Working in a (Big) Micro-Budget World
We speak to Charlie Dennis who has worked on big-budget sets, produced commercials and music videos and his own micro-budget films. He offers an insight into his world of filmmaking.
Q: What was the inspiration for becoming a filmmaker?
Tricky one! I'm not sure there was much 'inspiration' to begin with. I was fascinated with the format - being able to do whatever you want, tell whatever story and create something unique, brand new and inventive myself was a massive attraction when I was younger. The more films I watched, the more curious I became in how they were made. This curiosity has stayed with me, and i'm never short of awe at other filmmakers - their ideas, concepts, story-telling. It's just all so exciting to me, and that I guess is a major inspiration. And now with the understanding of being able to tell a story to scare people, make people laugh, incite change, break boundaries or just entertain people is such an intoxicating feeling.
Q: What training did you do to get your skills to where they needed to be?
I did go to film school! We learn a lot on film, splicing with steenbecks and utilising super 16mm, 8mm and 35mm. This was great practice, but also learning and making terrible films myself was a great learning experience.
I became a runner whilst at film school, and ended up landing a job in the assistant director department on Spectre - James Bond. From here, I learnt an amazing amount about all the other departments in the film world. I worked as an assistant director for about 5 years on films such as Star Wars, Fantastic Beasts and many many more! Getting this experience was super important when working with crew - it didn't necessarily help me with my directing ability - this you learn yourself - but learning how to communicate effectively with crew members from the make up department all the way to chippies and sparks is an incredible thing to do. Having your crew respect you and able to communicate with you can often make or break a film! No one wants to bend over backwards for a know-it-all young director.
Q: What do you think you learn most whilst on set?
Communication. For sure. As a director, communicating my ideas to the crew, helping actors understand what message i'm trying to convey and being able to think quickly, clearly, problem solve and answer questions without getting flustered is very very important. Having a creative vision is very important, but it's useless if no one else can understand it.
Q: You’ve done a lot of corporate work that I can imagine involves a lot of marketing and proposal writing, how do you approach dealing with corporate clients?
It's tricky - for larger commercials, the client and agency can sometimes become a bit TOO involved. It's trying to help them understand your creative ideas and how it can effectively sell their brand/product. We shot a big campaign for Mastercard out in Thailand, and the head of the South East Asian division got very excited about the idea and tried to get a bit too stuck in. Being able to take on board some of his ideas, but respectfully shoot the others down is a hard thing to master. I'm still learning! Sometimes you end up making allowances just to get the damn thing made!
And also, not being too arrogant helps. At the end of the day, these people are paying me to run their whole campaign and they want to see results - they don't want an experimental, avant-garde film that will confuse everyone. Having a solid, creative idea but making it so that everyone can understand it and is on board is crucial.
Q: When you are working in fictional filmmaking, how do you approach writing or creating a story knowing you may a limited budget?
I think i've found writing a story around a location I know I have access to has been super helpful in the past. Having a great idea but delivering it poorly can be so disheartening, and usually these things are down to budget. Location can often make a film SO much better. It sounds stupid, but it really helps sell the world you're trying to tell. If you have an amazing location, there is no harm in tuning your script to take advantage of it. You can then invest your budget in better sound, talent, and equipment for example, or production design. And a great location can really help the cast get into character if you're under time restraints.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you could give someone looking to make their first film but only have a limited amount of resources?
Speak to people! Speak to other filmmakers - they're not going to steal your idea or think worse of you!! Speaking to filmmakers and letting them know what you want to do and why can often lead in great results. This collaboration can create future work partnerships and access to more resources.
Also just being prepared and being flexible is very important. Wanting to film something on an Arri is great, but if you only have your Canon 60D - make it work! Rent a few lights from FatLama, speak to local theatre companies for actors wanting to get screen work, teach yourself how to edit (you can get free trials of Adobe Premiere and loads of youtube videos!), and try and collaborate with other filmmakers. It doesn't even matter if it's a team of directors on board, as long as you all share a vision, it will help you get your film made.