Filmmaker Interview #12 – Brett Harvey
October 28, 2011 1 Comment
Brett Harvey is a filmmaker I met during my time in Falmouth at University. He was part of a collective of Cornish filmmakers and friends who were doing some exciting stuff, running monthly short film nights and competitions for new talent. It was (and still is) such a vibrant community and it is no surprise to me that there are several feature films coming out of Cornwall this year from this creative hub.
Brett has just completed, and is about to screen, his first feature film Weekend Retreat after working on the project for the last few years. Having watched the trailer I, for one, am really excited about it.
Brett has been kind enough to take some time out of his busy post production schedule to provide an interview that is both enlightening about him as a filmmaker and also inspiring to any would be writer/directors out there.
I won’t give anymore away other than to encourage you to read what Brett has to say and to look out for Weekend Retreat at a film festival near you.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you are currently working on?
I’m a writer, director and editor based in Cornwall. Since graduating in 2003 I’ve made something like 50 short films, music videos and promos (some with tiny budgets, most with no budgets). I’ve won a few awards at film festivals and competitions (Cornwall Film Festival, CUT! Zone Horror, BAFTA 60 Seconds Of Fame 2008, Viewfinder Film Festival, Total Film Short Movie Competition, Fresh Five Festival, Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films).
I’m currently in post production on my first feature film, a low-budget, black comedy thriller called WEEKEND RETREAT.
Who/what inspired you to embark on a career in Filmmaking?
Originally I wanted to be an actor, I watched films over and over again when I was young (as in; if my Dad hired a film on a Friday night and we watched it I’d get up early on a Saturday morning with my brother to watch it again before it had to be returned) it got to the point where I realized I was actually a bit of a film nerd. By the time I got to college I discovered that I couldn’t just do A-Level Drama so I signed up for Media Studies as well and found myself in the company of other film nerds. I made my first film almost entirely by mistake (see below for details) and we premiered it at a big house party. We crammed about 80 people in to a tiny living room and it just got a massive reaction. I remember distinctly thinking this is what I want to do with the rest of my life!
Have you had to make any sacrifices and how have you coped with that?
Making anything with a low-budget forces you to make sacrifices constantly. I think the more you make stuff the more you learn to embrace those sacrifices, sometimes restrictions feed creativity.
We shot WEEKEND RETREAT on a budget of £20,000 and had 12 days to shoot it in, every creative descision I made was fuelled by our incredibly tight schedule…of course I’d love to get another take, or shoot this shot on a dolly / stedi cam / jib but if we do we won’t have time to shoot the next scene and therefore we don’t have a film at the end of the shoot. I guess the trick is knowing when you’ve got enough to cover the scene / tell the story.
The other side of making things on a low-budget it is it forces you to solve problems at a script level rather than on the shoot or in the edit suite. Writing the film is in theory the cheapest stage of production because it’s me in a room with a laptop. We (myself and producers Denzil Monk and Simon Harvey) went through a very long development process on WEEKEND RETREAT, trying to iron out every logic flaw and plot hole in the script. I always think that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s screenplay for Shaun Of The Dead is a really inspiring example of this, they developed that script and re-wrote it several times and it shows in the final film – there isn’t one wasted line of dialogue in the whole film. Everything services the plot (and is bloody funny at the same time).
What is your ultimate goal/what drives you?
At this precise moment the goal is to finish WEEKEND RETREAT in time for its first screening (5th November at the Cornwall Film Festival). To be honest (and you probably get this a lot) but the ultimate goal for years was to make a feature film. Now that I’ve done that (I’ve been working on this project for about 4 years) the “new” ultimate goal (I think I’m starting to sound like Nigel Tufnel!) is to get it released and out into the world in some way, shape or form. Then after that it’s to make another one but to try and have a bigger budget and more shooting days. At the end of the day I just want to grow as a writer and director, work with interesting people and make good films.
How do you define success?
For me, I guess it’s all about the audience reaction and what people take from the work. Whilst I was making my first few shorts I helped to organise a short film night called “Roughcut”, it was a monthly event that showed a whole range of work. It was a key stage for me as a filmmaker because I had somewhere to showcase my work, a reason to make shorts. Each night we had two screenings, you knew if you got a good reaction from both audiences that you had made a good short film.
This year we’ve done quite a few test screenings of Weekend Retreat at various stages of the edit and while it’s an incredibly nerve-wracking experience it’s essential to know if the film is working….there’s a kind of feeling in the room that you get when you know an audience is with the film, the characters, the story and when that happens it’s incredible. That’s when I know I’ve succeeded as a filmmaker.
