Life Classes – Making a Low Budget Movie

by Simon Aldous

Earlier this year, with my film-making partner Robin Morgan, I completed my second feature film Life Classes, made in my spare time for £10,000. Twenty years ago that would have been something to truly brag about. When Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000 people were disbelieving. But with the availability of inexpensive video cameras and editing software, the price barrier to making a feature has melted away – now all you need is an idea and stamina. Lots of stamina.

From initial concept to finished film, Life Classes took five years. Somewhere in the middle of that was a 15-day shoot, which is where most of the money got spent. The first two and a half years comprised the writing and the planning; the last two and a half have been spent in an agonisingly slow post-production process.

Eight years previously we made a feature for £1,500. These Are Your Creams was set in Norfolk at the self-styled national pub quiz finals. It was the first film we’d made, and something we could have only done from a position of complete naivety about the vast scale of the task we were attempting.

We then proceeded to work our way down, next making a fully-crewed short film, Something Gnawing At Me, before Robin started up a film club, which met every two months, with members going out with their consumer video cameras and making no-budget short films on a different set theme.

As time went by, club members became more ambitious, until it was suggested that we team up to make a feature-length production. I suggested a portmanteau film with different segments linked by a theme.

I had in mind some kind of self-help forum where the attendees were told to go and apologise to someone they had wronged in their lives. Our film could start with the initial meeting, and then each film-making team would tell a different person’s story.

One of the other film-makers, Nigel Crowley (whose claim to fame is that he played the younger Gordon Collins in Brookside), had liked the idea of people meeting up, and, based on that, came up with the idea of an evening class, where the people meeting up were planning to murder someone. I liked the idea of an evening class being a cover for some contract killing agency, and thought it would be amusing if there was a mix-up so that an innocent student ended up at this class, while a killer went to a different class, thinking he was receiving instructions for his next assignment. The innocent person, meanwhile could inadvertently give the impression he was a killer. It seemed clear I was in the realms of comedy here, and what better class for comedy potential than a life drawing class. Yes, I had my opening scene. Close up on a woman. A voice says “shall we begin then?” and she takes off her dressing gown. Pull out to reveal art class. I was on a roll.

But when we next met to discuss the project, Nigel had devised an entirely different story, for which he had written a detailed treatment: an episodic tale involving a suitcase of stolen money that would find its way into the lives of four successive sets of protagonists, with each team producing one of the adventure . For my part I had devised four different protagonists, with the intention that four teams would produce stories based around the evening classes idea for these four characters. When more than one character shared a scene, each team would shoot it their way, so we saw the scene several times from different characters’ perspectives.

I preferred my idea. Nigel’s felt like a very linear structure, a relay race with the baton being handed over; while mine was dancing round a maypole, with the different strands wrapping round each other.

No one else seemed to have any strong opinions either way. Maybe they were already getting cold feet. Even Nigel said he didn’t mind which one we made. At which point I said in that case could we do mine, and went off to write a more detailed treatment, colour coded to clearly indicate which section was being covered by which team.

So we now had a treatment and four directors: Nigel, Tristram, Paul and Robin (with me as Robin’s writer). We met to work out a strategy. Paul said he planned to shoot his segment in the style of a 40s war movie, which would have been interesting. We left the meeting agreeing that we’d each write a first draft of the script for our character, and then meet again in a month to see how the whole thing shaped up.

I duly wrote my scenes for Katrina the life class teacher, while Nigel wrote some for Barry the contract killer. Tristram emailed to say he didn’t feel he could commit the time to the project, and Paul just never got in touch again.

The envisaged collaboration was clearly not going to happen. Perhaps it was just too big a step up from DIY 10-minute shorts. Maybe people didn’t want to put a lot of time into making their part only to have it let down by the others  – perhaps they just didn’t like the story.

