Brendan Fletcher on "An Indie Process in a Conventional System?" Part 3

Today, Brendan Fletcher continues his tales of being a MAD BASTARD as much as the civilized world permits.

4. DISTRIBUTION

Now we were a wild, indie film within another system – the distribution system. But here it began to work for us - we had the bite of an indie, backed up by the experience and muscle of the Transmission strategists and the Paramount sales team. They understood the film, they loved it, and they backed it.

True to the original vision, it was the music and our raw non-actors that continued to be our point of difference, even when it came to the marketing campaign. We built much of the media around the story of the non-actors who turned their lives around by being involved in the movie. And we hosted a sell-out “live event tour” right around Australia before the theatrical release -- where we screened the film then the Pigram Brothers and Alex Lloyd performed songs from the movie. It created a fantastic focus for media and a great word-of-mouth “buzz”.


The movie opened on nearly 30 screens here in Australia on May 5 and is now in its sixth week of theatrical release.

The final vindication has been the critical and audience response. Reviews in Variety, Hollywood Reporter, AICN and Screen International all mention the raw authenticity, the rich sense of place and strong performances by the "real" cast and the unique use of music as defining elements of the film. And so many audience members have written/talked to me about the uplifting feeling they have when they leave the cinema knowing the real people's stories have weaved in and out of the characters they play. Wow -- maybe this thing has actually worked?

5. LOOKING BACK?

When it's all done and dusted, Mad Bastards has done exactly what I hoped a first film could do. It is unique in its voice, while also telling a powerful emotional story. We landed Sundance – and there’s few ways better than that to announce yourself to the world as a first time film maker.

Would I have made a “better” film if I stuck to my plan of a tiny crew, a digital shoot and a lived-in, community process back in 2001? Maybe … I don’t know. It would have probably been more rough and radical – but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. Those seven aching years of development in the “system” drove me crazy, but they did make me a better film maker. That time allowed me to write the less mature films out of my system, rather than actually make them.


If I did make the film back then, I probably would have made MORE films since, whereas I have now only made one. But then again, maybe I would still be repaying the loans I’d taken out to finance my indie dream.

There are rules and systems in place all over the industry for good reason. Exciting new ways of doing EVERYTHING are opening up in every aspect of movie-making and distribution – and so they should. But mess with the formula at your own risk. Play the risk, sure, but understand which way you are going and what you are sacrificing by going that way. And if you are going to do things differently, make sure everyone is on that same page with you right down to the last detail – every crew member, financier and distribution exec from the get-go.

A first-time film maker is in a vulnerable position because you don't want to rock the boat in case the whole thing suddenly falls over. But you need to be clear and strong about what you will and won't compromise, and accept the hand that those choices then deal you. What got my knickers in a knot was trying to please everyone -- both the hard-nosed system bosses AND the requirements of my own unorthodox process.

I must acknowledge our good-hearted investors. All of them. No one was quite sure what exactly they were buying into, but hats off to them for signing on and sticking with us ... we are all proud of what we made, and all the wiser for making it.

To see for yourself, Mad Bastards is available right now on IFC’s V-O-D network and keep an eye our for a limited theatrical run across the States in the coming months, and a November DVD release. It is in theatres now - Miami this week, more to be announced.

-- Brendan Fletcher. Brendan is currently working with Writer/Producer Train Houston on the Jeff Buckley pic "A Pure Drop".

Brendan Fletcher on "An Indie Process in a Conventional System?" Part 2

Why do anything conventionally these days? How do we make our work fresh? Sometimes it makes sense to rethink it all. Can it ever be done by working within the state-ordained system. Today MAD BASTARD's Brendan Fletcher continues his exploration of these and other questions. 2. MAD PRODUCTION

Trying to think independently whilst operating within the system had it’s most razor-sharp edge during the shoot itself.

I knew from the test shoots that when our real people starting “acting” they were unconvincing, but when they were just “being themselves” they were great. They resisted learning lines and preferred to just discuss the scene then shoot it, using words that came to them in the moment. And I liked this, because I wanted the script to bend and stretch each day, so that the actors could bring real spontaneity to their performances. I also planned to shoot real events as they happened in the community – hunting scenes, floods, funerals etc – to bring a gripping reality to the film. That was the idea anyway.


(Dean (TJ) on set; Me looking stressed as we shoot a scene with child performers Lucas Yeeda and Patrick McCoy-Geary)

This would have been fine in the 4 months, micro-crew shoot model, but with a full 35mm crew, a six week shoot and two thousand kilometres of travel to do – this thinking was a serious logistical challenge to our production.

The "big production" we became saw our hand-nurtured non-actors plunged into entirely unfamiliar terrain. The process of call sheets, ADs, catering trucks, make up vans, taking off their own clothes and putting on the clothes of other people was a massive diversion from the authenticity of how we’d done all the tests. Our relationship “like family” was nearly entirely lost amongst a sea of new people that had never been to an Aboriginal community before.

