Interview with Filmmaker Caroline Spence on her Career and #MeToo

This week I have Caroline Spence. A film producer, prolific screenwriter and occasional actor, working on a slate of original movies with Raya Films. Her screenplays have received high praise from established companies in London and Hollywood. She has also been commissioned to write screenplays for clients from all over the world, including Louisiana, Hong Kong, Canada and Australia. Caroline’s award-winning début feature, ‘Do Something, Jake’ was released in 2018 and is now on general release. The experimental feature ‘Agent Kelly’ is due for release this year and two other films (Surveilled and Cyberlante) are currently in post-production.

How did you begin your career as a producer and screenwriter?

The first half of my working life was spent sitting at a desk in administrative roles in many different sectors, such as private banking, accounting, the defence industry and mental health.

In 2004, however, I was invited to appear on a TV show about international property as a realtor, despite knowing little about selling properties abroad. Although a very odd experience, it inspired me to write and present my own documentaries. So, James Smith (director) and I set up Raya Films and started producing documentaries. We moved into commercial work and experimented with short films, but it wasn’t until I started penning narrative features that I knew I’d found my forte.

My screenplays were very well received by industry professionals in L.A. and Hollywood, and we came close a number of times to raising the finance necessary to go into production. We were, however, ‘unknowns’ with no track record in feature film production, and so ultimately money was not forthcoming. To address this, I partnered with a couple of allegedly experienced producers who turned out to be rogues – they not only tried to steal our project, but also our company name!

In the end we decided that, to gain a credible track record, we would have to go out and make a movie on, literally, zero budget. The result was ​Do Something, Jake​, which has been an incredibly successful project and was picked up for global distribution by Meridian Releasing Group in the USA and is now on general release.

How was it possible to make your film “Agent Kelly” with no budget, shot abroad and with only one crew member? What were the obstacles you had to face as a producer managing this project?

Whilst we were waiting for the post-production phase of ​Do Something, Jake​ to be completed, we decided to get out and film something else.

We visit Spain (Andalucía) regularly, and as writers and filmmakers, it has always been an incredibly rich source of inspiration. Again, we had no production funds, but did have a camera, and came up with a story that would encompass one of our trips. By flying into Málaga and taking the bus to Almería where our base is (a route we often take), we wouldn’t have to pay out any extra travel costs.

I was placed in the lead role and James operated the camera and audio as well as directing. So it wasn’t a choice to have one crew member, it was the ​only​ option open to us at the time.

With such a tiny team and a DSLR camera, we were able to film out in the street without the need for permissions. We shot scenes in the cities of Málaga and Almería and no one paid us any attention.

Despite this lightweight and flexible method, it’s not easy shooting in this manner. In 30 plus degrees, dust, flies and mosquitos, James was pushed to mental and physical limits few directors have the tenacity to endure!

On the production side, it was relatively straightforward because I didn’t have a large crew to manage. Shooting in this way does have advantages: you can go where you want, when you want, be impulsive and jump on opportunities as soon as they arise … and in a country as culturally diverse, visually colourful and vibrant as Spain, opportunities can present themselves at any moment!

Why was it important for you to act in the film and what were the greatest challenges?

I stepped in front of the camera for this film because I was cheap and more than willing to undertake the stunt work with the associated risks! James knew I was physically capable, and was able to direct me in the action scenes knowing I was happy to be thrown into any situation.

The greatest challenge for me, however, was James’ insistence that I wear heeled boots, in which I had to undertake some serious running scenes. I am a runner, so stamina wasn’t the issue, but sprinting in heels through a mosquito-infested nature reserve is by no means ideal!

What was the process for obtaining world wide release on DVD/Blu-Ray and raising funds for the DCP and BBFC certificate, for your film “Do Something, Jake?”

To raise the £2,000 needed for the DCP and BBFC certificate, we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. This was an amazing experience, because we surpassed £2,000 within two weeks and we still had another two weeks to run!

Once we received the funds, we put everything in place and packed out the 280-seat auditorium in the Odeon, Loughborough for the film’s world premiere, before enjoying further sell-out premieres and festival screenings. The film also picked up the ‘Best Feature’ award at the Midlands Movies Awards back in March, 2019.

We had no idea if we’d be able to achieve distribution and I was making preparations for self-distribution when we began to receive offers from US-based companies. When Meridian Releasing Group said they wanted to take the film on, they seemed a good fit. They weren’t asking the world for our little indie movie and their terms were very reasonable. The DVD/Blu-ray went on release in August 2019 and we’re excited to say ​Do Something, Jake is now available to stream/rent/buy on Amazon!

Amazon.co.uk : https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/B083W1JV5N Amazon.com : https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083W7QHX3

Why does independent film appeal to you and do you wish to go more mainstream? If so, what steps are you taking to going more mainstream and what is your advice to young filmmakers trying to ‘make it’?

I’ve always loved the movies and I’ve always loved writing, so I’m seriously lucky to be able to combine the two and make movies of my own. Since the recession in 2007, independent filmmakers have been driving the movie industry – even Hollywood now looks to independent film in order to evolve and meet the demands of audiences who love to watch films across all genres. Since the evolution of digital technology, filmmakers like us have been able to pursue our dreams outside of the Hollywood studio system.

