Independent movie making is a swelling exercise, leading to a significant rise in the number of small film festivals and screenings around the country – and one aspiring filmmaker has it all in the palm of his hand.
Rob Savage, based in Cheltenham, is a busy nineteen-year old student. Set to release his first feature film Strings this summer (he hopes in time for his twentieth), things are looking bright – but not without a fair bit of hard work. The independent writers and directors ofBritain’s future have been forging their own DIY ethic, and a strong underground movement has been shifting into focus for a while now – but it’s no easy feat. Fortunately, Savage was creative with visuals from the start. ‘I’ve always been creative. My first love was comic books, so I started drawing and making my own comic and telling my own stories. I can’t image not being creative, or not having some kind of output like that. It’s just the best way of expressing myself, I suppose. I think every great filmmaker should be able to communicate at least ten percent of what they believe through images.’
And so, Savage has written, shot and directed Strings himself, the final budget of which is kept under wraps. ‘We tried to get proper funding,’ Savage explains. ‘We spoke to the arts council, we spoke to the film council – but when we realized we could probably make a film on resources that our friends had access to, we could make something of the same quality but without investors breathing over our shoulder.’ Young filmmakers like Savage have a lot to face between inception and getting the eventual project they’re happy with, and budget woes are the constant itch as any film student would be able to tell you. The recession hits the film world too, evidently. However, one funding was finally secured, the creative process was at once a liberating and frustrating experience. ‘The process where I could actually step onto a set and start filming wasn’t that difficult – when we decided to do it for ourselves. When we started, we tried going this huge long way around and do it all professionally.’
Finding a suitable distributor is also a key part of getting your work out there. Other young film devotees have had similar struggles to get to the big screen – if they can get their product to a cinema in the first place, that is. That’s why Savage taking his baby abroad may help its chances of gaining an audience. ‘We’re going to take it to a lot of European festivals. We want to play it up a lot in Germanyas well – they’re very good at nurturing the people they select for the program.’ He extols what’s on offer on these shores, too. ‘There are a lot of great festivals in the UK, but places like the BFI really do help – they’re so open to young filmmakers.’ Along with the BFI’s offerings, the Raindance Festival and the London Independent Film Festival are the two leading exhibitions for cinematic talent in the United Kingdom- but events such as the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film competition, in which participants have to produce and complete a five minute-or-less short in the space of two days, can also be greatly beneficial. This is especially true for Savage, who came 2nd with his short Sit in Silence last year. ‘There were about five hundred different people that entered that, I feel like I’ve met people who are in a similar situation to me and I feel like part of a greater whole.’ He explains how it feels like it’s a community, with many different strokes. ‘It’s interesting to see such a variety of filmmakers. It seems they’ve now got an outing to get their voices heard. We’ll see if that comes to be, but I’ve seen really weird, strange, not typical kinds of films that are getting a bit of recognition right now.’ Social realism? Drama? ‘Lots of fantasy. Films that defy categorization.’ The imagination of today’s directors is clearly blooming.
But if you’re looking to shoot your first feature, the list of impressive indie films out there is daunting – not just in their amount, but the popularity of particular titles too. Some examples went on to great critical and relatively commercial success. Cube, for instance, has both. Director Vincenzo Natali bagged free visual effects from a company willing to help small films off the ground; this is a great case for being able to get your indie off the ground. Some of the most critically-lauded films in the world are independent: Bicycle Thieves is an early example from 1948, while Kevin Smith (of Dogma fame) broke out with the independent cult film Clerks. Memento is a great example of what’s next for small directors: it was Christopher Nolan’s second film after the small British feature Following, still independently financed yet including big names such as Guy Pearce and Carie-Anne Moss. Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, now a world-famous title, was an independent film – and he went on to direct Pulp Fiction, both Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds. These are the heights yet to be achieved by the aspiring film community.
There is help to be found, however. TheBritishYouthFilmAcademy, founded by the Co-Operative, takes over campuses in the form of summer camps which help those struggling to get into filmmaking, in any aspect of the process, hone their craft. The British Film Institute inLondonalso hosts a monthly ‘Future Film’ event which caters for 19 – 25 year olds, as well as a larger annual weekend-long festival. ‘I think it’s useful to a certain extent,’ Savage warns. ‘They encourage everyone trying a different discipline, even if perhaps they’re not the best at it – it’s less about the end product, and more about the collaborative process.
Such films rely on the director knowing how to draw the audience in. On tropes such as characterization, story and getting the punters to care, Savage definitely knows what he wants to accomplish. ‘For me at least, I don’t want to feel I’m taking a lot of shortcuts. Film is manipulation. Say with a horror film, there are these certain character types that the audience makes associations with them and they’ll project them onto them automatically. I want to believe the characters, and I want to see them living and breathing.’ The new availability of technology that makes great-looking product can help explain not only the sheer number of fresh-faced filmmakers out there, but also the lack of care and understaning that goes into making a film good. ‘Since DSLRs have become such a revolution, there have been so many filmmakers that have been just imitating at a professional quality now – it seems they’re putting technology and aesthetic first, and story afterwards. They should be perfecting the story, and using the image to accommodate that. The technology is more readily available.’
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of post-production, Savage is very deliberate. ‘For me, I’m a control freak. I shot and edited it myself, and wrote it myself – I think it’s important to have a very clear author of the film, a decision-maker. Even if it’s a collaborative process, there needs to be someone who says “this is how it’s done”. And I wouldn’t change Strings, and having complete control, for anything.’ ‘I was at this Ken Loach talk at the BFI, and he was saying that he can’t stand filmmakers that put “a film by…” on the front of their film. But Strings is the only one I’d do that on.’
And so, Rob has proven that you can get actors and crew together, shoot a movie, and gear it up for international release in the space of two years – all while you’re still a teenager, and studying at university. If every similarly-aged wannabe director has the same passion, drive and encyclopedic knowledge of the art form he’s contributing to, the UKhas an extremely bright future ahead of it. But along with recognition, the experience has allowed him to find out for himself what he wanted to make. ‘On Strings, it was about whether it felt right to me. I never really thought about the audience insofar as, “will they understand the context, are we giving them enough information about the characters?” The way you judge that is whether it works for you.’