2004 could be the best year for new British filmmakers since the first movie cameras arrived on our shores. Digit speaks to first-time and experienced independent filmmakers to find out how to get your feature films on the big screen.

This is a great time to be a British filmmaker. For a start, Hollywood has finally seen fit to let Brits in on the big-budget productions that are shot over here. Memento director Christopher Nolan is currently hopping between Pinewood Studios and Iceland for the darkly reinvented Batman Begins, which features a largely British cast lead by Christian Bale. Andrew Lloyd Webber will soon be inflicting a film version of The Phantom of the Opera on us, directed by The Lost Boys’ Joel Schumacher but starring British-born Gerard Butler and Minnie Driver.

Things are looking up for indie filmmakers, too. As is often the case, it’s a money issue rather than a creative one. You can’t make a movie without money – as cult director Abel Ferrara once said, “if you can’t deal with that fact, learn to paint.”

The overarching body for the UK film industry, the UK Film Council, has announced plans to make it much easier for independent films to be seen in cinemas across the UK. Using £13 million of National Lottery funding, it will place 250 digital projectors in around 150 cinemas in the UK. The Digital Screen Network may not sound exciting, but it could drastically lower the cost of getting your film seen. It costs over £150,000 to create film prints to distribute to those 150 cinemas – creating a print costs a minimum of £1,000 each. It could cost as little as £2,000 to distribute a digital copy. This is should make it easier for low-budget films to take their place on the big screen.

Cinemas won’t be allowed to use the projectors just to get cheaper copies of Garfield and King Arthur. As an incentive, they’ll be allowed to show whatever they want using the projectors for some of the time, but a set amount of time has to be devoted to low-budget independent productions. It’s not just aimed at British films though, as foreign productions that require the Network’s help to get seen are part of the programme, while British films that don’t need the help, such as Love Actually or Thunderbirds, are not.

“What counts as a specialist film is decided on a case-by-case basis,” says Steve Perrin of the UK Film Council, “but essentially it’s a film whose commercial success isn’t sure enough for conventional distribution.”

Not that these specialist films cannot be successful. Perrin notes the case of Billy Elliot, which no-one could have guessed would be a big hit before it was released. Digital Screen Network is designed to give as many films as possible the same opportunity. “The introduction of digital projection is a wonderful thing,” says long-time independent film producer Chris Atkins. “It’s our life blood to make films and have them released – but many good low-budget films don’t get that chance.”

Atkins has been a film producer and director since leaving the unprofitable world of theatrical production, in search of more money – “what did I know?” he says. Currently he has 16 Years of Alcohol in cinemas on limited release, while his next film, The Purifiers, will premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August. 16 Years of Alcohol is a gritty drama about a man’s attempt to escape his past, while The Purifiers is a martial arts movie reminiscent of cult 70s gang flick, The Warriors. Both were directed by Richard Jobson – ex-singer with Scottish punks The Skids, whose semi-autobiographical novel 16 Years of Alcohol spawned his first film – and star Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting/Dog Soldiers). The Purifiers also stars Dominic Monaghan from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“The problem with getting your film into cinemas currently is that the first question distributors ask is always ‘Who’s in it?’”, says Atkins. “If your answer is like a pantomime poster – ‘starring Bob from EastEnders’ – then their eyes immediately glaze over.” Atkins doesn’t believe it’s the distributors fault though, more a matter of statistics.

“Distributors aren’t stupid,” he notes. “Personally, they might love your film, but they’ve also bought into a ‘great little British film with no stars’ before, and got burned when it died. So they’ve learned not to do it.”

Target audience

Once distribution costs are in the thousands, rather than in the hundreds of thousands, distributors are more likely to take chances.

It encourages new distributors to appear, including filmmaker co-operatives or specialist units focused on, for example, Welsh language films or UK Bollywood productions – with targeted regional releases possible.

New filmmakers who aren’t fixed in a ‘that’s the way that it’s done’ mentality may find it easier to work within these new structures – and being different is the best way to succeed as a new director.

