I haven’t given much thought to “Voyageuse” lately, too busy with writing a 10th anniversary post for my last film, “The Devil’s Plantation” and researching for a new project. Then there are events: a distracting and unnecessary UK general election, the tragic Manchester Arena bombing and the ongoing farce of US politics. An impotent witness, I’m conscious of Erica’s depiction of human suffering in the film and her dreadful conclusion that: ‘war is a perpetual manmade construct and politics the cruellest charade.’
In times like these the business of film can seem trivial. Earlier this month for the second time I screened “Voyageuse” at the BFI, Stephen Street where once again it met with a great response from those who saw it and to whom I’m grateful. Most gratifying was that Siân Phillips attended with three of her friends who told me they were spellbound by it.
After the screening, as I carried the DCP cocooned in its hard yellow case, my dear friend, David Gibson (who had travelled from Glasgow to London with his lovely wife, Trish to see the film for the second time) asked me to pose for a photo. In it I’m struck by the illuminated sign above the reception desk: ‘Film Forever,’ a message designed to inspire but also a reminder that my invitation to BFI staffers to watch “Voyageuse” in their own premises has twice gone unheeded. Their lack of response is, I know, in no way personal, more a consequence of third parties having no financial, professional or emotional investment in the film. Still, the lack of courtesy is dispiriting.
Question: which is better? To make a visible film that fails or an obscure film that succeeds? Depending on one’s definition of failure and success, it could be either but in industry terms ‘success’ – be it critical or financial – rests on a film’s visibility. As a member of an exclusive club – a UK filmmaker with more than three features to my credit – I’ve never been motivated by status or money. Had I wanted a more lucrative career I could have stayed in London to pursue TV and commercial work but by opting to live in Scotland and make small independent films I’m aware of my forfeit and the difficulty of attracting national media attention to my work.
Writing in the ‘New Yorker,’ Richard Brody refers to those independent filmmakers of the 1970s whose careers, unlike those of Martin Scorcese or Brian De Palma, never quite took them to Hollywood – or anywhere else for that matter. He ends with a thought, of how ‘(cinema) history is a history of its own exclusions, its foreclosed paths, its lost prospects’.
Dwelling on Brody’s conclusion, I’m reminded of my first feature, “One Life Stand” (2000). Shot on DV, as a calling card the film became an accidental succès d’estime, applauded by both audiences and critics. For the first time it was possible to own the entire process of making a film, assuming you had a decent script and affordable kit. Suddenly I found myself at the vanguard of the DV revolution as the first person in the UK to make an end-to-end digital feature. I also appeared on BBC’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as the maker of the first ‘film’ to be screened digitally in the UK.
At the time I was cautious about rash claims of the democratisation of moviemaking. In the late 1990s the Danish movement Dogme 95 gained attention through its ‘vow of chastity.’ The first Dogme film, Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Festen’ (1998) won the Jury Prize at Cannes, followed by Lars von Trier’s ‘The Idiots’ (1998) off the back of his more conventional film, ‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996). For a time, Dogme rode a wave of publicity by exhorting likeminded filmmakers to follow their ‘rules’. Much was made of the use of cheap camcorders and a no-frills, hand-held aesthetic but what was never mentioned was the cost of transferring tape to film and the distribution deals Dogme had already secured.
Soon every major UK indie production company announced they were in the low-budget DV movie game. Even TV got in on the act, with Danny Boyle making ‘Trumpet’ (2001) and ‘Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise’ (2001) for the BBC. Ditto in the US, where companies like InDigEnt channelled the digital zeitgeist but who – crucially – succeeded by attracting high profile executive producers and A-list talent prepared to work for SAG minimums or less.
That “One Life Stand” reached the big screen at all was due to the generosity of one man, Mike Hood, the then Marketing Director of Digital Projection Ltd, a Manchester-based manufacturer of the first cinema-standard digital projectors. After showing Mike some clips, he decided to support my initial screening in Glasgow and at film festivals in Rotterdam, New York, Stockholm and Edinburgh, from where it went on to screen in Norway, Germany, France, the US and London.
Without Mike’s help the film would never have been shown since I didn’t have the money to create a digital internegative needed to strike a 35mm print, which in the pre-digital era was the only way to screen in a cinema. It seemed the missing piece of the puzzle was in place: that it was possible to make and show films for a fraction of the cost of their film counterparts.
Only it wasn’t – for several reasons. First, distributors who stood to gain from the end of unwieldy prints dragged their feet over Digital Cinema and the rise of digitally-acquired movies because a) cinemas couldn’t screen them and b) the vast majority were made by enthusiastic but inexperienced filmmakers with no name talent. Second, film festivals inundated with a deluge of DV movies similarly had no means of showing them. Arguably the volume of entries (and the rise of viable platforms) spawned third-party sites like Without A Box and Film Freeway to handle submissions, resulting in rising costs to filmmakers.
In 2005 YouTube launched as the original mainstream platform for video and since then virtually every cinema screen worldwide has been refitted with cinema-standard digital projection. Most films now are acquired digitally and no longer do distributors have the expense of striking and transporting reels of film. I could debate endlessly on how technology impacted on the type of movies being produced and how the whole digital shebang made CGI workflow much easier, resulting in highly profitable effects-laden multiplex fodder but the fact is very few of those early DV movies had any significant impact on the business because they were largely made outside the system.
Recently I read a thoughtful piece by William Dass for filmschoolrejects about the recent kerfuffle at Cannes on whether Netflix productions merit selection at an A-list festival. Dass rightly points to how few films receive a theatrical release, be it wide or limited and how the attack on Netflix, which he identifies as ‘a market disrupting company’ is hard to sustain. Having made a film so completely under-the-radar that it may as well be non-existent, I believe the genie escaped the theatrical bottle long ago. People will always watch films but how they watch them challenges the hierarchy of viewing: whether on a cinema screen, on TV, a desktop, a laptop, tablet or phone all films are equal as long as they’re visible or, at least, available.
No one could have predicted any of this in 2000 when in all innocence I made ‘One Life Stand’ not knowing if it would ever reach a cinema. In 2017, my fourth film awaits the outcome of festival submissions but with no distributor, sales agent, producer’s rep or PR company batting for it, ‘Voyageuse’ may never be shown in cinemas to a paying public. Does it matter? Not to me, and not when there are other platforms available. Here I take solace from Richard Brody, a man who has probably watched more films than I ever will because I know someone, somewhere keeps a watch on those films. “Voyaguese” will endure because as the BFI slogan says: ‘Film Forever.’
The above image is a scan of a cinema ticket found in a book by C.S. Lewis that belonged to Erica.