Review Fix chats with filmmaker Grant McPhee, who discusses his vampire/horror flick, “Night Kaleidoscope,” giving us an incredibly deep look at his process and how the film was made.
Review Fix: How was this film born?
Grant McPhee: The film was written and shot very quickly. A script, used really more as a backbone was written in a week and the actual shoot was also just a week.
It was one of 3 features I helped produce in a very short period of time – all three filmed in under 3 weeks total during a month between December 2013 and January 2014 (the week off being Christmas).
Film One which I co-produced and shot was Take it Back and Start all Over by Neil Rolland. Film Two was this; which I produced, directed and shot and film Three was Wigilia by Graham Drysdale which I also produced and shot. It was unsurprisingly quite an intense period but was part of a plan to create a series of micro-budget feature films which fit a set criteria for a proposed collective. These would be called Tartan Features (now Year Zero Filmmaking).
The collective was to be built around the structure of an independent music record label such as Sub Pop, Creation and Factory Records. Each film would be given a unique catalogue number, artwork – which would work for the overall image of the ‘label’ and they would also have to fit an overall image. In many ways it was (and still is) like a mini studio.
Each film would have to follow some of the below requirements:
1 – Be made on a microbudget (usually between $1K and $6K) but feel they punched way higher.
2 – Not follow standard genre tropes of micro-budget feature films – i.e. they had to use their budgets as something positive and not try to be like a cheaper version of a Hollywood or schlocjy horror film. It’s too simple to just make an exploitation film so if anything veered into that territory they would have to do it with some level of originality. Use your budget to make something an exec would not normally allow you to make – a great opportunity. Use the limitations.
3 – Not be afraid of failure or mistakes –one of the biggest rules. Film funding rarely allows for mistakes and thus people make safe films when given proper funding due to the fear of not being given a second chance. Safe films are boring and all exciting filmmakers have made films full of mistakes. You learn from mistakes and often mistakes reveal a real human element missing from many Hollywood films, which is something that really appeals to me.
4 – Trying something different. Doesn’t matter if you fail – you might fail but then again you might not, and beside there will always be something interesting which you come out with or can learn from. Just don’t copy anyone else – what’s the point!
5 – Diversity. We wanted things and people which would just not fit in anywhere else.
6 – Be a stepping stone. All the films were made with standard scheduling and budgeting used on larger films – the idea being they are scalable so if you get given a bigger budget with your next film the jump would not be so big. And in terms of getting a bigger film the hope was to make mistakes on these films; experiment and use them to move up to the next level.
Review Fix: Why do you think people love vampires so much?
McPhee: Vampires have definitely become archetypes. I think the variety and expectations are what appeal to people. It really depends on how they are handled though– often there can be alluring aspects which can be very appealing but also be horrific. Whether they are set up as antagonists or protagonists also makes a difference and people respond in very different ways to that, far more than with zombies. Ironically they are like mirrors to our desires or show what repulses us. Really, there’s just far too much to discuss and I’m not smart enough to be able to do that here! For us, and I’m trying to think back but I don’t think I ever mentioned the Night Kaleidoscope vampires being traditional vampires actually. I think there’s enough to give a suggestion but they are probably more allegorical.
Review Fix: How is your cast special?
McPhee: Cast – and crew are special in many ways and should be chosen carefully. Personality and how they fit in with the whole team are one of the biggest considerations that may be less obvious to anyone making this type of film. Although we always would stick to standard shooting hours these micro budget features fit A LOT into those days and that’s when personalities matter.
One of the biggest problems you can face is loosing time due to these clashes – not always with just you but others on set too – there really is no time for divas, and that includes directors!
Finding good actors who understand the process of making micro budget films is actually hard. They need to make compromises and that’s a tough ask, incredibly tough but I’ve always been lucky to find great people who are happy to go along with these crazy plans.
The bigger picture is always what is most important, and that’s not just your finished film but the independent film industry as a whole. By no means am suggesting there has to be a dictatorship, quite the opposite – everyone has to compromise but learning that everything does not have to be perfect is incredibly liberating and brave.
Finding the right moment to leave something and move on, or go back for another take is the biggest skill you need for making these films. A sound recordist will always aim to provide the best sound possible but sometimes that can not always be achieved in some circumstances. For example if you have 3 hours to film a scene and there’s an unexpected level of street noise they have to decide whether it’s ‘enough to get away with’ and complete the day, or risk loosing a scene by putting their foot down. At the end of the day their name is going to appear in the credits and they don’t want to be seen as providing bad sound.
A special sound recordist understands the nature of the shoot and will compromise their perfect sound for the integrity of the overall film. And conversely they will not let you film unusable sound if they deem it unusable. Trust. Special cast and crew understand that these films are not standard Hollywood and realise that skills are equally political, beyond their basic job descriptions. There’s more to just having a good showreel from an actor or cinematographer.
