Penultimate helps bring another feature to Shetland

After Devils Gate, The Blackening finally set to shoot in April, with possibly two more to come from Fresh Paint Pictures 

A Shetland sunset - magic hour at sixty degrees north, the same as Anchorage, Alaska

Leslie Lowes, tireless champion of both British indie film and the Shetland Islands should be celebrating a double win with the announcement of a new HiDef feature to be shot on the Islands over the next year after producer Alec Bruce completed financing on The Blackening, with two more films slated.

Development on The Blackening by Leslie's Penultimate Productions and Bruce's London-based Fresh Paint Pictures  was funded by Scottish Screen's NewFoundLands scheme four years ago and was featured in the first Film Funding Book (the Banana Book). Now as I'm putting the finishing touches to a new funding book, to see the film finally materialise, alongside a possible further two films is just fantastic news, and a great credit to Lowes and Bruce and indeed the scheme. Funding is coming from Sweden, Norway and the UK with a US major lined up for distribution. The three films will shoot on HiDef, without which the location may have been to remote to be cost effective with the cost of sending daily film rushes back to the mainland.

The films are to be produced  at a low-cost production centre in the former RAF base in the northernmost Shetland island of Unst. Shetland producer Leslie Lowes says Penultimate is pleased to have worked closely with Fresh Paint for several years to realise the company’s plans and says it demonstrates that with the right encouragement and support, film companies are keen to locate productions in Shetland.

“Including Devils Gate, which we located to Shetland in 2001 and now Fresh Paint’s slate of  The Blackening, Little Dallas and Kinky Cottage, we have managed to attract almost £4m of film production into the islands. This confirms what we have always maintained: Shetland’s landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes are very attractive to international filmmakers, despite the reservations of some agencies that could be helping them locate here,”  Mr Lowes said. “Marketing Shetland as a film location is most effective when it is done from Shetland from a base of real local knowledge.

Wild ponies of Unst, where the features will shoot. Copyright June Brown
”Penultimate has worked with Fresh Paint since 2002, on development of The Blackening, the foundation film of the slate, together with a low cost film studio as production base where several films could be shot in high definition video, using the same low-cost local resources.

Penultimate director  and Shetland filmmaker Robert Lowes, has been asked to film a documentary about the making of  The Blackening which begins shooting in April, through his high definition video production company, Digital Imagineering.

Laura Fraser starring in Devils Gate (2002) the last feature Penultimate located to the Shetland Islands“Keeping costs down and containing them for the filmmaker is the key to getting production located here,” Leslie Lowes said. “We searched Shetland carefully for industrial-type buildings suitable for set-building and all that a film in production needs. Just as the search intensified, the ex-RAF buildings at Saxavord became available, with good quality accommodation nearby for incoming crew and cast.” 

It was a site with great potential, Mr Lowes said, but nothing could happen until budgets for the whole slate could be raised by Fresh Paint.  The London producer found Norwegian, Swedish and British co-production partners as well as a US major to finance the slate. Planning for high definition video shooting, pioneered by George Lucas as the medium for his later Star Wars films, also helped the case for locating in Shetland, by freeing filmmakers from being too dependent on London.
Shetlanders are delighted to welcome the new arrivals
“Shooting on film ties producers to daily “rushes” sending  daily  takes to and from film labs in London. That can be tricky if flights are disrupted, as we know from Devils Gate. High definition tape sidesteps film labs altogether and makes film production in Shetland more viable than ever,” Mr Lowes said.

“We need to get serious about marketing Shetland for film, which puts new money into the local economy and has a spin-off in raising visitor awareness of an exotic North Atlantic island destination. These films are backed by a US major who has taken on distribution. They will be seen in cinemas, TV screens  and on  DVD all over the world. We need to take advantage of that.”

Leslie Lowes on the Blackening - as first published in Get Your Film Funded (Shooting People Press)

“My co-producer Alec Bruce is a graduate of Moonstone Screenwriting Labs and has been working on an outline of the project for several years, I joined him two years ago. Scottish Screen and SMG have a 30-minute TV drama strand for filmmakers called New Found Land which has been very successful. Early last year, following a film recoupment windfall they decided for just one year to up New Found Land to feature length. They renamed it New Found Films - Modern Scottish stories created by new Scottish talent for an international cinema audience.

The Shetland Islands - Britain's Scandanavian gemThey called for outlines, which had to have international cinema appeal, a creative team behind them and good potential for international cinema distribution and could be made for £200,000. We had about 3 weeks to get a bid in and were among the ten projects they selected for development from about 80 received. Two only out of the ten could be offered production funding, so competition was bound to be serious. Coffee break at the first development session had everyone sniffing each other out, circulating like a pack of dogs. We had researched the competition. We like to know what we are dealing with. We were new on the scene and the rest all seemed to be old pals. Most of them had been through Scottish Screen schemes before and we were outsiders. I don’t think they were too worried about us. Someone told me quite confidently that we must be mad for planning to shoot a feature up in the Shetland Islands. They quoted the cost of transport there and arctic-type weather that would make it impossible, but went amazingly quiet when I said we had just wrapped a feature there in January.

We were quietly confident though. Most of the competition seemed to be grant-dependent but we already had an expression of interest from a Scottish financier, so that boosted us. In private session with the development executives we were told the £200K production funding we were in competition for was a floor, not a ceiling. We could bring in extra finance with their prior approval. That meant we were free to use the status of being developed through Scotland’s screen agency and SMG to lever in private finance. We could use this method even if we were not finally selected for production funding for New Found Films. For us it was a win-win situation, a tremendous confidence builder.

We had to attend a development by treatment method seminar in Glasgow, then deliver a first draft treatment. If they liked it we would get £750. We funded ourselves entirely until development money came through but it was welcome. The New Found Films plan was to move all the selected projects forward, through two treatments to first draft script, scheduling and budgeting on the way, dropping any that might prove unsatisfactory. Finally, two scripts would be recommended to Scottish Screen’s production panel. The projects could attract up to £1,500 in total and the creative teams also got some very useful seminars and training weekends on the way. We used that money to lever in more. Shetland Arts Trust were keen to assist with the project development. They knew transport costs for recce put us at a disadvantage compared with projects shooting in Glasgow or Edinburgh. They came up with another £750, so we pulled in £2,250 to assist development. It was development on a shoestring, and it still is, but we now have a little money to help us prepare the Blackening for gaining private finance.

Having been though this development process gives the project credence that helps open doors. There’s no doubt in my mind that the project is in much better shape although the pressures to meet tough deadlines was intense, but then that’s not a bad thing either. A little pressure cooking can produce some very good ideas and has certainly increased self-confidence. Intensive treatment development also builds investor confidence. We now have four financiers with expressed interest and we are now in a far healthier position to be able to deal.”

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