BRYAN LARKIN | IN THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR
interview on July 16th 2011
In the Director's Chair this month is BAFTA Scotland winning Actor, Producer and self-taught Filmmaker Bryan Larkin. (Scene, Running in Traffic, Battleground)
So Bryan what made you choose to do Running in Traffic as your first feature film?
Running in Traffic was in many ways, a goodbye letter to my father. It is based on the emotional truth of my family's loss. It was a very difficult decision to commit to making the film, but a cathartic one as it transpired.. I had to find a way of dealing with the death of my father and channelling my grief creatively was the direction I took at that point in my life. That might sound quite self-obsessed, but every story has truth in its origin, and this was mine. The emotional truth. I was that character, suffering silently in the desolation of an unknowing world and felt very alone and angry and had to get it out of my system. I was also in need of getting back to working as an actor as I hadn't had any work or auditions for almost a year. I'm very proud of the film and what we achieved. It had its supporters and detractors in equal measure but I would never make another film like it in Scotland.
Why is that?
Firstly, it is not a commercial or genre film so it's a difficult to sell. It's a character piece, unrelenting and dark with no named actors in it. This made it more popular at film festivals. Besides it just too hard on the soul making films here. As Carter Ferguson put it recently during 'Dead Ringer', a short we made together 'The only support you will really get in Scotland in making your film is from other filmmakers'. It's a challenging statement but it true for the majority of us. Added to that, the film industry in Scotland is not properly set up to help entry level filmmakers. Anything else you might hear is nonsense. There are just so many obstacles and the development process takes forever, they want to change your script. The lucky few get the lion's share. And I'm not criticizing the filmmakers or their work but there has to be a balance if we are to have an industry here - more talent being nurtured and coming through the ranks. My only agreement to the establishments guide book is that you have to prove yourself to be commercially or critically successful before someone will back you financially. But what would help greatly and keep the talent pool in Scotland is if there should be a distinguishable fund available to give filmmakers the chance to prove themselves with a small amount of funding. Just even a £10,000 grand budget and let them deliver the goods. People like Mark Geddes have got the right idea. I respect and understand what his organization is doing. You don't need a £250,000 budget to make a great film, it's the marketing that's the hard part. It been proven over and over again. Look at Carter's, Fast Romance or May Miles Thomas', One Life Stand. You just have to set realistic goals. I think the focus is levied too much towards established success, development of projects that never see the light of day, and the ridiculously high wages and expenses of nameless individuals. We back successful artists but we do not encourage the filmmakers of tomorrow to anywhere near the same extent as they do in other countries.
How do you approach the process of casting?
I have been a follower of Judith Weston's teaching for almost ten years now and anybody wanting to work in film should read her books and participate in her course if possible. I took a lot from her. I'm an actor myself, so I know how important and nerve-wracking the audition process is, and I aim to make it as enjoyable an experience for actors as possible. I still think that it is one of the most over-looked areas of the process of filmmaking, from the point of view of the actor. Running in Traffic, is the only film we auditioned for so far, because I wasn't directing. Normally I'd see an actor's reel, or in a play, meet them for a coffee or hang out with them for a while and then ask them if they want to work together. For Running in Traffic. we held half an hour auditions. No less. One was two hours long. I don't believe in the 5 minute cattle-call or seeing dozens of actors either. You are providing too much false hope for too many people. Only one person can get the job. The truth is that the most talented actors need something very specific. They need to trust you, they need inspired direction, and time to give you their best because they are capable of virtually anything if they trust you. I made sure each actor had been given the script a week before the audition. A casting director's job is different. They are working on several projects at any given time. But I'm a filmmaker. I'm also not judging someone as soon as they walk into a room thinking will they fit the colour scheme of the set, is his hair colour right to fit in with that girl? Are they tall enough? Is she pretty enough? I want to see what they are capable of when they have time to prepare for the audition and they are not nervous about learning sides the night before a casting call. I want to see talent and commitment and that's easier in a relaxed atmosphere with time to spare. You can change their hair colour, but you can't change how talented they are in the room. It comes down to spending time and asking the right questions. "Give me more energy". Or "Just try it quieter" isn't direction it's an instruction. Actors respond better when you know what they need from you instead of telling them what to do and by asking them questions that will inspire a behaviour in them. You get a better performance that way and they respect you more. But this happens very rarely.
There are many different funding methods how did u fund Running in Traffic and where do you think most of the budget went?
For Running in Traffic we had £50k and it looks like we had far more money. You can do so much nowadays even with an iPhone. I just completed a short film and the most expensive thing was the fuel and the lunch. For RIT we borrowed money from the bank and we put some of the companies money in that we obtained through our corporate strand. Added to that we had an American investor, we are talking angels here, but they gave us £10k and that inspired us to start prepping. If you had more money you would think "Oh, I'd get a jib or crane." But you don't need that and not having money encourages you to be more creative and it's about moving the camera in an interesting way and it's about the script and performance.
Would you say you have a directorial style?
It's a multi-faceted art form. It's about telling stories in an interesting and original ways. Great visuals. It's about working with actors to narrate the theme through characterization. It's about respecting an audience's intelligence and inviting them on a journey filled with all kinds of wonderful and tragic experiences. And there is no way of narrowing it down to style. I've been fortunate to work some great directors who have given me the chance to try things that other directors haven't and I have developed my skills as a director through giving that back to the actors I have directed. Since I made Running in Traffic, I am now just starting to appreciate cinema in a new way. The Coen Brothers are amazing. I'm becoming a bigger fan of theirs all the time.; No Country for Old Men for example - Josh Brolin's sequence in the hotel room, that's filmmaking. It's not talking heads or big explosions. It's things that engage the audience and make them want to watch your films and invest in the characters journey. It's suspenseful. I'm a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn too. He creates an atmosphere through the use of silence, style and sound in a way that I really appreciate. As I mentioned earlier, Judith Weston's teaching are the basis of my work with actors.
