The BUFF Blog (November 2012)

With the exception of Kate Herron, Ugo Onwutalu & Nadia Denton, 6 board members have guest-written the BUFF Blog in the 3 or so years since its’ inception in April 2009 which, at the time, lauded the film ‘Adulthood’ as a watershed for urban independent cinema. A lot has happened since then…

@buffenterprises sent out its very first tweet in April 2009, 3 ½ years on @SpikeLee no less is retweeting BUFF NEWS ALERTS. Also back in 2009, @NoelClarke was still churning out films, Arsenal still hadn’t won a trophy and Chelsea had an interim manager in charge though he’s the only one (Gus Hiddink if you must know) who walked away from Roman Abramovich as opposed to being fired. And being fired (or at least being reminded of it) crops up on more than one occasion in the blog you’re about to read – only in the BUFF Blog will you see Roman Abramovich and Noel Clarke co-exist in a parallel universe – welcome to the world of BUFF!!

And in doing so, please extend that welcome to BUFF’s newest member of the British Urban Film Festival board and this month’s guest writer of the 30th BUFF Blog (post the Leveson Inquiry), Jesse Lawrence…

Having recently directed my feature debut – romantic comedy ‘The Knot’ – Emmanuel kindly asked me to be guest writer for November’s edition of the BUFF monthly blog. I foolishly agreed, forgetting how much like school homework this would be. Remember the homework that you put off until the very last minute and so nothing but a final 24-hour-Dostoyevsky surge of madness can save you from missing that deadline? Well this time I was saved from that particular type of pain by the fact that I did keep a loose diary on ‘The Knot’, chronicling my experiences from day dot when I was lobbying to be the director, right through production, culminating with its’ eventual theatrical release.

This two and a half year journey has felt long but is actually nothing compared to the years many filmmakers sacrifice to get their debut off the ground – check Lawrence Coke’s entertaining yet sobering account (BUFF Blog – August 2012).

Anyhow, I think the best way of approaching this blog is to revisit one of my diary entries and fatten it up for public consumption. It should be one that gives a little flavour of the business as well as highlighting some of the typical anxieties experienced by a first time director. Okay here goes…

6th August 2010

So here I am sitting in a swanky restaurant in a swanky central London hotel. It’s breakfast time and I nurse a bitter pot of green tea and wait for a well-known trans-Atlantic actress. She’s late. Thirty minutes late. She’s thirty minutes late even though we’re meeting her at her hotel. You know, where she’s staying and stuff. All she has to do is skip down those marble steps and voila! here we are. Or, if she’s not in the mood for skipping, she could saunter into the art deco elevator and have elevator man press the Ground floor button for her. What can she be doing? Getting ready I suppose. Powdering her nose.

Until a couple of days ago I’d barely heard of her – but this means nothing. If you’re looking for someone plugged into up-to-the-minute popular culture, it’s not me. But yes even I can comprehend the magnitude of this meeting. She’s big; basically a star and it would be a real result if we bagged her.

Securing stars or ‘named actors’ was an important part of ‘The Knot’ recruitment process; important because they lifted the profile of the brand which, in turn, had knock-on benefits like unlocking a missing piece of investor finance or attracting other stars to the project or making it easier for the wardrobe department to secure designer dresses for example. But mostly, stars were important because they shouted out to the world our mainstream intentions – that this film was a full fat, bona fide commercial one.

To be clear, stars do not audition. They are offered (the part). If they accept, all that is left is to negotiate the details of their fee and schedule and this is when the producers put their serious face on. But this is really about the agents – and the agents are in pig heaven. This is their opportunity to demonstrate their clout and the best ones will play poker; feign disinterest, make a counter offer, invite you to bid with a competing project and any other play that secures the most advantageous contract for their client. Then the papers are signed and that is that. Mostly. Sometime, before an agreement is reached, the star will want to meet. They’ll want to meet the team behind the project. They’ll want to meet the director.

The risk here is that this meeting can turn into a kind of audition – not for the star of course but for you the director. What is your vision for the film? But I saw it this way don’t you think this way would be better? How are you going to shoot this? How are you going to light me? How do I know that your first film is not going to be some amateurish bullshit where my skin looks bad and my career takes a nosedive?

All valid questions of course and ones I’d prepared for.

A director, especially a ‘hired gun’, which essentially what I was, is not really going to get fired for one bad meeting, for one scoffed opportunity. “Don’t worry man, the chemistry wasn’t right. It wasn’t meant to be. It’s probably for the best anyway.”

But filmmaking, directing in particular, is often about perception. Are we in a safe pair of hands? Is he competent? Yeah he made a couple of good shorts but this is different. When the shit hits the fan will he crumble? Does the man helming this actually know what the fuck he is doing?!!

