Focus on Filmmakers: John Lynch

Eddie is John Lynch’s debut short. However, his career in video production has spanned documentary, commercials, music videos, Olympic broadcasting and even Bollywood. London-based John was also founder and director of CineFringe, the short film festival of the Edinburgh Fringe, which ran from 2010 to 2016. So when he’s not making short films, he’s watching them in their hundreds. A mutual love of 80s Science Fiction and dark humour shared with co-writer Jon Williams-Nobbs lead to the pair developing a feature film concept and subsequently a short proof-of-concept which became Eddie. As a creator and wearer of fine spectacles, John counts such trendsetters as Egon Spengler and Michael Douglas in Falling Down among his style icons.

Watch Eddie

Eddie from John Lynch on Vimeo.

Interview
We talk to John about the making of his short film, Eddie, which was screened at WSFF_2016 as part of the Official Selecion.

What training did you undertake to become a filmmaker?
I do have a degree in Film Studies but that was a mostly theory based course, so I wouldn’t say that a degree or course is necessary to become a filmmaker. More important is desire and practice. I would say I have learned most of my practical filmmaking skills ‘on the job’ as I’ve progressed as a professional filmmaker, and also by watching films and trying to understand how they’ve been put together.

Filmmaking as an art has it’s own ‘grammar’, and much like with a native language, as an audience we all understand that grammar without ever being really conscious of how it works. Making a film is just employing that visual grammar in a way that an audience can take meaning from, so at a basic level there’s no real distinction between a piece of arthouse cinema and a simple corporate video, as mad as that sounds! When you can start to see how that grammar is employed in the films you watch, you can start putting it into practice in your own projects, paid or otherwise. Do that over and over, in whatever format – fiction film, corporate video or commercial – and you’ll be improving your skills for the next project. That was exactly how my training worked.

Where do you get your inspiration for your projects?
Despite Eddie clearly being a massive homage to 80s science fiction films, my inspiration comes from all over the place. By no means will my next short project be another science fiction. The beauty of filmmaking is that any story / image / sound that sparks your imagination could be turned into a film project. Sounds very cheesy, but everywhere I go I’m constantly imagining how things I hear about or see might become films. I suppose that’s probably what makes a filmmaker a filmmaker; when moving images are the best way you have found to communicate the world as you see it.

PSE-SHOT-LOOP

How do you go about financing your projects?
So far all my personal projects have been self funded and therefore by default super-low budget! Eddie is my first ‘proper’ film project and it was made on a shoestring (although hopefully it doesn’t look it!). Whilst film funding is a fantastic thing, I’ve never been in a great position to apply for it and impatiently I’d rather just get going on a project than wait around for someone to give me money to do it. That means I’ve learned how to achieve big things from small budgets, so if anything that’s maybe my biggest filmmaking skill. Because I’m lucky enough to direct videos for a living, I’ve made a lot of great contacts and I know the cost of things that make up a shooting day. I also feel I have a good understanding what it is and isn’t necessary to spend those precious pennies on. The actual production cost of Eddie was only about £3000. Most of that was spent on food, travel and accommodation for my crew, who in turn for being well looked after were happy to work for free. Budget also went on Actors (always pay if you can, you’ll simply get much better talent) and the SFX makeup which is a big part of the film. Kit (owned by me and other crew) was mostly free, locations (including a real life nuclear bunker) were free too. Editing and postproduction I did myself for the most part. Blagging is a big part of my production world! In future, in order for my films to progress I will of course need to seek outside funding, but I feel that when I do, my understanding of the cost of things (and how to keep that down) will be a big plus point to any potential funders.

How do you cast your films?
The internet and modern technology has made this as easy it could possibly be. I write up a brief for the roles I am offering. I think about how much I can pay – paying actors, even minimum wage rates, is truly worth it – then post the job up on a casting website like castingcallpro.com and wait for the responses.

