Film, and particularly filmmaking, is the most important non-relationship aspect of my life. I owe a lot to Martin Scorsese, I really do. At the age of 12, I watched Gangs of New York, for the simple fact it was an 18 rated film that my parents were adamant I was not allowed to watch. After I fell in love with the film, I decided to watch the making of extras on the second DVD. My 12-year-old mind was blown. ‘They built the city from scratch? That’s what they use to move the camera? That’s how many people work on a movie?’. I was in awe. Film making was a phenomenon. I instantly wanted to be part of it.
But how? I didn’t have a lineage of an acting family, or an uncle in the industry, or aunt who wrote screenplays. I was a 12-year-old boy from Dover. My mother was a dinner lady at my primary school, and my dad a mechanic. I didn’t have the gear the people who made Gangs of New York did, and I was pretty sure my Mother couldn’t afford that on a dinner ladies wage. But what I did have was a digital camera my family used for photos. Photography was never enough. I wanted to tell a story, like the one in the film I watched, where everything was moving, even when it was still.
What I realised pretty soon was that a collection of photos, shot in quick succession, was the closest I was going to get to motion. So that’s what I shot. My very first short film at the age of 12, a tale of 2 penguins (stuffed toys) separated in a house, desperate to see each other, one downstairs, one upstairs. A problem, though. How do you shoot stop motion with a stuffed toy walking up the stairs without it looking clunky? It was my first filmmaking problem, and I loved it. I wanted to tell more stories. Yes, it helped with bullying. And yes, it was an escapism. But I was creating something out of nothing. I was communicating ideas I couldn’t before.
The problem with being a student in secondary school, is that the daunting prospect of being asked what career you wish to follow is unavoidable. I remember people actively laughing when I told them I want to make films. One person, and I shall never forget how belittled I felt, even said ‘Yes, well it’s nice to have dreams, but in the real world what do you want to do?’. Why couldn’t I make films? Other people seemed to be doing it just fine.
I remember sitting down with my father to tell him filmmaking was the path I wanted to follow. I was now 15, and had swapped stop-motion for another desperate attempt of filming, shooting with my laptops inbuilt webcam (it only had one camera inbuilt, so you can image how difficult set ups were). He said, ‘that’s great, let’s look for work experience with wedding videography’. Weddings? I wanted to make movies. Why was nobody getting this? My Mum, together with my Nan, sent me on a one week young filmmakers course as a Christmas gift. Sure, they explained the filmmaking process in a dumbed down way, we were just 15, but finding like-minded people was a revelation. I could say ‘I love storytelling’ without being questioned.
The year of being 15-years-old was probably the biggest breakthrough moment for me. Not only had it started with my family sending me on this course, a sign to me that they were starting to get it, but I had a glimpse into the industry itself. Having spoken to my media studies teacher about my passion for film, I began writing film reviews, and posted them to FilmClub, a company that allowed young people to write reviews and rewarded them by sending someone from the industry to their school if they won review of the week. I did, several times in succession, and the first person to do so. I became the first ambassador for FilmClub, and got invited to the House of Lords to do a speech about my passion for film. A week later, I was invited on to be on a panel of film industry professionals, including Alan Parker, Emma Thompson and Jason Isaacs.
If it seems like things escalated somewhat, then imagine what it was like as a 15-year-old. I wanted to remain part of this, but heading into A-levels, education took priority. My student film became the most important part of my days. I would stay behind after school, asking my teacher every question I could about editing, filming and all things in-between. I shot in a hospital, researched mental health and put so much effort in all areas of the process. For me, I didn’t go above and beyond. My young age didn’t matter, the film was very important to me, and every film I have made since has been the same. I won the audience award at the local film festival for my efforts.
Winning an award for something I had made was a nice feeling, but strange. I loved that people liked my film, but it wasn’t for them, it was for me. In the same way I made the stopmotion about two penguins, I never really considered my film for an audience. The teacher during this period was Barnes Film Festival Director Sam Cullis. I really do owe him for the time and effort he gave me. In a period where people were laughing at my ambition, he was one of the few who would have made me feel not only I could do this, but that I will. Thank you, Sam.
The worst part of filmmaking as a student at university is the notion of making something for somebody else’s approval. My graduate film was a gruelling process. An intense 14-day shoot, 6am-10pm every day, did not make a popular lad. Initial cuts were promising, and it was the first time I felt that a message I wanted to communicate was being just that. Yet, the final edit left a sour taste in my mouth. After feedback from tutors, I cut the film enough for it to be unrecognisable to me. A 6-month process and I was left with a film that my tutors wanted, not the one I worked so hard to achieve. I received a high grade, and high praise with it. But it was not my film. The course was fantastic though, and I would urge any young filmmaker to look at a Film & TV production as a viable option. I left university, and headed into a sales job. I hated it. I felt like every moment of my life since I was 12 had led to me working in the industry, but I was stuck selling phones. So I got back to doing what I loved. I experimented with the resources I had, and pushed myself to create.
A series of unfortunate events resulted in me going through a difficult period, as my father was in intensive care. For months I would travel to him every day, but something strange happened. I would find myself putting all the emotions I had onto paper, and from this spawned my first feature length screenplay. The whole time I was by his side, everything I was feeling and remember from our time together, it all went into this script. I hadn’t intended to spend my time this way, but for the first time in my life of making film I had found the importance of screenwriting. My dad, thankfully, got better. From that moment I wanted to learn more, and it changed the way I looked at film. Sure, I could make a film look nice, I’d spent 11 years working on that. But to connect with a moment within a film is far more important. I didn’t fall in love with filmmaking because Gangs of New York looked pretty, I fell in love with storytelling. I went back to university to study film as philosophy and film history. It was hard. I did not enjoy all of it, but I did get exactly what I wanted out of it, a deeper understanding of film.
I have set up my own company, with the aim of making a feature film. It is the end goal. It is the biggest hurdle I have had to face, given the financial components. But, like the tale of two penguins separated by an impossible task, I do aim to find a way. It’s what I have spent 12 years wanting to do, I just need to find a way to do it. I have been on set of big budget productions, I have met talented and creative individuals. They all started somewhere. The way I see it, I’m not starting, that happened a while ago. I feel I have been banging at the door for someone to give me the platform to get to where I want to be. Maybe I wasn’t knocking loud enough. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking to anyone beyond myself for help. So here I am now. About to make a film to enter the Barnes Film Festival, and my old teacher Sam Cullis. I’ll be shooting on Super 8 for the first time. A step up from my laptop webcam that’s for sure.
Oh, and if you were wondering what happened to the stuffed penguins who were separated by the stairs, I cut to a close-up reaction shot. If only the performance was more animated.