The BUFF Blog (by Femi Oyeniran – January 2013)
Happy new year (just about!) This month’s edition of the BUFF Blog is guest-written by actor/writer/director Femi Oyeniran whose first film as a director (‘Fresh Off Da Boat’) was screened at the 2009 British Urban Film Festival. Follow @femioyeniran and @buffenterprises on Twitter…
The Difference between making a Short and making a Feature Film
I’ve had the question put to me a few times- what is the difference between making a feature film and a short film? I have identified a few key differences but this is not an exhaustive or exclusive list. There are many factors at play but for me, the key factors are: the purpose of the screenplay, raising finance and the role of talent. I will also give more insight into how my first feature “It’s A Lot” came about.
The Purpose of the Screenplay
“Fresh off the Boat” (hereafter FOTB) is a short film based roughly on my experiences of moving from Nigeria to England as a ten year old. And that’s where the differences begin. When I was writing my first feature film “It’s A Lot” (hereafter IAL), I wanted to create something that was commercially viable, so the basis of the story was more external to me. Me, my co-writer Nicholas Walker and the rest of the team had studied successful eighties classics that we liked and we wanted to create a film that mirrored eighties feel-good movies. Screen writing as a medium is influenced by one’s experiences, either through research or visceral, but it doesn’t have to be directly based on those experiences. Subsequently as opposed to FOTB, IAL was to serve the need of the market for a feel-good comedy film that was aspirational as opposed to the violent, kitchen-sink approach that has been taken to teen movies in the UK. The final screenplay of IAL was a homage to my time at college and the youthful exuberance, which buzzed around the place. Initially, I even wanted to shoot at my old college. So IAL was to serve the need of the market and FOTB was to serve my need to gain experience.
Another area of difference is funding. FOTB was funded through a £1000 grant from three East London boroughs. I found out about this fund through a friend who was temping at Newham Council at the time. I applied on the last possible day and I received the funding. Whereas IAL was funded after 18 months of trawling round central London trying to procure the best deal. It was hard work. Many travel cards, coffee tabs and hard work went into raising the funding. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone by saying doors were closed in my face as they weren’t but once the doors were opened people wasted my time. A lot. Raising the funding for a feature is not easy. I commend anyone that has achieved this feat. If you’re ever in a bar and you meet someone that has successfully raised money to make a feature film, buy him or her a drink, as it’s not an easy path. One piece of advice, I’d like to give to anyone trying to do this is have confidence and believe in your project, have the audacity to pick up the phone or write an e-mail to a stranger. Stick to it but be prepared to allow other people to shape your project as long as the key themes, soul and ideas are not compromised.
The Role of Talent
Another massive area of change is casting. When you do a short, you use actors that you know. Usually, hardly anybody’s getting paid; people are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. However, with feature films, you cast to get talent that will put “bums on seats”. At times, one is under intense pressure to get certain actors involved. You can even have a situation, where funding is dependent on getting certain actors involved in the project. Feature film talent, particularly in key roles, is very much about commercial value. You pay actors more and you have higher expectations. Additionally, the production team on a short film is incomparable to a feature film. Feature film sets are much more professional and things work to a tighter schedule and work with greater synchronicity. Inevitably, things go wrong but everyone involved is skilled and adept enough to react to things more efficiently.
The difference between feature films and short films is mainly that the former is usually done to achieve creativity with half an eye on commerciality and the latter is done for a myriad of reasons, including: getting experience, recognition, practice etc. These factors affect the process of getting into production. If you have a Canon camera and you have friends that can act, you can probably make a short film. However, making a feature film comes with more due diligence and more scrutiny. Feature film financiers don’t give out grants they make investments. Therefore, one is under the same pressure that comes with any form of investment. It is a lot harder to make a feature film but it is not impossible. Look out for mine in Spring 2013 – “It’s A Lot”.
IT’s A LOT as a case study.
Back in 2008, my co-writer Nicholas “Nicky SlimTing” Walker approached me to help him make a feature film, which he had written. He also gave me a treatment for a film “It’s A Lot”. I was immediately drawn to this project because it had strong 80s references and had at it’s core a reference to the ACLT. As an outsider, I had seen many of the ACLT’s campaign work and I always wanted to get involved, this was my opportunity to do exactly just that. I can’t give away the plot of the movie but the ACLT acts as a key reference point in driving the film. A few years after meeting Nicky SlimTing, I contacted him to say, I really want to write the treatment into a screenplay. After a short while, I did exactly just this (when I’m into something), I write really quickly!We pitched the film to distributors, producers and sales agents for about 18 months. In that time, we had and lost about 4/5 deals but eventually through perseverance, fasting and prayer we got to make our film in October/November 2012.
I became a director because making films intrigued me. On the set of “Anuvahood”, I would ask Paul Van Carter (the producer) questions about everything from scheduling to costs of equipment. I also knew that I had to become a director in order to continue to work as an actor. I had seen what “Kidulthood” did for Noel Clarke’s career and what “Anuvahood” did for Adam Deacon’s career. These are people that I’ve been around and been privileged to work with but off the back of the success of their directorial debuts they both won BAFTAs. I knew that in order for me to get to another level as an actor in the UK, I needed to write and direct otherwise I’ll be waiting – everyone else but me would be in charge of my destiny. Besides that I love writing and directing – I truly enjoy it. Watching Spike Lee films and seeing the messages he was able to put in his films inspires me. You can create your own worlds, with your own messages and motifs. It’s a more powerful medium than acting politically and socially – don’t get me wrong, I love acting but you have more power as a screenwriter and director. As an actor, you’re simply a hired gun. You don’t control how you’re being shot.
“It’s A Lot” is inspired by our time at college. College was fun – you were growing up, you wanted to be around girls, you wanted new clothes to impress girls, you wanted a car. At college, you are not old or young – you’re in that weird place between adulthood and childhood. The lead character Shaun embodies this, he is very insecure but as the film goes on, he grows more and more into his own skin and makes decisions by himself rather than being steered by friends. The film also draws inspiration from 80s films “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”, “Risky Business” and other films that we grew up watching. We wanted to create something cool and about likeable teens. Americans did that well in the 80s but we haven’t really done it much in the mainstream in the UK let alone as Black British People. We wanted to make a film that wasn’t about drugs, knives and guns but was still entertaining and engrossing. All of these things I believe make the film commercially viable because it means it appeals to a broad range of audience – it appeals to my core teen audience, people that grew up in the 80s and so on. To be ‘commercial’ is to appeal to the broadest possible audience, I think, and this film I feel will.
We were fortunate to have a free casting for the film. We were able to cast anyone that we felt was good and that’s what we did. We have a very strong cast that ranges from actors, to comedians and musicians. The film stars Red Madrell (Kidulthood), Roxanne Pallet (Emmerdale), Jack Doolan (Cemetary Junction), Jazzie Zonzolo(Anuvahood), Richie Campbell (The Firm/Anuvahood), Tim Westwood, DJ Ace, Sarah-Jane Crawford, Eddie Kadi, Kojo, Miss London, Slim the Comedian, Jammer, J2K, Sincere and so many more. We discovered three amazing actors at auditions Charlie Palmer-Merkel, Roxy Sternberg and Miles MacDonald. I am really excited about unleashing them on the market. The cast is strong, a mixture of new and old, and as it’s a comedy it was important that we got actual comedians so we’re blessed to have so many in the film.
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