Making The Fence feature film Part II

The money’s in the… well nearly in the… GET IN THE DAMN BAG!
Finding the money was very tough. And it came down to the wire. Not everyone you pitch to is going to say yes, and even those who do won’t always follow through. Have it in mind that some of your investors are going to let you down. At one point it was literally a case of “If you don’t find £30,000 in the next five days, this film ain’t happening.” That was a mad week, but incredibly we did it, and we hit our six figure target and the film was definitely happening!

You’re gunna need a bigger… Crew
Me and Adam took things as far we could take them ourselves but knew full well that we needed help and needed it fast. With about eight weeks to go we brought on a Production Manager, who said he needed some help, so he brought on his mate. We then added a friend of ours to the mix. The problem now was that we had three production manager types, and me and Adam didn’t really know how to manage them. They were very capable guys, chomping at the bit to get going (and spending).

The problem we had made for ourselves is that we were essentially hiring in the wrong order. Upwards instead of downwards. Me and Adam didn’t have the experience or knowledge to correctly tell our PM’s (production managers) what, when and how to do tasks. We did what we had to do at the time, it was the right decision to hire the three men first because we absolutely had to expand the team and begin off-loading jobs (such as contacting the local film councils for permits). We needed a Line-Producer (the person in charge of the PMs).

The Church Office with Mark Lambert (Locations Manager) & Sebastian Munnik (Production Manager)

Now, finding anyone in this industry who is actually good and willing to do a tiny budget indie film like ours was probably the hardest task, for me personally anyway. COVID had led to an unprecedented boom in the film industry in regards to the number of projects on the go in the country. This meant that practically everyone who works in the Film and Television Industry was busy, really really busy. This also meant that people in lower ranking positions were being fast-tracked and promoted to positions that should take years to acquire. Nobody was available, and with just five weeks to go, and still no Production Designer attached, things were looking a little rough.

John Wick! Well… shorter… and from Stroud
We were saved by a long, black-haired man and his dog, a hairless Mexican dog that he loves very much. Me and Adam spoke to a number of potential Line Producers but they were either unavailable or not a good match for the project. It’s important to note that we refused to settle on anyone, despite how desperate we felt at the time. We could have easily signed on the first willing and able candidate, breathed a huge sigh of relief and started storyboarding. But we didn’t, we held out and it paid off.

Whilst taking a tour through the basement of a local production company, I received a phone call from a chap called Guy Davies. Guy is a filmmaker from Stroud who had produced his own feature film a few years ago called Philophobia (2019). I had admired his work and acknowledged him whilst researching how to get our project off the ground. He had kindly met with me in the past to give me some pointers. Anyway, he rang and said that there was a significant delay to a big project he was producing and was interested in Co-Producing the film with me and Adam. Result! He would bring with him a Line-Producer he had worked with on previous projects and within a few weeks the seven of us where renting out a little church as our base of operations.

On location with Guy Davies

Hey Big Spender
Here’s a scary number; we spent £50,000 before filming had even commenced. That made my knees pretty weak when I heard it. What it also meant, if I hadn’t accepted it by now, was that there was absolutely no going back, we were in it till the end.

It’s crazy how fast the money can go. Like a tap running at max strength. It can be a little depressing to think what your investment is being spent on. Some of it goes on cool and obvious things like actors, costumes and locations. But a lot of it goes on things like bin-bags and portaloos. It all matters. When I started this project, the idea of a few hundred thousand pounds was like a mountain of money, but you become accustom to it seeming ‘small’ very quickly, and that’s kind of shocking in a way. I think to some extent you have to become a little desensitised to it, otherwise you’d become obsessed and potentially skimp out on things you shouldn’t. The money is there to be spent, used like a tool to get a job done and that’s it.

Everyone smiles, apart from Olly
We were blessed with a coincidentally attractive team. I mean seriously, wow, what a diversely handsome bunch of people, and thankfully they smiled a lot. This made coming to work all the better. Apart from Olly the Production designer, he didn’t smile much. But when he did, it was great, like a collectors item.

Production Designer Oliver Gillen-Toon. Seen here not smiling.

The team worked their asses off in the build up to filming. The effort shown by everyone was really moving and encouraging considering the wages they were on. You could tell they wanted to be there and that they cared about what we were collectively trying to make. Frazer our casting director (and 2nd AD) watched several hundred self tapes before filtering the best performers to me. Jess the costume designer asked if I could bring a bed into the office for her so she could sleep there over night! Which I said was mad and she should go home! She would stay up till very late working on the costumes. I’d drive by the office gone 11pm and see the lights on and think “bloody hell Jess, you machine.”

The production team seemed on it. Always something going on, always on the charge securing better deals for vehicle rentals or something stressful I didn’t need to know about. And again, they mostly looked like they were having a pretty good time together. Plenty of take-out boxes on the tables anyway!

Snakes on a… Fence?
Expect the unexpected, relentlessly. Whenever you make a film, you are dealing with a lot of moving parts. And each part has a cause and effect which in turn has a knock-on effect and the cycle goes on and on. This means that very often, seemingly random and unpredictable problems occur. Problems that are tricky to solve as they are usually outside of a filmmakers expertise. Here’s a funny example (in hindsight) of when something unexpectedly caused massive disruption.

