“Land Mine” – A Filmmaking Journey

Darren Statman was kind enough to share his journey putting together his new short film “Land Mine, and he was all-too-happy to turn it into a blog for us too! Have a read of this fascinating insight into the thoughts, feelings and processes that go into taking a film from idea to cinema.

Saturday. 2016. 11 am.

It’s cold out. Heavy rain is coming down, hard. I’ve been up since 6am. Restless. Trying to entertain myself. I’ve just finished watching Ridley Scott’s first film, ‘The Duelists’. I was at a crossroads in my career. Frustrated with the grind of middle-of-the road production companies, I’ve been writing. I poured all my frustrations into completing two feature scripts and a slew of short films. I’d been trying to write a long gestating idea about an American funk singer at the end of his career, reduced to scratching out a living in a 80’s nostalgia show, with other washed-up acts from the decade. I couldn’t get past page 5 of the script, no matter how hard I stared at it.

My thoughts that week had been fuelled by a front-page of the Evening Standard about the rise in Anti-Semitic attacks in the capital. I thought about my own Jewish identity – my great grandparents had emigrated to Leeds, in 1905, to escape the Pogroms of Russia. That Saturday, with a cocktail of caffeine, frustration and the germ of an idea for a short film, I cracked open my laptop. I wrote a title on the cover page of a Final Draft document – ‘Land Mine’.

I hoped I’d be able to write at least one page that morning, then return to it as an ongoing project to break my writer’s block. I had the opening and the final shot of the film already worked out in my head. The film, set in post World War 2 Poland, would tell the story of a young man. The only survivor of his family to leave the gates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The writing flowed and by that evening, I had 5 pages written. Land Mine was a chance for me to blend a fictional story, based on historical testaments of survivors, with my passion for old Spaghetti Westerns. I wanted to infuse ‘Land Mine’ with that forgotten genre of cinema I adored.  I’ve collected many down and dirty Spaghettis on DVD, over the years. My favourite, directed by the Italian director Sergio Corbucci, is a 1968 film – ‘The Great Silence’. Spaghetti Westerns all tend to follow a similar story: a stranger arrives in a corrupt, lawless town to exact revenge, or settle a debt. These gritty films were told with very little dialogue. I felt the genres tropes could be used to great effect to tell my film.

That week, I directed a TV ad. And I sat at the back of the room as my editor cut, furiously tapping away at the Land Mine script. Ten days later, the first draft was done. I spent years revisiting the ‘Land Mine’ script. Just the fact that it existed on paper was something to be proud of. To be honest, I never thought a post-Holocaust Spaghetti Western, where only one character speaks, and only in Polish, would ever get made.

I was wrong. Enter the film’s producer, Andrew Cole-Bulgin.

I met Andrew Cole-Bulgin 10 years prior to writing ‘Land Mine’. Andrew was part a company called KOMIXX ENTERTAINMENT back then. I liked him, he was straight forward and always seemed to enjoy early versions of my projects. We talked about a TV show I had written, about a Private Detective in Los Angeles, and another retelling the ‘Jack the Ripper’ story. We stayed in touch, and in the intervening years Andrew has achieved great success with ‘The Kissing Booth’ franchise of films, which can be found on NETFLIX.

March 2020

The COVID pandemic was changing everything. Careers were crashing. Things were bleak for many. During the madness of the lockdowns, I kept writing. It gave me purpose and routine. Andrew called. We caught up. I sent him a raft of TV and him projects. A week later, he called back. That call changed everything.

Andrew Cole-Bulgin

I read ‘Land Mine’. Love it. Let’s make it. Trust me, I can get this made.

Darren

You serious?

Andrew Cole-Bulgin

Trust me.

In the darkness and uncertainty of COVID, that was a light at the end of a very long tunnel. The phone call, when I look back, got me through it. The idea of making ‘Land Mine’ was a fantastical thought, as the world got ever more twisted and stranger. Over the next 12 months, I decamped to Leeds, my home town. I needed to take stock. And keep writing. Between daily runs, I continued to work on ‘Land Mine’ and other projects.  A fire in my belly had been lit, my faith in ‘Land Mine’ actually happening grew stronger and stronger.

