Interview: ‘Monk3ys’ and ‘Black Smoke Rising’ director Drew Cullingham



Drew Cullingham is a writer, producer, director and the founder of Monk3ys Ink Films. That company takes its name from his film Monk3ys which won best micro-budget film at the Raindance Film Festival in 2011. His next film, Black Smoke Rising premiered at Raindance in 2012. As both of these films are now available on the new Raindance Releasing Video on Demand service, Drew joined us to talk about his work.

Micro-budget is a term that we hear in terms of film, but what does that really mean?

Essentially it entails a lot of favours and begging borrowing and stealing – well not stealing so much. In terms of equipment, it’s whatever you can get your hands on from people you know. It’s very difficult to make micro-budget films if you haven’t got a decent network of people who are equally enthused about the production and doing something and not getting something back immediately for it. It’s people coming on board for free because they believe in the project and they want to do something; it’s blagging equipment where and when you can; and finding the right location you can get for nothing; and ultimately being happy to make compromises, be happy to make the process be a little bit organic.

You can’t have a very distinct vision of how you want things to turn out because circumstances will dictate that you need to think on your feet and change things as they happen. What it does give you is a wonderful brotherhood and a very good collective experience where everyone’s there because they want to be there and I think very often you’ll get something more special from that than you will if you have a little bit of money and you’re paying people to be there and they don’t necessarily have the passion for the film that you get if they’re doing it for the love. So it has some pluses and minuses.

Tell me about the origins or Monk3ys

Monk3ys was born of frustration really in trying to get finance for bigger budget films, not even big budget films but films with a budget. After endless meetings with financiers, agents and various people, the frustration where myself and the people around me and the people around me asked ‘how do we make a film for nothing or next to nothing’ so we decided to basically go and do that.

In terms of the idea itself, the thrust is very much if you’re going to make a film with no money, you’ve got certain things you have to minimise, the first obvious thing being the location. So we thought we’d set a story in a single room essentially and then really try and make that interesting.

We had an idea about putting three people, based loosely on people that we knew with very disparate personalities, and putting them in a room, imprisoned in there to some degree and then seeing what just happens. It became very clear that writing it would have more legs than just putting people we didn’t like in a room for several days.

What were some of the organic compromises that you were forced to make when making Monk3ys?

A lot of Monk3ys is quite ad libbed, quite improvised. The set-up itself didn’t allow for the film to be shot in a traditional way. One plus side of that meant that we could work very quickly. We had one room that was completely sealed. We had two fixed cameras which we just started and a camera that was handed round between the actors. We loosely choreographed the actors, then we would just shut the door. I had a laptop feed to a wide angle so I could see everything in the room that was going on. We basically just went through chronologically – we had to because the set changed throughout the story.  We would go in and do 20 minute scenes several times and nail those and then move on to the next one. That meant that the actors had a tremendous amount of freedom – there wasn’t worrying about hitting marks in the same way or lighting set ups or camera changes. It was a very free, almost theatrical performance to everything. It let the actors go, within the parameters of the story, almost where they wanted which created a real organic feel.

Another thing was that the end was never properly scripted which I probably shouldn’t reveal. I had ideas of the direction I wanted it to go in, but I hadn’t written it because I didn’t want the guys in the room to know what the end of the film itself was because it’s not necessarily their journey.

In a conventional film you would do a scene and maybe then do another that’s later on. We just had a very natural feel and we got that strange energy you get from working through the night in a room with no windows. It was an experimental journey in a lot of ways.

It’s become a cliché to say that anyone can make a film with a modern camcorder or even a phone. Do you think that it’s true or do you need proper equipment to create something cinematic?

I think ultimately what makes a film cinematic is the story. It’s much easier if you can be pleasing to the eye and shoot with high grade cameras. I think the danger is trying to mismatch your shooting medium and your subject matter. There’s obviously been an explosion in found footage films where you can make a film on almost anything. As long as the story’s gripping and the characters and performances and stories are there, and the medium matches the plot and the story then you can make a film on anything.

Monkeys won the best micro-budget feature award at Raindance, does that open many doors for you as a filmmaker?

MONK3YS all laurelsFirst and foremost it’s a good kudos. It’s always nice to win and be recognised for the efforts you’ve put in.  Raindance is a terrific festival. It’s a good award to win; it sits on the shelf and the laurels go on the artwork. It hasn’t immediately opened doors to good worldwide distribution deals, although we’re getting there. We’ve got a North American deal, it’s coming out there quite soon and it’s obviously on the Raindance platform. It doesn’t hurt, put it that way.

How important are festivals to you as an independent filmmaker?

It’s a wonderful opportunity to see and to have people see your films on the big screen which is ultimately where you intend your films to be and very often with low budget films, you’re not going to be looking at a cinematic release.  What it does is it gives you an opportunity for a select few to see the film as it’s meant to be seen and express opinions on the film. Ultimately it’s a proving ground. If you have a good reception at festivals and you’re lucky enough to pick up the odd nomination and award then it does you no harm in getting these people in distribution to take you more seriously as well.

