In a café in Soho, director Drew Cullingham and two of his fellow filmmakers are convincing me of the merits of low budget filmmaking. Actually, ‘low budget’ is an embellishment; their recent film Monk3ys, which won the Raindance Best Microbudget Feature category in 2011, was made for £500.
Their latest film, Black Smoke Rising, was also made on a shoestring in 16 days, using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2. Writer/director/ producer Cullingham is accompanied by two of his collaborators, Ian Manson and James Fisher. I try to establish who does what exactly but it soon becomes clear that roles and responsibilities are fairly fluid. Fisher, an actor, is also producing while much of the laughter around the table is at the expense of assistant director Manson’s efforts as location manager on Black Smoke Rising.
There are other collaborators too, including actor Jonnie Hurn who produced and acted in both Monk3ys and Black Smoke Rising, sound man Paul Hamer and DoP Glen Warrillow, whom Cullingham calls his ‘right hand man’ in terms of imagemaking. Put these names into IMDB and they surface across various projects under many different job titles, an indication of their commitment to each other as well the breadth of industry skills they collectively possess. The group developed as its members met on various sets, discovering a shared love of filmmaking and, it would appear, a willingness to rough it in the pursuit of creativity.
The five-day shoot for Black Smoke Rising came on the back of the post-Raindance hangover; a picture of autumnal camping in the Lake District with 5am starts, bone-chilling weather, prop malfunctions, blinding hangovers and harrowing scenes is cheerfully painted as they recall the shoot. It’s a hardcore approach and requires certain levels of faith, commitment and comradery, which are evident in the spirited way Cullingham, Manson and Fisher talk about their pursuits. Theirs is an infectious spirit and one they are keen to share with those they welcome into their world. As a director, Cullingham is adamant that everyone on set should feel part of the process.
“We try to foster an environment where it’s not [a case of] directors verses everyone else. Every individual comes into the project as a necessary ingredient. I hope everyone’s experience is that they are part of something. On a classic film set everyone has a job to do but we’re usually doing about five jobs, at least. On Black Smoke Rising there were three people as crew plus various others. James [Fisher] was there to act but that doesn’t mean he gets off with not carrying anything. We’re not trying to subvert the art of filmmaking but everyone should be versed in as much of the whole process as possible.” The group meets weekly in Soho and individuals talk on the telephone up to several times a day when working on a project. Jokes at each other’s expense come easily, frequently, however there’s obvious mutual respect as well as an intense belief that creativity is at the heart of everything they do, as Fisher stresses. “Black Smoke Rising had some decent cameos, which stemmed from previous projects I’d done. If we’d put a bad script on the table people wouldn’t have said yes.
They saw how passionate we were and were delighted to come on board.” Wil Johnson, who worked on Waking the Dead, was one of the actors on Black Smoke Rising. “I think the actors come on set and think ‘what have I agreed to,’” says Cullingham. “But they’re surprised when they see the results.” Cullingham would rather collaborate with people who are willing to work for free for mutual benefit than pay a cast and crew poorly. “As soon as Friday comes around, if [your crew] get a bad pay check they grumble, It’s different if you’ve inspired them to do it for free, they are investing their own time. I’d far rather use the extremes: either proper rates all round or we’re all in it together. There’s a shared understanding that the squeezed circumstances – whether it’s lack of time, funding or crew – help to refine their craft. “We don’t have the luxury [of time and money], you’ve got to get it right,’ says Cullingham. “That’s what the challenge of filmmaking is, solving the problems there and then.” “This generates new opportunities,” adds Manson. “More so than if you had all the time in the world.”
I ask what I should call the collective for the purposes of this article, puzzled by their lack of branding and neglected Twitter account. “We like the idea that no one really knows what we are,” says Cullingham. “Essentially we do what we do, it’s not about the branding.” The name ‘Disparado’ has been mooted, but it doesn’t seem to have been adopted quite yet. “Maybe we’re putting a name on an ethos,” Cullingham reasons. “We let the films speak for themselves, maybe one day when there are enough films out there with our logo on it people might think ‘what the hell is this?’ We want to get it back to being about creativity.
We made Monk3ys for £500; anyone can do it now; hopefully a new generation of filmmakers will be born that will stick to the ethos of putting creativity first.” As critics of the industry’s cut-throat approach to financing new work, the collective are heartened that digital filmmaking is changing the way films are being made and distributed. Foster sums it up bleakly: “If you’re not a recognisable name you get knockbacks. It’s about selling units.” Monk3ys is at distribution stage now, which Manson explains is a frustratingly slow process, especially while the industry is currently at a low. Do they welcome the day when they can take distribution into their own hands too? Cullingham thinks that the distributors are getting nervous. “The industry is period of transition, similar to what happened in the music industry. I’m not desperate to pioneer a ‘let’s put everything on the internet for free’ strategy,” he says. “But if we can cut out the middle men then so be it.”
