A Q&A session with James Erskine, co-director of EMR.
By Andy McKeague Jul 22, 2005, 1:09 GMT
The challenges of being an independent filmmaker are numerous, but the rewards are also incredible. The initial problem is, of course, in raising the finance to make the film. This requires dedication, cajoling and a lot of hard negotiating, not only to bring money in, but to keep prices down.
The second challenge is to have the confidence to criticise your own work. Being the arbiter of ones own taste is tricky. It is very easy to be seduced by your own ideas, good and bad. Discipline is key to successful independent filmmakers.
The final challenge is to keep ones energy levels up. The film will only get made, finished and seen if you keep pushing - there’s no one there to help you, only you yourself.
EMR was literally 'made a shoestring'. Did you find having no budget a serious constraint, or conversely was it in some ways liberating?
The advantage of having no budget is that everyone is on the shoot because they want to be. Clockwatching and money arguments rarely occur when there is little or no money. The filmmaker is also liberated in the sense of not having to worry about taking risks, because everything is a risk and so the fear is, to a degree lost.
The downsides are obvious, not only do you have constraints of time and resources, but you find yourself constantly compromising. Also, because everyone is there out of the goodness of their hearts, you have to keep a tight rein on your temper.
How does filming on a shoestring in the US compare to the UK?
The biggest problem in the US is getting round sag (screen actors guild) rules. In the UK, actors can choose to work outside of equity while still being a member, in the US actors who are members of sag, are expected to respect their sag obligations. These can be costly when one is making the film for little money. Of course these unions are a good thing as they protect actors from those that would seek to exploit them, but it makes things tough when you are at the bottom of the heap.
First films are often genre movies. Why did you choose psychological-thriller as opposed to perhaps the more standard horror genre?
Good question. The script came about in an organic way, and I guess we wanted to make a statement as filmmakers that we were doing something different. The problem with making a genre film is that it tends to set a template that provides new opportunities only within that genre. That may be a commercially good reason to make a horror movie (certainly those kind of films make money), so perhaps we should have. But we just decided that since we were working for ourselves we would make a film we wanted to make.
How did you cast the film?
In the UK, producer George Calil came on board and was very helpful in bringing together a talented cast. Danny and I wrote the film with Adam Leese in mind as Adam Jones. In the US we cast from people we knew, though we did some open casting calls in San Francisco where we discovered Nicholas Maccarone (the pusher). Whitney Cummings (Cyberbunnylily) was actually a friend of mine. We saw loads of people for the role, but she tested best.
What about your crew? Where did you find them?
Many of the people we had worked with before on documentaries and short films. The rest we got through Shooting People in the UK and through word of mouth in San Francisco.
How do you find working with a co-director (the film is co-directed with Danny McCullough)? What are the advantages to this?
Danny and I have written together since 1998 and had always planned to direct a movie together. We work pretty well together and it’s good to be able to talk through creative issues with someone you totally trust. I tend to scream and shout a bit more, and Danny tolerates this. But it’s fun to share the experience of making a movie with a close friend.
What has been harder, making the film or getting the finished film released?
Both were hard. But ultimately I would say its harder to get a film released. Of course it’s hard to make a good film, but distribution is the sharp end of the business and where the fewest risks are taken. If you don’t have a big star on board (preferably called Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise) it’s a tough world.
How does high definition stand up to 35mm, and why did you chose high definition to shoot on?
HD is great. I could go into a multitude of differences, but there isn’t the space here. We chose HD because it gave us a lot more freedom and was cheaper, but still looked great.
Did you experience any post-production hitches?
Almost everyday. Not least when the money ran out. Thank goodness our friends at Molinare and Mine helped us out otherwise the movie would not be finished by now.
How useful are film festivals to the low-budget film?
Festivals are critical to low budget films. It is largely due to our success at festivals that we have been able to get the film released. Winning Raindance was a massive bonus to us, and ultimately led to us getting distribution with Dogwoof digital. In Germany, winning the Weekend of Fear got us DVD distribution there and in the US being an official selection at San Francisco Independent Film Festival led to our release there. Festivals are a good test bed for whether a film works in front of an audience. Of course there are some really prestigious festivals and selecting where you enter is important, but really a good showing at any festival can only help your film.
