I dreamed of making a feature film for over 20 years. After finally finalizing a "no budget" feature, it had a theatrical premiere and limited theatrical release in December and was released on request on the 14thth and will even be on supermarket DVD shelves on the 28th.
How did I go from daydreamer to feature filmmaker with a "no-budget feature"? I have invested 6 years of my life. Obviously not a full 6 years, I had to freelance sporadically to pay the rent and finance the free time / film, but when I committed to communicating my intent to everyone I got mentally and on-call invested until it was done was
A cool but tall concept, an expensive and somewhat risky script that I was attached to in 2014 turned the corner. That experience, and knowing how long it took to get a short with no money, meant I looked at the endgame first and worked backwards.
The film HAD be made and it HAD be distributed. Needless to say, the first option is to do a horror alongside a British gangster. I'm more into crime thrillers from London and I know a lot of shady people and places. Write what you know and have access to it! "What if a White Van Man was a hit man and had a job for Christmas?" Ok, I have a catch, let's go …
I had bought a battered old white transit van in December with the intention of writing a full-length screenplay in the first three months, and hopefully making the film this year. I drew a terrible draft in those first three months and then shot a proof of concept based on the opening scene. I continued to write between jobs with notes from friends who had read it. Writing scripts was slow, but I was determined to get it right.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 365 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM: No. At best, a rough draft of the script, a 5-minute foretaste and a quickly derogatory Ford Transit Van that leads to tension with my neighbors.
I decided I needed a tougher deadline and decided to go to the Berlinale / EFM with my script and teaser to get the film industry excited. Despite repeated mental breakdowns during my second act, I plowed through and we had a read through in late January. It went fine, some things ended up and some didn't, it gave me confidence and time to make some quick improvements
It turns out that the EFM is pretty big and overwhelming. Still, I showed it to a few people who were polite and interested and then never read the script – probably for the best. A producer named Judd Tilyard said he would when we met in Cannes a few months later. He told me it wasn't very good but asked if I had other ideas. Silent Night stagnated at the end of the year.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 730 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM No. At best a rough first script that was now on a shelf, a 5 minute taster of a private Vimeo link, a van that didn't start now and my neighbors stopped talking to me.
I had started to come up with a different idea with Judd, as I followed every lead that would bring a first feature off the ground. However, the two actors in my teaser, Bradley Taylor and Cary Crankson, wanted me to look back at the script and say it wasn't as far away as I thought, and asked me to take the shelf off. After reading one more time with much fresher eyes, I agreed.
I met Judd again in Cannes and after discussing the new idea I said, "Oh, by the way, I'll be shooting Silent Night, even if it means putting the camera on my shoulder and doing it for no money." . He said well that if that's the case I might as well focus on it and he would help if it was "no budget" – this meant costing to a minimum and only paying when we had to.
I work with them and Judd on the script, change the first act completely and specify the rest.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1095 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM: No. But one script that was gaining traction, a producer attached a defunct 5-minute taster to a private Vimeo link, £ 50 from Webuyanyvan.com, which scrapped the transit.
The script was as good as finished by summer. However, I decided to give it to a script editor who had never read it before and told them they had a free hand. He cut out about 20 pages and I put about 8 back where I felt like part of my voice was cut off. We were ready to go.
I started with locations, we had to find 18, gulp, I thought that should be lo / no budget? They were all within 5 miles of my Tulse Hill apartment, which meant I could find them or come back to them easily and quickly as I played the local boy card and worked better and better face to face.
After going through this list, I watched the casting. Though I'd given a taste of it with Bradley and Cary as the main cast, the producers said they wouldn't sell the film and could hurt its release chances. A tough decision to make, but ultimately, the time we needed it (Bradley's character was on every page) and access to it for pickups quickly got us back on track. Your available time and dedication has been valuable in making this happen.
I'd never cast before, but when you call agents and you know you're filming in 8 weeks' time, you have some confidence in now or never, that's what they want to hear – all agents only go to their clients when a movie happens indeed. So when you set the main day of photography it will be expressed in your voice and they will take it seriously. So we have Frank Harper.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1460 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM: No. But a finished script, start date, cast and crew, and a second battered old van.
Pre-production ran until we ran out of time and it just got into production. Some days we found places in the morning before the crew showed up to shoot later that afternoon. We always had a couple of pickup days planned as the overly ambitious shoot continued, the shots fell and it turned into a whole week of pickups!
At the end of February and straight into an edit that gives us an idea of how these black holes should be filled, we recorded our last week of April. Between Bradley and me, he played anything extraordinary like bypass shots or general cutaways. We tried to prepare a decent cut for Cannes but it was a stretch but we cut a shiny trailer that got a good response in the market. We even had a sales outfit that was trying to get us off this cut, which was very encouraging.
Over the year our post was a bit inconsistent as different people got on board but got excited about other jobs which meant we had to restart Sounds and VFX a few times.
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 1825 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM: No. A decent rough cut and a good trailer.
It's fair to say that this was a strange year for many reasons. No more driving brings a tough deadline; this has been a difficult year to get across the line. However, we knew that our film, when we positioned it as a Christmas film, had to be picked up by August at the latest.
When I was driving the final pieces home and doing a mix in Australia and a class in London while I was sitting in Berlin, we started inventing works of art. We got a deal to distribute it in the UK, which as such was vital to UK film, and then we actually had a very tough deadline. A bonus was that our Cannes trailer was still doing the job we only had to do to get some spoiler shots and make versions before the watershed.
Given the varied nature of our contribution, we were surprised and relieved when the labs said the delivery had expired. I think you are saying we had a finished feature film in mid-October.
Now the real work should begin.
In December 2020, 6 years after I bought that first van, Silent Night was seen on a number 1 big screen in Genesis London with 5.1 surround sound in front of over 200 spectators. As the credits rolled in, there was prolonged applause. Job done
INVESTMENT OF TIME: 2190 DAYS
COMPLETED FUNCTIONAL FILM: Yes. Whoop whoop!
- My number one piece of advice for anyone trying to make a money-free movie is to get started. It will take longer than you think.
- “No budget” means you have money to spend, but only after you've exhausted your time on the free / cheapest options – it takes time.
- "No budget" means you will NOT get paid, so you often have to shut down tools to get paid elsewhere – it takes time.
- One way to mentally take back power is to realize that your time is very valuable. So if you can commit to spending them on your film, you technically have the funding.
- If you keep it local with cast, crew, and locations, it's attainable.
- Don't buy a van until your script is done and you're ready to go into production. However, if you do, it might just help you finalize your script.
About Will Thorne
Will Thorne is a writer / director and producer. He started out in the film industry working on feature films, commercials and music advertisements, and began a career in comedy / entertainment television after getting a job on a Lenny Henry sketch show. He has worked for British independents such as Tiger Aspect, Endemol and Avalon, spending time in development and working on production for prime time shows for BBC1, ITV1, CH4 and MTV.
In 2014 he started developing and producing feature documents. "One Man and His Shoes" with Yemi Bamiro and began writing "Silent Night" in 2015, a crime thriller set in London for Christmas. In 2020, both feature films were released in the UK in theaters and home entertainment, with One Man and His Shoes screened at both SXSW and the London Film Festival.
Will was on the shortlist for the BFI Vision Awards 2016 and is on the longlist 2020 for the BIFA Breakthrough Producer and is nominated for the Discovery Awards.