‘Nottingham’s a great place for filmmaking’ – an interview with independent filmmaker Jason M.J Brown

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It’s been little over six months since Platform last spoke to Jason about his new film Dark Vale. Riding the wave of success following his first feature film – A Date with Ghosts, the Nottinghamshire filmmaker is confident that his latest film will pack a bigger punch than anything he’s ever done before. There’s more to Jason than simply just filmmaking though as James Bavin discovers, he wants to help students and novices tackle the daunting task of actually making a movie.

The premise for Dark Vale is pretty simple. It’s about a young couple called Tom and Leigh who go away for a short cottage break. Without giving too much away they leave the cottage and drive through a place called the Vale where things take a much worse turn and the couple are haunted by an evil spirit. The couple, questioning their own sanity, have to try and get to the bottom of the mysterious place.

“I was in an up and down relationship when I started writing Dark Vale and a lot of that poured out into the script, so there’s a lot of me in there.” Jason explained, “The Tom and Leigh storyline revolves around me and one of my ex and then I added the ghost stories. The real life feelings makes the characters complete.”

What makes Dark Vale all the more darker is the fact that one of the main locations (called, oddly enough, The Vale) is supposedly haunted. “Apparently scouts were doing an activity there and one of them ran off because he saw a ghost. I read about it in a book called Nottinghamshire Ghosts.

“Nottingham is a fantastic place to shoot any movie.” Jason exclaims as he grabs a coffee in the Broadway Cinema canteen. There’s always a good hustle and bustle around the place every time you come in. It feels rich in history which isn’t surprising since the site dates back to 1839 where it was used as a church before being converted. “You’ve got so much material to film with; lots of churches and old monasteries, modern architecture numerous parks and deep forests and very good train links to the north and the south.”

The Broadway Cinema makes Nottingham a very special place in regards to film making. Once rated as ‘one of the best cinema’s in the world’ by Total Film Magazine the cinema hosts a multitude of film festivals and special screenings all at great prices for students.

Setting the scene

It’s one of the most integral part of planning any movie is to get the right location. Would any of the classic Bond villian’s have seemed so dastardly if their evil lair come out of somewhere like Cleethorpes? No. Would the Blair Witch Project have been better if the cast were running around a city? God no, it would have been worse somehow. The point is pretty clear though, settings and location really make the world of difference in a film. For any filmmaker though finding the right place can be hard.

Newstead Abbey - an integral setting
Newstead Abbey – an integral setting

Jason seemed to strike gold when he found Newstead Abbey, the ancestral home of Lord Byron. “It’s in-between Nottingham and Mansfield and is a great place for filming horror. It’s just a very gothic, very beautiful place.  Luckily they let me shoot there both interior and exterior.”

“Some places will have a set rate for filming, Newstead was £100 an hour I believe so that might put some students off filming there but they were great with us. A lot of places will let you shoot for free once you explain to them what you’re doing and the people will be friendly.  Nothing beats the great outdoors though, and for tighter budgets just get out there and explore the countryside or the woods. Try to shoot at places that look expensive because it will increase the quality of your movie, thus heightening your production values.”

The wonderful world of computers

A great way to keep costs down is for you yourself to be quite technical. If you can do all your own editing and lighting then you don’t have to pay or rely on other people to do it for you. If you’ve studied media at A-level or if you’re coming to Trent to study Media, Film and TV then this could be a skill you’re already adhered to, but for those without that core knowledge programmes like Movie Maker on Mac and Adobe Premiere on PC will guide you through the basics.

“A lot of students go into media wanting to make films and maybe go into the industry. Being good on the editing and technical side will really help you in the long run. I was bought up on two video players and using camcorders when I was filming and editing, I didn’t have a computer because I couldn’t afford one and there were no smart phones or small, cheap cameras. I think that might have made me a better editor by doing it the hardest way.

“It’s so much easier to do film making now which isn’t a bad thing at all but you’ve still got to practice. It allows more people to get into the industry, giving students more a chance to flourish rather than have them turn away because it’s too daunting.”

Dollar is what I need (A hey, hey)

As students, Aloe Blacc’s ‘I Need a Dollar’ is a song that most of us can really relate to. We all know money is very tight and partying, forking out for books and general student lifestyle really doesn’t help your budget. Filmmaking, even independent, low budget movies can be expensive to make so the two don’t look to go hand in hand on the face of things. Jason, now looking deep into his coffee, smiles and reminisces about the budget on his first film.

“Not having great equipment is a big drawback. I only used a camcorder for my first film – A Date with Ghosts. Once you get more money you can pay to get better actors involved with the films and that comes across on the screen.

The original budget for Dark Vale was £5000 after producers were impressed with his first feature film. Its pittance compared to the next Quentin Tarantino movie but for most students must seem like an unrealistic figure. Don’t let that put you off; there are ways to make money as Jason explained to me.

“If you can get a pot together with your mates or who you’re filming with that will make life easier for you. Find individual people based on their strengths. Don’t be afraid to ask people for money, set them up as investors into the film. People are a lot more approachable than you may think and if movie is good enough you could possibly reimburse their investment. It could be a good business opportunity for them and you can really focus on the film. There’s nothing wrong with asking, even if it’s just to start a project up. It may be the start of a good working relationship.”

Overcoming the obstacles

Filmmaking can be a huge mountain to climb, especially while you’re studying at university. When it’s coming together it will feel brilliant but be prepared for some challenges that you’ll have to overcome in order to proceed. As a student the bulk of challenges will come on the budgeting side but be warned of the pitfalls that students can easily fall into.

“Actors can always be a challenge, I’ve had actors drop out on me for Dark Vale and it can be tricky to get them come in.  If you’re struggling with finding people then take to social media. There are tons of websites where actors advertise themselves and of course social media is huge now. You can post a tweet or a status and get more than 20 responses at a time.

Darren Randell plays the lead
Darren Randell plays the lead

“Writers block is a big problem that people of all ages face when coming up with scripts but just remember that the script doesn’t have to be rushed. Just take a step back, maybe a few days or weeks off the project and when an idea comes back into your head write it down and carry on.”

As a filmmaker you also have to be fairly confident in yourself and talking to people. For some people that comes a lot easier than others but it’s really just a question of throwing yourself in the deep end. Jason believes that filmmaking will hugely boost confidence. At the end of the day students be meeting new people, some of which will be in the profession and some will just be enthusiasts but they’ll all share the same interests and passion.

“If I was to give just one piece of advice it would be to just not give up. You’re going to come into problems all the time but you’ve got to learn to keep going and eventually you’ll make it. Take a step back and see why you’ve got a problem. Ask for people’s help, those people at film festivals are more than willing to share their experiences with you.”

Watch this space

There’s an evolution coming in Jason’s career as production on Dark Vale comes to an end. He has the experience and is in talks with bigger producers from the US interested in his films. On top of this there could be a six figure injection of money in Jason’s next film given the success of A Date With Ghosts and initial positive feedback with Dark Vale.  But what’s next for the man from Mansfield looking to follow his dream?

“I’m hoping to do a treasure hunt movie after, that’s the idea anyway but I’m not entirely sure – it might swing to a horror movie. With a bigger producer (Owen Tooth) possibly coming on board with the third film I might lose a bit of creative control but I’ve always been interested in doing a treasure adventure film and move away from the horror element.

“I don’t want to be typecast as just a horror director. I want to do something a little different with the movie though, create some twists and turns. That’s the idea at least, let’s see what it looks like if I can get a script done for it.”

The next trailer for Dark Vale will be released over the Halloween period with a planned release date later this year.

For more information about Dark Vale check out the Facebook page here

James Bavin

@JamesCPFC