As experienced filmmakers, both Manson and Cullingham are used to shooting on 35mm and REDs however they embrace the new landscape where DSLRs are accepted on film sets. Based on his own experience, Manson believes there isn’t a proscribed film path for filmmakers. “You don’t wake up with all the skills you need to direct. I broke in by doing ‘making of’ documentaries. I had access to all the department heads and learn a lot very quickly. Now, the joy of these DSLRs is that anyone can pick up a camera at a reasonable price and if you have a MacBook Pro you can be a bedroom filmmaker.”
Did the establishment give a collective groan when filmmaking became available to the masses? “I think they thought the market would be saturated with poor material,’ says Cullingham. “And I think that did happen initially but eventually the good stuff rises. [DSLR filmmaking] creates a platform for the masses to go out and be creative. We’ve shot two films for pocket change, one of which won an award at Raindance. It’s about getting them right.” Black Smoke Rising has a personal resonance for Cullingham; it was the death of his brother that inspired the work. Visually it’s a contrast from the previous film Monk3ys, a claustrophobic psychological thriller shot on two Canon 5D Mark IIs, a Canon handycam and a lapel camera.
“The concept for Monk3ys was based on reality TV so it wasn’t big on cinematography, we didn’t exploit the DSLRs to full potential,” Cullingham explains. “On one occasion we didn’t have the 5D but I had my GH2 with me. I hadn’t bought it on a whim: I’d read the reviews and figured it was stacking up well, but hadn’t had the balls to use it. We used it for one scene and loved the quality so decided to use it as the main camera on Black Smoke Rising.” The limitations of the camera shaped the look of the film, which is at post-production stage. It’s an ethos that the director stands by. “When you’re making a film with no money you’ve got to plan something to hang it on so that it doesn’t matter if it looks cheap within the story.
For Black Smoke Rising we embraced the limitations of the GH2, for example it’s hard to pull focus cleanly on a DSLR. I thought ‘you’ve got no money and a camera that shoots nice images so go and shoot nice images’. It’s really a photographic film. For me it was about creating a frame for the action to happen within. The story is told is in photographic way, with the black and white. That camera is really good with extremities, Canon might perhaps have fared better on mid-range, but it was perfect. When I wrote the script I asked myself ‘Which locations are really pretty? Let’s go to the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors, we need something at the seaside…? And when the camera does its job it doesn’t look cheap.”
Music is a big part of Cullingham’s life and bleeds into his filmmaking. For years he worked as a professional musician and brings elements of his approach to music on set. “A lot of music I play is based on improvisation, it’s not hardcore jazz but it’s different every time. There is a sense that’s how my brain works. I like to be prepared film or music-wise, I will know the structure of a song intimately but there will be bits where it will veer off and I’ll communicate with the other musicians then things change.
I like to have that approach on set, you have to be prepared, of course, but I don’t want to tie anything down.” In this respect he’s not a huge fan of storyboarding, which he finds restrictive. “My normal routine would be to get the actors on set to run though the motions and you can see where it’s going to go, things they might not have done in rehearsal. I like it to be organic on set.” He cites his two favourite films as Evil Dead II and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. “Evil Dead II is a perfect example of how to get really creative with a camera. When you haven’t got expensive stuff to put on screen you can just go crazy with a camera, that’s what B movies are about.
On the other hand you have Barry Lyndon where the camera barely moves. The composition is perfect; it’s like watching a series of Hogarth paintings coming to life, the cinematography is stunning so there’s no need to run around.” He has embraced both styles of filmmaking in his recent work: “Monk3ys was the crazy stuff whereas Black Smoke Rising was cinematic; both lend themselves to low budget.” The industry is starting to take notice, bringing fresh blood to the group. Among others, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater is bringing his experience to the table as executive producer on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King John set in 1964, with Manson as producer and directed by Hurn.
Another project, a Second World War-era thriller, is attracting funding from both sides of the Atlantic, expanding it, in budgetary terms, from micro to low budget. Despite the bigger names and (slightly) bigger bucks, the next micro-budget road trip is already on the cards with Cullingham and Manson collaborating daily. They are eager to get going again. “Why change something you adore doing?” is how Manson sums it up. “In some ways it’s like a holiday but it’s also an opportunity to try things out.” Cullingham sees it as risk-free environment for making films. “You have to validate the fact that you’re shooting for next to nothing. That’s the challenge for next time, finding the hook to hang it on.” At the end of the day what brings them all together is a simple desire to be on set. “There’s nothing worse than endless meetings talking about budgets so if we can get out there with a story and a strong concept we’ll keep on doing it.”