Frequently asked questions, answered by Director Harrison Wall on behalf of Dollhouse Pictures Ltd.
1. How did you start out making films?
We have both been keen film watchers for as long as we can remember. For me, I grew up watching Spielberg movies and couldn’t think of anything more exciting than to tell stories on that big a scale. I started writing short stories and film scripts from a very young age – I say film scripts but back then I hadn’t quite grasped the format! Directing films was something that I dreamed of but never thought was physically possible. So instead I channelled my creativity into other areas – writing and drawing. This led me to writing comic books and then later drove me to try out animation. It wasn’t until I tried filmmaking within Media Studies at school that I realised this was what I wanted to do. It is, however, a huge learning process, and has taken a lot of education to get to where I am. People often put down Media Studies, but for those who take it seriously it can be really beneficial. Mark was similar to me at a young age, but instead pursued a wide range of various careers following school. Eventually, he took a step back from it all and decided to recommit to what he was passionate about.
2. How did Dollhouse Pictures form?
Mark and I met at Bournemouth University, where we studied (BA Hons) Television Production. I had just left school and Mark had just finished his college course. We were grouped together during our second year on the course and worked together on a number of short films. At the end of the second year, I was selected by the group to direct an eight-minute drama. Mark approached me and, despite the fact that I was known to edit my own work, asked if he could edit the film. I said, “Definitely. Wait until you see what’s in store.” The film was called Sunset Drive and was a tongue-in-cheek drama set in a dollhouse. I told him that I wanted to shoot the entire film in front of a green screen and composite the actors into the dollhouse in post. At that point, everyone was telling us we wouldn’t be able to achieve it with the resources available because there were a lot of complications. Fortunately for me, that drove Mark to say, “Let’s do it.” We conquered the pre-production in less than a week, writing the script and plotting out the entire green screen and stage to scale with the dollhouse. Post-production was a lengthy process but we achieved what we were told we couldn’t. The film worked and received a First. That was the moment that we realised we made a good team. We worked on everything together from then on, including CYBERBEAT and THE SNATCHING. Then following university we decided to team up and form the company (named after our first project).
3. What made you decide to shoot the Feature?
We were at The London Filmmaker’s Convention for the screening of CYBERBEAT and ended up attending a series of workshops led by upcoming filmmakers. Most of the guys had just finished shooting “do-it-yourself” feature films and were talking about their experiences. The general message from all of the workshops pretty much summed up as; you have to make a feature to make a feature. In other words, no one is going to recruit you to make a movie unless you can prove you have done it. And that means doing it by yourself! At the end of the day Mark turned to me and said, “Dude. Let’s make a deal. By this time next year we HAVE to have made a feature film.” And that was it. We shook on it. Looking back now, I consider myself very fortunate to have had that challenge presented to me at 20-years-old. It was something I had always dreamed of doing and it was great to finally find someone who, not only shared that ambition, but was also willing to risk anything to achieve it. Most people are put off by the short term risks, but we always tried to look at the bigger picture. As young graduate filmmakers in a competitive industry, we were bursting with enthusiasm and ideas that may have taken years to surface, if at all, had we not chosen the DIY route.
4. How did you build a team that were willing to work unpaid?
Having just graduated from university, we had the benefit of possessing an extensive list of contacts. The trouble was that most people from our year were seeking long-term employment, which was understandable. Mark and I were both offered long-term work in post-production from the first day we left university, so we knew that our work on the feature would have to be carried out in our spare time; but not everyone is willing to work like that and not everyone was willing to use up holiday time for the shoot. So we turned our heads to those who hadn’t graduated yet. There were a group of students who had worked on my previous films CYBERBEAT and THE SNATCHING, that Mark and I had been incredibly impressed by. Acknowledging that in a year’s time they would have developed their skills a lot further, we decided to recruit them early on. After all, they would be free in the summer – which was when we scheduled the shoot. Fortunately for us, they were more than keen to get involved. That’s the great thing about film students – they are at a point in their lives where they are making films everyday at university, and all they want to do is reach for bigger and better things. Everyone who got involved saw it as a great opportunity to showcase their talents. And that was the way we ended up pitching it from then on. When it came to putting out the casting calls we sparked a lot of interest. We received hundreds of applications and responded to quite a lot. However, we felt it was important to be honest about the level of the production as we didn’t want to fall short of people’s expectations. We were clear about the fact that we were a new company and that the film was being shot on a shoestring budget, but we were very passionate about the production and wanted a committed team to help us reach our goal. Making that statement changed everything. We noticed a huge transformation in the way cast members communicated with us. People generally responded very well and it seemed to excite them even more. We held auditions over three weekends in a professional venue and chose the cast we wanted to work with. All it took were a few rehearsals and the cast were buzzing with excitement. When you have a cast who are that passionate and committed you can really count yourselves lucky. We are so grateful for the team we built up and for the fact that the roles were all voluntary. People did this because they believed in it.
