and it's a story that I'd like to be part of, then I'll do my best to do it. I don't actively steer clear of anything. I know actors do when it's under a certain budget or for other reasons, but I will read anything that comes along and if it jumps off the page, then I'll try and do it. I did a film called I Am Alone which is a found footage film about a survivalist 'Ray Mears' type character out in the Colorado Rockies, filming himself while a zombie apocalypse happens. He slowly changes over the course of the film, and I loved the premise. I connected with that. I said I'd do it. Again, that was a crowdfunded project. I did it in 2014 but it's just this summer, now got distribution. I'm quite chuffed with that. The other, Dark Signal, I did a Neil Marshall produced film, a low budget, Wales-based project which I was approached about through a friend. Again, I loved the twist. I love horror, as well. It's something I jumped to be part of."
Going back to his new series, I mention how clear it is from the Kickstarter campaign that he has a lot of love and pride for Wales, not just for the landscapes on offer as a backdrop for compelling stories, but also as a hub of (often unappreciated and underused) filmmaking talent. I then ask (while managing to make Wales sound like a far off, distant land) if provisions for new filmmakers 'over in Wales' are the same as in England.
"Over the bridge [laughs]? It disheartens me a little, especially with the number of projects and studios that have been built and created in Wales, that there are a lot of these companies still importing from London, certainly artistically. A lot of Welsh crews do get a look in, but still, a lot of companies are used to going to London agencies and get all their cast and crew from there. I know there's a lot of homegrown talent here waiting to work but get overlooked. Then the 'foreigners' come in [I sense this is a joke at my expense], as in the English people of London, people that don't live here or haven’t grown up in the area. Certainly for acting, a long time ago London was the place to be. That was the hub where you have to go. London was the springboard for anyone's career. I think now, with the speed of public transport, with commuting and quality of the film schools and drama schools certainly in Cardiff and Newport, I'm hoping to see a lot more local talent being used in local projects."
Is that something he hopes to address in his new project?
"Definitely, yes. Not everyone involved is Welsh but they are all based in Cardiff. Robin's based in North Wales which is actually harder to get to than London [laughter], in South Wales we've got no motorway!"
Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for Black River Meadow in Spring 2018.
You can follow Gareth on Twitter: @Pancheers
You can follow Black River Meadow on Twitter: @BlackRivMeadow
You can also follow on Facebook: @BlackRiverMeadow