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Managing a Film Project

How do you keep the production of a film on time, on budget and on scope?  In this video I discuss these issues with short film producer, Michael Savva.  A transcript follows, or you can view the transcript as a .pdf file.

Elizabeth Harrin: Well, hello! I’m Elizabeth Harrin from A Girl’s Guide to Project Management and I’m here today with short film festival finalist, Michael Savva. And your film’s just recently been premiered at Marbella Film Festival?

Michael Savva: That’s correct. Yeah, it premiered back in October at the international festival. That was a great place to be able to premiere a film – loads of big picture films, lots of documentaries, lots going on and since then we’ve been in three more festivals and hopefully, lots more next year.

Elizabeth: Brilliant! So how we define a project tends to be, a project is a unique or one-off occasion or initiative with a start, a middle and an end and a film certainly fits that criteria.

Michael: Definitely.

Elizabeth: So how did you go about planning your film?

Michael: It’s quite difficult in the fact that you haven’t really got an end always, it isn’t set in stone. So you’re working it out as you go on sometimes, more than often than not. But you do plan. You do try and get a definite plan. You try and create a date that you can have actors auditioned by and then you want to be able to rehearse with those actors, spend some time going through the script so you can maybe adapt the script to suit the actor more than what I’ve just written.

And then as far as filming, it’s really difficult because you’re trying to coordinate actors who generally are all doing it for nothing. The way I do things is I pay expenses, I find actors who are out there trying to get showreel material and in return they can have showreel material from the film and in return they can help me out. So trying to coordinate them along with a cameraman, soundman, a photographer, myself and a set that needed to be designed, it is difficult. So you really do have to have in your mind at least the exact scope of what you are going to need to take on because sometimes you find, from my experience, working with a lot of film directors and short film directors, an idea may be there but unless they understand what they are going to take on, it doesn’t follow through. The other way, you have to follow through if you definitely really understand what you’re doing.

Elizabeth: Yeah and so you set yourself mental milestones, by this point you’ll have done this…

Michael: Well yeah, definitely. You have to audition. Actually, the funny thing is with auditions, I had two to three days worth of auditions where I hired out a studio and so lots and lots of people, lots of people cancelled of course. You overbook, but there were loads of actors that I wanted to see that couldn’t make the audition days. So I very often just say: “Look, could you meet me for lunch break if you’re free for lunch break or after work at a Costa Coffee?”

And funnily enough, every actor in the film turned out to be someone that didn’t appear on the audition days, the people I met impromptu, kind of. And it kind of is a weird thing. But soon as someone can pick up a script and they can read it, you know immediately and that’s what’s so great. And if they can do it in a coffee shop…

Elizabeth: Well, if they can do it there, they can do it anywhere.

Michael: Exactly. And it was really nice and we got such a great set of actors to work on the film and I think that’s what gave its atmosphere and its really great, kind of a feel good vibe.

Elizabeth: So one of the risks that you just talked about is the fact that people say they are going to come to an audition and then they don’t show?

Michael: Yeah.

Elizabeth: And then to mitigate against that, you can overbook on the audition days?

Michael: Oh, I definitely do. I always overbook. You have to overbook. Lots of people won’t turn up. Don’t be afraid that people are going to be…you’ll going to have a queue of 20 people waiting outside. You won’t. People won’t turn up, people will be late, people will come a different day. Some days, I think one day, we had a whole morning and afternoon and no one turned up. So it is what it is. And you have to take it as it comes. Be prepared for it. Don’t get upset with it. You just deal with it and as I said, “I want to see this person,” you call them up. “When can I see you…?” if you can’t do it. There’s always a solution, it’s not easy, but there’s always a solution.

Elizabeth: So you can mitigate against it like that. Were there any other things that you thought would go wrong, risks that you were able to mitigate against?

Michael: Well in film generally what we try and to do, what I try and do is overcompensate. As I said, I would compensate with hiring actors but then on the filming day, we’ll overcompensate with how much we film, depending on time. But there’s parts in the script that were a lot longer and there were scenes that we shot, that we can take out of the edit afterwards so you kind of do try and prevent that as much as possible by saying that: “Let’s just get it while we’re here,” because it’s going to be very difficult to get that all happening again with everybody there and the environment and the set as well. The set was quite complicated. I had to spend two, three days building that.

