How to Make an Action-Packed Caper Thriller with Director James Kermack and his feature Knuckledust

James, who was on episode 21, returns to The Filmmakers Podcast, after the release of his second feature film Knuckledust

Knuckledust, which was a big step up for James in terms of budget and cast; was written, directed and co-produced by him, and he also features in the film as an actor.

“I wanted to do Knuckledust first. We just moved house and I found the first screenplay I ever wrote when I was 16 and it has got character names and aspects of this film in it.” He wrote the film, with himself playing the lead, as a means to kickstart his acting career but “it is very difficult for an unknown writer to write himself a role.”

Some wise advice

Rob Mitchell loved the script and compared it to the style of Tarantino and Rodriguez, saying that it was “it’s own beast”. And that although he loves it, James couldn’t play the lead. 

After some arguing, Rob suggested that James write himself a really good supporting role. “Take more control producing it and get a great lead actor. And then finance it that way. You can’t finance it on you.”

And although James was upset by this, he says that it “was the best advice I’d been given to get the film made.”

After speaking to various directors, and almost getting Tony Kaye (American History X) on board, James “decided to take the reins, to direct but no one would let me touch this as a first film.” And so he made Hi-Lo Joe – “something more personal, much smaller, more contained and on the lowest possible budget” to prove that he could do it.

“But then the problem became that Hi-Lo is nothing like Knuckledust.” So James was still trying to prove that he was able to make the high budget action film.

Financing the Film

Producer Julien Loeffler had seen an early cut of Hi-Lo Joe, when it was being edited at Zebra Production. At the time, he was working in PR and advertising, but had just set up his film company Featuristic and was looking for films.

After helping to find the music for Hi-Lo, “he said, ‘have you got anything else?’ And I said ‘I have this script, Knuckledust‘. and he and his business partner read it, and they came back in 24 hours and were like ‘we’d like to take Knuckledust. It’s fantastic!’ and I said, ‘you can take it, but only if I’m attached as director.’ Which I know makes it difficult because I’m still not anyone here of note and it’s a big ambitious film with a really large cost, but I pushed on that and they just kind of went, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”

Julien, who has been referred to as the Steven Hawking of film finance, found film financing from different sources. 

“We had certain companies who also brought their skills. OnSight, were a great partner on the film – a brilliant post-production house, which was amazing because obviously we did post during the beginnings of COVID. And then we had another company called Trigger, where Walter Mair is the composer of the film, and he’s a part of Trigger and they brought finance and his soundtrack is exceptional.”

“We had quite a few people come on board with finance and kind of pieced it all together. Julien did an exceptional job with that, because all the finance hasn’t come from one studio or one area.”

The film was shot in just five weeks, on a $2 million dollar budget, which was an amazing achievement for James.

Picking Up Cast

James, who has worked as an actor, was fortunate to have met his cast whilst working on other gigs. He met Alex while working on Chernobyl

Hi-Lo premiered at Dinard, and Kate Dickie and Phil Davies were there. Kate was in a film called Operator, and Phil had directed a short that was there. 

After judging, James had a drink with them and asked them if he could send them the script for Knuckledust.

“The joy of working with complete professional actors. There was never a call for line. They were never out of character in a scene. All of them were on point every single time. And it really helped obviously, because shooting a massive film on a smaller timeframe was tough.”

On Directing Himself

James had done a lot of music promo directing, and had used himself for budgetary reasons.

And although he had always wanted to direct himself in something, he was only cast in the role in Knuckledust because “there was a little problem with scheduling. This was the role that I’d taken the advice from Rob Mitchell to write for myself, just in case. So I was just like I’ll just do it. I already know the role.” The character was also required to be on set a lot, as was James (naturally), so it made sense. 

For more filmmaking advice from James, have a listen to the full episode.

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