Martin McKenna on making his debut feature, Is This The Real World – A must-read for all filmmakers

Looking like a born again
Living like a heretic
Listening to Arthur Lee records
Making all your friends feel so guilty
About their cynicism
And the rest of their generation
Not even the government are gonna stop you now
But are you ready to be heartbroken?
Lloyd Cole

Sean Keenan and Martin McKenna on set of Is This The Real World.

Sean Keenan and Martin McKenna on set of Is This The Real World.

“Our TV industry grew on the quota system and it doesn’t need state funding to survive. If cinemas had a minimum local content quota we would not be so reliant on governments to fund our films.”

Written by Martin McKenna

When I started the process of making my first film I had some idea about how a story works and the process of making a film. I had zero knowledge of the business of cinema and film. There is always a tension between art and commerce. I was guilty of being the artist who knew nothing about commerce. At some stage in making the film I’d have to deal with the commercial world which cares nothing for art. Being at either end of the spectrum is a problem. Making this film was a massive education in the pragmatic realities of trying to survive as an independent film maker. It was also educative when it comes to craft and management of a project. But the former was a much steeper learning curve.

Is This The Real World is a film that began around thirty years ago with a teenager (me) sitting in a school principle’s office for three months of lunchtime detention.  A few years later I was graduating film school and “insolent teenager locked in a room with overbearing authoritarian” seemed like the basis for a good, low-budget film idea.  For the next twenty-something years I went from job-to-job in network television, and wrote different film scripts which were sometimes passed along the state agency development conveyor belt until they inevitably dropped away… As most development does.

For many years I was earning a living, working with great people and sometimes contributing to TV shows which were worth the effort. I was raising kids, having a life. But the drive to make films never diminished. Not for one day.

I sent an early draft of Is This The Real World to Screen Australia. I’d recently had a previous, bigger budgeted script get some development funding there, but initial meetings on this low budget idea went nowhere.

I knew I needed help, mainly I needed a producer. So I started doing the rounds of the SPAA conferences and trying to figure out how to fund a film that I was hoping to make for around $700K. It would eventually cost more, but this was where I started. It was important to me to do it legitimately, where everyone got paid award and the finished product had half a chance of looking and sounding good. For me, the Producer Offset was the key. The fact that I only had to find sixty percent of the budget meant that it was possible to take the risk on funding the project privately.

Making the film was an intense three-year project. I worked pretty hard on the script, almost full time for a year (while doing some TV writing as well). I was defacto producer for a while, putting the creative and administrative team together that would eventually make this film. That process took around another year.

The shoot was four weeks. For the filmmakers out there, never agree to a four week shoot. You can do it. It is possible. But I was a fool to agree to it. Fight hard for six weeks. The more time you have on set, the better the film will be. Up to a point. Cut other things; you don’t need continuity, shred the wardrobe and art department budget if you can. Strip the production back to the actors, camera and sound and fight for time on set. It depends on the kind of film you are making I guess. But as a low-budget film Is This The Real World was always written to be made cheaply; a small cast, few locations, contemporary urban setting. A nineteen-day shoot is a ridiculous proposition and I only agreed to it because I have a TV background and I’m used to the pace. But it’s not healthy. Post production was thankfully more open ended, eventually taking around eight months.

By the time the film was finished more than one hundred people worked on the project. Ninety-nine percent of the collaborators were a joy to work with and made the experience an absolute dream. Seriously the greatest professional experience of my life by a big margin. One percent where the collaborative dream was not so great is probably an enviable ratio. And that fly-in-the-ointment member of the team can teach you some valuable things. I only had one person on the production make things truly awful (sobbingly, despairingly, infuriatingly awful). That experience taught me to trust instincts. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. Don’t talk yourself into working with someone if you feel like you’re not proud to be paired with them. Personnel problems don’t fix themselves. And the higher up the production pyramid your trouble-maker is, the worse it will be for all involved. Do your homework on the really key people. Call around, ask questions, get references.  Don’t believe a list of credits on a CV, or on IMDB. Believe it or not, the internet is not to be trusted. If I had done my personnel due-diligence more thoroughly (and looking back I can’t believe I didn’t) I would have been given a clear picture of the competence and reliability of key people. But overwhelmingly I got lucky with an amazing creative team who did stunning work.

