Some thoughts on directing, funding and dogs rolling in their own pee from Scribosphere Big Daddy Adrian Mead... Enjoy!
The tagline for Night People is "A cold October night. Five stories, one city." What was the inspiration behind the film?
Multi character stories have always appealed to me and I know lots of people really enjoy them. Night People is set in Edinburgh and follows five stories told over one night. Each of the characters is faced with making a major decision, ranging from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. By the time morning comes their lives will have changed forever. The stories were inspired by my experiences working as a doorman. I had stood outside an Edinburgh night-club watching the ebb and flow of the people who filled the streets five nights a week for three years. Finally after the drinkers had all departed and the streets had become quiet I would walk home. Despite the fact that it was three thirty in the morning there was always some drama being played out against the stunning backdrop that is Edinburgh. It was these frequently hilarious, often bizarre and sometimes tragic moments I encountered that later inspired me to develop the characters and write the stories. That's what I wanted to capture in Night People, a world filled with people facing very real, emotional challenges, but without making a straight forward, gritty, social realism film. Having a little girl travelling the city at night in a taxi allowed us to really use the magical views of the city at night. Setting it on Halloween night introduced a fairy tale element and added to the atmosphere.
Scottish Screen helped fund Night People - can you talk us through what you had to do to get the funding and how it worked?
It was developed and financed under the Scottish Screen/SMG New Found Film scheme, a new talent initiative. Over the course of eight months I worked with co-writer Jack Dickson to take the stories from treatment to first draft. There were three key stages at which the project was assessed by the Execs and at which it could be knocked out of the running. Night People made it from hundreds of applications to an initial long list of twenty projects down to a final of six. Each team then had to pitch to a panel of nine people (I think) who then selected two scripts for production. We did a lot of prep for this by assembling a pitch board, photos of locations and working out exactly who would talk about each aspect of the proposed film. It was well worth doing a lot of prep as we were the last team to pitch and the panel were looking pretty tired by the time we walked in. Having the pitch board, photos and a very clear, enthusiastic presentation helped to make it easier for them to "see" the film. We found out we had the money by phone on the train home from the pitching session in Glasgow. It was hard not tell the whole train we were that excited, but the only other person we told was Jack.
We worked to agreed union minimums. For cast we used the PACT /Equity Very Low Budget cinema agreement that agrees a minimum daily or weekly rate for films at a million or under. Crew were on BECTU minimums, which meant many of the more experienced crew actually took a cut in what they normally get paid. The low budget necessitated an exceptionally fast turn around. Money was too tight to employ a casting director so myself, and Clare Kerr (Producer) undertook to cast all ten main roles in just six weeks; with the last character confirmed just a few days before shooting began. Time was made so tight by the fact that Christmas and New Year came right in the middle of our prep schedule and the whole industry was on holiday for two weeks. The total number of shooting days was only twenty-four. We had to schedule in sleep days after the night shoots, and the crew worked an eleven day fortnight, which means you work six days one week with only one day off and five days the next with two days off. All of this was in line with industry norms. We wanted to be as professional as possible in spite of the low budget, as it helps morale of cast and crew if they know their goodwill is respected with fair working conditions.
"They" say "never work with children or animals" but Night People has both in abundance: were there any incidents/problems etc because of them?
Yes, children and animals, forty two locations AND night shoots. All presented challenges, though it has to be said that the children and animals were really well behaved. Our youngest cast member was only six years old, and the laws on employing someone so young for film work are that they shouldn’t be at a place of work for more than seven and a half, hours can perform continuously for only forty five minutes without a break, and a break means a proper sit down away from set, not hanging around waiting for kit to be set up, and finally they cannot be on set performing for more than a total of three hours within the seven and a half hour day. The law also restricts night work for someone so young. All of this is to protect kids from exploitation. Most of the scenes with our youngest cast member, Lily, were at night so we added another layer of rules to our own production and agreed to try not to have her at work for any more than three hours total at night and always have her Mum be the chaperone for night shoots. It worked really well, the rules made sense. You could see the child’s energy levels dropping in front of your eyes as we got close to the three hour time limit. Most of the children we worked with had experience of performing through local theatre groups. They were all remarkably professional for their age. The dog we had for the scenes in the flat was Pippa, a Chow. She was chosen because she looked great and the breed is good with kids. Then we found out they like to roll in their own pee. So under hot lights in a small set the dog’s odour was something else. We had to book her in for grooming every time she was scheduled to come back to work. There was also the day one of the kids showed up with nits, the burglar alarm went off and no-one could switch it off and the dog went into season and wouldn't let anyone near it. Due to the restraints of the budget I was working with the knowledge that there was no chance for re shoots or pick ups, so you had to find a solution on the spot. Of course every director should know the script inside out, but it’s an advantage to be the writer/director and have the certain knowledge of what you intended for a scene and how to achieve that a different way. The guide dog for the Blind Man story was Alf, a real guide dog in training. However Alf was so well trained that when it came to the scene on the Forth Road bridge he did everything he could to stop Michael, the actor, from standing at the edge, which makes sense if your job is to take care of a blind person. That was also our worst weather day, we wanted clear blue skies, instead we got fog that obliterated any image of the bridge and had to wait hours for it to clear. The owl and the ferret were true professionals who had done plenty of film and TV stuff before. They showed up did their thing, at 3 am, and then went off home. It pays to get the pros in as we did have another locally based owl handler booked, but the day before the shoot she announced she wasn’t prepared to do night work, stating she’d not realised this was the deal. This was in spite of the fact it had been made crystal clear at the out set. I think there was also a clue in the title of the film.... and the fact we were hiring an owl! I don’t think she had any idea of just how badly she’d let down the production since she’d never done film work before. It’s a credit to our art department that they got this sorted out as fast as they did.
How many drafts did Night People have before you began shooting?
Initially two drafts of the treatment were required for the short listing process and development funding from Scottish Screen. Jack and I had development meetings with Clare the producer where we would talk through the story lines and agree on how to develop things. Once we went to script we took turns in writing sections and e-mailed them back and to after reworking. Once we had the green light to start filming, and knew our locations and cast there were further rewrites. By then Jack’s workload on the Scottish soap, River City had increased so I got on with the final drafts during prep before the shoot began. All in Night People went through at least ten drafts of the script.
The film one ends up making is invariably different to the idea that's first conceived - can you tell us about anything you ended up changing a) because you had to (and why) and b) because it seemed "better"?
The story of the Bind Man’s journey across the city changed during the edit. We shot all the scenes that had been written, but at the edit stage we realised that by introducing him at a later point it gave a much stronger sense of what we had always intended his role to be, as something of a guardian angel for one of the other characters. Of course no matter how much work you do on the script or during the edit the film changes again when you watch it with a paying audience. Each of the stories is very different and people all have a favourite. It's been fascinating doing Q and A's with international audiences and very pleasing that people say how they loved that we weren't afraid to make this a film that explored some tough subjects, but still used humour, beautiful photography and an uplifting ending.
What did you learn from directing Night People that you will do/not do next time?
The things I’d change are mostly down to budget considerations. Next time we’ll try to have a longer schedule – especially if there are children involved. I'd also like a 2nd unit to pick up on various things. Having to walk a tightrope knowing that whatever you get each day is ALL you are going to be able to get is tough. However, it is a fantastic way of making you prioritise the things that you HAVE to have in order to make the story work. It certainly stops you obsessing over "sexy" jib shots. I’m looking forward to working with a casting director. We couldn’t afford one on Night People but this worked in our favour. We were careful about limiting the numbers of actors we saw by doing lots of research on the talent we were interested in before we called them in to try for the part. This gave us the chance to do slightly longer auditions. I got to try out my directing ideas for each of the characters and the actors got a chance to show what they can really do. Multi story films are hard and with such a big cast and numerous locations it is always a challenge to make the schedule work. We eventually scheduled so that we could shoot each of the five stories separately, even though we cut back and to between all the characters throughout the film. It added another challenge when thinking about how the stories would cut against each other. It was a gamble and a major brain juggling task for me but it seemed to work. We've had some fantastic responses to the performances. I'd love to see what the camera team would do with a bigger kit! I was amazed what DOP Scott Ward and Camera Operator Kevin O'Brien were able to do with our very limited lighting kit. Despite having to often work with little more than street lights they were still able to create absolutely stunning images of the city at night. If you are thinking of shooting a very low budget film on HD Night People is well worth checking out just to see what you can achieve with some planning and a talented camera crew.
No matter how many shorts you've done previously your first feature is always a big learning curve. You learn a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses, especially when it's 3am in a freezing cold street and the taxi that is a main prop in your film has broken down...again. I loved making Night People and I would do it all again. Except this time I would buy centrally heated underwear and a north sea survival suit. Edinburgh in March is very, very cold. All in all I wanted us all to be ambitious as possible, despite the very tight budget. It was great fun making Night People and we've been very pleased with the responses it continues to get. I'm very excited about the DVD release and hope you will all rush out and buy it!
Where can we buy Night People?
Indy films on DVD have a tough time compared with mainstream Hollywood fare and sales in the first few weeks of release are really important to ensure the titles get into the charts and stocked by suppliers. So we need people who want to support the film to buy it now. Think of it as some early Christmas shopping … sorry to mention the C word. You can buy Night People at www.amazon.co.uk or www.play.com or in HMV, Fopp or Virgin stores, if they don’t have it in stock ask them to order it.
You can see a trailer at www.meadkerr.com and you can read audience reviews of the film and add your own vote at www.imdb.com.
Some fascinating insights there Adrian, thanks!