Jamie Noel is a director and writer whose first feature film, Lie Low (2019), was made on a micro-budget (shoestring doesn’t even begin to cover it) over 13 days in UK and France. Lie Low (2019) is available on Amazon Prime and surpassed the million streamed minutes mark on Amazon during summer 2019.
What follows is a genuinely fascinating insight into the filmmaking process, the challenges of shooting a movie on such a small budget, as well as some great advice for budding writers and directors.
FF: Can you explain what Lie Low (2019) is about?
JN: So, Lie Low (2019) follows a young man called Parnell who witnesses a knife crime in the south east of England. He escapes with his mother to France, where his sister lives. They hide out at his sister’s; she’s living a kind of a bohemian lifestyle with her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s father, who turns out to be a kind of self appointed Shaman. He takes Parnell under his wing whilst Parnell’s kind of working out his own issues, and the strange family ties sort of play out… In the meantime we see the repercussions of this violent act at the beginning of the film slowly making their way to where the family are.
FF: What was the most challenging aspect of shooting this film and did the final version come close to your original vision?
JN: The way I had to shoot it meant that my original vision always had to become quite fluid.
Originally, we were going to make the film for £150,000 and, at some point, after banging my head against the wall trying to get finance for that and get that up and running, decided to make it for £10,000 over 10 days. It turned out that it was actually £15,000 and change, and that it was shot over 13 days. So, you know, you have this original vision that you have very solidly in your mind but as soon as you commit to this method of shooting, your vision has to become malleable, you know? I think story-wise, the narrative and structure, those things are all intact and they’re all there. You know, you storyboard it, and we were relying on natural lighting, and last minute changes to two locations and so, to be honest, there’s some things in there that aren’t quite to the level of my original vision and then there’s other things that surpassed it because they just weren’t planned.
I think giving yourself that freedom and not being so rigid and structured to a preconceived idea of what it’s going to be, you allow yourself to discover things and for happy accidents to happen. Especially for the actors, and if you’re really creative and artistic and want to follow that path of being an ‘artist’, I think, for me, that’s where it is, you know, when you find things and discover things that weren’t there to begin with.
FF: You’ve just touched on this, but can you elaborate on how you managed to make this feature with a budget of just £15,000, considering the production values, the cinematic quality that is consistent throughout the film etc.
JN: I still don’t know, to be honest! I think a bit of tenacity, a smidgeon of ignorance, and just not accepting the limitations of your own talent and experience and the resources that you’ve got. Just doing it… literally just throwing caution to the wind.
I’ve shot a lot of corporate videos and documentaries where I’ve been the only person on set, and when you get there you’re at the mercy of whatever you’re given, you know? Sometimes you turn up with somebody to do an interview and you just have to use whatever you’ve got there. So I kind of already had experience, just coping with whatever you’re given. I think it’s a humbling sort of state to put yourself in: this is what you’ve got.
To honest, it’s nothing new… I kind of had Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement in the back of my mind, where they kind of created a set of rules…like you can’t have a gun; you can’t shoot with lighting; the actors have to wear their own clothes etc. All of these sort of ideas…
The reason why they came up for the philosophy behind that was that if you if you give yourself that rigid approach – the dogme – then it frees you from the other constraints, which are budget and time. And so, yeah, we like that the story hardly changed, I did make changes to the scripts, obviously, but in essence, the main change was the logistics.
So, we went from, say, a 25 person crew, and maybe 10 cast members on set at any given time (35 people on set)… this is when we were, you know, doing the schedule… to having me, a sound guy and a production manager/runner. And that was it. Then we’d never have more than 5 cast members on set at a given time. We kind of planned the costume and wardrobe beforehand and I made sure that we had what they needed. The actors were fine with making themselves up and dressing themselves, you know, which is quite common in theatre and things like that. So, I think, people can get attached to the comfort that you have on larger budgets, you know, which have their merits, and, you know, God willing, or whoever willing (!), hopefully one day I’ll have that luxury on a feature film. I’ve had that luxury before with shorts but, I think, you know, for now, if I want to make features, this is how I have to do it, and I’m willing to do it that way, you know, and I recommend it to anybody as well; just go out there and do it.
FF: Given the particularly small budget, did the actors actually get paid?
JN: Yeah, yeah they did. So, when it was originally £10k in 10 days, that was me saying, I’m not going to pay the actors, I’m not gonna pay anybody; it’s going to be on a points system. If we can sell it, you know, we can make money, and ‘we’re in it together’ sort of thing. And then I went back to my casting director, who I’d worked with on a short, and she soon disabused me of the idea! She was adamant that we should pay the actors and, to be honest, it was the best thing that happened. It wasn’t a lot of money – just above minimum wage – it was the bare amount we could afford. But, you know, you add in dealing with agents, and there’s more of a commitment and the actors feel like they’re not being taken advantage of and they’ve still got points on the film, as well. It’s a camaraderie thing, too.