If your project is paid, or interesting, you’ll be inundated with profiles. I go through the profiles, try to find examples or showreels that somehow relate to my project then ask a shortlist of people to provide a ‘self tape’ whereby they film themselves (on phones or whatever) doing a section of my script so I can see how they’d approach the role. In a perfect world I would then organise a proper casting somewhere to meet and see them in person, but as Eddie came together quite suddenly, we didn’t have time. I cast Johnny as the Researcher purely from a self tape, and he ended up being perfect!.

What cameras do you use, and why?
Early in my career I worked as a camera operator and assistant (and I still do sometimes) so I’ve worked with nearly every type of digital camera imaginable . I’ve never shot on actual film (due to budgetary constraints). For me the make of camera is not important compared to the circumstances in which you end up using it. I’d much rather use a camera that I have access to for free, or one which my DoP or operator are familiar and experienced with, than the latest ‘next big thing’ (of which there are several every other week).

Having said that, I like my films to look like “films”, with control over depth of field and as much dynamic range as possible so that means using a ‘large sensor camcorder’ with a 35mm sized sensor. That means anything from a DSLR (at the cheapest end) all the way up to your ARRI Alexas or Red Cinema Cameras (at the most expensive end).

For Eddie we used a Sony FS5, more specifically my FS5 which I use for my self-shot work projects. Sure, I could have hired in a Red or an Arri camera, but I figured this was the best camera for the job because it was free to use, we had several people with experience using it on set and it ticks the above boxes I mentioned.

I think the end product (thanks to post production and knowing how to use our camera properly) looks very film-like! In the right hands, once a film is finished, the difference between a cheaper mid-range camera and big budget one is actually pretty negligible to 99% of your audience. People tend to stress out too much about getting the ‘right camera’ and forget to concentrate on other things that have a far bigger impact on the final film.

What size crew do you have on your sets, and what roles are the most invaluable?
Size of crew is always dictated by budget. On Eddie we had a crew of 11, but 4 of them were essentially volunteer runners from a local university. The actor playing Eddie also doubled up as an assistant director at times (when not in makeup!) so that tells you what kind of production it was! The most important thing is to make sure you have the people on set that allow you to concentrate on directing, and as little else as possible.

Absolutely necessary is someone to look after cameras and lighting so that you don’t need to get involved in anything other than scrutinising the final shot. Same with sound. Make sure at least one person is dedicated to it. Next you need someone you trust (and importantly someone you respect and will listen to) to act as a cross between Assistant Director and Production Co-ordinator. You need to come up with a shooting schedule with them and then let them run the timings to make sure the shooting days run smoothly. If you can stretch to it, try to also have one or two people loosely defined as the ‘art department’ to manage props, costume and transform locations for you (and if using borrowed locations, return them to their original state!).

Finally you need someone who’s job – amongst other general running – is to make sure there is food for everyone and that everyone gets fed. I can’t overstate the importance of feeding your crew and allowing them a few short breaks to eat during the day. As a director you might be too consumed in the project to think about eating or drinking, but everyone else will be. You’d also be amazed how hard a ‘free’ crew will work for you when they are properly fed. Never, ever treat the wellbeing of your crew as any less important than the cameras, lighting or set.

It might seem daunting if you’ve got no budget to aim for a minimum crew of 5 or 6 people but don’t underestimate the willingness of people local to your locations who might want to volunteer. The 4 volunteers we had from St Andrews University turned out to be the best runners I’ve ever worked with. We would have been lost without them..

How did you go about setting the soundtrack for your film?
I’m a musician myself and so I like to have a big hand in the music on all of my work and this was no different. However, I knew from the start that Eddie was going to need a distinctive soundtrack, something I couldn’t do by myself. As soon as the shoot was done I brought my friend Paul Russell, an incredible musician and sound engineer, on board and we discussed every section of the film together in detail. I’m talking about the atmospheric soundscapes here, as well as the music.

We then started throwing all kinds of references back and forth at each other, from pieces of music, to interesting noises recorded on our phones to see what stuck. Because Eddie is a science fiction story it would have been very easy to go crazy with the soundtrack, but we were both committed to a very ‘analogue’ and mechanical feel. We actually took a lot of inspiration from the opening sequence to Ridley Scott’s Alien, as the ship ‘wakes up’ – the sound design for that opening is so understated, yet brilliant.

