First-time Producer/Directors Stewart Alexander and Kerry Skinner have been bowled over by the response to their new film, Common People, and said “Trying to release a micro-budget film, with no marketing budget, and no distributor attached sometimes feels like utter madness and is certainly a mammoth task. However, the feedback and support we have received from audiences, plus having Picturehouse believing in the film has really spurred us on. It is an honour to be the first ever entirely self-distributed film to be selected for ‘Discover Tuesdays’ and we are delighted to have the opportunity to bring this British film to audiences throughout the UK.”
FTN: (To Stewart Alexander) What first inspired you to write this screenplay and how long did it take between the having the screenplay finished and getting your film green lit?
SA: Kerry and I live around the corner from the common where Common People was shot. We’ve been walking there for years. A few years ago we’d been raising finance for a film which needed a much bigger budget when the credit crunch hit and everything fell through. We spent a lot of time taking therapeutic walks on the common and one day we saw a poster for a missing parrot. It offered a reward and gave a number where you could report sightings. Then a few weeks later, a new poster appeared reporting that the parrot had been found and thanking everyone on the common who had helped to locate and rescue her. That was the Eureka moment. We had a story with a beginning and an ending. All we had to do was fill in the middle and populate the common with other characters.
In terms of getting green-lit. Kerry and I produced it, so once we had the script ready, it was up to us to raise the finance. We wrote a business plan, and pitched it – Dragon’s Den style – to a group of investors. That was in December 2011. Thankfully they went for it and we had the finance by February, 2012. That’s when it was officially green-lit and we were shooting the film two months later in April, 2012.
FTN: (To Kerry) What attracted you to this film and have you both worked together before?
KS: Stewart and I have worked together for years. We came up with the concept together, then Stewart wrote drafts of the script which I would script edit. We previously produced a stage play called, ‘Body Checks’ which was a romantic comedy set among an ice hockey team in Romford. It got rave reviews from the London press and Stewart then adapted it into a screenplay. That’s the bigger budget film we had to abandon. We’re now hoping to shoot it next thanks to the success we’ve had with ‘Common People’
FTN: Working on a very limited budget must have been challenging. Did you encounter any difficulties in selecting a cast and Director?
KS: We hired a fantastic Casting Director named Briony Barnett. She said from the start that we wouldn’t be able to get huge stars on our budget but we could get great actors because the characters were so interesting. She also came up with a strategy to assemble a really strong ensemble by attracting someone who commanded respect in the industry for one of the main roles. So the first to come on board was Sam Kelly. He’s appeared in some of the UK’s most popular sitcoms, worked with all the top theatre directors, and been a favorite with Mike Leigh for years, both on stage and in five of his films. And Briony was right, once Sam came on board all the agents who had previously said, ‘we don’t consider micro-budget movies’ suddenly started offering their clients.
I have to say the scenes with Sam Kelly and Diana Payan as the loving older couple in “Common People” is worth the admission price alone. They’re romantic, funny and incredibly poignant. It’s a real acting masterclass, and they were both an absolute pleasure to work with. We directed the film ourselves, it was our first feature as directors and it was a big challenge but we knew the story inside out and both had a very clear vision of the story we wanted to tell.
FTN: There was a lot of outside location shots in the film. Did you encounter any problems shooting these scenes and did you have to do many re-takes due to passers by or background sound?
KS & SA: An experienced producer gave us a great piece of advice beforehand. She said, “What you lack in budget, you have to make up for in preparation.” So, we prepared everything we could during pre-production; storyboarded every scene, sorted out every costume and prop and spent three weeks rehearsing with the actors. The one thing we couldn’t prepare for was the English weather. It’s called “Common People” because it’s entirely set outdoors on a London common. So we were at the mercy of the elements. And as it turned out, we ended up shooting during, “the wettest April since records began.” That was the official met office description. We were scheduled for an 18-day shoot, but in the end due to the weather, I think we shot it in 12.
We spent a lot of time standing under umbrellas, knee-deep in mud. BUT, because we had done the preparation, the moment the clouds cleared everyone knew what they had to do. It’s actually a very bright and sunny movie! On the other hand, because the weather was so awful, there really weren’t that many passers by. So maybe it worked in our favour too.
FTN: Aside from Producing and Writing this film, you also play a part in it. Was this by choice or something that simply happened while filming?
KS & SA: It was planned from script stage and I wrote the characters we play specifically for us. So I made sure that we never had any scenes together. That way one of us could always completely concentrate on directing. We’ve both been professional actors for years so the acting part was something we were very comfortable with. It was directing our first feature that was the biggest challenge.
FTN: When Common People was first released, it was during a time when major studios were releasing future award hopefuls such as American Hustle. Did you release the film at that time as an alternative to high profile glossy productions?
KS & SA: No, not at all, the Picturehouse offered us a slot and we took it. We didn’t have any choice about the date and it hadn’t occurred to us that we’d be screening during Oscar season. Then again, it was only supposed to be a one-off screening in January. It’s only because the shows kept selling out that we ended up being there until mid-March. I remember there was a Mandela poster looking down on our poster on opening weekend. Like a blessing. By the end we’d shared the marquee with everything from 12 Years a Slave, and Grand Budapest Hotel to 300 and Under the Skin.
FTN: Were you surprised by the audiences’ reactions to the story?
KS & SA: I think when you tell any story, you’re hoping for a certain kind of response from your audience. Whether it’s simply laughing at the funny bits or crying at the sad bits. By and large I think we’ve had the reactions we hoped for. What really surprised me was how many people commented on how refreshing it was to see a film about “real people.” Obviously it’s a work of fiction so the characters aren’t really real people, but it’s a comment we’ve heard over and over at Q&A’s, in the reviews and in audience feedback videos. I think what they mean is that when so many movies in our cinemas are full of superheroes and extraordinary characters, they enjoyed seeing a film featuring people they could relate to. It’s a film about ordinary people facing extraordinary moments in their lives.
FTN: Common People has become a tremendous success. Did you ever think that your film would be this successful, not just with audiences but with critics?
KS & SA: To be honest, we’re just thrilled that audiences are getting to see it in a cinema, enjoying it and telling their friends to see it too. That’s every filmmakers dream. And according to the BFI only 1 in 5 films made for less than £500,000 make it to the cinema. So imagine the odds for one made for way, way less than that.
For six months last year, between Cannes in May (where we didn’t get any distribution and everyone told us there’s no market for films without stars) and November, when the Picturehouse offered us the one-off screening, we thought it might never see the light of day beyond the festival circuit. So, we’re absolutely thrilled with everything that’s happened.
FTN: Common People is now getting a second larger cinematic release due to demand and popularity and the DVD release will be available soon. With reaching a larger audience, do you have plans for a sequel of sorts?
KS & SA: A few people have asked that. Which is great, if it means people want more. The next film we’re hoping to do is ‘Body Checks’ and then we’ve developed a script for a thriller set in the music industry. But if there’s still demand for a sequel after that (and the memories of shooting in the freezing rain have faded by then) who knows…
Releases across the UK on 10th June as part of the Picturehouse Cinema’s Discover Tuesday – DVD and VOD release on 12th June