Elizabeth: Right. So tell me a bit more about the film?

Michael: So it’s a short film. It’s about twelve, thirteen minutes. It’s a black comedy and it’s about a couple and a wife who suspects a husband of cheating so she follows him out one night and he ends up at this garage with a few of his friends and she discovers an unusual hobby of his. And that’s the punch line of the film but then you have an ending where there’s a little bit of race to get home and who’s going to get home first, and who knows what, as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah. When I saw it, there was the twist at the end – oh, I won’t spoil it – about the race and who gets home and who knows what’s going on.

Michael: Yeah. There’s like three things going on right at the end. The script is actually a lot longer. As I said, it’s about 20 minutes long and there was another scene at the end, and there’s lot of extra but we decided to cut it all out and just keep it really simple with a really nice idea. It kind of became its own thing. It created its own story and it’s lovely to watch, lovely to follow. I think people really enjoyed being part of something that was very different to a lot of short films…

Elizabeth: It’s certainly very different.

Michael: …which are generally quite bleak or quite dark and the comedy is quite generic so a black comedy is very rare in a short cinema circuit. And I think a lot of people are quite excited about working on it which was nice for me as well. And I was really proud of trying to be able to do something. It was a challenge.

Elizabeth: So did anything go wrong?

Michael: Things always go wrong.

Elizabeth: Things always go wrong. It’s how you deal with it.

Michael: How you deal with it. For example, the worst thing that probably went wrong was as I said, the actors all ended up being people that hadn’t auditioned on the day.

The one actor I did choose which was someone who I did audition on the audition days at the studio, on the night before the film and we were actually shooting the house scenes on a Friday night and a Saturday will be the garage scenes. Right in the middle of the night, we got an email saying he wouldn’t be able to make it. There was a death in the family and that was that. And he was playing the character that was probably most difficult to cast if I’m honest. It was the older character which was a real challenge.

So immediately what you do is… at the same time I was trying to direct what was going on out in the middle of the road, at the same time I’m flipping through my castings and having to see who fit and who is appropriate. The best thing you could do – it’s all about contacts and all about speaking to people. I got all the actors to go on every kind of social network thing I had and look at any actors they had.

Luckily, the main actor, James [Rose], who plays the husband, he had worked with an actor called Barry Clarke who he had worked with a few times and was up for anything really and he was up for a good laugh. It was the type of script that suited him. He wanted something different and he was just a joyful person and someone who’d really just get their teeth into it. It was about 3 a.m., he calls him up. I get on the phone and say: “I’m Michael. You don’t know me. I just watched a bit of some of footage of you online, I think you’re great. I’ll send you a script. Tell me what you think, if you can read it.” And he called me up.

Elizabeth: So he turned up the next morning.

Michael: Yeah, he did about 4 o’clock and then yeah, I picked him up from the station. And honestly, he brought a real breath of something new to the script and new to the film which was a blessing in disguise really. So things always work out but it’s just all hands on deck and everyone trying to sort it all out.

Elizabeth: I think that’s a good point because you’ve got people around you. You don’t have to fix these problems by yourself.

Michael: Yeah, definitely. I don’t have lots of actors that I could call, great! But I’ve got five actors in the house with me at the moment. They probably know a lot, and even if they just know five each, that’s fine. That’s five more people each that we can contact.

But other things went wrong, little things. I tripped over a wire. Things always go wrong. Filming at night was a much more of a challenge than I anticipated.

Elizabeth: Right. So have you learned something from that the next time?

Michael: Oh definitely. I mean, after I finished filming that, I quickly got on to writing another short one. Currently I’m in the process of…I’ve got rehearsals actually this weekend.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay!

Michael: And the one thing, I took away quite a few things, but one of the things was night shooting, outside night shooting is difficult especially if you’re on a low budget and we did this from quite a low budget, a very low budget.

So I wrote the script. The idea for the script stayed the same, but locations and how many actors I had to use and how many shots I’d use and how I planned it was all thought about as I was writing the next script because it was really saying: “If I want to do this again, I want to do it properly. I don’t want to have the challenges I did last time until I have the money at my disposal to be able to deal with those challenges.”

