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Scott Tanner, also known as ‘Avenging Eagle’, has been an FXhome regular since 2005 and drew rave reviews for his last two movies: Escape Velocity and Roulette. Vastly different, they show a filmmaker with diverse ideas and skills who can adapt to different projects.
We decided it was long past time to put Scott in the Spotlight and asked him a few questions about the long and difficult creation of his epic, feature length drama Roulette.
1. What first brought you to the FXhome.com community back in 2005?
I joined FXhome primarily because I tried the demo of EffectsLab. I wanted a program to do the lightsaber effects on an ill-fated Star Wars fan film. The film was never finished, but I stuck with FXhome because I'm always using EffectsLab or CompositeLab Pro, and the community is really helpful.
2. What kind of films had you worked on prior to Roulette?
My first proper foray in to 'proper' filmmaking was Summertime Killer, released in 2007. It was a Tarantino-inspired confrontation between a pair of hitmen and was 20 minutes long. Next, I made a 30-minute horror film called 4:02 in 2008. It was for my AS Media Studies coursework; I was only supposed to make a trailer...but I made the whole thing instead.
Somewhere around this time, I did 10 or so storyboard panels of a guy playing Russian roulette for a short, tense, 1-2 minute film called Roulette, but I shelved it to work on my Film Studies coursework and came up with Escape Velocity instead, a 2-minute opening to a fictitious sci-fi film. That was in late 2008/early 2009.
It's not just short films though. I've also done a bit of animation, and a ton of video art for A-level Art, as well as some documentary-type stuff for college. I even tried a music video once, but the band broke up before I could finished it. I had nothing to do with it, I promise!
3. Where did the good/bad luck idea for Roulette come from?
I wanted to make Roulette because I knew I'd have a long summer holiday and I didn't want to be stuck behind a computer all day. I chose to be stuck behind a camera instead! I dug out the storyboards from 2008 and started expanding the story. I was conscious of the fact that none of my films had had a beginning, middle and an ending, always one was missing. So Roulette was my chance to put everything that I'd learned in to practice before going off to University.
I toyed around with the idea of having two main characters; one was always lucky, and one was always unlucky. But it wasn't interesting. I started thinking about 'phases' of luck, about having periods of extreme good fortune then, in a heartbeat, it changing to consistent bad luck for an unspecified period of time. This idea meant I only had to have one main character, which meant I only had to find one reliable actor as opposed to two.
4. Was Roulette always intended to be a 70-minute film?
Absolutely not! Admittedly, it was planned as a half-hour project, which is big enough in itself, but I thought I could do it; after all, I'd already made a 30-minute film before with 4:02. The problem was that I'd been reading my Syd Field, like every self-respecting amateur should, and I wanted 3 plots. I wanted the main 'luck' one, and the 'murder mystery' and the 'relationship' between Jake and Sophie as subplots. Having all three, and interweaving them gave me a 52-page script, even once I'd cut it down as much as I could.
5. How long did it take to write the script?
The script itself took a month to write and refine. This doesn't sound that long, but I'd already worked out the plots, and written every scene down on a post-it note and shuffled them about to work out a structure.
6. Was it a personal project, or did you have a team working on it throughout?
It was entirely personal, as are pretty much all my films. Obviously there's a lot of enthusiasm from the cast and a couple of friends helped do the lighting and make a prop or two, but it was mostly me on my own. As I learned from Summertime Killer, it gets annoying when the audience sees 'Scott Tanner' every three seconds during the credits, so I've had to come up with an anagram of my name to break the monotony. Sorry ladies, the dashing 'Anton Certts' doesn't actually exist. [Damn it! –Tarn]
7. You started a production thread on FXhome.com fairly early and kept people up-to-date throughout production. What was the motivation for making it such an open process?
Atom put it best [Don’t tell him that! –Tarn]: “If you build a forum where hype is accepted, Production Threads will come...”
Any publicity is good publicity. While it's true that I did want to show off a few stills here and there, I've learned from other members of FXhome that you can drum up a fair amount of hype by doing so, and that's what I was really after. I wanted people to be excited by this film, and to look forward to its release. I also used it as an avenue to get feedback from people who know, or at least pretend to know, what they're talking about.
