After exploding onto the scene with super low-budget zombie movie Colin in 2008, talented British filmmaker Marc Price has been busy making movies, as well as mentoring a legion of young talent through his partnership with the BFI. As his stunning second feature Magpie – a moving drama about a grief-stricken young father who steals the coffin from his son’s funeral – makes its debut on Amazon Prime, I spoke to Marc about the challenges of making independent film.
Magpie is quite a departure from your zombie debut Colin; how did the idea come about?
A Canadian friend, who shares her name with the main character in Magpie, told me about a short film where she played someone who stole the body of a dead friend. It felt like a great dramatic premise: who was the friend?; what was their relationship?; how can we find different levels of emotion if it were a relative? In an odd way, the character of Tony is someone I was afraid I may have become. So Magpie was a scary but safe way to explore that.
How easy a film was it to make?
I was trying to raise money for a script I’d written that wasn’t going particularly well and I started to assume that maybe I wasn’t a good enough writer. Then a script was given to me by my then-agent and it had a $3 million budget; it was terrible, and ended up a terrible film. I got a bit frustrated that this pap could get so much backing when our modestly budgeted creature feature couldn’t get any traction. I was eager to make something and Mitchell-Brunt films said they’d put some money into the script.
I suggested making an entirely different film without a script, rather workshopped and improvised around a structure I wrote. Dom [Brunt] and Jo [Mitchell] said, ‘We just want to help. Here’s the money, do what you like with it’, so we made Magpie. I can’t express how much it meant that they helped get this film made. If it wasn’t for them it would still just be inside my head.
Both the tone of the script and the performances are incredibly well balanced; was it important to keep some humour running through such a dramatic film?
I felt humour was important to gain some emotional access to these characters and make them relatable. It’s easy to make something relentlessly depressing, but who would want to watch that? If there’s no joy on the horizon for these characters, or no catharsis, then it’s just a bunch of actors being sad in a car. If we want the audience to shed tears with these characters then we need to earn those tears through the story, and not tell them to cry.
Were there any particular challenges during the filming?
Shooting in a moving car was hell. I can completely understand why some film makers opt for rear projection or green screen on a soundstage. For one of the night time driving scenes we had two cameras, one inside our crappy old Astra and one mounted on the bonnet so we could get [actor] Al Kirton driving.
We only had the Astra that night and had to ask Al to slow down so the cars behind would backlight whichever actor we were shooting inside the car. This meant infuriating the drivers behind, as you try to get their headlights exactly where you want them. But the beauty of filmmaking is that sense of achievement when everything falls into line.
I also remember wanting that sense of melancholia, so I’d get the cast very drunk the night before the big days loaded with emotion and they’d be a gaggle of blubbing wrecks all day. An unfortunate side effect was that I’d often be the same, and every time they’d do something brilliant I’d choke up as well!
You’ve spoken previously about how difficult it can be to move on from a debut film; how have you found the process of getting this film to an audience?
It’s been tricky with this one. In the mind of most distributors a genre film has a built in audience, but a drama with a group of actors who aren’t massive in terms of name or status is a tough sell.
We managed to get distribution in the US, but there weren’t many options in the UK. After looking into options, the producer Justin Hayles suggested we look into self-distribution. In the mind of many filmmakers this can feel like a defeat, but the alternative was that the film sits on a shelf unseen.
It’s already quite out of date in terms of technology. We shot Magpie on the Canon 7D at a time when most people had only just started to embrace the camera legitimately. So we look a bit antiquated compared with the slew of excellent films shot on Alexa or REDs these days.
We figured it was best to take care of distribution ourselves so we have. It’s our first crack at this sort of thing. A lot of film maker friends are letting us test the water and report back any issues. So far it’s kinda liberating and exciting!
Do you think VOD is a platform that should be explored and appreciated by more filmmakers, as the theatrical marketplace becomes more crowded and challenging?
Absolutely! I think the one beast that independent filmmakers really need to tame is that of distribution. Taking charge of your own project and finding an audience is sometimes best in the hands of the filmmakers; they understand the audience they want to reach and know how to take advantage of social media to draw some attention. What Amazon are offering as a platform is pretty special. If you have Amazon Prime the film is viewable to subscribers. Anyone else can rent or buy a digital download.
What are you working on next?
I have a lot of irons in the fire at the moment. I find that I’m always developing something for television, but also writing a few scripts that I’d like to shoot soon. I’m co-producing a Horror Anthology with producer Karl Hall, who I enjoyed working with on Dom and Jo Brunt’s new film. We’re hoping to start shooting that next year, and I’ll be directing a segment about a little girl who discovers a monster in her basement. I can’t wait to get started on that!