Passionate people make the best things. This is true of any walk of life, not just filmmaking. If somebody does something because more than anything, they truly love it, the results are always stunning. These kind of people/creations are easy to spot because they elicit the most visceral reactions. Whether that means we smile big, cry buckets or get fired up with anger; these emotions are almost always as a result of seeing/hearing/experiencing something spewed forth by a passionate person.
Jamie McKeller – creative empresario behind York based film company Redshirt Films is one such person. We first came across his work at a festival called Up North last year. His short film Hooped wowed the crowd and won the festival’s audience vote by a landslide. It was obvious to everyone in the room that this was something special.
But what we didn’t know (at that point) was that McKeller’s company had been making web series’ for some time. Working with literally zero budgets and a handful of loyal companions Redshirt have put together a hugely impressive catalogue of work, which is all free to watch on their website. This includes ‘I Am Tim’ – a faux documentary following monster hunter Tim Helsing, ‘Nights at the Round Table’ – a comedy set against the backdrop of a tabletop gaming community and numerous short films and music videos.
We sat down for a chat with the man himself for an exclusive chat about life, filmmaking and creating severed limbs without spending a penny. So without further ado, here is the Cultoid interview with Jamie McKeller.
When was Redshirt Films conceived/founded?
I’d like to say it was an epic forging of minds, a coming together of passionate filmmakers and geeks striving to create something truly amazing… but it was a total accident. Back in March 2010 I was just preparing to move to Edinburgh to start a new life in a new country with a very lovely lady (who ended up producing most of season one of I Am Tim) when I was struck by an unshakeable idea. I was living out of boxes at my parents house for a week before the move, and had just discovered The Guild on my Xbox. I went digging into the Internet and found more and more of these amazing things called web series. Some were fantastic, some were just awful. I figured I could at best make a mediocre one.
I spent most of my twenties working in theatre as an actor, writer or director so writing for film, and in fact producing film was completely alien to me. I made a Facebook group called “Tim Helsing”, posted the synopsis and asked for help. Day one saw us stood on a cycle path outside of York with a camera operator, a special effects guy and the cast. I don’t really understand how we managed to film anything usable at all. As the project went on I learned more with every shoot, and around a year in I decided to found an actual company so we could start making other projects such as “Hooped” and “Nights at the Round Table.” Three years on from that first shoot, and we have a pool of around 30 crew members that work on various projects.
Was there an initial plan or was it just a platform to promote any and all projects?
I went in planning to shoot and release six episodes of I Am Tim. After episode three I realised that we were having way too much fun and decided to make a second season, and then a third. Somewhere around the end of season two I became aware of how much I had picked up as an editor, and made the George Lucas style choice to remove all the episodes from the Internet and recut them. Season one grew from six to sixteen episodes (shorter, more refined, internet friendly!) and season two went to eighteen. Season three is currently still shooting and in edit, but it’s looking to be around the fifteen mark.
The hope was that thousands of people would find Tim and fall in love with the show. It’s happened by the hundreds so far, and the number keeps growing as the series continues. We’re often referred to as the most stubborn web series that exists as a lot of people would chuck it all in with our viewing figures! But it’s the first thing we set out to make, and we swore that we would see it to the end no matter what happened. Plus, the weeks we film the series are some of the best times we have all year.
When did you first become interested in filmmaking?
I played with a DV camera when I was in my teens. I would shoot friends acting out scenes in one take, pausing the camera between shots and picking up once we were ready. It was a mess, obviously. Once I realised I wanted to create worlds and place characters in them I soon discovered that theatre was more immediate and accessible. It was until I was 29 that I started becoming interested in film again, and by that time technology was such that anyone can shoot a great story with the most basic of equipment. A beautiful film look can be achieved for nothing now, a budget travels a lot further. I’ve never actually experienced a budget (Hooped was made for £25) so I’m hoping that one day I get to experience what it’s like to be able to play with bigger toys. For now though, it’s all about sharpening my writing skills and seeing how far I can push the boundaries of true zero budget filming. Having £10,000 is NOT zero budget. Having £10 is, and I’ve experienced that a lot over the last three years.
Who/What are your main influences? Can you cite any particular person as being formative in influencing your style/approach?
Robert Rodriguez is inspirational. I know his films are considered trashy by some, but his Mariachi style of filmmaking really speaks to me. He can’t help but get his dirty hands on the camera, something I’m getting better at stepping away from… He fought tooth and nail to get his career started, against some insane odds but he refused to quit. Planet Terror is a completely ridiculous film that I can watch over and over again.
Edgar Wright is a heavy influence as well. He tells great stories and his visual style is incredible. He makes Cornettos look like the most satisfying meal in the world.
How did I Am Tim begin life?
It was a rainy evening in February 2010. I was just about to move to Edinburgh when the idea crept into my brain and started shouting. I’d acted in tv and film but had no idea how to make something like this happen, so I created a Facebook group and invited several fellow uni graduates to join and offer their advice. WIthin a week I’d found myself a willing cameraman and a small crew. I’d met Simon Brodie (the evil genius behind the effects) in 2009 at a zombie walk I organised, and was blown away by his costume. The rest just fell into place beautifully. I wrote the first episode and we shot it a couple of weeks later. I had more production documents than a Hollywood film… shot lists, schedules, three paragraph breakdowns of every shot. I was determined to make the first day of filming run as smooth as possible!
