How to make a movie with a paintbrush

Want to make a film but don’t have the capital? Ian Burrell meets the man who funded his debut by painting and decorating
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The Independent Culture

"Lots of walls got painted," says Sam Holland, describing how he funded his debut feature film, which will realise his dream when it premieres this week in London's Leicester Square.

An unbending depiction of the suffocation and frustrations of life in the capital's high rise estates, Zebra Crossing is a tale of lack of opportunity, family breakdown and racial tension and is the antithesis of the promotional material that helped to win the city the 2012 Olympics.

Incredibly, Holland financed the movie by painting and decorating. The young director is a role model for countless peers who harbour deep creative instincts but haven't the wherewithal to make them come alive. Zebra Crossing belies the fact it was made for just £75,000, a drop in the ocean for even a small budget feature film. It has been recognised with a string of awards at independent film festivals in Britain, America and Germany.

The tight constraints under which the film was made amid the tower blocks of Kennington, south London, only underscore the narrow confines of the lives of its characters.

The result is a production of raw intensity and rare authenticity. It recalls the violence and anger of Tim Roth's early classic Made in Britain and Gary Oldman's brutal Nil By Mouth, which starred Ray Winstone.

As a depiction of crime in London, it shares nothing with the mockney gangsterism of Guy Ritchie or the one-dimensional loveable rogues played by East End actor Danny Dyer. Metropolitan Police beat constables might actually recognise the characters portrayed in Zebra Crossing.

Holland spent eight years getting the film made. Kicking his heels as a runner in a sound studio in London's Soho, he realised he needed to go to film school if he was to take his script to the big screen. To fund a three-year course in Wales, he taught himself building skills. "It was all the finishing, painting, decorating, plastering. I love things to come to a finish," he says, in a London café.

After graduating, he quickly realised there was no prospect of his film receiving funding through official channels. So Holland set up a decorating business and soon expanded it to employ seven people. "But I never looked at it as building a business, everything was geared to making a film," he says. "I believed it was a story that needed to be told and there was no way I wasn't going to make it."

Holland's model was 1995 French cult film La Haine, where a young Vincent Cassel enunciated the seething rage of the poor Paris banlieues. He felt there was nothing similar to reflect things he had seen growing up in Kilburn, north west London.

During the eight years of Zebra Crossing's gestation, the director Noel Clarke emerged to depict urban London in Kidulthood and then Adulthood. But where those films hint at a social mobility in the multicultural melange of rich and poor in Ladbroke Grove, west London, Zebra Crossing shows no obvious way out.

There are no signs of the skyline of the City of London and a lack of racial integration appears highlighted by the film being shown in black and white. "It felt like sardines in a tin," says Holland of the seven-week shoot. "Even though everyone was so squashed in, there was loneliness and no one properly integrated."

The film's director is a gentle character trying to convey a message that he inherited from his artist mother that conflict is usually futile. "We're all striving to be something and a lot of it comes down to money, everyone's very aggressive and no one really knows what they are struggling for."

Holland, 31, already has a new film project, Seven Days of Insanity, a tale of four psychiatric patients who escape a rural unit and find themselves on the streets of London at Christmas. He hopes he won't have to fund this one through decorating.

Meanwhile Ana Atanesyan, the rookie producer he hired for Zebra Crossing, has since become his wife and they have a baby boy.

The film benefited from the commitment of its young cast. Lee Turnbull, who plays lead character Justin, grew up on the Marquess Estate in north London. "I was trying to bring what I'd seen to the role," he says. "Essentially Justin is someone that cares but anyone could be pushed in that [violent] direction with all the negativityaround them. We've got so many British films out there that are effing and blinding and lots of fighting but that's it. There's no soul to those films."

Turnbull, 28, said that his acting colleagues, some of whom will only get paid if the film makes a profit, had shown a total commitment to the project. "It was like a gang mentality, we were all together – the crew, the cast – we were going to get this done."

He hopes the film, unlike other Cockney crime capers, will be appreciated by young Londoners for its honesty. "Hopefully it will get across to the guys from the council estates and they will see it as real. I'm a real London lad and we don't go round saying 'Cor blimey, let's go up the apples and pears'."

Zebra Crossing is in cinemas 28 Jan and on DVD from 31 Jan.

Show me the money

Five weird ways films have been funded

1. Eccentric auteur Tommy Wiseau funded sophomore project The Room by importing leather jackets from Korea, ultimately raising $6m.

2. In order to finance Clerks, Kevin Smith sold his collection of comics, maxed out several credit cards and dipped into his college education fund.

3. Funding El Mariachi drove Robert Rodriguez to sell his body to medical science, raising $3,000 by testing a new cholesterol treatment.

4. Documentary Roger & Me saw director Michael Moore raise funds by selling his house and profiting from weekly bingo sessions.

5. Korean War film Inchon was mainly financed by Reverend Sun Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Moonies cult.