In the music business it is widely known as the difficult second album, but in independent film the first venture could definitely be viewed as the greatest hurdle to overcome. For those who have experienced it, it's certainly not unrealistic to describe the process of making a self funded feature film as a bit of a nightmare.
Talking of nightmares, 'Twenty Twenty-Four' (AKA 'It Lives' in the UK) tells a story of a man who may just be going through one himself. Roy, a lone scientist, maintains an underground bunker for the coming global nuclear disaster and after becoming prematurely isolated slowly begins to question his own reality and whether he is truly alone. An intelligent psychological thriller with dashes of Sci-Fi and horror, 'Twenty Twenty-Four' has been described as 'one of the best Sci-Fi films you will see' (Killer Movie Reviews) and 'one of this year’s indie triumphs' (UK Film Review). Here's the trailer:
There are several remarkable things about 'Twenty Twenty-Four'. Not only was it entirely self funded by first time Director Richard Mundy but it was also made with a cast and crew that rarely surpassed 6 people. To top it all off, it is now available in over 20 territories (and counting) worldwide including on Hulu in the USA, HBO Europe and on DVD and digital here in the UK. Quite a remarkable feat considering there is not a single high profile name attached to the project.
As the film becomes available in the UK almost five years since principal photography began, I decided to catch up with Richard to look back over his journey making the film. From the moment it all began through to getting it on screens around the world, the ups and downs of making Twenty Twenty-Four are as exciting to digest as the film itself.
Perhaps you're a first time director yourself about to embark on your own movie mission? Or maybe you've seen the film and want to get a glimpse of how it was made? Either way, Richard's account of how he made 'Twenty Twenty-Four' is raw, honest and there's much to take away from his experience. So, this is how one director managed to complete - or conquer - his difficult first feature.
How did Twenty Twenty-Four come about?
I decided to leave a film school which I was ushered into being accepted to. Twenty Twenty-Four came from me realising that I wanted to use the money that would’ve been spent on me going to film school, which was a lot, to make a film instead. The real question became what is the biggest and most effective film I can make for that amount of money? Then the Twenty Twenty-Four concept came pretty quickly and it developed from there. I felt that the money would be better spent making something regardless of the uphill battle of it. Getting something done, getting something made and I don’t regret that. It proved to be the best fit for me.
Did you ever consider going to a funding body like Creative England or similar to raise your budget?
I don’t think I ever had the thought to do that. I felt like I could achieve the concept that I wanted with the money that I had. In retrospect, if I had gone to a funding body with that concept..for the amount of money they would’ve given me in relation to my own experience I don’t think they would’ve invested in it. They'd have said it wouldn’t have been possible. We’re talking about something that takes place entirely in a huge underground bunker complex, unless that existed somewhere, which would probably be an expensive location to hire out anyway. Even with the money I had and whatever I could get from grants and funding bodies it still would’ve seen to have been not possible for the story that I wanted to tell. Looking back now I've been told by people, producers, that it just wouldn’t happen. They would say you can’t make that film on that budget economically. So even though I didn't go through the funding process there was no point really because it was always going to be on my own shoulders and out of my own pocket.
Entirely self funding a 90 minute film is a very bold and brave thing to do. You must have been certain that this was the only way it could be done..
I wouldn’t say I was certain of it. I didn’t really think any other way. I just had the idea to make a film, a certain amount of money to try and get it done and I wanted to push the envelope as much as I could with what I had. I didn’t want the film to look like the reality of how it was made and how much it was made for. I wanted it to have a bigger scale because I knew that conceptually it was a big film. It was a big idea and it could be a big world. I didn’t consider any other way apart from just rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it.
So once you had your script ready to go what was your day to day life like as you started the process of turning your idea into a film?
The big thing was the location, the bunker itself. The second the script was written the real question before anything else was considered was where is this going to be made? Where are we actually going to shoot this film? Things got going straight away on trying to figure out what needed to be built, what could be found and how it could all be stitched together. As soon as those things had been figured out it went straight into construction which went on for the best part of a year in various different places. Also, trying to source places where we could build sets, finding locations that could be dressed into the locations for the bunker. Once all these things were beginning to come together, to actually feel like we could use all of these places together to create the bunker then it began to move towards who was going to play the lead. Then it was trying to build a crew which would be minimal because I knew that all of the places we'd be filming in were going to be very claustrophobic and also because we were a tiny indie film and we didn’t have the luxury of having everyone there to do every job that’s required to be done.