These people are few and far between and working with them is what allows these films to be made, without exception and that’s what makes them special. I’ve been very lucky and have very rarely met anyone who is the wrong fit. But they can be destructive. If you plan to make a micro budget film please build these relationships and don’t take anyone for granted. Also do your homework.
Review Fix: Any fun stories on set?
McPhee: Not exactly fun, just the usual bizarreness that anyone involved with my films has to put up with.
The principal shoot was incredibly well organised and scheduled by our Line Producer, Matt Brown and Production Manager Raluca Oros. They created a schedule which allowed us to improvise as far as we wanted but had bullet points to keep us on track if we drifted too far.
The rest of our week long shoot was taken up with pick-ups which were , err a little more freeform. I always treat each film as if it were a one-off art project as I think that can be reflected in the film. As mentioned above it’s really important that the right people are onboard which helps create the right atmosphere required – people join in as that’s where all the interesting and magic things occur (whether successful or not). You might loose something more traditional but you gain far more by building unique working environments and get results you’d never get by working any other way.
I didn’t think the results from the initial shoot had the level of atmosphere we needed so the pick-ups came about by trying to achieve this – and that required us to get into a zone where I thought we’d be able to come up with interesting ideas on a whim. I really like getting away from the strict rigidness of filmmaking as it can often be very counter productive to creativity – probably a reaction from my time as a camera assistant where everything it incredibly well organised. So I try and get each film into a balance of being free enough to improvise but with a back-up of a clever plan if things get too crazy. Though I should point out that safety is always the number one priority and I have little time for anyone who puts someone at risk.
Really we got ourselves into a place where bizarreness became the norm, which was a lot of fun, especially when we encountered moments of normality. Or forgot when day players less used to the madness came on set.
It’s maybe difficult from watching to see how improvised and shoestring some of the scenes and locations were. One of the dingy rooms where the vampires hang out was my hotel room from my day job. I went to the local supermarket and bought 100 rolls of tinfoil and just gaffer taped them to the walls and covered them in some red food colouring. The lighting was just a bit of blackwrap attached to the lightbulb on the ceiling. We got so used to working this way that we could just create scenes and sets in minutes and they somehow all fitted in with the general vibe. The hotel staff and other guests seemed miraculously to let us carry on.
Working like this, you just forget that not everyone else you meet during the production knows what you’re doing – but it’s amazing how accepting people are. I ended up filming some B Roll on my own in a housing estate (UK version of Housing Projects). As nearly all effects were practical we had to improvise with what we had to our hands. I set up at an entrance to a block of flats with a small DSLR in one hand, two sheets of blood covered glass in another (how we got the blurry effects) and some severed prosthetic hands in a pool of blood in front of me. 9/10 people would just step over you without even a question or odd glance, only the rare concerned voice asked what we were doing with all the blood. Maybe severed limbs were standard there.
The pub scene was filmed at 9am. We promised the regulars a free pint if they kept quiet. We unfortunately started running over and I had to start keeping people happy by buying bizarre goods they tried to sell. I felt obliged to buy a broken VHS camera to keep one particularly noisy customer quiet – sadly the tape inside contained nothing more sinister than the horse racing. As we carried on more and more customers would turn up as they hard on the grapevine that ‘someone’s making a film about vampires in council houses and giving out free pints’. We all got out on friendly terms though.
I decided – for editing reasons – to keep everyone in one set of clothes. That should make pick-ups super easy I thought. Unfortunately Patrick misplaced his jacket so we had to improvise with something from a local thrift shop. Most of the day was then spent trying to come up with ingenious ways to hide him in shadows. Oh, and how could I forget that he turned up for a pick-up with a full beard. But really, without Patrick’s complete understanding of the project – and ability to just let me to put him into bizarre situations we would not have the film.
A lot went wrong, especially on day one. We’d liaised with the local council to use a location weeks before and had checked everything was still fine on the morning – and they assured us it would be fine…. Our main actors turned up late due to a blow out – which put us 2 hours behind so not a great start. Things got worse as once they arrived and we literally pressed record the council decided to install wall cavity insulation which literally made the building shake. It took another two hours to get them to leave, making for a very unsatisfactory morning.
The joys of low budget filmmaking.
Review Fix: How did this film make you a better director?
McPhee: The film has definitely made me a better director though in less obvious ways. Not so much in what’s onscreen but definitely more in how I work offscreen.
From a purely sitting back and watching as a viewer perspective the film is very much a step back from my previous films Sarah’s Room and Big Gold Dream. BGD especially as that became a lot more successful than I ever expected and realised that some people would potentially watch this as a result of that – and likely be horrified haha
I’ve learned that the film industry is far bigger than any small film. I was quite disappointed with NK when I first saw an early cut and actually contemplated not releasing it, I was even a little embarrassed as I thought I could do better and had let people down. I rarely worry what others think but I do feel responsible for those who’ve taken their time to make this with me.
