February 3, 2012

Justin Tagg : The Score

This week we bring you Justin Tagg, a talented short film writer & director, but that's not all he does. He's got some exciting plans that he wants you to be involved in, so why not jump straight in the deep end and read on Monkey's, read on.

[YCC] Your turn in front of the camera… can you send us an image that you think best sums you up?

[JUSTIN TAGG] This is me winning a hiking trophy with the scouts. I remember on the day we were not expected to win, we were a relatively rookie team and I’d never hiked before, certainly not 18 miles. But when we got moving we just didn’t stop, we kept on pushing each other to keep going. We imagined what it would be like if we managed to get right to the end without stopping once. And it hurt! We were all breaking in our first pair of walking boots. But, you know what, we did keep going and we passed a lot of teams who had breaks for their lunch and for a chat. By the end, we had passed everybody and won by about 45 minutes.

I can’t say we were the best hikers ever. But we really wanted it, and when it came down to the main event; we didn’t stop for sandwiches!

[YCC] So, Justin, you’re an award winning director, filmmaker, writer and University lecturer, how do you find the time? Is that what you wanted to be when you grew up?

[JT] The quickest answer is, I don’t always find the time. I’m not sure there is enough time to do all of the things you want to! But if it really is something you want you make the time, you push things around and find space.

I’ve had some really odd jobs, I was a bouncy castle attendant (which was actually quite fun), counted cash in a vault under the Humber Bridge, replaced stickers which said ‘Made in Spain’ with stickers which said ‘Made in Argentina’ on thousands of pieces of copper sheeting. I know I’m pretty lucky to do things I really enjoy now.

I remember, when I was a kid, I would beg to stay up late so I could build spaceships from cardboard boxes and sit in them in the garden looking up at the stars. I guess I never wanted to have a job I didn’t feel that way about. When you’re excited by what you do, it doesn’t feel so wrong to spend more time doing it.

 

[YCC] Who are you inspired by when it comes to film making, technically, visually or otherwise?

[JT] I’m impressed by Daren Aronofsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan… and anybody who ever got off their arse to get something done that somebody said they couldn’t!

I think most of my inspiration for film comes from elsewhere though. In fact I’d say whilst I love film, it is story I truly love and film just happens to be the medium I work in right now.

I’m a scifi fan and I read a lot, I love stories that use really HUGE ideas but, rather than becoming gimmicky, actually focus us even more powerfully on the little human stories at the heart or challenge our ideas of what it is to be here, now and alive.

I’ve read a lot of Phillip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, I loved ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamayatin (which predates 1984, and George Orwell references it as his direct inspiration). I also read a lot of Jeff Noon when I was in University too, it was life as I knew it… but MORE and that hooked me. When I look back at those stories it was the people, the relationships, the pressures etc. that I connected to but without the ingenious set ups I may not have got past the first page.

 

[YCC] Can a technically minded production for a film excuse a poor story line?

[JT] That’s tougher than I’d like it to be. The simplest answer is that a bad story will not become great through excellent crafting… but it can become better. I don’t think throwing money at something will save it but then not every piece of cinema or design work is trying to tell the greatest narrative. I suppose I am a fan of the full spectrum of storytelling. Sometimes I don’t need the best story, I want to watch something I can relax into, something familiar, with the same characters and the same ending. We all have those guilty pleasures and the work done behind the scenes is often really impressive, despite the story. There are many films, which were never going to win the best film Oscar but quite rightly got a host of awards for the feats of, at times, genius which went on in other creative departments.

But, if I was to be really, brutally honest. I have no interest in making films just to make films. I want to tell stories that are worth telling and, as often as possible, surprise an audience or take them somewhere they just were not expecting. For me, story is the most important thing. But that’s me. Wherever possible I have tried to avoid effects if I can do something for real. The best stories often come from truth in extraordinary circumstances and you can really tell when story is led by character or simply by it’s budget.

I love it when effects and technique disappear and you do not even notice they’re there, when technical decisions are actually born FROM story rather than used to paper over the top. That’s when crafting is REALLY successful, when you forget it’s there and lose yourself in something.

 

[YCC] What are your top 3 films that you would recommend to aspiring filmmakers?