As with any project I work on, a notebook is how I start. I draw constantly; I scribbled ideas of the scenes from the evolving script. I knew a film with very little dialogue needed a visual companion, so drew very detailed storyboards. If crew and actors were coming on board, they could see what I was aiming for narratively and emotionally. I was determined not to waste a minute. I wasn’t quite green lit, but I had faith it was just part of the process. With the illustrated storyboard, I made creative bibles for every department on the film. ‘Land Mine’ was going to be a tough project to make; I thought if the film didn’t get made, I had a record of this time, and the film in some form, at least. I created a playlist of music to imagine the film to. Some of the stuff was so abstract and avant-garde, it was painful. But it fitted the grittiness I hoped to achieve. I would shoot the film, in my head, everyday.

On those daily runs, through the backwoods of Harewood House, I discovered a run-down farmhouse, that looked like it was straight out of a Sergio Leone film. The farm was apocalyptic. A wreck. Very cinematic. It had rusted cattle barns that reminded me of photos I had seen of concentration camps. I had found my perfect location and it was right on my doorstep. I shot some rough footage with a vintage toy truck, bought off eBay, to get the feel of the film’s truck chase.

June 2021

Back in London. I’m shooting a TV commercial. Andrew calls me.

Andrew Cole-Bulgin

Sit down for this. We have the money, this is happening.

Darren

Is this for real?

Andrew Cole-Bulgin

Yep. Very real. I told you to trust me.

Andrew is setting up a new company, an entertainment company, to be called ‘The Tickled Pink Group.’ His new company, and fellow partners, have agreed to finance Land Mine.

March 2022

With contracts signed, and a start date to actually shoot ‘Land Mine’ in the diary, I tidied up all my other projects, but not before I succumbed to a bout of COVID. Upon recovery, I immediately picked up my pencils, opened my sketch pad, and started to draw the ‘Land Mine’ storyboard. Back in London, full time, ‘Land Mine’ is in pre-production. Geraldine Geraghty has come on board to co-produce. Casting was in full swing; the character of ‘Igor’, the bed-ridden old man, was locked straight away with the casting of Oengus McNamara. He’s an incredible, mature actor who looks like he has literally stepped out from the frames of my storyboard. The role of ‘Piotr’, the farmhand, was proving a lot harder to cast. I wanted a native Polish actor with a ‘Tony Soprano’-like menace. I met some great actors for the role of ‘Piotr.’ The difficulty was finding an actor not afraid to tackle a project that deals with their country’s complicated past, and be able to access the darkness and presence I required.

The search continued to find a ‘Piotr’. In my gut, the actor that was being heavily considered didn’t feel right to me. A great guy, but he had a ‘genteel’ quality, better suited to a romantic role, than that of a roughneck moonshiner. There were further frustrations during casting. The actor I had initially offered the role of ‘Samuel’ to (the lead of the film) pulled out due to not being able to cut his hair short. The film he was booked to star in after ‘Land Mine’ wouldn’t let him. That night, I searched the internet, determined to find an actor I felt right to play ‘Piotr’. Luck was on my side. I saw a photo of a Polish actor, Robert Gulazyck. I knew that he was my ‘Piotr’ from that one photo. A Zoom call was quickly set up. I explained the role; ‘Piotr’ was a man who saw the spoils of war as a chance to be more than a farmhand, by taking ownership of Samuel’s family’s farm after the family were taken to the death camps. He saw this as reward for years of toil in the fields. With Robert, I was able to infuse a sense of guilt and loss into his backstory. Robert brought a complexity to the performance, creating a non-stereotypical ‘villain’.