Once the wheels started turning, once we actually started breaking walls and making foundations into things there was no going back. Once we committed to, 'right we're going to knock through this wall, we're going to build this' that's when you know you're in it now and you’ve made that decision. The second that happens, in a weird way it becomes a bit easier because instead of thinking about the next ten, twenty things you just start to focus on the next one thing ahead. Once you throw yourself into the mix of it it somehow gets easier..the momentum gets easier and your focus gets easier, even though the problems get greater.
So, how do you build a bunker?
It was a combination of constructed sets which we built specifically for certain parts of the bunker and a couple of real locations which we were able to retrofit and design to work for what we needed within the film. I would probably say that it's about 60:40 constructed sets to real locations. There were certainly more sets than real locations, which we had more control of.
We shot in a ship's engine room that was a cutout in a museum, in a museum submarine and in a Napoleonic fort where we were able to build our constructed tunnel set. We built a 30 ft set of the tunnel which would become the tunnel complex in the film and the illusion of it being bigger and longer than it actually was. I put two big mirrors at either end of the tunnel at a 45 degree angle. It would reflect back the other side of the tunnel so when you were in the middle it would give the impression of infinity going round and round. That’s the kind of example of how to use a practical illusion to give the sense of scale and space and to give the impression of the size of the bunker against reality. The only thing with the mirrors at the end of the tunnel is that there was a point of no return where if you walked too close to the end of the tunnel you would get caught in the reflection at an angle, so we had a no man's land which you couldn’t cross with the camera. Although the effect worked it had rules to enable it to work.
Do you feel that the low budget ever restricted you from realising your vision?
There was never a day on Twenty Twenty-Four when I wasn’t in some way restricted by the reality of the situation. Throughout the entire process of the film, even into post production, there has always been restrictions. The reality was always restricting my imagination and the compromise was always finding a way to keep that concept but find a reasonable, realistic way to get that across. Quite often there were rewrites in the script - having to change action, having to build a sequence around the reality of what I could actually have in a set. There was an awful lot of making things up as I went along simply because I couldn’t feasibly make some of the things in the script happen in the reality of the sets that we were able to create. Within the heat of the moment it was a case of being flexible and adapting to figuring out how to make it work. Being heavily restricted as we were, it did on a day to day basis involve having to solve problems in a creative way, which goes both ways. Sometimes it just resolved issues, in other ways it made things better because it was simpler. I would say that there was never a moment where there wasn’t a restriction but it did give the opportunity to think outside the box creatively which makes you and your film stronger for it.
One of the most notable things about the film's cinematography is that it was shot on the Canon 5D mkii, which at the time was quite ground breaking for indie film makers. How did you find shooting on such a camera?
The actual using of it was fine but as I got into post production I struggled with it. For how the film was made it was ideal and really the only camera which we could have shot it on. You have to think that within an overall budget there's an awful lot of money going on materials to build sets and other things so the 5D was the logical choice. It was also compact enough to be able to shoot quite flexibly in very confined spaces which was also useful. It was good in low light which was very useful for some of the scenes in the film. For what it is it did the job OK. I look at it now and it just doesn’t have enough dynamic range for what I would’ve ideally wanted for the film. I had to get around a lot of issues which bothered me in post such as digital noise but at the same time it’s a full frame camera, its got a 35mm sensor. It enabled me to use big lenses like the 14mm which if I didn’t have available to me I wouldn’t have been able to make the scale of the film look as big as it was. So, there were restrictions for sure, but it was the right camera for this particular film.
I imagine many people will look at Twenty Twenty-Four and will be inspired to make their own films by the fact that you went out there with the technology you had and just did it. The affordable technology is getting pretty good don't you think?
It is a great thing to have technology available to filmmakers so they can get themselves in the same position that I was in. To have a camera like that available to you is great because you can shoot a film to a fairly competent standard. However, although this technology exists - and it’s far beyond the 5D now - it was the commitment to the craft of what we were shooting which made the film look the way it did. It wasn't enough to just roll a camera in those spaces; the choices that were made during filming and in post production achieved this.
