You don’t need a lot of money to make a Raindance film

Another year, another film at Raindance. That’s the way for writer, producer, actor – and soon to be director – Jonnie Hurn.

Producer and one of the stars of Drew Cullingham’s latest drama, Black Smoke Rising, Hurn is back at Raindance for the third year in succession.

Jonnie Hurn, back at Raindance for the third year in a row
Jonnie Hurn, back at Raindance for the third year in a row

Two years ago, he wrote, produced and starred in Do Elephants Pray? The whimsical drama about an advertising executive whose exciting new girlfriend wants to remain a secret won eight awards at festivals around the world, which, along with its Raindance screening, Hurn believes, helped him find a sales agent; the film will receive a limited theatrical release in the New Year, followed by a DVD release.

A year later, with Cullingham on board as director, he was back at Raindance with the single location Monk3ys, which secured the team the festival’s prize for the best micro-budget film, for budgets below £20,000. “Ours was significantly lower,” Hurn boasts. “We won against films with budgets ten or twenty times higher.” This film has also since secured a sales agent.

This year, Hurn is back in Black Smoke Rising, a black and white film about a blues musician who learns more about his brother – and himself – as he travels the country on a treasure hunt as part of his brother’s will, before having to deliver his eulogy. “We’re just at the beginning of the process with this film. It takes time, but screening at Raindance should help. It elevates the film – especially last year, with our award.”

So with three films at Raindance in as many years, Hurn clearly knows what the festival is looking for. “Raindance is about telling good stories,” he observes. “It’s not a genre festival. It likes to show diverse films – different genres – different styles – different budgets – but at its core, it’s all about interesting film-making. Visually interesting film-making. Just telling good stories.”

He also notes that Raindance programmes are often born out of the courses run by the organisation. Hurn took their production crash-course several years ago. Rudolf Buitendach, the director of another of this year’s Raindance films, Dark Hearts, has also done a Raindance course, to highlight another example.

This year, the festival has done away with its microbudget category, but in promoting younger film-makers who’ve benefited from its own courses, Raindance tends to concentrate on the lower end of the budget scale.

“You don’t need a lot of money to make a film,” Hurn insists. “You just need a good script, good actors and a bit of imagination and vision to go out to tell a good story.”

Jonnie Hurn (left), producer and actor in Black Smoke Rising
Jonnie Hurn (left), producer and actor in Black Smoke Rising

Black Smoke Rising was shot in 18 days with a total cast and crew of just 15 people. As such, this end of the film business is a long way from the riches and mansions of Bel Air or the Hollywood Hills. “It’s not a commercial business in the sense that we can make a living out of it, but we can make some money out of it because we keep everything very small and everybody works on a points basis. You get points depending on how many jobs you do and a lot of us doubled up on two or three different jobs. That way, we can keep the numbers small, we can keep the budget small and keep the shoot times small. We can easily get people to give up a week of their lives, once or twice a year. It’s a lot harder to ask someone to do that for six weeks. So although you’re not going to get a huge amount of money for making these films, the outlay is so small that the chances are we’ll make something, which will make it worthwhile for the amount of time we’ve put into it.”

The aim, at this stage, is not so much to get rich quick, Hurn explains. Once investors see that you can turn in a profit in the longer term, it’s easier to get a proper budget. “But we wouldn’t go crazy if we got a budget to make a bigger film. We’re not interested in making big action films. We’d just want to tell bigger, better stories if we can.”

Excitedly contemplating the future, Hurn suggests that the luxury of having a bigger budget would be to shoot a script that’s not set in one location, being able to pay everybody for their time at the time, having better equipment. “Bigger and better toys, really. But that doesn’t mean you have to go crazy and have big explosions and car chases. We’re not interested in making that kind of film. Having more money just makes it easier to tell our stories.”

With a handful of producing credits to his name, Hurn admits that it can be a hard slog to get early productions off the ground. “If you haven’t made a film before, you’re not going to get the money you need. It’s as simple as that,” he bemoans. “People are very cagey about any risk in the industry. You’re not going to get money to make your film. You just have to go and make it. The key mantra I was taught when I learned the fundamentals of film production was ‘Make a film, then make a deal.’ When you start, that’s how it is. You’re not going to make a deal until you’ve made a film.”

Jonnie Hurn (left) in Do Elephants Pray?
Jonnie Hurn (left) in Do Elephants Pray?

So you have to find a project that’s easy to do without financial backing. “When I first wrote Do Elephants Pray?” Hurn continues, “I sat down and listed all the things I could get by picking up the phone – people, equipment, locations, things like that. Anything I knew I could get to make a film without having to spend any money and once I collated that list I looked at the list of stories and ideas that I had and found a script that would fit the things I could get hold of. That’s how you have to do it. Get some money from friends and family. Whatever you can afford to do, whatever you can afford to get, do something that fits the budget.”

Hurn believes that as long as you can find the right story and the right people to work with – people who understand what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it – you can get that first film made and the rest will follow.

Even as Black Smoke Rising is screening at Raindance, Hurn has already finished shooting another film and is preparing for his first feature as director. He certainly seems keen to make it four years out of four.