There are a number of critics at festivals; are their responses something that you listen to?

I don’t think critical opinion is something you take on board in terms of what I should do differently next time. It’s always nice to read a good review. It’s always a little disheartening to read a bad review. It’s always most disheartening to read a review that’s a little bit indifferent or doesn’t really get what you were trying to do but feedback’s feedback. Reading critics and bloggers reviews is great but the thing from festivals is actually getting feedback from members of the public and film lovers who aren’t necessarily under any obligation to formulate a critical opinion but will just come and tell you what they think. That’s a wonderful immediate response. Even if they come up and tell you that they hated it, it’s great. It’s almost a performance; you’re out there and exposing yourself  to the public and garnering their opinion afterwards. The most encouraging words can be very brief from someone that’s been touched in some way by your film and it’s a very immediate response.

Your follow up film Black Smoke Rising has a very different feel and look. Was it a more ambitious project?

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It’s a very very different kind of film. It came about by extension – how can we make a film for, again, very little money. The budget was maybe slightly bigger because we had to travel a bit. It involved travelling around the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors and Dales. There was the cost of us being on the road for a week and staying in various scummy hotels and camp sites. So the budget was a tiny bit bigger, not much.

The ambition of the film was very different. Again, if you’re making a film for very little money, what’s another way of doing that apart from a single location etcetera. So the impetus there was, what’s free? And the answer is wonderful scenery. So production value, looks and the style of it came from the fact that we were photographing wonderful natural backdrops and just giving it a very different look whilst working with next to money.

What are some of the challenges presented by filming on location on a small budget?

We didn’t really have scope in the budget to be able to backtrack or go up for another few days and do pick-ups. We were somewhat at the mercy of the weather and we had terrible weather, it was extremely wet. It was a struggle sometimes. We had to play catch up on the day after we got rained out and things like that. The other thing is, you write the weather into the story. You can’t write a script where it has to be sunny and then go and it’s not sunny. You find a way to make it fit the story and make sense. Very often you’re the victim of happy accidents.

Are you forced to keep to a strict shooting schedule given the organic nature of the film?

It depends on the film itself because everything is a compromise. We’d all like to be able to say here’s a four or five week schedule and we’ll work six day weeks, we’ll have unit moves from A to B to C to D. We’ll put that energy in, we’ll got the whole thing shot and then move onto post production. When everyone’s chipping in and doing it for the love, you have to work around everyone’s availability, subject to their paid work. It’s a question of how long is a piece of string.

Monk3ys we had a nice intense four nights where we did the bulk of the shoot in the one location. Black Smoke Rising by its nature being very much a road trip for a large portion of the film, we did a lot of travelling in one chunk but then a lot of the other locations we did as and when we could as and when people were available. You definitely schedule a day’s filming and get that done. You have to have some discipline.

These films have been selected to go on Raindance’s new online VOD platform. What does that mean to you?

It’s great that those two films were accepted and embraced by Raindance both in the festival and once they decided to set up their on demand service. And it’s great to be at the forefront of that as the initial launch selection films. The way we work is very much in tune with the ethos of Raindance, with the real spirit of true independent films so it’s a very comfortable fit.

I think the future of film distribution certainly at this level, will be streaming online a lot more than it is now and time will tell, how quickly that will become more accepted.

Are there financial incentives to getting your film streamed?

It’s still in its early stages and time will tell what their reach is in terms of their publicity. What it does mean is that you’re not relying on the more traditional methods of marketing and exposure. You’re very much relying on viral, online, social media and that sort of thing and I think we’re all aware the power of that is growing exponentially. Obviously the films are available for a low price but it’s one avenue. Ultimately we’re looking to put films out in as many different places and formats as possible, to reach as many people as you can while the film has a shelf life.

What other projects are you working on?

TDB POSTERActually the last film we made is also available on Distrify. It’s called The Devil’s Bargain, so we’re running that through our own on demand release. We’re currently making a new film called Skinny Buddha, that’s in production at the moment. It’s a dark comedy, romantic comedy strangeness. And there are a few other things in the back pocket that we’re looking for money for again to try and get something with a bit more budget and a bit more clout. Things seem to be looking up generally so fingers crossed.

It seems incredibly hard to get anything made. What is it that keeps driving you forward?

It’s lunacy in short. It’s just a desire to make films and tell stories. It’s what I love doing. I’ve got a good bunch of people around me that share that passion and enthusiasm.  If we get a budget we’ll go and make it for a budget and if we don’t we’ll find a way to go and make something for very little. I’m not doing it principally for the money because if I was I’d have given up a long time ago. It’s just love of the art really.

Thank you very much Drew Cullingham

You can view Mon3ys and Black Smoke Rising now on Raindance Releasing

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