5. Where has the financing come from?
Financing has come from our full-time work in post-production. Whilst it has been incredibly difficult to manage our time, we have been able to raise enough money between us to shoot the film. In addition we have also met a lot of great people and learned a hell of a lot from our jobs. The reason we chose to self-finance the film was because we didn’t want the responsibility on our shoulders of other people’s money until we had tried it, especially as we were doing the production on the side from paid work. Finding people to invest in your ideas is always an obstacle but learning to be responsible with money is something we took very seriously, which is why we self-funded WEAVERFISH. It also allowed us full creative control of our work. This was our chance to prove what we could do ourselves. Of course, doing it this way, you aren’t going to have a lot of money. And we found ourselves working on a micro-budget because of it (and when I say micro, £500,000 is considered micro – we were looking at around one fiftieth of that). But it has been enough to get to where we wanted. Now here we are with our first feature.
6. How did you juggle full time work with the preparation for WEAVERFISH?
There have been a lot of sleepless nights. Basically there just aren’t enough hours in a day. Our social lives have suffered because of it and we are seriously running the risk of becoming workaholics. However, you need to plan in time where you can relax. It’s been important for us to do that otherwise we would have killed ourselves doing this for a year and a half. I went on holiday with my girlfriend three weeks before the shoot and that was great. It meant I could come back and think clearly again. Plus we naturally set ourselves earlier deadlines that way. But overall, finding full-time employment is a route that we would definitely recommend taking, due to the fact that we have long-term income and are also still working in an industry we are passionate about. In fact, we aim to continue working this way. We enjoy our jobs. We have learned so much and respect the people we work for.
7. What equipment has been used?
We shot the film on a Sony EX3 with a Letus Extreme Adapter and Flash XDR unit. This was paid for as we wanted to ensure we were getting the best image quality that we could. Location sound kit was also partly paid for, whilst we had donations for it in some areas. The lighting was loaned to us at an incredibly discounted rate by a well-known supplier, who for the benefit of their switchboard will need to remain nameless. They have been incredibly supportive towards us. All the post-production equipment is our own. We are editing the film on Avid Media Composer, using a PC machine that we built ourselves. We have also invested in a Sony Vegas station, combined with Mocha, to produce all the VFX for the film. For grading, we have been very fortunate that Mark’s employers, The Look London, have been very supportive by allowing Mark use of the Quantel at evenings and weekends. Our friends that work in post-production sound have also encouraged their employers to support us. So overall we have been very well aided at minimal cost.
8. Where did you shoot the film?
Almost the entire shoot took place in Hamble, Southampton. The river Hamble (UK) was ideal for shooting a horror conspiracy, with its contrast of beaches and woods against the high-security, industrial sites; the location completely inspired the film. The film idea was written around this location and the local residents were incredibly generous in letting us film around the area free of charge. Without their support we wouldn’t have been able to afford to shoot the film.
