Ever since we slithered into the disease infested pond of micro-budget film making almost five years ago (!), we’ve had the great fortune of making the acquaintance of several ridiculously talented, innovative, and inspirational motion picture artists who, despite all odds and heavy pressure, manage to create some really fucking amazing movies.
Most notably, there’s Nadine L’Esperance of Blue Girl Productions, Gigi Saul Guerrero of Luchagore Productions, and Michael Henry of Quandary Productions. Each of these filmmakers has their own unique choke hold on independent cinema and their ambition and desire to constantly create original movies makes us seethe with jealousy.
This blog entry will focus on one Michael Henry of Quandary Productions, hailing from the deepest, darkest jungles of England.
We first met Michael in the Twittersphere in 2011 and he’s earned a place in our furry little hearts due to his continued support of not only our projects, but also the projects of several beginning filmmakers by offering FREE advice and insight into micro-budget film making. That’s right kids, an artist who’s actually selfless and supportive. There’s only five of them still in existence and the other four live in a shipping yard on the Northern Icelandic coast.
And another reason why we like Michael so much: the guy actually follows through on his crowdfunding promises. Over the years, we’ve grown so tired of contributing to this Kickstarter campaign or that one or that one or that one, all promising to send some really great perks your way for throwing out a few bucks. We can count on one paw how many came through. Yep, Michael was one of them and he had to ship his goods across a fucking ocean!!
The first project we gave a few dollars to was Quandary’s “Narcissist”, a feature length anti-romantic comedy in which the “friendship of two aspiring actors is put to the test, as they use their former insecurities to become masters of picking up women. As they gradually become immersed in a world of pick-up artists, headed by master pick-up guru ‘Enigma’, friendly competition turns to something more sinister, as their attitudes toward women, relationships, and how they think of themselves radically changes.” (That description came directly from their website.)
So, let’s start right there. Quandary Productions is a team of filmmakers who make feature length films dealing with complex issues relying on only their own ingenuity and not money. Damn. If you’re a movie maker, you know how difficult all of the above is, so put a check by their name right off the bat as being fearless.
Upon our first viewing of “Narcissist”, we knew right away that we weren’t dealing with a bunch home video shooters. The quality of the film, both in production and in delivery, was off the charts. This could easily been shown in a movie theater. Maybe not next to “Transformers 7: Megatron Takes Manhattan”, but one running a midnight marathon of PT Anderson flicks.
Now, as we are Paul Tomas Anderson groupies ourselves, we were able to spot some of his influences in “Narcissist”, which we very much appreciated (that should tell you what kind of a movie this is.)
This film is very heavy on the drama which we, as horror hounds, found impressive because we know all too well how easy it is to scare someone: a loud noise, a dissonant soundtrack, a silhouette down a hallway, etc. But to actually create a feature length drama that is engaging blows our minds.
Michael Henry not only played the lead role of Leonard, but also served as the movie’s director, editor, writer, and producer.
What was really impressive about “Narcissist” was the way in which Michael’s portrayal of Leonard was completely…believable. Yes, believable. No need for any suspension of of disbelief here. He was riddled with all the things that make us human: self-doubt, paranoia, overcompensation, loneliness. All that fun stuff that usually makes you swallow down handfuls of Prozac with buckets of black coffee.
However, it was their follow up feature “Time and Place” that really got us hooked into the Quandary.
OK, so here’s their synopsis of the film:
“When scientists reveal the universe has stopped expanding, and will soon begin to contract, time collapses for one man. Things lose their meaning, and moral boundaries seem absurd. ‘TIME AND PLACE’ is a low-budget epic in which one man has to come to terms with the consequences of his actions, knowing that some day all that surrounds him will cease to exist.”
Wow. Don’t lie, you’re impressed.
But sure, anyone can make a movie sound all fancy schmancy sixty words or less.
While this may be true, this film delivers and it solidified to us that Michael Henry and the folks at Quandary Productions are film makers that DESERVE to be recognized.
We enjoyed “Time and Place” even more than “Narcissist.” Actually a lot more. But you also need to keep in mind that we love movies that make us feel uneasy, dare we say, queasy.
It’s not gory or anything like that, but it is unrelenting. Being film editing dorks, we really loved the way this film was cut and spliced together. Like “Narcissist”, the production quality of this movie is professional and top notch. However, the story is far more complex and the entire movie, as a whole, serves as one malfunctioning, maddening unit that very eerily portrays the unraveling of a man. Will (also played by Michael Henry) is similar to Leonard in “Narcissist” in that there is an underlying sense of desperation in everything that he does…only this time around we first meet our “hero” when he’s already at the end of his rope and there’s only a few inches left in it.
