Alan Denman

sunsetEver considered trying to launch your film career from LA? Concerned about the outcome of the next British election and considering your options? Alan Denman was a pivotal part of the London indie film community, notably as Chair of the Screenwriter's Workshop and Head of Development for Euroscript until he left to the US in 2004. Tom Fogg interviewed him here, long ago, and indeed when I started working for Shooting People he offered me free desk space. Now, with his wife Ayesha Walker (pictured below), he runs Stinging Bull Films from Hollywood and has already made his first feature.

Alan has written for Netribution a fascinating and in-depth account of his experience as a Brit in LA, learning to speak 'American', getting a Visa, writing a sellable script, as well as ten tips for making it in a very different film environment. It's 4,000 words of insider gold-dust, and worth bookmarking and reading fully when you have the time.

Six thousand feet up in the San Bernadino Mountains of Southern California. Day One of Principal Photography: a long shot of our young lead actress walking along a deserted forest road. She goes ahead on her own – and suddenly screams. That wasn’t in the script, I think to myself. I look past her to observe a large brown bear crossing the set. Principal photography is suspended as she runs back to join the main party. Fortunately she hasn’t been mauled or eaten. Indeed, the bear seems not even to have noticed her. Nervously we all creep forward to watch the creature happily snuffling around in a neighbour’s garden before moving off. Such are the dangers, thrills and indelible memories of filmmaking. 

I was there in California, a British director, shooting my first feature, which I had also written. The crew worked like Trojans, and the young American cast had so much energy it was impossible to persuade them to get to bed at night. Then in the morning they’d be up early to go through their lines with me and help rewrite my very British dialogue.

This was my first experience of how different filmmaking in America is.  Though obvious to me now, coming then from the only culture I knew – Britain – it was a big surprise to realize how differently people spoke on the other side of the Pond. You think Americans speak English? Think again – they speak American, and I needed to learn their language. The first read-through of the script was a comedy of confusion. We might as well have been speaking French and Greek, for all we understood each other. In a combination of wisdom and desperation I gave them free rein to improvise. It worked. What resulted was dialogue that was vibrant and fascinating, something I could never have dreamed up in my drafty North London flat. It was, to quote my American cast, “awesome”.

alan_ayeshaI had been writing screenplays and making short films for ten years and had reached a sort of glass ceiling: I could have gone on making shorts in Britain, but what I really wanted to do was shoot a feature. So I wrote a micro budget, small-scale sci-fi thriller, a sort of “UFO Blair Witch” about young people in a remote place looking for aliens and disappearing one by one. My original plan – a very rough one – was to take a bunch of young actors to Cheshunt Marshes, a strange area outside North London with murky lakes and towering pylons, and, hoping for the best, shoot a semi-improvised script. Not a great plan, maybe. But then I sent the script to a good friend of mine who was studying screenwriting at UCLA, one of the big universities, in Los Angeles. There he passed on the script to a producer, who loved it and was himself looking for a project of that scale and budget to produce. The timing was perfect. Serendipity. Click.

And so, four months later, in the summer of 2003 I flew to LA and then drove out in convoy with the producer, cast and crew to the San Bernadino Mountains to direct my feature film, which, after much discussion and development, was now called Alien Game. The shoot was immensely hard work and at the same time hugely rewarding, a practical degree course in filmmaking compressed into four weeks. The skies were high, blue and empty, and the mountains epically spectacular. I loved being there. Thus in innocence and hope began my journey cross the Pond.

With growing self-belief and a magnetic curiosity towards Los Angeles, the heart of the global film industry, and the vast opportunities available it offers, my wife and I relocated there in the summer of 2004 and have been living there ever since....

Read more Crossing the Pond: Ten Tips for Making it in LA