8. How did you go about casting the movie?
All my friends know I like making movies. In fact, everyone in college knew it too. I was, quite literally, the “Man With A Movie Camera”. Several of my friends took drama as well, and were excited about the prospect of being in a film. AJ (Jake) and Steve (Chris) had already worked on my films before in some capacity. Jo, the girl who played 'Sophie', was an exception. She didn't take drama, or have any acting experience, but she agreed to help me out purely as a friendly gesture. Irrespective of the amount of work on the film I could do myself, I simply couldn't have made Roulette without my friends and their enthusiasm for the project, so I must add a personal thanks to them for sticking with it.
9. Roulette is notable for having young actors play young character and adults play adults - something that is unfortunately rare in a lot of non-professional filmmaking. What prompted you to go for realism over convenience?
It wasn't always this way. In Summertime Killer, Chris and I played adult hitmen, and struggled to hide that fact that we were 16 and 15 respectively. However, before I decided to make Roulette, I found out about an amateur dramatics society that ran in my old primary school some evenings called 'Theatre64'. I went down there to have a look and found a large group of middle-aged people all rehearsing comedy sketches for an upcoming show. At last! Adults interested in acting!
Having this untapped reservoir of adult talent definitely influenced the way I wrote Roulette. Once I'd written the script, I went down there again and asked if anyone wanted to be involved. Andy Cruickshank, who played Harry, and Pete Jeffares, who was the Croupier, emailed me a few days later. They turned out to be two of the most enthusiastic people on the project. The other minor adult roles (teachers, other roulette players etc.) were either actual teachers at my college or family friends.
10. You had some trouble with the casino scene, as documented on the forums. What were the problems there and how did you go about resolving them?
The casino scene was probably the hardest scene to bring from page to screen of the entire film. We couldn't have Roulette without a game of roulette, but finding somewhere to stage this game proved difficult. The first and most obvious place we tried was an actual casino. I phoned up several local casinos in the hope of being allowed to come in outside of working hours. Being so paranoid about cheating, and with casinos being almost members-clubs, we were denied in all cases.
The next places I tried were hotels. I thought I might be able to get a conference room, or even a bar out of serving hours. I came very close with a 5-star hotel in Farnborough, but they declined as well. There was even an idea to greenscreen the entire thing. While I was on holiday, I shot some plate photography in the lobby of an actual casino in Melbourne but I was unimpressed by the results.
In the end, Chris and I decided to make a roulette table from chipboard and a felt roulette mat off ebay. The wheel itself was also from eBay, and being solid oak and metal, was the best I could find for under £40.
With all options exhausted, I regrettably had to look towards my college again for help. I was now down to looking at classrooms. A friend then told me about a defunct sports bar on the edge of campus which was about to be renovated. By this stage I was in Thailand, but I made some phone calls home to find out if I could look around when I got home. I came home on the Friday, first saw the location on the Monday, and was filming in there by the Wednesday night. It was a massive relief to finally get that scene nailed, especially with me moving away to university the very next week.
11. It was a lengthy shoot, especially once you'd gone to university. How did you manage to keep your cast enthusiastic and dedicated to the project?
75% of the film had been shot over the summer and everyone had put a lot of effort in. Like me, they didn't want it to all be for nothing, so when I'd come back for the odd weekend, they'd always agree to help me get a few shots here and there. I even managed to get AJ (Jake), Andy (Harry) and Steve (Chris) to come down to Bournemouth to my uni to film the scene in Harry's office.
The first trailer also helped a lot. As with most of my projects, no one truly had faith that it was going to be any good until they saw the trailer. That helped motivate them enormously to help me get the last little bits done. We eventually finished filming around December, 7 months after we started.
12. How did you go about lighting and other technical issues on a zero budget?
I don't own any professional lighting equipment. I don't have Red heads, or C-stands, or even gels. So Roulette was lit almost exclusively by a 300W work lamp, with no stand and a broken handle, an 11W Florescent Desk Lamp, which AJ dropped and partially broke at the end of July, plus a hand-held LED magnetic clip light. On a couple of occasions we used a desk lamp with a tungsten bulb as well. Even the reflector was just a piece of corrugated cardboard with tin-foil glued to it.
