In the last few years, the production budgets of UK films have been falling. The median figure of £2-3 million from a few years ago has become £1-2 million and many films are now being made for less. The expansion is in films which in industry parlance are ‘micro-budget’ and ‘no budget’. Two recent UK Film Council reports provide excellent research material on this trend. Shifty, written and directed by Eran Creevy was produced under the aegis of London Film’s ‘Microwave’ scheme. The Regional Screen Agency for London devised the scheme in order to widen participation and access for young London-based filmmakers. It offers support to make a film which must have only 18 days shooting and a budget of less than £100,000. So far, London Films has greenlit seven productions and currently has a fourth bidding period in which to find three more projects by June 26, 2009.
Shifty is the second Microwave film to get a release. It opened ‘wide’ on 51 prints on April 24 through independent distributor Metrodome, taking £61,000. After three weeks it was down to 12 prints after taking over £131,00. That might not sound much, but for a very small film it is an encouraging return and Metrodome must hope that they will more than double that revenue from the subsequent DVD release.
But is a ‘micro-budget’ film worth watching? Yes, is the short answer. ‘Shifty’ is the nickname of a young British Asian who we meet early in the film when he opens the door in his outer London suburb to his old schoolfriend Chris come back down from Manchester for a party. Chris soon discovers that Shifty has become the local drugs dealer. We discover that Chris left under a cloud of some sort . Over the next 24 hours we expect to see Shifty extricate himself from possible disaster in his dealing circle and Chris come to terms with why he left and what his friendship with Shifty still means to him.
So, rule one for low budget filmmaking in this context is to have a ‘tight’ script. In this film, the action is condensed into 24 hours and there are only around a dozen speaking parts and one primary location with a couple of brief motorway sequences. These restrictions keep down costs and impose some discipline on the filmmakers. In fact it’s sometimes argued that the real creativity in filmmaking comes from the ability to take simple ingredients and use them effectively.
Shifty succeeds, I think, for a number of reasons. First, the acting talent on show is high-class even if the budget is low. The two leads are amongst the best of young British talent. Riz Ahmed was in Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ Road to Guantanamo. He also has a music career. Daniel Mays has been around for a while on TV and in high profile films such as Vera Drake, Atonement and Red Riding. Jason Flemyng who plays Shifty’s immediate ‘superior’ in the drug pipeline has been in many UK and Hollywood films including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Second, the script and the camerawork are not over-ambitious. I’ve nothing against hand-held camerawork and witty dialogue, but striving hard to achieve an ‘effect’ in a well known genre when you have limited experience is taking a big gamble. As it is, the film is about the right length, so the narrative is sustained in its grip on the audience and provides an interesting twist (OK if you are one of those genre die-hards who always has to guess the ending, you’ll probably see this one coming, but for most of us, it will work).
Eran Creevy is a first time writer/director who has been working on film crews around London for the last five years. His DoP Ed Wild has been shooting films for around ten years and between them they have used the limited location opportunities well. Clearing streets and bringing in extras or, conversely, taking a guerilla crew out into crowded locations sets up production problems requiring money and expertise in the production team. Here , the scenes were seemingly shot early in the morning on deserted streets (and motorways). The result is a suburb with little life beyond the central action. This isn’t social realism. But it does represent what is to my taste the soulless suburban sprawl of much of South East England. The film is located in a fictitious community, actually filmed in Harlow, Creevy’s home town. It isn’t the ‘inner city’, rather ‘crack in the suburbs’. There are one or two interesting compositions (such as the one linking a young mother using a pregnancy test with her two small children playing across the corridor) but mainly the action carries the narrative rather than the mise en scène.
Music is something else that costs, but films like this offer opportunities to composers and performers. The partnership responsible for this film are Harry Escott and Molly Nyman (daughter of Michael) who already have an impressive list of credits linking again to Michael Winterbottom and Brad Pitt. I confess that in the first part of the film, I was irritated by the music, but later on it seemed to work. I guess I’m not the target audience, however. On a first viewing, I thought that was a scene that didn’t work in terms of editing, but a second viewing suggests that I was wrong. On the whole, the editing is tight and the script works very well. It needs to because on low budget productions like this there isn’t time to go back and reshoot scenes if the editing won’t work.
At times the film did remind me of the hours I once spent watching student films (often shot on estates like this). But this is a superior first film that deserves exposure and I hope to use it in my teaching. My companions at the screening certainly viewed it as solid entertainment.
Film Education have some useful material for students and teachers. Interestingly the Metrodome person being interviewed on the site refers to the film as belonging to the ‘urban genre’ (like Adulthood/Kidulthood and Bullet Boy). I take it that this is a term borrowed from the black music genre (what used to be soul, r & b etc.?), also known as ‘urban’.