OK, So Someone Is Reading This…

Posted November 26th, 2006 by Ben

It’s Sunday and it’s raining. Proper rain. The sort of rain I remember from childhood. People always say that when thinking back to their childhood the sun always seems to be shining, I generally remember rain. Long cold days with white skies and a persistent background crackle as the water bounces off the roof, the windows, or the sides of the car. It’s that sort of day now and I’m really having to fight hard not to pull my duvet in front of the TV and watch Doctor Who, which always seemed like the most sensible way of coping of rain.

I think I’m also finding it hard to work because not only am I knackered but the past few days have been such a lurching drunken holiday that I’m reluctant to get back into the swing of things. Not sure the Inland Revenue will appreciate it much though if I scrawl on my VAT return “Sorry, in the end, I couldn’t quite be arsed” and besides I think they owe us money this quarter…

Since Thursday I’ve got drunk, then very drunk, then argued with Matt Jones about “Cubs” then gone to Bristol, then argued with both Matt Jones and Jo McClellan about “Cubs”, then got drunk, then had trifle whilst watching our film, then had a huge Chinese meal bought for me by the Film Council, then argued with Geradine O’Flynn about “Cubs”, then got really drunk, then gone out dancing, then met two Hungarian Vizslas, then got stuck on a train, then bought a bag, then eaten Sushi and watched “Starter For Ten”. All of which is enough to really make me feel like the party season is here…

“Starter For Ten” is surprisingly good actually. Nothing about it made me want to watch it apart from a general admiration for James McAvoy and the fact that there were no other films on at six-thirty yesterday in central London that I wanted to watch more. In some ways it confirmed all my worst fears, it’s a lightly amusing rom-com that builds an obvious story out of all the clichés you’d expect from a film about university life in the mid 80’s. It’s also so lightly amusing as to be not funny for a good two thirds of it’s length and in places the script is so bad that’s laughable rather than comic.

All of which should have made it utterly infuriating, but the cast are largely so good that for the most part I didn’t notice how bad it was until I was on the tube home. When it is actually funny it is actually very funny and in the hands of James McAvoy, Dominic Cooper and Rebecca Hall the conflict between McAvoy’s working class roots and his middle-class aspirations are surprisingly believable. Overall it’s nice but a bit rubbish but it’s British rubbish (OK, American made British rubbish) and it’s nice to watch a forgettable but enjoyable film that in someway relates to people I recognise. I’d far rather we made watchable rubbish than just rubbish.

Perhaps though I was just in a good mood because, like a good capitalist, I’ve been spending money. I’ve not only bought a case for my laptop in a vane attempt to keep the new one clean and unbattered, but I also bought a new bag which, with my big grey coat, makes me look a bit like a Russian spy. Which is a really cool, but did mean that going for sushi afterwards was a bit like taking my life in my hands. Not least because on the train I discovered that apparently my wicked uncle is somehow involved in the death of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, which is too strange to think about.

So I didn’t. Instead I slept. Which isn’t surprising because up until the 12.30 from Bristol to London Paddington ground to complete standstill due to flooding, sleep had been in short supply.

In Bristol we stayed with the amazing Frances Cox, a friend of Barrington’s who threw open the doors of her amazing house to us at a moment’s notice. This included breakfast with her, her husband, their daughter Imogen and their fantastic dogs, a pair of utterly beautiful Hungarian Viszlars. Apollo, the youngest, is a huge, naughty and utterly delightful ginger beast who will eat anything, is constantly demanding attention and somehow manages to get away with murder. He took to Chris like a kindred spirit and spent most of the morning leaping on his lap and using friendliness as an excuse to get closer to our breakfast.

I think Apollo was also responsible for the loud banging that woke me and Cariad up at about seven in the morning. At the time though I must admit I thought it was Chris in the room upstairs finally reaching the hammer-destruction phase of his drinking cycle. Luckily it wasn’t that, in fact, Chris’ drunkenness had manifested itself as the same sort of benign recklessness that seems to be Apollo’s normal state of mind. Certainly when Barrington finally rounded him up and got him to Frances’ house at half four, it was definitely with the air of a man dealing with a naughty dog who had slipped his lead for the afternoon.