From there it just kept growing and developing. We’re just about to enter the last week of filming to finish season three and have a crew of fifteen and a cast of around forty. I’m not sure how it became this monster!
How long does it typically take to film/edit/release each episode?
Depends entirely on the content of the episode. For instance, the episode “Night of the Living Bread” was written, shot and edited in under a week. Tim vs The Sheeple took around three months to lock the script, at least a week in total to shoot (spread out over a few weeks) and then easily two months to edit. For both seasons one and two we’ve had to release the episodes in two blocks, with a Summer break. Season three will be released differently though. The plan is to have everything locked and ready by late Spring 2014, and then release an episode every week for three months, with little bitesized episodes that support the main series popping up once a week as well.
You have a really natural acting style, which lends itself to the humour in I Am Tim, but in other projects you’ve been mainly behind the camera. Is that because you prefer directing?
A lot of people tell me that, but I couldn’t feel more awkward and clumsy when on film. I become painfully aware of my hands… Also, Tim is a weird monster. It’s not a problem to direct from the inside whereas Nights at the Round Table is a more considered project. I do pop up in the Halloween special as an unfortunate gamer, but I promised myself I’d never attempt to direct and act in something that wasn’t Tim. I’m much happier behind the camera with a pile of notes and a massive coffee.
Do you have any kinds of budgets for your projects, or is it all good will and creative thinking? (I’m thinking about severed limbs and actors’ catering in particular)
We’ve used Indiegogo a couple of times, but only for small amounts. Money is a luxury we rarely have, so if the last few years have taught me anything… it’s how to be very creative with a very tiny amount of money. We’ve raised about £1800 for our final shoot which is hopefully going to be the most epic thing we’ve filmed to date. Normally that would be spent over eight or nine episodes, whereas we’re piling it all into two massive adventures. Should I ever acquire a budget in the five figure region I reckon I’ll give you something that looks like Inception.
How has the reception been thus far to Nights at the Round Table?
Really positive! The web series world is a great thing to be a part of. Filmmaking can be a laborious process, and I see friends making shorts and features that can take a year or two to be released. With web series the response is immediate, and the audience engagement is ongoing. Nights seems to have reached a pretty good amount of people in a short amount of time, with the first episode approaching 3000 views. That’s not exactly Tom Ridgewell numbers, but we’re very happy with the reaction and as the series progresses it finds new fans.
Tell us a bit about Hooped. Obviously we saw it win at Up North Film Festival, but have you had any other recognition?
Hooped was a deliberate departure from the horror stuff. Someone referred to me as “that horror guy” in a pub once, and I knew I had to make the silliest, loveliest little romcom as soon as possible. We originally intended to put it into Virgin Media Shorts but the weather delayed the shoot for almost a month, by which time the deadline had passed. The actors also had clashing schedules and although the shoot was the easiest, nicest shoot I’ve ever had it almost didn’t happen. I’m very glad it did, as it helped Redshirt Films reach a new group of people and when it won the award at the Up North Film Festival it boosted our confidence and reaffirmed that we’re on the right path. I think it cost me £20 to make, so again… the day I get a budget will be a great day!
What would be your dream project? Is there an end goal you are working towards? Would you prefer to work in films or TV?
I think the line between film and TV is becoming thinner every day. Breaking Bad, House of Cards, these are very big, epic feeling stories. With TV you can go for the slow burn and tell a complex, rich story over 200 hours whereas film can feel a bit smash and grab. For me, I’d like to try it all. We’ve made 56 episodes of I Am Tim and 9 episodes of Nights at the Round Table. There’s a feature version of Tim in development as well as a super low budget, super naughty romcom rattling around in my head. I’ve also spent the last couple of years developing a pilot for TV (even getting paid at one point!) but sadly the project was recently binned. I still have the script, and my brain has started suggesting I should develop it as a web series… another one!
Tell us about your current/upcoming projects:
We’re in the very early stages of making our first proper feature which will be shot in 2014 and 2015. It’s a feature version of I Am Tim based over a year of his life. Whereas the web series is very frantic and chaotic, the film version will be a little more considered and have the look of a professional documentary rather than the found footage style of the web version.
“Playground” is a romantic comedy set at a swingers party which will be shooting in Autumn 2014. It’s another departure from the stuff I’ve made so far. No monsters, vampires, gamers or blood. Just a rather filthy story following some terrible people!
We’ll be continuing our web based stuff with the third season of I Am Tim, as well as a couple of new shows. “The Away Mission” follows the misadventures of two original series Star Trek redshirts who are abandoned on an alien planet and have to deal with boring things such as food, shelter and limbo dancing aliens.
The next couple of years are going to be nuts what with the Raindance Festival, MCM Expo in London and the ludicrous amount of filming we have planned, but it’s going to be amazing!”
Many thanks to Jamie for this fantastic interview. We will keep you posted with all the upcoming release dates for Redshirts projects.