indieactivity: Give a background of your personal experience with the story, writing, production and marketing
Sean Drummond: The whole process is probably a book of its own, but in the short version: Michael (director) and I (Sean Drummond) have worked together for about 15 years, as has a lot of our core creative team. We initiated the project on a scouting trip for another film back in 2009. We were blown away by the landscapes and the former settler towns dotted around the interior of the country – parts of the country that coming from Cape Town we’d never really seen – and we were inspired to go deeper.
We did 8000 km (5000 miles) on the road visiting towns and once we’d found the areas that were right for what we wanted to do, we lived on location for a month and I went back yearly crafting the script down from the initial 200 page epic into the 100 page version that we went into production with. We drew on history, western genre influences – I watched westerns, read the scripts, read western theory – and spent a lot of story time in my own head to find the right balance between the genre and an authentic South African story.
We cast the film over 5 years, from 2011 until 2016 when we filmed. We were really lucky in that most of our original casting choices were able to carry through for the 5 years, and the script became more nuanced towards a lot of the actors as we carried on rewriting and developing while trying to raise the finance. Being the writer and a leading producer, it was a constant balancing act. It was a constant battle between vision and budget, and even into the final weeks of pre-production, where I had to take 13 pages out of the script because we couldn’t afford to shoot exactly what was on the page.
indieactivity: Did you start writing with a cast (You or any) in mind?
Sean Drummond: Not any particular actors for any character at the very beginning. But we were huge fans of a lot of great South African actors we dreamed of working with, and we were lucky enough to have a lot of them in the film. It took 7 years to get the film into production and we cast the film the first time about 5 years before we filmed, and almost all of our original choices stayed attached to the film, so as we progressed I did tweak characters in the script to suit the actors playing them. We tried to cast most of our actors against type and in roles their fans wouldn’t have seen them in before. And I think it’s safe to say they all knocked it out of the park. We have to give all the credit to Moonyeenn Lee, legendary casting director, who assembled this ensemble and taught us so much.
indieactivity: How long did you take to complete the script? (Do you have a writing process?)
Sean Drummond: The first draft of the script took about six months. After the scouting trip, we lived on location for about a month and I tailored the story to the space, researching, meeting people, hearing stories. Then back in Cape Town I wrote the prologue section when the lead characters are kids first. Got input from Michael and our core creative team. Then wrote the rest of the first draft, a 200 page epic.
The process was mostly streamlining and stripping it down to its most essential elements and by the time we were in production it was a 100 page script. There were 13 pages I had to take out in pre-production as we didn’t have the time or money to shoot the ideal version, but I think the film is lean and tight in its current form and we were able to achieve that without sacrificing character arcs. I always write from a place of character first and spend months just outlining character arcs before weaving them all into a full outline. Then I script. There was at least one rewrite a year for the seven years it took to get into production.
indieactivity: When did you form your production company – and what was the original motivation?
Sean Drummond: We formed Be Phat Motel in 2007, right out of University / film school. We were a group of creatives in different filmmaking fields who respected and admired each other’s’ work and shared goals in the sorts of films we wanted to make. We’ve always believed we could make grand, world-class genre film that was intelligent and challenging, as well as super entertaining, here in South Africa but for a world audience. That’s been the motivation and ideology ever since, in everything we’ve done.
indieactivity: What was the first project out of the gate?
Sean Drummond: There was a feature length documentary called Lost Prophets that I co-directed that was technically the first Be Phat Motel film, but it predates the forming of the company. The first project we were driving as Be Phat Motel Film Company was a feature film called The Lambda Child that we tried for about two years to get made. It didn’t ever go ahead, but we learnt a lot from it and used those skills to get our later projects all the way. It was way too big and too dark for us – a Greek mythology inspired supernatural thriller, back before everyone was doing them. I don’t know if we’d ever go back to it; I think there are great ideas in it, but there’s a lot that’s young in there. We’d need to go back to it and really give it an overhaul. I think the first project worth talking about that we got made was a short film called Sweetheart, a retro-styled black and white science fiction film.
indieactivity: During production, what scene (that made the cut) was the hardest to shoot?
Sean Drummond: So hard to say. We fought a lot of weather, time, budget constraints. It was icy cold, we got rained out, snowed out. Some of the long late, cold nights, were killers. There was one night in particular where we were shooting on top of a mountain with the coldest wind I’ve ever felt howling across the field we were on, and we were fighting to keep lights up. The coffee machine burnt out. Tents were blowing away. I feel like it might have been too windy to run our gas heaters. There was a day the whole crew got stuck on icy slippery roads and we had to race a small crew ahead to shoot a sunrise shot.
I remember running across a snowy field as the sun was about to come up carrying props that had been raced to me just so we had them in time. It was so cold we had to use stunt performers instead of our actual actors for the shot. We got rained out during our final climactic showdown and had to re-conceptualise the scene on the spot just to get it done before we wrapped the whole production. That was the last day. Fun times.
indieactivity: What works better in this production that mightn’t have worked so well in the last one?