[JT] The Third Man, Requiem for a Dream, As Good As It Gets… and Chinatown… and Groundhog Day…and… it’s hard to stop at 3.

I would however suggest another little list of short films that are worth watching.

SOFT by Simon Ellis is a brilliant piece of work,

THE BLACK HOLE by Phil Sansom and Olly Williams is one of the best examples of short form film I’ve ever seen.

I saw a lovely little short film too last week called LOS GRITONES which is just great, really nicely done. Each of those short films is about something totally different and produced in an entirely different style and yet they all are born out of an insight into human nature, that’s why they travel and connect to so many people.

It’s also really worth looking at early films of directors who have made it now.

DOODLEBUG by Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception, Batman Begins) is one of my favourites and I would also recommend reading some screenplays. If you have a passion for a medium you should do your research. Aspiring filmmakers don’t read enough screenplays, it’s odd. I can’t imagine many writers never reading a novel.

 

[YCC] Why teaching over full time film production?

[JT] I love teaching and I am lucky enough to be involved with an outstanding course. I teach on the BA(Hons) Creative Advertising degree at the University of Lincoln working with some of the most motivated students I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They’re so alive and excited about everything and they really want to affect the world.

Our course philosophy is built around hard work and play being a part of the ideas generation process, we have fun but produce exciting, innovative work that delights and engages audiences with a sense of wonder, whilst still staying true to an understanding of human nature. For example, putting people at the centre of problem solving and understanding why they do the things they do, rather than telling people what they SHOULD do and expecting them to change.

All of our students know that nobody will hand them their dream job, they have to earn it and add value wherever they go. This makes them hungry and their hunger inspires us. I hope it works the same for them because, as staff, we live what we teach.

When you’re writing you need a few sparks around you and you need to keep sharp. To teach something you really have to understand it at it’s core and that is a difficult thing, but once you do, as with all good communication, you can then talk about it in different forms. That level of intensity is a real catalyst and I think my writing has improved and led to simpler executions through my close relationship to the craft.

I once heard a really true phrase ‘When we lose momentum, we lose the thread’. Teaching keeps the momentum up and writing/filmmaking keeps my teaching fresh, I hope! (You’ll have to ask the students that)

 

[YCC] One of your early shorts The Paperboy did very well on the film scene, and yet it only cost you £30 to make, is that true?

[JT] It’s a half truth. It was made whilst at University and cameras, lights etc. were all available for free whereas they could have cost a lot to rent. Beyond that, however, we did get a lot for free and, yes, we did only lay out £30. When you start the right conversations with the right people and really engage with them you can get a lot for free or ‘in-kind’ support. The only cash we ever laid out was on taxis to take us and our kit to our location (5 days x £6 taxi fare). We managed to get a crane, milkfloat, location, tapes, actors (members of the public) etc. for absolutely nothing. We worked with the resources we had but were not limited by them. It turned out pretty well and has been to more countries than I expect to visit in my lifetime!

 

[YCC] We’re in a quite a lucky position, in that your latest film ‘Mouse’ is currently in the pre-production stage, tell us a little bit about it?

[JT] Of course! I’m so excited by the chance to use story to challenge the way we see reality and our own identity. Mouse is a great example of that and of how low budget film does not have to be low quality, it’s bold, mostly one location, no dialogue and, I think, intriguing from the first moment to the last.

It’s about a man named Anderson, who wakes in a building with no idea where he is or how he got there, before discovering that in each of the rooms around him are a thousand clones of himself, all of whom woke into the same mysterious scenario.

To escape he needs to outwit his 'selves' whilst overcoming the realisation that he is not the only Anderson...

It’s all about what it is to be unique. But, rather than just throw that thought out directly, wrapping it in story is like a beautiful little thought experiment… Who are you if you’re not the only you? And could you out think a clone of yourself?

We are crowdfunding for our budget and have been overwhelmed by the wonderful support we have had. We’ve just hit 84% funded and have turned our thoughts to beating our target rather than just meeting it. The funding campaign ends on the 24th Feb. It’s been a refreshing thing to know that the budget is in our hands, we can make it happen… we just have to take action.

