Thursday, October 1, 2009

Phil Hawkins on "The Butterfly Tattoo"

What was your filmmaking background before you made The Butterfly Tattoo?

PHIL: I've always thought that I was one of those very lucky people who always knew what I wanted to do so I was able to get an early headstart. I made my first short film when I was 13 in high school. It wasn't very good, but with no formal education course available to me it was the start of teaching myself the filmmaking ropes. I made a lot of short films and took part in a lot of those 48-hour film challenges. I won a couple too. It was the best "film school" I could possibly have. Watching films, trying to make and write films myself. I was hooked.

When I was 17, I gained a place on the BBC's Mentor Project where every week I would work in the BBC on various different programmes. I managed to get £1000 from them to make a rather ambitious short film. It was brilliant finally having a bit of a budget to try and translate what was in my head to the screen. I made a short called The Dotted Line which got me noticed by a commercials production company.

So, I fell into commercials. I never thought - when I started out filmmaking - that I'd ever direct adverts but it was totally beneficial. I can see now why a lot of great directors come from (and still are) in advertising. It really refines your eye because every second counts in a 30 second piece of film. The money isn't bad too - it allowed me to continue to make more and more narrative short films.

It took a little while to get that first commercial though. In the few years building up to my first professional gig as a director I worked from the ground up. I was a runner, VT operator, camera assistant, 3rd AD, 2nd AD and I was 1st AD on commercials for a while too. This experience was invaluable. There's nothing better than earning a crew's respect than working up yourself. People who fall into directing straight away always seem to be missing something. After all, as director, how are you supposed to get the best from your technicians and team if you don't have a clue what they do?

My other bit of advice for anyone wanting to get into directing is to act! You don't have to be very good at it (or even enjoy it particularly) but it'll give you an invaluable insight into the way actors think. It will make you a better director. I've acted in quite a few plays in the past and I quite enjoyed it. Whether I was any good or not was another question but the experience was invaluable! Actors respect me on set more knowing I've acted and can talk to them like an actor than someone who just hides behind a monitor afraid of the very people who are going to make or break your film. It's amazing how many directors I've seen who can't direct actors!

My first feature film - The Women of Troy - came about when my former college got in touch with the idea to make a feature film adaptation of a classic Greek play by Euripides, The Trojan Women. They had a pot of money from the government for being one of the best drama colleges in the country and were asked to use it to educate other colleges.

With Euripides and The Women of Troy -- something every drama student had to study -- there wasn't much material around in order for people to get to grips with the difficult language and text. After all, if you're studying Shakespeare you can always watch one of the many films that exist to understand the story. With The Women Of Troy there was only one film from the 70's available... so we decided to make one. Shot on DV over a crazy schedule of just four days, the film went to DVD and sold like hotcakes to schools, colleges, universities across the globe. It also went onto win Best Director at the New York Independent Film and Video festival in 2006, which was amazing. I didn't even think I'd get into the festival, let alone win anything!

What was the best thing you learned from your experience being part of On the Lot?

PHIL: Ah, On the Lot. What a surreal and bizarre experience that was.

You know, before I got on the show I never thought I'd end up as one of those people on a reality television show, but when Steven Spielberg calls, you're not going to turn it down are you?

I think the best thing I learnt was more of a personal lesson. Being on the show made me realise how much I really did know about filmmaking. Yes, I'd made a low budget feature and short films, but under the very extreme time constraints in this bizarre environment I was able to hold my own - much better than most of the other contestants.

The problem was, being good was to be my downfall. I didn't argue with the other filmmakers, I respected them. I didn't show pressure or stress because I believe the director should always be cool under pressure. That didn't make great reality television so I didn't get a massive about a screen time in order for the audience to know who I was and vote for me. I was also the only filmmaker from the UK on the show and with it not airing in my country I didn't have an automatic fan base of friends and family to vote for me.

I did, however, make some great friends on the show. There were some very talented filmmakers on that show and people who will go onto make great things. It's also an experience to tell the grandkids!

How did you get involved with The Butterfly Tattoo?

PHIL: I was approached by the producers who asked to see a copy of my showreel through my website ( - another tool invaluable to the director!) but they were initially very cryptic about what the project was about.

I get a lot of requests for showreels through the website and sometimes it's difficult to figure out which ones could genuinely lead to jobs. They were being secretive about the actual project because they were still in the process of getting the author to sign the contracts and gain the rights to make the film.

After they had seen my showreel and really enjoyed it, one of the producers - Rik Visser of Dynamic Entertainment - sent me an email telling me that it was a film adaptation of a book and "have I heard of Philip Pullman"?

Instantly I thought 'WOW, I'm directing The Golden Compass!' but it turned out to be one of his earlier books The Butterfly Tattoo (also called The White Mercedes). I bought it, read it and LOVED it! It was perfect for me. It had elements of romance, drama, thriller, action all in a great Shakespearean-esq story inspired by Romeo and Juliet. It was the perfect film for me to make to show off what I could do with a bigger budget and really make a film that was very me. That's not supposed to sound selfish, every director needs to put themselves into a movie, to give it their emotional and intellectual spin - to give it a heart. I knew if I got the gig that it would be the start of my feature film career.

