The Tea & Coffee Story: How We Made A Short Film With A Name Actor In Two Weeks Flat For Less Than £2k
By Adam Patel
“How did it go?” I asked as I met Maaya in Central London, “What did he say?”
Maaya’s face dropped, “He said it doesn’t work,” she replied, tangible disappointment in her voice.
Taking a knock-back on a passion project is never easy and it’s one of the things that new writers have a really hard time with. When you tell a writer their project ‘needs work’, all they hear is, “Your writing is crap and you’ll never amount to anything,” Which isn’t true and certainly wasn’t true in Maaya’s case.
She continued, “I was thinking on the tube about everything I’ve ever written and I suddenly realised I’ve never really written anything proper. I’m not a proper writer.”
I put my arm around her shoulder to console her, “Hey hey hey. We cannot have that behaviour in this establishment!” The line from a track by The Streets had become a long-running in-joke between us, “You’re a perfectly good writer. It’s just that…”
The truth was I had known that her project had conceptual and structural issues since the week we’d met when she first told me about it. I had tried to politely bring them to her attention and that, amongst other things, had given me a reputation for pessimism. And when she’d started developing it with her mentor from Channel 4, I’d decided it wasn’t my place to comment. However, as unhappy and frustrated as it had made her, I was glad he had finally told her. Once she cheered up, she would be able to move forward with her project.
However, in my position as boyfriend, it was now my job to cheer her up. So in a change to the advertised schedule, we took a U-turn away from Piccadilly and headed for somewhere I knew would put a smile on her face.
So we sat there eating the best blend of bread, tomato sauce and mozzarella that money can buy while Maaya unloaded her frustrations.
It Started With A Soap Star
Over the course of the week I began to think about what I could do to build Maaya’s confidence. I thought she needed to see something she’d written become real. She needed somebody who is somebody to tell her that her writing was good. Which got me thinking…
I had one of her short scripts in my e-mail inbox that she had sent me to read. As a sort of semi-surprise, I decided to try and put the wheels in motion to make it happen.
During the pre-production of ‘Adam Patel: Real Magic’, my crew had been in contact with a number of celebrities and one of them was a soap star for whom, by chance, I thought would suit one of the parts beautifully. So late one evening, I sent him the script. I thought I might as well. The worst he could do was not answer. So frankly not expecting to receive a response, I thought nothing more about it, put my phone on charge, turned the light off and went to sleep.
You know that time in the morning when you’re sort-of awake but don’t really know you’re awake. You’re in some sort of womb-like limbo aware only of the comfort and warmth of the bed. You do not yet know what day it is or where you are? I was enjoying this blissful state of being when I heard a rather unusual sound from my phone.
I didn’t know what this particular sound meant but I did know it was unusual for my phone to make that sound. And especially unusual at that time of the morning. It turned out to be an e-mail notification. The soap star in question was Emmerdale‘s Bhasker Patel. And he had said yes! (He also turned out to be a really great guy!)
A few e-mails later we had settled on a shoot date in 2 weeks time!
After Maaya got over the initial shock, we had a task ahead of us. We needed to pre-produce the film from scratch in just two weeks. For non-filmmakers, that means we needed to assemble a film crew, audition the rest of the cast and lock all the locations and kit. This is work that could comfortably be done by a team of 5 or 6. We had a work force of two. Two weeks. Two people. And a budget of approximately two thousand pounds.
Finding A DoP
I sent out a couple of e-mails to crew I’d worked with before and I knew were good at their jobs. Luckily, my go-to sound man was available on those dates and happy to come on board but the DoP couldn’t make it because he was off in Barcelona filming something else. Swish!
So we needed a DoP. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it stands for Director of Photography, a term that is used interchangeably with the term cinematographer, and he’s basically the guy who makes the film look beautiful. Directors, on the whole, just say what they want the film to look like. It’s the Director of Photography’s job to make it look that way. So the next time you see a beautiful image in a movie, appreciate that DoP and not the director. While it was the director’s vision, it was the DoP’s work.
There are two major expenses even on the lowest budget pictures and one of those is equipment, commonly referred to by film crew as ‘kit’ or ‘gear’. This includes cameras and lights. It’s expensive equipment and even renting it would eat a large proportion of the available budget. Sound equipment is usually provided as standard by the sound man and I knew our sound man had everything he needed because I had worked with him before. I also knew that the only hope we had of producing Tea & Coffee for the budget we had was to find a DoP who had his own kit and could bring it on board for a negotiated fee.
We seemed to spend much of the next two weeks in Picture House Central in Piccadilly eating cake, drinking tea and meeting cinematographers, actors and actresses.
I had only ever directed one film before this one and it had been a near disaster, though in my defence, I was working at the time with a very inexperienced group of film makers who expected me to be a one-man-crew. Tea & Coffee would be my redemption.