9. As a Director, how did you approach the film?
It is strange to think of it like that. I mean, this goes way back now because I was so heavily involved in the writing process. I think one of the key approaches I took with the film actually stems from a decision Mark and I made at the time of the idea’s inception. The original concept came from our DoP Thomas Shawcroft and I had asked him to “pitch” this idea set in Hamble to us because at the time we were still considering other ideas. The story that he pitched was very science-fiction based with quite a number of action scenes. It was also set on a much larger scale. Most of it was impractical for our budget and time limit, however, within this bigger story (which was all about the virus – I won’t reveal anymore for spoiler reasons) he had written the line “Teenage kids get caught up in the situation…” This line interested us more than anything else. Suddenly we imagined the story completely from the point-of-view of these teenage kids, to whom the bigger picture was a complete mystery. Mark and I discussed this new approach with Tom and he was happy for us to write an original script based on it. We immediately took the story away from the action genre because we felt that the trauma caused by the virus would better suit horror. Also, the science-fiction elements equated better once they were narrowed down to a more secretive level. For me, this is a sub-genre I would define as “conspiracy”. We are big J.J. Abrams fans and believe that the “not quite knowing” aspect can often add to the excitement and experience of seeing a film. Horror and sci-fi offer room for mystery elements and dealings with the great unknown; people tend to enjoy the idea of there being dark secrets behind everything, and we play on that in WEAVERFISH. However, beyond all the horror and conspiracy we wanted to ensure that our characters were cared for by the audience. I much prefer horror films that give attention to their character stories – particularly British horrors such as THE DESCENT and EDEN LAKE – because then, all of a sudden, the horror seems much more terrifying. You are routing for these characters and you do not want them to die. Likewise, our approach to the story was to give the characters as much backbone as possible by first introducing them in a ‘teen-drama’ style scenario; the virus is a shocking interruption of that. We follow the characters along a completely different narrative to begin with, that is much more centred around their personal lives, and then around halfway through the film we start to become aware of the sinister activity going on around them.
10. What was the experience like shooting WEAVERFISH in 16 days?
We actually shot WEAVERFISH in 15 days because our last day was spent packing. For this reason, we refer to the shoot as having taken place in two weeks – but really it was just slightly over! As you can imagine it was incredibly fast-paced and draining. Mark and I survived on 4 hours sleep per night for the entire duration, which actually wasn’t as bad as you might imagine. I certainly felt the adrenaline of it all keeping me going. We were shooting every single day, but we also had to fit in five night shoots. On some days we were going straight into night shoots and then back into days again! It was insane, and something you completely couldn’t get away with in the paid world. Our cast and crew all suffered the long, long hours – particularly our make up artist Naomi, who had to be up earliest to prepare the cast – but it was necessary in order to get everything done. I still can’t believe we did. But it was all down to knowing where our limits were. On location we had so much to shoot that we had to reduce setup times to a minimum, and for this reason we ditched our tripod. Because our low-budget ambitions naturally get compared to the one-in-a-million success which was THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, a lot of people ask if this handheld lack of tripod makes it a ‘found-footage’ film. The answer is that we shot handheld but not in a ‘found-footage’ style. Handheld was the best way to achieve everything within our timeframe, but mostly it felt natural and honest to the film’s existence. If you look at other low-budget films such as MONSTERS, Gareth Edwards does a beautiful job of allowing his film to breathe through handheld cinematography. This is perhaps the style that most influenced us and one that we knew would get us through our tight time frame. We also used natural lighting as much as we could. The other big factor was making sure that we were as prepared as possible during the pre-production stages. It is not easy to rehearse crew for setups, but making sure at least that the actors knew their lines was crucial. Our young cast had theatre backgrounds so we rehearsed them until they could perform every scene on demand. This discipline allowed us to be creative on set without ever slowing down. We would run through each scene in full in order to get our master shot, and then go for around three more carefully chosen angles – again running through the scenes in full. Whilst I continued to give the cast any necessary direction on set, a bulk of the work had been done well in advance. It was a good job really, because so much else went wrong! There are so many stories to tell about our experience from those two (and a bit) weeks and I could could go on and on about each little detail. However, the best place to read about it all in depth is through our Production Blog which gives a diary account of each day as it happened. For filmmakers, it’s probably a useful tool for the “what and what NOT to dos” of filmmaking. And for anyone else, it might just be an entertaining glimpse at the less glamorous side of the industry!