I think they were also looking at a few other directors, so the producers asked me to write a short treatment detailed how I thought the script should be developed and the type of film I wanted to make from the book. After all, we were starting from scratch. A script hadn't even been written yet.

Well, I became inspired and obsessed. I wrote a master document of how I thought the story should be developed, images, film references, mood boards - everything I could think of to get all my thoughts down onto paper. It ended up being about 50 pages! I think they were really wowed by it and my passion for the story and the characters and, luckily, we were all - excuse the pun - on the same page with the movie that we wanted to make. The document became what we called 'draft zero' and we used it throughout pre-production in order to hire the screenwriter - the excellent, first time script writer Stephen Potts - develop the script and other elements.

How involved were you in getting the rights from author Philip Pullman?

PHIL: Getting the rights from Philip and his publishers was actually taking place while I was just coming on board. I can't take any credit for this, it was all the producer's hard work. Rik Visser had the idea to make a film version of The Butterfly Tattoo years before I was ever involved.

The rights were gained after the producers pitched a very education-friendly way of making the film which appealed to Pullman. The film was to introduce people to the world of filmmaking and give new talent the platform to show what they could do. Lead by professional heads of departments, the majority of the crew were trainees or people wanting the chance to 'step up' within the industry and none of these people were just making tea. They had a massive amount of responsibility and a very steep learning curve but they were all brilliant. The cast too.

All of the actors in the film, especially leads Duncan Stuart and Jessica Blake, hadn't had the opportunity to play such big roles in a feature film before. Even though they were newcomers (I really don't like the term "unknowns") they really pulled off some emotionally difficult roles.

How did you finance the film and what did you learn in that process?

PHIL: The film was financed in quite an interesting way. Basically anyone with €50 could become an investor and buy a share in the film. It was all funded through the Internet. The producers thought up this clever way of funding the film and, having great business heads, came up with all the paperwork and shares systems to back it up.

Amazingly though, we got all the money in just two days of the site going live. The Financial Times ran a small front page article about the film and the funding process, which really attracted a lot of companies and individuals to invest in the film.

There's a lot more detail about the funding process on the website where any interested filmmakers can download the investment prospectus ( - click on tbt project) and find out more. I was very much busy with the creative elements of the film so didn't really get involved with the funding process.

You wore a couple of hats on the film -- director and editor. What's the benefit of doing that? The downside?

PHIL: I'm quite the perfectionist and, for good or bad, it's really difficult for me to let go!

On all of my previous short films, music videos and even a lot of my commercials I was the main editor so it seemed like a natural progression. I also cut The Women of Troy (also because we didn't have a budget for an editor!).

I really enjoy the editing process and getting my hands dirty with the rushes. I love playing around with performances, sequences and structure in the edit... it really makes the film. I also never shoot coverage when I direct. Although my eyes are open to different interpretations and ideas when I'm on set, my storyboards are very detailed. Having that editor mindset from all of my other films it means I never shoot anything I know I'm not going to use. It speeds things up on set and allows time for the shots I know I definitely will use.

The editing process for me is the final piece of that puzzle, so to speak. I'm fitting the sequences together that I've already edited together in my head when I was storyboarding.

That said, I learnt a lot from editing The Butterfly Tattoo. I had a very talented editor - Daniel Greenway - piecing together a rough cut of the film while I was shooting and he came up with some great ideas that still remain in the cut today. These are ideas I never would have thought of because I was so close to the way in which I'd shot the scene for it to be cut.

Even though I didn't shoot coverage, Daniel managed to play around with rushes in order to come up with a new interpretation. I think, however objective you are as a director/editor, your relationship with the material having planned and shot it is always going to be a close one. I think I'm good at taking off that 'director hat' and putting on the 'editing hat' to make the right decisions for the story and not for the filmmaker but seeing what Daniel did opened my eyes to working with editors and allowing new interpretation in the editing stage. It'll be a frustrating experience on my next feature but I think I'll get used to it for the benefit of the film.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

PHIL: I know I'm a better filmmaker in many ways from making The Butterfly Tattoo. I think every director should learn something from the films that they make. I'm constantly learning. That's what I love about this job. The day I make a film and step back from it thinking I can't do any better is the day to quit.

The Butterfly Tattoo was a challenge for me but not one that I was anxious about. I was more excited about the prospect of finally having the chance to show what I could do and make my mark as a feature film director. I think what I mentioned about working with editors was something which I'm definitely going to take onboard for my next film.

I think I also proved that persistence does eventually pay off! I really pushed to make this film as cinematic as possible even on its modest budget and put every penny on screen. I think it worked and looks a lot more expensive than it was! The film went onto win x2 Best Film awards, Best Adaptation and I also won another Best Director award at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival in 2008 - the same award I won for The Women of Troy in 2006. I also spent over nine months trying to get the film to cinemas in the UK and finally, after a LOT of persistence, I went direct to exhibitors and the film will finally have the release it deserves!

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