Making Roadkill, Pitching Nefarious and Mr ICM
Production in the Breacon Beacons
We shot ‘Roadkill’ in the Breacon Beacons over five production days, during the first week of November 1998. For most of that time we were working in gale force winds and horizontal rain, which made recording clean sound very problematic.
Notwithstanding the extreme conditions and almost having to sack the caterers on the first morning, we managed to capture some utterly breath-taking footage of the desolately beautiful landscape, dramatic stunts, special effects and an exploding caravan.
Furthermore, all of the actors put in great performances and were very easy to work with. We also immediately hit it off creatively with our brilliant director of photography, Rory Taylor.
In fact, save for one easily resolved minor incident with a member of the crew the night before the first day of the shoot, production was an extremely enjoyable experience for all concerned.
By the time we wrapped at the end of the fifth day, I’d lost count of the number of times crew members told me how great they thought the completed film was destined to be.
We even managed to stay on budget and on schedule, in accordance with Dov Simens‘ golden rule of production.
Post-Production at Bray Studios
Whilst the ‘Roadkill’ shoot went pretty much according to plan, the next six months of non-consecutive post-production days were a logistical nightmare.
Our major problem was that my co-producer-director, Tony, lived in South East Wales, but we were booked in to edit the film at Bray Studios, on the outskirts of London.
This was exacerbated by the fact that our time in the edit suite was dependent upon it not being used by a paying customer, since we had agreed a free downtime deal with Nick Pocock’s Bray-based post-production house, Synxspeed.
Editing on a Steenbeck
Somewhat inevitably, this resulted in us managing to edit for a few days every few weeks, with our skillful but inexperienced editor, David Trent, so our progress was frustratingly slow.
It must, nevertheless, be stressed that cutting the film on a magnificent Steenbeck editing machine was a surprisingly serene pleasure.
Whilst we were very lucky to be using it at all, on the paltry remains of our £20,000 budget.
Completion At Last
However, by the end of April 1999, the edit was completed, at which point I honestly had no idea how people were going to react to it.
I knew it looked fantastic, that the story worked well and the actors put in some fine comic performances.
It also featured a truly sublime original score, written by CR’s musical virtuoso brother, B, over the course of just a few days.
Despite these and numerous other production values, my gut insisted that I wouldn’t be able to truly gague how good our film was until I experienced it in a cinema with a room full of strangers.
So we sent the cutting copy and the negative to TKT Services at Pinewood Studios to be cut and from that point there was no going back.
“Roadkill’ was as good as it was ever going to be.
Having called the managing director of Panavision to tell him we were ready to screen a print, the incredibly supportive Hugh Whittaker insisted we screen at their depot in Perivale.
A few days later, as Tony and I sat down with Hugh in the front row of the company’s private screening room, we noticed that all Panavision’s staff had been invited, along with some of Hugh’s friends in the business.
There was a tangible buzz of anticipation in the air when the lights went down and the screening began.
Somewhat involuntarily, Tony and I held our breath, until we were sure that both sound and picture were playing well at the right levels.
After the opening scene played out without any noticeable problems, we managed to relax enough to actually enjoy the film, along with almost sixty other people, including Rory, our DOP.
At the end, we were treated to a spontaneous cheer and an enthusiastic round of applause.
We then looked at each other, both smiling from ear to ear, as Hugh stood up and proclaimed to everybody:
“You see? What did I tell you? I knew I hadn’t invested £35,000 worth of kit in some arty-farty rubbish that’s never gonna get seen.”
From the look on Rory’s face when we spoke to him, we already knew before he told us that he loved what we had done with the footage.
Rory was also very pleased with the quality of his photography, which everybody in the room was raving out.
Hugh then introduced us to one of his industry friends, who turned out to have been a cameraman on the first Batman film. He was equally blown away by the quality of ‘Roadkill’.
Smiling broadly, he said:
“Can I ask you how much it cost to make?”
Tony and I looked at each other knowingly, before Tony replied:
“How much does it look like it cost?”
We were then completely blown away by his answer:
“Well, it looks like it costs at least £100,000, possibly anything up to £120,000…but judging from the looks on both your faces, I’m going to guess it cost a lot less than that.”
He then guessed that we probably only had around £90,000 to complete the film – £70,000 more than our cash budget.
When I told him the truth, he said, in all seriousness:
“If you made that film for twenty grand it is a fucking miracle because I know how expensive it is to make films with high end production values and ‘Roadkill’ is the best looking short I’ve ever seen!”
From that moment onward, we never doubted that we had made a film we should both feel very proud of.
Total Film Review, Festivals & Cut-Short
That summer, Tony and I were interviewed about ‘Roadkill’ by actress, Lou Brealey, when she was working as a journalist for Total Film.
