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Antony Spina Talks About "THE PROGRAMME" and the Key Challenges in Film-making

Can you introduce yourself and your project as well as tell us how it all came together?

My name is Antony Spina, and I am the writer and director of ‘The Programme’. A film set in world where violent criminals who are unwilling to reform and seem to be suffering from a sever lack of conscience, are placed into a futuristic prison system where they have one forcibly installed for them and reform is the only option left.

How did you get involved in film?

My journey was a bit of a strange one really. Right from when I was only a child, I always had a massive love of stories, whether that was in the form of books, comics or films. But back then, I never really knew that someone could take a love of something like that and make a career out of it. I was writing from an early age too, but as no one ever really ever read any of my work until much, much later, it was more of a hobby really. But I went to university and did a course that I had some interest in but in the end, it turned out, wasn’t quite for me. But one positive was a tutor there noticed I had more of an interest in the story part of the creative process and suggested I follow that particular thread. So once I’d finished university I began applying for runners jobs in Soho’s many production houses in London. This went on for a good few years, going from one place to the next trying to work my way up the ladder. But even though I’d been aiming for production houses, at one point I ended up in post production. There I took it upon myself to stay late after work after everyone had gone home and teach myself how to edit; another part of the creative process I really enjoyed and happened to be pretty good at it if I do say so myself. And even though writing and directing was always the dream for me, that plan ended up on the back burner for a wee while as video editing became the new career path. Okay, it wasn’t exactly planned on, but it was something of a necessary move at the time really. And other than being good at it, I greatly enjoyed editing and always will. And in a way editing taught me just as much about the film making process as being a runner on set did years earlier. Because when I’m directing now, I’ll be thinking about how this shot will look in the edit. How will that clip transition to this clip and how many frames will that sound effect go on for after it fades to black. All very important things to know when trying to tell a story the best way you can. But my passion for directing just wouldn’t die down. And my first directing debut came about because an actress I’d worked with previously had heard a few of my story ideas and I suppose liked the way I thought. She told me she wanted to work on a project with me with one proviso; whatever idea I came up with, it had to be a drama. “Not my usual cup of tea" I told her but I agreed nonetheless. And so off I went to write the script for ‘Sad Little Boy’. Due to time constraints unfortunately she couldn’t be in the film, but she gave me her blessing to go off and make it anyway and that’s exactly what I did.

Describe how you would ensure that production is on schedule. What steps would you take?

Preparation is the key there. Preparation, Preparation, Preparation. Go over each step of the plan as often as you can, until you know it inside out. Do as many reckies as possible, so you’ll know exactly where you’ll be setting up this shot, that shot and the next one. And having people around you that you can trust and rely on certainly helps. Film making is not a game you can play by yourself. You need to work with others to tell stories and make films. Others who hopefully have as much passion for the project as you do. So you need to try and get the best people you can to make that happen. That being said, things will always go wrong, so you have to be prepared to do a little thinking on your feet and fix whatever problems arise as and when they happen.

How long did it take to research and make your film?

So for pretty much the first half of this project at least, it was a one-man-band job. Which meant I was doing it all alone and didn’t have anyone to help me at all. Therefore the research did take a while. Although saying that, I did have a fair bit of research done before I even started the project strangely enough. As the idea for ‘The Programme’ came from watching a whole bunch of gritty documentaries on prisons and prisoners. All in all the writing of the script, the research and the pre production happened over the course of six months or so. During the production some scenes had to be shot weeks apart plus there was a few re-shoots required as well, but once you put all the shooting days together it was about ten days I think. But a lot of them were rushed together to make the best use of time, and really it could’ve have and probably should have taken a few more days. Then came the longest part; the editing, which I did myself. A lot of the post production had to be done in my spare time, evenings and on weekends, due to having a full time job as an editor. It really took a lot of effort, but hey, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right. And being a bit of a perfectionist I did spent a good few months on all the editing, grading, effects, etc. More or less the whole process was just under a year I believe.

What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film director?