Elizabeth: Yes, why make life hard for yourself? If you learned something was difficult, write it out. Don’t do it the same way.

Michael: Yeah. Outside shooting, amount of actors, things like that always come in to play. But yeah, you have to. I think that’s the best to time to start working on something else because things are fresh in your mind which are really nice To be able to reference something recent and where you felt the effect of it, definitely.

Elizabeth: Okay, so finally then, OTOBOS, did you stick to your time?

Michael: Definitely, on time with the filming, not on time with the editing. But you’re always going to have to give yourself leeway and I did. I gave myself a couple of month’s leeway, I gave myself three months leeway actually.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Michael: But many times, it can go a lot over that.

Elizabeth: But you had the deadline of the film festival?

Michael: Yeah, I had the deadline of the film festivals that I wanted to submit to, definitely at the end of 2010. I had some festivals I definitely want to have it submitted by. So I wanted it all ready by the middle of the year so that I can then start things like promotions and PR for the film and just getting out there and submitting it.

And now as I’m working on the new film, I’m still sending “Still Waters Run Deep” out to festivals for next year as well trying to still working at both things but definitely on time, I’d say definitely, yeah.

Elizabeth: Budget?

Michael: On budget? It was, pretty much, depending on how you look at it.

Elizabeth: What does that mean?

Michael: It means if you’re taking into account, talking about the production, it was on budget. I budgeted it between £1200 and £1500. I mean, a lot of it came from the investment… really came from people doing favours, people helping, the set, it came out with me getting a van and going out and finding some crates for the floor, we had to build a fake floor and things like that and borrowing people’s cars, using what’s around you and you can be amazed what you can do. You can ask people and people are really willing to help sometimes which was really nice.

So on budget as far as production, [but] what I didn’t take in to account, and I will next time: festivals are very expensive and now submitting that film for festivals is slowly working out to be more expensive than the actual production of the film itself. So you kind of learn from that and you kind of say: “Okay, I need to be more selective about maybe the type of film I’m making so that I can be selective about the festivals that I enter it to.” And that’s definitely what I want to do now. I’m making a sci-fi and I’m going to try and see how that works at the horror and sci-fi festivals circuit next year.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Michael: And hopefully, that will give me a smaller audience but a very passionate audience and something I can control money-wise as well.

Elizabeth: Yeah, okay. And scope? You set out to do a particular thing to produce your film. Did you do it?

Michael: Yes. Definitely on scope as far as… as you said, if the plan was to go out there, do a short film that was something that I would produce, direct and write myself then definitely on scope. But with short films, every stage, they kind of turn into something else by themselves.

Elizabeth: Right, lots of changes along the way.

Michael: Lots of changes along the way whether it be pre-production or post-production or whatever, or even in distribution, the film takes its own thing on. Or even when you are trying to market the film, people read it differently and I understand that considering the type of film it is. You have to be understandable that the film and the scope of the film can actually change. But as far as my personal scope, definitely, that’s what I set out to achieve and I’m very, very happy with it, yeah.

Elizabeth: Great! So where can people find out more about the film and the new film?

Michael: And, the new film? Well, they can go to www.stillwatersfilm.com and that’s where the film website is. You can find clips, trailers, pictures from production day which were really cool actually. We had a great photographer there and he took some amazing shots and we used a lot in publicity which was really helpful so there’s lots in there.

And if you go to www.newecw.com, there’s a lot of stuff about the production company, what I’m doing. We do filming for corporate filming as well but it will tell you about all the upcoming films that we want to do next year. As I said,I’ve got a sci-fi coming up and I’m trying to work on a live action animation and I’m trying to work on a single animation as well. So it’s kind of, maybe…fingers in too many pies.

Elizabeth: A lot of projects to go.

Michael: Yeah, it’s exciting and why not. I’m happy. I’m great. I’m enjoying it and it gives me lots of experience. I’ve never done certain parts and certain things. So the more I can try, I more I can get some experience and use it in different areas as well.

Elizabeth: Brilliant! All right, thank you very much.

Michael: Thank you very much.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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