Our process was now almost entirely conventional, but I was convinced we needed to work like we had in the test phase. I still wanted flexibility, but the PRODUCTION ENTITY demanded certainty, long term pin-point accuracy. The departments (I had departments now!) needed information to plan effectively, but I wanted to promise very little so as to keep spontaneous.

We ended up terribly stuck in the middle. A process that was neither fish-nor-foul. The logistical detail the production needed kept changing as scenes would bend even as they were being shot. And the powerful, almost magical, natural performances we captured in years of tests felt impossible to re-create now that we were shooting the ACTUAL film. Our process was as nurturing as a sledge-hammer. I described it as “sending a gorilla out to pick flowers.”

The shit hit the fan. Scenes were invented, scenes were dropped, new characters were introduced and others written out – and I was rewriting into the wee hours of every night. We were getting good stuff amongst it all, but it was hard to "see the wood from the trees" in the eye of the storm.

It sounds mad and it sure felt like it. The investors were unsure whether it was really exciting or a big mess. Some of the crew too. Advisors were dispatched, rushes were scrutinized and my whole approach was called into question by the system itself.

As if all this wasn’t enough, in the middle of the shoot our Theatrical Distributor went out of business in a post-GFC funk. It couldn’t get much worse.

But as they say, the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

3. REDEMPTION

The film is a story about redemption – possible for even the "maddest" of us. It's funny how the process of making the movie charted that journey in a way too.

Submerged under an ocean of stress and forced to act differently or sink, two things happened:

Firstly, I realized I had to face reality: my indie-dream was over. The only way I would get through was to quit pining for the flexible old model and to embrace the “system” of the larger crew. So, literally overnight, I did.

We quit the improvising and I gave the crew a few unscheduled days off and locked myself away to write the remaining scenes definitively. It was every writers worst nightmare. Days, sometimes hours to write a scene before it needed to be shot. But in the heat of that moment, some good material tumbled out onto the page.

The second major thing I realized was about the cast: my NON-ACTORS after a few weeks of shooting had now become ACTORS. No longer phased by the cameras, lights and big crew … they began to deliver solid performances without me having to clear the set. They began to ASK for rehearsals. They started to WANT to learn the lines because they understood they needed to do that in order to nuance their performances.


(Our "non-actors" became fantastic actors as the shoot went on)

In just a couple of days, everything turned around. And it worked.

The two processes began to merge. As the cast and crew got more confident, we’d do a take as scripted and then we’d do an improvised take. And where time and stock allowed, we’d allow scenes to grow and evolve off the bedrock of the page. Things clicked and everyone could feel it.

Sometimes it felt like the wild indie would be leading the “system”, and at other times the “system” would provide the security that the wild indie needed. It was truly organic, both processes winding around each other, with me as a director in between. In the final film it is impossible to put a finger on which scenes were shot which way (sometimes even for me!) and the result is fluid and connected.

With the rushes displaying more clarity, key investors were won over, and they found the confidence to be patient. They had the grace to allow us a solid 12 weeks cutting until seeing a rough cut, and that gave us the time we needed. From that point on the only way was up.

But even in the edit, the indie-spirit battled convention. I use alot of on-screen music performed by local music legends the Pigram Brothers (think O Brother Where Art Thou). Balancing the needs of narrative drive with my desire to create a unique feeling with the use of on-screen music was a very difficult balance to juggle. It took a long time in the cut to get right, and I know it hasn't worked for some industry folk – but that's a price you pay for sticking to a creative direction.

After a healthy pick up shoot, the movie really came together – but we had no distributor! So we had an industry screenings and the next day got the call from Transmission/Paramount.

I will never forget the shaking all over my whole body when Sundance invited us to screen in the 2011 World Cinema Competition. From disaster to Sundance! There, we were picked up by IFC’s Sundance Selects program for North American distribution. Our soundtrack also got picked up and we ran a significant music campaign to support the promotion of the movie.

Maybe not so mad after all.

-- Brendan Fletcher Brendan is currently working with Writer/Producer Train Houston on the Jeff Buckley pic "A Pure Drop". MAD BASTARDS is starting a limited release run in theatres now - Miami this week, more to be announced. You can also watch on VOD on Sundance Selects.

Brendan Fletcher on "An Indie Process in a Conventional System?" Part 1

There are so many traps to avoid when making a feature. It is hard to NOT lose sight of the forest for the trees. The greatest visions get cut back due to the limits of practicality. The enormous task of world building often leaves nuance back by the gate. And how do we ever do something original in this world of Super Abundance. Some say there are only six stories to tell -- but there are 45,000 films produced globally per year.

I have a particular love for ambitious film. I truly admire those who reach beyond the realm of reason. When I met Brendan Fletcher prior to him making his first feature, I knew he was such a soul. When I saw his film MAD BASTARDS, it was reaffirmed, but now that I am learning more of the process, I think he may be much more than that. Brendan will be guesting for the next few days, as he lifts the curtain and opens the kimono for our inspection.

