Special BAFTA report: Mark Herbert and Warp Films

By Maryann O’Connor

Warp Films (celebrating their tenth anniversary this year) are a brilliant example of a independent British film success story, having produced numerous short films and been involved in major pictures such as This is England, Four Lions, Kill List and Tyrannosaur as well as This is England 86’ and 88’ for the telly box . We were invited to BAFTA to hear co-creator of Warp Films, Mark Herbert, speak about their successes, what he thinks the most essential things are in good filmmaking and the importance of short films as a medium. To illustrate that last point we were shown a short film which had debuted at the London Film Festival, A Gun for George, which was written and directed by Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place co-creator Matthew Holness.

The story follows a caravan-dwelling loner (Matthew Holness) as he stalks the mean streets of the Isle of Thanet trying to flog his self-published novels about The Reprisalizer; a man who turns vigilante after his brother had been ruthlessly murdered by a bunch of scumbags. The film is both very funny and sad; it will also make you wish you had a similar set of lustrous sideburns.

Mark Herbert used A Gun for George to highlight the importance of short films. He compared a short to a test, both of a story and the team working to produce it. He said “It’s about if (the short) is any good but also if the relationship either way is not good… We feel we should enable a director to realise their vision all the time, that’s always the thing we try and do but if they don’t appreciate you as producers, then I’d rather not work with them.” A short film, “can be a calling card or have an importance all of their own as a snapshot or sketch of some characters. “A good short will make you want to know more about the characters. If you don’t develop your characters, well, you’re f*cked”. Directing a short (Dog Altogether) was instrumental in Paddy Considine getting the go ahead for Tyrannosaur; it was a similar situation for Four Lions director Chris Morris.

Warp first worked with Chris Morris on a short (first thing Warp did) and then there was a 7 year gap before they teamed up again to make the full length feature. “Having a good team is always really important, especially if its director’s first feature film: then it’s important to have people who aren’t doing their first film…to take the pressure off (the director) so they can concentrate on performance and the story. The transition is down to the people you hire.” Working together is very important on things like the film’s budget; for example, Chris wanted a helicopter shot in Four Lions which would have cost 7K, with no guarantee of getting the shot. It was important to Chris to have 4 instead of 2 days on location so they used the money on that instead. To get around the need for a helicopter they decided to take a location manager out and find a suitably high spot from which to shoot the motorway. “There’s a difference between saying I can’t do this and saying yes/no like you’re doling out pocket money”.

When it comes to funding “everyone loves a reason to say no”: which is where short films come in, you can go into a meeting and have something to show potential funders. “If you go to a festival and meet with a funder, they’re probably doing twenty meetings a day over 2 weeks and only going to commit to three films”. The odds are stacked against you so need plenty of tricks in your pocket to impress them. At the same time, it’s important not to focus on things like BFI strategy and how many shorts they may fund, strategies will keep on changing. “Just keep going, there are plenty of ways to get noticed.”

Sometimes, it seems, you have to make the film before you worry about the funding: “With Dead Man’s Shoes…. and This is England, we sort of always had this theory that we were going to make them anyway”. Mark said “me and Shane (Meadows, Director of This is England) went to Grimsby Docks (Mark had worked there as a student) and me and Shane decided we could make this film on his camera in the docks because everyone finished at midday and then for 7 hours you had what looked like 80s England, no one around and clear of cars… I then went on ebay and spent a grand on 5 cars and Shane spent a bit more on three cars. “

The making of Submarine was a very different experience: it’s the only time Warp have optioned a novel as a basis for a feature. Warp won the option through a close connection between an intern of theirs (who is now a producer) and Joe Dunthorne, who wrote the book. Once Warp had the book option they approached Richard Ayoade (who co-created Garth Marenghi with Matthew Holness) to direct. Joe was able to work with Richard closely on turning his life story into the excellent finished feature film, a chance that not all writers are afforded when their book gets optioned. Submarine is a good example of shooting with different styles despite what other people say about them. Mark reflected on a lecture once given by Robert McKee, who had apparently said that voiceovers are stupid and many in the audience rejected that viewpoint “instantly people said what about this film and this film and this film?” It works in Submarine, Mark assured us that if it hadn’t it would have been taken out.

Kill List director Ben Wheatley came to the attention of Warp through his first film, Down Terrace. Kill List had a fairly modest budget of 1 million but didn’t suffer in any way for that (Warp have produced feature films for between £400K and 3.3m). Mark said that budding film makers should consider their budgets carefully “The thing about Kill List is it’s really ambitious,  amazing set pieces, genre but there’s not that many characters: the more characters you have the more extras you have the more costume people you need the more make up people you need, bigger dining bus. It just grows and grows…be realistic. Keep looking at the film and say why is this different to what’s on the market?” For example, the ending of Kill List is fairly unusual and got people talking: “There should be more films where you leave the ending ambiguous; I don’t like to be told what I need to think.”

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