The MakingHow To Disappear Completely
Winter 2001/2002 A pitch for a short caught my eye, and the script that came over from Jason Young in Canada hooked my interest with it's beautiful dialogue and ideas, I was sure with a little work we'd have a very simple short we could put into production in the coming summer. Jason proved to be a pleasure to develop a script with and by early 2002 we had a final draft and were ready to go into production using our regular team to act and crew.
Summer 2002; Pre Production #1 Our other short Dealer was running over and with disappointment I had to put Disappear back to the end of summer, grateful that Jason didn't just take the script elsewhere. We found locations including a wildlife park with the deer and badgers we needed shots of, Rob Fairlie came on board with a DV camera and arranged the post production through his contacts, and three amazing photographers made up a portfolio for our photographer lead character, finally, having tried to cast friend Michelle Munden unsuccessfully as the female lead we cast a fine replacement; everything was looking great... Then began what has become known as The Curse of How To Disappear Completely.
September 2002; Production #1 Low budget scheduling sucks; if you aren't paying people you have to work around other jobs, this was still delaying Dealer, and with Disappear also the schedule was tight plus it all had to be under blazing sunshine. Three shoots were arranged and cancelled, and by the time we got into the countryside The Curse was really getting going, and it appeared that our rather everyday looking stretch of road was, in fact, "The Land Where Clouds Are Born". We spent all day sat in a car, occasionally scrambling when a tiny patch of blue appeared nearby; but it was pointless, we didn't get anything worthwhile, scheduling wasn't clearing up, and once again I had to cancel the project.
Winter 2002/2003; Pre Production#2 We decided to get some funding so that we could pay everyone; our regional Film Council body, Screen South, was about the only place to get short funding so we drew up a budget with 70% already sourced through freebies and our own pockets, wrote in a work experience program to "benefit the community" and I headed to London for a meeting with them in March feeling positive. In that meeting I was told that the script (probably the only truly complete short I have ever read) was too experimental, that film festivals weren't a good way to promote shorts, that "calling card" films were pointless ("We just see people coming back and needing more funding" like it's the most inconceivable thing not to make an entire career out of a single short), and that the only way to run a film company was to make TV programs; The Curse had convinced the Film Council that the way to create a "British Film Industry" was to encourage everyone to make TV.
Spring 2003; Production #2 Funding out the window work started on a flashback sequence requiring winter filming; we secured the Pentagon Shopping Centre in Chatham as a location, got clearance to use a Photo-Me photo booth as a prop, and cast a great actor to replace the busy Dave Smith in the lead role; David House. The Curse was still in effect though and we had freakishly sunny weather through March and April just when we needed rain. Finally we started shooting in May, joined at least by one work experience student Sheena Holliday, who sent us two really cool shorts she'd made herself, and was enthusiastic enough to travel something like 200 miles for the pleasure of working with us; filming went as well as could be expected with 500 unknowing general public extras and a very mixed bag of hard working actors.
Summer 2003; Pre Production #3 We started planning the summer shooting for July; I needed a new female lead, location permission for some land, and to rearrange our deal with the wildlife park. Casting for the girl pulled in 200 applications and I spoke to both locations who said everything sounded fine, but as was to be expected The Curse wasn't far behind this good fortune. In July we visited the wildlife park to discover our contact had left the previous day in less than friendly circumstances and the chief exec expected us to pay £500 for our 3 hour shoot. The next day the other location came back to me suddenly furious with some tiny nothing in the contract they'd had for over a month and wanting to pull out, then later that day my 200 actresses reduced to zero as it became clear that the girl in my head wasn't going to be easy to find; I started to think "we're fucked".
After calling everyone I heard that the same Michelle Munden I'd wanted in the part almost a year ago was now really keen to do the film, first obstacle removed I looked at the locations and offered the wildlife park less money for less time, and told the other location we'd change the stuff in the contract they didn't like; they came straight back saying they'd look over it, then ignored all my future contacts, the wildlife park didn't even bother to reply. Rob and I decided to try for the animal shots in the wild and spent several days and hours trekking around Kent looking for a rabbit to replace the badger, returning home with a single grainy zoom shot of some ears behind a bush.
Summer 2003; Production #3 Eventually we found a patch of public land to shoot on and started on the main body of the film, spending the hottest days on English records out in the midday sun, with little but a field full of interested looking horses and the occasional befuddled yokel for company. Things suddenly started going smoothly with David and Michelle putting in solid performances and the crew working hard. We also found the beautiful Knole Park to film the deer at and spent a day shooting there with a friendly doe who seemed to enjoy her fifteen minutes and soaked up plenty of head pats and jaffa cakes. In no time summer was almost over and so was principle photography; all we had left to capture was the badger/rabbit footage; we had found some land owned by someone's parents teeming with rabbits and felt it was all more or less in the bag, thoughts started to turn to editing.