How do you feel about collaboration?
I think it’s funny because people perceive a director as being someone incredibly demanding, barking orders on set and generally being a control freak but the reality is directing is all about collaboration.
For example, I storyboard my films (I feel this is a necessity if you’ve got no time or money on the shoot – make a storyboard and use it as a back up plan, don’t stick to it rigidly but if you’re running short on time you can go back to it and use it, it’s a version of the film that works) but I will always storyboard with the director of photography. On WEEKEND RETREAT The DOP (Morgan Lowndes) and I sat and storyboarded for 5 days, constantly discussing the look and feel of each scene. I trust his eye and his opinions but also know what I want at certain moments in the film. I find this level of collaboration really helpful because by the time we get to set Morgs has fully invested in the film rather than just have a storyboard handed to him!
It’s the same with actors, they’re the ones onscreen, they’re the ones who have to invest in the characters in order for an audience to invest in the characters. I think it’s really important to listen to an actor’s opinions and ideas rather than asking them to simply “say the words”. Sometimes an actor will come up with something you’d have never thought of that’s amazing, sometimes they’ll come up with something that doesn’t quite work or that you don’t like, the trick is to stay in control, don’t just say no to an idea you don’t like but carefully explain why.
When you get to a stage on set where you feel like a gang, like a family, where everyone feels like their opinions matter that’s when you can truly collaborate and make a film. Obviously this isn’t true on all film sets, it’s just how I like to work!
Do you have a niche or genre that you specialise in?
I think comedy. When I write I seem to naturally veer towards comedy but I’m a big fan of horror as well.
What was the title of your first film (your first first film, not the one you are happy to call your first film) and can you tell us a bit about it?
Zombies (original title I know) was my first film. Shot on VHS and edited in camera complete with end credits drawn in felt tip on A4 paper, tomato ketchup for blood and plastic toy guns. I’d love to be able to say it was made when I was really young (Son Of Rambow style) but I was about 16 and should’ve known better! We had no idea what we were going to make we just had a camera hired from college and a bag full of props but when we screened it in front of an audience it was a real light bulb moment for me!
Wow, now that’s a tricky question…..I’m a huge fan of Sam Raimi and the Evil Dead films. I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, I probably couldn’t choose one filmmaker.
All-time top 5 movies (as of this date, we all know it changes daily)?
- Evil Dead 2
- Harold and Maude
- Dazed and Confused
- Taxi Driver
What is the best short film you’ve seen?
I must’ve seen 100s of short films over the years, just running Roughcut we were watching tons of new shorts a month. The one that’s always stuck with me is probably one of the first shorts I ever saw How They Get There by Spike Jonze starring Mark Gonzalas. It’s just a brilliant idea, perfectly executed. The final shot sends a shiver up my spine everytime I see it.
Favourite film related website?
I’m a bit of a fan of www.ultraculture.co.uk, it’s basically just the views and opinions of one guy and while I don’t always agree with him it has made me laugh out loud on several occasions.
What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?
- Try and screen your film in front of an unbiased audience and if you can bear it sit in with them, listen to their reactions and their feedback.
- Remember mistakes are a good thing, make them and learn from them.
- Always challenge yourself, be it in the writing process, the shooting or the editing.
- Cast actors, not just your mates!
- When you’ve written a script get a room full of people to sit round a table and read it out loud. If you curl up in a ball of embarrassment the script isn’t working.
- Don’t let time, budget, weather, mistakes or equipment be your excuse for not making the film you wanted to make, find a way and stand by your decisions.
- Watch films, plays, short films, music videos and read books, graphic novels and screenplays constantly.
- If you want to direct be directed, see how it feels to be an actor or a member of crew on someone else’s set.
- Never give up! We live in a digital age where anyone can shoot and edit a film at home but not everyone will stick with it. If you make a film and it doesn’t turn out how you wanted it to don’t give up, learn from your mistakes and make the next film.
- Take all advice with a pinch of salt.
Below is Brett’s Award Winning 60 second short made back in 2006. Simple yet resonated with a lot of people.
Weekend Retreat is screening at The Cornwall Film Festival on November 5th. You can find out more details and buy tickets here. The film was produced by O-Region, the collective of filmmaker turned production company that I mentioned in the introduction. You can also keep up to date on all things Weekend Retreat over on the Official Website.