I’m going back to 1994 or thereabouts. I can’t be more specific. I have no record of this; no paperwork, no tapes, nothing.
I was 22 years old. I’d just finished the last in a succession of crappy jobs selling advertising space for magazines you never heard of and it was time to do something with my life. I’m already editorialising with the benefit of hindsight; time to do something with my life? Probably not then, more likely I was looking for an excuse not to wear a suit and go to an office everyday. Maybe I’m still doing that.
I decided I was going to make a film. That was what I wanted to do, I wanted to make films. I’d wanted to make films since I was about eleven years old. Go to film school? I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t really believe in it. I didn’t think I could learn anything in a classroom that I couldn’t learn better and faster by doing. I still believe that about pretty much everything (although, if you’re about to operate on me, I’d love you to have passed some exams).
I was going to make a film. A short film, obviously, let’s not run before we can crawl. I’d directed a couple of plays in school but I knew that really didn’t count for anything. I’d never written a script, I’d never been on a film set, much less worked on one and I’d never even met anyone who worked in the film industry. I didn’t have a single thing going for me. Okay, maybe one thing; I was 22 years old and I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I had no idea what I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.
Films cost money. Even short films. Even if you don’t pay anyone and you beg, borrow or steal as much as you can, some things still need to be paid for. I didn’t have any money. None. I’d been earning well but spending better; I’d quit my job on a Friday and by Monday I was in overdraft. This continues to be the story of my life.
I enrolled on the film and theatre studies course at the University of North London (the film and theatre department is now a Pizza Express and certainly far more useful for that). By enrolling I automatically received a grant, which I could live on, and became eligible for a student loan which I could use to fund my magnum opus. (By now you may be wondering how I got accepted into university so fast and you may be starting to suspect that the timeframe doesn’t quite work… Let’s not you and I allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.)
The grant was roughly a thousand pounds and the student loan was about the same amount. I signed the papers and got the money. I think I attended two lectures; one film, one theatre studies. I went along more out of guilt than interest; they’d given me this money, I should at least show willing. Waste of time. Don’t let anyone tell you different. If you’re reading this and you’re currently studying for a BA in film and theatre studies, walk away. Those people have nothing useful to tell you. This is three years of your life you’re not getting back. Run while you still can.
So now I had the money. I didn’t have a script, actors, crew, equipment or even an idea for a story but I had the money. At this stage I was therefore incompetent as an artist but brilliant as a producer.
So what did I have? I was sharing a house with a friend of mine in Chelsea. If the friend went away for a weekend, I would have an empty house. An empty house is a location, a location I’m already paying a paltry amount of rent for. The film should therefore be set in a house in Chelsea that looked remarkably similar to this one. Tick that box and move on.
The aforementioned housemate was a brilliant cook and she used to like to organise dinner parties at our place to which I was, unavoidably, invited. One of these happened while I was still trying to come up with a story. I happened to mention over the starter that I had quit my job and was going to make a short film and the consensus amongst the City workers and trustafarians at the table was that I had just made a huge mistake and was about to fall flat on my face and who the fuck did I think I was? Quentin Tarantino? As I stared down at the untouched wild mushroom risotto on my plate, Lloyd was born…
Lloyd was my feelings at that moment made corporeal. Lloyd finds himself at a dinner party in Chelsea with a bunch of smug, self-regarding yahoos and he fantasises about killing each one of them in the most brutal manner imaginable. He snaps out of his reverie to find that the guests have indeed all been killed, exactly as he imagined. Did he do it, or is someone else responsible?
I know, it’s a pretty shitty premise but it was something and it could probably sustain fifteen minutes of screen time. More to the point, it was a framework that allowed for some decent dialogue and some good set pieces in various parts of the house as Lloyd isolates and kills each guest in turn.
All I had to do was to turn this idea into a fifteen page screenplay. I had no idea how to do that. The obvious solution was to trot down to Waterstones and buy one of the too-numerous books on the ‘art’ of screenplay writing. But even back then it seemed screamingly obvious to me that anyone who had the time to write a book about how to write screenplays wasn’t making a great success of a screenwriting career. I knew what a play script should look like and could therefore make a decent guess at what a film script might need. I set up a Word template and started to bash out my story. I can’t remember how long it took but I suspect I was slower writing those fifteen pages than I would be writing an hour of TV today. And this was pre-Twitter.
