Case Study: Marc Evans
The director of Snow Cake and My Little Eye on his filmmaking career.
After plying his trade in TV drama, director Marc Evans made his big screen debut in 1997 with the acclaimed House Of America. Resurrection Man followed a year later, but it was voyeuristic horror pic My Little Eye (2002) that made the paying public sit up and take notice. Since then he's worked with Hollywood stars like Mena Suvari in Trauma (2004) and Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake (2006). Still, the Welshman has remained in Britain where he continues to make independent features. He discusses his career here...
First interest in filmmaking...
"I suppose I took a circuitous route because when I was at school I never thought about being a director. I thought I wanted to be a painter. I was going to go to art college but then I ended up doing a more general degree in History and History of Art at university. I wasn't sure what to do, but I always liked film and I started going to a film and video workshop in Cardiff and watching European art films in the cinema there, and something sort of clicked in my head. Then I got on to a one-year post-grad course - the Film, Television And Radio course at Bristol University. Michael Winterbottom was on the course as well, so it was a small but really vibrant group of people. I felt that I had found what I wanted to do.
"Then after university the first thing I did was become a runner for a production company in Soho. It was the 80s so there was a lot of commercials work going around and a lot of casual labour required. I made my first film when I was 24 on 16mm, 30 minutes long, and that was while I was still at Bristol [University] and a lot of the people from Bristol crewed on that. For me that was really important because the industry, such as it is, can feel very unwieldy and difficult to judge from the outside and you can spend a lot of time trying to get jobs in it. I think if you make something for yourself, a film that is 'you', you have a constant reminder thereafter about what it is you really want to do."
Moving into features...
"It's luck and timing really. I was out there trying to start off in the world when Channel 4 - more specifically the Welsh Channel 4 - had started, and suddenly there was quite a lot of jobs around. There were a lot of people doing drama on film, people making single dramas on Super 16mm with really great directors. I was lucky enough to end up working in production, mostly as a runner or assistant director or locations person. Through getting to know people in the independent sector I got involved with a company called Red Rooster and I became someone that they nurtured. They gave me my first proper directing gig on a small Welsh language drama - a half-hour drama - and I built it up from there.
"The first film is always really hard for anybody - it's like a first novel. You've got all this pent-up desire to make a film and you're very invested in that. House Of America was a proper 90-minute film with distribution and big cameras, all that stuff, and it feels like a big deal when you're confronted with that for the first time. It took me ten years from making my first short to getting House Of America. I was in a position where I was getting offered a lot of quality TV drama - I was doing this three-part series for ITV with Colin Firth [Master Of The Moor] - and I remember the producer telling me, 'You've got to decide whether you're going to stick with telly or make a film, because you're trying to make a film every time you make a television drama.' I made a decision then to make my first film, which didn't mean I immediately ceased doing any television, but I knew where I wanted to be.
"It's very seductive to be working in television as opposed to film, because it takes a while to get that position and you're not having to raise the money and hustle for the project you want to do. You're hired as an employee and you get to work with good actors, good scripts and you get paid very well - better than as a director of independent films. Generally speaking you don't get offered a film. Some people do, but more often than not you have to make a decision to go and do your own thing."
The difference between TV and film...
"I think British television drama, in terms of the restraints and demands they put on you, is invaluable training for making a film. It's pretty much the same job, to be honest. The cameras might be bigger, the whole scale might be bigger and the feeling of making a film might fill you with awe to begin with, but they're not that different. I remember when I was doing that ITV drama, at the end of every day the PA would fill in a report saying how many minutes on screen we'd shot, how much footage we shot, what the stock ratio was, the time you turned over in the morning, the time that you wrapped, how much overtime you incurred - I mean, in terms of efficiency, television drama demands a lot of you. You have to get four or five minutes - even more these days - in the can every day.
"It's a very industrial process and if you've been through that with television then you're making movies by another name really. I suppose you're more responsible for a film, because you're more part of the process of getting it to the point of shooting. In a strange way there are less people looking over your shoulder on a film set, on an independent film, but except for that it's pretty much the same.
"I think what happens when you do your first film is that your ambition is obviously greater than your experience. What happens a lot then is that you're trying to achieve too much, trying to do too much. Quite often the days get really long and the crew starts getting p***** off, whereas there are structures in place on a TV drama that don't let that happen.