The most interesting thing about the lighting though is how we achieved the green and yellow tint to the factory scene. I did endless amounts of testing with altering the white balance on my camera, working out that if you held a piece of purple card in front of the camera the white balance would adjust accordingly and make florescent light (with its higher colour temperature) appear green, creating that nice greenish tint to that scene.
The other major issue was sound. We didn't have an external microphone, or a boom, or a recorder, so everything was recorded using the camera's on-board mic. While we managed to get certain scenes processed and cleanly up a bit to remove the hum and hiss of the camera, it didn't work for every scene, and we didn't get every scene done. This meant ADRing quite a lot of the film, somewhere in the region of 70 lines of dialogue were redone.
13. How widely did you push the film once it was finished, other than through FXhome.com?
Quite honestly, not far. Roulette is a long film, and nowhere is generous enough to host it, meaning the trailers all direct people to FXhome [Sounds good to us! – Tarn]. They're up on YouTube, Facebook and FXhome itself. I tried other video-sharing websites in the past but they only garnered nominal traffic. I cut up 4:02 into parts so people could watch it on YouTube, but this sort of ruined the effect and I refuse to do it to Roulette at this current time.
14. What did you think of the film's reception?
Roulette seems to be going down really well. The cast and crew really enjoyed it, and so too have my friends, family and the general public. It seems to be spreading by word-of-mouth quite a bit. I got talking to a couple of girls the other day who are a few years younger than me but at the same college I went to and they've seen it and so have many of their friends!
The response on FXhome has been terrific too, the most gratifying comments have come from the 'giants' of the forums – I shan't name names for fear of favouritism. It's great to hear other well-respected filmmakers, people who I look up to, throwing some praise your way.
15. What are you studying at university? Have you been able to continue the filmmaking?
Yes, because I'm studying Filmmaking! I'm about to start my second year of my BA (Hons) in 'Film Production' at the Art University College Bournemouth. It's supposed to be one of the best courses in the country for that sort of thing, so I'm very grateful to be on it. When I go back, I'll be specialising in cinematography for the remainder of my time there, hoping to weather out the recession and get some experience with industry-standard equipment.
If nothing else, studying 'Film Production' has made me realise my faults even more. Not great for a perfectionist like me, but then life wouldn't be fun without some small challenges!
16. What do we have to look forward to from Tanner Productions?
There's going to be a behind-the-scenes DVD of Roulette with interviews and footage from the making of the film, as well as some hilarious outtakes and probably the trailers as well. It won't be free, but it'll be fairly cheap and have a good couple of hours of content on it. The full film will also be included in the set free of charge!
As for the next film, there's a script floating around the forums somewhere for my next project, September Sun. It's only a short one, about 7 minutes, but it's been a chance for me to work on my dialogue, which has been lacking depth and subtext up till now. It's a project that's close to my heart because it's about going away to university, something I know a little about. I hope to get it at least filmed before I go back to uni, but my summer is pretty packed from here on, so we'll see. I may have to leave it until next summer.
17. Any chance of a Roulette sequel? [In which Jake uses his condition to become a superhero-of-sorts, gambling on his good luck to help people out, in order to atone for Harry's death, but always running the risk of switching to bad luck at exactly the wrong moment? For example –Tarn]
I've been asked quite a lot if there's going to be a sequel. Sorry to disappoint, but one of the primary objectives for Roulette was to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and not be open-ended. Sure it would be nice for Steve (Chris Stamper) to come to the forefront, but I just don't know how well Roulette 2 would stand up without Andy (Harry).
Unfortunately, it would also be a logistical nightmare. Most of the cast of the original are going off to various universities around the country this autumn, so gathering them all together probably won't be possible ever again, least not till next summer. It was hard enough making Roulette once I was away, let alone now most of the cast will be scattered about the country.
Roulette represents a time in my time when I was closest to my friends at college, perhaps the best summer of my life. The memories we all now have from making this film will forever bind us together as a group, but I think they should stay as memories. We shouldn't try to force recreating the magic.
Also, that casino scene was a f**king headache.
Thanks to Scott for taking the time to answer our questions! Click here for more information about the Roulette DVD.
Next week we’ll be talking to one of the new arrivals here at FXhome HQ.