I thought we’d struck gold with a location in Warmley. An entire street of period accurate houses empty and due for demolition. It took months of calling and emailing to get through to the development company that owned the property; but once we did, we had what we thought would be an amazing location. But this little cul-de-sac would prove a very tricky customer.

Snake Island – The empty council houses Pre-Reptile invasion

I remember finally being on sight with a representative from the company and everything was going very well… “Yes you can have the keys to the homes, inside and outside, do what you like.”Amazing! “Oh, just don’t cut the grass.” I’m sorry what was that last part? “Don’t cut the grass, in-fact don’t even touch the lawns.” Why can’t we touch the lawns? “Because the local ecology authority have declared this area a protected nesting zone for Slow Worms.” Come again? “Slow Worms. You can’t even stand on the lawns.” Oh dear.

The properties had been left alone for almost a year, so the front gardens were well overgrown and certainly didn’t look like anyone lived in them. This was a major issue, reducing the number of usable homes from ten to two. Damn. Luckily, the building company said they owned an almost identical street up in the Cotswolds that we could use. Which is the street we did indeed film on. It didn’t have the original concrete cladding like the others but we weren’t going to find a better option. This also meant travelling and accommodating cast and crew for three days in Gloucestershire which was far from ideal (or in the budget). Of all the problems to run into, I never expected to be battling Slow Worms on a film.

Scouting the alternative street up in the Cotswolds

It get’s worse. As mentioned there were still two homes on the road (snake island) with tolerable lawns. However, just a few weeks before filming, seemingly out of thin-air, a two-tonne, 30ft, bright blue cargo container appeared on the street… Smack Bang in the middle of every shot we had planned on location… A miss-communication at the development company meant the crate (used for storing parts of soon to be demolished houses) wasn’t postponed and had been craned off the back of a lorry and plonked in the centre of the road.

We actually discussed how we might film around it! Or if it was digitally removable! We even scouted an alternative location just around the corner, but thankfully, our ace Location Manager was able to get the bus sized lump of metal removed the morning of filming. What a hero. That’s just a taste of the kind of bonkers dilemmas that occur whilst planning a film.

No free rides
As you may have gathered by now, filming can be very difficult. It’s difficult all the time, like a series of hurdles across a field riddled with landmines. You’re always praying for that break in the clouds, a moment of ease and good fortune, and I thought one such moment had arrived. Now just a warning, this segment is going to get quite personal (and tasty!). It may split opinions but I figured it might make for an entertaining read, and I take pride in maintaining a degree of transparency.

In the original Fence short-film, we shot inside my Great-Aunt’s house, which hadn’t been decorated since the 1970’s making for a perfectly authentic interior location. Of-course for the feature film I would need something similar, but I never thought about filming there because she is a very elderly and frail woman. We filmed the short’s scenes in just a day, but it would take three or four days to film the new scenes and I was never going to put her under that kind of pressure. It would be ridiculous to take over her home with a big crew and tonnes of equipment. So the plan was to decorate the inside of one of the homes due for demolition (at snake island).

Original Fence House

Just a few weeks out from filming it became apparent that the interior decorating of the homes could not be completed in time, which was a big blow and a bad miscalculation on our part. The day after receiving this news I received much worse news. My Great-Aunt had unfortunately passed away.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… you’re thinking what I was thinking…

With all due respect in the whole world, I had to ask. I was less than two weeks away from filming with no interior location for the main character’s home, and my Aunt’s house was now empty. In an ideal world I would of-course waited a good few weeks to pop such a question, but I didn’t have that kind of time, I needed to know and after-all, this is my family we’re talking about. One way of looking at it, was that my Aunt had let me film there before and was very supportive of my ambitions to be a filmmaker. The house was empty and was going to stay empty for at least a month or two. All the decor would certainly be destroyed and updated and here was (in my opinion) an opportunity to capture her home on film and preserve it forever in a uniquely special way, using cinema.

Alternatively, you could see it as selfishly insensitive. Which is exactly how my Aunt’s side of the family took it. They basically told me to go f*** myself. They completely shut the idea down saying that “They would never let me step foot in the house… and nothing I could say or do would change that.” Strong stuff. This is funny because they apparently had estate agents looking at the house when my Aunt was in hospital… So to call me insensitive seemed rather ‘rich’. I don’t think they like me much… But my Aunt certainly liked me and I’m sure she would have helped me, C‘est la vie.

We took to the internet in search of local homes up for sale on estate agency sights, and found that there were loads of old fashioned properties around. A very kind man let us use his recently deceased Mother’s home, stating that “She would have loved the idea.” 

Making notes in the corner of the new Fence home

I still have every intention of dedicating the film to the memory of my Great-Aunt Joyce in the credits, I would not be in this position without her help and I’ll be forever grateful. The point I’m trying to make is that I naively thought that my own relatives would come to my rescue; that a major issue could finally be solved without an enormous amount of work or emptying the bank. But you can’t pick’em! There are no free rides it would seem.

Part III is on the horizon. Thank you kindly as ever for taking the time to read this blog.

Be sure to check out the crowdfund we’ve just launched! Click here to help us get the film finished.

Till next time.