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MAY MILES THOMAS - digital pioneer

life's too short not to make movies
may miles thomas & owen thomas - one life stand

When One Life Stand premiered in 2000 it gave a glimpse of the possibilities that digital offered. As the UK's first DV feature film, made for not much more than a Tartan Short budget, self financing allowed helmer May Miles Thomas a remarkable degree of control. As writer, camera, editor and director, Thomas showed that digital heralded not only cheaper filmmaking, but, coupled with desktop editing, the potential for far great authorship over the entire process. And now, six years later, the film has finally been released - and is set to make its money back.

Unlike many British self-financed films, driven by a desperate struggle to recreate the commercial success of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Wicker Man on the budget of a good night out in the West End, One Life Stand used the freedom of being beholden only to itself and its crew, to ignore commercial 'wisdom' over creative choices. So the film is in Black and White. The film is set in Glasgow, but does not feature heroin, burning cars or wanton acts of violence or petty street crime (asides from when faked in a scene where a London production company comes to Glasgow to shoot a film). The story is about the relationship of a mature woman (in a BAFTA winning performance by Maureen Carr), who's seen happier days, with her son (John Kielty) and ex-husband (Gary Lewis). And free from the manacles of commissioners and industry experts, the film glows with life, wisdom and humour. If there was ever an argument to quit your job and make the film that has forever been burning inside you without care about the financial consequences, this is it. 

The film hit Edinburgh the same legendary year as In the Mood for Love, Billy Elliot, Timecode and The Ring and was an instant audience and critical favourite. Now, with film sat this past six years on the shelf alongside its numerous awards, and after making the wonderful Solid Air - (the UK's first high definition feature) - writer-director-camera-editor May Miles Thomas and producer-husband Owen Thomas decided to self distribute it.

And here's The Most Important Thing about One Life Stand. If sales continue as they have  so far, the film will make back its costs. And Elemental Films (May and Owen's company) could safely claim to be the UK's first s vertically integrated digital studio. Making and distributing a profitable feature film under no terms but their own - without any financial support from any outside organisation.

Sounds attractive? Wanna try? May gives us the low down on how they did it in an interview originally from Tom and now updated. We've also persuaded Elemental to put the first three minutes of the film online for you to Try Before You Buy alongside an excellent documentary about the making of the film. We've also blagged you the lowest price on the web (20% discount) and - because this film is a little slice of British Cinema History, May and Owen have agreed to sign the first 100 copies sold through Netribution. The reason to buy this film has nothing to do with helping British independent filmmakers - this is a great film with a cracking soundtrack. But think on it - if you don't buy this film because it looks too small, too regional, too indie, too black and white.. well, who will buy yours? Even if it is Lock Stock and Two Wicker Men.

Tom Fogg interviews May Miles Thomas 

How did it all start out?

Elemental was formed in 1995. I named the company after a series of scripts I wrote in '94, called 'The Element Quartet', one of which is now being developed as part of our slate. The reason for forming the company was that we managed to raise funding for a short I scripted titled 'The Beauty of the Common Tool'. The company was set up as a legal entity to produce the project. The film, directed by my partner Owen Thomas, was made for the 'Prime Cuts' scheme, backed by the then Scottish Film Production Fund, (now Scottish Screen) British Screen and Scottish Television. We made the film in 1996 and it won Best Film at the 1997 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.

Was there a belief in becoming early exponents of Digi technology back in 1995?
Not really. The 'Prime Cuts' scheme came with a narrow set of guidelines, demanding that we shot on standard 16mm (in spite of the fact we had secured a great deal on 35mm). I had previous experience of video through my work at BBC Television and had already shot material on Hi-8. In fact I had been working with video as early as 1982, on bulky old U-matic. Frankly the old analogue technology wasn't up to scratch and in 1995 I couldn't afford a VX1000. Besides, all my music video work was shot on Super16 and 35mm. However, our dismal experience of working with the public funders whilst making 'Common Tool' encouraged us to look for alternatives.