With summer rapidly dying we headed out loaded with cameras, munch, and groundsheets, set up a basic hide near some rabbit holes, and settled down patiently. It was an exercise we'd repeat several times over the following weeks, well into November and through several colds, wind, and rain, which would result in hours of footage of wild rabbits generally sitting around stock still (rabbits are amazingly dull) and absolutely no shots of a rabbit leaving it's burrow which was what we needed, we eventually had to quit when the autumn leaves on the ground became too obvious and turned to stock footage instead, until we were offered the "reduced rate" of £1300 per minute for some grainy old shit from the seventies shot by either a drunk or a horse with the camera taped to his head; The Curse was back, and it was refreshed and ready for action.
Winter 2003; Post Production Desperate to keep things moving Rob and I started on getting the first few edits together and worked our way through a long list of contacts for some cheaper footage, while suggestions rolled in for more places to get the wild rabbit/badger shot of doom; eventually we got in contact with the National Federation of Badger Groups who were unfailing in their efforts to put us into contact with people who could help, it took some time but eventually we had the fortune of filming a wild badger in the required sunny daylight, it was far from perfect but we were widely assured that we were pretty lucky to get what we did so we cut our losses and headed for the edit suites.
A highly kitted out facility and their highly cool staff had offered us downtime use of their numerous Avids and other magic boxes, over about 10 days we became permanent dark eyed fixtures lurking around the night shift; many of whom showed a surprising interest in the famed badger shot, and for the male contingent at least, a less than surprising interest in Michelle. We laid down a great voiceover, offlined on an Avid, onlined on another Avid, graded the picture, ARCed it to widescreen, got a great sound mix with the wonderful Aqualung soundtrack cleared by our legal demon Vanda, and all sorts of other things with flashing lights and dials were liberally employed to alter one thing or another. Rob and I both hit a weird point during editing where objectivity was just completely lost, the story, the shots, the sounds, everything was just so familiar it felt impossible to tell if it was really any good, whether it conveyed the story and ideas; we were soon to find out, a whole 28 months later from receiving the script production finally closed down and we moved into the marketing and distribution phase with an ambitious festival application list.
2004; The Festivals We decided to start ambitiously; after all you only get one world premiere. Both Cannes and Melbourne International were close and there wasn't anything else big we were going to be eligible for for sometime afterwards. The version we eventually sent was most definitely a working print and it wasn't too surprising we didn't get accepted to official competitions. The Cannes Film Festival however had launched a new section called the Short Film Corner; for about £100 you got an official screening, inclusion in the database (which also went to Clermont Ferrand), inclusion on the video server, and all access registration; it seemed a bargain so we went for it. Exec producer Vanda Rapti and lead actor David House attended and got drunk a lot. With the rest of Europe and Australasia looking quiet for big industry festivals we decided to just apply to everything that we thought looked cool...
Vienna Independent Shorts in Austria was our next screening, and the feedback from the organisers and audience was good; as our first true public screening this was a relief! Some time ago Wreck Beach International in Canada had invited us to enter a film after being "pleasantly surprised" by the website; most Canadian festivals do not demand much more than a regional premiere so we were pretty free to apply to whatever without having to worry about being ineligible for anything else, we had a nightmare getting an NTSC conversion in time, and eventually had to turn to Fed Ex who managed to deliver about a day before the festival; fortunately the organisers liked it and the audience apparently liked it even more in spite of being rained on. Next up was Melbourne Underground, who had for some reason selected us even though their theme was screen violence (completely lacking from our film!), then kindly scheduled us alongside 9 other shorts all made in Australia; nontheless it was great to be part of such a loudmouthed trouble making festival that had 3 films entirely banned from screening only to replace them with screenings of the Paris Hilton sex tape.
Finally our UK premiere came and went pretty quietly in London's The Elgin pub as part of the huge Portobello festival then things moved on to the prestigious Edinburgh International; we'd missed out on the deadline for competition but found a way in through the Film UK scheme which makes every UK made film in the last year available in the festival Videotheque; by pure fluke lead actor David House was in town for the theatre festival anyway, and so got to expand his experience of blagging a way into the world's most high profile film events and dragging people in to see our film.
September was a busy month and our US premiere rapidly followed at LA Shorts, screening at the famous Arclight Cinemas on Sunset Blvd, the African premiere rapidly followed at Egypt's Ismailia Film Festival, we had three screenings in London with different events, one held at the legendary 100 Club in Oxford Street, and the month rounded off nicely at Antimatter in Canada who very kindly named the section of the festival we appeared in "How To Disappear".
