The co-director of documentary ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ offers a guide to surviving and thriving in the movie biz.
I first met [punk duo] Sleaford Mods filming an interview for GigSlutz in Brighton in October 2014. This was also the first time I met Paul [Sng, soon to be our documentary’s co-director]. I did not know the band beforehand, but as I normally do had listened to their stuff online. I had actually misread the first email and thought they were called the Seafood Mods, expecting some young hipster band from Brighton with an ironic name. The first song I listened to was Tied Up In Nottz. I was talking to my girlfriend while listening to them, but zoned out when I caught onto the line “tied up in Nottz with a Z, you cunt” and from there I really picked up on them. Jobseeker, Jolly Fucker... I had never heard anything from my generation this brutal, raw and unexpected. It was like hearing punk for the first time. I couldn't stop listening. When Paul and I caught them in Brighton they were entirely different to the majority of bands I had met before. There were no PAs telling them what to do, no one allowing them certain time brackets for certain press, no entourage. It was just Jason, Andy and their manager Steve. In December that year, Paul asked me if I was interested in making a documentary about them, and I said yeah. Making a film is one of those things you talk about at parties and nothing ends up happening. But only a couple of weeks later we had started crowdfunding.
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a film director. It seemed such a big spectacle, a huge celebration, everyone working together to make something exciting and recognisable. But it seemed so far away. Then roll into the late ’00s and an abundance of affordable equipment swept across the market, making tools accessible for any would-be filmmaker.
It was some friends of mine who got Canon 5D Mk II's, with the intention to make wedding videos. This got me hands-on with a camera for the first time. I was never interested in following my friends’ business plans, but even messing around in the living room or out and about immediately made me realise the potential and the speed in which things could be made. Shortly after, I bought my own camera and started filming random things around my flat. Little scenarios with artist models, experimenting with shadows, playing with depth of field, stop-motion, learning what white balance and ISO were, for example. I had some free editing software and I started cutting these odd bits together. Within a few days I had made an awkward 30-second fight scene between an artist's model and a hand model – emulating scenes from The Matrix and Lord of the Rings.
Then it was time to Get Professional. I had a career in hospitality management but decided to start university at the age of 25 to study a one-year foundation course. It was a big commitment at the time and I felt this was a sensible approach. I may have hated being a student again after eight years’ working, but after the foundation I went straight to a BA in film production, which was probably the best decision I ever made. I was lucky to hear one of the best bits of advice very early on in my university life: while you are a student never consider yourself as just a student – you are a filmmaker in the early stages of your career. Case in point: second year of University and I’m making a feature-length documentary about Sleaford Mods.
Their tour started in March. We did not have time to look for money conventional ways, so went via IndieGogo: £7000 seemed a huge ask but we very quickly raised three times that. Then the pressure was on to actually make the film. No time to consult text books on the correct methods, we charged ahead and tried to use as much common sense as we could. I already owned one Blackmagic Cinema Camera so we bought a Blackmagic Pocket Camera to go with it. We needed two cameras that would look the same and this was the most affordable option. I already had a mic, but we picked up two Lav mics, extra batteries and hard drives etc. And that was our kit. Did we run into problems? Frustrations maybe. Obvious things such as light in a music venue always varies. And when someone says their bar is “quiet” to film in, it never means “film quiet”. There is always a fridge buzzing in the background, air conditioning, people outside. But Sleaford Mods are a raw band. They have this DIY attitude. The film had to have this feel as well to be faithful. There was no point in doing slow-motion shots of Jason tying his shoes laces as that's not what the band are about. The way you film anything should complement the subject. Sometimes the best techniques are not using anything fancy at all.
Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain premiered at Picturehouse Central, and went on to receive mainstream media attention, with more than 80 screenings across the UK & Ireland including twice at the BFI Southbank. Go watch it! I graduated from university in 2016 and am now directing my second crowdfunded feature film, Scales, a claustrophobic drama that spends one evening with four characters trapped in an apartment.
But you’re reading this, you’re interested in film, what can I tell you? For a start, aim to make the best film you possibly can. This may be easier said than done, but hard work and patience can yield amazing results. Watch films relentlessly, even if they are awful. Make mistakes early on and learn from them. Film is a team effort so never let your ego get in the way. Respect everyone you are working with and the whole production will be so much smoother. In fact, learn a bit about their jobs too. Experiment techniques with your camera, read scripts, get some editing skills, get some sound editing skills, get some PR/social media skills. All of this is available free, online. And finally, fuck the rules. Just because someone has done it one way does not mean you have to do the same. Everyone's path is different. Don't get caught up in what textbooks say.
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Check out this video for more film-making tips from Nathan and friends.