Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Interview with Brendan O'Neill, recent winner of the "2 Weeks 2 Make It" competition

Just as I'm getting back into the groove... I'm heading out of town again. I'm only gone for the weekend, I have an out of town wedding to go to, but it does mean that I won't be posting anything on Friday. Come Monday, things should be all back to normal... at least for a while. In any case, we have a great interview for you here, today. So great that you won't even want me to post anything on Friday, you'll prefer to just read this again... or finish reading it, as it's quite long. We're talking with Brendan O'Neill today, whose Stickleback Productions team have just won the 2 Weeks 2 Make It competition for his horror influenced music video for the band Wise Blood. We've spoken with O'Neill before, when he was in pre-pre-pre-production on a film called "Hell Hall", and we'll see where he's at with that, as well. Now, let's take a look at the history of music videos...

Music videos and film are, obviously, closely linked. I mean, really... a music video IS a short film. However, the music video doesn't have quite as long a history. There was always music added to silent film AND there were feature length musical films, but music videos, as we know them, really came about as a way to promote and market musicians and they really didn't come into their own until the 80's. That was when MTV based their entire format around the medium. Now, the two worlds are virtually on top of each other and you can probably thank Michael Jackson for that. Seriously. The most successful and influential music video of all time is "Thriller", odd that it's based in horror, huh? Anyhow, it was 14 minutes long and actually told a story. From then on, the medium burst out in different directions and became a creative stomping ground for some of today's great directors. Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and David Fincher ALL got their starts by doing music videos... and there's many more. Today, Lady Gaga's "Telephone", a 10 minute short film, has been viewed billions of times and did it all online. Any way you slice it, music videos aren't a bad place to be. So, now... check out the video, then read what Brendan O'Neill has to say...

Wise Blood "TV Dinner Lady" by Stickleback Productions from Brendan O'Neill on Vimeo.

Tell us about the music video you just made. It just won the 2 Weeks 2 Make It competition, what’s that all about?

The 2 Weeks 2 Make It competition originated in Sheffield, England. It was the brainchild of native New Yorker Rob Speranza of the South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network syfn.org. You can learn more about it here.

According to the blurb "its a music video competition pairing randomly drawn teams of film makers and musical artists who then have exactly 2 weeks to shoot and edit a music video from scratch! The aim is to have fun and encourage teamwork, initiative and creativity whilst working to a challenging fixed deadline."

This was the inaugural Birmingham edition of the competition so 13 film crews from all over the West Midlands were put into a hat and drawn against 13 local bands. We then had just 2 weeks to make a great video.

This effectively means that you prep immediately with a view to shooting the next weekend and then do all your post production and grading etc with the week remaining

If you don’t mind us asking, what was the budget?

Originally there was no budget but I managed to persuade the band to pay for things like lens hire and also one location. I rang around realtors in Birmingham trying to find a swanky apartment to film in but none of them were interested in helping so at the last minute I had to beg and bribe a friend who fortunately lives in exactly the kind of creaky, old house a serial killer might live in to help out.

There was also a lot of incidental expenses like petrol, offal, gallons of home-made fake blood, boiler suits and bacon sandwiches - which are essential to British film making etc. Sundries really!

Mostly though we got things for free through volunteer locations, borrowed props, equipment and creativity. I have networked relentlessly for the last few years so I was able to pull in a lot of favours because people knew who I was and what I was at.

All the surgical instruments and instrument table were found by Wise Blood the band including the really cool bone saw that the killer handles. I provided the whetstone from my carpenter's tool bag and the meat cleaver from my kitchen.

The DSLR cameras - a Canon 5D Mk III and a Canon 7D were sourced by James Stoneley the Director/DoP. I borrowed the dolly and jib from another friend and other bits and pieces of kit from local production houses.

As for the other locations - the Bar Bluu location people were great and just said "cool go ahead". Likewise the band scenes were filmed at the Friction Arts warehouse - an internationally renowned but local arts organisation with whom I am friendly.

The actors were sourced from some of my contacts but also via free casting calls on Star Now and the UK version of Casting Call Pro. These calls were very useful as a lot of people applied even though it was emphasized that it was a zero budget, unexpensed shoot.

I was really lucky that Jonny Lee-Kemp who played the serial killer really fitted my request for someone who had something of an Antony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) or Christian Bale (American Psycho) look and sensibility. He drove all the way up from south of London to be on set for 8 am and we didn't let him go until 02.30 the next morning so he really was the star of the show in more ways than one!.

I had worked with Laura Edghill - the blonde actress before on a small piece I had done as a return favour to help another actress who was the lead on my first film Black Widow - a 48 hour competition zero budget film shot in Birmingham,UK and Madrid, Spain!

Steve Rylands who appears very briefly as a barman in the background has been in all 4 of my films now which can all be seen on the Stickleback Productions Vimeo or YouTube channels.

Coincidentally both him and Dave Martin from the band both appeared in the locally made, medieval battle re-enactment comedy Feintheart. Steve as an actor in the bookshop scene and Dave as a Viking swordsman.

Talk about some of the differences and similarities between making a music video and, say, a short film.

I think one of the main issue was syncing what was going on in the song with what was going on on screen - something you don't have to worry about in a short. We used Pluraleyes to help sync the action and the song which took a lot of pain out of the process.

Other issues were things like working with a band who although performers aren't actors and trying to get the best on screen performance and shots from them. We were lucky as we drew a really good, co-operative band who had a great song that lent itself to a fairly straightforward narrative.