I couldn’t have done it without the actors. They were amazing. When I talked to other filmmakers about the process of doing this film on this budget there were a lot of naysayers; there was a lot of like, ‘I don’t think you can do it’. Nearly every single actor was like: ‘I love what you’re doing! I’m game.’ I think a lot of actors have an entrepreneurial streak in them, because they have to be a self generating business almost. And I think that feeds into that. Let’s just do it. Let’s get some stuff made, you know? So, yeah, the actors were paid, what little crew we had were paid every day and then just the logistics of feeding, travel, etc. Everything else was kind of begged, borrowed and stolen.
FF: Did you draw on any personal experiences when writing this?
JN: Yeah, to a certain degree. Because I’m starting from a spot where I’m outside of the industry, I always start pragmatically, which is that I don’t have time to do very in-depth research. So, I think most of what I’ve done so far is… I start from a place where I know these kinds of people and these type of characters… The situation that they get into might be extreme and so you research that, to make sure that what’s happening could happen in the real world. But, you know, I’m from the north east of England with quite a working class background… when I came down to London, hanging out with my dad and stuff, you come into contact with people who live on the edge of violence, you know, whether it’s dealing with drug abuse or casual violence. Originally the film was set up north and, when I was a kid, the type of criminality was very different to what I experienced in London. London seemed very much more organised, and focused. Up north, people had jobs, lived their lives, went to the pub, but also had fingers in criminality. And so you weren’t a real gangster or you know, you weren’t a criminal, you were just somebody that was a bit ‘dodgy’… You’re in a pub and somebody might come in with a bag full of clothes or something, you know, and you never thought anything of it. And I think all of that sort of informed the earlier versions of the script. And then because I had to set it in the south, because of access to actors, it kind of took on a different tone with the focus on the knife crime and, maybe, gang culture to a certain extent, or at least the parameters of it, you know.
I think everything you write has to come, at some point, from something you know, unless you have, again, the time to really do some in-depth research, which I don’t really at the moment, you know? One day though!
FF: Did you choose the French Riviera to draw a clear contrast and escape from the London gangland crime scene?
JN: So that was a completely happy accident!
Originally, that part of the film was set in a seaside resort that was closed for the winter in Britain. We looked at Norfolk and in Norwich I think there’s a seaside resort… We looked further down south, places like Dungeness… It was all to try to create, you know, a dichotomy and a contrast between urban and then the more rural, But then I was looking for this location and had a bit of money, a very small amount of money to spend on the location. One of the potential investors turned around and said they knew of a place in the French Riviera that we could use. And I started scratching my head and thought, ‘Well, that sounds great! That would be a free accommodation but we’ve got to get everybody out there…’, you know, which is a whole other thing, and then feed them when they’re out there etc.
The aim was to always have a location away from London or wherever people live, so that we were all on location and then that would create some sort of bonding and camaraderie, and we could shoot an hour later than normal without it taking a toll on anybody. But I did the maths, and it worked out fine and it worked out a bit cheaper. Then, because of the natural difference that you’ve obviously noticed and a lot of people have, it really helped.
Then it snowed as well, whilst we were in London! The first day it snowed I shot around it, I didn’t want, you know, to be shooting the next day and not have any snow. So I completely avoided the snow for the first day. And then it was about halfway through the second day I was like ‘right now I can make this a character’ and shot quite a lot. But then we got out to the French Riviera and it was so much sunnier than it should have been and I started worrying that the difference might be too much but it’s something we’ve received a lot of compliments on so that’s great.
FF: How long did it take to write the film?
JN: I actually started writing it 6 years ago, I would say.
The problem is that I’ll have a germ of an idea and I’ll develop that into a story and then I kind of go the opposite way to the way you’re told, which is I just write reams of dialogue… I can go for a walk and come back with at least 10 pages of dialogue. It’s very easy for me to write dialogue; I find it very hard to write direction; I really have to concentrate and think about that. So, I’ll get away with writing a lot of dialogue and so the germ of the idea of Lie Low (2019) was always in the back of my mind but I was also developing different things.
Then a friend of mine came back from a trip in Mexico, and they were like, ‘I want to be a producer’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this kind of script, I’ll go and work on it 2 – 3 weeks, and I’ll polish it, and then I’ll have it’. They left the production and I went through another couple of producers and and then went back and shot some short films because I realised I was trying to make a feature before I had any sort of short film experience. I’d made short films in the past but a long time ago. So things just go back and forth, you know, so it’s really hard to sort of pinpoint how long in man hours it would have taken to write. Sometimes that’s better, because some of the ideas have marinated; the more poetic character arcs etc. and it really, fully forms rather than you sitting down in front of a computer trying to work it out according to whatever scriptwriter’s book you have the time.