So yes, one bad meeting is not going to get you fired – but it will taint you. It will open doubts in the minds of decision makers, doubts that you don’t really want them to be entertaining. One more bad meeting, a wobbly first shooting day and that’s it. You are out, relieved of your position. Fired. I’ve seen this happen. If you’re directing a script that you don’t own then it’s the law of the jungle. It’s political. It’s about diplomacy, relationships, alliances. Things might be just fine, ‘hunky-dory’ as they say, before the sudden arrival of a new character upsets the equilibrium. They have influence. They want their mate in the director’s chair. They scheme and await their chance. In the bush, yellow eyes watch your every move, each set with a different agenda. Meanwhile you are out in the open, butt naked up there on the hilltop, a target for every jackal and joker to take pot shots at.

So these are my fears as I sit here sipping this now cold beverage. Actually they are not just my fears – they are Noel’s too.

The most singularly powerful player in the production, Noel Clarke, is in my corner. I think he likes me. He saw something in my shorts, he saw talent and potential, the glimmer of something special and he wants this to be my coming out party. He wants this to be my big break.

But before we get too sentimental, make no mistake, Noel has calculated all the angles, all the plays and all the repercussions. He has the most riding on this venture and if he decides, for whatever reason, that I am jeopardising this venture, I will be dropped in a heartbeat.

Noel was taking this meeting very seriously. Earlier, when we’d met up, there was probably something about my Hawaiian shirt and unflustered disposition that alerted him to the fact that I was failing to appreciate the full gravity of the task at hand. So he decided to force my appreciation and he did so in quite a clever way.

After joking about my weight, “are you sure you can squeeze through there?,” when he stood up at Bar Italia to let me pass, he became grave.

“No nervous giggling,” he warned. I was to “take the lead” and impose my “vision” on the meeting. This was actually music to my ears and I was more than happy for Noel to take a back seat. Noel was still driving his point home though.

“I mean I can take the lead bruv, I can talk but I’m not the director…”

“Yeah, yeah of course,” I conferred. “Don’t worry, I get it. It’s about reassuring her, letting her know that she’s in safe hands and that, you know, we’re serious.”

Noel nodded vigorously.

“Exactly.”

Then Noel did his clever thing. He recounted a meeting he’d had recently with a major Hollywood studio. Things had been going well.

“They were like, great, like the script, like the project, let’s just have a quick meeting with the director. And you know what he did bruv?”

“What?”

“He fucked it.”

I laughed out loud as I am prone to. Noel wasn’t laughing.

“It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic.”

By now we were strolling up Greek Street towards a member’s club and strolling is the correct description as our lead producer, Enrico Tessarin, was literally pushing a stroller with one hand and Blackberrying with the other. I’ve been conditioned not to bring kids to meetings but here was Enrico rolling with his tiny bambina like it wasn’t anything. If this was how they roll in Italy then they’d definitely won a fan in me. But as Enrico later put it, “I’m hiring you (the star) and you’re gonna tell me I can’t bring my child to a meeting? You can fuck off.”

We paused outside a nondescript door. I was keen to know how the director had fucked the big studio meeting.

“Shit what did he do?”

We got buzzed through and Noel continued.

“He was stammering, he was nervous. He was interrupting himself to take a glass of water. He was like…”

Noel proceeded to act out the director in question stuttering and mumbling before taking a long pause to down an imaginary glass of water with shaky hand. It was a funny impression but it had the desired effect. I suddenly started to feel nervous. You could say that I began to appreciate the full gravity of the task at hand.

“No pressure,” Ros winked at me.

Ros is Noel’s reassuringly down to earth personal assistant. She’s also one of the producers on The Knot.

We settled down on sofas.

“Get your shit together,” Noel advised before disappearing upstairs with Enrico to hold a conference call with a key investor.

Fast-forward 90 minutes and here we all are, waiting in this swanky hotel. My shit is together and our star is thirty minutes late. Her chair sits unoccupied between Noel and myself. Around the marble table Enrico sits to my right and feeds bambina while Ros sits besides Noel checking something out with the obligatory iPad.

Noel swills freshly squeezed orange juice from a wine glass and breaks Enrico’s balls regarding a financial transaction that has failed to materialise. The banter is playful and Enrico takes it in his stride, weighing the options the tax credit may or may not have on delayed investment. There are details but behind the technicality is a general sense of frustration at the ‘nailing jelly to a plate’ exercise that is securing private equity.

Enrico and his partner Junior Quartey have done a fine job raising money, performing out of their skin to get us this far.

But six weeks away from production and we find ourselves about to propose to a major Hollywood actress without actually having the budget to afford her. This is not a good look. We risk looking like a bunch of jokers – Noel most of all.

But Noel is looking past Enrico now – and doing his best attempt at a smile. I turn and follow his gaze. Yep, here she comes striding towards us. Here comes our star*

* Note from the editor: the alluded to star does not relate to the final cast of ‘The Knot’.

‘The Knot’ is available on DVD from February 4, 2013. Online, on-air, and in person, BUFF is the home of urban film coverage in the UK. The 8th British Urban Film Festival returns in September 2013.

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