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Making Films in The Factory – Shimmy Marcus

Resources_Dir_140 - Shimmy MarcusAs the Factory Actors Studio set about relocating, we bring you this article from Shimmy Marcus. Written in 2012 for Film Ireland, here he discusses the holy grail that rekindled his love for great cinema.

I never watch my films after completion. Almost never. While an audience will hopefully be engrossed in the story, the drama, the performances, I only see what I might have done better. I recall the problems, the delays, the limitations of trying to get each shot. Must do better.

I may not watch my films, but often I have to watch the ending quite a few times. This happens when I take a film to festivals, and I sneak in at the end of the screening to be ready for the Q&A that frequently follows. It’s not too difficult to watch the credits, and it always reminds me of how many people actually contribute to the making of a film.

I was at one such screening over a year ago at a festival in Hof, Germany, watching the last two minutes of SoulBoy, a ’70s coming-of-age drama set in the world of Northern Soul. I was reminded of how we had to juggle such an enormous crew, with 700 extras, shooting long takes on film with the time evaporating faster than a spit in the desert. Is that shot a little soft? Maybe I could have covered that scene a little better. That cut is 3 frames late. Too much contrast in that shot. As the credits roll, I cringe. I distrust the warm applause, and the people who tell me how much they loved the film.

One particular person that evening was a German actress called Aylin Tezel. She loved the film so much she insisted on going for a drink so she could hear more about it. She only saw the good things in the film. She got it. She believed it. She insisted that one day we should work together.

In 2011 I began working in The Factory, a space for filmmakers and directors to exchange ideas and support each other in the realisation of their vision. What attracted me most to the place was the idea of getting back to basics – the story and the characters – and being able to bounce ideas off other directors instead of working in a vacuum. Through the Factory Actors Studio, I spent time developing ideas, improvising, workshopping and experimenting. I learned something new every day. And as the performances got better and better, watching a single close-up of an actor on a shitty domestic camcorder, I could be sucked in deeper and deeper into their world, more than with something I’d watch in a cinema that had cost millions to make.

I fell in love again with the essence of great cinema. A hypnotic performance that tells an extraordinary story. This was my new holy grail. And it was immediate. Write some scenes on Tuesday, then workshop rehearse and shoot with the actors on Wednesday. Re-write the next day, repeat until it’s working.

This new style of development changed everything for me as a writer. And director. I found I was only truly learning when on set shooting. And now I could do this every week. Not only was this process helping my ideas on how to cover a scene, move a camera and communicate better with actors, it was also a great test of the ideas I was writing. What sounds like genius in the head can often fall flat when performed aloud and tested with good actors. ‘I don’t think I’d say that.’ ‘I don’t understand why she feels this way.’ ‘What if I didn’t say anything, just looked at him?’ Questions you sometimes forget to ask yourself, alone in the garret.

Aylin continued to email me. ‘When are we making a film together?’ Buoyed by the spontaneity of The Actors Studio, I decided to take some of the advice I’d been dishing out to young filmmakers who kept asking for tips on making films. Just do it. So I did it.

Rhinos is a short film about a German tourist called Ingrid (with no English) who meets a Dublin lad called Thomas (with no German). They end up spending the day together, learning much about each other. I naturally cast Aylin as the German girl, and Fionn Walton from the Actors Studio as the boy, with other Factory Actors in smaller roles. We shot it on RED, documentary style (limited crew) in natural locations like Stephen’s Green, The Zoo, Tower Records. There was one DOP, one focus puller, one sound recordist, one make-up artist, and one art director. No ADs, no costume dept, no boom swinger, no trailers, no nurses. I was a ringmaster without the circus. We shot four hours of footage across 12 locations in two days. We financed it privately, through crowd funding, and with support from The GoetheInstitut Irland. It was incredibly liberating.

With such a small crew it was possible to shift and change as fast as the ideas were coming. I know that this style of filmmaking doesn’t suit every production. But some of the more interesting films made in the last few years have used this method, and at the end of the day, if the story is all-consuming, and the performances are hypnotic, I don’t believe an audience will care if it’s shot on 35mm or an iPhone.

Rhinos reminded me of what is possible to achieve on a minuscule budget if you can get the key elements of story and performance right. I have since taken this renewed inspiration to pursue another lifelong cinematic ambition – I have always wanted to make an organic film similar in style to Mike Leigh. Writing through improv and workshops with actors has always seemed to me one of the most natural approaches to filmmaking. I am currently working this way, again with the Factory Actors Studio and the process is both thrilling and fascinating. No stone is left unturned. Every conceivable plot point is explored. No idea is too silly or trivial to be explored because you just never know where it will lead you.

Each actor is given time to really explore their characters, get under their skin, spend time with them, and even contribute to their storyline as long as it fits within the themes and overall story of the film. I always felt the director’s job was not to hold the monopoly on ideas, but to encourage everyone to contribute, and then decide which is the best. And then take the credit of course!

By the time this film gets made (hopefully), I will have already made it five times over in the workshops. Not every scene is explored or rehearsed to death because you still want it to be fresh on the day, and many plot-twists are held back from the cast so I can get the best possible reaction shots to these surprises on the day. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s finding what works for you. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and certainly more than one way to develop a film.

Must do better.

This article first appeared in Issue 140 of Film Ireland Magazine.

For more information on The Factory, visit thefactory.ie.