Branko Tomovic studied acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York and has been working as an actor for over 10 years. His film credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, Fury, Entity, City of Tiny Lights and TV credits include 24: Live Another Day, Silent Witness, Whitechapel, Touch of Frost and many more. He is based in London and made his directing debut with Red – a short dark thriller set in the underground world of illegal organ smuggling, the so-called red market.
Here we talk to Branko about the making of his first short film, RED, which was premiered at the Winchester Short Film Festival 2016.
What training did you undertake to become a filmmaker?
I only went to drama school, not film school. But as an actor I was very lucky to have worked with wonderful film directors as Ken Loach, Paul Greengrass, David Ayer, Soenke Wortmann and Pete Travis. And I learnt a lot from not just sitting by myself in the trailer and waiting for my next scene but actually be out there and watch how everything comes together and see how they create their magic. All these directors were very different in the way they work and their approach to filmmaking, but what they all do have in common is that endless passion and enthusiasm for filmmaking and a very unique strong vision.
Where do you get your inspiration for your projects?
Mostly dreams or nightmares. That’s usually the only time when there are no limitations to your imagination in a completely uncontrolled way. Art is another source for me. Our script for Red was intentionally written to also offer great visual potential and Edward Hopper’s paintings (Nighthawks, Automat, New York Movie) were a big visual influence for this. They show a certain loneliness and isolation in a big city that we wanted to have in our film.
How do you go about financing your projects?
Red was completely self-financed. The other producers and I put in the money we could. We only had a small budget and asked for many favours. You work with what you have and try and make the most out of it. I am not a fan of crowd-funding and could never ask other people for money. This part is probably the most annoying when you try and do a film, especially if you are at the beginning of your filmmaking career. But if you have a strong script and a great idea there are people out there who would like to support you and invest in it. It’s just very hard to find these people.
How do you cast your films?
Finding the perfect cast is so important and I am not saying that because I am an actor myself. Our character Ed, the violent and cruel crime boss was originally written for a man. Dennis Hopper’s crazy character in Blue Velvet was the inspiration for this. But then I thought it’s much more interesting to have a woman play this role. We kept the name Ed to make it ambiguous in the beginning. Having a woman play this nasty character is much more powerful and unexpected. Only an excellent actress could pull that off and I had to think of Dervla Kirwan (Ondine, Ballykissangel, Doctor Who), who is brilliant in everything she does. I worked with Dervla on a film a few years back and we were thrilled when she agreed to do it. Francesca Fowler (Doctor Who, Rome, Closure) who plays the young prostitute Mia is also a friend of mine and just perfect for the role. Most actors really care about the work they do and are hungry to work on something challenging and interesting. So even if you don’t have a huge budget just try and contact their agent and see if they might be interested.
What cameras do you use, and why?
The look of the film was very important to us, we wanted the film to have a certain standard and shooting on film wasn’t an option because of our tight budget. We wanted to achieve a great cinematic look and had a look at some films and footage online shot with the Arri Amira and we thought it would fit our story and purpose perfectly. Adrian Carswell our producer had a great working relationship and connection with Promotion Hire in London and they were very generous in providing us with all the equipment for a very reduced fee.
What size crew do you have on your sets, and what roles are the most invaluable?
It’s so important to surround yourself with the right people. Those who have passion for what they are doing and have the same spirit as you. We were lucky to get a very experienced crew together who all did it because they liked the project. We shot on real locations, mostly in a hotel room. Once you have the lights & camera in there, there isn’t much space for too many people. We didn’t have a big crew on set, we kind of just shot with a skeleton crew. Everything has to run very smoothly so all the roles are equally important. A secret to keep everyone happy though is great catering, we were very fortunate to have a Michelin star award winning chef on board.
How did you go about setting the soundtrack for your film?
I always had in mind that I wanted to use the beauty of classical music to contrast this dark and dangerous underground world. I love Beethoven and chose his Symphony 7 Allegretto, which Niklas is always listening to when he performs a surgery, it’s a way for him to mentally escape the situation when he performs this horrible and bloody task. Our sound designer Mark Ashworth did an amazing job in capturing the beauty of this composition but also adding Niklas torment into it by changing the rhythm slightly or distorting certain notes. We also used a lot of drones throughout the film to create a certain unsettling atmosphere and build up the claustrophobic tension throughout the film.
How do you split your time for pre-production, production, and post-production, and which is the most important for you?
We spent months and months in pre-production for those 3 1/2 shooting days we had. I like to be very well prepared and think of every small detail, I don’t like any unwanted surprises when it comes to filming. We were very limited with money, locations, equipment and people’s availability so everything had to be mapped out beforehand. We didn’t have the luxury to experiment or try different things once it came to shooting, we had to know exactly what we were doing. Filming is definitely the most fun for me. I just love being on set and it’s a wonderful thing to see something come alive which has only been in your head for so long. We were very fast with post-production, but mostly because we knew exactly already what the film should look and sound like before. All these stages are definitely equally important, doing a film is a process that needs to go properly through all these phases.
What’s the best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve been given?
Don’t steal any props and don’t have sex with extras!
What other filmmakers do you most admire?
There are so many. David Lynch was definitely a huge inspiration for me. I saw Blue Velvet as a child and knew I wanted to work in film. I love directors who have a unique voice, who create something meaningful and outstanding, who have such a strong vision that it just mesmerises you. There are so many that I admire: Tim Burton, Polanski, Haneke, Innaritu, Refn, Aranofsky, Glazer, PT Anderson, the list is long!
How important are film festivals and competitions to you?
We only recently started the festival circuit with Red and it’s been exciting and gratifying to see the response from an audience to it. We managed to get into some prestigious film festivals internationally and also already won some awards and nominations. Having our UK premiere at a good festival was very important to us since we are a British film and we were thrilled to have had it at the Winchester Short Film Festival. The quality of the selected films was excellent. And the whole experience from the screenings to the award ceremony was just fantastic. I think festivals still play a huge part in a film’s success, it’s also a good way to connect with an audience and also build up our reputation as a filmmaker. It’s also funny to see the response in different parts of the worlds to it. Our bleak, dark UK story seems to be very popular in California for some reason!
What advice would you pass on to burgeoning film makers?
I think if this is really what you want to do with your life you will find a way, no matter what. When you are starting out try to get as much work experience as possible. Start as a runner and work your way up. It will help you to see how a set is run and who does what on a film shoot. Find out what exactly it is you would like to do and focus all your energy towards that. Often it becomes a life choice. You have to have that passion, ambition and fire inside of you to make it work and especially to make it through the rough times. Forget about the glamour and all that stuff, filmmaking is hard work. It should always be about the work itself and nothing else.
What are your future plans?
Although this wasn’t necessarily our plan to begin with, we started to develop Red as a feature now. We thought there is more to it and the story and also the characters have great potential. The feature will be slightly different from the short though, kind of the same world, similar characters, but not an extension of just this. We are also thinking of pushing it more towards genre. Not just a straight drama/thriller but show more of the psychological damage of the protagonist and explore the psychosis with horror elements. The feature will be called Crimson.
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