Amy Riley, film maker.

Amy Riley is a new film maker in the mould of the true US indies who worked from the early to mid-nineties, those with the can do attitude that interesting movies might be made on the smallest of budgets if you're willing to make sacrifices. Amy's debut feature, Only Stopping tells the cross-genre parallel stories of Dan (Luke Ashby), a young Brighton teenager coming to terms with a family tragedy and Gigi (Aura-Iris Canet), a Spanish girl on the run from gangsters.

[Updated! 06/09/2011
The film is now available to watch at Vimeo

What's particularly striking about the film is the ambition; made for just a thousand pounds, in an ironic twist on the title, neither characters spends much time in one place and bucking the trend of films created on a micro-budget of setting the story on in a single room, they're seen shifting through a range of locations, from pubs to beaches to roadsides to lounges.

The stories are related one after the other portmanteau style, linked by a meeting between the central characters. Dan's takes up the majority of the sixty-five minute running time, as he shifts from a comfortable domestic lifestyle to living with a series of friends and family, meeting a range of new acquaintances, searching for somewhere else he can fit in.

This proves to be most effective section of the film, as Luke Ashby's convincing bewilderment helps to draw the audience through the kind of freewheeling storytelling that isn't about artificial plot points. Although Gigi's story is less compelling you can't help but applaud the spirit of experimentation that runs through the centre of what's obviously been a labour of love, latterly willing to throw in the unexpected likes of a drag queen.

Shot on Digital Video the film never looks flat with some beautifully composed scenes, the stand out being a heart-to-heart on a beach. Like those early indies, most scenes are played out in one shot which gives the film a theatrical quality but nothing's ever static. If some of the editing feels like it could have been tighter, cutting in and out of scenes later and sooner, perhaps its because Riley is interested in expressing these situations realistically, noting that sometimes conversations can reach on longer than they need to.

Overall it's a promising work and at time of writing, Amy is writing another screenplay that will hopefully build on what's been achieved here. She has been kind enough to grant me an interview and we talked in detail about the inception of the film, the story and the production process.

Why did you want to become a filmmaker?

Basically, I wanted my message to reach wider audiences. This was something I was thinking about when I was sixteen, after I stopped worrying about the national deficit. I kept thinking about the fact that I was writing stories (fiction) about people who were immigrants from Mexico --- about people who perhaps were not very well read or anything. And were they the people who'd ever read my stories if they were ever printed in the New Yorker? This was a really serious concern for myself at the time. I know it sounds a bit improbable, but if you were to know -- I won't say -- it was a serious thought. The thing I really want to do, perhaps I'll do it someday. The thing I really want to say -- and the only way I can say it is to an audience that would never read. Anything. In English. etc. I will make the film I want to make. At some point, Maybe?

What prompted this story -- there seems to be a lot of plot going on for the running time -- was that a conscious decision?

What I think you're asking - the inspiration for the script was a particular late night in Oxford in summer 1999. I'd been to a hip hop night at a small club in the city centre called the Cellar. It had recently been refurbished and relaunched as an alternative "left field" hiphop joint, which is great in such a conservative tweedy place like Oxford. After the club kicked out, I headed back to East Oxford for a party with a group of young skateboarders and graffiti artists, who were all friends with my husband. I was 24 at the time, but I felt incredibly old, just because I'd gotten married the year before and I was in this really responsible high-flying, high profile job which made me miserable. The kids were about 18,19 some of them, and as we walked down the Iffley Road towards Rose Hill, where this party was, I remember talking with them and they were telling me about their lives. One guy left all of his family in Poland to come over to England to make a better life - he was only 17 or something and also a really good artist. The other kids had similar stories - just really young and here on their own without any family and trying to make lives for themselves. I was moved.