One of the reasons for making these collective films is for hopefully everyone involved to benefit. Crew gaining experience and cast hopefully being picked up for other roles – or at least be able to experiment in ways they are generally not allowed to. Because of the ideologies behind the film I had to put it out regardless of how it would affect me. And I’m very glad I did though as it taught me an awful lot about being a director and myself.
On purely technical terms it’s allowed me a better understanding of how films work – by having to work backwards and deconstruct the film to its bare bones to find out what went wrong. It felt like being a crime scene investigator or a surgeon. From the initial 5 day shoot I decided to shoot 2 more days of pickups. Partly as a ‘fix’ and partly to give it the colour and flavour I felt it needed that time restrictions did initially not allow.
The working backwards approach – learning from my mistakes – surprisingly was a massive learning curve. I learned an awful lot about what you can get away with in the editing suite and more surprisingly from a film with little plot an awful lot about scriptwriting. Definitely a massive, massive learning experience taken onto my next drama. And something that could only be learned from mistakes.
The more esoteric learning experiences were what ended up being the most rewarding and surprising.
The perseverance I learned is something that has come up in other films. Really filmmaking is not easy – otherwise everyone would do it – and training yourself to carry on when you really would rather give up is one of my most important lessons. If you don’t do it nobody will do it for you.
Loosing your sense of preciousness. It’s not just your film, its everyone’s and you have a responsibility to those who’ve given up their time to come on the journey. If the film is bad it’s not their fault – it’s yours and you have to accept that responsibility. Again that’s something I’ve learned that will greatly help me on future productions. It’s unfair to everyone else as there will always be something that someone, somewhere will benefit from. So release your films – always.
For you, even if the film is not amazing it’s all part of being creative. Creativity leads to creativity and will only benefit you.
You also have a responsibility to filmmaking as a whole. You become part of a community and you have to do your part in creating an industry. By not realising a film you immediately take yourself out of that community.
From a colleague putting out a press release for one of the early trailers I’ve learned how to do that myself (along with what I learned from my Big Gold Dream process). I think for the actual release of the film I managed to do a decent job on my own with self distribution. Possibly one of the most useful learning experiences. I’m currently using that to release and distribute other films with others to a much larger level.
Review Fix: What are your end goals for this film?
McPhee: I’ve mentioned a little above and below- while I know the film is far from perfect I hope there are enough moments which will show somebody that it is possible to make a feature in a week.
It’s not easy but there are so many clever folk around – with far more talent than I have that I really hope someone just goes out, writes a film and uses that to make a bigger film that inspires others to do the same too. And so on….
Review Fix: Bottom line-why must someone see this film?
McPhee: I’ve learned in the year that its been available that NK is not a film for everyone, which is quite all right with me. For such a difficult and unusual film I’m delighted that it’s received positive recognition and even some fans. There are many different types of filmmaker and they have many reasons for making films. Some make films for financial gain, some make films to get good reviews and many other reasons. I want to make films for ideological reasons and also because I like the type of film I make – which I know is often not to the tastes of many. When these films get positive reviews, or people like them or you get reviews which appreciate some parts and are honest about not liking others it genuinely makes it seem worthwhile. I don’t expect to make money but it feels like there are likeminded people who would maybe make their own film or can help the independent community in their own area and it’s incredibly rewarding. I think it’s really important for likeminded people to work together, there’s not always many but there’s power when likeminded people come together.
Whether someone does not like the film as a whole there may be elements they do like – and use. Inspiration can come from many sources. I’d be delighted if someone saw a scene, or a shot and somehow it inspired them to do something for their film. If people don’t like the film then maybe the process could help them make their entirely different film.
People hating the film is also great – I think it’s completely valid that something is so against what you want that you react to it in a positive way.
But I do hope there are some elements people like and hope it allows me to meet people who want to do similar projects.
Review Fix: How do you want this film to ultimately be remembered?
McPhee: As mentioned, the film is part of a collective called Tartan Features (Year Zero Filmmaking).
I hope this – and all the others under that umbrella will be seen as part of a movement that tried to do something differently. It may not be full of El Mariachi’s but there are films which have had an element of success. Some filmmakers have gone on to make much, much bigger films and I hope that every film in the scheme will be seen as part of the building blocks to something bigger. Whether as a stepping stone and never looking back, or someone going on to do something successful and helping others joining the movement. I’m positive that there are so many talented people involved with the other films that the collective effort will produce a great film.
I’m also hoping that this can be something that can be used around the world for other filmmakers. Indie filmmakers must work together and support each other.
Review Fix: What’s next?
McPhee: Two films are next. One is my most ambitious drama – definitely using the mistakes I made from NK – called Far From the Apple Tree. We tripled the budget and doubled the shoot time and think we’ve taken a film of that budget to a really high level. It’s still very much an idiosyncratic film but think it’s appeal will be far wider. It’s a Pop Art Fairy Tale made along the lines of 60s psychedelic youth films, music videos and pagan horror film. You can read about it here – /2017/11/13/the-visuals-of-far-from-the-apple-tree-creating-a-film-from-multiple-formats/