How We Made 'Off Your Head'
‘My life has taken another turn again. The days move along with regularity, one day indistinguishable from the next, a long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change.’
- Travis Bickle
This quote from the 1976 independent classic Taxi Driver was pretty spot on for how me and my girlfriend Tiger felt before we decided to start making our most recent short film; Off Your Head.
If you haven’t watched the film already or you want to watch it again, then you can find it here:
The desire to make a film came before lockdown was even announced. I knew that with everyone’s aspirations to bake more, learn a language, spend more time with their kids, write poetry, I wanted to come out the other end with something. And with Tiger being a brilliant musician, actress and as of recently, producer, I knew that we'd be able to make something really cool. But this was harder than anticipated, as I found that I actually had less time than I thought I would due to the fact that I had to adapt to working from home, teaching remotely (something that I was keen to make a nod to in the film).
As time went on, I imagined short parodies, perhaps inspired by single location horrors like The Shining, Misery or Lord of the Flies. But then I thought of Taxi Driver, realising that it actually had far more relevant and far reaching themes that touched upon loneliness, dissatisfaction and intent vs. action. It was also slyly a massively over-complicated justification to shave my head...
We rented out Taxi Driver, and while being reminded of just how brilliant it is, we made notes of all the different lines, characters, interchanges, themes and even shots that we thought might be funny to reference. With me being busy teaching during the day, and Tiger excited to get started, she really threw herself into it, narrowing down the list and writing the whole thing, whilst also managing to subliminally litter in dozens of Taxi Driver references despite all of it being set in our house.
I was amazed and excited by the simplicity of it, and filled with encouragement by Tiger’s intentions for the voice over and music that she wanted to score. A further dive into our ideas for the film was enabled by watching a tonne of brilliant video essays on Taxi Driver, in particular this two part feature length analysis by The Cinema Cartography (formally Channel Criswell).
We started filming, knowing that we'd need to get everything pre-mohican done first. We were at an advantage in that I have my own editing set up at my house, and so were able to edit as we went along, often filming scenes and having them completed the same evening. It was a fantastic workflow that enabled us to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. And because we were living in the location, re-shoots and pickup shots were incredibly quick and easy. Tiger also did a phenomenal job of camera operating, having never done it before properly, learning while we filmed about exposure, keeping focus and shot coverage. The kid’s a natural!
Kit wise, we had my Panasonic GH4, an onboard Rode mic and a heavy, old tripod in need of repair. We didn’t have all the kit we’d have liked obviously, but leaning into these limitations actually ended up forming the style and tone for the film. For example, lack of crew means lack of camera movement, which led to the film feeling quite static at times, but because time was on our side, and we weren't facing the pressure of a increasingly irritated location owner, we had the time to experiment with the coverage of the scene, putting the camera in lots of different places. The lack of additional lighting is another example of something that defined the film. Using only daylight from the windows, or lamps dotted around the room, we found that we actually achieved a look that was closer to Taxi Driver than we first intended.
While Taxi Driver might not be something that is immediately obvious to audiences watching the finished film, it was so useful to use as something to constantly source inspiration from.
'What should I wear in this scene?'- 'Let's look at what Travis is wearing at the point we're referencing'. As a result, the colour palette of the film, and even some of the shots are direct takes from Taxi Driver. Here's a video I mocked up of some of the more obvious references we made.
That being said, this project wasn’t all easy. A challenge was honestly keeping engaged and motivated throughout. With having to work from home, and grappling with the challenge of adapting to remote teaching, it was making my working days very busy, and so by 5pm, my interest and enthusiasm would be lacking. A few days like this turned into a fortnight, and all the while, the camera was getting dustier, still set up on the tripod almost as a sad reminder to carry on. Maintaining creativity and productivity is something that I know most people have struggled with during this pandemic at one point or another. I won't lie that making a film at times felt futile, pointless or silly, especially whenever you catch a particularly worrying headline, or even step out your front door and realise that there is something going on that is bigger than anything we've ever been through.
Getting out of these low points was made easier through being with Tiger, who was incredibly supportive and sympathetic. And as said previously, it is something that many of us have gone through/are going through. The film and TV industry, which is normally supported by its force of freelancers has suffered a heavy blow since this pandemic started, with everyone’s futures being made to feel very uncertain. I’m lucky enough to have a teaching job at Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies that has been able to support me and keep me working. For many, this is not the case. Ryan has advocated the Film & TV Charity in previous blog updates before, but it can’t be stated enough just how useful they are, especially in times like this. Have a look at their website, where you can find more information and financial advice on things like COVID-19 grants and relief funds, and their guidance on mental well-being: https://filmtvcharity.org.uk/covid-19-help-advice/
For me and Tiger, it was when we found out about the Lockdown Film Festival and saw the March 30th submission deadline that we decided to kick the project back into gear. We had nine days to get the rest of it filmed, edited, sound designed, colour graded and scored. Working under pressure is often a great drive, and so towards the end, all my time outside of working was spent polishing and refining. While I worked during the day, Tiger worked tirelessly on the score, experimenting with different sounds on the keyboard and synths, before playing along to the final edit. Tiger is one half of my favourite band in the world; Megatrain, and so we had a host of musical instruments lying around, some belonging to her, some to her band-mate Felix, who is quarantining elsewhere currently.
Very quickly, the film transformed in front of us, becoming something a lot grander, intricate and tighter than what we first imagined.
We managed to get the film submitted to four film festivals on the 30th March, all of them quarantine related. We have also entered into Short of the Week's #sheltershorts initiative, which has been designed to get filmmakers around the world making films while in lockdown safely. We hope to hear back from all of these initiatives starting from May 17th.
Since releasing the film on social media, it’s been met by some beautiful responses. We've had dozens of shares, and messages to all of us from people saying how much they enjoyed it and how it captured something that everyone could relate to. This, more than the outcomes of the film festivals, is what makes the film all the more worthwhile to me and Tiger, and by extension Ryan and JJ from Them Pesky Kids. All we ever want to do is make films that people connect to.
You learn something new from any project you work on, and this was by no means an exception. While we were certainly at a huge advantage by having a decent camera and a flippin’ in-house music composer, here are some tips I’d like to give if you’re thinking about making a film at home (especially if you’ve never done anything like that before!):
If you have the essentials (even a phone camera and free editing software), everything else you add on can very often be found and sourced for free online.
Try not to over complicate things and figure out what the core of your story is. Does your film absolutely need to be set on a spaceship?
Simplicity is key, and leaning into your limitations can actually bring up some brilliant and unexpected results that can ultimately end up defining your film.
Here's some free stuff to help you make your lockdown film
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