GRAD PROJECT TO £1M FILM: EMMA BIGGINS AND OLIVER MILBURN’S JOURNEY

Our hosts Giles and Dan had a Zoom reunion with director and writer Oliver Milburn and producer Emma Biggins as both Giles and Dan worked on their first feature film The Harsh Light of Day, which was their grad project in 2009.

The film, which Dan described as “an incredible example of independent filmmaking at its best, speaks volumes about their ability and their tenacity. They had everything stacked against them from budget to resources, to time-frame, to experience and ability at that point in their career.”

Harsh Light

In retrospect, Ollie said that “even if a part of that process was to make a film that perhaps wasn’t perfect, it taught us so much about what making films is about and that we needed to come back and make them better. I’m very proud of the film, but it’s very much what we could do at the time with the money.”

He also said that if they “hadn’t made that film, I would be standing on sets now. I think in best case scenario, I’d be sitting in my room writing, which is one of the most noble professions there is, as far as I’m concerned; but I get a certain something out of the nuts and bolts of making something, that I don’t think I’d be experiencing now.”

Emma described her experience as “when you’re a kid on a hill and you start running down and you have no control, all you’ve got to do is just keep trying to put one foot in front of the other and hope you don’t hit a stone and stumble. That was very much the case with Harsh Light.”

“Because of the script and our energy and our ambition, we managed to bring on this fantastic team. The goodwill of the cast and crew is so important when you’ve got no money and you’re trying to do something like this. Anybody that’s made a no or low budget film knows that it’s a real team effort, everybody’s on level footing.”

Ollie moved away from filmmaking

When making Harsh Light “ there was still this idea that if you made a feature film, at that time, it didn’t matter what it was like – that was the start of your career. Just having got it done was enough.” 

In hindsight, he’d probably prepare for that not being the case. “If you make a film, you think that’s the work done, but it’s just the start of it. I would prepare myself more for that mentally because I actually went away from filmmaking for a couple of years because I was so upset by the bad reviews. That’s when I started doing more of the technical stuff.”

“Part of the reason was I wanted to learn more about the nuts and bolts, but I was also like I’ve done a degree in this now. And I should probably find a way of making a living from it.”

Ollie is “a huge advice giver. One of the questions that I always get asked is if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, should you work in the industry or should you have another job and just chip away at it. I always land on the side of you should work in the industry because it’s one of the things that got me back into it.”

“As I developed my VFX career, I saw great directors make terrible stuff, I saw not great directors make stuff that had an amazing script and an amazing crew behind it, and it came out okay. And I was lucky enough occasionally to see amazing directors make amazing stuff.”

Ollie continued and said that he realised that “it’s not about you, it’s about trying to make a good film. And if you don’t, you don’t, but the more you do it, the better you get at it. I’m really proud of School’s Out Forever, I think that it’s good. It feels very much like a vindication of that process and I feel comfortable now with other people not liking it because I can say I do.”

After Harsh Light

Emma says that she had tried ” the most important thing was to just make this film and just accept things that I didn’t know and try and learn throughout the experience. If you’re making your first feature and you’ve not had a lot of experience, do as much as possible. I could have gotten a little bit more out of the experience, rather than just being so focused on trying to make this product that I can sell and make loads of money with.”

It was a time when “we were stood on the cusp of digitalisation and online release. There were examples of people doing self-distribution, crowdfunding was becoming a thing, but traditional distribution routes were still the norm. And that’s ultimately what we did with Harsh Light.”

At the time, Emma couldn’t get her head around them doing all of the work and then someone walking in right at the end and agreeing to sell the film for a huge cut of the profits. And although it wasn’t their only option, it seemed the most realistic.

And while the film didn’t make the thousands that they’d been hoping for, Emma teased that her master plan was waiting for the rights to revert back to her. “It’s going to coincide with when Ollie’s making his third film for a lot of money and is a very well known and successful director. And everybody wants to watch his first film.”

Moving onto School’s Out Forever

Ollie had read the book before even shooting Harsh Light. “It was during post of Harsh Light when Emma was saying, what do you think we should do next. And I sort of said this (the book). And she said yeah, that’s a good idea.”

Emma wanted to “do it properly. I needed to get an option on the rights to develop this into a film.” She traced it back to Rebellion, got in touch with Jason and Chris – the owners – “and said we want to make this into a film.”

“It was about an eight-month process before we got the option and started developing it. But I was hungry to just get on and make more films. We weren’t at university anymore, we needed to be working to earn a living.”

Ollie said that he’d “been working on the script all this time. It always comes back to script for me, that is my original love. On the directing side, we had to shoot a promo for Rebellion to prove that I could direct it. They were probably nervous about having me as both the writer and the director. My CV was now much longer as a VFX person and second unit director. Apart from a few shorts, my key directing credit was Harsh Light. I was very grateful because it was Emma who said let’s shoot a thing to prove that we can do it.”

They shot a scene, which Ollie describes “as a one-off promo, that wouldn’t really work as a short film, but we sort of entered it with that mentality. And they liked it and said: ‘you can do the whole thing.’ It’s always a hustle even having written script that they really liked, we had to hustle to get me to on the directing side.”

Raising the Funds

“It’s not easy when you’ve got a film that, in the most productive sense, is kids with guns in a boarding school. That’s a tricky one to get people to invest in and think everyone’s going to love and it’s going to make loads of money.”

“As I was sort of crafting my skills as a production manager and line producer, I was learning a lot from producers that I was working for. But one of the things that I never really saw was how they raised the money. It still amazes me how people manage to do it in independent film. So between jobs, me and Ollie would touch base. I did get some interests from a few meetings, did a couple of development programs and there was mixed interest, but I never got to the stage of getting it more than 50% financed.”

Emma couldn’t work out how to fill in the gaps, especially as every year she was having to extend the option, from her own pocket. “There’s a lot to be said of dogged determination, which I think is just a key attribute in anybody that’s trying to make a film or work in this industry.”

“Every April we extended the option and it was coming round to the April. And I sort of decided I just needed to put this on the shelf. Despite having a really good script, I just didn’t know how to get it made. I then heard from Ben Smith, who had a film at Rebellion and he said they really liked the script. I’d had that budget around the million-pound mark. And they were prepared to fully finance this.”

Emma “felt like all the stars aligned. All the different films I’d worked on as a production manager, as a line producer, all the experience I’d gathered, I felt like everything I’d done had led to right now.”

Rebellion fully financed it. “Rather than exercise the option, or purchase the rights to make the film, they let the rights revert back to them so it’s a Rebellion production. Then they hired me as a producer for hire, to make the film, which was very kind of them.”

“Rebellion, myself and Ollie wanted to make this one. They were very supportive of script development and really supportive of the process of making the film. I just want it to get the film made and make it as good as it possibly could be.”

They “have the same view that I had when I was going through the release of Harsh Light – they don’t like middlemen. They release their video games themselves and were very keen to apply the same methods of thinking with releasing their own content, so we’re releasing through Central City Media, on all the major platforms.”

You can hear more of this brilliant, honest interview with Emma and Ollie here.

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