Cariad and I had come back around two o’clock with a promise of waiting up to let the others in when finally Chris ran out of energy. In the end though he, Barrington and the delightful Kate Taylor had stayed in the Elbow Room until being hurled onto the street by staff. Still, at least we all got a dance which was good because we’d previously been at the Film Council party and no one ever dances at film parties. I can only presume that this is because they always exist with an undercurrent of networking and needing to impress, something that always rather undercut the true nature of what a party should be. You just can’t let your hair down if you’re worried that doing so will let you down in return.

It was also really nice to spend a little time with Kate who’s life in Manchester keeps her out of reach for far too many months of the year. We first met Kate when she offered us a bed for the night on the first run of the Mobile Cinema and bumping into her unexpectedly in Bristol is one of the nice things about going to a party at a film festival.

It was also nice to have a proper chat with Geradine who’s been one of our Film4 execs for the past year, but who seems to have been building up for a dust-up with me ever since she read my comments about “Cubs”, which she line produced. I was really surprised when I discovered this, partly because I don’t think I said anything that bad, but mainly because I wrote it all on the blog here and I really didn’t think that anyone was reading it. Since I saw the film a month or so ago at the London Film Festival, I’ve been pretty much wrapped up in work and recovery of one sort of another and I’ve not really met anybody… getting back into the film community for the first time in a month, I was both surprised and delighted to find that you’re all actually reading this nonsense!


How are you doing? Tell you what, why don’t add comments then? That’d be great. That’s why I’d kinda presumed no one was paying that much attention. On the whole the only people I get leaving comments on my blog are spambots who seemed obsessed with telling the world about online gambling, cheap meds and bestial porn. So please, if you are a real living person and you’re not trying to sell viagra, and you have actually bothered to read this, why not click on the bit at the bottom of the entry that says “Leave comment” and say something. It doesn’t have to be nice. I’m always up for argument. Though praise is always kinda fun too…. just a thought.

Anyway… apart from the amazed delight that Geradine reads my blog (hats off to you my love) I was saddened and a little disappointed that she was so cross with what I’d written. I think her main point though was that by not mentioning either her or Jo by name it felt a little snide, like I was trying to say I’d really like to trash this film but I can’t because I’m working with them… I can see how she’d feel this, though if you go back and re-read it you’ll see that really what I’m saying is I don’t want my comments to sound like sour grapes when “Cubs” has been so much more successful than “Death Of The Revolution”.

It’s a tricky situation. As a creative community, as “the british film industry”, we’ll never improve the quality of our work unless we can be honest with each other. This is easy to say, but hard to achieve. Not least because whilst we are a community, we are also individuals. I’d be lying if I said that when our films are shown with others, some part of me isn’t always made happy when people tell me ours was best. As a result I don’t entirely trust my feelings about “Cubs” because I’m sure in part they are an irrational response to it getting chosen for TCM above “Death Of The Revolution”. I’ve still only seen “Cubs” the once but after talking it through with both Ger and Jo, I do still stand by everything I wrote before, including the many nice things that seem to have been overlooked.

Anyway, I think through the drunkenness of four bottles of wine, Ger and I managed to have a fairly civilised chat at the party and smoothed out the wrinkles. Which was good because Chris’ argument about the film is much more to the point than my own and boils down to his not liking the fox’s performance. He’d been rehearsing it with one person or another for two days and by the time we were sat around the revolving table in the Chinese Restaurant, eating our celebratory “End Of Cinema Extreme” dinner it had kinda boiled down to him shouting “LEFT IS DEATH, RIGHT IS FREEDOM” which is a brilliant rhetorical tactic since it reduces the argument to meaninglessness and so forces people to just look confused and a little worried.

Thankfully the fox didn’t rear his head until toward the end of the dinner which, for the most part was a chance to kick back, breath a sigh of relief that the whole thing is finally over and talk about what went right and what went wrong.