Please elaborate a bit on why you went for a simultaneous multi-platform release?
The decision to release in this way in the UK came out of a conversation with Andy at Dogwoof and Tiscali. We wanted to try a new way of getting the film to as many people as possible, in the UK anyway, the film will be releases in a standard way internationally. We thought we may as well gamble on this kind of release, we had already gambled by making the film, and it’s important to test boundaries. We also felt it was a good thing for consumer choice. We knew we would only get a limited release and didn’t see why people who didn’t have the good fortune to live near a cinema that was showing the film should have to wait.
If you had to give a single bit of advice to potential low-budget filmmakers, what would this be?
Just do it. It wont be easy and your film might be not great, but if you dont at least try how do you know.
Questions about the film itself
Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
The story came about because Danny and I wanted to make use of the fact that we lived in two separate countries and wanted to explore the experience of being in both places. I was curious about the idea of waking up in a different country and finding you couldn’t communicate. Maybe you are in some kind of peril. We had wanted to make something about the missing kidney urban myth and it started from there. We were also interested in the idea of what is real and a world obsessed with conspiracy. I think the key line in the film comes from agent no. 2 (Guy Henry), it goes something like this 'all those months and years you have spent dreaming about conspiracies, and now you are right in the middle of one, and you cant even find it in your heart to thank us, cant you just figure it out.'
The film explores a couple of topical areas. One of them is the relationship of drug companies with patients and their doctors. Please elaborate on why you chose to look at this area and whether you think that the film raises legitimate questions?
I think the film does raise these questions, but it also questions the questioner. There have been some horrible histories with drugs companies, not least the thalidomide cases, but modern medicine has saved many lives. We wanted to throw out a number of questions about whether drugs companies were distrustful, but also why do so many people distrust them. It’s true that there are close relationships between some medics and some drugs companies, whether this is suspect is up to the audience and the consumer to decide.
I really enjoyed the way the film looks at the use of the internet in spreading conspiracy theories, and also at the sheer number of these, and of urban myths, out there. Are you a conspiracy nut?
No. But I don’t know whether men have ever really landed on the moon or whether it was all filmed in a Hollywood studio.
One of the criticisms that’s been levelled at the film is that it is very focused around the character of Adam. Do you feel that this detracted somewhat from the other characters, or was this deliberate?
The film is all about Adams perception of the world; the other characters exist only so much as Adam knows them or imagines them. I don’t know how you would make a film about seeing the world from in one persons head and make the other characters equal. It is deliberately about Adam and his perceptions.
If there was one thing you could do again, what would it be?
There were some scenes we had to drop because they didn’t work and we couldn’t afford to reshoot them. I would have liked to have seen if these could have worked as envisioned.
Is this a British film, or an American film, or a strange combination of both?
Well it is a British film in terms of DCMS, but beyond that it is a film that should transcend national boundaries.
Who are your main influences and inspirations?
I am never that good on that question. The filmmakers of the 70s in the us are important, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese in that they got on with it and made films their own way. But I also love filmmakers like Cocteau, Kieslowski, Ray. A big inspiration for EMR was a film by John Frankenheimer called 'Seconds' that starred Rock Hudson. Among today’s new filmmakers I admire Chris Nolan.
What are your future plans?
We are trying to get a number of projects going. A film we wrote about the Walmart-isation of America is a priority and we are working on another English film too.
Finally, why is the film called EMR - what does it mean?
In a way it’s not important, the original notion was electromagnetic radiation, but also an anagram of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and also it could mean Electronic Medical Records. At one point we considered re-naming the film 'Double Blind' (as in double blind placebo control test), but we had won two festivals be then, so EMR stuck. George and John (the producers) joke that EMR stands for 'Erskine Made Rich', but the film has so far made me poorer. It could also mean 'Eat More Radishes'. Whatever you like really.
You can read more about the DVD in our database.