Winning the ’28 Day Feature Film Challenge’ for his micro-feature The Horror of The Dolls (it streams on Amazon US from March) he has since set his sights on making an ambitious sci-fi action-adventure, which he also penned.
The Albion Falls is about a prison ship which crash lands on an uncharted, dangerous planet, and the process of trying to get funds together and an eventual green light for the film has itself proved to be an arduous expedition and challenging territory for Davey.
We chatted to him about his journey so far. The following is indispensible advice for anyone out there trying to make an independent genre feature for the UK film market.
HeyUGuys: Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for The Albion Falls came from?
Shane Davey: After finishing my first film, The Horror of The Dolls, which was set in the claustrophobic confines of an East London tower block, I wanted to make something out in the landscape, far away from the city and all the chaos of shooting a film in London. I love the panoramas of Electra Glide in Blue and There Will Be Blood and my ambition for Albion is to shoot something as visually epic as those references. That was kind of the start point.
Although this is a gritty sci-fi genre film it is also quite a personal story for me. I served eight years in the Royal Navy, before cashing out and going to film-school, and those experiences informed the world of the story – it is about institutionalisation, tribalism, pride, notions of freedom, survival and the relationship between freedom and violence.
I was the Navigator’s Yeoman on my last ship before leaving the armed forces and I liked the way the Navigator was positioned within the military hierarchy of the ship – utterly indispensable and entirely responsible for the course of the ship, yet with only one other person in his department. It always stuck with me that the Navigator was essentially an isolated officer, answerable only to the Captain, and could therefore easily sabotage the ship’s mission without anyone else being any wiser.
When we meet the Albion’s Navigator he is crawling from the wreckage of the ship and we instantly take him as our guide through the story, the honourable man surrounded by the threat of violence from the surviving convicts, he is the intellectual/academic that fate has thrown to the wolves. We cling to him sharing his fear but, as the film races forwards, we see the layers of his character peeled back and we discover something much darker inside of his soul. I had the great chess player Bobby Fischer in mind while writing – confident, articulate but also awkward around confrontation, and a little bit mad, as eccentric/insular people can be.
Who were your influences whilst writing the script, and which kind of director’s work would you be looking towards for inspiration when you start shooting?
It was the writing, more than any other part of the process, which took the most disciplined effort. Rewriting drafts from scratch is tough, but for me it was a necessary part of the process for Albion to get to a high standard script. I went to a bunch of writer’s lectures at the BFI (David Goyer, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga) and took away tips from the top. Listening to writers speak about the process is one of the best lessons you can get because, although the method might be different, they all say that the time it takes to develop a story from an idea into a rich, rewarding script can be the biggest struggle.
John Logan talked about doing thirteen drafts of Any Given Sunday, but was quick to say how each pass massively improved his Shakespearian sports movie, you have to be able to start again and make it better. I sent the Albion script out to two rounds of reading circles during the final few drafts and the feedback was a crucial bit of analysis and criticism that helped shape the current draft (although I am still tinkering).
The very first draft of Albion was shortlisted for Film London’s Microwave scheme and I went in for a face-to-face pitch with the selection panel. I was quite pleased to get that far with a virgin draft as I’d always been quite cynical about ‘establishment’ funding schemes and the kind of film-makers they endorse but, to be fair, they gave me a lot of time and they praised the project immensely. The report I received said that they liked the writing, the world and the characters I had created, but ultimately it was the scale of the ‘vision’ that made them nervous as they weren’t sure if it could be executed on the budget. It would’ve been tough but I think that first draft was very much leaner, only half a dozen characters, and we would’ve got there.
The next draft of the script was tighter and written freely (without a budget in mind). I continued with the base story and then developed the characters in much more detail. I also read the two Johns, Wyndham & Christopher, and their very British survival novels Day of the Triffids and Death of Grass respectively, plus looked at all sorts of reference movies like Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzula (another brilliant film about friendship in the wilderness) and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, as well as Cimino’s classic buddy movie Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.