As we walked, some people were playing drum n bass and it was such a cinematic moment. I knew then that I wanted to capture what I heard that night. Hence the character Dan, the 16-year-old emerging artist! That was the seed of the script, but as I developed the first draft, it obviously came to take on other things as well. I suppose an alternative title for the film could be "The Story of the Graffiti Artist as a Young Man." That probably would have been more fitting.

As an aside, Dan was played by Luke Ashby, who I actually met and knew from Oxford, but had moved to Brighton to go to uni. Luke was about 15 or 16 when I first met him and he could have been Dan actually when he was that age. He was part of the skateboard scene and was really good mates with my husband. Come to think of it was probably actually with us in that night I was describing! As a teenager, Luke was such a nutter and seemed like such a random guy, but he actually secretly had his head screwed on and knew exactly where he was going in life.

Perhaps I should have said 'a lot of incidents' for clarity. Something that was drilled into me on my post-grad film studies course was that 'story' is what a film is about and 'plot' is the incidents that are shown of that story.

Thinking back on when I wrote it, I really have no idea why I made it so episodic. It's not how I'd write a script now. I suppose it shows my lack of skill in scriptwriting since it was my first stab at putting one together (apart from the screenplays I wrote as a kid) and it was also my bridge from writing literary fiction. It doesn't really explain why the dialogue is so terrible, though! Oh well.

What was the writing process like? Did you have a working script before shooting or did you have to change things during the shooting process?

I started writing the script in summer 2002, shortly after I started working at a DJ project as an arts administrator. Initially, I only had about five pages but they contained the scene where some young kids buy drugs from Dan's nan and later tell the story to a friend. At the time I was also finishing my 1st novel, so the script was more of a doodle.

Then I went to Gay Pride in August and met a short gay Italian filmmaker who I saved from a bully in the Wild Fruit tent. We kept in touch by email and when he said he wanted to see my script, I set to work manically for two weeks until I had about twenty pages, the first draft. During this period, I was also bouncing ideas of my mate Danny, who helped me fully develop the Gigi character. I knew I wanted it to be a two character storyline, to have this young guy but also have a really strong bold female character as well. I had the New York drag queens I used to be friends with stuck in my head and initially Gigi went to New York. But Danny pointed out that she could easily go to Brighton and find drag queens. In the script, she's going to Barcelona, but unless I can find some stock footage of Barcelona, she might as well be in Brighton! Danny helped loads but said he couldn't write dialogue so I carried on by myself.

Then I met a Spanish woman at a two person care call (I did care work part time) who told me she was an actress and she read the script and said there was enough material not just for a 20 minute film (which I was first thinking of shooting) but an actual full-length feature. I laughed when she told me that. I didn't think I could ever afford to do anything like that. But in my heart of hearts, I secretly knew I did have a burning ambition to make a feature. My friend Georg made one in 95/96 in New York and I was so impressed by this and I just knew I had to do it too. The Spanish woman, Iris, became Gigi.

Steve Crossan, a computer entrepreneur and then-Director of Runtime Collective (now Magpie), took interest in the script. I didn't realise it at the time, but Steve was an executive producer in a few films. He read an early version of the script and told me to cut out Dan's voice-over, which was an important lesson.

In February 2003, I went on a scriptwriter's course in London focusing on coming-of-age and film noir with Charlie Harris (Paradise Grove Films) and met Tracey Klyne, another scriptwriter. She offered to read my script and give me feedback. She read it on the 11th hour, when I was starting to do auditions for parts. We spent about an hour and half on the phone, where she gave me the complete run-down on how to write a coming-of-age script and was basically a lesson on how to write scripts period. She gave me loads and loads of advice, from where to put in turning points to how to develop Dan's relationship with his best friend Manuel. I basically wrote the rest of the forty pages based on her advice, fully developing Act Two and Act Three.

My then boyfriend read the script and helped me change some of the language that sounded too American.