I have always believed the story is the most important part of any film. Not the frights or making the audience jump. Nor the action sequences and fight scenes or the special effects. The story always comes first. So the most important quality for any director is having the imagination and self discipline to tell that story the best way he or she can.

What were your key challenges in filmmaking?

Primarily I suppose one of the key challenges for me was not knowing if I could actually pull it off. ‘The Programme’ was only my second film, so as much as I was going to give it a try no matter what, there was still a bit of doubting myself along the way. With my first film, ‘Sad Little Boy’ I didn’t really know how to direct, having never actually done it before. So there was a lot of worrying that I was going to be out of my depth. Despite any fears though, I knew I was determined to give it a bash regardless, and thankfully it turned out I did a pretty good job. At least I think I did. But that film was on a much smaller scale compared to this one. When it got to ‘The Programme’ everything was much bigger. From the location sets to the many cast and crew. Knowing I’d have to tackle all that was more than a bit nerve wracking at times. But despite any and all fears of the unknown, you always have to give it a try anyway. And when I did, not only did the film turn out pretty good in the end, it also made me think I’m not so bad at this directing malarky.

An actor is being unprofessional. How do you manage the situation?

Fortunately I’ve not had any actors being all that unprofessional where they’re having a tantrum about something, and I hope it stays that way. I have had an actor turn up to shoot a scene that we were already pushed for time for, and he couldn’t remember one word of his lines. It was like pulling teeth trying to quickly go over them before hand, then start rolling and hope he’d remember what we’ve just gone over and how to express them on camera a moment later. It just wasn’t working. So I’m glad to say there was a smidge of quick thinking on my part. As I decided instead of having him read his lines as planned, I changed things around a bit. Instead we established between the two of us exactly what his character mood was and how he should be feeling. And then I simply started asking him questions and got him to answer them in character. Questions like: “So if you’ve always got to be looking over your shoulder, and you can’t trust anyone in here, how would that make you feel?” And: “What makes you think you don’t deserve to be on this programme?” I wasn’t sure if it would work at first, but he ended up giving a fantastic performance. And if ever his answers weren’t quite enough, I’d simply ask him a follow up question of “Why”. And instantly you could see him thinking on camera and giving genuine, in-depth answers of what he (in character) was feeling right then and there about that particular question. He really did a great job in the end.

What is the role of film festivals?

The role of film festivals is two fold in my mind. The first being, whether your film is good or not, it’s important to put yourself and your work out there and get feedback on it. You basically need to know how you’re doing at your craft. If your film is doing well in the festival circuit then great, clearly you’re doing something right. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve though. No matter how good you are at something, you can always get better. But let’s say your film doesn’t do so great in the few festivals you’ve entered it in. Well that tells you something in itself. Not all festivals will give you feedback, so it might then be on you to get reviews from somewhere else. That can be for example; finding professionals in the field and paying them to watch and review your film. But it can also be as simple as asking your friends and family to sit and watch and tell you (honestly) what they thought. That way you should get a real understanding of where the film might be jarring or where one section isn’t connecting the way you might’ve liked it to. The second important role of film festivals is to essentially get the word out there about you and your work. To hopefully make other people in the industry aware of you , and fingers crossed could be the begins of some sort of network of people that you can one day work and collaborate with.

Describe a time when you made a mistake in your duties. How did you rectify it?

There’s been a whole bunch of mistakes I’ve made along the way, I’m sure they’ll be a few more too. But mistakes is how we learn so you should never be to ashamed to make them. One of my examples I can think of was on a particular scene we were shooting, I was the stand in DOP and sound recordist. Normally I wouldn’t dare do these jobs, but the actual DOP and sound recordist had canceled on me the night before, so when needs must and all that. But I’d accidentally not set up the external microphone properly and had been recording sound directly through the camera mic instead. This meant I still had the audio but it sounded a touch echo-y and didn’t suit the rest of the film. What I did to correct it was this. In the edit, I played around with the audio to get it as good as I could, and then I added the sound effect of heavy rain as if it was coming from outside. This seemed to work. For one, the sound effect matched perfectly with the previous bit of B-roll that led to the scene I’d mucked up to begin with. And the echo-y audio didn’t notice as much. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from perfect and I was still mad at myself for letting it happen. I was considering doing another re-shoot for it but essentially by that stage I just had to push on, and of course I would change it if I could. But as my film is supposed to play out in the documentary style, how the audio ended up in that scene, actually gave it nice sense of realism that you’d expect to find in gritty documentaries. So overall I was happy… ish.

