The Norwich Film Festival recently caught up with local filmmaker Jonathan Blagrove who has just completed his first outing as a director on the fantastic feature length documentary The Final Reel. This film tells the fascinating story of how cinemas and cinema-going have developed and flourished over the years – even in some of the most rural parts of England (like Norfolk). It features some wonderful characters, stories and explores the importance cinema played in local communities. The brilliant documentary is also narrated by the fantastic actor Sir John Hurt, and we at the festival will urge all film lovers to check out this film.
NFF: Firstly, how did The Final Reel come your way?
JB: The film was born out of Norfolk At the Pictures, a Heritage Lottery Funded community project established by Cinema City Education to preserve and celebrate the fascinating history of cinema-going in Norfolk. I’ve been associated professionally and personally (my wife is an education officer there) with Cinema City Education for a while and producer Marc Atkinson – who was involved with NATP as project co-ordinator – and I both thought that the project was the perfect basis for a documentary film. Initially we planned to make something shorter, but realised quite quickly that to do the research and subject matter any sort of justice we had to make a feature film.
NFF: and what was the main essence you wanted to capture within this film?
JB: We thought that there was a sense that some of the social history that we were covering was almost forgotten in some respects. Despite being a huge part of peoples lives in the 30s & 40s, a lot of the old cinemas are long gone – some without a trace. In comparison with the process of film making, on which there are countless books, documentaries etc. out there, in terms of the history of exhibition there isn’t that much available, specifically on a more local level. We wanted to capture a sense of what has been lost and bring some the old picture palaces back to life.
NFF: The film is narrated by the brilliant John Hurt. Can you tell the readers how John became involved in the project?
JB: John became the patron of Cinema City Education (formerly Cinema Plus) in 2013, so he was the natural choice to approach for a narrator. Fortunately for us he was really into the idea of the Norfolk At The Pictures project and was really behind the film. Fitting it around his very busy schedule was another matter entirely, but we finally got a date we could all do and recorded the voice over at his own home. He has got such an iconic voice, which has brought a real gravitas and helped breathe life into parts of the film.
NFF: What do feel had been the biggest challenges you experienced in making this film?
JB: Mainly budget, or rather lack of it! Making a film like this on such a tight budget meant that things didn’t necessarily happen as quickly as they could have. When you have a crew who are pretty much giving their time for free, you have to work around their availability – which can be quite limiting. The history of cinema is such a big subject, so getting something so huge to work into a 90 minute or so time frame was a huge challenge. There are so many fantastic cinemas and so many stories that we would loved to have used, but unfortunately we had to leave many on the cutting room floor – if we’d used everything the film would be several hours longer at least! A film like The Final Reel involves the use of a lot of archive materials, the film features a lot of stills and film clips on various different formats and time periods. Cataloguing and clearing all of the rights was a huge challenge and moving image archive can be very expensive so there was a limit to the amount we could afford to use.
NFF: What has been the biggest reward for you as a filmmaker making this film?
JB: Like the challenges, there have been lots of rewards from making The Final Reel. I’ve been closely involved with the project at every step, from the initial development, to the shooting, through post-production and even to the marketing and selling of the film – this has been an invaluable experience. If I was to do it all again, there are things which I would most definitely do differently. However, the fact that after nearly three years since with came up with the initial idea and after a lot of hard work from a lot of people, we have a solid little independent documentary film to show to the world – that is immensely satisfying.
NFF: Looking back on The Final Reel, do you have any particular favourite moments which stand out for you?
JB: That’s a very hard one! One of the perks of working in documentary is that you get to meet a lot fascinating people from different walks of life and The Final Reel was no exception. We interviewed lots of very interesting people and heard some fantastic stories, but I think personally it was meeting Michael Armstrong – life long cinema fan and former projectionist of The Regal cinema in Wymondham – he has recreated The Regal in his garage down to the most minute detail and his passion for all things cinema is obvious. We even screened a rough cut of the film in his home cinema, which was great. He is also a lovely guy so it wasn’t hard to enjoy his company.
NFF: What are the plans now for the documentary?
JB: Well, we are self distributing the film to cinemas and we have a few screenings lined up across East Anglia and further afield – Bury St. Edmunds, Kings Lynn, Cambridge, Sheringham and Derby have so far confirmed screenings and hope to be screening in a few festivals as well. We have a plan in place for a home release next year with a physical and digital release.
NFF: I always like to ask about funding a film. This is massive area that filmmakers struggle with due to the challenges of raising money for a project. How easy was it to raise the money needed to make this film? and do you have any tips for other filmmakers trying to raise the capital to make their film?
JB: As any independent film maker will tell you financing a film is always a struggle – even for the more established ones. The Final Reel wasn’t your average indie doc in terms of financing, we were lucky that we managed to get part of the bulk of our budget from the Heritage Lottery Fund who were funding the wider Norfolk At The Pictures Project which the film came out of. We also ran a top up crowd funding campaign, which raised a bit extra. Ideally we would have had at least 5 times as much as we had to make a documentary like The Final Reel comfortably. So we had to sacrifice a few of our initial ideas and simplify in order to get the film made on budget. Fortunately I have a lot of friends who are very talented who got behind the project and were able to give their time and I managed to do deals on a lot of kit hire – so I was able to make some cost savings there.
