The genesis of Gone Fishing was an off-hand comment during a film seminar. Jones, who is the co-author of the Guerilla Film Makers Handbook, had carved out a niche for himself as a master teacher.
“I’d become quite comfortable with that,” Jones said. “I was doing a film seminar for some students and a girl who was particularly focused said, ‘You’re not a filmmaker. You’re a writer.’ I thought, ‘How dare you! You cheeky little so-and-so!’ And then I realized she was right. It had been so long since I’d done the last film that really I was more of a writer than I was a filmmaker.”
Jones decided it was time to get back in the directing game with a feature-length script called Rocketboy. He got some positive feedback, but producers were skeptical that a film could be successful with a director at the helm who had no recent credits.
“I said, ‘Fine, I’ll make you a short film that resonates in the same ways as Rocketboy, and I’ll deliver it to you in a year, and it will be world class and will win an Oscar. So I was completely bonkers. But we put our stake in the ground.”
Not only did Jones set his Oscar goal, he posted it publicly in his blog, LINK, and asked everyone who had an interest to come along with him on the journey.
“What better way to set a goal than publicly,” he said. “‘Look I’m going to try to win an Oscar, and I need your help.’ At no point after that was it possible for me to go to bed when I was tired if I knew that extra thing needed to be done. There was nowhere to hide. And that created an overwhelming drive. As soon as people see that, everyone’s infected by it. It’s like the lunatics are out of the asylum then. We lunatics congregate together and do stupid things like make films.”
While some might consider the blog to be a marketing tool, Jones prefers to think of it as “sharing,” a concept that permeates every part of process from working with actors to financing. The entire ₤22,000 production was funded by small donations from individual donors. The film had 150 associate producers in all.
“We made the lofty claim that we were going to win an Oscar and people started to believe in the dream.” he said. “I basically asked everyone I’d ever met for ₤50.”
Jones’ Oscar aspiration, and feel-good script, attracted talented artists who were willing to donate their time and energy. The film stars veteran Scottish actor Bill Patterson as Old Bill and Devon Murray (Seamus in the Harry Potter films) as Young Bill. It was the only time cinematographer Vernon Layton, whose credits include The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, and I Still Know What you Did Last Summer, has donated his time to a film project, Jones said.
Shot on 35mm film, the stock, cameras, and lighting for Gone Fishing were also all donated.
“That was part and parcel of saying, ‘We’re not just going to make a short film, we’re going to win an Oscar.’ We need a cast now that is worthy of an Oscar, and suddenly everything was raised to that sort of level. I run a very optimistic ship and I believe as an independent filmmaker you can’t be a ruler you have to be a leader. So I’m always picking up lights and so on so people can see I’m busting my gut along with everyone else. They know I’ve done enough drafts of the script to get it right; they know that I’ve seen every actor possible; that I hired the best DP and the best editor; and we’re shooting on film and not digital. By virtue of the actual physical technology, it requires that you find people who are experienced and passionate about that aspect of the craft, which then raises the game. When people see we’ve pushed the boat out in that way, they want to get on board.”
The director was pleased to discover that the advice he had had been giving in the Guerilla Film Maker’s Handbook and his seminars was effective in real life.
“For example, my take is, if you hire a DP because they’re great then you trust them,” he said. “Whether they get the shot exactly the way you wanted in your head is not important compared to whether you’re in an emotional space right next to the actor. When you say, ‘Cut,’ the actor looks over and sees you’re three feet away looking into his eyes, instead of fifty feet away with your headphones on and your back to him looking at a monitor and saying, ‘That was good but can you again, but do it better?’ This is what a lot of directors do on their first films, and they wonder why their actors fall out with them.”
He believes that too many new film makers rush into production, and worry about financing and marketing, before the script, or the director, are ready.
“The reason money doesn’t find most people is that the project isn’t worth making, he said. “It’s not often said; it’s almost sacrilege to say to filmmakers, ‘Actually your idea is rubbish. Go back to square one and start with something work making.’ You’re talking about an investment of millions, if not millions at least certainly hundreds of thousands, if not in cash, then in personal time; in your time and in other people’s time. It’s a massive investment. You have to build your house on a solid foundation. A lot of people invest too much too early and end up working in Pizza Hut for three years because they can’t get over this catastrophe of a film that they forced upon themselves because they simply did it too early in their development.”
It is experience he gained the hard way.
“I’ve made a feature film that was unwatchably bad. At the time only one person told me, a good friend. I said, ‘Well you know mate, you’re wrong. It’s genius!’ It’s like ex-girlfriends and boyfriends. There is part of you that is still kind of in love with it, but now you have perspective and you say, ‘That was actually a bit of a mess, but we can be friends.’ The awful truth is one needs an enormous ego in order to get you through, and sometimes that ego is the very thing that blinds you to criticism. We all want to believe, who doesn’t want to believe, that their next film is going to be a smash hit, make everybody very wealthy and feed the soul?”
Regardless of the outcome, however, Jones firmly believes making a film is worth the effort.
“One of the things I fundamentally believe in is that what we do as filmmakers is very important. It’s so wonderful to sit at the back of a screening and to hear people sniffling at the same moment, or jump or laugh at that same moment, and to know that you’ve created that emotion in them. That, I think, is the real addiction of film making and story telling. You can say it’s manipulative, and to some degree it is, but stories should manipulate the audience into an uncomfortable place, because it’s only when they’re uncomfortable that they confront how they might react to something. And that is the rehearsal for the real life that they’re going to have to deal with tomorrow. ‘If Luke Skywalker, who is a farmer, can save the universe, maybe I can break up with my partner or maybe I can ask that person on a date, or maybe I can ask my boss for a pay rise.’ So what we do deeply resonates with people.”
And by asking a wider audience to follow his film making journey online, Jones has learned to put a positive spin on all of his experiences.
“One of the things that stifles creative people is the fear of failure or getting it wrong,” he said. “I’m not infected by that any more. I can’t get it wrong. It’s just an experience that either creates a result or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I have to figure out a new way. But that all came out of having to write without saying, “Oh it’s been an awful day,” because I know no one wants to hear that.”
Thanks to Gone Fishing, Jones no longer feels that he is more of a writer than a film maker.
“I’ve met so many incredible filmmakers on the festival circuit. I’ve made very strong new relationships with them and we’re inspiring each other to keep going and to move to new heights. That’s been extraordinarily rewarding. So I’m back, baby!”