Nick Swannell: Making Movies in Pembrokeshire
Would you tell us a bit about yourself? Where are you from?
I was born in London and grew up in Croxley Green, a little slice of suburbia near Watford in Hertfordshire. I trained as an architectural model-maker and worked in London for most of my life before moving here. I don’t miss the commute!
How long have you been in Pembrokeshire?
In about 2005 we came to visit my sister who lived in Llangwm at the time. We fell in love with Pembrokeshire (it was sunny when we visited!) and moved down in 2007, renting a house in Templeton for a short while before buying in Narberth. We didn’t know the area so we really just stuck a pin in the map, and definitely got lucky – Narberth is an amazing place with a really buzzing creative community.
How did you get into film-making?
As a kid I used to make Super-8 films with my two best friends, Matt Graham and Nic Cornwall. Matt became a very successful TV writer (EastEnders, Life On Mars, The Spanish Princess) and Nic is now a commercials director. None of us had any formal training, but I really believe that the best training you can get is just to get out there and make films. I run a recording studio and I’d made a few music videos for clients over the years; around 2014 I realised that the latest DSLR cameras were offering fabulous image quality at affordable prices so I decided to get back into it. I started my video company, 49 Media, to do commercial work, and then began to think about doing my own short film.
Tell us a bit about how you make a film?
I have a lot of ideas for films, and it may be stating the obvious but the ones that get made are the ones that are achievable in terms of cast, location and budget. On shoot days I can usually manage with just one assistant, and the smaller your cast and crew, the more likely it is they’ll be free on the days you need them. Apart from the films I co-directed, I’ve done all the post-production – editing, sound, music – myself, which is a double-edged sword; it gives me total control, but it takes a lot of time.
Every aspect of film-making is enjoyable, but I have to say I really love the editing; that’s where it all comes together. It’s fascinating how you can change the mood of the piece by putting the images together in different ways, and you can do so much with music and sound design too.
I suppose the worst bits are technical problems while shooting, but thankfully I’ve not had any real disasters on that front. Last-minute cast drop-outs can also be a challenge! But part of film-making – especially the low-budget indie sort – is being flexible enough to deal with the unexpected, and perhaps even turn it to your advantage.
Tell us about the films you have made and what awards have you won?
I’ve made five films to date: Eating Jesus, Dancing Alone, Take Me Back, Selfie and The Butcher’s Arms. Dancing Alone and Take Me Back were co-directed and written by Jane Marlow, another old friend of mine who’s written a lot for TV. We entered Dancing Alone into some festivals and were delighted when it won Best British Drama and Best Actress at the 2017 Discover.film Awards. We did the same with Take Me Back in 2018 and won Best Cinematography at the Catfish Shorts! Festival and Best Editing at the London Independent Film Awards.
Do you have a favourite film?
I honestly don’t have a favourite of my own work. I strive to improve with every film, and in that sense I feel that with The Butcher’s Arms I succeeded in my aim of creating tension and even a little jump scare! The lead actor Megan Lote-Williams did a fantastic job in her first film role – I’d love to work with her again if the opportunity arises, she has so much to offer. The other cast members – Vikki Perry, Abby Brenchley and Emily Power – were great too, and good acting makes all the difference to any film, big-budget or otherwise.
Where do your ideas come from?
Who knows where ideas come from? The title of Eating Jesus sprang from a discussion with my kids about Catholicism, and the story came from noting that a neighbour of mine suddenly had a baby, even though she hadn’t been visibly pregnant. It probably wasn’t a virgin birth in her case, but it sparked an idea. David Lynch’s Eraserhead and David Cronenberg’s The Fly are two of my favourite films, and I think little bits of those made their way into Eating Jesus.
On the other hand, The Butcher’s Arms is a good example of the indie film-making adage “start with a location” – in other words, what location do you have free access to, and can you build a story around it? I had access to a pub that was being refurbished, and the story sprang from that: what’s in the cellar?
What advice would you give to a new potential film-maker?
This is a wonderful time to be a film-maker – there’s no barrier now. You can shoot and edit a film on your phone and put it on YouTube for the whole world to see, at zero cost. There’s a ton of stuff on YouTube about indie film-making – I’m on there all the time learning new tricks. It’s an incredible source of information and it’s all free. So if you want to make films, you’ve probably already got what you need to get started.
What you REALLY need is a good story, so if you’re not a writer, find one and work with them. Also start watching films and TV with an analytical eye; note how a scene is filmed in terms of wide shots and close-ups, lighting, pace of editing, music and so forth. None of these things need be technically difficult, it’s how you combine them that counts. The ultimate goal is the same for any film-maker: you want the audience to say: “What happens next?”
How much does making films cost and how do you fund a project?
There is obviously the initial cost of equipment, but that needn’t be prohibitive. I started with (and still sometimes use) a Sony A6000 stills camera, which you can pick up second-hand with kit lens for about £250-£300. Any similar camera will shoot decent video. That’s it, you’re in the game! You’ll need a reasonably fast computer to edit on, but most laptops nowadays are up to the task. The software I use is DaVinci Resolve, and there’s a free version that’s more than enough to do good work with. So getting started is not expensive. The most important part of a good film is the story, and that doesn’t have to cost you anything but time.
My films have all been self-funded so far, with budgets ranging from zero for Selfie to around £5,000 for Take Me Back. When I say that Selfie cost nothing, I should add that I was fortunate enough to have an actress and an assistant who were happy to work for free. That’s actually a key part of independent film-making: finding people to work with who are as enthusiastic as you about it.
There’s a lot to think about – costume, make-up, props, sound, lighting – so the more help you can get, the easier your shoot will be. The flip side of asking people to work for free is that they will also feel free to cancel at the last minute! You should at least cover everyone’s food and travel costs, and if you can offer a day rate, however small, it lets people know you value their contribution. Film-making is a team effort, so it’s vital that everyone is on board and fully committed, on shoot days at least!
Thanks, Nick. That is really interesting. Where can people find your work?
My films are collected here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/5637705