Then we cast actor Luke Cinque-White as ‘Samuel’. He had the physical look I needed. A skinny physique and sunken cheek bones that trapped shadows. Luke was visually perfect to portray a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp; many of the young actors I saw for the role of looked like they were primed and ready for a call from Marvel. Luke agreed to cut his long hair. Only the character of silent ‘Bartosz’ was left to find, in the form of Nick Bartlett. His character was written as a brutish, silent menace. I noticed that Nick looked terrifying when he smoked, so I let his cigarette smoke plume become his voice. Every time ‘Bartosz’ took a deep drag off his cigarette, it was to become a prelude to the violence about to happen. Nick also has a great, maniacal laugh. It’s pure Spaghetti Western. My cast for ‘Land Mine’ was now locked.

May 2022

I’m being driven to the set. For the next four days, the real world doesn’t exist. I was going to achieve something I hadn’t thought possible; the script I had started on that stormy Saturday might in 2016 was starting principle photography.

The next few days of filming were a blur. They were exhilarating, at times frustrating. I pushed forward. The script was ambitious, and had some big set pieces. Thankfully, my crew were hardworking and a pleasure to work with. Seeing scenes come together kept spirits high when things got tough. Filming the bed scenes with the dying, emaciated ‘Igor’ was profound; Oengus’ professionalism and his nuanced performance is heartbreaking. Looking at his emaciated physique, you can’t not think of those grainy, black and white photographs of the prisoners wasting away in those harsh and brutal camps. We had two night shoots. The first, a scene with the burning down of the main barn. A great SFX team, working with Simon, a wizard of a Gaffer, created a ferocious and realistic inferno with a just lighting rig and a smoke machine. The stress of how to film the fire, through pre-production, was the stuff of legend. The owners of the farm were very accommodating, but incredibly nervous that these crazy, film people were going to use fire for real. They were very relieved. It’s a spectacular scene in the finished film. The second of the night shoots was to be my big action sequence. Samuel is hunted down, by Piotr and Bartosz, from their truck. I don’t mind admitting that I woke up in cold sweat many a night while I was in pre-production, trying find away to simplify this sequence.

I initially storyboarded it down to the smallest detail. The scene was complex. It had stunts, with the old truck and the actors running over a hard, muddy, field in the darkness. But I only had 3 hours to block and shoot the scene during filming. I was forced to redesign the whole sequence with my cinematographer, Tom Debenham. Simplicity was the answer; using just four camera set-ups and the night as our canvas, the scene is beautifully stripped back. We took a lesson from Spielberg’s ‘Jaws.’; the animatronic shark rarely worked on-set, so Spielberg’s solution was to use John William’s powerful score and the shark’s POV instead. We pushed the horror of Samuel, running for his life from the growling engine of the Piotr’s truck, as he dodges bullets being fired at him. The result is much more primal if you don’t see what’s hunting you from the darkness, stripped back to the absolute minimum of shots it needs, visceral and experimental in execution. It just goes to show you how being fluid and open in the moment is the true art of film making.

Samuel is hunted in the climax of Land Mine

Another technical idea adopted on ‘Land Mine’ was to film everything locked off. Always a harder and more time consuming choice, but I wanted the movement to happen within the frame. The camera was to be a witness to the tragedy unfolding in front of the lens. I didn’t want the camera to be a hand-held participant. A camera locked off, representing the world’s eyes at that time, standing back, regardless of the information about the mass exterminations happening in the death camps of Europe that the allies had become aware of.

We wrapped shooting in the UK. The 4-day block consisting of  day/night was complete. The next day an exhausted team consisting of myself, cinematographer, Tom Debenham, a camera assistant, along with actor Luke, drove to Wales. The opening shot, along with a grab-bag of atmospheric landscapes, were shot in Brecon-Taybont-On-Usk, at dawn. We filmed a grand valley as dawn broke. Walking back to the car, we shot a couple of shots of Luke, scrambling through the undergrowth; I had an idea for a transitional scene I wanted to explore. And with that, our filming was done.

June 2022

Summer. It is hot. I have a week before the offline edit starts. I felt like Martin Sheen at the beginning of ‘Apocalypse Now’, waiting for his next mission to commence. I tried to distract myself with running on Hampstead Heath and creating a temp playlist of music for the editor, Benji Gerstein, to play with.

