How would you like it to be commissioned to write a low budget feature film? Even without any produced feature credits? In our series of guest posts, we are pleased to have the break-in story by Clive Hopkins, writer of ROAD TRAIN.
Low Budget: Black Water
In 2006, I hooked up with producer Michael Robertson when he was in pre-production on the low budget croc thriller Black Water. I spent more than a decade writing for TV and short films in the UK. Still, I never managed to get a feature going, so I was about to have the best meeting of my life.
Michael told me three things. They were making Black Water for around $1.3m. If it worked – it ended up selling to 71 territories – then the financiers would want to do another low budget film. “And this is where you come in.” If I came up with a genre film that could be shot for $2m or less, then he would make it.
And … We’re Rolling!
Two and a half years later, Michael was true to his word. On May 11th 2009, the cameras rolled on my supernatural low budget thriller Road Train.
Michael’s list of must-haves for a great low budget genre movie was simple: high concept, small cast, limited locations, few or no special effects, and no night shooting. The first four I had no problem with, but the idea of no night shooting had me scratching my head. I knew I wanted to do a supernatural thriller, Typically, in these kinds of films, the night time is where all the scary stuff happens.
In the true spirit of low budget filmmaking, I made a stylistic plus out of a necessity, and made all the scary stuff happen in the blazing desert sun. Indeed, the entire story takes place within a twelve-hour period, and it makes for a very compressed, storyline.
Selling At Cannes
After I came up with a basic outline for Road Train, Michael made up postcards featuring a mock up poster, a 200-word blurb, and a strap line: ‘Never, Ever Leave Your Vehicle.’ Check out Michael’s website to see what I’m talking about.
Michael took the postcards to Cannes in 2007 and flashed them around … and the money men said yes! Michael then put his hand in his own pocket (bless him) and paid me to write the script.
Researching the script, as usual, came down to three areas: experts, characters, and what I like to call ‘walking the ground’. ‘Walking the ground’ involved a trip to Dubbo NSW, to hang out with truckies, and a six-hour trip in a road train. My experts – people whose brains I could pick about what they do – included a truckie, a serious camper for the camping-in-the-outback stuff, and a doctor for the effects of dehydration on the characters. Character research involved pulling together aspects of different people I knew, in order to create written character backstories.
Financing The Low Budget Indie
I did about three drafts for Michael over eight months, before director Dean Francis came on board. Dean was the catalyst for turning an already good script into a great one, by being very clear about what needed to be left alone, and what still needed more work. Michael approached Screen Australia (SA) with the new version of the script and the private money attached, and SA agreed to put up the other half of the budget.
While the original private money eventually fell victim to the credit crunch, other private money and the South Australia Film Commission came in to make up the shortfall.
So, two years from (literally) an idea on the back of a postcard to the cameras turning – a mere blink of an eye in the world of film financing. Hopefully, at the end of it all we’ll have a small-but-perfectly formed Aussie genre film that, like Black Water, punches well above its weight – one that finds an audience both here and internationally.
I’m looking forward to visiting the production later this month, and will keep you posted on developments.
– Clive Hopkins
Prior to ROAD TRAIN, Clive Hopkins’ main claim to fame was as the writer of Oscar nominated short film, HOLIDAY ROMANCE.
Cleo Mees is a Sydney-based writer, filmmaker and dancer. With a background across several disciplines, her interest is in finding out how these different disciplines can intersect and inform each other.