During rehearsals and shooting, I had to re-write parts of the script that weren't working. And of course, during shooting I let the actors change some of the words. I unintentionally developed a method while shooting to make scenes more naturalistic, where I told actors they had to stay in character until I shouted cut. What this meant was that in some of the scenes the actors have run out of lines and are just making stuff up, as their characters. This happens in the scene where Gigi is telling Dan that she's leaving Brighton.

The film employs a pretty extraordinary structure speeding through time and incident pretty rapidly whilst also being part of a flashback structure. What was the idea behind that?

Basically, Martin, the film's editor, suggested it when we found ourselves with a situation with not enough footage shot. There's quite a bit of Gigi's story that's just action, with her doing stuff around town that we just didn't have time or energy to shoot. Also Iris could only give us a few days to shoot all of her scenes before she went back to Spain. I knew this was going to be a problem if we edited the film strictly as it was written in the script.

I met Martin to discuss what we were going to do about it. In a funny coincidence, I'd just read the script for The Usual Suspects and Martin had just watched it that weekend. It was that film that inspired the non-linear structure for the edit. So basically, it was just a technique we used to camouflage the fact that we didn't have enough footage!!

So how was the shooting script structured? Does it cross cut between the parallel stories more? As it stands its more of a portmanteau film linked by this central meeting. Did you ever consider concentrating simply on Dan or Gigi's story?

The script weaves Gigi's story and Dan's story together so you get a sense that their respective scenes are happening in the same time. The story became about how two different characters lives could intersect - and also how two different genres could collide (Dan-coming of age and Gigi-film noir). I'm not sure why I wanted to mix up the genres - maybe just to see if it could be done, perhaps!?

In the script, there were more scenes with Dan when he was living with his brother and also when he and his siblings were arranging the funeral. We did get footage for both, but Martin said that when they were added, the film's pace slowed down too much and it felt too padded.

Why these two stories?

As I mentioned before, the initial inspiration for the film was the young British and European graffiti artists I'd met that one night (and other nights!). Later, the film became a reflection on the idea that Brighton is a graveyard of dreams. Or another variation is that it's the graveyard of artists. Ouch! I was really spooked when someone told me this when I first moved to Brighton. Was this true? And why?

The reason why Gigi's story was included was because I wanted to have a strong female protagonist. Initially, Danny and I created a very French, very Gautier character who was tough as nails - if we'd managed to shoot all of the scenes that were in the script, this would have been more apparent. The other reason was I wasn't sure how interested I was in telling just a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy in Britain. How interesting is that? A lot of films I used to like when I was younger, like Quentin Tarantino's flicks (apart from Jackie Brown), all tended to portray women as a bit stupid or silly so I definitely had that in mind when I created Gigi.

How was the music selected?

I got loads of CDs from all of my musician and producer friends and gave them all to JFB, who assembled the soundtrack. He picked out the tracks that fit for the scenes. Unfortunately, he used some music that is copyrighted so it means for the final edit I'm going to have to write to all of the record companies to see if they'll give me clearance for free (probably not) and failing that, replace the tracks with music from people I know. Which hopefully shouldn't be too hard. Also, I'm not too sure about how appropriate the drumming tracks work so I might change that as well for some of the scenes. I got permission to use some music from really well-know Dj/producers which JFB totally failed to use so I'm also going to see if I can incorporate that.

Sometimes the music and the dialogue fight for prominence in the sound mix -- was that an artistic decision (I'm thinking of the club scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

That was an accident and will need to be fixed! When JFB added the soundtrack, he used some tracks from a local twenty piece all percussion band I'm friends with for the some of the scenes and in every one of those scenes, the music is way too loud - I don't know why he didn't notice this!! Unfortunately, I noticed this too late to fix it. It happens in a lot of scenes that are especially crucial or emotional, like the one where Dan is asking his brother about their parents - doh! the most annoying part is that everyone came up to me after both screenings and said, 'Did you realise that the music is too loud?"

What was the casting process like?