"It can often be the case that you've had all this discipline, of being under the cosh on a TV drama, and you let the schedule run away with you a bit. You're overreaching and putting all that pressure on yourself. In a weird way it's because you feel it's your show. Not that I wasn't passionate about the TV dramas I was doing; it's just that I very much had a lot of people looking over my shoulder so I had to go by the book."
On-set directing style...
"I started off thinking that things like storyboards were a good idea and I certainly still use them, but more as a guide on something like an action sequence. If you're doing something complicated on set that's got every department involved, it's something everyone can read off and you can see yourself that you're getting the coverage you need. But, increasingly I would say - and it might go hand in hand with having more experience - you become looser and freer. I less expect to shoot what I planned to shoot at the beginning of a day. I let it happen a bit more with the acting.
"When I started off I had very clear ideas about the aesthetic I was going for, and I'm still very clear about that, but having an idea about the formal construction of a scene doesn't always correspond with what the actors are doing, or what the weather is doing, and you just have to shoot it. You learn to compromise like that, but you also learn to exploit and relish the accidental. That's very important because sometimes that's where the magic of a film can be... As well as being a very organised, industrialised medium, it's also very serendipitous with things just happening on the day. But, you have to be as organised as you can in order to be as free as you can."
Favourite part of the process...
"It changes. I think more and more it's about the edit, but when I was younger being on the set was everything. There was something really exciting about big hairy men moving equipment around to make these tiny, delicate images you've got in your head at 24-frames-per-second. It's a mad job that involves lots of human interaction and communication and collaboration, and yet you're trying to make this elusive, dreamlike thing. That's really exciting and gets the adrenaline going when you're trying to pull that off.
"Increasingly though it seems more like a means to an end - not that I don't enjoy being on set any more, but it's sort of about the edit. There's a moment you get in the cutting room when you realise every decision you made was the wrong one, but that's where the journey starts and you know there's an ending to it. It's finite what you're playing with, even if you do some reshoots, and a Zen way of looking at it is that the film already knows what it is, you've just got to find it. That's where the filmmaking seems to be."
And least favourite part...
"At every stage there's something which is annoying. In pre-production it's about developing the script and having to go through another set of notes, and it feels like the film is never going to take off. During production it's about time and money, simple as that. Time running out and money running out and you don't have enough time to try things. The frustration of post-production is more with yourself, when you're trying to bring this thing to be, but sometimes it's resistant to what you're trying to do.
"Then there's the awful hell you can get into if there are test screenings. They tend not to do it with British indie films, but when we did My Little Eye and Trauma, you get involved with the studios and you have to get into that. It's a nightmare scenario, but I learned something from it. We have a saying in the cutting room - 'Sacrifice a virgin every week'. You bring someone in who hasn't seen the film before and let them look at it as a fresh pair of eyes, because if you're just relying on your own instincts and opinions, you're very invested in them and you're too focused on what you're trying to do, so it's very useful to bring someone else in who can point out the most obvious thing to you, either plot-wise or character-wise, or even visually sometimes.
"There are so many things you learn along the way. With this frustration that you always feel as a director in post-production - that you have to somehow satisfy other people in terms of the film you're making - you have to remember that it is about clarity, narrative clarity. It's better to face that during the edit, when it's just you, the editor and maybe the producer."
Advice for budding filmmakers...
"Don't ask permission to make a film. If the first film you want to make is a big, historical epic about the Viking invasion that requires big sets, costumes and special effects, it's already a tough call. But if your first film is personal, and it could be a short or a longer film that's made incrementally, then... someone like Shane Meadows is the perfect example of this: he started making short films with his mates and in a way he never stopped making that film even if they became more ambitious and mature. You could see it all in his early films.
"So, it seems to me, even though it's hard and even though you might fall flat on your face, you have got the right to fail. You have got the right to go out and make it. Once you get to that position where you're needing enough money to try and make your film, you're asking the world for permission to do it, and that's a long haul. That's why you should just make something and make it as cheaply as possible. Try and make a film that is realistic to pull off... Just look at the listings and see how few art films there are out there at the moment and how the niche for those films is being squeezed out by the Hollywood studios. Really the trick now is not making the film but getting the film shown."
Stella Papamichael | Published 19 July 07