“Your work has to have the spirit of something fresh and new that you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood film,” says Jeremy Boxer, who scouts out material for the travelling Resfest festival of innovative features, shorts, music videos, and more. “It should also be the type of work you wouldn’t find in your typical film festival.”

Boxer believes that there is too much filmmaking by equation, even in the independent sector, and too much copying. Once something becomes successful, others try to replicate it. The reason something is successful is often because it’s different – and trying to replicate it won’t work.

However, all but the most micro-budget films need to make a profit if you want the chance to make another. One, often-noted problem with the British film industry is that overtly commercial films are sneered at, coupled with an NME-style snobbery – there’s a ‘we liked them until they sold out’ attitude towards independent films that succeed.

Atkins recently saw this attitude towards The Purifiers, which director Jobson was aiming at a teenage audience. Industry people, who took to the powerful and moving nature of 16 Years of Alcohol, told Atkins that they were “disappointed with the film” because “it didn’t leave me in tears at the end” or “I was only entertained”.

“Don’t be scared of making a film that makes money,” Atkins says. “People will still like you. Make a film that puts bums on seats because then you’ll get to make another. If not, your career will be over before it’s started.”

One way to almost guarantee profit is to make a genre movie – as even if it flops in the cinema, cult audiences are likely to pay you back through the DVD release. You’ll still need something innovative to make yourself stand out from many other people with similar plans.

Chris Smith is currently overseeing post-production on his first feature, a horror movie called Creep. The film follows top-rated German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run/The Bourne Identity) as she is pursued on the London Underground. It will arrive in cinemas on October 15th.

Little horrors

“As a first-time director I thought it might be easier to approach a genre piece,” says Smith. “A lot of directors can deal with horror on their first go – and it’s an accepted first-time filmmaker’s thing.”

Even famous auteur directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola or Oliver Stone began their careers in horror. It’s unlikely Sam Raimi would be in charge of the massive budget behind this summer’s big Hollywood blockbuster, Spiderman 2, without making his way through three Evil Dead movies.

Smith believed the time was right, with a new credibility about horror in the UK following 28 Days Later. What makes Creep different enough to get noticed though, was Smith’s choices of location and lead. The Tube’s only notable additions to the genre of horror so far have been the sequence in An American Werewolf In London, and the 70s cult not-quite-classic Death Line, starring Donald Pleasance. With many potential financiers aware of just how horrific the Underground can be, Creep stood out over other projects. Franka Potente was another asset when financing the film.

“I really wanted to work with Franka,” says Smith. “We wanted a star who was tough yet very much a woman – and we wanted someone to lift the film above being just another Brit-flick. Because she’s a huge star in Germany, that lead to gaining finances from Germany.”

Creep won funding from the UK Film Council’s Premiere Fund, which has a budget of £10million to spend on films that have a good chance of making a profit. With Potente on board, Smith managed to secure funding from Germany’s Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalia (NRW) as well.

If you don’t want to make a genre piece, there are other ways open to you. Amma Asante’s A Way of Life looks at racism in a deprived area in South Wales. Unusually, it’s told from the perspective of the young, white, female protagonist, and it found funding from HTV – initially for the script and then a lump sum for production. This gave the producers a credible backing that enabled them to raise more money from other financiers.

Director Asante disagrees that there’s a distinct defining line between ‘commercial’ and ‘serious’ films.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with Britain putting out these sort of films,” she says. “They are the stories that need to be told. These are the films that Europe loves about us. Personal films can be successful if handled correctly.”

Asante has no previous directing experience. However, she has almost 20 years’ experience in television, beginning as an actress in Grange Hill in 1985. She moved into screenwriting and production, doing both for two series of the urban drama Brothers and Sisters. Originally, it was intended that an experienced director was going to work on A Way of Life, but Asante knew what she wanted onscreen.