Interesting. Obviously, I didn't have a casting director so I had to do all of it. Gigi was the first character I cast, so once the script was finished, we proceeded looking for the other parts. I did two things that I will never ever do again: first, I had a write up in the local newspaper, the Argus, which called out for young people to play the roll of Dan and then I stupidly put up signs all around the 7 Dials (my neighbourhood) describing the roles we were auditioning for. Putting up public notices for local acting auditions is like basically an open invitation to every weirdo and their grandmother to come see if they could be the next big thing. Seriously.

I had one guy who had TB and kept coughing throughout our audition who'd brought a CD of a musical he wrote about football. When I expressed concerns that he didn't fit any of the roles we were looking for, he offered to do different accents. He explained that his Yorkshire accent, which he could do as though authentic, would be a real asset to our film if we cast him. Again, I explained that we didn't need anyone with a Yorkshire accent and I pointed out that if he had an ongoing serious health condition, how would he be able to make auditions. He seemed undaunted!

Another woman, who happened to be a very good actress, insisted on auditioning for parts in the film that she wasn't suitable for when she found out that the lead role was spoken for - so essentially doing roles that weren't her age -- or gender (?), as in the case of the older drag queen Dolores, it didn't need to be played by a man, but that's kinda what I had in mind, if you know what I mean. Essentially, she was trying to get me to re-write the script for her. Perhaps filmmakers do that. I've definitely heard of filmmakers writing a part with a specific actor or actress in mind.

As far as I was concerned, changing even a "minor" character would upset the balance of the whole -- it would change the whole story in some subtle way. Like a carefully crafted spiderweb, my script...okay, perhaps my script wasn't perfect, but when you get to the stage of casting, as a director, you have to take that crystallized vision of the film in your head and run with it. Because that vision is the only lifeline that's going to pull you through the entire process of making the film and beyond.

We held the auditions in the open plan office where my boyfriend worked, which was a trendy IT start up with loads of unnecessary space and a small private glassed office for meetings and a massive Ikea sofa with a coffee table. For about two weekends, we invited people to come down for auditions. Joe would be outside to greet arrivals and get them a drink and wait with them in the lounge area and chat with them about the film. Inside the meeting room was where the auditions took place. We taped the auditions and then at the end of the two weekends, got back to people who were successful. In some lucky cases, we were able to audition people in other locations.

Dan: It was a fluke that I cast someone for the lead role who I'd known for years, from a previous life in Oxford. It all happened by accident. Joe and I were walking through the Level when we bumped into Luke and I think I was talking to him about some mutual friends from Oxford who were now living in Brighton as well. Luke and I were both involved in the Da Roof skateboard project on the roof of Brighton Youth Centre, which is how I'd found out he was living down this way. As Luke headed off down the path, Joe and I suddenly looked at each other and had the same eureka moment -- Luke was so clearly Dan. I ran after Luke and told him the score and told him to give me a ring if he was interesting in auditioning for the role.

We didn't hear from him, so we began the auditions. Some were just too young to successfully pull off a fey but street-smart kid like Dan, but we found one guy who was the right age (16) and not a bad actor. Then out of the blue, Luke phoned up and said he was in. Then began the uncomfortable task of trying to decide between the two actors. The 16 year old was disarmingly charming on camera and funny and the only real drawback was the fact that he had to work that summer. Luke was a bit older (21) but he looks young on film and in real life and he had that easy air I imagined Dan having. We taped both guys doing a few key scenes and then we did a faux interview where they had to be in character. Joe, Mark and I sat down once we had enough audition footage and watched all of it. And still couldn't decide. Then the other guy backed out because he had to get a summer job, and that was that. Luke was Dan -- end of story. I'd love to work with that other guy now that he's a bit older -- he definitely had talent, with a John Cusack look about him. It would have to be something written for him. Maybe an English Grosse Point Blank?