As an independent production company based in Scotland, how are you received when you source funds and how do you source funds?
It's hardly a secret that my past experience in attracting public funding in the UK was absolutely crap. But on balance, rejection is the majority experience for most emerging filmmakers. Fact is there will never be enough money in the public domain to satisfy demand. So far, we have not applied for funding in the public sector - for several reasons - first, we're filmmakers, not bureaucrats. We feel the application process is time-consuming, requiring accountability in the form of business plans. We believe the script is the business plan. Second, the terms of recoupment in the public sector are too onerous - it's expensive money, with the added minus of having a big bite taken out of your back end. Third, while we don't discount the possibility of approaching public funders in the future - the old 'don't shit on your own doorstep' rule - we happen to think that public funding actually inhibits film production in the UK - the process is too protracted and fosters a culture of dependency and entitlement. As far as the broadcast sector is concerned, we haven't made any approaches - yet - but we recognise that the UK film industry is, to an extent, fuelled by television, often working hand-in-glove with the public sector in the form of matching funding. Me, I'll spend anybody's money to make a movie.We're fortunate in that we've now had approaches from the private sector and at time of writing, we're negotiating the deal on our next feature, 'Solid Air', which will be wholly privately financed. Our preference is to work in the private sector wherever possible - it's the real world, taking real risks and, if we're smart, making real money to buy us that rare commodity - creative freedom.

Are you ever tempted to take a more conventional approach to development when you find fund raising particularly difficult?
So far we haven't faced that problem. In 1997, I was awarded a fellowship with the Nipkow Programme, Berlin to pursue a feature project, which to all intents was conventionally developed with a Berlin-based production company. This proved such a bad experience that it informed the decision to produce 'One Life Stand' in a completely unorthodox way. On our next project we have eschewed the idea of 'development' - our deal is to deliver a movie, designing the project from the bottom up, starting with a rough idea of budget, fitting a great story round that budget and identifying exactly what and who we need to tell that story. Contrary to most industry wisdom, we don't believe in languishing in development for years on end. Frankly, if you think a script needs eight drafts before it's deemed ready to shoot, then you should be looking for another script. For small indie companies, development is death - to succeed you have to be in production, otherwise you're facing the prospect of chasing your tail for funding just to meet overheads and not your core activity, which ought to be making movies. We put a lot of faith in our own talents and skills to create the movie in a relatively short time.

Would you recommend your individualist ethos to other filmmakers and what elements of the same would you definitely advise against?
Certainly I'd recommend it. I subscribe to Peter Broderick's (of Next Wave Films) view - he's famously quoted as saying, 'Whatever you have is probably enough'. A year ago we weren't on the radar. Less than twelve months later, we've made a multi-award winning feature, which has screened at 15 international film festivals, to great critical and popular acclaim. And we've secured finance for the next project. The fact that we shot 'One Life Stand' on a camcorder is irrelevant - we got the movie made, thanks to a innovative use of extant technology and just enough money and the right people to make it happen. To be honest, there's nothing that we did I would advise others not to. The least you can do is learn from the experience.

Where were you educated?
I'm a design graduate of the Glasgow School of Art. That, and the school of hard knock-backs.

When did you first aspire to filmmaking?
In London, in the mid '80s. I was working as a lowly assistant designer at BBC Television. I soon realised that most of the so-called drama directors, largely culled from the theatre, lacked any sense of the visual; stories were told in words, not pictures. I once worked on a film where the director, let loose for the first time on location, shot the entire movie in close-ups. I thought, probably with youthful arrogance, that I could improve on that. I had a Super8mm camera and began to shoot my own material. Eventually the BBC offered me the chance to direct for the Music and Arts department. Just like Ridley Scott.


Why did you shoot in B&W and what did you shoot on?
There are two reasons why I opted for monochrome. First, on a technical level, because I shot on MiniDV, I felt the colours wouldn't be stable enough, given the resolution of the format. Second, and more importantly, 'One Life Stand' was influenced by the Italian Neo-realist movies of the late 50s/early 60s. As the entire movie was shot on location in Glasgow, I felt that black and white offered a wonderful sense of timelessness, as well as lending a grace and beauty to the most mundane of environments.

Were you happy with the visual results on the big screen?
When I first saw the projection tests at Digital Projection in Manchester, I felt disappointed because of the lack of contrast. I was assured that an increase in output would resolve that. On the second occasion I felt encouraged, even excited. By the time we had outputted to digibeta and did a master grading, I was delighted with the result. When you consider that the original material was acquired on MiniDV, it's something of a miracle to see it projected 30 feet wide. Having said that, my intention was always to tell a story since I felt that an audience would forgive the format if the story was engaging enough.

Where did the influence for the 'fixed camera set up' come from?
Again, the decision not to move the camera was informed partly by the limitation of the format, to reduce the amount of artefacting. On an aesthetic level there was something very pure about the rigour of shooting statics, which meant I had to anticipate the edit more carefully than if the camera was moving. You see this in Ozu, Pasolini and the early Bill Douglas films to great effect. My aim was to create a sense of motion and rhythm in the edit. This meant of course I had to shoot more set-ups than on an conventional shoot, but the freedom of using a small camera in enclosed spaces made the process faster than if I had shot on 16 or 35mm.