“I had very clear image in my head of how I wanted the story to unfold visually,” she says. “It wasn’t going to be the horrible dark story that it could be. To do this it seemed clear that I might as well direct it myself.”

Once Asante’s intentions were clear, she was approached by the UK Film Council, who gave her money to create a pilot version of the film. As well as gaining experience, Asante trialed actors for the final production – two of whom went on to appear in A Way of Life. She created a work that allowed the National Film and Television School to tailor a two-week one-to-one course to specifically teach Asante the aspects of directing she hadn’t picked up from her acting, producing, and writing days.

Work for free

Most directors aren’t this lucky. If you aren’t, the best way to learn is to help someone else.

“Get a placement on someone else’s film first,” says Cath Le Couteur, one of the founders of filmmaker networking group Shooting People. “I worked on Mike Figgis’ Hotel and I learned more from those six weeks than I ever learned at film school.”

Of the directors we’ve spoken to, most went to film school and say that they learned much – though not just about how to make a film.

“There were 24 people on my course but only six got to direct,” recounts Smith, “though, of course, everyone wanted to. You learned how you could wing the system and manoeuvre yourself into a position where you’d get to direct. That’s representative of how the film industry is.

“You shouldn’t have to be a car salesman – you should just have to be good – but that’s the way it is.”

The problem that many experienced people in the industry have with film schools is not that they don’t do their job – though some obviously don’t – but that the culture around them gets in the way of effective filmmaking.

“Film school gives people a highly elevated view of themselves,” says Atkins. “People go to very expensive film schools and get lectured about totally impractical ideas of filmmaking. I hire people like that and they don’t know one end of a camera or an editing system from another. They can’t do a tape transfer but can write a damn good essay on Godard, which doesn’t help when you’re running out of time, which you always are.”

Learning the technical side of filmmaking is an important part of being both a director and writer for low-budget films. It gives you the knowledge of where you can innovate, and where you can cut corners. Currently, the greatest new technical innovation for filmmakers is HD (high definition) production. This is an upscale version of many of the technologies first seen in consumer-level DV camcorders – though it’s still expensive enough that cameras and decks are usually hired rather than bought. To all but the most anally-retentive, HD footage is just as good as film in most circumstances, but the costs are far lower.

“If you’re shooting a movie on film and you’ve only got £200,000, you’re buggered,” says Atkins. “You’re buggered from the start. All of your money is going to Kodak and the processing lab, so you don’t have any money for the art department, actors, locations, and all of the stuff that actually makes your movie good.”

The traditional ‘recorded on film/projected using film’ system requires many expensive steps including film processing, developing rushes, telecine, and negative cutting. These just allow you to see what you’ve filmed, select the parts you want, edit them together, add effects, and then – once you’ve gone back and reshot the bits that are missing and repeated the process – put it back together to create the final cut. This can eat up most of the money for a low-budget film, which would be almost eradicated by using HD. With the money saved, you can spend more on casting, your art department and get a better soundman – and hopefully, a better film.

The snobbery against HD in 2004 from film school luvvies and old DoPs (directors of photography) means much opportunity to offer financiers and distributors better and/or less expensive films, increasing your chance of getting a film made and it making a profit.

The downside to digital filmmaking is that makes ‘let’s try that again’ a very easy option. Its simplicity means that first-time filmmakers, and many more experienced ones, often shoot far too much footage – leaving the editor swamped with a lengthy sorting process. This is why even many full-on HD aficionados suggest that filmmakers learn their craft using film.

“Shooting on film does teach you a certain respect for your time,” says Atkins. “If you’re spending so much money on each shot, you plan your shots better.”

However, some filmmakers prefer the flexibility of digital tools. Duncan Finnigan of production company FIN Scotland has created two DV-based features, Two Donuts and Four Eyes. Released in 2003, Four Eyes has been described as somewhere between The Office and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Finnigan is listed as the director, one of the producers, the editor, the screenwriter, and the lead actor – though many of these roles, as well as DoP and sound, were shared with his FIN Scotland partner Wilma Smith.