FF: There are excellent performances in the film from the relatively inexperienced cast members such as Elinah Saleh and Aaron Thomas Ward. Did that happen naturally or did you have to kind of coach them through it?
JN: I think it was a bit of a mix… I wouldn’t say I coached anybody through it. I think I formed a good relationship with them both beforehand, where there was a level of trust and safety. I think Aaron is actually quite an experienced actor for somebody his age, He is really keen and asks a lot of questions and he’s very attentive. I’ve worked with him on a short beforehand where he was the lead and I was wondering whether to use him for Lie Low (2019) because I thought he might be a bit older than I was imagining. But, I thought, I’ve got a good relationship with him, he’s a good actor, and I start talking to him on the phone about it and thought, ‘Yeah, he gets it.’ He did a lot of homework; he felt like he knew that character, he knew of those characters in his neighbourhood.
With Elinah, I had another actress in mind who pulled out quite close to the shoot. There were two actresses I was looking at, with Elinah being one of them. We did an audition and she was just so emotional and it was really, really kind of intense but I could tell it was, you know, out of raw honesty and maybe a lack of experience. I felt like it was a good chance to take and she and she proved me right. We formed a good relationship; when I see them both it’s nice, it’s like seeing family, you know? I think they’re both going to be great. I think Aaron’s on his way, already. Elinah’s getting bits and parts here… So, yeah, I’m looking forward to see their careers develop.
Actually, I think that’s the best thing about it. Whatever happens with the film, forming relationships with other artists and and seeing their careers flourish, you know, finding fulfilment in different parts of their life is worth all of it. I think that’s, you know, more about the experience than the end product.
FF: What advice would you give to budding writers?
JN: Oh, well I don’t actually consider myself a writer… that’s the funny thing.
I think it’s a kind of an old adage, you know, it’s advice I’ve heard quite a lot, which is just write. Just write anything, you know? If you want to write an instruction manual for using your phone, write that. Keep writing and don’t be intimidated, especially with film. I wanted to make my own film, so I knew I had to put restrictions on myself, which is, you know, location, size of cast etc. But if you’re serious about writing a script, just write it. Whether it’s a space opera across seven seasons just write it, just get it down. Just do that. And you’ll make your own mistakes. Don’t rely on writing guru books too much. They’re good, but a bit like Google Maps: if you’re going in the woods, it’s good to sort of every now again, just check that you on a path, but it’s better to explore and find your own path and make your own mistakes.
I’m not really into giving advice, because obviously, I’m still very, very early stages of my own discovery, you know,
FF: That said, what advice would you give to budding directors?
JN: Same again really. Just direct! Direct anything. Moving image is the most accessible art form. If you want to write a book, good luck. You really need to know language and understand prose and phrasing and grammar. You need to be a poet, really, I think anyway, to be a good book writer. If you want to be a painter or an artist, you need to spend years and years doing this. I’m not saying you don’t need experience to be a filmmaker but, every day, we are interacting with visuals, whether it be on our phone, watching an advert or watching a music video etc.. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have that in their life. I know people that don’t listen to music, and people that never pick up a book, you know, but nearly everybody interacts whether they want to or not, with the visual form.
Go out there and shoot and don’t pay too much attention to the rules and the grammar. I think that’s important but I think just go out there and shoot stuff and find your own grammar, and your own rules. And just experiment as much as possible. Because, at some point, as soon as you start taking it seriously, or you start getting paid, or you’re lucky enough to get funding or whatever all of that experimentation and playing will be sucked out of you to create, you know, a premade. So if you’re already experimental, if you’ve already gone that distance, then hopefully, when you’re having all of that sucked out of you, it won’t be sucked out too much that you end up being a hack; you’ll be somewhere in between where you can marry the poetry with the rigid and the commercial. You can can marry the purposefulness with naturalism. Before you start learning all the film school rules go and play as much as possible and be creative.
FF: What are you currently working on? And so what’s next for you?
JN: So I’m working towards shooting another feature this time next year for a little bit more money, but not a great deal more. We’re looking at £50,000, which is essentially the same sort of logistics. There’s a very small documentary crew. The reason why it’s gone up to £50k is because, with shooting for £15k, I’ve seen the holes that were in the production, but I think I can plug those by knowing exactly where to put the money now and know exactly where to market it and how to package that as a pitch deck to investors. So I feel very in control of that. And that’s a script that I’m developing; I’ve nearly finished the first draft and then I’ve got maybe a few more drafts to write for it so it’s in a good place. But we’re already pitching for investment now. So, yeah, it’s exciting times!