Producers Terry Bird and Jamie Palmer, and writer-director Jason Ford comprise Britain 's freshest young production company New Town Films. With their debut feature set to hit the big screen, Kevin Gill chats to the Essex-based childhood friends about the making of their aptly named New Town Original and the task of negotiating the tricky terrain of the British Film Industry.
The film revolves around Mick, a young man who is in search of more than his mundane nine to five job. When you wrote the script did you draw upon anxieties and frustrations that you experienced as a young man?
Jason Ford: Most definitely, yes. They say if you're going to write anything write about what you know. I went through a period in my life where I didn't quite know where it was heading and I think that you go through a period of waking up in the middle of the night in a bit of a cold sweat. Especially when you get to a certain age - what I'm finding more now is you get to your mid-twenties and you have your first mini midlife crisis and I felt that was something that hadn't been done in a British film that concentrates on a young audience around that kind of age group.
How much of that experience is tied up with the place Mick lives in?
JF: Very much. It was most definitely drawing on my experiences of living in a small town really. This film could be a small town anywhere and I think every small town has its small town mentality to a certain extent - where you could quite easily live and breathe and die in that town and never really venture out of it. We used Basildon because it was on our doorstep but it was perfect for the set-up. We used lots of shots of the leisure park - the huge car parks with no exits and these huge buildings that house nightclubs and restaurants, and really from the outside they are like warehouses. It was a perfect film set because it was showing you the series of boxes that Mick's life was in.
It strikes me that in a different film Mick might have found an outlet for his frustration through violence, crime or drugs. People might be expecting another Lock Stock rip off and it's quite a relief that that doesn't happen.
JF: From the beginning we wanted to keep away from all the clichés that we normally see in British film. So we didn't want to make a film about gangsters or about young gangs or about young guys doing a lot of drugs - we wanted to concentrate on the Average Joe. It was important to us to make a film that was honest and that had integrity. It was concentrating more on the aspirations of its characters because we all have dreams - it's obviously about one guy who's trying to realise his dreams, about being a doer and not a talker. Much in the same way as us making this film.
The film was largely financed out of your own pockets. How did you go about juggling your day jobs with writing, producing, shooting and distributing a feature-length movie?
Jamie Palmer: As you can imagine it was an absolute monster. No one should feel sorry for us, it was totally our own choice. We all still had to work basically. At one stage Terry and I went to work and paid Jason to be at home to write the script. We did the old classic. We're doing the things that we've read about in the books. Jason borrowed money, I don't know where from, and other than that it really was credit cards and remortgaging houses.
You received £20,000 from a local Arts board to finish the film - how much did that help?
JP: The twenty grand was fantastic. To be perfectly fair and honest I think the people who were kind enough to give us the money will know that it is obviously not a lot. That might sound mad but really it is an after show drinks budget within the movie industry but nevertheless it really was a great help.
Terry Bird: For the budget that we were working on it enabled us to help finish the sound mix for which we spent a week in Shepperton. Things like a Dolby Digital license cost £2,500 so the money goes straight away. It basically helped to finish the film so we could present it to people.
JF: Even then Terry and Jamie had to strike as many deals as possible. You can't really do it for the money we had.
Did shooting on your doorstep help in that respect? How helpful were the local community?
JP: They were fantastic - the guy who owns the pub, the guy who owns the kebab van, they were all fantastic. In fact there were several groups that were just unbelievable. What I call "the industry" - the nuts and bolts of the British film industry, the guys working every day on lighting, sound - the crew, they were absolutely terrific and we couldn't have done it without their help. They said to us "tell us how much money you've got and we won't laugh". So we told them and they really really laughed. Then they said they'd do it and they shook our hands on it.
JF: None of these people really had an idea of what scale we would be coming in at. If you say to someone "we're going to make a film" they might think that you're just going to turn up with your video camera and you're going to have some guy with a light and a girl doing a bit of make up. But obviously the reality of it is that you've got three trucks and thirty hairy blokes trundling all over your carpets for the whole day. We went to my mate's mum and dad's house and they were getting a settee delivered on that day and we had to literally put their new leather settee in the garden. You can only express how sorry and grateful you are but they were just lovely. They were sitting on their new leather sofa in the garden whilst we took over their living room.
Did you consider digital to make things simpler?
JF: For me there's no comparison with the image you can get on 35mm film and I think if you're going to make your first film and you want to be taken seriously it's the only way to do it. It balances itself out because the simple fact that we used film enabled us to get the deals we got because people knew that we were serious. Anyone can shoot on video and it bumps everyone else's prices up because now they're just doing a job that's nothing that special. We'd have to have paid the actors for instance. We didn't do that because everyone wanted a 35mm British feature film on their CVs, so they were willing to do it for their expenses. We wouldn't have had that bargaining power on a digital film, simple as that.
TB: Yes, for us as a new production company using 35mm was crucial. No doubt a director could make a good showreel shooting a film on HD but there were so many elements we wanted to address. The main one being to be taken seriously as producers, because handling a 35mm budget is totally different to handling a digital budget. That's the reality of it.
And were you always planning to distribute the film yourselves?
TB: We screened the film to lots of the main distributors but because of the way the industry works and the nature of the film that we had produced, financially it didn't work for those organisations to distribute a film like ours. When the film started playing well at festivals with an audience it gave us the courage to distribute it ourselves. That means putting the posters up in the cinemas, taking the trailers, prints and flyers round to cinemas, certification - doing all the legwork really.
JP: It's really hard to make a film but obviously there are two elements to the film industry, making films and selling films. We feel now if you give New Town Films your project you will see the horse run. We will get the trucks there on time, we'll get the money, and we'll get the film out there and sell it. We're learning how the distribution part works as well so in the future when we sell to distributors we know the ins and outs and can hold a conversation about it.
TB: That extends to development as well. We've been out on the streets talking to people selling and pitching this film. So, when a distributor says to us "what makes you think that people are going to and see that film?" we can say very confidently that we know because we've been out amongst the people. In distribution there are so many middlemen involved who are all taking money before we ever get any. So we feel that we're increasing our chances by doing it ourselves.
So will you stick to the same formula for future projects?
JF: We've got a couple of scripts on the go. They vary, we're trying to reach different types of genres - we've got a thriller, a sex comedy, both about young people, and we've also got a family film. It's important that we've also got one that's similar to what we've made because if it goes well, which we're confident it will, people usually want to see more of the same, but we think the sex comedy would be really great if we could get the budget together.
JP: Ideally we'd like to make our own product. It depends though; we may take on a project up until it's in the can and then leave it to investors to sell it from thereon. We feel that we have a voice and we'd like to make a slate of good, heartwarming films that are successful. The most important thing is that it keeps that core New Town Films heart in there. We'd like to think that if you watch a New Town Films product it will get bums on seats but at the same time it will have a heart and be honest.