Trise has been described as having 'a well of loneliness and self disgust open up in her' is that accurate and where did the idea for her character originate?
That description came from one of the critics. I wouldn't say it was accurate, but I'm gratified at the level of engagement that prompted the perception. Trise is an amalgam of women I know. She's a particular archetype - the martyr mother - who in the course of the story transforms gradually from a mature, loving - if deluded - adult to a wilful, selfish and inconsiderate adolescent. What's interesting is that her son's character develops in the opposite direction.

How did Maureen Carr tackle the role in comparison to the way it was written?

Maureen is an extremely accomplished actress, but like most women finds it almost impossible to gain work beyond minor character roles. She didn't deviate from the script, because I discouraged improvisation, but to her credit she handled the range of emotions experienced by the character seamlessly and underplayed Trise with great charm and sincerity. She is one of those actresses who does nothing beautifully.

How did you get Gary Lewis on board?
Gary simply loved the script, so much so that he asked me to write more scenes, but I refused, telling him he had 'the woman's part'. Gary Lewis is one of those actors who will do anything if he likes the project enough, regardless of budget. He's the most unstarry actor I've come across - he's completely grounded.

In your opinion, what's the state of the Scottish film industry?
The state of the Scottish film industry is not that dissimilar to the entire UK experience: Not enough production, not enough risk-taking, not enough imagination. There's been very little made here in the last couple of years and as with the Lottery funded films made through the Arts Council of England, the Scottish Arts Council backed films have failed to attract audiences and thereby recoup. To be positive, I feel there is a desire in Scotland to adopt a more flexible and risk-taking strategy - to make low, even micro budget movies that exploit new technologies, to develop new talent through an increase in short film schemes and to encourage a partnership with private funding sources. In my view, producers need to be in production, not development. I believe Scottish Screen, the main public body, acknowledges this, but as with all government-backed institutions, it's a soft target, charged with the difficult task of nurturing talent with little resource, whilst remaining accountable to the state.

As a digital filmmaker what's your stance on the ongoing film/digital medium debate?
I'm not a digital filmmaker, I'm a filmmaker - it's not a case of either/or. The same skills and talents are needed regardless of the means of acquisition. The quality of the film/digital debate is pretty dismal right now and it will be interesting to see how it pans out, because the rise of the digital movie is inevitable. What I do know is that there's an ongoing resistance to digital from all quarters - production, distribution and exhibition. Partly because the UK film industry is so deeply conservative and partly because there's little real understanding of the benefits, since there's so few practitioners who have taken the medium beyond the novelty stage and proved its commercial and aesthetic worth. That's changing. A lot of filmmakers are turning to digital rather than wait years to get a movie made. Thankfully, this is forcing film festivals to accept work on tape for the first time, because unless you have the resource to strike a 35mm print, there's nowhere to play and festival directors are now conceding that some of the most original and freshest work is being shot on tape. In terms of distribution, the world has arrived at an impasse - there seems to be an air of make-believe amongst distributors, the very people who stand to profit from the elimination of print costs. Of course, in all the current jostling for position and in a climate where cinema chains are closing down, exhibitors are unable and unwilling to make the investment to DLP systems. As a filmmaker I'm finding it increasingly hard to be objective about digital - the benefits are so transparent that I'm in danger of evangelising too much. Give me the budget and I'll happily shoot film, but with the state of funding in the UK it's difficult to justify shooting on film. Why restrict yourself to a lower ratio, a tighter schedule and an unwieldy and expensive crew, all conspiring to fuck up your movie?

What's your cinematographic/photographic background?
It's not huge, and certainly not formal. I did some photography at art school. After graduating I worked with video for a community-based project in Glasgow. Then, whilst working for the BBC, I got interested in film and learned about cameras. I bought into Super 8 at a time when people were throwing out their old cine cameras. Later, as a freelance music video director, I worked with some great DPs and learned loads about lighting. I then bought a Sony VX1000, shot tons of stuff and became a better operator as a result.

Did you multi task on One Life Stand to maintain control on the final cut or for financial reasons?
'One Life Stand' was borne out of pragmatism. I decided to multi-task on the movie because, in spite of interest from experienced DP's, we had a tight schedule to meet. I also knew I was going to edit, so I didn't have to communicate the shots I planned - plus I just couldn't justify hiring someone to shoot using a camcorder I had more experience with. It was important to keep the number of crew to a minimum, because we were shooting in tight locations and besides, I wanted to maintain a sense of intimacy, which helped the actors enormously. It wasn't a question of control of the final cut - I was editing at home on a PC-based system I was already familiar with and not having an editor proved an advantage. Frankly no editor would have been prepared to work the number of hours I did to achieve the cut, including the lengthy rendering process to black and white of all the selected takes. Of course, there were financial implications, but we reasoned that what we lacked in funding could be compensated for in time and effort, freeing the money to go on the screen and to pay for the cast, crew and services worth having.

