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The making of Vicious Culture

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Still from 'Vicious Culture'.

At BIAFF 2010 John Blight won the Daily Mail Trophy for best film in the festival, the Best British Entry award and a Diamond Award with Vicious Culture.

When undertaking a task as huge as Vicious Culture you either have to be mad or a very very keen movie maker...

Still from 'Vicious Culture'. I have been a regular cinema-goer since 1967 and my passion for films has never diminished. I even worked at a cinema once so I could get in to see the films for free on my days off! I started making my own films in 1973 with a Russian Quarz clockwork cine camera and got my first video camera in 1989. Since then I have filmed many weddings with my wife Jean and continually studied the art of film making.

Believe it not I started writing the script of Vicious Culture whilst travelling through Scotland with my wife, her sister and husband. So no inspiration there!!! Well we were on holiday and the wife wasn't impressed! Basically I had to write a story around 3 characters as I was tutoring three would-be actors at the time. I myself trained as an actor way back in the 70's and carried my expertise through to today where I now help up-and-coming talent, alongside running a Videography business with Jean.

Still from 'Vicious Culture'. It was their inspiration which brought Vicious Culture out. They asked if I would make something for them to star in, to showcase their abilities for potential agents to see.

  • Spencer Wilding was already proving himself in the industry and was getting quite good parts. (Batman Returns, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban, Stardust, Eragon and Wolfman to name but a few.)
  • Lewis McElroy was applying to drama schools around the country and also RADA.
  • His brother Chris McElroy was also very interested in following this direction. Both of them are accomplished musicians and were performing in this capacity also.
Still from 'Vicious Culture'. I didn't need much more encouragement than that as I had always wanted to write, direct and produce a feature-type film. So to come up with the plot and dialogue was my challenge and I filled a whole exercise book with ideas. Jean, my wife, was very important in the creative process and I was able to bounce ideas off her and she would tell me what was and wasn't working. She also came up with the great idea of splitting one of the scenes in half and putting another one in between when we were editing.

We started filming in April 2008 after working on and off for approximately 6 months on the story and script. There was an almighty rainstorm on the very first day of shooting. I should have guessed then that the production was not going to be a smooth one and that we would still be filming this 45 minute half length feature twelve months later! Yes, very naively I really thought we could get through this with the minimum of fuss and finish it all within 3 months!

Still from 'Vicious Culture'.Problems were very evident from the start. Spencer, one of my leading actors was stuck on the set of The Wolfman and we never knew when he was going to get back from filming. When he did, the others would be working and when they were available we would inevitably start to lose light etc. etc. etc. Getting the picture? Basically everyone was giving their time for free and we had to fit in with when people were available in the daytime which wasn't always easy to co-ordinate. Also places like the jailhouse and the hotel were only free at certain times so that factor had to be taken into consideration too.

Although Jean was trying very hard to keep up with `continuity' it was proving to be one of the hardest points to get right. You tend to forget that actors' hair grows over 12 months and you have to beg them NOT to get it cut into other styles. Jean now has a huge respect for film continuity within the industry. One of the most challenging sequences we had in the whole film was to make two locations appear as one - the scene where the two brothers are talking in the car was shot on a different day and location to when they actually pull up and then get out. Now that took some editing!

Then we had some devastating news - literally 4 days after filming one scene in the restaurant the waiter/actor, David, was killed in a road accident.

David was so keen to appear in some way and never got to see his 20 second input. It hit us all hard. We felt we had to seek permission from his family for us to go ahead with the footage. It seemed a matter of courtesy to us and the right thing to do. We obviously had to leave this a matter of months, not days, before broaching such a delicate subject with them. Thankfully they were more than happy for his memory to be included in our film. There was a three month gap in filming just to pursue this correctly.

I had many locations already earmarked but new ones were written into the script as it evolved. I recall the look on Jean's face when we were filming on a mountain and a 4-wheel drive car pulled up with some very dubious looking characters asking her what we were filming. As with a lot of the public Jean would explain what it was we were doing, and these characters were eager to get involved. You have to be an ambassador of tact to say "Thank you, but no thank you."

Usually this is more than enough BUT they were really keen and they were quick to point out (as we were filming a fight) that we "needed to make it more real mate" and started producing dubious items (a cosh and baseball bat) from behind the front seat of the car. Jean moved over and let the boys move in - leaving it up to me to become the diplomat. I certainly didn't want to get on the wrong side of them! They were harmless really but we were pleased when they took the hint and left. It gave us something to consider when choosing other locations.

Still from 'Vicious Culture'.Still from 'Vicious Culture'.We had to be extremely careful when using the firearms on `set'. Living in Wales, the last thing you need to upset is your local farmers, especially if it's lambing time. The only shots fired were early on and everyone was kept well informed. The actors had a lot of their own props and you just cannot wave rifles and hand guns around in public. Some were replicas but some weren't. We needed Jean as added security on this, and she wasn't afraid to voice her opinion with the younger actors. We never had a problem, but it is something you need to be VERY aware of

Also when you are wearing intimidating outfits such as Lewis (Jamie) was, and you are on public roads you have to be careful the public don't take offence and call the police. We were approached a few times by people passing us and had to keep explaining what we were doing. Oh to have a mega budget where these problems are all taken care of by other people.

Filming finally finished in February 2009. Editing was taking place most evenings from April 2008 onwards and there were a staggering 19 versions of the film committed to DVD before I was finally happy with number 20. We had a special preview morning at a local cinema for the cast and I was able to make any last minute adjustments from this screening.

Still from 'Vicious Culture'.Vicious Culture was filmed on a Panasonic 3 chip GS400 mini DV digital camera. We used approximately 20 x 1 hr tapes. Sound was captured with a small Panasonic digital camera from the same family and an EDIROL wav/mp3 voice recorder usually hidden in the actor's clothing or placed nearby. Lighting was kept to a minimum based on a lack of crew and was only used in 2 scenes - the barn and the restaurant. 2 x 500 watt stand-alone work lamps were used. A monopod and tripod were used wherever possible for stability. Hand-held shots were kept to a minimum and only used for dramatic effect, such as in fight scenes. In addition a home-made tracking device was utilised in one scene using 2 broom handles across the bonnet of the car, in the cemetery and when the car arrived at the victims' property.

Music was always going to be a vitally important factor in telling the story and pieces were chosen very carefully. I admire contemporary directors such as Zack Snyder and Rob Zombie for the use of music in their films.

The film was edited using Adobe 6.5 CS3 version to edit and Encore software to author the DVD. It took night after night over many months to complete.

I loved every minute.

The most work went into the sound design and getting the balances between live, ambient, sound effects and music correct. Some of the dialogue was re-dubbed by the actors in the studio afterwards.

Still from 'Vicious Culture'.The total budget for this film came to just over £200 (honestly). £47 of that was the bar bill at the restaurant and there was £50 for the starting pistol and ammunition. Vicious Culture was made to prove you can achieve something quite decent with little funding as long as you have the passion, commitment, belief and other people's co-operation. I think we have achieved that. I believe that film-making is truly a collaborative process and I couldn't have achieved any of this without the help of many people, especially Jean.

There was never any intention for Vicious Culture to go on sale but after our local showings to invited audiences they all asked to purchase copies. We therefore obliged and decided the monies would go to a local Hospice for which to date we have raised over £200 from DVD sales.

There is already talk of me producing a Vicious Culture - part two because the ending of the first one leaves many questions. I am thinking about it as a project for sometime in the future but am intending to do something completely different for the next one - hopefully with some sort of a proper budget this time! Fingers crossed.

- John Blight

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