Benji and I cut together over 8 days in total. He’s a very much sought-after editor and his schedule was tight. His cut was good, but he had to move on. I wanted to explore more. I remember Benji dropping me off at home, one Friday in July, assuring me the film was good. I had a heavy head, trying to be positive, but ultimately knowing I needed more time in the edit. I felt the film I had at this point was a sophisticated assembly cut. Not too far off, but it needed more time to smooth out scenes. I had the story, but not the film. But I remembered an old piece of advice: ’time is the enemy of short films. It’s good, embrace it’.

The start of 5 months of sleepless nights dreaming about the production was about to commence.

August 2022

Post Production at Molonaire Post. A fantastic experience, doing the initial sound and grade. I remember stepping out, to reset my eyes, as myself and Tom Debenham spent two days grading. He was complimentary to what he had seen. The film was the result of many peoples hard work and faith, and that couldn’t be ignored. I admitted to Tom, I had wanted to keep on editing. I felt I came out the edit too early, but I had to let it go. The film, at that point, was still something I was proud of.

Sound mixing and an original soundtrack by Paul K. Joyce, followed. The first thing I ever learnt about film was from the director Tony (American History X) Kaye. I was his assistant, as a kid.  I remember him, in-between takes on a Guinness ad he was directing, telling me the importance of sound. It being 53% of a film. Side note, you never have enough time in the Sound Mix.

At Molonaire Post, I was lucky to have Richard Pryke, doing the sound mix, working in tandem with the composer, Paul K. Joyce. Having worked with our producer, Andrew Cole – Bulgin in the past, he said yes to scoring the film, after watching a rough cut. Myself and Paul

had many phone calls, talking about the score. I had initially wanted an electronic score reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work on Michael Mann’s – ‘The Keep’ and Williams Friedkin’s – ‘Sorcerer’.

I bombard Paul with music influences I wanted to explore. A lot of the music I presented to Paul came from composers, many of whom had to fled to New York to escape the Nazi’s and were at the forefront of experimental, classical music during the 1960’s. I wanted the score to be experimental and discussed ideas about nature’s ambient sounds being used as music. Paul, taking that onboard, created a hauntingly beautiful, original score.

Never in my lifetime would I have imagined that I would be able to harness the power of a string orchestra and vocals, courtesy of Paul and my producers at Tickled Pink. I’ve always been an avid, film soundtrack collector. Even as a 10-year kid, I was buying soundtracks to my favourite films and dreaming of alternative images to accompany the music. The score, as I write this, has just been made available on Spotify. I get the such a kick out of that. 

November 2022.

Dean St. Soho House, London.  Xmas is fast approaching.

I meet up with my producers from Tickled Pink Group. To access and discuss moving into 2023 with the film. Present is Andrew Cole-Bulgin and Philip Donnison. We discuss PR and the international festival circuit. The film is currently too long, as a short, for many festival requirements, they want entries to clock in under 20 minutes. We all agree to go back into the edit suite.

I was so happy. The idea of having more time to explore the edit of the film, I had craved all summer. I had a notebook, full of scribbles and ideas on what I had wanted to do and there were two scenes I wanted to revisit specifically. A ‘laser sense’ of focus on had set in. I kept thinking of the Yiddish word, ’Bereshit’, meaning – if something is meant to be, it just may takes time to get there.

To make it clear. Benji Gerstein did a great job in the initial edit. We were restricted by time and editing the big truck chase ate up precious time we didn’t have. I called Benji. He understood that I wanted to go back into the edit. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available. So, Olly Stothert of Flock Edit, came on board. I now had more time to edit, my first good night’s sleep, since March 2022.

December 2022.

Alex Hutchinson, an extremely talented Graphic Designer, known for his work with Paul Weller, agrees to come on board. He’ll design posters, using key images from the film. Seeing Alex’s finished posters is truly something. I still quite can’t believe ‘A Short film written and directed by Darren Statman’ is on them . It sends a shiver down my spine when I see them.