When you’re making your debut feature, often the aim is simply to make an impression with that film, in the hope that it’ll lead to more. You want to make something that stamps your identity as a film-maker on audiences, critics and investors. Something that offers what you hope is your “breakout” talent in a memorable and unique package.

Everywhere in the world there is a prevailing system that’s the straightest way to serious finance – studios, tax offsets, government funding. So how do you wrestle your unique, untried and “breakout” vision into the rigid system that presents the finance? Do you bend or try make the system bend?

Mad Bastards was an unusual journey. A wild, indie spirit that bucked the system at it’s heart, but was made entirely within the system. It was an unholy alliance at many times – and it took us right to the brink before we found a way to make the marriage work.


(Dean Daley-Jones, a real-life ex-con, and Greg Tait, a real-life cop, play characters close to their real selves)

Almost ten years ago to the day I began work on Mad Bastards -- which I saw as an arresting piece of modern cinema that suited the “debut film” model. It takes the audience to a remote corner of the planet – an Aboriginal town on Australia’s North-West frontier – to tell an entertaining and moving father/son story.

Back in 2002, producing partner David Jowsey and I had decided to shoot the movie cheaply on HD with a micro-crew and a semi-improvised script. At the heart of this decision was our concept to use real people to play characters based on their own life stories. The men we’d found had great natural screen presences, and we felt that this was the key to a memorable and unique first film package.

When you don’t have a star cast, a name director or a genre budget, you need to amplify what you DO have to give your film that point of difference. For us that was REAL people who offered great performances and fantastic music from the legendary Pigram Brothers (unique to that part of the world).

So our production model was built around nurturing these performances in every way - a tiny locally-trained crew; a flexible schedule so the non-actors wouldn't have their lives too disrupted; improvised scenes around a basic script outline; musicians on set as often as possible and a long period of time to shoot.

We presumed it would be an indie production because we knew we were challenging the prevailing wisdom at every turn. We figured we'd get it in the can for a few hundred thousand dollars and send rough cuts off to festivals. If selected, we’d get finishing finance from somewhere and (hopefully) cause a splash on the festival circuit.

That was the plan anyway.

So here we are now in 2011, the film finally just released. We’ve ended up with a several million dollar budget, shot almost totally conventionally, distributed theatrically by Transmission/Paramount in Australia, with a US release via IFC Films, after selection in Sundance 2011’s World Cinema Competition.

Sounds good right? But how the hell did this happen?

1. DEVELOPMENT AND FINANCING We shot test footage with non-actors in remote North-West Australia even before we starting writing the script. Once the tests proved to us that the whole approach was going to work, we started developing the script very closely with the mob, while casting as a deliberately parallel process.

That test footage piqued the interest of the Australia funding system, and by 2003, the lure of million-dollar finance if we entered “the system” was too good to resist. We received Development finance, and from that point on we were IN THE SYSTEM.



(Me playing back test footage scenes to the locals; The remote town of Wyndham where we shot the film)

On the advice of various mentors and project managers, we spent years developing the script, shooting more tests and putting together a package that was ripe for more serious financing. Looking back, it was a useful process but the years ticked by. More people became involved, which needed more management, which then needed a bigger budget and more complex contracting. The script got better, the script got worse. The script evolved. The finance partners were growing. Countless people assessed our project and told us what it needed – often completely disagreeing with each other.

The complications multiplied. The budget was now well over a million, and as it grew so did the insurances, finance costs, interest repayments. To trigger the government finance it was mandatory to contract both a Theatrical Distributor AND an International Sales Agent. And the checks and balances all that required -- completion guarantors, collateral for the bank loans, more experienced crew members to relax the investors -- all layered more pressure on us, little by little, month by month, in a way that that was hard to detect until it was all in place.


(Video frames from the test footage - these guys ended up as co-writers and leading men)

But all through those years we kept shooting test scenes with a tiny crew and creatively the results just got better and better. We met more and more Aboriginal men who were talented actors with amazing life stories – and my relationship with the community got deeper and deeper. I lived with the community on and off for years. I was more than a film-maker, I was a close friend, considered family by many of the mob.

By 2008, we had our finance package, a script that was getting thumbs up, and nearly 70 scenes shot with our unusual “cast as co-writers” process.

It was only then, when we got “greenlit”, that I marveled at what we’d become. Our “micro-crew” was now about 20 people, our format was 35mm and our schedule was not 3 months but 6 tight weeks and our budget was in the low millions.

I desperately tried to keep sight of my “breakout” excitement of 2001 – but the weight of the production we’d become was far heavier than the nimble vision that it was trying to support.

-- Brendan Fletcher

Brendan is currently working with Writer/Producer Train Houston on the Jeff Buckley pic "A Pure Drop". MAD BASTARDS is starting a limited release run in theatres now - Miami this week, more to be announced. It is also available on VOD on SUNDANCE SELECTS.