How would you reply if someone described you as an auteur?
I'd say that by working in this way, anyone can be an auteur. The accessibility allowed by the technology is changing the way people can make movies, if they choose to. I'd say it's like writing a book - making digital movies at this level affords a degree of control unthinkable even five years ago. You own the entire process and that's very liberating. It suits those of us not disposed to interference!

What was the budget and how long was the shoot?
We shot 50 hours of material in 24 days. The budget was mid five figures.

How much different would those figures have been had you shot on film?
Multiply by ten and weep. Plus I would have had less material to play with.

New questions for 2006

What was the initial reaction to One Life Stand like?

What most people still fail to grasp is OLS was made as a calling card. I had never written or directed 'drama' before so it was intended as a personal project to prove to myself I was even a bit capable. I'll never forget the cast and crew screening though, when two people I'd never met sat in the row in front, tears streaming down their faces. I was stunned that the movie could have this effect. Later, during the early festival screenings even foreign audiences reacted in the same way. People were surprised by it, and they got involved and wanted to talk about it. Then, when it screened at Edinburgh for the UK premiere, the critics went overboard. I couldn't have bribed them for better reviews. Soon we started picking up awards and more festival screenings. Not at all what I expected.

Why have you decided to release this now?

Up until fairly recently, there was no mechanism for releasing or selling the film. We never made any really serious attempts to find a distributor, in spite of the reviews and awards. We felt OLS was way off the radar, falling outside mainstream criteria - it's two hours long, black and white and with authentic Glasgow accents. Besides, we never got any realistic offers from those who showed an interest. Then we got distracted making our follow-up, Solid Air, so the movie sat on the shelf for a few years. But people were still talking about it - in fact, we still get requests from festivals to screen it. Fortunately for us, because we retain all the rights, it made sense to do a DVD release.

What made you choose self-distribution and how have you found the process?

Like self-publishing, or selling music, self-distribution for movies is tough, but it's a more doable venture now than it's ever been. We chose to do it because we had a movie with the best reviews of any independent UK film the year we made it. It's also a landmark in digital production, being the first end-to-end DV movie ever made in the UK. It's historic. And unlike most feature film producers, we were sitting on all the rights. There was something about the idea of self-distribution too that fitted nicely with the entire way the movie was conceived and made - small-scale, self-funded, filmmaking for its own sake - a really rare thing in this business.

Of course, the route to self-distribution isn't simple. In our case, we had to get the film certified, clear the music rights, get the movie coded correctly for DVD pressing, do the artwork, build a website, set up a payment system and do the necessary promotion to make it visible both online and in conventional media. I also cut a making-of doco, shot at the time we made OLS but never edited to add value to the DVD. What's been really gratifying is this time round the reviews have been equally great - I mean, four stars in Empire? Who can grumble? But more than that, the response from people buying the DVD has been amazing. Their insights and observations are brilliantly cogent and astute, which only reinforces our belief that audiences are being denied the chance to see intelligent and complex filmmaking in this country.

What do you wish you had known at the start of making OLS?

You know, this sounds totally corny, but making OLS was the best experience of my career so far. And it's mad to admit this - but as Trise says in the film, "hindsight, my fat and lazy pal" - I thought, naively, when we got all the hyperbole and gongs, oh, this must happen to everybody's film. Like her, I hadn't learned a thing. Before I made OLS, I had been rejected by every film scheme in the country, several times. The success of this film for me wasn't what came later, the success was the decision to make it against the odds and getting it made with a lot of good karma from good people.

What would I do differently next time? If I'm lucky, absolutely nothing. But it would depend on the project.

Who are you trying to reach with this film now?

We set out with the dumb notion that if anyone wanted to see this film, it would be other, fellow filmmakers, the wannabes with a couple of self-funded shorts, who want to see what's possible on really limited resources. So far, that hasn't happened as much as we'd hoped. I get the horrible feeling that people who want to make films in this country are duped into believing the industry wisdom rather than their own instincts. A producer recently told me that a development executive said, "dramatic irony's the in-thing", which might work for Charlie Kaufman and on certain TV comedies, but it's an attitude that erodes not only our culture but the plurality of human experience that should be represented on film. Overwhelmingly, it turns out, we're attracting people who simply want stories they can identify with, who are touched by the characters' experiences and issues. Judging by the feedback, they're getting it from One Life Stand.

by Nic Wstreich & Tom Fogg

Published 10 April 2006
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