While the networking website MySpace has opened the door to many a musician – Lily Allen for one – only now have the same possibilities been opened up to budding film-makers. When the heads of MySpace recognised a growing community of film fans on the site, they set out to make the world's first feature film created entirely by internet users. The result is Faintheart, a heart-warming comedy starring Jessica Hynes and Eddie Marsan alongside first-time actors.
Although the film took less time to shoot than a Hollywood blockbuster, involving the online community in every stage of film production was a long process. In February 2007, aspiring directors were invited to submit a short film proposing their idea to be developed in a feature for a chance to land a £1m budget, supplied by Vertigo Films, the UK Film Council and Film4. Some 800 hopefuls uploaded videos, which were narrowed to a shortlist of 12, from which three were selected by a panel including the actress Sienna Miller and the director Kevin Macdonald. When proceedings were handed over to MySpace users, it was British director Vito Rocco they voted in.
Rocco and screenwriter David Lemon's proposal was the comic tale of Richard (played by Marsan), a father with a dead-end sales job and a penchant for dressing up as a Viking warrior and taking part in battle re-enactments in his spare time, upsetting his wife and young son along the way. When his wife Cath (Hynes) has had enough, he sets about trying to make amends. For Rocco, who had made only a few short films, it is his feature directorial debut. He met Lemon a few years ago via the digital film company Slingshot and they discovered similarities in their backgrounds. "My family are from Iceland, hence the Viking bloodlust," Rocco explains. "David misspent his youth in Southend observing battle re-enactors, I misspent my youth observing am-dram actors in Norfolk; and the Viking heritage combined to make the idea."
He cites Little Miss Sunshine as one of his favourite films and Faintheart will no doubt appeal to fans of the 2006 comedy. "It's about men in the 21st century having problems with masculinity and difficulty finding their inner hero. People feel emasculated by modern technology and the lack of intimacy around it. I wanted to make a film that transformed the lowly loser into an epic hero. I wanted to make an epic for today's Middle English men. I always love films about losers. British comedy tends to do losers quite well. Hopefully by the end people are behind Richard. My ambition in film-making is to make people laugh and cry."
Despite being a collaboration between so many people across the internet, and the novelty aspect of being the first of its kind, the finished product is a quintessential Britcom. Playing the hapless Richard, Marsan, who has this year starred in sci-fi comedy Hancock alongside Will Smith, and as the crazed driving instructor in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, chose to take part for its "great script". "The character of Richard is great – there's a great arc to him. My wife probably thought I was more like Richard than any other character I've played."
The film took just eight weeks to shoot and even the battle sequences of the film's last 10 minutes were completed in just two days. Marsan welcomed the change from the big budget Hancock. "When I do big films there's a lot of waiting around, but this was full on."
For the director, the main benefit of making use of the MySpace community was in the casting. Character profiles of the roles up for grabs were posted online and users could upload their audition made on homemade videos or webcam. More than 1,400 MySpace users auditioned for the roles. "I was very keen to represent the world properly, to have as many unknown actors as possible. The casting process was fascinating. People were able to audition at home and I watched them," Rocco says.
Alongside the handful of recognisable British actors (Hynes, Marsan, Paul Nicholls, Ewen Bremner, Bronagh Gallagher, Tim Healy and Anne Reid), actors from the MySpace community blend in seamlessly. One of the lead speaking roles – Richard's narcissistic boss at the hardware store – was taken by Chris Wright, who had no previous acting experience.
Although it was originally intended that they would recruit eight non-professional actors, the calibre of entries was so high that they ended up with a further three, bringing the total to 11. Marsan was impressed. "I never noticed the difference between the MySpace actors and the professional actors. They all did their job. In that way the experiment held up."
A couple of crew members were also recruited from the site and MySpace members supplied five tracks on the soundtrack, which featured alongside Katie Melua's work. While Lemon penned the script, sections were posted online for the internet community to comment on and suggest better lines. "The results have been phenomenal," James Fabricant, the director of MySpace Europe and one of the film's producers, says. "MySpace works together with more traditional media companies to drive innovation and help shape the future of the entertainment industry, and Faintheart is a great example of what can be achieved." So could this hint at the future of film-making or is it a one-off experiment?
"Film can be quite a closed shop," says Marsan. "MySpace can allow people to get in, but you'll have to be as good and capable as other script-writers. Vito spent years trying to get a film made. You have to have the drive and ambition, but it's another avenue. It's not a short cut and it's not going to devalue filming. People are not to be conned – this is not The X Factor. If you want to do it you have to learn how, and more people know how to do it than are earning a living doing it."
The film had its first showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year, and the film will be screened on one day at 150 cinemas across the UK, before it is made available on DVD. To continue the interactive process while giving something back to those who have contributed, MySpace users get to decide on the venues by entering their postcodes on the site. The film's release date coincides with Europe's largest Viking Fire Festival in the Shetland Islands. It could be the opportunity that launches the career of a new British film director. Rocco remains level-headed. "It depends on how people react to the movie. It's a great movie to see now, especially after Christmas when people are depressed and have no money. We're showing it for free. It's the perfect feelgood remedy to the credit crunch. Hopefully people will feel better – it's an uplifting movie."
'Faintheart' will be screened for free at cinemas on 27 January and released on DVD on 2 February