Whether it be the composition, lighting or colour palette - these choices are what will make your film unique and stand out. Technology is one thing, but craft is another.
In terms of the production process what was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?
The first was the fact that I was working a full time job whilst also having to produce the film when I wasn’t at work. That was a lot of long heavy days, having to have things ready by the weekend to shoot. By that point it was just a case of going beyond exhaustion; you just have to have that prop built by Saturday. Its got to be done, even if you’ve got to be up till 3 in the morning creating a maintenance terminal with an LCD display. It’s the day before the shoot and you’ve got to create the one prop which the entire scene revolves around. Those were the difficult moments.
Once we began filming it was things like we’d be shooting the pressure chamber scenes and then in two weeks time we were due to start filming all the tunnel sequences. I'm not really saying it to the crew or the cast at the time but I still don’t know where I'm going to shoot those tunnel scenes in 2 weeks time, knowing full well that’s got to be a set, that’s got to be built, painted and all ready to shoot in. That’s an example of the bizarre pressure that a self funded feature will put on your shoulders.
It’s the everyday problems that you have to solve which can be from location dressing a door which doesn’t fit the hole of the space in the real location to having to deal with the physical movement of the camera but you can't get in the confines of the space. And then once you’re into the whole mix of the entire film you have that same thing of what's ahead of you that you’ve got to be figuring out at the same time. When you are working full time and you're also full time on this the simple fact is it becomes your life. That’s what it is to make a self funded feature which you are trying to be far more ambitious with. You have to accept the fact that this is going to become your life for the foreseeable future until its done. Not everyone will be willing to do that of course, quite rightly, but the ones that do - they’ll make it through to the other side.
It took a year in pre production to build the sets where we were going to film and to build the props including the secondary prop which was a computer screen which had to work practically. Filming took the best part of a year. When we got into post production it took a year as well; from getting the rhythm of cutting right between various spaces to make it feel like it was one big complex to the actual colouring of the film. Also there are probably about 500 special effects in Twenty Twenty-Four which ranged from painting out nails that we didn’t have time to get rid of from sets to creating a hologram which could interact and talk to one of the characters. So, the post production process was a long and methodical one and then once the visual side of it was done we had to worry about the sound side. The soundscape and the musical score is as big an operation as the editing. It was a hell of a long process.
Once you had finished the film what was your strategy for getting it out there and seen?
When I was making it I wasn’t really thinking about where it was going to go. The most important thing was getting it made and then getting it finished to the point where I wanted it to be. The second that I did finish it that’s when I began to think about the strategy and trying to get it to festivals. There came a real education in terms of how the festival circuit works. Getting your film finished is one thing - that’s a hell of an ordeal to go through and getting to the other side feels pretty good - but once you’ve finished it that is when the hard work really starts because you now need to get it in front of an audience. That’s when things start to get out of your immediate control.
The strategy was simply to try to get it seen; to try to get it into decent festivals which could get it in front of an audience. This was a small indie feature film which had to fight to be seen just like any other film. There were no guarantees with anything and with festivals essentially you’re just one of a million and you have to try and stand out as best as you can. When you're making a film you're in the driving seat but the second you want to try and get it exhibited in somebody else’s domain you're at their mercy and when you’re a little indie film with no top name you're going to get rejected a lot. You can try for the bigger field festivals but I don’t care what they say; if you don’t have representation of some kind you're almost certainly not going to get in and you're really just funding their festival for another year because submission fees are very expensive. At the same time however, having gone through all of the work that you’ve done for the film if you don’t have a distribution deal instantly lined up - which of course you rarely ever will do for an independent film - it's just a process that you have to go through. I must have probably spent a thousand pounds in festival submissions which really didn’t amount to a whole lot. It got some screenings, it got a little bit of coverage, a couple of awards but in terms of getting the film to the next step, in terms of getting an agent and getting sold, it didn’t really make that much difference. The difference that it did make was that it gave the film some kind of pedigree with the laurels and the awards which made it more attractive to representation. The experience certainly shaped and changed the way that I'd go about festivals in the future.
Would you avoid the festival route next time?