We’ve also been very lucky to get some great people involved. We have a very talented guy called Daniel Southgate who has great experience working on the Visual Effects of some pretty big films (Sex and The City, Burn After Reading), composers/sound designers Verbal Vigilante who regularly produce scores for Hollywood trailers (John Carter, Red Tails, Men in Black 3, Skyline). Not to mention some beautiful visual work being produced to help sell the tone of Mouse by concept artist Paul Burrow (www.scifiartist.com) . We’ve also got some wonderful poster artwork being designed by the seriously talented Simon C Page (//excites.co.uk/). They’re all magicians as far as I’m concerned.

We are aiming to get as much money as we possibly can to make Mouse an utterly stunning short film experience and we would love people to take a look at the pitch video and, if they’re in a position to, donate to the budget (www.sponsume.com/project/mouse). There are some wonderful rewards for doing so, like the concept visuals shown below, in fact £50 gets a download link to the film, DVD copy, a postcard of the poster by Simon C Page and a limited edition, signed and framed concept visual (1 of only 50 in the whole flippin’ world)!

We have no worries about going beyond our target, the more we get the more we can use to produce the best short film of 2012!

 

[YCC] Crowd-funding a project is a novel idea, and it seems like it’s working, but how can you predict how much a film is going to cost?

[JT] Well, you budget… for everything. From daily rates of cast and crew right down to the cost for producing the catering to feed them all. So yes, you can predict it and you can reduce it in a variety of ways, by getting in-kind support from people who want to donate their time to be involved and by being creative with what you have available to you already. You do have to be ready for contingencies though. Things do go wrong and you need to be ready to change route when the direction you are heading in is not going according to plan. The better prepared you are though the less damage those changes will make.

 

[YCC] …Sci-fi on a low budget, is that possible without making the scenes a little tacky?

[JT] Absolutely! There are several reasons why. For one, cheap doesn’t mean bad. Cheap often means nothing more than you have to be very creative with the resources you have, it can force more interesting decisions, more efficient shooting and a more driven team. You only have to look at a film like PRIMER, a BRILLIANT sci-fi concept shot for only a few thousand more than we are making our short film for and why is it so good? (And not tacky) Because it is smart, well structured, it forms it’s story around human nature more so than just gimmick and it knows it’s limits.

You have to dream big but be realistic enough to know what you CAN achieve, work out all of your options and then see if it’s going to be viable. And remember that there are many different solutions to any given problem and you shouldn’t take everything on directly. Some tricky visuals can actually be solved without showing something at all, but by using sound or extreme close ups or reactions from elsewhere. Perhaps you’ll find a more elegant visual through implying something rather than showing it explicitly anyway. Having too much money can lead to lazy decision making, I like having problems to solve. I think it keeps you alert.

Mouse was always going to be shot without a huge budget but there were certain things, which need to be right and we’ve simply taken steps to make it so. Also… work with the best people you can. I can only do so much and I know where my talents lie. The people we have on our crew at the moment have experience of the kind of things we want to achieve that I would really struggled to do myself.

 

[YCC] How does someone interested in film, go about making one?

[JT] There are a lot of different answers to this and I can’t say that any of them are necessarily the one right answer. But, for me, go grab a camera, your own, your friends, one from University and start shooting. If you wait to be good before you start you’ll find it a really stressful experience. Accept mistakes and see every shot you take as a chance to become a better director, try things in different ways, look at it with your own eyes and see if it works. You can bring crafting in as you go but you must not be afraid to shoot. Two of the key qualities of any filmmaker are tenacity and vision. Vision to have a story to share and a special way of doing it and tenacity to make it happen even when circumstances conspire against you.

Filmmaking has a lot of lessons, some you can be taught, some you will absorb and others, most of them actually, you only really understand by doing. Now, don’t get me wrong, preparation, having a story to tell etc. and visualizing what you want to achieve are pretty vital but we’re all a slightly different breed. I took a long time to get a camera in my hands but when I did, confidence came too.

If you want to start, you don’t need permission. Go do it. Now!

 

So that's Justin, and that's us. Mouse could really be something, so if you got a few pennies and feel like you could donate to the cause then do it!

Justin Tagg is a Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Creative Advertising programme at the University of Lincoln and will be shooting MOUSE in April 2012. You can find the crowdfunding page here sponsume.com/project/mouse and on twitter @mouseshortfilm - until next time Monkey's.

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