Case study: British director Mark Brennan presents “Tea For Two”: where hard work meets good luck

mark

September 19, 2016.

KieVino continues a series of articles by young directors from all over the world. This week a British director Mark Brennan is sharing with us his experience on making his first professional comedy short film “Tea For Two”. We are wondering is there a difference between debute film production in Britain and Ukraine?..

About the film
An old couple, Jim and Alice, are serving behind the counter of an idyllic but quiet British village tea shop. When some customers finally arrive, they soon discover it's more than a pot of tea and a slice of cake being dished up by their peculiar hosts.

THE IDEA

Tea For Two came to me at Christmas a couple of years ago.

It’s a time of year when family all gets together, and I always notice how the odd behaviour of older relatives is always ignored by the rest of the family. They can be rude, they can be strange, but because they are old their unusual ways are dismissed. I thought it would be interesting to see a couple of characters who, even though they are old and acting strange, are actually not acting strange at all – depending on your point of view.

So, after having plenty of inspiration at home, I went back to work after the Christmas holidays and wrote a couple of drafts for Tea For Two quite quickly.

After that I was lucky enough to meet two Producers, April Kelley and Sara Huxley from Mini Productions Ltd, at the birthday drinks of Executive Producer James Webber and the project really took off from there.

PRE-PRODUCTION

I met with Director of Photography Lorenzo Levrini for the first time and we talked through the script and the setting of the piece, the world in which it plays out. As much of the story revolves around ‘time’ and the fantastical angle at which it is approached, it was important the film have a timeless and fairy tale feel to it. Also, the nature of the situational comedy and the age of the characters made Tea For Two something of a throwback to the classic British sitcoms of the 70s and 80s, so these three elements all worked well together.

Next we had to find a tea shop. April Kelley knew of a few locations near where she lived in Hertfordshire that were already what we were looking for - or could at least be transformed into it. In fact, the Westmill Tea Room where we filmed was her first suggestion. However, while the place did look exactly right in the photos she sent to me, it was so SMALL! I sent the pictures on to Lorenzo who agreed with me, it was far too small, so I told April it couldn’t work and instead we spent a day driving around different tea shops looking for an alternative.

It was on this trip where something happened and a joke ended up in the script. We stopped for tea somewhere and after looking at the menu I saw Oolong tea. I had never heard of this before and I thought it was a funny name, a weird thing to order, so there’s a moment in the film about that particular tea. That sounds boring saying it now but it was funny at the time!

The next thing that happened, I did not expect. April took me to the Westmill Tea Room which we had already decided was too small – so, of course, I fell in love with the place as soon as I walked in. It was perfect. We sat and talked about how we could make it work in a space so small, then while we were thinking the decision was made for us. An old couple came in to the tea shop, walked up to the till and simply said “Tea for two.” April and I looked at each other and took that as a sign, we didn’t care it was small, THIS was the place.

FUNDING

So knowing where we wanted to shoot, we now had to think about how to start paying for all this. We decided to run a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise the funds, something I had not done before, so tried to learn a lot from campaigns I had seen run elsewhere. My production partner Carl Austin (also editor on the film) began to approach companies that were relevant to our subject matter; tea, cakes, biscuits, etc. We approached several of these companies asking if they might be interested in donating some of their product we could give away as perks in return for promotion. Luckily for us, a few of the companies we talked to seemed excited to be involved this way, but one company in particular blew our minds.

Fiona Cairns Ltd, are a luxury cake manufacturer who ever produced the wedding cake for the wedding of Prince William. They liked the script and more than offering product, they were keen to get involved as Executive Producers and help to fund the film. This was a dream come true and far more than we could have hoped for, and though we did still need to run a crowdfunding campaign to secure the funds we needed, the scale of the production increased massively.

CASTING

We were now able to think about casting in a whole new light. With the support of Fiona Cairns and our wonderful Indiegogo backers we started to look for profile actors to play the lead roles of Jim and Alice. You can only imagine our excitement when we were able to announce the casting of John Challis and Amanda Barrie – two legends of British television. The good fortune of the production continued when we realised later that John and Amanda were actually friends of old, so knew each other very well, which only helped their chemistry on screen – and they are superb together.

We also struck gold when William Postlthwaite and Abigail Parmenter were cast as the young customers, both lovely and talented, and as it turned out, they knew each other as well! So, again, the chemistry was there right from the beginning and I think it all translates on the screen so well. James Hamer-Morton is the tea shop owner and I think he does a fantastic job with what little had to work with, but from day one he was who I wanted for that part. He arrived on the last day of filming and had everyone in stitches when he was trying to… well, you need to watch the film!

FILMING

We shot the film over 3 days in November 2014. Lorenzo and I visited the tea shop before the shoot and mapped out every shot throughout the script. His talent and work ethic is something to behold, he whizzes through the script in his head and knows exactly what he wants. So much so I felt like I’d won something when he was stuck on one shot before gleefully agreeing with my suggestion for it. It was a lot of set ups that needed, really, maybe more than 3 days but that was all we had.

That meant that scheduling was key, and for that we had the magician of a 1st AD that is Josh Nolan. I used the word magician but it could also be babysitter, motivational speaker, consigliore, drill sergeant, therapist…  Shooting Tea For Two was one of the best experiences of my life and I cannot stress enough how much he got me through it, as I was probably one of the most inexperienced people on set when it came to working with a full production crew. The film I made before this cost £40 and had a production team of 3 people, while this was a cast and crew of about 25 people and cost far more!

I didn’t even know how to ‘wrap’ a film. Josh had to tell me that when an actor wrapped, everyone cheers and then it’s a director who usually wraps the whole film. I had to ask how. When everyone was applauding Abigail, the last to finish, he told me what to say and when I shouted ‘Ladies and gentleman that’s a wrap for Tea For Two’… and it was like midnight on New Year’s Eve; everyone cheering, hugging, clapping. I loved that moment.

POST-PRODUCTION

Carl Austin, who had also worked as DIT on the shoot, was also editor on the film. This made things easier for Carl to edit as he was logging the takes as we shot, so he had a good knowledge of the footage we had. We also had a fabulous composer in Roly Witherow, whose music was absolutely perfect for the film. He was based in Barcelona at the time so there was a lot of Skyping, but Roly knew right away what were after and I hum the trailer music even now. Helen Miles completed the sound design and mix and then we were ready to show the world. Gulp.

April and Sara, the fantastic producers who had been on the journey with me all along, were able to secure a screening at BAFTA for us in London, which was a great evening. From there it was on to festival the circuit where we enjoyed showing at Aesthetica Short Film Festival, the Portland Film Festival, Cannes Short Film Corner, Winchester Short Film Festival (winning Best Screenplay), uFilmFest in Ukraine and most recently the Västerås Film Festival in Sweden. It’s coming to the end of its festival run now, so we will be looking for a home for the film soon.

LESSONS

I learned a great many things throughout the entire journey of Tea For Two, even up until today. Never make a short film longer than it absolutely has to be; if there’s something you can cut, cut it. Most of all, surround yourself with good people; keep faith in their talent and skill because you can’t do everything, and you’re not always right about everything either.

Take a look at backstage of “Tea for Two”