Remember how we called it unrelenting? It is just that. THIS. SHIT. DOES. NOT. STOP. It just keeps spiraling round and round and round making you want to scream, “Stop the world and let me get off!”
OK, so by now you get it: we really dig this movie and we really, really dig Quandary Productions. So, we emailed Mr. Henry to pick his brain and what do you know, he was kind enough to give us some time and answer some questions:
1.) How / when did Quandary Productions begin and what, if any, were the objectives of your company?
We began informally in June 2009. I’d written our first feature whilst studying at university and basically just got a few people together with the desire to prove you could make a film with no money. There were no long term plans or consideration of us being a company at the time. It was just me and Tom Bridger working on the film, and Sebastian Moody taking up the challenge of scoring the film. We did all the camera, sound, and acting together, and I edited it alone. It was a steep learning curve, but once the film was finished, it felt like a huge accomplishment.
2.) How do you approach the film making process (what is your work flow)?
After our third film I found myself setting future deadlines way ahead, to ensure I was always working on something (I hate not doing something at any given time). This can mean incredible pressure at times, namely the hand over between pre-production and production. I’ll usually have an idea for a film or two ahead of the one I am working on, allowing the idea to build in the background whilst focussing on something else, then once post-production is complete on one feature I can get stuck in to the writing of the next straight away. By the end of the last project, I’ll most likely have an outline, character breakdown and will have written a couple of key scenes down.
When it comes to the actual shoot we ensure the atmosphere is as relaxed as possible. I’ve found that placing the camera in a position that makes the actors feel they can move freely, and allowing an actor to reach the point they need to naturally, with as little pressure as possible is the most important aspect of filmmaking. Content and performance have always been my key focus. Without these two things being up to scratch, you can’t make a good film.
3.) What do you find the most satisfying / dreadful about making movies? Which step in the process do you like / hate the most?
It’s a tough one. To be perfectly honest I love every single aspect as much as I hate it. As much as I enjoy the writing process, because it’s where all the ideas build and build and you can be the most creative, I can’t help but be overly critical at this stage, second guessing myself at every stage, which can be incredibly frustrating. The shoot is probably the most enjoyable stage though. You’re surrounded by supportive people, all wanting to make your film the best it can be, all collaborating, bringing in their own ideas. When it goes great, there’s nothing like it. That said, things can easily take a turn and you’ll be stressing over how much time you have, or something won’t feel like it’s working within the scen. I get something from every stage of production though.
If I had to choose the one time that I hate most (the stage I’m in now), is the end of one project, and the build-up for the next project. I’m writing our sixth feature film, and have just sent off our last film ‘TIME AND PLACE’ off to festivals worldwide. Although I make films for the most part so I can feel satisfied with them, an audience reaction is still important. I get quite disillusioned at this stage because the last film has had a limited release and then you have to wait to hear from festivals to see if you’re going to reach a larger audience, or see if people even like the film. It’s hard to keep motivated, and even to want to make another film, when you’re in this stage. You have to kind of blind yourself to these aspects though,otherwise you’ll just give up. Everyone who has seen the film so far has been blown away by it. It seems to click most with filmmakers who have attempted to make their own work, which for me is a great compliment. I had considered making ‘TIME AND PLACE’ my last feature film at one point, but it’s thanks to all the positive feedback I’ve had for the film that has made me want to continue.
4.) Within Quandary, is it a free for all when it comes to developing a story and then bringing things into production or does one person lead the charge? Are there delegated roles?
We are keen to help as many people as possible, supporting other artists locally in person, and internationally through our Artist of the Month posts, and our monthly short film showcase, held at Angel Coffee House. When it comes to our own projects, I oversee what projects we will and won’t be working on. As far as I’m concerned, the next project should be more ambitious and of a higher quality than the previous film. So I lead the charge, but from project to project, we’ll share various roles. Having worked together so many times now, we can easily switch roles from project to project, and I personally like to have actors and members of crew involved from a very early stage to see what they can bring to the project.
5.) “Time and Place” seems like such a complicated concept for an independently produced film. What was the inspiration behind it?
I’d heard of ‘The Big Crunch’ years earlier, and briefly looked into it further, but it was just an idea that I found interesting at that point. During the planning of our fourth feature film ‘NARCISSIST’ I was thinking about what I’d like the next project to be, and I wanted to go for a ‘Heart of Darkness’ type story, and the idea of an ‘Apocalypse Now’ type shoot where I would push myself to the brink of insanity and break myself and those around me down to their bare bones was something I felt I needed to experience. So the idea came first, but then I didn’t want the concept to overpower what was going on within the character and story. Something that bothers me about big-budget movies with a sci-fi concept, is that they are all concept, with no consideration for the effect on one person. Family, or their moral struggles, seem like afterthoughts or simply added to make the film more dramatic. I can’t remember exactly at what point the character came to mind, but I knew the focus had to be morality.