This is the kind of action-heavy sci-fi genre film which doesn’t get made much in the UK. What do you think distinguishes it from its US counterparts?
Well I would say that US cinema has definitely informed my genre ambitions with The Albion Falls. I love John Carpenter’s early stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, but recently the sci-fi stuff that has blown me away has been from European film-makers. Dredd, Moon, Monsters, The Raid, Children of Men, Sunshine, Rise/Dawn of The Planet of The Apes are all recent genre works made by British film-makers and I think, like them, it isn’t so much what’s in Albion that makes the difference, as what isn’t, chiefly that open sentimentality that the US film-makers have and that can undermine the credibility and internal logic of their movies. We have it too, a bit, but it is more suppressed and because we don’t experience US culture in isolation our influences are perhaps broader, more international? And we’re more angry. Albion is a very angry film for sure – in the pitches for Albion I state that the film has ‘a quick temper and a bruised heart’.
You’ve put together a bunch of visual material to support your aims, including shooting a test sequence and editing together a sizzle reel. How has that helped creatively and in trying to sell it to potential investors?
If the sizzle reel, my showreel and the test scene hook someone in and make them want to read the script then the material has done its job. I also think this supporting material serves to establish the tone and style of the finished film, so in less than 10 minutes there should be no confusion about what we are doing. I think this is a good way of saving time too, especially for investors, because it purely comes down to taste. They look at the package and they get it. As a film-maker it certainly helps to bring the project into focus once you start putting this stuff together, getting a few posters mocked up and the like. It brings it to life and helps clarify the world.
The test sequence was a bit more specific. I wanted to try some forced perspective stuff out in the landscape and using a model ship to see if we could make it look convincing (the Jawa ‘Sandcrawler’ scene in A New Hope is a wonderful example of scale-model work shot against a landscape). Then I figured if I was going to go through that kind of effort I might as well do a fight scene and play it out at the foot of the ship. I begged a handful of people to help me out and we rocked up in The New Forest for a couple of days shooting.
The first day was just taking shots of the model and testing smoke grenades detonated inside of it at different film speeds to gauge when it looked credible for the estimated ‘actual’ scale of the ship (you’ll notice in the edit some shots have smoke and others don’t). Day two was the fight scene. We got drenched when the rain kicked in at about 10am and was unrelenting for the rest of the day. It hampered everything and drained the actors completely.
When the test film was completed it was actually selected for The Australian Sci-Fi Film Festival and had its big screen World Premiere in the land of The Road Warrior, which is not bad for a three minute test scene shot without a budget.
Would you recommend this type of pre-packaging of a project to others trying to get a feature made?
I think if you look on-line at ‘classic’ sizzle reels for Looper and Joe Carnahan’s 1970’s set Daredevil then there is no denying how useful a tool they are for clarifying the intent of a project. If you’re ready to talk to people about your project then going through the sizzle process is a great way of consolidating your tonal influences into one place, and to see how the concept holds up outside of your head. In other words it can bolster your confidence, and plus it is just great fun sifting through films and pilfering moments you love. I’ve yet to find anyone that can identify all the influences in the Albion sizzler.
What were the kind of learning experiences you took away from shooting your first feature?
I didn’t have a script. I only had a plan. The Horror of The Dolls was created for the 28 Day Feature Film Challenge. That is to say, on the 1st of February the event organisers gave me a title, genre and rough theme, and then on the 28th February I delivered them a finished feature film. 21 teams entered the challenge but only 7 completed it. In the end the film cost about £5,000 and I called in every favour I could muster, enlisting anyone that could help to get it done.
I’d definitely say it is useful to have more hands on deck. I had core crew in place throughout the shoot but I was still directing, producing, AD’ing, catering and improvising a script all at the same time. I could’ve done with a few more people just to ease the pressure a bit.
All of that experience of making movies independently has prepared me for making The Albion Falls and, as I’m just starting to approach sales agents, casting directors and distributors, I’m very confident in what the film is about, why I want to make it, how it can be achieved on the budget, and who it is for.
So let’s see what happens next…
Follow along on the film’s Facebook page here.