Never, ever use your own cash

Films of the future - Ever thought about trying your hand at making an art-house movie? Mark Norfolk

It's February 2004, freezing cold, and I'm on the verge of starting to shoot a film called Crossing Bridges, about a suicidal man who meets an angel. The £150,000 budget provided by a group of local businessmen is measly, but given that I made a digital video feature three years earlier for £3,000, 50 times that much is going to be a cinch. Welcome to the world of independent film-making.

The most apt advice I can give an indie film-maker is, if The Money tells you he or she is going on holiday and will return the day before shooting starts, alarm bells should be ringing. I didn't hear them when it happened to me. Abandoning all caution, I took a giant leap of lemming-like stupidity, hiring camera and sound kit, crew and actors, as well as arranging locations, all on the recently increased credit limits on my two credit cards.

Crossing Bridges had begun six months earlier, when I was given a 1960s 35mm Arri IIC camera. A producer I met was trying to get in contact with the Haitian director Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Haitian Corner), but was having difficulty getting hold of him. I somehow managed to track down the feted director to a restaurant in Paris, where he had a reservation for dinner. As a reward, the producer gave me the camera, with the proviso that I use it.

But after testing the camera, my director of photography complained that using it felt like walking around with a baby African bull elephant on his shoulder. Call me unprofessional, but I was prepared to work with that. "Semantics," I said. "This is true independent film-making untethered by the formality of procedure and commerce." Then, a bombshell. A leak from Gordon Brown's office: film-tax loopholes are coming under intense scrutiny. My Money ran for cover. My credit cards were maxed out. I was in deep trouble. A conversation with the top British director John Irvin (Hamburger Hill, The Dogs of War) sprang to mind. He'd just seen Diary of Somebody, my most successful short film. "Interesting. Did you go to the film school?"

"Yes, I went to film school."

"No, did you go to the film school?" [National Film and Television School]

"No, Cardiff."

"Wales. That's interesting. Who finan- ced your film?"

So I told him how my script had won a competition, picking up £1,000, and how my local authority stumped up £3,000 and I chucked in £1,000. Something was wrong. The look on Irvin's face was as if I had just pinched his Directors Guild card.

"In my 35 years as a director, I've never spent a penny of my own money on a film," he trumpeted.

With those words reverberating in my head, I returned to the real world and used the final £1,000 credit available to me, bought a PC and was able to cobble together a crudely cut trailer and a rough cut of the film. Thenceforth I found myself staring at 17 hours of 35mm rushes, awaiting a £100k cash injection to take them from rusty can to silver screen.

They say providence favours a trier, especially one who, when slapped in the face, not only turns the other cheek, but is prone to do it again and again in the vain hope that a sore face might evoke pity in the Lord. The religious incantation might convince the Great One to send me a slice of luck not seen since Michael Moore's messy Fahrenheit 9/11 was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes. And by Jove, it worked.

I had been co-writing a script set in Japan that suddenly found itself on the desk of Hollywood's major-league players. After a year or so doing the rounds, it ran out of steam. However, one of the UK money guys who owned the rights heard about my little indie and inquired after its health. I told him it was in the can. After I'd explained what that meant, try- ing desperately not to sound desperate but failing miserably, he took a breath, long and deep, and out came: "That might be something . . . I'll take a look at it, but no promises."

A week later I get the call. He is interested, and wants to bring in some friends who might also want to take a punt. David Lean, Carol Reed, Zoltan Korda . . . your boy is going to take some beating. But this is where the real graft begins, and I must put my mouth where my mouth is. Nik Powell (producer of Ladies in Lavender, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves) once told me horror stories about the number of times he had to remortgage his house in order to get a project off the ground.

I quickly arrange a work-in-progress screening, inviting up to 12 venture capitalists to hear my pitch. Only three show up - a disappointment, as I'd forked out more than £50 for wine and nibbles, and spent considerable time putting to-gether an investment package.

It does not begin well. Before the screening, nerves take over and I hear myself babbling. It is one thing to babble, but another to babble apologetically. My primal fear was that Crossing Bridges was an art film and these guys wouldn't understand it. I was right, they didn't. But somehow they saw something else they liked . . . my babble.

Money Guy 1 commits and, after a little wobble, Money Guys 2 and 3 commit, too. The following week I meet Money Guy 4, who is also on board. So with Money Guy 5 and Money Chick 1 to meet in the coming week, things appear to be looking up.

Although a little shy of my target, the ball is rolling once again and appears to be rolling in a straight line towards my expected completion date of August. But then it starts all over again with shock and awe - the altogether more difficult battle for distribution.

Mark Norfolk is an independent film-maker. Crossing Bridges is currently in post-production and will be released this autumn

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa