Guy Rowland, one of the film makers who did a script polish for us on 'Gone Fishing' just wrote me a long email about his thoughts on Gone Fishing, his own film and the life of a creative in general. Makes for an interesting read and so I am sharing it with you all… (BTW, let this picture of Guy here be a lesson to all directors out there – you need the GREAT shot of you directing! This shot of guy is just not good enough. Remember, stand by the camera, point and look serious. Click. Result is a great shot of you as a director). Anyway, here is Guy…
I've been watching the rise and rise of Gone Fishing with a mixture of detached joy and personal pride. My own involvement was extremely modest – I did a pass at the script which was already in very good shape – but, along with the others in that long credit list at the end, that doesn't take away from claiming the film as my very own!
As I read Chris' blog, I can't help reflecting on the lot of the struggling filmmaker. There are now literally thousands of microbudget movies made each year, and however strong the determination of those involved, many will not make it big in the world of film. I thought therefore it might be interesting to take a no-holds barred look at a stage of the filmmaking process that is, for the filmmaker at least, probably the most important and the least discussed – the often painful aftermath. And the surprising truth is that this is perhaps the most important, and potentially fulfilling, part of the process of all.
My own movie was born in 2003, finished in 2005 and released in 2007. Sam Jackson's Secret Video Diary told of a 27-year old missing person – after she vanishes, tapes emerge of a secret experimental reality TV project with which she was involved. Told in the style of a TV documentary, the film follows friends, ex lovers and TV execs who are each trying to discover the truth about Sam Jackson.
What makes the movie so extraordinary – indeed, as far as we know unique – is that the actress who played the lead role of Sam died before filming even began, or the script had even been written. We had filmed with Posy Miller in 2002 – the project was a promo for a fake one-woman TV video diary, and we just had a bunch of disparate little DV clips to this end. Posy was an extremely talented, sexy and funny actor – she had that indefinable Something. When she fell ill very suddenly at the end of 2002 and died of Acute Leukemia on Christmas Eve, to say it hit us hard was an understatement. Because she was far more than a talented actor – her evil humour uniquely blended with a seemingly inexhaustible love for people and an impossibly generous spirit. Although I'd only known her for 9 months, it really felt like I'd lost my best friend.
Subsequently learning from her family that the small fragments we had were her best surviving work, I felt that leaving those clips in a purposeless void was not an option. Eventually I had the idea to write a totally new missing persons story around the existing footage. We wrote, cast her actor friends, filmed and edited (each stage extremely tough) and eventually entered the lions den of trying to sell and promote the film in 2005. (view the trailer here)
We had our successes – a British Independent Film Award nomination with a trip to the glitzy award ceremony, and a little mention on Jonathan Ross' Film 2005. But in truth the film never really got on peoples' radar. After 2 years of clearing commercial music in the film (and that's a story in itself!), we self-released at the end of 2007, 5 years after Posy's death. We were the first movie to ever use the Radiohead “In Rainbows” pay-what-you-like download model, and 20% was to be donated to charity. Again, despite some initial interest (I was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live's Breakfast Show), it never really took off. The model seemed to work (I think about a third of people paid, and they were generous enough to give about an average of £5 each), but the problem was we weren't part of anything – a credible, respected market for direct-to-download simply doesn't exist now, let alone then. We couldn't afford PR. We therefore got no reviews and no other exposure – unless you happened to be listening to the radio the morning of the film's release (or read Chris' blog!) the chances are you'll never have heard of us.
So where did we go wrong? Taking that question to mean material success, first and foremost the film is in a genre of one. As many industry people told me, this means any attempt to sell it will fail – it's impossible to package. The nadir for me was telling the unbelievable story behind the film (“five years after her death, lead actor debuts in a film she never knew she was making”) to a journalist from the Daily Mail when trying to promote the film's release. She kept saying “where's the story?!” At first I couldn't grasp what she was saying.
And then she spelled it out for me. The truth was simple and brutal – Posy was never famous. In the Mail's eyes, therefore, she was a nobody, and therefore there was no story. I can think of no sadder indictment of our society – and simultaneously no better indication of how it functions. Ironically, that very idea is right at the core of our story (and it wasn't the first or wouldn't be the last time the fictional story has had uncanny resonances in life, never mind its unique origin).
Ironically, it was this last place you'd ever imagine – The Daily Mail – that provided me with the means to identify our great success. I once read a remarkable article in it about what makes people happy. Is it material wealth? No – beyond a basic level of material needs being met, clearly this has never been true. Is it by raising a family? Sounds more promising, but no – apparently not, it makes no difference to overall happiness. A fulfilled ambition? I think that's what many of us, and especially filmmakers, think. But no again – we all know of people who have huge commercial and artistic success whose lives then implode. So it turns out, according to the article, the thing that makes us truly happy is one very simple thing – having a sense of worth from others.
I now count Misha, Posy's mother, as one of my closest friends, and we'd never met before Posy's funeral. The words that her dad wrote to me after the screening at the Raindance Film Festival will stay with me forever. I realised then that even if I won a dozen Oscars and beat Titanic's box office, it wouldn't be as fulfilling as that. Together with my dear colleagues Chris, Debbie and our tiny crew, we'd done something that transcended money and even art – we'd given a family something irreplaceable. And if that doesn't give you a sense of worth, there really is something wrong with you!
I then discovered a strange thing – my desire to make more films ebbed away. I adore writing, and I've just begun a spec TV
project which I'm very excited about. It would be nice to edit or direct again. But right now I'm doing pretty well composing music for TV, of all things, along with the day job as a sound designer. But truth told, there's no drive left to mount my own production again. With a wife and two kids, that drive has been replaced by something very dangerous – contentment, the greatest enemy of art. Don't get me wrong, I've not achieved Zen-like nirvana or anything, but contentment is the closest word I can use to describe where I am.
I guess there are a million reasons why people make films. I'm not really sure why I did. A burning desire to tell stories, sure… but why film? Did I believe I had something unique the world needed to hear? Was I looking for approval from others in the wrong place? Did I lack the basic confidence needed to sell myself to the world? Did I ever really want to sell myself, and if I did was it a good idea?
To all you filmmakers out there, I offer one piece of advice, and a warning. The advice – make sure you only make films with themes you really care about, be they deadly serious or supremely silly, or else you'll never last the tortuously long journey and the end product probably won't be any good anyway. The warning – you may be surprised at what you discover about yourself when you finally finish. Above all, however, I recommend that once it is all over, you take some time to be still and listen.
Can you guess the ending to your own story? I didn't…
You can read more, download the film or the accompanying (real!) documentary at www.samjacksonmovie.co.uk
Onwards and upwards!
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author