GYPO - director Jan Dunn and producer Elaine Wickham
Made for £50,000, the UK's first certified Dogme film hits cinemas this Friday
"Some films just make you really proud of UK filmmaking"
If you've ever staggered away from industry networking evenings with a pocket stuffed with cards wondering if any of the inspiring conversations will lead anywhere, read on. A couple of months after meeting at Screen South's New Talent Initative networking night, short filmmaker Jan Dunn and producer Elaine Wickham met up to discuss possible ideas for a microbudget feature as a calling card. Two months later they started principle photography on Gypo, with a cast that included Withnail & I's Paul McGann, and Father Tedd/Angela Ashes' Pauline McLynne, which lasted thirteen days. Just ten weeks after first meeting each other, their £50,000 film had wrapped.
As indie film success stories go it's remarkable. But the next stage makes it the stuff of legends. At the film's first industry screening in London it was picked up for UK distribution and international sales. The film premiered at Edinburgh in 2005 to massive acclaim, and went on to pick up the British Independent Film Award gong for outstanding production. Less than a year later and the UK's only certified Dogme film is set to hit British screens - not that Jan and Elaine have been twidling their thumbs since then - having subsequently wrapped a second feature with Bob Hoskins. Tom previously spoke with Jan after her first short Mary's Date, back in the rosy Peeping Toms days, so a catch up with the duo ahead of this weekend's release was long overdue...
How did you first get the idea for Gypo?
Jan Dunn (pictured left): I had only recently met Elaine (pictured right) through a Screen South new talent initiative. She’d been selected as a new producer and myself as a new director. She saw my shorts Mary’s Date and Joan and couldn’t believe I’d made them for just a few hundred quid and she made this mad suggestion that we hook up together and just go out and make a feature in the same way, simply using it as a calling card to get finance for our first features. The only parameter she gave me was it had to be set and shot in Kent as that’s where she lived. I began researching that evening about subject matters that I might use from the region and it became clear I should incorporate the refugees, particularly Romany Czech’s. I then pitched about seven ideas, she loved two so I incorporated them and we were shooting eight weeks later.
How long did it take to develop?
I have to stress that our intention was to make it as a calling card, so not very long at all really. I wrote the first draft in two days and then Elaine is a genius script editor, so she made a whole bunch of notes and changes which I followed completely and that’s the draft I shot with.
How much of the finished film was scripted?
It seems to have got around that there was no script. I think this is because all of the dialogue was written in prose and when actors are intereviewed they say there was no script but it really isn’t true and it makes us both quite frustrated. I wrote a fully sctructured screenplay – the only difference is I chose to write the dialogue in prose because I wanted the actors to be fresh with it. Some of the actual lines I wrote ended up on the screen anyhow. Elaine and I ended up calling it Spontaneous Dialogue because strictly speaking it wasn’t really improvised apart from the actual words themselves. They all had bullet point reminders in certain orders about the dialogue for each scene too.
Elaine: We couldn’t have got actors of that calibre interested if they didn’t have a screenplay to read. They all read the script. Pauline McLynn was on board from the beginning and she and Jan emailed and talked a lot about the development of her character Helen but all the others got a couple of pages of character breakdown as well as the script. It was my suggestion to cast Pauline because Jan had worked with he before on her short Mary’s Date and I simply thought we might be able to access her quite easily. She is very busy, so we did re-arrange dates around her and it meant we had to squeeze the shoot into 13 days but it was worth it as she is so brilliant and I hope the audience will see how much more she can do than Mrs Doyle in Father Ted.
Did you have any of the cast in mind before you began writing?
Pauline was attached to the feature I had almost got off the ground so many times, so she was accessible and I knew from working with her before how much of a great actress she is. We were very lucky that she said yes because once she was on board it made getting Rula Lenska easier and Rula for me was the obvious choice for Irina. I’m of the age where I was a teenager at school when Rula was in this seminal TV show about a girl rock band, it was a show called Rock Follies and it made Rula iconic amongst certain aged young women. They were like the Spice Girls with brains! Interestingly I wrote the part of Paul with Paul McGann in my head, hence why I called him Paul. He never believes me when I tell him that but basically I’m a fan and knew it would need a special actor who would have no qualms about playing this not very nice person. Fortunately Paul McGann “got” the script straight away and actually said to me “ I don’t want to play him with any sympathy” which was great because dogme rules are about presenting the reality of the characters, warts and all if you like.