Through some utter stroke of complete luck, we met Satinder Gill, a DoP whose arsenal of equipment was big enough for us to remake Skyfall if we’d wanted to. And on account of something about the project that really appealed to him, he was willing to throw in all the kit for a negotiated fee of…. nothing. He was also a really great guy and it’s always good to have as many those on your set as you can get.
It was very important to Maaya that the Asian roles in the script were played by actual British Indians. In the acting world, for reasons I was more than familiar with, these are particularly hard to find. In the case of the lead role of Kiran, there were only a few applicants. And within a couple of days it was confirmed that Kiran would be played by actress Shyam Bhatt.
Finding The White Man
With the two main roles cast, my belief that white male actors are easy to find had made me complacent about finding one.
And yet all those who’d answered our advert and had read for the part were hopeless. As the first day of the shoot rolled around, we still did not have the part cast.
The Shoot: Day #1
We had two scenes to shoot on day 1 of the shoot. These were both of Bhasker Patel’s scenes.
The first was the kitchen scene and on a film of this budget, it’s quite typical for the crew not to see the location until it’s time to shoot. The kitchen in question could be described in one word as pokey. It was small but full of character. Small locations present a problem because shooting a film isn’t the way it looks on the film. There’s usually a lot of lights to fit into the place and there’s also the focal length of the lenses on the camera to consider. The camera has to be a certain distance from the actors in order to capture a focussed image.
The storyboarded version of the scene that I had planned to shoot was quickly shelved because it was going to be too difficult if not impossible given the size of the room. Instead, we shot a lot of the scene as a single developing shot.
Next we moved on to the outdoor scene which we shot on the street outside. A comfortable amount of light on a quiet street made this probably the simplest scene of them all. Apart from the occasional white van that couldn’t resist hooting at us, this was relatively pain free.
All things considered the first day of the shoot went very well and we had enough to cut the scenes.
We were all ready to move on to the second day and the final two scenes.
Finding The White Man Part 2
Thankfully we had a day off in between because we still had a problem: the third character in the film had still not been cast yet.
We’d turned down everybody so far and while I was coming round to the idea that we might have to settle for somebody not quite perfect, Maaya wasn’t willing to compromise just yet.
We scheduled three more auditions for that evening and thought we were done for when two of the candidates didn’t turn up.
Thankfully, one man did. And he turned out to be a very good actor. His name was Henry Whirley-Birch and he was ideal. He looked like a good actor before he even spoke. And yet still, after all the hopeless entries, Maaya and I both sat down nervously hoping to God this guy could at least speak the lines properly. At this point, we would settle for very basic requirements. If we could get somebody who could simply speak the lines, I planned that I’d just direct the hell out of him and after a hundred takes, we might have a useable one. But all our anxieties dissipated when it turned out Henry could not only speak the lines, he could actually act! And he was good!
Phew! (We never actually told the rest of the crew (until now) that the final character was cast less than 12 hours before he was due to do the job.)
The Shoot: Day #2
The second day of the shoot was going to be a challenge and I knew it. We were going to film a scene on the tube. TFL’s official filming protocol was completely unreasonable for a short film like ours. Not to mention the £500 fee you had to pay just for them to consider giving you permission. So we really had no choice but to do it guerilla.
Filming on a functioning train presented several challenges. Most obviously, there’s the other passengers who you cannot ask to move even if you do so politely. So there was a fair bit of waiting around for a suitable environment within the train to naturally occur. We figured out we had more than zero control over this by riding from one end of zone 5 to the other and then getting off and going back in the other direction before we got too close to Central London and the train started to fill up. Maaya also had the smart idea of positioning herself in the back of the shot to block out unwelcome and unwanted members of the public.
The second problem with filming on a functioning train, probably less obvious to non-filmmakers, was the sound. You don’t necessarily notice when you ride the tube, but there’s a lot of ambient sound. Unable to clapper our shots on account of not wanting to draw further attention to ourselves, I honestly had no idea what we were going to do about the train sound or how I was going to match sound clips with video clips. The famous last words of many a filmmaker crossed my lips, “We’ll fix it in post.”
The train scene was probably the most challenging of the entire film and I think we were just happy to get off the train. I had no idea whether the footage we had would actually cut together or be in any way useable.
The Final Scene
The final scene should have been easier. But it too presented challenges. In the story, the scene was set in the morning, but when we arrived on location, it was about four thirty in the afternoon and we had less than an hour of daylight left.
Sat had come to me to discuss his concerns that we probably couldn’t shoot it as a day scene and get away with it. Maaya, unwilling to compromise, demanded that we do. And actually, looking at the final cut, I think Sat underestimated his abilities. Nobody who has so far seen the final film has ever questioned what time of day it was. It looks exactly like it should have done.
Special Thanks to Taylor Made in Northwood for allowing us to film there.
And that is how we shot a short film in 2 weeks for less than 2k, and Maaya’s confidence was restored!
Tea & Coffee is due to premiere soon at a cast & crew screening before it spends a year on the festival circuit. Fingers crossed. (I’ll update this post when there’s a YouTube link).