The script complete (not good, you understand, but complete – someone recently told me that the mark of the professional writer is the ability to say “that’ll do”), I now needed to assemble a cast and crew. I had a few friends at drama school so I made some calls and got them and some of their mates to give up a weekend. I put a notice up at the National Film and Television School and got a Director of Photography from there who then helped me to assemble a student crew who wanted experience and free sandwiches more than they wanted actual money.
I tinkered with the script, held production meetings where I asked more questions than any of the crew and worked out a schedule.
The film, which was now called “Any Dream Will Do” was shot on 16mm film over the course of an exhausting but exhilarating weekend. Midway through the first day, a gunshot effect went wrong and an actress ended up in A&E with burns on her arm. She made it back a couple of hours later but now had a bandage on her arm which screwed continuity quite badly, necessitating a major change to the plot and a last minute re-write. We battled time and budgetary constraints on every shot of every scene for two days but we got it done after a fashion and wrapped about ten minutes before my housemate got home from her weekend away.
I made a bunch of calls and managed to get the rushes graded for free in the middle of the night at a Soho post-house. While I was there, I met an editor who agreed to cut the picture for nothing, again in the middle of the night. I don’t recall mixing the sound so I’m guessing we probably never did that properly.
Over those few months of writing, shooting and editing I learned more than I would have learned in three years at film school.
I learned that the script is not an absolute, it is a blueprint that evolves through the shooting and editing as smart people have good ideas and that, as a writer and director, it’s your job to assess those ideas and use the ones that will make the finished product better. Also, that good ideas don’t respect hierarchy; they’re as likely to come from the runner as from the producer.
I learned that it’s easy to be a good director in the morning but that what really separates the men from the boys is how you deal with the last half hour of the day when you’re running out of time and you still have important shots to make. The old film industry adage “Ben Hur in the morning, Benny Hill in the afternoon” is always true.
I learned that directing is about management as well as creativity, that the director is responsible for the atmosphere on a set and therefore the pace and quality of the work. For me, at least, a fun atmosphere produces better results than an atmosphere of tension and oppression. Praise produces better results than censure.
Nowadays, with the ready availability of decent domestic cameras and editing software, conventional wisdom has it that anyone has the means to make a film and that this democratisation of the process will produce a new generation of Spielbergs and Scorceses. This is largely bullshit. Yes, it’s possible to pick up a cheap HD camera, go shoot a movie with your friends and edit it on Final Cut on your laptop. If the technology had been available at the time, that’s probably how I would have made “Any Dream Will Do”. And I would have learned almost nothing useful. Yes, I might have figured out which shots cut together best or when to use a close-up, when to use a wide shot. But really, if I didn’t already have an idea of that I shouldn’t be making a film in the first place. I would have learned nothing that would equip me for a career making films and television; I would have no idea of the responsibilities of the various departments, the subtleties of managing a crew, the evolution of ideas through process and necessity, the trade-off between those ideas and the time available to execute them. In short, I would have collected none of the skills required to do this job in the real world. Just as, I contest, the film school graduate can learn none of these skills until the safety net of the institution has been removed and he or she is required to do the job in a professional capacity.
And as for the film itself? Was “Any Dream Will Do” any good? I doubt it but I can’t really answer that question now as I haven’t seen the film for at least ten years. I don’t have a copy of the film and I’ve no idea if anyone does. I’m pretty sure it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever made because I directed “Hotel Babylon” a few years back and there is no pile of crap bigger or stinkier than the two episodes that bear my name.
So “Any Dream Will Do” is long lost and I have no interest in watching it again. The film was about the process; the journey, not the destination. If I’m proud of any aspect of it it’s that I did it at all. It would have been so easy to accept that making a film was too high a mountain to climb, that my ignorance was insurmountable and that I’d be better off turning my back on the idea and heading instead to another dull office job. Only I know how easy it would have been to walk away, how tempting that was on how many occasions. But I didn’t.
However bad the end product, I made it. I made a film and now I get paid to make them. There’s isn’t a better job in the world.