Did you know it would be a Dogme film from the beginning?
When I had made the decision about making a character driven piece about ordinary people and because of the contentious subject matter I would shoot it handheld I started to think about dogme before I started writing it. Then once I gave the script to Elaine I tentatively asked what she might think if we shot it to dogme rules.
Elaine: We didn’t know each other very well then and she didn’t know that I was a dogme fan, so I thought we should go for it. So it was a creative decision from the very beginning. We took it so seriously that we actually went to Copenhagen and had a meeting with the dogme consultant – it was still within ten years of dogme and there was a consultant but that doesn’t exist now. It was only when we were there that Vibeke Windelov (Von Trier’s producer) told us that they loved that there would finally be a UK dogme film. So it was official we would be the first dogme. I think the ones that might have been referred to as dogme before were simply dubbed that by distributors or critics or something just because the film was handheld but they never adhered to any kind of rules.
It’s also a misconception that just because a film is low budget and handheld makes it dogme, after all Feston, the first one was not shot on a low budget and the guys who set the rules up were no rookies. The great thing about dogme when you don’t have much money is that the rules kind of lend themselves to the budget. There is no artificial lighting allowed, only natural and what is available at the location – so that means no set ups and you can pretty much just get the camera out and start shooting. So it does help for speed for instance. No props other than what’s at the location, so no extra expense in that sense either etc
What was the thinking behind taking the vow?
For me it was about wanting to make a film about real people and to make it feel like that seemed to fit in with the dogme ethos. Stripping everything down to just story and characters. That’s why the director doesn’t get a credit (rule No 10) because the idea is you step away from imposing your own taste into a story and just present a contemporary story in the instant.
Elaine: We were both in agreement from the beginning and we even went so far as to get a Danish DoP, Jacob Kusk who had made quite a number of features but not a dogme feature yet and for a Danish DoP he loved the idea of making one. He took it as seriously as we did. He managed to create some wonderful cinematography even under the strict rules.
Financing / budget
How much is the budget?
Elaine: The actual budget is approximately £250K but we cash flowed on just under £50K and incorporated some specially designed investments that were not really deferments but integrated legally bound investment deferrals from our Executive producers at VMI for the camera kit and Molinare for our post production and even the BBC came in with two days of clear up on sound (there is no track laying or post dubbing under dogme rules). This to us was better than industry support in the traditional way because it meant we started to build relationships with these people and they rarely defer.
Was it cut down much from the original target?
Elaine: Even the original paper budget came in at around £800K but fortunately Jan has a producer’s head and it was team work that brought it right down. The leading actors were the only performers we paid, everyone else did it for the break and we cast a lot of parts with Jan’s mates as she used to be an actor – and from Dover Youth Theatre. Jan was adamant that we cast the younger people from youth theatre rather than stage school. She was absolutely right as they are so real and earthy compared to some stale child performances you sometimes see from teenagers from stage schools.
What changes did you make?
Elaine: We didn’t have development time to change anything, we actually set out from the beginning to make a film for the cash we could get our hands on. Jan was great, in that she wrote around the budget and pretty much from walking around Thanet, here in Kent. She incorporated a whole load of things just in the vicinity, like the Ramsgate Marina for instance, a stone’s throw from where the actors were staying. It was all meticulously planned beforehand.
How easy was it raising finance?
Elaine: We didn’t raise any, we just went out and shot this film for the cash Jan and I decided we could get our hands on by beg, stealing or borrowing.
How did you go about getting the sponsorship from Pfizer?
Elaine: They have a tiny fund which goes towards helping local people. Jan never had any traditional training and when she (and I) first set out to get jobs as runners, it was near impossible because we were in our thirties. It made us adamant that we would help some selected people (no age discrimination). We also both left school with no qualifications, so we wanted to help bright, intelligent young people who are really talented but didn’t necessarily have an academic background. Pfizers gave us £1000 towards us incorporating a trainee scheme. It worked so well that two of the four went on to get places at Ravensbourne to edit and at the New York Academy to train for theatre. It was fantastic and we were so proud when they kept in touch and were so grateful for the help. So successful was the scheme that we incorporated one into our new film that is proving to be equally productive and the boy who went to Ravensbourne came on board as our trainee editor this time and has just secured a job with MotionFX on the new Viper Streaming System – we’re like proud mother hens.