Any interesting location stories or happy accidents?
We had George Square at Christmas, with the lights. That looks like a million dollar set and we only had a montage scene to shoot there, but we got it for free because we know some people in the council and they just want to see Glasgow on film! The other thing we got was a double decker bus for free because the guy who owned the bus, wanted to be an extra in the film. We shot the film at Christmas time and for many people it was a great start to the most depressing time of year. Sadly we didn't have any snow, it was one of those years where we were kind of glad we didn't get it as surely our problems would have been limitless. But it would have been great to capture Glasgow in a really snowy winter.
There can be a lot of highs and lows was there any time you felt you wanted to give up?
I never wanted to but there were plenty of times we could have shut down. There are films that have done just that for far less than we went through. And we kept going because of the people we had working in every department. At the time, there were difficulties and it wasn't really financial. This was a first film for a lot of people and I desperately wanted them to go home happy, and come back the next morning with a smile on their face. I felt very responsible for their happiness and well-being. And I was under a lot more pressure than anybody realized as was Marc (Twynholm) my co-producer. There were selfish times when we didn't really care if people liked the completed film, we just wanted to finish it and times when I felt like nothing else but people liking the film was the only things that mattered. When you're getting yourself out of bed every day and spending three years of your life working on something it really needs to mean something very special to you. Filmmaking is a crazy addiction, especially if it isn't paying the bills. But there are just some people out there that must do it and we were all one and the same.
How did you promote the film?
We had a facebook, a website and a blog. We also had a viral campaign, we had about 4000 email addresses of people we had met over the years.. We went to Cannes and Berlin and took one-sheets, postcards, screeners and we left them on coffee tables all over the world. We viraled a bunch of trailer on youtube and a lot of people knew about it .We gave out about 150 screeners and a lot sales agents loved it and said it was the best Scottish film they'd seen in a while and it was a great film... but they just couldn't find a market for it.
So how did you get distribution and how did you get a distributor?
We went to a market with screeners and materials and we got a sales agent. The only thing we have had is a DVD release in the UK and there was talk of an American release and it might still happen and I think we might have sold a few territories in Europe. The film is available on iTunes and Amazon, HMV and LoveFilm still distribute it.
With hindsight would you say not to rush into a deal?
Yes. We have been through the mill with RIT. I think we'd have had success financially with self-distribution. - knowing what I know now. We still haven't made a penny and the film has been in circulation for twelve months. But that's another story. More importantly don't rush into finishing your film. I can't say that enough. You won't have this luxury ever again. And many people only make one film if they ever make a feature. Don't be pressurized into delivering something to anybody you don't have to answer too. If the film sucks then it doesn't have to see the light of day. There is a sense of satisfaction about being able to walk into HMV and see your film on the shelf but never be in a rush to get there. Don't get me wrong, any kind of distribution deal is good for a filmmaker. But do your research; ask other filmmakers who they'd recommend as sales agents. Speak to the producers of commercially successful films that were shot on a shoe-string. Added to that, going straight to DVD is not to be laughed at anymore. There are 10 million dollar films that go to DVD. VOD is a wonderful platform and has really developed these past couple of years allowing filmmakers to make an immediate return. But don't expect to make your money back, that's for sure. Film festivals are always good but for getting a buzz about your film but there is so much competition and it's expensive and time consuming to submit. Make your film as good as you can make it and be prepared to spend a little bit of your own cash, as little as possible - unless of course you are certain that you have a sure fire winner on your hands. My advice would be to get your first feature film out of your system. Just finish it, try to sell it and stay alive. It is by doing it that you find out for yourself. Looking back now, I'd have done things differently. I'd have made a more commercial film, something that sells easily otherwise you just keep trying to move onto another project while being reminded of your obligations to it. It's very tiresome. You have to let it go. You'll be living with the never ending task of justifying to yourself the reasons why it didn't it meet your expectations commercially and got the release you had hoped for unless you do.. Running is Traffic made a huge impact on a lot of people. It is technically, artistically very accomplished and the performances are of a high calibre but financially it has been a loss so far. It might still have its day in the years to come but right now it's drifting in the wind. My best advice is, try and make the next Paranormal Activity, the next Blair Witch – something of the times that is cheap to make but technically excellent. It will sell itself. Go to the AFM, Berlin or Cannes and try to get a sales agent. Do your research on who buys what. And be prepared for not a lot of dialogue with them. They'll call you if they are interested. Even when you strike a deal they hardly communicate. .A film I played the lead role in just a year ago "Battleground" was made for very little money secured a lot of territories, VOD, DVD, theatrical. It's an action, thriller and it will make a profit. So it's possible.
I'm in development with my own projects and reading a lot of scripts. My short 'Parkarma' will be at festivals next year. And I'm directing 'The Virtual Network' with Carter Ferguson producing. I just did a really exciting drama in Canada and Detroit called 'To Our Bright White Hearts' and 'Battleground' is coming out. I'm writing a working title project called 'The Escapists' which I'm hoping to work on with Neil Mackay who directed Battleground. It's based on true stories of the Cold War.
Battleground is available on DVD from Amazon.