It would entirely depend on the circumstance. We did the festival route and then began to pursue the sales side. If I were to make Twenty Twenty-Four again I would have gone straight to the sales side. At the end of the day the thing that is going to get you representation is the quality of your film and whether [sales agents] think they can sell it. If I was to go through the Twenty Twenty-Four process again I wouldn’t have put so much emphasis on the festival side and if I were to go through the process with a different film I wouldn’t even be entertaining festivals without trying to get representation or a distribution deal first. Its just too much of a minefield. There are so many festivals now, every city’s got 1, maybe 2 film festivals. It can be disappointing; you can go to a festival where no one turns up and the organisation can be horrendous sometimes. At that level you have no choice but to just go through it, take what you can from it, learn from it and try to make another film where you come at it from a different position.
After the film's festival run what happened to get it sold?
By the time that we had come to the end of the festival route which was finishing up in America [in 2017] the ups and downs of the festival circuit was beginning to wear a bit thin. I came back from the one in San Francisco and said to the producer that I'd had enough of the festival side, lets try to get an agent. So we put together a package for everything that was Twenty Twenty-Four and began approaching agents to get their attention. We spent probably the best part of a year doing the festival route trying to build momentum and buzz but by the end of it we'd only got slightly further than when we started. The second that we actually put something together to approach sales agents we were offered a deal within 3 days. Now I look back and think that was a wasted year in some respects but then would the sales agent have been as interested if it hadn’t have gone through that? I don’t think it would have made much difference. If it had been Cannes or Toronto or the top tier ones, yes it probably would’ve made a difference but in the indie world I don’t know how much it would have to be honest.
It's just a case of doing the same thing as what you do when you do a festival, you have to hustle a bit and put together an image of your film to try and sell it. We put a lot of time into marketing the film with the artwork, social media, banners and we built an immersive website. We also made a short web series that tied in with some of the ideas and characters within the film and gave viewers a little more insight into the world of Twenty Twenty-Four. Ultimately I think it was these things that helped land us an agent. The combination of a little indie film which was big conceptually with the marketing side of it; I think those two things combined got us that initial interest for us to get representation.
Now that the film has been released, what's next in the pipeline for you? Does it get easier from here?
No it doesn’t get easier because when your first film is self funded you know where that money's coming from and you know what you're going to do with that money. When you finish that and you get to want to make another film, if you're attempting to make the right progressive steps then you're entering into the domain where you're making films with other people's money. It certainly doesn’t get easier taking that next step.
Since Twenty Twenty-Four started to get released my producer partner and I have been working on our production company, expanding that to produce a couple of films in the pipeline. We've got another feature which we are currently in the process of financing which is a very different film to Twenty Twenty-Four. At the same time we're developing another film through different means and hopefully I'll get to direct one of them next year.
Any hints as to the genre?
I’ll be stepping away from psychological thriller for a while. Twenty Twenty-Four has been called a Sci-Fi, a horror, a psychological horror, all that kind of stuff and what I want to do next is something which is easier to define. The next film that I want to make is a crime drama and the second one - which I may make first - is a historical drama. I'm consciously wanting to do different things; I don’t ever want to repeat myself really if I can help it. Not just working in different genres but different styles and I want to be challenged by not playing it safe with things I've done before.
For someone considering making their own self funded feature film in a similar way to you - what advice would you give them?
I would say be prepared to give it everything. Be prepared to absolutely throw yourself into it and for no one to help you as well. Once your film is done be prepared for no one to help you get it seen. If you prepare yourself for that it won't come as much of a shock. It depends on the individual of course but if you do throw yourself into it and you give it everything you’ve got, you'll make it through.
The thing is with anything in life and particularly with film making is that no one ever got very far without taking a risk of some kind. If you are going to self fund a feature film you are taking a risk because there are no guarantees that you'll see anything back from the money that you're investing into it. There are no guarantees that the film will get finished or get seen. You have to accept the risk and if you’ve got the drive and the conviction to do it you will do it. Then when you finish your film you have to be prepared for it to be potentially another a year or two after that to actually release it and if you're going to self release it then it's more of your own money to invest into it. If you're going into self funding a feature to try and earn money out of it or to achieve instant fame you're up against a lot and it's going to be very much an up hill battle.
I think the smartest thing to do with a self funded feature film is to accept the fact that this can be a calling card to demonstrate what you can do on a certain economic level and use that to help you progress to make another film - maybe bigger - which reaps the benefits of everything that you’ve learnt and demonstrated from your first film. That’s not to say that you don’t want your first film to be as good as it can be but if you have a long game plan as well as an immediate short term one, I think you'll reap the benefits of what you do with that first film a little bit more.