What is the future of film?

When talking about the future of film, I’ve heard people say once or twice that cinemas will die out soon enough and the future will be more or less entirely home viewing. And covid certainly seemed to help with that idea I’d imagine. But I for one, don’t actually think this will be the case and certainly hope not as I love going to the cinema. I’m one of those people that has to be there in my seat, ready for when the trailers start before the film. Yes, it’s easier to sit on your sofa at home and watch it on your widescreen TV, but going to the see it on the silver screen lends a magical element I think. Otherwise the same question could be asked; will bands every stop touring? I mean you could just listen to their album at home, right. Or watch a prerecorded live concert they’d made. But the fact is people love going to see bands play live because it’s a fantastic experience that no one should miss out on in life. Going to see a great film in the cinema is a similar experience that all should partake in from time to time. Whether it be with the family, on a date on or on your own. I’d certainly miss them if they were gone.

What has been your favourite film to make and why?

My favourite film to make was the last one, ‘The Programme’, for a few reasons. Right from the off I felt it was an idea that hadn’t really ever been done before. Or at least I’d never seen anything like it. I remember re-reading bits of the script and absolutely loving some of the dialogue from this or that character. And the sense of real feeling coming from this and that scene. I found every step of the creative process very thrilling in that regard. So both the story I wrote and the originality of the idea itself, was very exciting for me. The other reason was the challenge of it all. Yes there were more than a few daunting moments, worrying at the very beginning I might be out of my depth with it all. Or even right at the end, when I was working all day on the edit, I remember a moment where I believed that no one would like it and that I’d spent the best part of year wasting my time. But those worries are normal for everyone, and the silly moments and silly fears all pass quickly enough. And of course I stuck at it nonetheless. I kept pushing myself, harder and harder to prove to myself that I could do this. And I find that sort of challenge personally exhilarating.

What has the audience reaction been like?

So far I’m so thankful to say that the audience reaction has been absolutely fantastic. Which to be honest I was surprised at. Not because I didn’t think the film was any good. Far from it in fact. Without tooting my own horn here, I think the film is very good. But I thought that it was going to be one of those dividing films you come across every now and then. Where people either like it or they don’t. That may still end up being the case, but so far everyone I know who’s watched it (even friends and

family that I had to either beg, plead or blackmail into watching it) really liked it. And the 70 + film festivals its been entered into has shown fantastic results so far. Winning a whole bunch of awards from all over the world in such categories as ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Director’. All of which is something I’m absolutely over the moon about.

Can you say something about the collaborative nature of filmmaking?

You absolutely have to collaborate when making a film. I’ll be honest and say this was not what I wanted to hear when someone first told me. Mainly because I was a bit of a nervous-nelly about approaching people with one of my ideas and basically saying “Hi, do you wanna make this film with me?”. But it’s true, you can’t make a film on your own. You have to find people to work with who share at least some of the passion you have about telling this story. That can be a bit of trail and error in many ways, and there may be some mistakes and hard times along the way. But as long as you remember everyone goes through that and you keep on going, you’ll end up finding those people to work with. When you do have someone there who can do their job well enough that you can put your complete faith in them, it means you can go and get on with the job you’re supposed to do.

Is there anyway to see the film?

Yes there is. I’m absolutely thrilled to say that both my films are now on Amazon Prime. They’re actually up there as a bundle pack, so one film follows the other. But all you have to do is go on over to Amazon Prime, then type into the search bar either my name; Antony Spina, or either one of the film titles: ‘Sad Little Boy’ or ‘The Programme’ and they’ll come up. Plus, within the next coming weeks, the films will also be on Google Play, Apple TV and another VOD channel called MyProduc*


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