For the music Paul managed to get his hands on an old Moog monophonic synthesiser and as soon as we started playing with the sounds it could make we knew we had to use it. I had already composed a sort of tune (that later became the main ‘theme’ of the film) on my Charango (a weird little cross between a ukelele and a mandolin) and so we kind of merged the two instruments together and ran with it. The soundtrack is actually something I’m most proud of in the film..

How do you split your time for pre-production, production, and post-production, and which is the most important for you?
Each project is different but Eddie was about 8 weeks of pre-production (including writing the script), 4 days of shooting, a day of pick-ups, and then 8 straight weeks of post production. Because I did most of the post-production myself, taking two months off work to power through it, Eddie was completed much quicker than the average short. In most cases you’d be looking at maybe double that post-production time.

Pre-production is very important but often falls by the wayside on low budget films! First and foremost you must get the script right. Next, I always try to spend some time on the budget, on finding the right actors, on doing at least one or two location visits and on thoroughly scheduling the shoot. Something I don’t regularly do, but I really should, is storyboard. I always use the the excuse that I can’t draw. I’m always very clear in my own head what I want to achieve visually, but it’s no good having a clear image in your head if you can’t relay that to everyone else on set clearly. A storyboard is extremely helpful for allowing everybody on a shoot to be on the same page when setting up a shot and can save a lot of time prepping particularly complex or odd sequences.

A good example in Eddie is a repeated shot of Eddie and the Researcher staring into a spinning, pulsating light (directly into camera). I’m pretty sure no-one understood what I was on about in describing that shot, right up to actually shooting it. This wasn’t helped by the fact it could only be achieved using strange light-attached-to-a-spinning-bicycle-wheel contraption I had built. Until the film was finally finished, that shot (one of my favourite shots in the film, by the way) really only existed in my head. Too many shots like that, which take extra time to set up because no-one knows what you’re on about, can cost you precious hours on set.

If I could do Eddie over again, the one thing I would change would be to force myself, no matter how crappy the drawings, to do a basic storyboard for the crew’s benefit.

What’s the best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve been given?
It’s not really a single piece of advice I’ve been given, more something it took me many shoots to learn, but it’s that the job title ‘Director’ could more accurately be described as ‘Head of the Compromise Department’.

There is this bizarre myth of ‘the magnificent auteur’ type of director who never compromises on their singular vision for a film, and that you must strive to achieve this level of singularity to make great cinema. But frankly, that’s bullshit. Filmmaking is and always will be a collaborative art. No-one person makes a film what it is. A film is made by thousands of tiny collaborative decisions, made by dozens of different people contributing along the way. Of course there are distinctive directors, your Kubricks, Finchers, Hitchocks, Kurosawas, Andersons etc who have a strong hand in every process of their films, but the notion that they never had to make compromises on-set or in post-production is nonsense. The idea then, that you, a first or second-time short filmmaker shouldn’t have to compromise to make your film is laughable.

As a director, if you are lucky enough to have a great crew, you will be surrounded by people who don’t want to compromise what they are trying to achieve in their own respective departments. They will have their own views about what’s important and what is the right way to go about it. Your job as a Director is to manage all of those crew member’s desires to achieve the bigger picture. The buck stops at the Director when it comes to decision making, and to be a good one you need to be confident and decisive about w hen to compromise. That’s the real skill of a director. Turning a problem into an advantage. Any old idiot can sit on set going through take after take until something good happens. A great director knows when something isn’t working and needs to change. Or what shot can be cut in order to get another shot right..

What other filmmakers do you most admire?
Too many to mention really. Alfred Hitchcock was the king of modern mainstream cinema. I love Wes Anderson too, he’s kind of a filmmaker’s filmmaker. I think Eddie often feels a bit like a cross between George Romero’s Day of the Dead and Duncan Jones’ Moon so they should get a mention! But I’m not so into any one filmmaker that I want to replicate their careers or anything. Cop out answer, but I really do have an eclectic taste in films.

