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SPADA 2011: climbing the Escalator

The Film Commission continues to demonstrate its new(ish) policy of engaging much more frequently with the screen production community, at any opportunity. This time low-budget feature-makers were the target. The Commission’s Professional Development Executive, Bonnie Slater, herself formerly an Escalator participant, chaired a discussion in which members from 3 of the 4 Escalator teams of 2010 shared their experiences and advice.

The Escalator (Te Whakapihi) scheme is detailed admirably on the NZFC website but, in summary: teams of filmmakers are invited to apply for selection to make a feature-length film for a maximum $250,000. Till now applicants have had to submit three distinct ideas; selected teams then attend a boot-camp, after which the FC select a total of up to four ideas to greenlight. A “reboot camp” furthers the development; and teams are expected to be shooting within six months and to deliver the film within 12 months of being greenlit.

Some common themes emerged quickly: although teams were told to keep an open mind rather than favour one of their three ideas, this generally proved impossible. Turning limitations into advantages, hanging on to the adage of “There are no problems, only potential solutions”, especially while shooting, was essential.

All teams felt the NZFC’s Escalator people were immensely supportive and encouraging.

First up were producer Zoe Hobson and writer/director Guy Pigden, representing I Survived a Zombie Holocaust. They felt that being Dunedin-based, with local firms willing to sponsor them and councils willing to waive fees, was a big cost advantage. Being extremely well-prepared was critical, and shooting with 2 cameras helped immensely in achieving an average of up to 70 shots in a day. Even more critical was the relationship of trust between the producer and director – along with knowing when to fight and when to compromise, and both being able to say “Neither of us has to be right”.

Their biggest mistakes came from seeing potential problems on the horizon and not taking enough steps to avoid them – the “she’ll be right” approach. It never was! In regard to crew, producer Hobson gave as much support as possible – but neglected, she said, to provide enough support for herself. Trying to be producer, production manager, accounts manager, call sheet writer, extras co-ordinator and runner all in one was a bit much – especially when starting a 6-week shoot with a 3-week-old baby. And this in the context of a core cast of 11, with 15-30 actors on set each day, plus between 4 and 70 extras on average, with 500 for one day.

Next to speak were the producers of Existence, Mhairead Connor and Melissa Dodd. Described as “a salvage punk Western set in a post-apocalyptic future”, their film benefited from their ability to dumpster-dive for all their design requirements. Having the characters in one costume throughout resolved many worries in both shoot and post over continuity and story revision. They also felt their city location, Wellington, was an advantage, thanks to the city’s film-making networks.

During the shoot, a 4-day break over Easter proved a blessing in disguise, an opportunity early in the shoot to reassess how things were going.

Another huge advantage was having the now sadly deceased Graeme Tetley as their script advisor. All teams found experienced industry mentors to be immensely beneficial.

Owen Hughes was the third producer to speak (his director Sally Tran was ill on the day and unable to be present). Tran was also the co-writer of this “romantasy”, and the designer of everything. Hughes came later to the project, after the first boot-camp.

Their film, Timeslow, appeared to be the one best fitting the Escalator concept – a radical shooting idea designed to be achieved within the low-budget parameters on offer. (This despite Hughes’ view that with a largish cast and crew, period setting and a built set, it didn’t really fit the Escalator notion.) The film consists of 15 shots, all done on a studio set in “real time”, one shot per day, with a clearly theatrical style – for example, black-clad ninja look-alikes bringing props onto the set when required in shot.

The biggest shock for Hughes was when he discovered that the NZFC contract stipulated that all cast and crew be paid the legal minimum wage for their participation, amounting to $600 per week – plus points later. This required a re-jig of the budget, given that he’d planned (as other projects did in fact do) to use some volunteer students as interns working for free. In the end, only 3 of their crew had ever been on a set previously. This last point was common to all teams – everyone involved ended up doing things they’d never done before.

Hughes suspected that this pay requirement was honoured more in the breach than the observance. To honour it with the shooting crew and cast is one thing; it was generally agreed that to manage it for everyone involved right through both pre-production and post would be impossible.

Bonnie Slater then summed up what had been “a big learning curve for us as well as for the film-makers”.

Elements the NZFC is considering altering for future Escalator intakes include the waiving of the requirement for teams to submit three ideas. The Commission is also reconsidering the time frame limits. Shooting within six months may be an advantage in getting things going, but may result in scripts not being fully developed. For most teams, post-production deals have involved using facilities during downtime, which has resulted in some Escalator projects being unable to meet the 12-month delivery deadlines.

Slater also mentioned that some at the Commission had been surprised by the level of personal commitment on the part of the filmmakers to these projects that were conceived as a stepping stone to bigger things. Producers commented on the “extraordinary amount of sacrifice” that people made for their films; how everyone involved set extremely high standards for themselves, wanting their film to be successful in its own right, and not “just an Escalator film”.

It was also pointed out that audiences don’t make allowances for a low budget or other restrictions – they just want to see a good movie. Melissa Dodd said that while Escalator may be a stepping stone, there was a need to do things right first time.

Why this level of commitment surprised the Commission staff surprises me – from my experience in filmmaking, from being a runner 20-something years ago to being a First AD and/or mentor on some low-budget features (e.g. Russian Snark) and shorts ,both NZFC- and self-funded, I’ve come to expect an absolute dedication from crew and cast, paid or not.

People may be there because they’re film school graduates desperate for an opportunity to begin their CV, or as seasoned mentors helping nurture the newbies but, one and all, they are passionate about making stuff for the screen.

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