Any lessons learnt from the process?
Elaine and Jan: You can’t make a film with your own money without making huge, enormous sacrifices (property/relationships etc) and have to be prepared to work seven days a week for longer than a year and not getting paid for it. It’s an enormous risk but for us it has begun to pay off with the incredible success of Gypo – which started life as a calling card and ended up not just gaining us entry into the industry but lots of awards and critical acclaim too. Whether it actually makes our money back is yet to be seen but it has achieved much more than we intended. We are still completely realistic and remain humble, grateful and hungry (only for us that has meant literally sometimes!).
This sounds like one of the fastest features ever made. How did you pull it off?
We’re not really too sure now but at the time it didn’t seem too difficult. We are both completely ordered people and it was meticulously organized before the cast and crew arrived. For instance we were both production managing the film right up until I stepped up to rehearse and shoot it and then Elaine was on her own. We argue all the time but we are also both passionate and have the same aims to make the best film we can under whichever circumstances laid down in front of us. We are both creative and therefore flexible and able to improvise in an instant. There’s no such thing as a problem and we always work together to get around anything unexpected happening.
Elaine: Jan is incredible, she just thinks on her feet, she knows exactly what she wants and at the same time can come up with a hundred different ways creatively to solve something. She is so completely focused and she has this marvelous relationship with the actors – they just utterly trust her.
How was it making the shift to feature length?
You just shoot a bit longer really. I don’t think either of us were phased by that at all. Then again, nobody should really be making a feature film if they aren’t ready to, you only get one go at the first one.
How did you go about casting?
We had Alex Johnson on board as a kind of consultant. Jan has her very own special way of casting but Alex meant the first phone call to the agent would be taken seriously rather than us nobody’s ringing up with this non-linear screenplay, trying to persuade someone like Paul McGann ourselves. Having Alex help us with Paul and Rula Lenska was key.
How tough was it keeping to Dogme rules?
Not that tough really, remember it was a creative decision and not a word tagged onto the film at the end. It was actually rather liberating.
The sound rule was the hardest and you have to accept that if you shoot under dogme rules that your film is not going to sound too good because you can’t lay anything on afterwards Rule break 1. Exterior shot of Paul heading to work in his van, I laid over a clip from a radio show . The reason was legal really, I don’t think a carpet layer on his way to work would have the radio off but I couldn’t trust that what happened to be on we would get a film rights clearance for. It was Paul McGann who suggested that his character would listen to Talk Sport – and they very kindly gave us a fully cleared news report that we could lay on afterwards. Emma Collins (our editor extraordinaire) found this tiny moment where there is a news item about monkey chants on a football pitch and it fits perfectly with the themes of racism in the film.
2. I’m sure Paul won’t mind me saying that we did bring a prop to the set, a prosthetic penis as I am a very respectful and responsible director and it would not have been right to expect Mr McGann to offer up the actress playing the prostitute his real John Thomas, would it? Lars Von Trier may have expected his actors to do such a thing but it was only just for realism incase we got a flash. I think it helped Angelica who played the prostitute too. The actress who was originally cast chickened out of doing it on the day and Ange is an old mate – we rang her up to see if she was free that afternoon to give none other than the gorgeous Mr McGann a blow job – I turned around and she was in Ramsgate. I was so grateful that I wrote a leading role in the new film for her. Other than those rule breaks, I did lay on a music track over the end credits – a big no no but my friend Christiane had turned up to sing in situ for the film itself so I could stick to the rule of all music had to be cut to image and it was to show another of her great tracks with Danish band, Labrador as a thank you. Their music has just that Euro feel I wanted.
The film got an amazing response since its first showing. How have things gone since then?
Absolutely incredible, I don’t think we’ve had any bad reviews and sometimes, like after Edinburgh Film Festival, four and five star reviews.
