Guest Post: Writing/Producing Your 1st Feature

Quite busy at the moment, what with pre-production on our next film, a few writing gigs and Red Planet Prize reading. But there is brand new UK Scriptwriters podcasts and my quick-hit script vids – and here’s a guest blog from Jonathan Hall about how made his debut feature film, Solo! Always something to learn here when writers get up from their desks and start doing things for themselves. Take it away Jonathan!

Having just made my first feature SOLO! (as writer/producer), the question I’m asked most often by fellow writers is: what did you learn?  My answer, and the thing I’ll be doing more of in the future is: Write like a producer.

The accepted wisdom for a low budget film is to set it close to home, with a small cast, in a contained location (preferably interiors), with no extravagant set pieces, etc.  Welcome to SOLO!, set in a remote Spanish village, with a cast of hundreds.  Oh, and it’s a musical.  Ah well, at least it wasn’t ‘period’.

This is how it came about…  I was sitting in the square of the Spanish village in which we live for half the year, sipping a coffee, trying to figure out what to buy my wife for her birthday, when the (sixty-strong) village band suddenly appeared – a local feast day, a baptism, a Saturday, who knows?!  And I thought, ooh, I should do a Happy Birthday flashmob for her.  However, I soon fell so in love with the idea that I started to picture it not as a birthday present, but as the final scene in a movie.  That was the seed of the whole project.

It turned out that the band director loved the idea – anything new and different that would keep his musicians interested!  From there, I decided to write a script in which I would only include things that I could get for free, or cheaply.  So, with the support of the mayor and lots of our local friends, I started to weave my story through the streets of the village, the village amphitheatre (seats 600!), the cemetery…  I also approached the local University to use twelve of its recent film graduates as assistants (and translators).

Inversely, I deliberately tried to shoehorn into the script anything cool (and free) from the village: a Harley Davidson (there are three to choose from), the old chap who drives his granddaughter around in a pony and trap that jingles like Santa’s sleigh, a herd of goats, etc.  My parents are both actors, so I wrote them in.  You get the idea…

If you’re like me, you’ll already be wondering about funding.  Well, in a nutshell, the budget was around £100k and it came from three private investors, an EIS (do look this up if you’re not familiar), a crowdfunding campaign, deferred payments, and favours – lots and lots of favours.

Now, up until SOLO! I had been a writer, pure and simple, but after being shamefully let down by a couple of would-be producers, I stepped up.  My ‘rules for producing’ are as follows:

  1. Surround yourself with talented people with calm heads (director Nic Cornwall, DoP Alex Metcalfe, sound man (and sound man – if you know what I mean) Dave Tozer, and line producer Sukey Richardson, among others).
  2. Keep everyone comfortable, and well fed and watered (we commandeered a disused bar in the village to be one of our sets, our production office, and our canteen (with local Conchín as our cook, producing delicious paellas, seafood, salads, etc).

That’s it.  If there are more rules, I don’t know them.  You soon realise that everyone thinks that their thing is the most important thing.  Consequently, I was never just dealing with one issue, but always with three, or four, or five.  I was constantly being plucked at, and tapped on the shoulder, and asked for money.  It was like being a well-dressed tourist in the Marrakech Souk.  One thing you do learn as a producer is how much you appreciate people who are low maintenance.

Then, next thing I knew, we had wrapped.  80 pages of script in sixteen days, with lots of live music, and over twenty locations, lots of supporting actors, and over two hundred extras.

And now, more than a year and half later, the film has FINALLY finished its journey through post and as of next week our Sales Agent (yes!) can start doing his job, and we’ll start submitting it to festivals.  In many ways, the journey is just beginning…

By the way, for those who might be worried, I did also get my wife a proper birthday present.

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