By Ted Hope | Hope for Film July 3, 2011 at 3:00AM
There are so many traps to avoid when making a feature. It is hard to NOT lose sight of the forest for the trees. The greatest visions get cut back due to the limits of practicality. The enormous task of world building often leaves nuance back by the gate. And how do we ever do something original in this world of Super Abundance. Some say there are only six stories to tell -- but there are 45,000 films produced globally per year.
I have a particular love for ambitious film. I truly admire those who reach beyond the realm of reason. When I met Brendan Fletcher prior to him making his first feature, I knew he was such a soul. When I saw his film MAD BASTARDS, it was reaffirmed, but now that I am learning more of the process, I think he may be much more than that. Brendan will be guesting for the next few days, as he lifts the curtain and opens the kimono for our inspection.
When you’re making your debut feature, often the aim is simply to make an impression with that film, in the hope that it’ll lead to more. You want to make something that stamps your identity as a film-maker on audiences, critics and investors. Something that offers what you hope is your “breakout” talent in a memorable and unique package.
Everywhere in the world there is a prevailing system that’s the straightest way to serious finance – studios, tax offsets, government funding. So how do you wrestle your unique, untried and “breakout” vision into the rigid system that presents the finance? Do you bend or try make the system bend?
Mad Bastards was an unusual journey. A wild, indie spirit that bucked the system at it’s heart, but was made entirely within the system. It was an unholy alliance at many times – and it took us right to the brink before we found a way to make the marriage work.
(Dean Daley-Jones, a real-life ex-con, and Greg Tait, a real-life cop, play characters close to their real selves)
Almost ten years ago to the day I began work on Mad Bastards -- which I saw as an arresting piece of modern cinema that suited the “debut film” model. It takes the audience to a remote corner of the planet – an Aboriginal town on Australia’s North-West frontier – to tell an entertaining and moving father/son story.
Back in 2002, producing partner David Jowsey and I had decided to shoot the movie cheaply on HD with a micro-crew and a semi-improvised script. At the heart of this decision was our concept to use real people to play characters based on their own life stories. The men we’d found had great natural screen presences, and we felt that this was the key to a memorable and unique first film package.
When you don’t have a star cast, a name director or a genre budget, you need to amplify what you DO have to give your film that point of difference. For us that was REAL people who offered great performances and fantastic music from the legendary Pigram Brothers (unique to that part of the world).
So our production model was built around nurturing these performances in every way - a tiny locally-trained crew; a flexible schedule so the non-actors wouldn't have their lives too disrupted; improvised scenes around a basic script outline; musicians on set as often as possible and a long period of time to shoot.
We presumed it would be an indie production because we knew we were challenging the prevailing wisdom at every turn. We figured we'd get it in the can for a few hundred thousand dollars and send rough cuts off to festivals. If selected, we’d get finishing finance from somewhere and (hopefully) cause a splash on the festival circuit.
That was the plan anyway.
So here we are now in 2011, the film finally just released. We’ve ended up with a several million dollar budget, shot almost totally conventionally, distributed theatrically by Transmission/Paramount in Australia, with a US release via IFC Films, after selection in Sundance 2011’s World Cinema Competition.
Sounds good right? But how the hell did this happen?
1. DEVELOPMENT AND FINANCING
We shot test footage with non-actors in remote North-West Australia even before we starting writing the script. Once the tests proved to us that the whole approach was going to work, we started developing the script very closely with the mob, while casting as a deliberately parallel process.
That test footage piqued the interest of the Australia funding system, and by 2003, the lure of million-dollar finance if we entered “the system” was too good to resist. We received Development finance, and from that point on we were IN THE SYSTEM.
(Me playing back test footage scenes to the locals; The remote town of Wyndham where we shot the film)
On the advice of various mentors and project managers, we spent years developing the script, shooting more tests and putting together a package that was ripe for more serious financing. Looking back, it was a useful process but the years ticked by. More people became involved, which needed more management, which then needed a bigger budget and more complex contracting. The script got better, the script got worse. The script evolved. The finance partners were growing. Countless people assessed our project and told us what it needed – often completely disagreeing with each other.
The complications multiplied. The budget was now well over a million, and as it grew so did the insurances, finance costs, interest repayments. To trigger the government finance it was mandatory to contract both a Theatrical Distributor AND an International Sales Agent. And the checks and balances all that required -- completion guarantors, collateral for the bank loans, more experienced crew members to relax the investors -- all layered more pressure on us, little by little, month by month, in a way that that was hard to detect until it was all in place.
(Video frames from the test footage - these guys ended up as co-writers and leading men)
But all through those years we kept shooting test scenes with a tiny crew and creatively the results just got better and better. We met more and more Aboriginal men who were talented actors with amazing life stories – and my relationship with the community got deeper and deeper. I lived with the community on and off for years. I was more than a film-maker, I was a close friend, considered family by many of the mob.
By 2008, we had our finance package, a script that was getting thumbs up, and nearly 70 scenes shot with our unusual “cast as co-writers” process.
It was only then, when we got “greenlit”, that I marveled at what we’d become. Our “micro-crew” was now about 20 people, our format was 35mm and our schedule was not 3 months but 6 tight weeks and our budget was in the low millions.
I desperately tried to keep sight of my “breakout” excitement of 2001 – but the weight of the production we’d become was far heavier than the nimble vision that it was trying to support.
-- Brendan Fletcher
Brendan is currently working with Writer/Producer Train Houston on the Jeff Buckley pic "A Pure Drop". MAD BASTARDS is starting a limited release run in theatres now - Miami this week, more to be announced. It is also available on VOD on SUNDANCE SELECTS.