A core member of Ren‘s creative team, Michelle explains how she got involved in this epic project, doing everything from giving script feedback, through catering, to wrestling with German computers.
First, tell us a bit about your background in film and theatre.
I wrote my first play at 9 and made my first films at 11 (an animated film about ants and a puppet movie about Eskimos) – but after that I took a long break while I wrote a lot of terrible poetry and tried to figure out what I was “really” supposed to be doing. While teaching primary school I rediscovered a love for telling stories and wearing costumes, and that led to writing and performing in my first play as an adult. Totally inspired, I became part of a scriptwriting forum and launched myself on production, toured plays to Edinburgh and London and started entering a few writing competitions. I’d always fancied writing for film, but assumed that was out of reach since I wasn’t in Hollywood anymore – until I met Kate Madison (when I hired her as an actor). She had just finished making Born of Hope, and when I saw it I said to myself, so THAT’S what can be done. At around that time I found myself able to leave teaching and devote myself full time to writing, directing and producing, and over the next five years I produced, wrote, or crewed on around 18 films – including, last summer, co-producing a new feature by Sundance Grand Prize Winner Gary Walkow, which made it into this year’s Slamdance festival (2015).
What attracted you to Ren?
I loved the idea from the minute Kate pitched it to me. I loved that she would direct it – we need more women directors! – I loved that it featured a female action heroine, and I loved the mystery of the mark, and the potential depth of the idea. I also just believe in Kate, having helped her on a number of films now. I know how great she is on set, how clear her vision is for creating a world and “seeing” how to shoot a sequence, and how passionate she is about fantasy. I was also attracted by the sheer ambition of the project. I thought, this will be a real challenge. And I thought I had something to offer, as I’m fairly organised and had quite a bit of production experience. Plus I’d never done a webseries!
I’d like to invent a new title – something like creative producer, because I worked so closely with Kate and the rest of the core team (writer and set designer/builder Chris Dane and costume designer Miriam Davies) every day and in fact we ended up doing a lot of jobs together.
The first thing I did was network like crazy trying to find a suitable space – at first just a space to build sets and run the production, but as we came to realise that the original plan of shooting in Wales was not going to be feasible, the challenge became to find a place to actually shoot the film. A woman I met dog-walking led us to the eventual “Ren studio”, which was the moment at which I started to feel really sure the project would happen. Then I organised and took part in every stage of pre-production and all the behind the scenes aspects of production – script development (16 pages of notes!), casting, finding crew and extras (lots of extras), keeping the records and the books, sourcing the lowest price materials for set and costume, finding and paying for the insurance, sorting out the various location and performing licenses (we used 18 child performers and every one required a licence – nightmare), organising transport and accommodation, recruiting and supervising volunteers, answering the correspondence, sorting the releases for every crew member, volunteer or extra, making sure everybody was fed every day, writing press releases, updating facebook, etc etc…Because we were very low budget a lot of these jobs had to be very hands on – I had to try to keep my head on the big picture and what needed to be done not just for today but for tomorrow and the rest of the week, but at the same time I also had to cook lunch for 35 people and make sure the actor arriving from Prague was picked up from the airport on time…Thankfully I had a handful of regular volunteers who helped out immensely, and the genius that is Suzanne Emerson who took over most of the communication with the extras.
As in any endeavour, your worst enemy is going to be yourself and my greatest challenge was overcoming the frustration I felt when production was in full swing and the creative input and excitement I’d felt in pre-production was sapped away by the sheery drudgery and stress of looking after a big, complicated production for such a long period of time. Once we were shooting I often felt powerless – I still had all this responsiblity, but little real decision making power – and that led to exhaustion. Fortunately that didn’t kick in until the last week or two, so I hope it didn’t affect the production too much. There are one or two crew members who came onboard late with whom I barely exchanged a word and I’m sure they think I’m a sour faced woman – I apologise!
That said, I think the absolutely worst thing for me is that we never actually got our computers and printers working properly. There was an on-going saga about me having a German speaking computer which eventually broke down completely and was replaced by three different computers, all of which had different problems, and then there were the three printers, which were supposedly wireless but were in fact brainless… Most of the time Kate and I just laughed about it, but it did make life a lot more difficult!
What was the most enjoyable day for you?
Any day I got to be on set for any length of time was a happy day! But probably the best day overall was the day when we had the most extras – we were pushing 50, I think – and shooting a great action sequence. It was very full on, but seeing how amazing everything and everyone was looking in their fantastic costumes, and feeling the energy from the cast and crew and extras, and the glimpses I got of how well Kate was doing and how positively she and Neil worked together as a team, it really felt great.
Can you sum up in a sentence or two what viewers can expect from Ren when it’s released later this year?
A young actress with true star power, Sophie Skelton brings real depth to the character of Ren. This series will introduce viewers to her story, and grip them with solid storytelling, exciting action, and genuine emotion. They will be blown away by the quality of this production and what was done on such a limited budget, but I don’t think they will even think about that until they’ve compulsively watched every episode.
First, I hope that series one will realise all of our ambitions and enthrall, entertain and inspire audiences. Then, I hope that a funding platform will be established that will enable the series to continue without quite the level of scraping the barrel and begging for favours which we had to go through for this one. I hope that the story will continue to develop and deepen. And I hope that the excitement and fun and sense of comradeship which the crew felt on this production will carry on in future series.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I am writing, re-writing and looking for funding for a couple of my own scripts, and trying to learn more about the whole funding side of the game. Gary Walkow has another great script in the pipeline and I’m sure we will work on another project together, but I’d like my next major project to be a script of my own – writing is my first love, and I want to try my hand at directing again, because it terrifies me so I know it must be what I need to do!
Photos by Michael Hudson