There are a thousand reasons why you should never even attempt to make a film. There will always be numerous obstacles but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself 'how badly do I want to make a film? How badly do I want to tell this story?' If you want it bad enough you're going to dig your heels in and you're going to get on with it. The films and the features that make it are the people that don’t give up and just power through it.
Going back to the film itself, at the heart of it, what is Twenty Twenty-Four really about?
I can tell you what it's not really about: it's not soley a film about madness. At it's core the film is about the darkness which is in all of us potentially - which is heightened in a pressure cooker situation - and the effects that that has on a logical man.
Do you have any thoughts of your own on the ending? (SPOILER ALERT)
Without question the most divisive and polarising aspect of the film is the ending. I think there has probably been more talk and debate about the film's ending than maybe anything else. For me personally when I think about that story and the atmosphere which is created within that space the whole thing is a nightmare. It has a nightmarish quality and atmosphere about it which would suggest that this is not solely about someone going mad in a particular location. The questions about the bunker are just as relevant as everything else. There's something not right about Plethura. The entire atmosphere of it is nightmarish and as the film gets deeper it gets stranger. As it gets more ambiguous the story begins to operate on a dream logic kind of sensibility. Things happen that can't be explained and things don’t have to make sense, just like in dreams. When you're dreaming you can never really remember when a dream starts just like more often than not you cannot remember when a dream ends. You remember what happens in the dream and often what happens is anything can happen. Because Twenty Twenty-Four has these different levels to the story line and the ambiguous nature of it I think that the question of whether this is happening in his mind, whether it's really happening or whether what we are witnessing is some kind of dream - I think these explanations are all working together at the same time and it really depends on what the viewers take is on the events which are unfolding. The question is what do you believe has happened in your time watching the film? In terms of interpretations of what the film could be about - there's no right answer, there's no wrong answer.
I see Twenty Twenty-Four as something which is more to be experienced than understood. We’re very consciously trying to put you in the position of the character and just like the character the audience is not able to conclusively know what's going on. More often than not we see things through his eyes and we experience things at the same time as he does. Because of that we've gone to great lengths with the visual aesthetic, the sound and the music to put you in his shoes and of course at the end of the film the character is as much in the dark as the audience. It's not your general type of film going experience; it is one guy in one place for a long period of time talking to a computer screen for the majority of the film and it has this 3 layer level going on interpretation wise. At the end of the day it's going to polarise and not be for everyone but they’ve gone through an experience one way or another.
As we were making Twenty Twenty-Four I did not anticipate it to get this sort of release. Because I made that film with no guarantees that it was going to even get a release that gave me the incentive to make a film which was about an experience more so than a conclusion and you only probably get a chance to make a film like that once where you can be ignorant to an audience at large. What has subsequently happened is that Twenty Twenty-Four, which is a very niche kind of film to be honest now has access to a mainstream audience. There's going to be some up and down with that; you've got to take the rough with the smooth because this was not a film which was intended to be available next to a Marvel film or something like that, which is as instantly accessible to an audience member as what Twenty Twenty-Four is now. Had I known when making it that this was the sort of position it was going to get into the question is - would I have made it with more of a mainstream sensibility? It's possible that I may have but then it wouldn’t have been the same film and it may not have had the same journey to get to that point anyway.
I like the fact that the film is an experience in itself. It's not the worst thing in the world to have something which polarises people because they have a strong reaction to it one way or the other because people are talking about it. There's very little mid ground with Twenty Twenty-Four– you either love it or you hate it but you can't deny it.
Overall are you happy with the finished film?
From an artistic point of view I'm quite satisfied with Twenty Twenty-Four, within the context of what it is. A mass audience don’t know about that context, they don’t know the reality of how that film was made and what the real scale of it was and nor should they. I want the film to be judged just the same as any other film regardless of budget and scale. I feel confident however that the film has the strength of its convictions to get in front of a mainstream audience and I think it will probably take a couple of years for people to digest it and make up their minds about it. I think it will hopefully continue from there to grow.
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Twenty Twenty-Four made my list of ten terrifying films with haunting cinematography. Check it out here!