Ever since they first launched the programme, Chris and I have been determined to get onto Cinema Extreme. When the Film Council first laid out it’s plans for the future of short film funding they made it seem like a simple three step process – you do a Digital Short, you do Cinema Extreme, you make a feature film. We had about three or four years of self-funded no-budget short films behind us and no one in the industry would give us the time of day. Having no links to the film world, having not been to film school, and having neither the money nor inclination to go there (having spent all our money already making films), we realised needed to follow something like this ideal path in order to get ourselves the sort of official stamp of approval that is still so useful.

It took us a year of cajoling and exec hunting to get onto the Digital Shorts scheme in 2003 and it took us six months to fall out with Darren the Head of Production and quit the film. Having had our foot on the bottom rung of the ladder only to break it to bits and fall off again, we felt rather like the official route was no longer an option. However, thanks to the work we did with Quinny and Barrington, by the spring of 2005 we were being invited to submit an idea for the third Cinema Extreme programme.

Our idea selected, we went through to the development workshops with heavy hearts. In the past “development workshop” has always been a synonym for “waste of time”. By pure good fortune the Mobile Cinema meant we had no option but to attend the workshop held in Nottingham, which turned out to be the most enjoyable thing we did all year long. Not least because of all the other filmmakers who were there, including Miranda Bowen and Simon Ellis whose work, I am proud to say, ours now stands shoulder to shoulder with. It was a brilliant three days and for the first time in our lives we finally felt like we were part of something.

Sadly, once the film was green-lit this feeling disappeared. There were communication failures on all our parts but looking back, the biggest problem was simply the film itself. When we discussed this the other night, everyone assured me that they had wanted to work with me and Chris – full stop. If we had turned to them, as we wanted to, at the start of the process and said “Look, we don’t think we can make a film about a talking panda for £50k” then they wouldn’t have thrown us off the scheme, just been very pleased and helped us work out a new idea. All I can say is that I remember very clearly that it never felt that way to us. We waited for them to tell us it couldn’t be done, they waited for us to admit the same.

Every other problem that we faced on the project comes back to the simple fact that it was ridiculously over ambitious, a film that frankly we shouldn’t have been able to make. Quinny and Barrington had a hell of a time trying to meet the administrative demands placed on them by the funders, not because those demands were in anyway unreasonable, but because both of them were doing four people’s jobs each as the bear had eaten any money to pay for a real production team. Chris and I found it hard to keep a cool distance on the project, found it hard to take on board all of the feedback we were getting from the execs because we too were doing four or five jobs a piece, as well as working on other projects in order to earn any money to live on. In the end, I don’t think we were even able to make use of the support offered to us by the funders because we were so busy we didn’t really have time to formulate the right questions to ask them. Our massive workload meant that we ended up shutting them out, and now I pull back and see how much Kate, Mattieu, Jo, Geradine, Becky and Paul were all doing on-top of their work on our film, I see that they didn’t have the time to fight us on that.

It’s not been the best way of working and it naturally lead to both camps feeling a bit hard done by at times. However, now that the film is finished and my life is more or less my own once again, it’s very hard to look on this as a bad thing or anything that any of us should berate ourselves for. The problem was the film, the only solution was not to make that film, and whilst neither Chris or I want to make a film in this way ever again, I don’t think either of us can pretend for a half a second that we regret making “Hallo Panda” or anything that we were forced to do in order to get it made.

Over ambitious, sure. Should have been impossible on the money, yes – but impossibly it worked. Thanks to Quinny, thanks to Barrington, thanks to every poor bastard who came and worked on it with us, thanks to support we did get, thanks especially to way Jo and Becky kicked the shit out of it on the edit – it worked. It’s a great film and I say that without blush of modesty or arrogant laugh. It’s a great film.

The screening of all the Cinema Extreme films at the Encounters Festival in Bristol was a real joy. As you’ll know if (as apparently you do) you read this blog, the first time all the films were shown side by side at the Apollo Cinema on Regent’s Street we were all pretty gutted by the quality of the projection. To be totally anal, this time everything was a touch too bright, but only a touch and it’s better that than the impossible gloop of the London showing.