Flexible friend

“We decided to shoot on DV for financial reasons,” says Finnigan, “but also the flexibility is there for experimentation – and at £2.50 a tape, we could afford to leave the camera running that bit longer.”

With Two Donuts, the experience helped Finnigan learn as a first time filmmaker, though it had one major downside.

“Granted it took a lot longer than most conventional films to make,” says Finnigan, “but the beauty was that we could change things around to suit ourselves, very much in an experimental way – finding out what worked and what didn’t work.”

DV filmmaking has recently received a lot of media attention, following on from 28 Days Later, much of which was shot on pro-level DV camcorders. What most reports don’t tell you is that a lot of money was spent preparing it for cinema exhibition – possibly as much as if it was shot on film. DV camcorders do have a place in filmmaking. The ‘look’ of DV footage gives an almost documentary feel, while the lightness of the cameras themselves allows the cameraperson to quickly move in or away from the actors. These effects have been used to very great effects by intimate films such as Festen, which began the Dogme movement. However, with other types of films, the DV effect would just look cheap.

DV is like most low-budget filmmaking tricks and shortcuts. When used correctly, it can save you money on getting a professional looking result – but if executed badly, it could destroy a film’s credibility. The major tricks that work are the ones that fit within the concept of the film, and these can create an innovation that might not occur to someone on a large studio budget – the faux documentary look of The Blair Witch Project for example, or the claustrophobia of the single set of Cube.

Drinking in Ely

A Way of Life uses a cast of primarily non-actors, a technique that saves money, but also gives the film a rawness that fits its location and downbeat themes. Asante went to stage school, which left her with what she describes as “a particular way of singing and dancing”.

“We tested actors who had been to drama school for the younger roles,” she says, “but it quickly became apparent that there was too much knowledge of the camera and too much knowledge of performance from the kids who had training – and that wasn’t what we were looking for.”

The use of young actors from the area in which A Way of Life was set helped Asante, as they gave her a greater insight into an area that they knew very well – another benefit of what could be seen as purely a money-saving trick.

Asante stresses the importance of the work a director does before production. “I overcompensated because I had never directed before,” she says, “but it was worth it. I ensured that I had a lot planning time and it made sure that filming was as smooth as possible.”

“Time is really cheap before production,” notes Atkins, “but during production, time really is expensive. Look at every location. Go to every location. Get a DV camera and shoot every scene with your mates. Plan everything.”

“So many low-budget films end wasting so much time due to lack of basic organization,” says Atkins. “Have you got permission to shoot on the land you’re on? Has anyone checked that there might be roadworks in the area you want to shoot? Is it on the flightpath of a major airport?”

Paying attention to all areas of production is important too. Sound is one of the most often ignored areas by first-time filmmakers, but a mistake can be disastrous.

“The sound guy can be as important as the cameraman,” says Atkins. “One of the reasons why low-budget films can’t even get a broadcast deal is that the sound isn’t broadcast quality. Everyone’s obsessing about the look and the lighting, and no one bothers to check that the air conditioning unit behind the action is switched off – and you end up with unusable sound.”

Part of good pre-production is identifying which areas you have no control over – and getting rid of any problems you can control.

“For example, never try and do a crowd scene by going into the street and filming real people,” says Atkins, “because you’ll always get some dickhead waving at the camera.”

Some areas you can’t control or discard, as they are central to your film. For Creep, Smith used emergency Underground trains to film in, which could be taken away with only a few minutes notice if they were needed.

“It can be frustrating, but we knew that before we started filming,” he says. “It’s like if you set a movie at sea, you have to allow for the weather. Just roll with it.

“Luckily, the edgy, hand-held nature of the film allowed us to speed up filming when necessary.”

“It’s about being incredibly flexible,” says Asante. “But once you accept that you end up with a better film than the one that lived in your head while you wrote it.”