Lou was lovely and wrote a great one and a half page magazine feature about the film, which she dubbed:
“Hilarious and beautifully shot.”
Over the course of the rest of the year, the film screened at the Cardiff, Leeds and Raindance Film Festivals, as well as being entered into the Sky Cut-Short national short film competition.
Whilst ‘Roadkill’ didn’t win any prizes at the festivals, the film still went down a storm everywhere it screened.
Tony and I obviously attended the Cardiff Film Festival screening, where a packed audience, which included most of the cast and crew, as well a very dear school friend called Catherine Gorman, cheered and applauded during the final credits.
Catherine, who was living and working in Cardiff as a BBC radio journalist, told me that she belly laughed more than once, in between being mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography.
Having known Catherine since we were twelve years old, if she thought it was crap, she would have told me in the kindest possible way. So I took her review as high praise indeed.
A Victory Cut Short
When the selection committee in the Sky Cut-Short competition called to tell us that it had been unanimously agreed that ‘Roadkill’ was the best film submitted, our celebrations were curtailed before they even began.
The reason we didn’t win Best Short Film, we were told, was predictably simple:
Rupert Murdoch, who had the final say, thought our short black comedy was “too dark” to be the winner.
Instead, we were one of six films which jointly won the runners-up prize, which at least went some way to washing away the sour taste left in our mouths by such a grossly unfair decision by Murdoch.
Sky Moviemax Screenings
However, our prize consisted of enough cash to make a tiny dent in our overdrafts, along with two prime time screenings on Sky Moviemax.
In the spring of 2000, ‘Roadkill’ screened twice on the movie channel, to an aggregate audience of more than 70,000 people.
Everybody we knew who saw it when it was broadcast told us that it was one of the best short films they had ever seen. For most of that number, it was also the first short film they had ever watched all the way through.
Whilst we were never fully furnished with all the details of who instigated it, we do know that Welsh funding body, Scrin, which provided 50% of our budget, were asked for a short film by ‘Hannibal’s UK distributor.
Having seen and loved the film when they saw it in Cardiff, Scrin very kindly proposed ‘Roadkill’. The distributor [and perhaps even Anthony Hopkins] then agreed after seeing the VHS version and we shipped them one of our gorgeous 35 mm prints.
An Undeniable Success
For a short film by first time producer-directors, even without winning any prizes, it would be churlish to deny that a mainstream theatrical release, two UK TV screenings and a five star review from Total Film constitute the elements of a very successful debut.
Given that most short films only ever get seen a few festivals, were certain we had done more than enough to guarantee that our first feature film would easily secure production finance.
With a view to achieving that end and developing our flourishing creative partnership, Tony moved to North London.
However, as the following passages from my diary of the events which unfolded emphatically demonstrate, a hit short film on its own was nowhere near enough to secure what we were looking for.
Pitching Nefarious to Michael Caine
Wednesday 7th July 1999
Today I attended a meeting with Josie Long and Nicola Richardson [an agent who wants to represent her], at the offices of London Management.
Since I was already in the vicinity of Soho, afterwards, I took the opportunity to deliver copies of the new ‘Nefarious’ screenplay to big-hitting North American distributors, Lionsgate and Miramax.
They both have copies of the first VHS run of of ‘Roadkill’, which, thus far, everybody has loved, on whichever format they have watched it.
So things are going well, to say the least, after what felt like the longest barren spell in my career to date.
However, when I actually work it out, it was only eighteen months, from the making of ‘Little England’ to the ‘Roadkill’ shoot. During which I learned so much from my failure to secure production finance for ‘The Truth Game’, I just can’t bring myself to regret that fact.
Whilst it also has to be said that many grizzled film industry veterans would probably tell me it was a mere taste of development hell to come, rather than the end of my experience of it.
Nevertheless, as my grandparents taught me, shy bairns get nowt.
Uninvited Guest in Soho
When I knocked on the door at Lionsgate today, there was no reply. I knocked once more and still nobody came to the door, which had been left slightly ajar.
Chancing my luck, I pushed it open and walked into the office.
Steve Hamilton-Shaw, Bobby Allan and another middle-aged man in a suit, sat behind desks in three corners of the room, chuntering away on three telephones with business-like authority.
With the self-assurance of somebody they needed to talk to, I stood by Steve’s desk, calmly looking out of the window, until he finished his conversation.
After a couple of minutes, he put down the phone and stood up to shake my hand, apologising for the delay in greeting me.
Firm Interest With A Catch
During the next twenty minutes, we continued yesterday’s telephone conversation about ‘Nefarious’.
Steve said that the only thing stopping them coming on board now is their concern about the development of the relationship between ‘Billy’ and ‘Lez’ in the first draft of the screenplay.
