Thursday, July 21, 2011

Phil Hawkins on “Being Sold”

Where did you get the idea for Being Sold?

PHIL: Being Sold is based on a story I originally wrote as a short about 6 years ago and put it in a drawer thinking that I must do something with the idea in order to develop it into a feature. Suddenly it just ‘clicked.’ I had quite a big feature project fall through at the last minute and realised, in working on this particular film, that I hadn’t shot a feature in two years.

The idea of shooting it in two days came about for a few reasons. Firstly budget, secondly cast - as we weren’t able to pay anyone but I knew we needed as many names as possible - and thirdly because we needed an angle, a story to help sell the film.

There are so many independent films made these days but hardly any of them reach an audience except ‘the one that was shot on £50’ or ‘the one that was made in someone’s bedroom.’ Yes, it’s a gimmick but it’s a powerful sales tool. Would you be hearing about this film now if we hadn’t done it in this way?

I wouldn’t, however, have shot it in two days if it was going to affect the story. The script was written in such a way that we could shoot it like this. All events occur in real time (without the 24 split screens!). Our crazy approach to shooting added to the energy of the camera and the performance. I wanted to make it feel real. Shooting a film in two days allows only one or two takes… you’re getting ‘real’ every time.

What was the process of working with the writer, Aidan Magrath?

PHIL: Aidan and I had been discussing the short that was to become Being Sold ever since I wrote it six years ago so you could say we had the groundwork covered. It went through so many versions and variations over the years… not drafts particularly, just discussions. Aidan didn’t put the proverbial pen to paper until about four weeks before we started shooting!

We started out with a long outline of the plot. The major challenge was trying to restrict the story into these two locations (inside and outside a house) without making events feel too small. We already had a clear idea of how we were going to end the film and set up a certain amount of ‘rules’ about how we would approach telling the story.

Another difficulty was the real time aspect of the script. Aidan had to write dialogue that would include times such as “there’s 16 minutes left on the bid” or “we go to air in three minutes” – these are numbers that needed to be real in actuality.

Directorially I needed to be clear what was going on both inside and outside of the house at all times and not just when the script dictated what we were seeing, because we were shooting each location in long blocks of action and not scene by scene. You could say that we needed two feature scripts!

Was the script written for specific actors? If so, how does that work?

PHIL: I have a group of actors that I love to work with in different ways. Jessica Blake, Dan Morgan, Sarah Whitham, Alvin Addo-Quaye and Chris Hannon were actors that I’ve cast in different films and commercials. I wanted to ensure that we wrote for their strengths but also to show a side of them that an audience hasn’t seen before.

For example, Jessica Blake played this troubled teenager in my 2nd film The Butterfly Tattoo, whereas in Being Sold she’s playing a strong, confident woman. She’s almost the villain in some ways. It’s exciting for me and for the actors to work with them in different ways. Aidan and I involved Jess and Dan in the writing process and gave them early drafts of the characters to comment on. We also allowed a lot of improvisation on the shoot days which gave them even more control to make the characters their own.

You also co-produced Being Sold. How did you juggle that with your directing duties?

PHIL: It’s easy when you have other great co-producers backing you up! There were four producers on this. Two solely taking care of the production challenges, my DoP was also a producer taking care of the technical side of the production and myself. We all made decisions on the project as a team and then went off and looked after our own areas. It worked really well.

What's the biggest skill you've learned as a commercial director that helps you when you direct a movie?

PHIL: Hmm… the best advice I’ve ever been given as a director is to be ‘cool under pressure.’ That definitely came into play on this production. Everyone believed it to be possible but looked to me to see exactly how a feature film could be shot in two days and we all pulled it off.

I think working in commercials has given me a really instinctive eye for the frame and for detail. It’s almost 2nd nature now… I’ll find myself rushing into a scene before a take to tweak something very small but important which I wouldn’t have done before I directed commercials. It’s really helped add that layer of detail.

Do you rehearse with the actors ahead of shooting -- what is your rehearsal process?

PHIL: I always try to rehearse as much as possible. We had to do extensive rehearsal on Being Sold because we were shooting 15 minute long scenes and had to block it accordingly. However because I was working with busy actors some only had a few days to do what should have taken a few weeks! Eva Pope didn’t have any rehearsal because she was working the week of our rehearsals so just walked onto set and did it!

My rehearsal process tends to change depending on the production. Being Sold isn’t a film about ‘look’, it’s all about the actors. I needed to allow enough time in order to give the cast the freedom to explore the scenes and find the characters! I knew if we didn’t make sure the performances – and the comedy, obviously – were solid we didn’t have a movie.

Because a lot of the film was going to be improvisation, we did a lot of work on the characters, understanding who they were and why they were there on the day. I didn’t want to block the actors too much because I wanted the film to feel real, almost documentary style.

What is your process of working with your editor?

PHIL: I actually had two editors on this film! I cut my two previous features myself so it was a real departure for me to actually have editors but they were brilliant. They actually started cutting by location – one cut the inside (emotional heart) of the house and the other cut the external (media, news) stories. It was really interesting stylistically because they felt quite different.

Paul Gordon (who also was an operator on the shoot) assembled the film, whilst Paul Griffiths-Davies brought the pieces together and refined the film. It was a very unique approach but really paid off in terms of style.

And finally, what's next?

PHIL: Shooting a film in one day! No, I’m kidding! I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline. An action thriller, another comedy drama, a psychological thriller (which I’m actually trying to write myself!) and I’m also adapting a best seller with Aidan… hopefully I’ll be shooting one of them soon!

You can watch the feature film and one hour documentary ‘How did they shoot a feature film in two days?’ from the website at

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