How making films with your childhood friends prepares you for the future!

(At least, it prepares you for the future if you choose to be an indie filmmaker!)

Teenage me, back in the days when DV tapes were 'the future'!

    Every two months, I attend a local 'open mic night' for filmmakers called Five Lamps Films. It's a vital night for me and my fellow local creatives - and for many new filmmakers, as it offers a platform for their work they may not otherwise have. Five Lamps have shown many of my films in the past, and I hope they will continue to do so for many years!

    One thing I love most about going to Five Lamps is when they show films by amateur and first-time filmmakers. On the one hand, I see techniques I used to use, which makes me incredibly nostalgic and reminds me how much I've learnt over the years. And on the other hand, if a first-time filmmaker shows their work and it's already better than mine, it gives me a good kick up the arse to improve!

    There's one thing that filmmakers will always do when they start out: they use their friends, and often themselves, in their films in place of actors. Most filmmakers I know did this (my frequent collaborator Neil Oseman even made a fun documentary about it), and I'm no exception. 

   There's pros and cons to using your mates (or even your family) instead of actors. On the one hand, you end up with some treasured, slightly embarrassing memories you can watch back in the years to come. 

   On the other hand, it in no way prepares you for the reality of using actors, or for the nitty-gritty details such as agents, union regulations and those all-important release forms. You never think to make your friends sign contracts because you think they'll always be in your life, and that you'll always get along. I made that mistake myself, and for that reason, a lot of my early stuff can never see the light of day.

    But surprisingly enough, there are a few important, useful things you pick up from directing your friends in films when you're first starting out. I learnt a few valuable lessons back then, which I still remember when directing actors today. Here are the key ones:

Cardboard Sauron!
1. Working with a low budget

    Indie filmmakers often have to work with low budgets, but when you go out into the world with your first camera, you have no budget at all (apart from whatever's left of your pocket money!). So you learn to be creative with nothing - and that's a skill which sticks with you. When you're a kid with a camcorder, your friend's parents' house become a change of location, and curtains and cardboard can be used to make costumes.

    I have a prime example of this: when I got my first ever DV Tape camcorder (which felt like 'the future' at the time!) I wanted to practice using it by making a 'comedy' version of Lord of the Rings. I asked my dear friend Josh to make the armour for the film; he was instructed to make the armour out of cardboard because, as I explained to him, the costumes would be funnier if they looked low-budget.

   Next thing I know, Josh had created detailed, scalloped, surprisingly accurate Sauron armour... out of cardboard! Needless to say he is now very popular in LARP circles.

2. You don't always get the cast you want... but you can adapt!

   One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a director is when they don't get the actor they wanted. Or you cast someone in a film, spend a long time building up the character with them, then they pull out of the project last minute. It happens all the time, particularly with low budget productions, and sometimes it can work out for the better. Either way, you need to be prepared for it, and you need to accept actors who you may not have previously considered.

   When you're making films with your friends, you learn to accept whoever you can get, and work with them. Even if you wanted a woman in their 50s and you only have your 12-year-old drama classmate willing to play the role - just change their costume and make-up, and do the best you can!

Me and my oldest friend, Fred, in an early film. Character ages: late 40s. Our ages: 16/17!

3. They tell you when you're being a cow

   I'll be the first to admit it; directors can be divas. We spend months, if not years, obsessing about our projects, putting every waking breath into them, and sometimes we forget that our fellow crew-mates don't have the same emotional investment.

   But, if you're making films with your friends, they won't let you push them too hard. If you're being over-dramatic, they will tell you . What's more, they will laugh at you. You have to be nice to them because they're your friends - and they're working for free! Keep that same attitude when you're on a professional set, and you'll think twice before making unfair demands.

4. You learn to cope with drop-outs

   This is a similar lesson to number 2, but it's still important. Sometimes you lose actors from a project. It sucks - but if you made films with your friends when you're a kid, it certainly prepares you for this occurrence!

   When you're young, making films is treated like playing a game - even if, to the young director, it is their 'piece of art'. Your friends will find numerous reasons to leave - they've fallen out with a fellow cast-mate (or you, if you're being a diva), they've broken up with one of their fellow cast-mates, they have homework to do, they have teenage stresses... sometimes they leave for no greater reason than "I'm bored of this now." 

  But you recast, you adapt and you carry on. You learn to be innovative; if someone dropped out of my early films, I'd just double up and have two or three characters played by one actor (with a clever use of camera angles). You'd be surprised how often people still use that technique in the 'industry'!

Me, taking my 'art' very seriously for a 16-year-old - unaware that my 16-year-old friend Jack is about to attack me with a large umbrella!

5. You never forget to have a laugh

   When you take your first steps into the world of filmmaking, you're dreaming of the future, and the first time you press record feels like a momentous occasion. The truth is, it's not. 

   We all take our films too seriously - even when you're somewhat further on in your career - and you need to learn to enjoy them. A shoot is over in the blink of an eye, and today's stresses are tomorrow's anecdotes, so there's no point creating a bad atmosphere.

  In the early days, when your mates are your cast, there's always laughter. People will ham up a line, look into the camera, and generally muck about - which they'll do even more so if you let it wind you up! So you do learn to have a laugh - and that's something you can remember to do on every film set, whenever the moment calls for it. 

   It doesn't matter if your actor is 'Bob from up the road' or Al Pacino - we have the best vocation in the world, so revel in it, and always try to spread warm feelings to those around you.


Modern-day cameos. Left: the adult Jack on the set of Stop/Eject, as the driver of the infamous car (photo by Paul Bednall), and Right: my friend Ryan, from my old hometown, making a brief appearance in the upcoming Hubris music video.

   So, in closing: your friends do start you off on your journey, and they teach you some vital skills for the future. But that isn't the last thing they do for you. No matter how 'big' you get, or how many awards you receive, your childhood friends will always remember the day you made them dress up in curtains and head to the local park. They will remind you of your roots, and keep you humble.

   And if you ever need an extra for a film, they'll be there for you again (if you treated them well when you were kids, that is!). Just remember to buy them a beer afterwards.



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