Sean Drummond: This is by far the biggest we’ve ever done, so I’m not sure I could make any real sort of comparison. I want to say that this was the realest most professional crew setup we’d ever had – a great crew- and everyone weathered the punches and put their all into making the film happen. Everyone was committed to the same vision. That made it a pleasure even when it wasn’t exactly pleasurable.
indieactivity: You wrote and acted in the film, what measure of input did it take to don these hats?
Sean Drummond: I wrote and produced it and I directed the second unit, but I didn’t act in it. My voice might be in there somewhere. I was wearing just about every hat you could throw at me depending on the needs of any particular day. I did a lot of casting in the town before shooting. On any given day I was between banking, production logistics, approvals, tests, actors and crew and town concerns, and then directing the second unit, which was a tiny skeleton crew of about 5, so that included anything we needed to do to match the footage out main unit was shooting. It was kinda nuts.
I did a lot of work with the kids in the film, training them up before, then doing a lot of the biking footage with them, some of their action stuff, and a lot of the landscape driving stuff was us on second unit. I think being in that mode of ‘get the film done’ I would literally don whatever hat was needed at the time, and think about it afterwards. If I didn’t know how to do something, I sure as hell figured it out or put my head down until we got it right. It’s high stakes, indie filmmaking.
indieactivity: Is there anything about the independent filmmaking business you still struggle with?
Sean Drummond: Well, raising the money is always the hard part, and making sure you have the resources to achieve what you set out to do. It’s all about the right people I think, and making sure that no matter how squeezed you are on budget or schedule, the people who are there with you are really there with you and committed to making it happen. The stakes are super high all the time. There were no pickups, or reshoots for us. What we had when we left Lady Grey would be the film.
indieactivity: Where do you think your strengths line as a filmmaker?
Sean Drummond: That’s probably something to ask my regular collaborators. I think big picture vision, setting my bar very high and being able to put my shoulder to the stone and move heaven and earth to achieve it, often at whatever cost. I love the writing process and I love world-building. I love working with actors and the casting process too. Recognising where you can’t do something is a big strength I think. Film is all collaboration and a big part of the skill of producing is assembling the right combination of skills and creative minds to bring the best out of a film. Probably more than anything else, you put the right people into the right roles on and off screen and something profound locks into place.
indieactivity: Let’s talk finance, How did you get finance for a film?
Sean Drummond: This film was financed by ourselves at Be Phat Motel and our US co-producers at Game 7 Films. The finance was primarily private equity out of the US, with a South African National Film and Video Foundation commitment, the SA Department of Trade and Industry tax rebate and a smaller portion of local support from South Africa.
indieactivity: How much did you go over budget? How did you manage it?
Sean Drummond: The biggest issue was an expected recasting that meant we had to reshoot certain scenes and work our schedule around a new actor coming in halfway through shooting. It pushed the budget up quite a lot, and should have been insured against but the insurer rejected the claim on a technicality. After a year’s legal back and forth, we had to cut our losses and eat the cost – there was no way as an independent production we could fight an insurance company. Needless to say, we’ll never use the insurer again and have made sure that our personal networks know not to either.
indieactivity: How important is marketing? Do you think a project can make any dent without it these days?
Sean Drummond: Marketing is hugely important, and most importantly word of mouth. There’s so much noise and so much content being released all the time, and the only way really to stand out (especially when you don’t have a studio-sized marketing budget) is when people are talking about you. In fact I’d say that even if you do have a studio sized marketing budget but your word of mouth is negative, you’re still going to sink.
indieactivity: Can you tell us about your marketing activities on the project – and how it’s gone for you?
Sean Drummond: We were lucky to have great buzz in press, on social media and person to person during our festival run and South African release. We’re hoping for the same as we release in the US. We also put a lot of time and care into our marketing materials, from our trailers to our posters and artwork, with a really great team. We’re very proud of the campaign around the film. We did a lot of pre-screenings in different parts of South Africa, with tastemaker brands and platforms, with community organisations, at festivals and a design conference and we went back to the town we filmed in to show the community the film before it was released, and had some coverage of that.
indieactivity: What do you hope audiences get from your film?
Sean Drummond: Really you want people to be entertained first and foremost, and I hope they get a thrilling, moving ride from the film. But you want there to be more for an audience to chew on, should they choose to. We tried to layer this film with questions and challenges about today’s South Africa, how it still bears the scars of its past, where it is today and how it’s going to move forward. There are talking points in the film, particularly how it ends, and its been a real pleasure listening to and taking part in some of the discussion that’s come about after people watch the film.
We want to keep creating challenging, grand, global South African films and taking them to a world audience. We want people to see that there are bold, thrilling stories being told in Africa right now, and if someone in another part of the world watched Five Fingers and the film is a doorway to more films from SA that they watch, that’s the best we could ask for.
indieactivity: What else have you got in the works?
Sean Drummond: We have a madcap deep, dark supernatural thriller called Apocalypse Now Now in the works, based on the novel by Charlie Human. We also have a TV drama series, Acts of Man, which looks at religious hysteria and the colonial religious history of South Africa, by way of a small-town murder. There are other series and films on the slate, and we’re excited for the next few years. Watch this space!
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