This week sees the premiere of filmmaker Alex Barrett’s debut feature, Life Just Is, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where it’s up for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature. Alex (pictured below, with actor Paul Nicholls) talks to Jan Gilbert about preparing and promoting a micro-budget feature…
I started writing the script fresh out of uni.
Then I made a load of shorts, which helped me learn more about filmmaking, before coming back to the script. I’m a firm believer in doing as much preparation as possible before a shoot – you can always jettison it on the day if inspiration strikes, but you can’t fall back on it if you haven’t done it. So, before we shot in late 2010, I went through the script, breaking it down into different areas: acting, cinematography, and sound.
The film focuses on character rather than story, so that determined our micro-budget. We put together a business plan and sent it around. It took a lot of time and begging. We got half the figure we were after, but reached the baseline we could make the film for, so just went for it. The advantage was it gave me total creative control.
Putting a crew together was a staggered process. I met my Executive Producer, Christine Hartland, at a London Short Film Festival networking event, and it grew from there. During development we advertised for key heads of department, but mainly used word-of-mouth recommendations.
Early on I met a great casting director. We put out a call on Spotlight, received hundreds of headshots, and made a shortlist for auditions. I showed the full script to actors upfront to avoid setting my heart on someone who didn’t like it enough to commit. As the film is about the dynamics of a friendship group, we did call-backs in groups of six, testing each of the character relationships in turn.
On set, the biggest challenge was time: our shoot was short, just 14 days, so we had to move quickly. In post-production, the challenge was balancing making the film and paid work.
We put a lot of time into promotion as we thought building an audience might help us get distribution. Very early on we started a website and blog. One way we drove people to our site was offering free downloads of songs from the soundtrack. We also created pages for the film on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. We talked to the Wildhearts, one of my favourite bands since I was nine years old, via MySpace. It was very exciting when they gave us permission to use some of their music in the film.
During pre-production proper, Really Bright Media’s Justine Priestley came on board as our social media marketing guru as she liked the project. She helped create a YouTube channel with cast and crew vlogs, and generated lots of buzz with a competition to design our lead poster. I also started Life’s Just Networking, a monthly event from 2009 to 2011 in Battersea, where we screened films and filmmakers pitched new projects. It was lots of fun and had a great response.
When the film was finished, we approached UK distributors and held a market screening at the Cannes Film Festival, which raised our visibility and showed we were serious, and we got an offer we were pleased with. We also submitted to Edinburgh and were lucky enough to be picked. Good reviews from critics definitely helped.
My advice is to find great people to work with, treat them with respect, and show your appreciation. When everyone’s working for no or low money, the last thing they want is someone shouting at them. Also, making a feature is harder than making a longer short. You need to be totally driven and be aware how all-consuming it is during and after production. It’s not always easy, but I had a great team around me and this is just my passion.
Life Just Is screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 23 and 27 June, with a Q&A on the first date. Find out more.
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