If you know you’re going to die, or that consequences will soon cease to exist, why wouldn’t you disregard morality and just do whatever you want? I don’t personally agree with the idea in that regard. Just because you can do something, whether you could or should is more important. We all have the capacity to do both amazing and awful things at any given moment. For me the thrust of the film had to be someone deciding they can do anything they want, but then reaching a point where they have to consider whether they should have done some of the things they had, knowing that the punishment isn’t going to arrive externally, and finally when he hits his lowest point, having to decide whether he could do one final thing, the worst thing imaginable.
I knew that I could make the film quite simply, but keep all the scope in the background. We used soundbites to allude to riots, or police being over run with calls, and these could reflect the character’s mental state too. It was also essential for me to ensure that this project felt big in comparison to ‘NARCISSIST’, which was intentionally a small-scale, intimate drama. I was careful to use locations that I was already aware of, to open up the film visually as well as thematically as the film progressed, so we end up in big open landscapes when the character is at a point where he has to contemplate his actions, and begins to feel more empathetically.
6.) How closely are Will and Michael Henry related (is there a lot of your own personality / doubts / fears / aspirations etc. in the character?)
Wow, big question. Sure, it’s hard to write something without putting yourself in there, but the characters I write tend to be more extreme versions of myself. It’s easy to feel inconsequential when you think of how many people have lived and died since the birth of our universe, but I’m generally an optimistic person. I’m drawn to the darker side of our psyches. The films I really admire are films like ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’. These are films in which you can explore a theme and what drives us as a species. You can explore the best and worst we can be. You can explore why people are the way they are. I’m not saying I’m perfect, far from it. I’ve done some terrible things but if they end up finding their way in to one of my films, it’s never conciously. So although there are elements of myself in there, it should be clear that the idea behind the film is more important that the person at the centre, despite how much I want to ensure the characters and content are the best they can be.
7.) I’ve seen “Narcissist” and “Time and Place” and they’re very different from each other in terms of tone. “Narcissist” has a lighter, comedic feel to it initially where as “Time and Place” starts out with a rapid fire intensity. However, both Leonard and Will (the main characters) seem very similar and both have a feeling of desperation to them. Should we be worried about you?
You can worry if you want. I think I’ll be fine. You’re not the first to mention that actually. One of my favourite filmmakers is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made an insane amount of films (up to three features a year) in such a short life, but they were all unique and he was a great artist. I’ve always put my films ahead of my own personal health, so in that regard, sure, it’s not healthy. But my tunnel-vision approach is driven by the idea that a film can be more important. As I mentioned before, there are elements of myself in those characters (‘NARCISSIST’ being the most auto-bigraphical) but I like to think I’m a little more well balanced than the characters I’ve previously played. I should point out at this point that I’m stepping away from playing a large part in my own films because of the pressure it puts of me. I really enjoy acting, despite what it can bring out in me, but filmmaking is my raison d’etre and I think I can only improve my skills by focussing more of my attention behind the camera.
8.) Can you explain the editing approach to “Time and Place”? I found it unique in the way it was cut, that the fast paced jump cuts seemed to coincide with Will’s crumbling mental state. Was this considered when the script was written or did it come about later?
I had a very clear idea from the start, how it would be paced and jump around. I was listening to some of my favourite scores and knew how slow I’d like a shot to play out, and how I wanted to jump around a lot, until we reach about thirty minutes in, and then dramatically slow it down. It was always down to how the character was feeling though. He suddenly shifts from the city to the countryside, and the locations play a big part in how he feels about life in those moments.
9.) What are the secrets behind running a successful crowd funding campaign?
Hard to say. I don’t feel like we’ve run a successful campaign yet. We’ve always got enough to make the films, but never comfortably. I’ve not got paid for any of the films we’ve made. I guess the key thing to consider is the clarity and originality of your idea, and how you present it. Why bother doing something that has already been done?
10.) In one sentence, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t give up. I’ve mentioned before how disillusioned you can get, but if I gave up after my third film I wouldn’t have made ‘TIME AND PLACE’ which I’m incredibly proud of. And if I give up now I won’t get to make a better film next time. You have to just keep going. My main goal in life is to feel like I’ve made a film which I consider to be a masterpiece, so I have to keep going.
11.) In one sentence, how would you end this interview?
I’d like to encourage more people to create. The work of other people inspires me, and makes me want to keep doing what I do.
Visit www.quandaryproductions.com for more information on their films. Watch their films. You’ll be a better person for it. Someday, you’ll be able to say, “I knew them when…”