I very much did like the story, so I suggested to Robin that we make the whole thing ourselves. On the other hand, the scenes Nigel had written were very good, so I told him we were planning to make the film anyway and suggested that he go and write the scenes for innocent accountant Darren, while I tackled undercover police detective Anna. I then stitched our scenes together to create a first draft. Nigel and I each thought the other had written some pretty funny scenes, although we weren’t happy with the structure or the ending, both of which had become more conventional and less interesting over time.

This whole process had taken a good 10 months, and we were now in February 2007, but hoping to film that summer. Then Robin dropped the bombshell, that his wife was pregnant with their second child, scheduled  to pop out that July, so no one was going to be making any films that year. Or in fact till September the next year.

I felt deflated, but that October I came back to the script with fresh eyes and did another rewrite, making the ending less about the victory of the good guys, and making more of the time jumps and other narrative trickery that I felt had been a strong aspect of the original concept.  I sent the rewrite to Nigel for feedback and with the hope that he could contribute to some of the new scenes I had written. But Nigel did not like the new un-Hollywood ending..

Robin and I felt that not having a conventional heroic Hollywood character arc for the protagonist made the script more interesting, and truer to the characters. We were fundamentally at odds with Nigel, and it seemed we couldn’t accommodate his views without completely going against ours. This is I suppose what it means to be producers. We were the ones making the film, putting up the money and the time, and we wanted to do it our way. We failed to bring Nigel round to our point of view, and he didn’t contribute another word to the script after that point, and became very sidelined from the whole production, which was a shame, but also makes me wonder how well the original plan for four autonomous film-making units would really have worked.

It was now January 2008. We had the shoot planned for September, so it was time to kick the preproduction process into gear, meeting once a week to go through the script, produce storyboards, and generally work out how we were going to create each scene. Come July we were gathering a crew and auditioning for actors, mostly found through Shooting People. We were mindful that we needed a particularly strong performance for the lead role, and were very pleased to find Henry Maynard, who we cast chiefly on the basis of a short he’d starred in.

The actual shoot was intense hard work but ran pretty smoothly – it had to since we had a vast number of locations and scenes to cover in 15 days. As well as Robin and myself we had a crew of seven – DOP, camera assistant, wardrobe, makeup, sound, production designer and assistant director, all keen to get feature film experience. I’d have liked to have been more involved with the directing side, but was kept busy as a producer-cum-runner, particularly kept busy on the catering front since it seemed important to provide decent coffee and nice meals for all these people giving their time for free,  and no one is going to do catering for free – plus you should have seen how the rice turned out when I did entrust the cooking to one of the runners.

Post-production was just soul-crushingly slow. This I think is where we really missed the money. We had dreadful problems with the sound, which any production with basic funding could have paid someone to sort out in a couple of weeks. We just had to plough through it in the spare hours we had in between work and bringing up young families. Plus after the first nine months you start to want your life back.

But now it’s finished, and we’ve had a few screenings. Am I happy with it? I’ve watched it too many times in such close detail to have a proper opinion, but when I’m sitting with an audience who are enjoying it then I feel very satisfied. We’re sending it to festivals, of which there appear to be thousands, though most charge entry fees, and hoping it strikes a chord with some of the selectors. And in the meantime I’ve begun work on a new screenplay, and we’re saving up the money and summoning up the energy to do the whole thing again.

The “Life Classes” website is here.

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5 thoughts on “Life Classes – Making a Low Budget Movie

  1. Fascinating piece, especially compared with the book club choice: opposite poles of the movie-making experience.

  2. I’ll post screening dates on the @mostlyfilm Twitter feed as and when.

    Sure, might mean a lot of angry Dr Who fans showing up, but an audience is an audience, right?

  3. I really want to see this film now.

    I like the idea of a short film club too, but most of mine would probably be stop-frame animation co-productions with Little. “Barbie Gets Dressed” is our latest work-in-progress.

  4. I’d like to see a longer version too. How did you fi your sound and what equipment/tech did you use?

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