Sometime in 2015 I had a finished film I felt proud to show. That’s when the really hard work started.

Sean Keenan and Charlotte Best in Is This The Real World.

Sean Keenan and Charlotte Best in Is This The Real World.

I knew nothing, I mean nothing, about exhibition and distribution. I can’t believe how daft I really was. I risked everything I’d saved for two decades on a product that had no way of reaching consumers. My excessively naïve assumption was ‘make a film good enough, get it into festivals, distribution will come’. Looking back, I can’t believe how naff that thinking was. Not that I would do anything differently in retrospect really.

I didn’t even know that around ninety-five percent of the national box-office is foreign (American). And you have to have box-office distribution to qualify for the producer offset.

We have a problem in this industry where we fund production, but we don’t do anything at the exhibition end. The cinema chains do not see themselves as part of the film industry. And they have no financial incentive or regulatory requirement to back local product.

Our TV industry grew on the quota system and it doesn’t need state funding to survive.  If cinemas had a minimum local content quota we would not be so reliant on governments to fund our films. The filmmaking community seems generally suspicious of politicians and government bureaucracy, unless the pollies are writing cheques for us to make movies. Then we make allowances. We could have a profitable film industry akin to the successful, self-sustaining TV cousin. But we don’t. We have a system completely reliant on government subsidy. And so we have a system subject to political winds. And a system unable to stand on it’s own feet. In short; our film industry is adolescent and we have a lot of growing up to do to unshackle ourselves from government bureaucrats.

The foreign domination of our cinemas is an embarrassment, a cultural disgrace. We are a poorer nation for it. We celebrate a year of six percent box-office share like a victory. Seriously? For me, all other arguments about the nature of our industry are a distant second place to the crisis that we have in accessing our domestic audience. I had a Spanish film maker at a festival complain to me that the Spanish box office is only thirty percent domestic content. Can you imagine walking into a multiplex and three of the ten films showing were Australian? That Spaniard’s complaint is a distant fantasy for us.

Anyway… here’s the awkward reality with being truly independent in the Aussie film industry; If you are outside the State Agency funding system, you are on the furthest fringes of the industry. It’s not about how good your film is. It’s not even about perceptions of commercial viability. To get a film into the major festivals you have to have the government agencies behind you. I’m unaware of a film that has been in a major Aussie festival in the past few decades which isn’t government agency funded. The state agencies are effectively the major studios in this country. They are the first, and the biggest, at every selection process. The minnow independents are voiceless. They are the last DVD on the stack.

So Is This The Real World did not get into Australian film festivals. Ouch.

We also could not get considered for the members’ screenings in the AFI/AACTA awards. Ouch. Ouch. I was really bruised by this particular snub. A lot of very talented people did great work on this film and they deserved the chance for peer review. For myself, as writer/director, I was never in contention for the awards. But the cast and crew should have been given the opportunity to be considered. They did amazing work. The AACTA selectors gave no reason for refusing to allow Is This The Real World into judging screenings. They wouldn’t even share the selection criteria. It was a particularly bitter rejection. The film is good enough to be in the pack to be seen by the AFI members. It just felt unfair and arbitrary. And worst of all I still have no understanding of the reason for the ruling.

We did get nominations for best film from some of the industry guilds, but that was the only local support Is This The Real World got.

Sean Keenan and Charlotte Best in Is This The Real World.

Sean Keenan and Charlotte Best in Is This The Real World.