There are a few ways that you can get a feature financed at the moment, through public lottery money like ours – schemes like iFeatures are set up by Creative England and are aimed at first time directors to help get their first feature film make, or you can go down the private finance route; trying to attract investment from the private sector – there are a number of tax breaks in the UK which can make this sort of financing attractive to potential investors. The crowd-funding model – which can be quite tricky – is another way that some film-makers have had success with. I think if you are trying to get an independent feature off the ground, remember the production phase is only part of the battle of getting the film made, budgeting correctly in your finance plan for post-production and having money to market the film is very important – often first time film-makers over look this aspect.
NFF: Let’s get technical, this is the first feature project you have directed and I was curious to learn what was the biggest learning curve from this?
JB: The whole experience was one big learning curve – like any film there were (and still are) plenty of hurdles that we faced from day one. Our biggest issue at the start was taking the masses of research and creating something that not only resembled a narrative, but an interesting one. From a more technical perspective we decided to shoot on the Red Dragon camera system at 5K, so our first challenge was getting the correct work-flow in place. We wanted the film to look as cinematic as possible so that’s why we opted for a digital cinema system like the Red over more traditional documentary cameras like the Canon C300. The large censor size and ability to shoot 5K was also going to help with shooting in some of the large buildings we had planned, to capture that detail. I worked with the supremely talented cinematographer Chris Sharman (who I’ve known for a while) and we were keen to see how the Red would function on a documentary project. As we were going to be shooting in some pretty dark places we were also concerned on how it would perform in low light – so getting the right lenses for the job was key. So it was a bit of a leap of faith for us to start with, but once we got the production and post-production workflow in place, it all worked out – the film captures the old cinemas beautifully. Once we got into the edit, my biggest fear was that the film wasn’t going to work and some of my ideas were going to fall flat. It was pretty nerve wracking up until the moment when I viewed the first assemblies from our genius of an editor John Fensom – it was only then I realised that the film was going to work as we planned.
NFF Do you have plan’s to direct another feature film?
JB: Absolutely! I have a couple of projects in development including a feature length fiction I would like to direct, but the script is a long way off yet. I’m attached to a low budget thriller ‘Duty’ as a producer, which I’ve been developing with writer/director Giles Greenwood which is at the financing stage and we hope to shoot some point soon – so basically watch this space!
NFF: For filmmakers who are wanting to get into producing/directing their first feature film what advise can you offer?
JB: Surround yourself with a talented team, get people on board who have a proven track record as professionals involved and listen to their advice! I feel the process of making a film a collaborative affair and making sure you have the right people for the jobs is imperative. The Final Reel wouldn’t be what it is without the input of a lot of talented individuals and I am humbly in their debt. Make sure your idea is a solid one, but be realistic with your expectations of what you are going to be able to achieve with a limited budget. But also be prepared to pull back from an idea which isn’t going to work – don’t spent a lot of time and creative energy on something which isn’t go to deliver. On more technical level: always make sure you hire an experienced sound recordist! Sound is one of the things that seems to always go out of the window on low budget productions, often overlooked its one the most important areas of film-making. I see a lot of short films and even feature films made by aspiring film-makers, that have very poorly captured location sound and that hinders those films chances of getting into festivals or even picking up distribution.
NFF: and how important was your previous experience in being involved in short films (i.e. Woodwoo) been in your career?
JB: I’ve been making films in one way or another for most of my life and I’ve always learned something on each one. I think the short film is an invaluable way to learn the craft of film making from top to bottom. Though most of the shorts I made early on are terrible and will never see the light of day now, it’s important to go through that process and keep going! I cut my teeth as a producer on the Digital Shorts Scheme from 2007 – 2009 that used to run through the UK Film Council , where I got experience with real budgets and taking a film from inception, casting, through the shoot and on to market. One film I produced under that scheme ‘Bro’ (2009, Dir. Chris Dundon) did extremely well on the festival circuit internationally and won several awards, it was an experience which I built on with ‘Woodwoo’ (2013, Dir. Jonny Philiips) which again did very well with festivals and helped me establish a proven track record as a film-maker.
(Above is a still from Jonathan’s 2013 produced short film Woodwoo)
NFF: Finally, it’s fabulous watching the history of cinema evolve in the film and I was curious what was your favourite childhood memory of cinema?
JB: That’s a very difficult question! I grew up in the North Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe, so the earliest memories of going to the cinema were during the late 70s and 80s and revolved around the now demolished Majestic cinema, watching films like ET and The Empire Strikes Back with my parents in the smoke filled auditoria. I remember one particular trip to see Ghostbusters with my dad where a guy sat on our row sparked up a huge cigar, the plume of smoke catching in the beam from the projector – an evocative image ingrained in my psyche. My grandparents, were of the generation that would go several times a week when they were younger and were the first to take me to cinema. They would often take me to see the latest Disney – the 1979 re-release of Snow White was my first ever cinema trip. There was also the old central library film theatre which often programmed double bills; like Richard Donner’s Superman 1&2, back-to-back, which as a kid were amazing. It would also programme less mainstream films and re-runs of classic films – which were quite important to me later as a teenager and I watched films like Citizen Kane, Reservoir Dogs, the Three Colours Trilogy and even 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time there. All of those early cinema-going memories were seminal experiences for me.
The Final Reel will be at Cinema City from the 9th September, with Q&A and will be programmed at a number of select Cinemas across the country including…. Bury St Edmunds Abbeygate 20th September, Derby Quad 20th September, Sherringham Little Theatre 26th September, closing film of the Great Yarmouth Film Festival on the 5th October