Dan's brother and sister, Spike and Sarah: Embarrassingly, I don't think I gave Jason or Hazel an audition. Do you know when you have a feeling about people? I had that feeling about Jason and Hazel. I asked both of them if they were interested and they were. Later, it came out of the woodworks that both had acted before. When they came together for scenes with Luke, it was bizarre -- the three of them all gelled straight away. Before we shot the scene where Dan asks his brother what happened to their parents, we had problems setting up the lighting and while Joe, Mark and Sampsa were sorting things out, I did some exploratory exercises with the guys to help them pull of the necessary emotion. As we talked, both Luke and Jason discovered that they had very similar family situations, with lots of half and step brothers and sisters. Their bonding on this completely changed their relationship to each other in real life, so when we came to shoot the scene, the crew and I were literally unable to breathe and the hairs stood on our arms. That scene was completely real and alive to them as much as it has been for us.

Leon (Gigi's abusive husband) and the interrogator: Iris (Gigi) went to a local renowned acting school in Brighton with Pete and Helen. I'd seen both of them perform in a few student shows that Iris invited me to, so I knew their acting skills already. Helen came in at the last minute, when we had someone back out and she learned her line literally on that day of shooting. Most of the people in the film were untrained actors, so it was a real treat to watch them work. Watching them act made me wish I'd written a better script (sigh).

Hector (Dan's drug-dealing friend): Dan Shelton is a local artist, actor and performer. I met him at a participatory youth conference aimed at those working in the youth sector -- he was 'performing' there with a troupe. He's a great comedic actor and though we did tape his audition, we probably didn't need to. Dan made himself famous by shipping himself to the Tate in a box crate and won a £10k artist prize. He's been a great inspiration as a fellow artist for as long as I've known him.

Tenshun(beatboxer/rapper): Tenshun is a very well-known local character, often seen in front of the HSBC drumming with a makeshift drum kit of cardboard boxes and plastic buckets and in the evenings, drinking at Riki Tiks with JFB. He is invariably found at every drum n bass, hiphop and some breaks nights. He's got a dark mean streak, but definitely a Brighton "character".

Rose and her lover: are played by real-life wife and husband Sandy and John Ahmed. John worked his early retirement at my local newsagent, Bright News. They're a lovely couple. I just asked them to do it and they said yes. None of the older people I knew (of which I know many!) were brave enough to face the cameras.

Care home resident: Richard Raphael spent his life as a concert pianist and in a previous life, played a minor character in American 80's soap opera General Hospital.

Is there anything you would have done differently? If you'd had a larger budget?

Knowing what I know now and with a bigger budget, I would have:
-- spent more time developing the script with the help of professionals
-- used HD.
-- had more production crew ie continuity person, more runners
-- story boarded everything at the beginning (as opposed to on the day)
-- had editing on location for daily rushes
-- sat in during the editing process during post prod
-- used a casting director and a postproduction supervisor
-- planned more (than I did)
-- not hired the lights for some scenes
-- paid crew for their time!!
-- finally, made sure to shoot every single scene, establishing shot, everything that was in the script.

It's hard to say beyond that without doing permanent damage to my brain (writing a script at the moment!) but with the skills and experience I had as a film scriptwriter/director, I don't think it would have been very sensible to invest more money into it than I did, because money doesn't make something good.

At one point during filming, I did wonder what I was doing making a film and secretly wished I'd just stuck to writing stories and novels!! However, there was such camaraderie and solidarity throughout the process of making the film that I wouldn't trade that for the world.

I nearly cried when we Joe, Mark, Sampsa and I met at the Sanctuary Cafe on a Saturday morning one spring to plan the final day of shooting and Mark said "this is the last time we're ever going to do this, you know?" It was sad because we'd had so much fun. Exhausting but fun. Imagine that your life suddenly included thirty extra people -- and even though you were working your ass off, it still felt like one great party.

Thanks Amy.

Only Stopping is due to be screened at select cities in the UK, United States and Europe. Information about those screenings can be found at the film's myspace:

No comments:

Post a Comment