Making micro-budget feature film, TimeLock

ReelScotland 6 October, 2013 0
Making micro-budget feature film, TimeLock

TimeLock is a Scottish, digital feature-film about a botched robbery, a safe that won’t open and lives that have gone off the tracks. Writer/director David Griffith writes about the rationale and challenges of making his micro-budget movie.

Are you bored of puerile superhero movies and fetishist 3D gimmickry? Do you want something stylish and innovative, that doesn’t simply disappear up its own narrative backside? Then forget Hollywood and European arthouse and get on board the micro-budget wave that is reinventing contemporary cinema for the digital age.

We all know that the internet is changing the way we distribute films as well as make them – and that the current business models are under threat if not broken. But while successful new models are being developed by some of the bigger TV players (e.g. with Breaking Bad and House of Cards), a viable distribution system for independent filmmakers from smaller countries still remains elusive.

Making a film is difficult enough without all the problems of self-distribution, so why would any filmmaker want to throw their hat into the digital ring?

First reason: Because I could. Being a freelance feature film screenwriter is a bit like being a Victorian parent, you have dozens of children but only one in ten makes it to maturity. This means that when you are given the chance to take hold of your destiny, you should seize it with both hands. My chance came in 2010 when my screenplay for the 2010 film Hard Core Logo II, directed by Bruce McDonald, which I had thought had died, was unexpectedly revived and I duly received my 2.5% production fee on the first day of principal photography.

TimeLock posterGod bless the Writers Guild of Canada! Since I was not counting on receiving this money, I was presented with a simple choice: blow this windfall on a new car or make a digital feature. No decision then.

Second reason: Because I wanted to. Not only out of a sense of parental responsibility, but also because making a micro-budget digital film presents the perfect opportunity to experiment. Like many moviegoers, my tastes don’t fall into simple categories like Hollywoood, particularly in its current big spectacle phase, nor World Cinema (read world Arthouse).

I like films that are both entertaining and innovative and these are currently in short supply on either side of the theatrical divide. Since a micro-budget film can never hope to compete directly on production values with even a low-budget Britflick when shooting in traditional continuity style, why bother.

Micro-budget innovation should not be restricted to squeezing budgets (since this usually means exploiting the cast and crew), but instead filmmakers should seek to innovate in terms of story, plot, narrative POV and audio-visual style so that the film costs less to make.

So how did I go about making an innovative microbudget film?

With my experience as a producer of short films and TV documentaries I was able to calculate that I would not be able to afford to pay even a tiny crew for more than ten days. To maximize time spent on set and keep to 10-hour days, I’d therefore need to restrict the use of different locations as much as possible.

I set myself the challenge of coming up with a story idea that would focus on an intense conflict between two main characters in a restricted space. I’d always been interested in the Stockholm Syndrome, and why it was only the hostages that started start to express empathy with their kidnappers, and not the reverse. I therefore decided to make my feature film an existential thriller about a ‘Tiger Kidnapping’ (kidnapping a key-holder to effect a robbery) that would test how over the course of one night a kidnapper might start to unconsciously empathize with his victim.

Just because I was making a micro-budget feature film and would be cutting back savagely on locations, lighting, transport and grip equipment didn’t mean I could skimp on story. Every feature film needs between five and seven big twists to drive the narrative forward. While a couple of these can come from subplots and secondary characters, most would need to come from backstory.

From the point of view of narrative economy, I decided that the hostage should have met kidnapper many years before when their roles were reversed and that the bad blood from this earlier meeting should surface as they waited for through the night to complete the robbery. This was perfect since the time lock on the safe would then become a visual and conceptual motif for two men trapped in time by their feelings of guilt and their sense of having failed in life.

Excited by this idea, I wrote an outline. Knowing that the camera system and audiovisual style would need to be innovative, I then took the unusual step of storyboarding the outline before writing the screenplay. In keeping with the noir nature of the story and the claustrophobic nature of a kidnapping situation, I decided to develop a highly subjective camera system where our ‘eyes and ears’ (camera and microphone) should always been within the characters ‘consciousness’ space.

David Griffith directing Alton Milne on the set of TimeLock

David Griffith directing Alton Milne on the set of TimeLock

In the first and final act, there would be no master shots, or even medium wide shots, and I would restrict myself only to POV shots or reflexive reaction shots. In the second act I would allow myself some high-angle shots; however, even these diegetic interventions would need to thematically motivated within the action.

My two main actors, Alton Milne and John C. Gilmour loved the opportunities presented by this conflict and the thematically driven audio-visual filming system. However, they also knew that shooting 9 pages of script a day in long takes would be very challenging. We therefore rehearsed, improvise and polished the dialogue for several months in advance of the shoot.

During this time we also started to put together the rest of our cast and crew. These were largely first-timers straight out of university or college, or crew who had been pidgeonholed in other areas of the film and TV industry and wanted to take on a new challenge. Everyone was paid within their current rate, and offered a profit share based on the difference between this fee and what they would have been receiving for a regular very low-budget (as opposed to micro-budget) Scottish film.

Though we had originally intended to shoot the whole film in Glasgow, we were having difficulty finding an appropriate hotel and safe to use. Fortunately, my producing partner Inge Sorensen approached Mark Geddes at South West Scotland Screen who was able to suggest two perfect locations, the Cairndale Hotel and the former HQ of the Bank of Scotland that were only a few hundred metres away from each other in Dumfries town centre. He was also able to offer us a small grant to shoot in Dumfries.

Though this grant would not cover the additional costs of travelling to Dumfries, the locations were too good to turn down. This was one of the best decisions we made. The staff of the Cairndale and owners of the vault were hugely supportive and the feeling of being on location – albeit shooting in the hotel where we were staying – helped the tiny crew gel into a great team.

There were of course numerous challenges to surmount, such as a safe that wouldn’t close, shooting in a hotel foyer outside a wedding reception and having to film an armed standoff in a busy swimming gym at six in the morning; however, the cast and crew took everything in their stride and we only ran over fifteen minutes on one day and only dropped one minor scene.

Post-production took longer than for a regular low-budget film as I needed to work around my collaborators availability. I had to learn to use Final Cut Pro to produce an assembly cut before handing over to Florian Nonnemacher who had just graduated from the Royal Conservatoire Scotland and was keen to secure a feature credit.

My friend, the amazing bassist Howie Reeve brought in Rafe Fitzpatrick and RM Hubbert to work on the minimalist sound track, and the brilliant music producer Dave McAulay went around recording everything from rubber bands to fridges to put together the most amazing basement soundscape you’ve ever heard. DOP Simon Hipkins also took on the work as colourist and together we all managed to give the film an unusual but highly distinctive, look feel and sound.

A thinking person’s thriller, TimeLock was chosen as the closing film for the GoNorth Festival 2013 and premiered in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. It was always our intention that the film would be released digitally rather than theatrically and the film is now available to rent on the viral Distrify player for £2.99.

We are planning a limited theatrical release through regional cinemas and pop-up screenings later in the year when the audience will be able to enjoy the film in its scaled-up glory. We do not expect necessarily to make the money back in the short-term but are rather approaching the film as a novelist approaches their career: use the first book to raise interest for the second and then use each successive release to drive back sales on the earlier films.

Our next micro-budget venture, which we hope to shoot for at least double the budget of TimeLock, is entitled Into the Trees and is another tartan-noir story about secret lives set in an old mining village in South Lanarkshire.

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David Griffith, writer and director of TimeLock.