Friday, 19 July 2013

Jurassic Park and the Shadows of the Past...

I’ve been thinking back this week, way back to when I was a young teenager in my formative filmmaking years. What started it off was my brother mentioning to me about seeing a Jurassic Park t-shirt and it reminding him of a little dinosaur film we made as kids.

Let me set the scene: it was the summer of 1993, Jurassic Park was just about to hit the cinemas and the hype was everywhere.  I’d always been a big Steven Spielberg fan, and I couldn’t wait to see it.  On July 24th that summer we were over in Warrington visiting family, and it was my cousin’s birthday. 

Whenever I met up with my cousin Phil it wouldn’t be long before one of us said “Wanna make a film?”  We would then borrow his dad’s camcorder and goof around shooting some crazy movie, dragging my other brothers and cousins along for the ride.  Phil and I were both budding filmmakers and were forever shooting stuff in our back gardens.  On this particular day Phil was adamant he wanted to make a dinosaur film.

“Well that’s about the dumbest idea you’ve ever come up with!” is pretty much what I said to him.  Although I hadn’t actually seen Jurassic Park by that point, I’d seen the trailers, seen the news reports, seen behind the scenes tv spots, and I was well aware that Spielberg’s film was a special effects extravaganza and asking two teenagers with a camcorder to make something along those same lines was like asking a Skegness beach donkey to race the Grand National.

“No, I know we can’t make anything like Jurassic Park.  We’ll make it the most blatant and shoddiest rip off possible.”

“But it’s going to look crap!”

“That’s right!  We’re going to make a crap film!”

And then a switch flipped in my brain.  “We’re going to deliberately make the crappest rip off of Jurassic Park possible???  Let’s do this!”
So shameless were we that we even stole all their branding.

And about 5 minutes later we began filming – the titles involved us filming written credits on paper while we sang some improvised a cappella.  We dressed in crazy costumes, we delivered terrible, terrible dialogue, we made up (as we went along) a completely implausible plot.  We didn’t have any clever stuff about extracting dino dna from a preserved mozzie… Me, playing some sort of scientist, just happened to discover a dinosaur egg in my freezer and ascertained it must have somehow been there for the past 65 million years.

Look how long my hair was back then.

 And so then we opened our very own… Dinosaur Park! As you do.
We'll just leave this t-rex egg here for a few weeks then come back see what's happened. Yeah, what could go wrong?

What then ensued was lots of running around in the back garden as we were chased around by these dinosaurs.  And how did we pull off that particular special effect?  Well, the dinosaurs were actually part of Phil’s birthday cake decoration, which we shoved right in front of the lens against the sky.   
You knew I'm a consultant for ILM, right?
We even put the family singing happy birthday to him in the film, making out it was a ‘happy birthday opening celebration’ for the dinosaur park.

As you’ve guessed, the film was indeed the biggest bag of shit in cinematic history.  But somehow, when the family sat around the television later that evening watching what we’d filmed, everyone loved it as they roared with laughter.

As it went down so well, we made a decision I don’t think we’d ever made before, that we would actually finish it.  We had to wait a few months to do that, but when I was next in town, we did just that… (and set up a sequel, of course!)  Phil later topped and tailed it with some better titles (that a cappella opening title sequence didn’t make the final cut, I'm afraid - trust me it really was cack).  And then in 2003, as part of the 10 year anniversary, I ‘remastered’ it as I put it on DVD.

20 years on, I look back on that period of my life with great fondness.  Certainly we were never making any films that were great technical accomplishments, but making films in this way taught me a lot.  By breaking all the rules, by making so many mistakes, I feel it was the best way of slowly working out what worked and what didn’t in filmmaking.  Primarily we were bringing a spirit of fun to our crazy little films, and that’s something you can't really be taught to do.

It’s something I’ve held on to ever since, that it’s not just about following the rule book and painting your film by numbers, but you’ve also got to connect with your audience spontaneously.  By reducing your pretensions and not letting the filmmaking process become an ego trip, you can find that audience connection. 

I firmly believe that the spirit in which a film is made on some level translates into the final product and that your audience will pick up on it.  You always bring some of yourself to your films, and so it makes sense to make films with passion and a belief in what you’re communicating, not to mention fun – after all, this is an entertainment industry.

Intentions always seem to carry in films, and indeed any art form – like sometimes when a studio sets out to deliberately make an epic, it seems like just that, trying to be an epic.  We’re all too concerned about the next big such-and-such, always harking back and comparing to things of the past rather than being in the now. The filmmaking process seems to have become so self-conscious in this ‘being concerned with our own place in history’ age, but then that’s probably a blog for another time.

So yeah, as a 30-something as I make the most elaborate feature film of my life, I still remember how me and my cousin entertained our family on July 24th 1993, and I hope that audiences will be very entertained by Shadows of a Stranger.

In the meantime, for the first time ever, I’ve put some of Dinosaur Park on Youtube for the world to see. So... prepare to have your mind blown:

It may seem strange how I could go from making silly films like this to something dark and depressing like Shadows of a Stranger, but I think that’s why Chris and I have worked so well together on it.  At heart we’re both a pair of rascals.