Things began to slow down and it looked like we were nearing the end of Disappear's run, then in a chaotic four days we received two awards from Wreck Beach in Canada (belated, but no less welcome!), unusually picking up Best Music Video, but taking great pleasure in beating the shorts and features to scoop Best Cinematography in recognition of Rob's XL1 acheivements. A couple of days later we heard from Italy's prestigious MIFED film market who, alongside the Italian National Film School and a jury including Patrick Vom Bruck and Rutger Hauer, liked the film so much they named us one of the leading young filmmakers in Europe, the best in the UK, and invited us to attend to market with free accomodation, food, screenings, and exhibition space; a day after that Leeds International called to say they wanted to feature it in their "Best of UK Shorts" section, it was clear our little baby had some life left in it yet...
Piper, Fairlie, and House (uninvited but blagging again!) headed out to Italy to pick up the award and present the film to the industry where it received plenty of praise and attention, we got in a public screening in the Milan Fnac perhaps most notable for Piper's introduction in sort of flawless Italian. More screenings popped up in the UK, with Leicester's Can Film Festival, Brighton's Final Cut screenings, and Leeds through the end of October, as the new year came around and other projects came to the fore we packed in a last mass application and then decided to let things quieten off except for the occasional screening.
Despite our plans, Disappear remained ever popular, it was the closing film at Euroshorts in Poland, headed to it's most northerly screening at Anchorage, and was well received by an intently focused audience at the first City Screen York short film screenings. Perhaps most interestingly MIFED completed their compilation DVD and started marketing the package of films to festivals for screenings, and an Italian distributor had popped up wanting to release the film on a DVD with the other winners of MIFED; negotiations got rolling with Warners but no sooner had we started than the project was cancelled as not all the producers agreed to the distribution deal.
Slightly crestfallen, we needn't have been, more screenings popped up at the university of York and at the Screen Room Cinema in Nottingham, who put us on for a one week run playing alongside Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes and Wong Kar Wai's 2046 thanks to the good people at Wellywood Shorts. Cinequest's Viewer's Voice Awards also got rolling in the US, with the general public invited to vote on a selection of short films competing for screenings at the main festival; we didn't make the final cut but got some pretty great feedback out of it. Moving into Spring the film remained popular at screenings, festivals, markets and events around Europe including Aesthetica Magazine's Tsunami Aid Night, the very cool Warrington Film Festival, and a special guest appearance alongside other MIFED winners at the European Cinema Festival in Italy; a features-only festival usually.
As May 2005 came around, How To Disappear Completely's life on the circuit began to wind down, a full year after it's debut at Cannes and almost four years after I had first read Jason's script. During it's time it packed in over 50 screenings at more than 30 events in 12 countries across 4 continents around the world, receiving acclaim from audiences, juries and critics. A combination of format and lack of budget or festival strategy experience prevented it from becoming a truly premier league short, but it made it clear that we really did have something special happening at Coffee Films, and we were ready to let everyone else know about it.
How To Disappear Completely will forever remain a very special project where we all grew up a lot and learned what film producing was really about; from development through to distribution. The poetry that is Jason's dialogue, and the experience of turning it into a film has changed the way that I, and the company, move forward through life forever. Besides the obvious things like contacts, website hits and a nice award plaque, there has been a far more profound affect as the natural world that Tristan loves so much cast it's spell on me as well; largely thanks to the wonderful little deer that chose to let us film her that day so long ago now. Even I couldn't have imagined our work that day would eventually raise the sponsorship and confidence for our company to embark on wildlife documentaries like The Last of the Scottish Wildcats; a project so important that the fate of an entire subspecies of creature could be positively affected by it's success; and how more rewarding a project could there be than one that might save a part of the natural world and bring our misguided species a better understanding of it? How To Disappear Completely has evolved way beyond just being our "baby", it has become our enlightenment, almost a religious experience of revelation that has also enhanced out ability and reputation as communicators to tell the world some stories about itself.
So for the last time a heartfelt thank you to the people who helped me make this film happen; to Jason for the masterpiece that is his script, to Rob and Vanda for their dedication and mastery of legal and technical things I am lost by, to David for his unending support of an unpaid ten day shoot, to all our wonderful friends and supporters who gave so much for so little as cast and crew, to the deer, badger, rabbits and mascot Coffee for being difficult but ultimately fun and inspirational animals to work with, but most importantly to the soul of the film itself, that final cut that was so much greater than the sum of it's parts; you helped to change everything and we'll always love you for it.
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