After the bigger budgets of Black Sheep and Under the Mountain, Jonathan King swapped dollars for creative control to bring writer Chad Taylor’s micro-budget time-slip sci-fi thriller Realiti to the screen.
While most low-budget filmmakers might aspire to having a bit more cash to splash, King has gone the other way with his latest feature. King cited low budget films, including Bad Taste and The Evil Dead, among the films that encouraged him to believe that filmmaking was a possible career.
Having turned some $15 million into two features, King wrote on his blog Eel Noir, “I – perhaps ludicrously – began to regret that I might never get to make a no budget film”.
The journey towards Realiti began between Black Sheep and Under the Mountain, when he approached Taylor to find out if the writer had any ideas knocking about he’d be interested in developing into a feature.
“For once, I did,” Taylor said. “A 2004 short I’d written for the 48Hours competition, The Alibi Girl, directed by Clinton Phillips.”
The Alibi Girl
Taylor wrote a draft of the feature, the NZFC put in some development money but weren’t interested in offering production funding.
“At least not at the point we took it to them,” King noted.
Under the Mountain did get supported, however, and so King’s time and energies went into that. Taylor went to London (his partner and publisher are both from UK) and a couple of years went by.
In 2012 the pair hooked up again, revisited Realiti and ended up shooting what was closest to the first draft because “that was the better one”.
“We’d talked about making it easy to film from the beginning,” said Taylor. “It’s heavily influenced by the grammar and narrative boldness of the new wave cinema of the 1960s. It was never going to be effects-heavy scifi film, always intended to be a ‘people standing in rooms talking’ story.”
King also cited the 1960s as an influence, the sci-fi TV shows “that were turned out episode after episode, week after week, without a film budget”: The Avengers, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Prisoner and, more recently, The X-Files.
They were also keen that the film should not be “the same, but cheaper”. It should be noted that, visually, Realiti looks a whole lot better than most of those shows. Did they spend a lot of time grading?
“We did,” acknowledged Taylor, “but the look was always part of the planning.”
A lot of time and effort went into finding the locations, finding ways to make the actors look great.
“Shooting with digital, there’s a shot somewhere between a close-up and mid-shot that really seemed to suit skin tones,” Taylor commented.
Without large crews and lots of accompanying paraphernalia, they were able to make the actors the focus of each shoot and allow them to do their job.
Both Taylor and King praised the cast, saying how happy they’d been to attract them to the project with the promise of no money. “We were over the moon at how generously they gave to the project.”
Nathan Meister and Tim Wong appeared in King’s Black Sheep and Under the Mountain. Nathaniel Lees also worked with King on Under the Mountain and The Tattooist (which King co-wrote with Under the Mountain producer Matthew Grainger).
King reckoned the production shot for 35 days over most of 2013. Mostly, given everybody’s other commitments, the film was shot in blocks of two or three days. Some of the cast, including Michelle Langstone (The Almighty Johnsons, Go Girls, This is Not My Life), were travelling from outside Wellington for the shoot. Graham McTavish, although in Wellington, was shooting Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy (appearing as Dwalin the dwarf) alongside Realiti.
Given the frequent breaks in production, King began editing during the shoot – far enough in to have enough material to work with, early enough to respond to what they were seeing. There were a few script tweaks made, some pick-ups, and one key scene was re-shot from scratch.
It was important, both Taylor and King noted, to have time and to use it well. They hadn’t tried to get through as many set-ups in a day as possible, but to get plenty of coverage and take the opportunity to play or shoot a scene in different ways.
It allowed them to sharpen the story-telling by having plenty of options in edit.
While King had taken time and amassed a good amount of material before going into post, that wasn’t the end of it. The NZIFF saw a rough cut in April, King was still doing inserts and pick-ups two weeks before the premiere. When we spoke (six days before the premiere) the final sound mix had been completed the day before.
Given the nature of Realiti’s story, it’s important the audience can have faith in the filmmaker’s ability to guide them through the journey. King’s experience as a storyteller delivers that confidence.
Talking about the challenges of low-budget filmmaking King expresses the hope that, when the NZFC completes its review of Escalator and sets criteria for funding low-budget features going forward, there’ll be space for some more experienced filmmakers.
There’s a budget range “more than you can afford to put on your mortgage but not a lot for NZFC features”, where King hopes some filmmakers with a track record might be able to use some of the funding “to make some bolder projects”.
Apart from supporting the premiere of Realiti, Taylor and King are both writing at present. Taylor completing his next novel and revisiting a screenplay idea. King is busy with Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, which he’s writing with Danyl McLauchlan, adapted from McLauchlan’s satirical novel of the same name, for which the NZFC chipped in some development funding earlier this year.
REALITi has its world premiere tomorrow (Thursday 31 July) at the Paramount, plays Auckland Friday 1 and Saturday 2 August at Event Cinemas in Queen Street, and returns to Wellington’s Paramount on Monday 4 August. King will present the film at all four screenings.