The film's in the can - and that's exactly where it will stay

The director of the UK's first digital feature thought getting distribution was tough. But not this tough
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The way May Miles Thomas makes it sound, creating Britain's first digital feature was so straightforward you'd think everyone would be at it by now. A veteran of BBC arts documentaries, music videos, commercials and short films, this no-nonsense Glaswegian had a wealth of production expertise but after spending seven fruitless years trying to find finance for her screenplays, enough really was enough. "I didn't necessarily want to squander my first feature on a camcorder epic," she explains, "but I'd reached the point when I really did have to go out and make my own luck." It took £50,000 from Elemental Films, the production company she runs in Glasgow with husband Owen, but this was one occasion where she certainly did it her way. The script for One Life Stand was circulated among agents, who were only too happy to provide some of Scotland's top acting talent, among them Gary Lewis (currently seen as the brow-furrowed dad in Billy Elliott) and the excellent Maureen Carr, whose contribu

The way May Miles Thomas makes it sound, creating Britain's first digital feature was so straightforward you'd think everyone would be at it by now. A veteran of BBC arts documentaries, music videos, commercials and short films, this no-nonsense Glaswegian had a wealth of production expertise but after spending seven fruitless years trying to find finance for her screenplays, enough really was enough. "I didn't necessarily want to squander my first feature on a camcorder epic," she explains, "but I'd reached the point when I really did have to go out and make my own luck." It took £50,000 from Elemental Films, the production company she runs in Glasgow with husband Owen, but this was one occasion where she certainly did it her way. The script for One Life Stand was circulated among agents, who were only too happy to provide some of Scotland's top acting talent, among them Gary Lewis (currently seen as the brow-furrowed dad in Billy Elliott) and the excellent Maureen Carr, whose contribution as the fortysomething mum coping with a soul-destroying job at a phone-in tarot service is a gutsy tour de force of ordinary decency under pressure. Like the rest of the cast, however, she only learned that the film was going to be shot on a £2,000 Sony VX-1000 video camera when she arrived on set.

Cutting the crew to the bare essentials, Thomas did her own lighting, operated the camera and left Owen to handle the sound. The lengthy editing process was accomplished by loading all 50 hours of filmed material into her home PC and putting the finished cut through film replication software to give it the look of classic black-and-white celluloid - instead of the shaky-cam digital images of Festen, The Idiots and the like, Thomas's inspiration was classical European art cinema. Much lauded on the film festival circuit from Rotterdam to New York and Edinburgh (where UK industry journal Screen International hailed it "as significant a declaration of talent as Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher"), One Life Stand has drawn as much praise for the humanity and composure of its storytelling as it has for Thomas's exemplary use of new technology. And yet after a couple of screenings today and tomorrow at the Raindance Film Festival, London's independent film showcase, its future chances of reaching the audience it deserves are slim without a distribution deal for a UK cinema release. Disgracefully, the London Film Festival "went off in a huff" (her words) because the film had already played in Edinburgh.

"Don't talk to me about the internet - the internet's shite!" is Thomas's take on the brave new world of online distribution. Having said that, the 41-year-old remains in upbeat mode, since the critical response to the film has put her on the industry's radar: "Regardless of whether we get a sale, I still consider this a success, since we started as a noble experiment rather than a money-making exercise".

That said, it's hardly a great encouragement for grass-roots film talent in this country, if a piece of work which embodies the accessible ideals of digital technology and connects strongly on an emotional level can still be left in this sort of limbo. While the box-office success of Billy Elliott shows that a modestly-budgeted British film can compete with Hollywood at local multiplexes, what hope for film-makers with less calculatingly commercial tales to tell?

Don't blame the distributors is the message which comes across from those independent outfits trying to place smaller British titles in a competitive movie marketplace. "In a week where you might have eight new movies released, the big commercial titles always get the most space," reflects Rupert Preston of Metrodome, who released the British clubbing pic Human Traffic and are currently hatching plans for Rage, a tough South London slice-of-life. "Even if you've got this really cool, energetic independent movie, it's still going to struggle to get the review space it needs. Our job now is to find other ways of publicising our films."

"Britain is definitely under-screened for new and different cinema," is the assessment of Robin Gutch, who heads the FilmFour Lab, the dedicated cutting-edge cinema division of Channel 4's film-making arm. Like Thomas, he's in the business of innovation on a tight budget, yet prepared to take a longer view on the success of the projects under his wing, winning some (teen comedy Large already has a distribution deal through Hollywood-backed UIP next year), losing others (the Lab's digital feature Daybreak made its Edinburgh premiÿre with a resounding thud). "We invest in the films that we do because we think they're creatively worth doing. By definition the film-makers are people we want to invest in, and with whom we'll hopefully have a relationship in the future, when we can recoup on that investment."

With One Life Stand behind her, Thomas would certainly not discourage anyone from the DIY route. "I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to change industry perceptions of their work so they can get the next one made on a proper budget. Don't join the queue for money for your first feature because you might not get any, and life's too short not to make movies."

'One Life Stand' screens at Raindance Film Festival, Metro Cinema, W1 (020 7287 3833), today at 8.30pm, tomorrow at 2.30pm

Comments