Overseas life was much easier for us… go figure? We got into great festivals in the USA; from New York, to San Francisco, in the Mid West, the Pacific North and the South. We won awards and got distribution in the USA before we got it in Australia. We got into festivals in Europe and Asia, also winning some awards in those regions.  I also learned a ton about film festivals. I had the illuminating experience of hearing a big USA distributor talk about how they sometimes have small films they’re not sure what to do with, so “we give them a run at Sundance, or Toronto, or Cannes and see if they get any traction”. The big players have that power; just to slot films into the big festivals at will. I was under the false impression that the major festivals were curated by an artistic director, or a team of selectors. I had this idea that each year they receive a stack of DVD’s and pick the films they like best. As I said earlier… I was incredibly naïve.

But the independent film festival circuit, what is sometimes patronizingly called ‘the second tier’ circuit, is often more genuinely and lovingly curated. There are film festivals run by film lovers who have established a loyal following of film fans. These festivals are a dream. Sun Valley, in Idaho is a stand-out example of this kind of festival. Manchester International Film Festival is another.

Sadly there are also some festivals which are a waste of time. But you’ve got to go to them to really know which is which. There are a few festivals around the world which are there to generate a bit of money for the organisers and that’s about it. If a festival starts asking you – the filmmaker – to cough up to be included in the festival booklet you should take that as a warning sign.

After the overseas “success” we were able to convince a local independent distributor to take on the film. And we were able to secure a short season in a few independent theatres. We had made the film for an adult audience, and I would still argue that the best audience for this film is an over forty mum with her teenage son. But we could not convince the exhibitors and distributors of this. We had a famous rapper in the movie and he kind of stole the publicity steam. Instead of the rap star being a fringe element of the publicity and marketing, our film became ‘the 360 movie’, which is a misrepresentation of the kind of film it is. I’m sure his fans mostly don’t really get this moody, introspective and emotional family drama. The key to the film connecting with an audience was always going to be built around the relationship between the lead (Sean Keenan), his mother (Susie Porter) and the teacher (Greg Stone), and to some degree the grandmother (Julia Blake). Frustratingly the film never got the chance to be presented to audiences in that way. It’s not a film primarily for teenagers, even though it’s about a teenager.  That may have been a mistake in the design of the project from the outset; it’s tough to sell a film to adults that is about adolescence. Or so I’m told.

If I wanted to make life easier for myself I would have made a thriller, or a horror. The films that administrators annoyingly call ‘genre films’ (aren’t all films ‘genre films’?) are an easier sell for sure.

After the short run in theatres we have managed to make some commercial sales; airlines, TV, and the usual VOD and DVD stuff. Slowly, very slowly… the financial risk seems a shade less suicidal.

The artistic risk was rewarded ten fold. No film is for all audiences. And I’ve had that ‘maturing’ experience of wearing dismissive criticism in the online world, and in person at screenings. If you’re going to put yourself out-there you’re going to get the haters. But I’ve also had the incredibly satisfying feeling of connecting with people who loved the film. I’ve had strangers in foreign festivals come up to me days after a screening and take the time to say how they’ve been thinking about the film and how moved they were by it. I’ve had emails from people who watched, and re-watched and quote moments back to me. Personally, that’s the stuff that sustains. The reason for making films, for me, is the same reason I watch them. The human connection.

Now if I see something I enjoy I try and tell the people responsible that I love what they did. Ultimately the filmmaker has to be their own critic and the opinions of others are only so useful; positive or negative.

Making Is This The Real World was an experience in contradictions at every turn. It was joyously easy, and heart-breakingly difficult. It was profoundly rewarding and it kind of left me hollowed-out. It introduced me to amazing people who are driven by their love of the art and the desire to do good work. It brought me into contact with the duplicitous and self-serving. It was like what Woody Allen says about life; “full of pain, misery and loneliness and all over way too quickly”.

After all that… I’m just champing at the bit to do it again. I’d be on set next week if I could be. And like Ed Wood so optimistically crowed after each disaster; ‘the next one will be even better’.

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3 thoughts on “Martin McKenna on making his debut feature, Is This The Real World – A must-read for all filmmakers

  1. A great read and SO DAMN TRUE. The elitism in this country is appalling and the lack of support given to independents is sickening.

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