Nowadays, independent film can be as ‘mainstream’ as Hollywood – it all comes down to the commercialism of the project, and if it can reach a wide enough audience.

We have many projects on our slate and with most of these we are looking west to the USA. We’d like to reach out and collaborate with bigger production companies with more financial clout and the means to market the product to millions. We also have projects that are perfect for the Hollywood studio system, so our goal is to reach as high as we possibly can in the industry.

The question: “what is your advice to young filmmakers trying to ‘make it’?” is an area I’m very passionate about. Young people have a wealth of opportunities on offer to them in terms of training, grants, advice, workshops, support, and many film school options. Despite all this, however, the advice I would give is that no amount of film school will prepare you for what it’s really like on a film set. We gave many graduates and students experience on the sets of both ​Do Something, Jake​ and our latest film ​Surveilled​, and they told us that film school didn’t teach them much (if any) of the practical side of things. So I’d say get as much work experience as you can filming on location. Each production is different and you will take away priceless knowledge from each experience, whether it’s a big budget fantasy with 200+ crew and A-list stars, or a rootsy indie film with 15 crew being shot on a DSLR or Smartphone. And I say this to people embarking on a career in film of any age!

And finally … if someone says you can’t do something, use it as motivation to prove them wrong. Never never give up.

On-set of Do Something, Jake (Photo Credit: David Ward)

How is development going for “Last Good Deed”? What is your process as a team and what have been the challenges so far?

With ​Last Good Deed​ we are aiming to take the next step up the filmmaking ladder and pull a proper budget together. It will still be a micro-budget movie, but with the unusual story and genre (i.e., placing a 73-year-old woman as the lead in an action thriller) we hope to raise enough finance to cast at least two named actors in supporting roles.

So at the time of writing, I’m formulating a pitch document for potential investors and sales agents, as well as putting the final touches to the screenplay. There’s still lots to do in terms of locations and logistics, but we’re garnering some real attention already and plan to move swiftly into pre-production for a 2020 shoot.

What has your experience been like as a female producer/screenwriter in the industry and have you faced discrimination compared to men? What has your experience been like with ageism?

Before the #MeToo movement I’d never thought about being a woman in the industry. I simply wrote screenplays and worked hard to get films produced. If there’s ever been any discrimination toward me I’ve not been aware of it … but then maybe I’ve been lucky or just naive!

Ageism is a huge problem in the creative industries. I came into this business in my forties and there seems to be little or no support for mature people who want to change careers and make headway in the film industry. I’m in my fifties now and finally making progress, but it’s been slow, as any help or support on offer to ‘first time filmmakers’ excluded us on the basis of age. I’m lucky that James and I both have in-house skills, which have enabled us to forge ahead despite the obstacles … other people are not so fortunate. Ageism exists throughout society, not just in the film industry. It seems experience counts for nothing. Everyone talks about helping the next generation and this is great, but they mustn’t overlook the current generation who may also be struggling for finance, grants, training, support, etc.

At Raya Films, we are proud to offer opportunities to people of all ages looking to make a start in the film industry, and we have repeatedly done this with cast and crew ranging from young students to retirees.

How do you view the #MeToo movement and what changes do you think need to be made in the industry, if any?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about the #MeToo movement, having never experienced any sexual harassment in the industry. One thing I do feel strongly about is that just because there’s one bad apple on screen, doesn’t mean the whole production should be dropped.

For example, Kevin Spacey was fronting a movie called ​Gore​ about Gore Vidal for Netflix. The film was finished thanks to the hard work and passion of the 100+ cast and crew. Then Spacey’s scandal erupted and Netflix shelved the film. ​Gore​ was not just Spacey’s film. It was the film of those 100+ other people, and no-one will now be able to see on screen the result of what they collectively achieved.

What advice can you give to other female filmmakers just entering the industry, especially older women? (networking, finding opportunities, skills etc)

I would say to anyone making their way in the film industry – male or female of any age – to outwork everyone else. You need to be physically fit, you need to be able to articulate and communicate, and you need to be disciplined on set. You will get many knocks and setbacks, but getting back up and pushing on regardless will make you stronger.

Reach out to other filmmakers, producers, and directors on social media. Try to get to as many networking events as possible, and maybe offer to help out on a project. It’s all about contacts in this industry. And it’s all about working ‘in the field’ where you will learn and progress the most.

On-set of Cyberlante (Photo Credit: David Ward)

What is the most important lesson you have learnt, whether that is in life or in the industry?

The most important lesson I’ve learnt is, unfortunately, not to put trust in people until they have proven themselves. I’ve been far too trusting in the past and, as a result, have been burned or taken advantage of many times. Particularly in the film industry, there are many ‘blaggers’ who exaggerate their experience and background, or even lie about their intentions or abilities. There’s a lot of jealousy out there as well, particularly I find in the UK – where the industry is smaller and more close-knit than one might expect – so it’s important not to let the doubters get you down. In my world, there’s no such word as “can’t”!

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