Seven books you must own

The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook
Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe (Continuum, 2000)

The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook is the first book any prospective filmmaker should buy. Written by two independent filmmakers, the book covers each stage of the funding, production and distribution processes – plus publicity advice such as how to build a press pack. It features interviews with informed subjects from all parts of the film industry, case studies on films, simple contacts, and comes bundled with many useful forms and basic screenwriting software. Last updated in 2000, it’s very film-focused, with little info on DV filmmaking and nothing on HD production – though the technical film information is comprehensive and easy to understand.

Two further books have followed, covering day-to-day film production (The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint) and the US film business (The Guerilla Film Makers Hollywood Handbook) respectively.

Get Your Film Funded
Caroline Hancock and Nic Wistreich (Shooting People Press, 2004)

Published through filmmaking networking group Shooting People, Get Your Film Funded is an exhaustive guide to the many ways of obtaining money to get your short, feature or documentary made.

It covers local, UK-wide and European funds that can be tapped, plus other financial help – including tax breaks, venture capital, sponsors, and distributors. It includes a multitude of case studies and interviews with fund managers.

Rebel Without A Crew
Robert Rodriguez (Faber and Faber, 1996)

Subtitled Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, this book is essentially Rodriguez’s diary of how he made EL Mariachi and went on to promote it to be a cult hit of worldwide renown. Rodriguez’s honesty and sheer cheek, coupled with his positivity and inventiveness, is the ideal inspiration to help you make the leap into filmmaking.

Story
Robert McKee (Methuen Publishing, 1999)

Quite simply, the book on scriptwriting. You have to engage your brain before even opening the book as it can be complex, but if you’re serious about writing a good screenplay, this is worth a dozen other scriptwriting books. McKee explains the structures behind storytelling – without locking you into hackneyed forms – and studies movies from Citizen Kane to The English Patient.

All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger
Lloyd Kaufman, James Gunn (G P Putnam’s Sons, 1998)

Lloyd Kaufman is the head of Troma Studios, a guerrilla filmmaking outfit behind such B-movie classics as The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo and Juliet, and Nymphoid Barbarian In Dinosaur Hell. Though the films aren’t much cop – they’re not really supposed to be good – the book gives excellent, inventive advice on working with shoestring budgets and shows how helpful a cult audience can be.

Adventures In The Screen Trade and More Adventures In The Screen Trade
William Goldman (Macdonald & Co, 1984 / Bloomsbury 2000)

The film diaries of the screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride are marvellous reads full of Hollywood gossip, but are stuffed with information about how to write commercially successful screenplays, too.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Peter Biskind (Bloomsbury, 1998)

On the surface an entertaining expose of the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll-driven lives of 70s New Hollywood actor/producers such as Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls shows why independent filmmaking is so necessary and why Hollywood films are so successful.

A degree of independence

So how do we define a low-budget independent film? Traditionally, an independent film is one made outside the major Hollywood studios – companies with operations that include production and distribution, plus marketing, sometimes post-production, and even cinema chains too. However, studios own many of the larger independent production companies. The top US ‘indie’, Miramax, is owned by Disney, though after the battle over Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, it’s unsure how long this relationship will last. British company Working Title is owned by Universal – and has set distribution agreements. A truly independent film is one created outside these environments.

According to Caroline Hancock and Nic Wistreich’s book Get Your Film Funded – with which most of the people interviewed here agree – a low-budget British film intended
for theatrical release costs between £500,000 and £2 million. Above this, a mid-budget production could cost as much as £3.5 million, while a movie made for £100,000 is probably intended for TV and DVD/video release. At the very bottom end of the scale are sub-£100,000 micro-budget productions, which are usually genre releases looking for a DVD/video release. Using the Digital Screen Network, it will be possible for ultra-low budget and maybe even micro-budget productions to get seen in the cinema.

Five organizations you should know about

British Council, www.britishcouncil.org

The British Council is a body with a wide remit over international educational and cultural relations, which includes promoting British films abroad. The help it can deliver includes providing grants to British filmmakers to attend events overseas and co-financing screens – and it runs the excellent Britfilms.com Web site, which gives a detailed description of current UK productions.