Their overarching impression is that the characters do not have a strong enough relationship yet, which they are right in viewing as crucial to the audience caring enough about what happens to them, after they are caught dealing in a major coke baron’s club.
However, Steve also told me that we are in a pretty extraordinary situation, as Lionsgate very rarely, if ever, get involved with projects before the production stage.
The fact that he is even talking to us about the possibility of financing the film, means that they are taking the project very seriously indeed.
His Name Is Michael Caine
Steve then said that if Michael Caine says ‘yes’ to the role of ‘Elkiar’ [the aforementioned coke baron], he can’t see any reason to justify not getting involved.
Naturally, I told him that the second draft of the script is much better than the first and that I am sure it addresses the problems he has with the original draft.
“Steve, in all honesty, Tony and I have drawn the same conclusions. However, by changing ‘Billy’ from an undercover cop to another dope dealer like ‘Lez, their relationship is significantly stronger.”
With adrenaline surging through my veins, I then declared:
“Even if he says “no”, Terrence Stamp or Christopher Walken would be just as good in the role.”
Steve agreed and promised to read the new script as he soon as he is able.
The last stop of the afternoon was Miramax. I gave a copy to development assistant, who didn’t have time for a chat, but she promised to read the script within a couple of weeks.
Thursday 8th July 1999
In the autumn of 1995, just after ‘The Truth Game’ played for three weeks at the Canal Cafe in Little Venice, London, I was offered representation in my acting career.
The agent in question was the lovely John Markham, who hasn’t managed to get me any work, other than a blink and you miss it walk-on role as a bike courier, in Robson Green’s ‘Touching Evil II’ last year.
When John called today for a chat about auditions, I filled him in on the Michael Caine situation and the battle to harass, cajole and beg his agent’s assistant, Lucy Fox, to convince her boss to get the script through the system.
John then told me a slightly perturbing story.
While he was an actor in the eighties, he was managed by a top agent at ICM, who presented him with a standard contract, after he accepted their representation.
Outraged by the terms and conditions, John stormed into his agent’s office and made his objections known.
However, his agent calmly walked across his office and snatched the contract from the hand of his dumbstruck young client, ripping it to pieces, before tossing it into the bin.
Completely unruffled, the agent sat down behind his desk and asked him, ‘Happy now you haven’t got a contract John?’.
John stayed with ICM for several years before becoming a successful agent himself, whilst his former rep is now widely recognised as the most powerful agent in London .
He is also known as Mr ICM, but his real name is Duncan Heath – the man I have been haranguing on the phone for the best part of the last three months.
John firmly believes that I would have been told to “piss off” long ago if Mr Heath was not seriously interested in ‘Nefarious’.
Indubitably, that was all I needed to hear to continue haranguing him.
Friday 9th July 1999
Called Lucy Fox at ICM for the umpteenth time. She couldn’t make any promises, but she hopes that we will have a decision from Michael Caine within the next two weeks.
I’ve been in this position several times before and I know I should be cynical, but have a feeling that she isn’t bullshitting me on this occasion.
Even if she is, we can still afford to wait a couple of weeks because that’s when the decisions are due from Miramax and Lionsgate, on whether they are ready to make offers for the North American rights.
In the event we secure such a deal, it should provide 40% of our initial budget of £2,500,000. If we receive it all up front, we could potentially make the film for that advance, with the rest being deferred to the back-end.
Nevertheless, we are still planning to raise the other 60%, with the aim of cranking up the productions values to the max and paying everybody really well.
We are also planning to start talking to key crew members as soon as possible. Our reasoning is simple: to get them to commit to the project because they love the script, before we can guarantee lucrative pay cheques.
Tuesday 13th July 1999
Predictably enough, I spoke to Lucy Fox again today. She told me that Michael Caine and Duncan Heath were in the same country, at the same time, for the first time in weeks.
In addition, she hopes to speak to Duncan this evening, but she is not sure when he will get the script to Michael. So I asked her to call me if she does get to speak to him.
Nevertheless, I left for my stand-up workshop in Beckenham knowing that a callback tonight was unlikely in the extreme.
The Edinburgh Spotlight Beckons
On a much brighter note, Josie has qualified to compete in two national new act competitions at the Edinburgh Fringe next month and she asked me if I can go with her, tonight at the workshop.
Obviously, I told her I would do my very best to be there. Moreover, I can only think of additional reasons why I should go, rather than reasons I can’t, every time I think about it.
Apart from the fact that I could also attend the film festival [despite the selection committee knocking ‘Roadkill’ back], another compelling reason to go is CR will be attending with the media company she now works for.
Not only that, but her company has already booked her a double room in the Balmoral Hotel, so I wouldn’t even have to sweat about paying for accommodation.