How important are film festivals and competitions to you?
Eddie is the first project I’ve properly released onto the ‘festival circuit’ and it has generally been rewarding. I think that festivals offer you the chance to get recognition as a director in a very practical sense that can help when trying to progress in your career. If your film gets selected for film festivals then that’s a validation than can help you get interest or funding for your next project. If you manage to win an award or two (Eddie has won 4 awards so far) then that’s even better.

It’s also very helpful and rewarding to sit in a proper screening venue and watch your film with actual people, gauging their reactions to things. The feedback you can get from a festival audience in the pitch black of a screening room is far more honest than you’ll get from your friends and family!

The only problem is the sheer number of festivals and the lack of any really detailed information on which festivals are specifically going to be the right ones for your film. In entering Eddie into festivals I ended up making a massive spreadsheet collating things like ‘cost’, ‘deadlines’ and very importantly ‘programme size’ to try and work out which film festivals were worth the money. I’m potentially going to share my findings as part of a set of blogs on the film’s Facebook page if any readers are interested. It can get very expensive entering festivals and although online platforms now offer some element of ‘rating’ for festivals, there still isn’t much data out there.

I would say to anyone thinking of entering a festival, have a think about whether your film could realistically sit alongside the previous year’s programming, whether they are offering any industry meeting opportunities or awards that could help you gain recognition or support, and importantly whether you’d be able to attend if selected. If you’re answering no to these questions then maybe it’s not worth the expense.

What advice would you pass on to burgeoning film makers?
Less talk more rock! That’s not just a pep talk. It’s actually a link to a fantastic article (albeit about video game creating, but the sentiment is the same) that gets across the advice I would give much better than I ever could.

In any creative process you have to go through the stages of ‘inspiration’ where you have an idea, ‘talk’ where you plan how to do it, ‘rock’ where you make it. But filmmaking is hard work and if you spend too much time talking ideas through it’s easy to reach a seemingly logical conclusion that they are impossible.

All of my best work has come about when I’ve flipped the usual order of things. That is, had an idea and immediately started running with it. If I had spent too long thinking about how to go about making Eddie before before starting the ball rolling, I might never have made it. By the time the actors flights to Edinburgh were being booked, it was too late to back down and that really focussed the pre-production work!

So my advice is, start making right away and don’t stop until you hit a brick wall whereby some ‘talk’ is needed. I’m definitely not saying that discussion and planning aren’t important. Just that you’re more likely to focus your planning and actually finish something once you’re already immersed in creating it.

I think the biggest problem most aspiring filmmakers have is not completing things (because they are worried it won’t be perfect). And yet practice is the biggest factor in improving your filmmaking. If you never get stuck into anything properly you won’t improve. So less talk, more rock. Just jump in and start making. Get things right, get things wrong, just make more things. Don’t worry about messing up or being anxious. Every creator feels like that when starting something new. I know I certainly do. I’m a confident, experienced director, but on the first day of shooting Eddie I was sick with anxiety. It sounds terrifying, and it can be. But that terror is normally a sign you’re about to do something important and meaningful. Embrace it..

What are your future plans?
WE ARE MAKING A FEATURE FILM! Well, we want to anyway. Eddie was always meant as a proof-of-concept for bigger feature film that the team has been working on for several years. We need funding to get that off the ground, so we conceived Eddie to show off some of the elements we wanted to use (the make-up, the location, the retro-feel, dark humour) to prove we knew what we were doing.

Eddie has had a great response so far. Since releasing it on Vimeo we’ve had nearly 15,000 views and we’ll hopefully be releasing it on YouTube with a big online sci-fi distributor very soon. In the meantime we have lots of other projects in the pipeline which will all be released on the Overhead Facebook Page. Our aim is to make a world that extends far beyond the one short film, so best thing to do is check our page out to see what’s next! We have a lot of cool stuff to share!

The feature film by the way will be a cross between Withnail and I and John Carpenter’s The Thing… so what’s not to love!?.

If you are a film critic, agent or investor and would like to access our private online Screening Room to other short films from WSFF_2016, please contact us at enquiries@winchestershortfilmfestival.com.

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