Business Link, www.businesslink.gov.uk

Business Link provides practical advice on business matters. The Web site hosts many articles and guides on how to set-up and run a business, and local agencies provide face-to-face advice.

First Film Foundation, www.firstfilm.co.uk

This organization exists to help new filmmakers make their first film. It provides modular courses and runs the Jerwood First Film prize.

Shooting People, www.shootingpeople.org

A non-scary networking group for all types of people involved in feature, short, music video, and documentary production, Shooting People has over 38,000 members. Discussions, advice, and job offers occur over four daily email bulletins (filmmaker, screenwriters, casting, documentary), two weekly bulletins (animation, music video), and a weekly script pitch bulletin.

UK Film Council, www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk

The Film Council is an overarching body that has one basic purpose – to make the British Film Industry more successful. It sits between the Government and industry and can help in a multitude of ways. Its funds include the Development Fund, Premiere Fund, Regional Investment Fund For England (RIFE), First Light, Specialised Print And Advertising Fund, and the Training Fund. The New Cinema Fund is aimed at new filmmakers.

The Top 10 most innovative independent films so far...

The Blair Witch Project
(1999) Directors/Writers: Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez
Production Budget: £12,000

The most successful film of all time (on a budget:box office ratio), The Blair Witch Project turned £12,000 into over £130 million. Whatever you think of the end product, the film is a lesson in how to make the most of a low budget, and how clever marketing can be as important as clever moviemaking. The faux documentary style of the film explains away its amateurish look, while the reality TV-type experience that the three principal actors were put through delivers realistic performances from unknowns. The marketing campaign used an excellent Web site and other techniques (such as listing the principal actors as “missing, presumed dead” on the IMDb) to intrigue through the premise of authenticity.

Clerks
(1994) Director/Writer: Kevin Smith
Production Budget: £15,000

Clerks is the epitome of the best of no-budget filmmaking. With no money for gunplay, car chases or CGI, there are just two people in a shop talking crap with the occasional intrusion of locked down shades (to cover that the film was shot at night, when the shop was closed), annoying customers, girlfriends, a very quick visit to a wake, a hockey game, the number 37, inadvertent necrophilia and two iconic stoners: Jay and Silent Bob. However, surreal realism and naturalistic dialogue on a par with Mamet or Tarantino makes Clerks both accessible and cultish – and very funny. Kevin Smith followed Clerks with Mallrats, which launched the career of Ben Affleck.

El Mariachi
(1992) Director/Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Production Budget: £4,000

Movie mythology says that Robert Rodriguez started with ten locations he knew he had access to, and then wrote the plot of El Mariachi around them. What certainly is true is that Rodriguez raised almost half of the money for the film by volunteering to be a human ‘lab rat’ testing a cholesterol-reducing drug. Filmmaking tricks include much use of passers-by, moving camera shots taken from a wheelchair, and sound recorded on a standard cassette deck. Most of the guns in the film are water pistols, with a few real weapons borrowed from a local police station (unlikely to happen in Chelmsford). Though made for $7,000, by the time it arrived in cinemas, more than a million dollars had been spent on postproduction and promotion.

Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run)
(1998) Director/Writer: Thomas Tykwer
Production Budget: £990,000

With a budget of just under a million pounds, Lola Rennt is the most expensive film on this list. However, it has the gloss of a Hollywood production with at least ten times the budget, and is a prime example of how to get the most from your money. The premise of Lola Rennt – the story of Lola and her boyfriend Manni’s attempt to obtain 20,000 Marks in 20 minutes told in three alternate versions – allows footage to be replicated. Tykwer centralizes the couple by using 35mm film for their scenes, and video for others, which saved money on film – while the gloss was applied on top by the excellent post work by Das Werk. The fast cuts and pounding techno soundtrack complete the high-budget style.