We’re on last and the cinema is packed to the rafters and the screen is not too big to be unkind to the Varicam. “Hallo Panda” is funny, beautiful and moving. But mainly funny. And really enjoyable. And most of all, it works. Sitting in dark with a pot of trifle in my hand listening to three hundred people laughing, feeling their anticipation, knowing that we’ve got them hooked and they’re loving it – I know that we did it and that it’s been worth doing.

Watching the whole programme for a second time also gives me a real respect for everyone who has been working on the Cinema Extreme programme. They’ve really pushed the boat out this year with five films so different that they really stretch you as an audience. To travel to our own literate silliness from Miranda’s gorgeous, claustrophobic, nightmare “Honeymoon”, passing Gaelle Denis’ quirky and delightful “After The Rain”, the beautiful, crazy, black and white dream of Martin Radich’s “Dogs Mercury” and the slick, smart, gut wrenching grittiness of Simon Ellis’ “Soft” is quite a roller coaster. To have kept all five films in your head for a year, to have guided each project and enabled each filmmaker to keep true to their own creativity, looks to me like a hell of a feat.

It was also nice that it’s thanks to Cinema Extreme that, with our last short film, we finally got a screening at Bristol’s Encounters Festival, which is increasingly referred to as the best short film festival in the country. It’s a great festival and it’s a shame that they never selected any of our other films because I would have liked to been here before, if that doesn’t sound too backwards.

I think the nicest thing about it is that, for a festival, it is surprisingly relaxed. There is of course the usual hectic pace of hundreds of screenings and special events and a huge sweaty mass of people trying to flow from one of the of the building to the other via the bar. However, unlike a lot of the festivals I have been to, there is less of the urgent desperation, less of the shoulder checking to see if someone more important has just walked in. Although short films are usually intended as the start of a career, their audience is as much the true cineophile as it is the exec, the agent and the distributor. As a result the Encounters Festival feels well named, it is a festival about meeting, about the pleasure of bumping into someone else’s train of thought and letting it derail your own.

It’s also nice to get out of London. The trip from Paddington to Bristol is rapidly becoming one of my favourites, even on a white grey day with a hangover. Chris and I travelled down with both Cariad and Quinny who competed on the crossword and both thought to bring packed lunches for the journey. It was also only on that journey that Cariad discovered Quinny is Jessica Rabbit, or at least her dancing body, in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. This is impressive in anyone’s book, though Quinny shrugs it away with “It’s a just a job” and then admits that she’s got 12 across, which was also no mean task. Though not quite as impressive as being the blue-print for the sexist non-human in cinema history.

But then my crossword brain isn’t really working because I’ve had not quite enough sleep to properly recover from the gallon or two of free Cobra that I drank at the ICA the night before. Bitesize Cinema were holding their end of run finale and Matt invited Chris and I to take part in a Q and A session after “Death Of The Revolution” screened.

On getting to the ICA we meet the heroic Simon Cameron (who may be the only person who has read this far…) and find that the stickers we get given entitle us not to one free beer, but one whole night of free beer. After a few of these have disappeared on an empty stomach the conversation rolls round, for the first time, to “Cubs” which is about to screen tonight. Chris starts to work up the “LEFT IS DEATH” argument for the first time and he and Matt, who claims that the fox’s right exit is blocked by a just visible metal fence, disappear off to sneak into the screening and have it out “once for and all”.