It was particularly good for us as filmmakers in that it allowed us to make a mini horror film within a promo. Although we had to be very careful to stay within competition rules by just hinting at violence rather than actually seeing any.

The band also made great runners as they were used to electrics and cables and humping stuff around. A lot of crossover generic skills - roadies and runners aren't so different.

Great gore in the music video, what did you use? Talk about all the effects.

Just red and blue food colouring thickened with chocolate syrup for the blood made to internet recipes by Hannah Raison - our very gifted make-up artist. The selection of guts were real though and were sourced from a butcher at the local Bull Ring indoor markets here in central Birmingham.

Ashley Allen who edited achieved the really brilliant jerky "Talking Head" style effect which emphasixed the Jeckyll and Hyde nature of the killer using dropped frames, masks and other effects in FCP.

Tell us a bit about the indie music video scene. Is this something that other indie filmmakers should be looking at getting involved in?

There are definite sychronicities. I think bands these days simply have to have some sort of video of their singles and songs on the internet if they want to get noticed.

Because digital distribution has become so easy - its a very crowded market place if you're trying to sell your digital wares whatever they might be. The better quality video a band can put in front of their internet audience the more chance it has of breaking and going viral with the subsequent benefit that has for profile and download sales plus things like merchandising and revenue from live gigs.

Bands that want quality should get in touch with their local indie filmmakers and work out a budget and/or a deal that benefits both parties. This could mean all sorts of things. For instance the band could agree to do a fundraising gig to help finance a short for the filmmakers in exchange for a promo.

Likewise the band and filmmakers could agree to share revenue on the promo from itunes or Tunecore exposure. There are lots of creative ways that you can help each other out by giving in-kind assistance that creates win-win results.

Has winning the competition opened any doors for you?

Its still early days but having won the competition has certainly raised my stock and put me on certain peoples radar.

I'm currently talking to a local band about doing a video for a new song of theirs in which I hope to take a further step in the learning process by using compositing and CGI effects. This experience will also help prepare me for what will be needed on Hell Hall.

As prizewinners Stickleback Productions also get to make another budgeted video for a band called the Special K's who are a dance-pop outfit from Brighton.

The promo is also an invaluable marketing tool for all concerned. As you know my l main aim is to write and direct feature length films but any promos, corporates or event filming that increases my skills that I can get in the meantime is invaluable - not to mention the networking opportunities that these things provide.

Theory is great but you only really learn about film making by getting out on set with whatever equipment and resources you can get and making a film.

In some respects filmmakers are living in a golden age as social networking makes it very easy to find actors and crew to work with. The key thing then is to build good relationships with good people based on honesty, integrity and mutual respect for each others skills, abilities and needs.

Now, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you in to film?

My influences would be summed up as World and Indie cinema though I love US directors like Scorcese and Tarantino plus homegrown ones like the UK's Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Neil Jordan over in Ireland. I also love a lot of the new directors coming out of Spanish and Latin American cinema.

I've always been a film buff since high school and have always been a poet and writer. Poetry has actually been a very good grounding for moving into film making as they're both all about sequencing images in a very nuanced way.

Until relatively recently it was expensive to make a film. The accessibility caused by the drop in price of and accessibility to digital video and editing equipment has changed everything. Now writers like me don't have to wait for someone to pick up their script.

Just find some actors and crew, throw a fundraiser to get some cash to feed people and get out there and make a film. I'm always totally upfront with people about there being no real budget but find that people will still work with you if it its a good project and helps build their reel or profile as cast or crew.

Hopefully having no budget wont always be the case but its definitely a good discipline creatively to make something from nothing and at the very least shows possible investors or funders how much you can do with very little.

Last we talked, you were working on an idea, “Hell Hall”. Where’s that at now?

Like most writers I have various ideas on the go. Hell Hall is on the back burner at the moment as its quite a resource hungry one to do though it will get done eventually as not many filmmakers have Aunts who live in creaky old stateley homes. I'm very fortunate in having access to that one great location!

As an Indie producer/director I have to be conscious about what is actually achievable with the resource you have i.e. its much better to make a 30 minute quality short than a 90 minute feature that sucks.

With that in mind I'm hoping to do the UK's first Mumblecore style film - a quirky off-kilter Rom-Com called Swings and Roundabouts which will be set against the back drop of Birmingham's very vibrant music scene. Led Zep, Duran Duran, Moody Blues, Dexy's, UB40 - we have a very rich musical heritage here!

Film school: yes or no?

No. I have had some screenwriting tuition but have basically taught myself through a combination of bespoke courses and self tuition. The other thing is just to gather good people around you and trust them to do what they do well.

My view is that everything you need to know or learn is out there for free on the internet so whats stopping you?

I've had a lot of project and people management experience in industry and education so that plus the writing/creativity is my strength plus being able to pick up new things quickly which I learned from being a technical writer.

Where can people check out the music video?

Best quality is on Vimeo here. but you can also watch it on YouTube here.

What’s next for you?

Well I have just been approached by a very well connected businessman who wants to help me find money to make films. Over the next month or so I will try and ramp up quickly to make Swings and Roundabouts but if that's not feasible then I will go with Trouble At My Door - a half hour dysfunctional family wake drama that is written, cast and locationed and ready to go.

Always have a plan B.

After that and come September I'll be back down to writing my play for the Royal Court Theatre in London which is yet another possible outlet for my writing.

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