Night Of The Living Dead
(1968) Director/Writer: George Romero; Writer: John Russo
Production Budget: £60,000

£60,000 wasn’t much money to make a movie, even back in 1968 – compare Night Of The Living Dead’s budget with the £880,000 spent on the relatively low-budget Bonnie-&-Clyde the year before. Without the option of digital production, or even video, Romero’s zombie movie had to be particularly inventive. He used Bosco chocolate syrup as blood, and the editing studio’s cellar, because the house in the film didn’t have one. Romero paid zombie extras with a dollar and an ‘I was a zombie on Night Of The Living Dead’ T-shirt. Doing its bit for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, Night Of The Living Dead was the first horror film to feature a black actor in a lead role (Duane Jones as Ben).

Bonnie and Clyde
(1967) Director: Arthur Penn; Writers: David Newman and Robert Benton
Production Budget: £880,000

Although not independent – it was made by Warner Bros – Bonnie and Clyde ushered in an age where Hollywood films became independent from the old money men and production systems. Combining a lack of traditional morality (our heroes are villains) with a blood-soaked climax worthy of Leon, Bonnie and Clyde Americanized the increasingly popular European cinema – which Old Hollywood didn’t understand, so had to turn to the likes of Warren Beatty and Robert Altman for help. It was swiftly followed by the likes of The Graduate, M*A*S*H, and Easy Rider. This golden age lasted most of the 70s until the merchandizing success of Star Wars turned Hollywood back into a traditional business again.

Cube
(1997) Director/Writer: Vicenzo Natali; Writers: Andre Bijelic, Graeme Manson
Production Budget: £140,000

There are many great films set almost exclusively in one room – Twelve Angry Men, Reservoir Dogs, Under Suspicion – but Cube uses a single 14-x-14-x-14-foot set to create a much larger environment. This Canadian low-budget film places six unrelated people – all named after prisons – in a series of interconnected, claustrophobic and booby-trapped cubes, from which they have to escape. The cube was lit differently to create the different rooms, with the colours also used to affect the actor’s performances, while the highly innovative but messy booby traps were used sparingly to keep costs down.

Festen (The Celebration)
(1998) Director/Writer: Thomas Vinterberg; Writer: Mogens Rukov
Production Budget: £630,000

It’s ironic that Festen, which looks like a no-budget production, is one of the higher-budget films on this list. The style and production methods are affectations, though. Shot using a handheld DV camcorder – Sony’s PC7E – Festen was the first film to be recorded under the rules of the Dogme 95 ‘Vow of Chastity’. Dogme 95 strips films bare – no props, no lighting, handheld cameras only, no optical work or filters, no flashbacks, no murders. This works to Festen’s advantage, providing a brutally raw look at the revelation of family secrets at a patriarch’s 60th birthday party. To date over 30 Dogme 95 films have been made, including Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots) and Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(1975) Director/Writer: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; Writers: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin
Production Budget: £140,000

Parodies often have little problem with budgetary constraints. With a modest budget, the only British entry on this list allows the Monty Python team to take Arthurian knights from the splendour of Camelot, to the wilderness (often a park by one of the busiest roundabouts in London), through many castles (actually two, as the team was banned from filming in most Scottish castles). Another notable spoof is Kevin Rubio’s no-budget Troops, which took the American documentary show Cops into the Star Wars universe with a class that belies its tiny budget.

Russian Ark
(2002) Director/Writer: Aleksander Sokurov; Writers: Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina
Production Budget: Not released

Technological progress usually leads to smaller, lighter camcorders, which enable smaller, more intimate stories to be told. Russian director Aleksander Sokurov decided to go the other way with Russian Ark – using HD capture techniques to create a 96-minute historical epic in a single take, something impossible with film. Russian Ark combines a guided tour of St Petersburg’s stunning Hermitage museum with historical scenes recreated using over 2,000 actors and extras, including three live orchestras. Completing the piece took two months of rehearsals, every day including Saturday and Sunday, and two takes, as the first was aborted within the 20-minute ‘go back and start again’ period set by Sokurov.