Guiltily the beer and the conversation keeps us away from the films, which is pretty shameful to be honest. Though to be fair I’ve not seen Joss, who was colourist on “Death Of The Revolution” for some months and it’s really good to catch up with him. As a result I don’t have that clear a memory of the Q and A but I think, for once, we were fairly concise…

It’s nice to have screened both films on consecutive nights, it’s nice to think of them both out in the world at last. It was also nice to spend some time with Quinny and Barrington now that the films are done. Earlier that day we’d had a sort of final round-up meeting with Quinny and Barrington at Quinny’s beautiful home with it’s view of Alexandra Palace. For a good part of the year this had been our production base and we’d spent a good deal of time sat here desperately trying to work out how we were going to get the film made at all…

Now, with DVDs printed and in sleeves and almost all of the paperwork finally handed in, it was especially nice to draw the meeting to a close and have a long chatty lunch of butternut squash and chilli soup, which is at least twice as nice as it sounds. The four of us have worked very hard, and very closely, and have spent a lot of time falling out and arguing and then, as is the way of things, events have pushed us all apart. So to be back in Quinny’s kitchen with Barrington saying that he really had to rush off for at least two hours before he left was a soft wintery pleasure.

Chris and I are very keen to work with both Quinny and Barrington again, though preferably not with the two together since we all feel that everyone is best served when each is given their space to produce. They are wonderful people and it has been a genuine privilege to make two short films with them both.

  1. Matthew Jones

    see, “left is death” is right from our point of view with hindsight. When you look back on it, it seems like a pretty dum thing to do for the fox to run into a dead end, but actually put yourself in the fox’ shoes (or paws I should say):

    it probably didn’t realise at first that it was a dead end!! It probably thought: “oh what’s round here, maybe it’s a way out, oh no shit, I was wrong, it’s a dead end after all, oh dear I’m being beaten up by the so solid crew. Oh dear, should have gone right back there. Oi, what are you doing with my tail!”

    It went round to left, had a quick glance around, and before it has time to leg it the other way, Asher D is mashing him up with a cricket bat.

    That’s my theory. So LEFT IS DEATH, IN HINDSIGHT.


  2. Frances

    I’d really interested to know what ‘Hallo Panda’ looks like in its perfect version, by which I mean the way you made and saw it. I have to say that to the unenlightened it looked pretty good on Friday evening.

    As one of the audience who enjoyed Cinema Extreme and the slightly head-spinning sensation of going to five such different visions with only a brief burst of applause in between, ‘Hallo Panda’ was a great round-off to the evening. All the films were extraordinary and beautiful and challenging, but in the end it’s very liberating to laugh.

    (And it was the builders next door banging at 7.30. Probably the only day they have started, or will ever start, at 7.30 in the morning. Shit, as the saying goes, happens!)

  3. Ben.

    That’s a bit of a shame. I quite liked the idea it was Apollo. Especially because it was very clearly the sound of building. He strikes me as the sort of dog who could build if he put his mind to it. You should check your attic for signs of a rocket. He’s going to bring a whole new meaning to the Apollo Space Programme…

    Thanks again xxxx

  4. Chris Blaine

    Crackers, Apollo. I forgot the crackers…

    Originally Hallo Panda was a feature idea which we’ve tried to squeeze down into a short, and we’ve every intention of doing it in the longer form so hopefully you’ll get to see just where we thought we could do better…

    Much love

  5. Cariad

    i’m reading, and riding trains with you guys in ordinately fun, especially if there is always chicken, make sure there’s always chicken. its probably arrogant but i think panda is brilliant and so are you two… x

  6. Ange

    be honest here. would you read this self-obsessed, self-congratulatory drivel if you hadn’t written it?

  7. Anonymous

    No. Never. I don’t even read it whilst I write it. Which is why I so surprised to find that people had… which was why I asked for people to leave comments so I knew who was out there, so, thanks for that xxxx

    I hold my hand up to “self-congratulatory”, I’ve just done a good thing and I want to tell the world. I do though think that “self-obsessed” is a bit of a redundant thing to say. It’s a blog. Of course it’s self-obsessed, it’s a website about me, the things I do, the people I meet and the thoughts that those things make me have.

    To be honest with you I wouldn’t write it had Cath and Jess not asked me to (check how irregularly I actually write here if you don’t believe me) and I don’t force you to read it… though I’m glad you did. Have you seen “Hallo Panda”? I’m much more interested in your opinion on my film than this rambling nonsense which is, as you so rightly point out, drivel.

  8. Ben.

    Bugger, that’s from me, not Anonymous. I hit the wrong button. Sorry.

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