Late Jan – Feb 2023.

The film is still being edited. It’s coming together. The time sat with Olly editing, discussing, getting to know my footage and adopting a ruthless approach to cutting is cathartic. The film is now tighter and more brutal. The transitions between scenes is more experimental with me getting a chance to utilising textural shots, I didn’t have time to explore initially.

March 2023

Paul K.Joyce remixes and tidies up the score. Paul had been such a champion of the film and was genuinely excited by the initial cut, he knew I wanted to keep cutting and I think the continuing work being done on the film allowed him to improve and smooth out on cues in the final mix. Molonaire Post were amazing – pushing the post through in just a week. I worked with Ross and Carl, developing the grade of the film and redesigning the sound mix.  The score cues to the final cut with the great Richard Pryke, who had to start from scratch as the original mix stems had all been corrupted. I feel the new mix improves on his already stellar work from first time around. And the final mix captures the tone and textures of Spaghetti Westerns, perfectly.

So here I sit, typing away. It’s almost a year to the day since production started. And a full 6-years since I initially sat down on that rainy, Saturday morning, at my desk, to write two little words –Land Mine’.

‘Land Mine’ is the result of a collective effort. Some people give you their everything, while some are. Just interested in what’s for lunch on the shoot. I’m privileged to have many of the former, who brought ‘Land Mine’ to fruition.  These amazing people came on board to and make a story about the fragility of life, and how hate and bullies existed then, as they do now.

This is a film about survival, a story set post SHOAH/ Holocaust. It is not lost on me that the horrors of that time continue to happen today, in the Ukraine conflict. The story comes from my the study of the Shoah and I’m not someone who can hold up a piece of paper with my virtue signalling ‘support’ scribbled on it. I’m learning to be a film maker, and I will continue to put my efforts and emotions into topics and stories that effect me, on a personal level.

‘Land Mine’ tackles the subjects of collaboration and guilt. The world did learn of these horrors, but that’s where many think it ended. Countless survivors went home, faced not with open arms on their return, but to natives not wanting to give up the spoils of war. Having the support to tell a story addressing this, makes me very proud. ‘Land Mine’ was not an easy subject to tackle. Or indeed to make. Film making is hard. It’s dirty. And at times bloody. In time, the cuts and bruises will fade.  What is left standing is all that matters. I fought hard, pushed harder at times, and found myself rolling with the punches.

Final Thoughts. March 2023

‘Land Mine’, regardless of its brief running time, is ambitious. It houses my desire and ego to make real films, pure cinema. 

A narrative that I hope is honest and visceral. ‘Land Mine’ is infused with the cinema that inspired me to become a film maker and with that I wonder how it will be received. Will the film find an audience who appreciate it now? Or like many films I personally loved growing up? Films that were harder to digest, upon their initial release. Films that needed time for an audience to discover them. Films that stood the test of time.  I hope ‘Land Mine’ is a film that is forever discovered, down the line, accidentally. Or on purpose outliving cinematic, cultural zeitgeists. But mostly, I hoped it’s viewed as the director’s attempt at the craft he loves, and wants to be part of for a long time.

The opportunity to make this film has been an incredible experience.  I learnt so much in making it. Yes, I did have my occasional doubts and frustrations, trying to achieve the impossible of desired perfection. I now look back over the past 12 months in an exhausted state – wanting to do it all again, and experience the joy and pain of seeing images, doodled in a sketchbook, come to life.

I can’t wait to have the privilege of shouting ‘Action’ again, on set. ‘Land Mine’ has been part of a 10-year writing process, along with other projects, consisting of a feature film, TV shows and graphic novels, already in active development, with The Tickled Pink Group.

So, let the end credits roll. My producers were Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Philip Donnison and Ian McNair Brown.

Thank you for saying ‘YES!’.  I couldn’t have done it without you. And your constant support.

Darren Statman

Writer and Director of Land Mine.

Darren was kind enough to share some of his original storyboard drawings with us as well – take a look below for some amazing insights into how a short comes together in the mind!

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