Needless to say, CR wholeheartedly agreed, so I called Josie and told her that I will definitely be at the Fringe to support her. To say she was pleased in an understatement.
My gut tells me that Josie is destined for major success in the Edinburgh spotlight this year, where her new agent, Nicola Richardson, will also be there to watch.
Geordie Voice Overs
Nicola has also confirmed that, due to a dearth of Geordies on her books, she would be delighted to become my voice-over agent, after hearing me speak in the meeting with Josie.
In addition, she very confidently predicted that it won’t take her very long to find me work, once I’ve recorded a decent demo tape, which I hope to have completed next week.
Suddenly I feel like my career is really moving forward at the right pace again and I haven’t felt this way since ‘The Truth Game’ became a hit play on the London Fringe in the spring of ’95.
Wednesday 14th July 1999
Called Lucy yet again and asked if she had spoken to Duncan Heath. She told me that she had, but she wasn’t sure if he had spoken to Michael Caine yet.
With a due sense of mental exhaustion, I asked if there was a chance he had the script already. She told me that it was “possible”, but I should give her until the end of the week, when she should have a clearer picture.
Did stand-up at the Comedy Cafe in Rivington Street tonight. It was a bloody good gig, which largely washed away my frustration, as the audience laughed at every one of my jokes.
Stand-up is such a great stress reliever, providing I don’t die on my arse, of course.
Thursday 15th July 1999
Felt illogically restless today, like I should be doing more. The truth is, the last year or so has been very intense and hardly a day has gone by without something of importance happening.
However, patience is a virtue that was not bestowed upon me at birth and there is nothing that unhinges me more than waiting for an important phone call, upon which my whole life rests.
So in a desperate attempt to pull myself up by the boot-straps, I called Lucy and implored her to chase Duncan Heath, until he gets an answer from Michael Caine.
To my utter astonishment, she told me Duncan has read the script, which he described “a worthy project”, before sending it on to Michael, who then read it and called Duncan to say that he would have loved to play ‘Elkiar’ if he was ten years younger. But regrettably, he has to pass on it because of his age.
Despite being greatly enthused by their responses to the script, I was immediately pulled back down to Earth by the decision. A knock-back, for whatever reason, is a knock-back nonetheless.
Lionsgate and Miramax will almost certainly pass on the project now, unless we can land at least one name as bankable as Michael Caine.
Never Hesitate When An Actor Passes
The first actor who popped into me head to replace him on the wish list was Christopher Walken, so I set about re-writing the ‘Elkiar’ role with him in mind.
However, the problem is we don’t have any US contacts or any clue how we’re going to get a script to him. Nevertheless, where there is a will, there is a way.
At least I know that having gotten a script to Michael Caine, via four months of chasing Lucy Fox and Duncan Heath at ICM in London, I should be extremely confident that I will be able to get scripts to any other British actor.
Especially after Duncan Heath proclaimed ‘Nefarious’ a worthy project, thereby opening the door for us to send scripts to any other actor handled by ICM, worldwide.
Douglas Henshall For ‘Lez’
Top of the list to play ‘Lez’ is the exciting Scots actor Douglas Henshall.
His exceptional performances in Peter Mullan’s ‘Orphans’ and the ‘Kid In The Corner’ Channel 4 TV series had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
Douglas is the only actor except myself who I can vividly imagine playing ‘Lez’ and I bet he could even play it with an authentic Geordie accent.
So we sent the script to his agent, the lovely Ken MacReddie, who promised that he would get it to “Dougie” at his earliest opportunity.
Lindsay Duncan For ‘Tonia’
It also transpires that Ken represents one of my favourite English actresses, Lindsay Duncan.
Ken said he would ask her if she would be interested in playing ‘Tonia’, opposite Christopher Walken.
What a fantastic, mouth-watering, Oscar and BAFTA winning combination that would be.
Kim Bodnia For ‘Tag’
Since I finally appear to be on a reassuringly familiar roll again, I called Arne Bodnia, the father [and manager] of the extraordinary Danish actor, Kim Bodnia.
I asked him if Kim would be interested in playing ‘Elkiar’s’ right hand man, ‘Tag’, emphasizing that might well involve starring alongside Christopher Walken, Lindsay Duncan and Douglas Henshall.
Needless to say, there was a script and a VHS copy of ‘Roadkill’on its way to Denmark before the end of the day.
From the moment I saw Kim on the big screen, when CR and I saw Nicolas Wynding Refn’s hard-hitting drugs thriller, ‘Pusher’, I knew he exuded a rare charisma.
The kind of charisma that that makes people fall in love with the characters he plays, no matter how morally bankrupt they are in the grander scheme of things.
Despite the fact that we haven’t even looked in each other’s eyes yet, let alone spoken, something tells me that we are destined to work together and that there are exciting times just around the corner.