When did Redbus/Lionsgate come on board?
Literally after the very first industry only screening one day after we finished the film. We nearly fainted.
Where will the film be showing this weekend?
Selected cinemas on the digital network all over the country. Expanding to other cities to too throughout November and December. This Friday opening in London at the Curzon soho, Ritzy Brixton, Bethnal Green, Panton Street , and others.
What about the rest of the world.. what are the plans for the US?
We were so shocked when it was sold to the US. It’s been picked up by an art-house label called Wolfe. They are very well respected and it has been in hundreds of film festivals in the US and is releasing on dvd. We didn’t really expect a cinema release as it is so British in it’s essence but it has been very well received critically and has won some festival awards including a jury award at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
How did you and Elaine meet?
Screen South New Talent Initiative. Our regional UK Film Council
Wikipedia tells me Medb was a Queen/Goddess of Ireland killed with a piece of cheese (amongst other more notable achievements)...
Excellent, we didn’t know that one but we like her because she is the goddess of intoxication.
Elaine: Too much wine and cheese, she was being a pig again.
Jan: Apparantly twenty men a day didn’t satiate her sexual desires, that’s quite a good one too.
You also run training schemes and facilities hire?
Yes, more on that coming up. We are also about to open a new sound mixing studio.
What's the state of play with Ruby Red Chequer right now?
Jan: It has a new title, Ruby Blue because the guy who’s pigeon loft we filmed at here in Ramsgate didn’t have any Red Chequers, only Blues (pigeon types) but Ruby Blue kind of goes better with the themes anyhow. It stars Bob Hoskins and he is absolutely incredible, not like he’s ever been seen before. No gangsters, no animated rabbits and absolutely no nudity!!! His love interest (yes old guys fall in love too!!!!) is played by French screen legend Josiane Balasko – I am a huge fan and wrote the part for her. Amazingly enough she loved it so much she closed the play she was starring in in Paris and gave us one week to shoot all her bits. Fortunately she was also producing the play and could make that kind of a decision and it was raking in fifty thousand euros a week at the box office too! Her agent wasn’t very happy but we were ecstatic.
Do I remember hearing that Sally Greene had something to do with it?
Elaine: Yes, she is one of the executive producer’s in her feature film debut, we love her. What an amazing woman. We screened Gypo in a private screening room to her and Charles Finch and they agreed there and then to come on board for Ruby. Charles then brokered a deal with sales agent Target Entertainment run by Alison Rayson, who became our other exec producer. It’s still low budget but it meant we could keep the team small again. MotionFX and Molinare came in with the last bit of finance.
Jan: We couldn’t have done it without Justin Lanchbury at MotionFX . We’ve shot the film with their new Thompson Viper Stream Camera, it’s a whole new digital system. It really does behave in a fantastic way. Both myself and my DoP, Ole Birkeland had wanted to use this new digital camera for a while and we both jumped at the chance to be the first British feature film to use it.
Ruby Red seemed to go into production really fast as well.. what's your secret?
Elaine: Seriously though, we really wanted to just get on and make another film. We are after all just filmmakers. Jan has a number of offers coming at her, including scripts being sent from places like Dreamworks but credit to her, she wants to make our stuff unless something amazing turns up. I also don’t really want to wait another year or so whilst trying to raise money for a £2M when Jan is happy to just go ahead and do something small again.
Jan: We’re shooting the next one in April.
Elaine Are we? (laughs)
Jan. Yeah, I haven’t written it yet.
Elaine Oh Ok then. (laughs again) no seriously, she’s already got Brenda Blethyn on board and Susannah York and Rita Tushingham…. I told you she had a way with actors!
Stunning British debut
Hottest ticket at Cannes
The acting is superb.
San Francisco Chronicle
A remarkable achievement (****)
Jaw-dropping performances (*****)
Dunn shows she has bottle as well as brains
Dunn proves herself a promising new talent with an accomplished debut
Gypo is one of the most moving and joyous films I've seen
Some films just make you really proud of UK filmmaking
The outstanding Pauline McLynn
Jan Dunn makes a feature-directing debut that marks her as a filmmaker to watch
for more info see www.medbfilms.co.uk/gypo.htm