A Case Study
Narrative | Dramatic Features
Film Name: Of Thread and Almonds
Running time: 11 mins 32 secs 21 fms
Date: June 2019
Director: Rebecca Manley
Executive Producer Luca Paulli
Producer: Sonya Sier
Writer: Rebecca Manley
Cinematographer: Peter Ellmore
Production Designer: Agnieszka Debska
Costume Designer: Natalie Wilkins
Editor: Chris Roebuck
Composer Main Score: Lennert Busch
Composer End Track: Oliver Davis
Sound Designer: Andy Humphreys
Production Company: Sun Bear Films and Fresh Light
Budget: The overall budget was 22K
Financing: Private financing
Shooting Format: Alexa mini – 3.4K (Arri Raw, open gate).
Screening Format: DCP 2:39 with 5.1 sound
World Premiere: BAFTA qualifying Cambridge Film Festival
Awards: Best Drama (Bristol Independent Film Festival), and Finalist (Brighton Rocks Film Festival)
The Official Trailer Of Thread and Almonds, produced by Sonya Sier, written and directed by Rebecca Manley
indieactivity: What is your film about?
Rebecca Manley (RM): The film is an unconventional love story. I wrote it as a reflection on my relationship with my parents and realized on completion that the characters are two different sides of my personality! So the narrative is very personal to me.
Tell us about the festival run, marketing, and sales?
Rebecca Manley (RM): Just like every other filmmaker with a film on the circuit this year, our festival run has been very different from any we have experienced previously! Fortunately, we screened at the BAFTA qualifying Cambridge Film Festival (our world and UK premiere) and Foyle Film Festival (our Northern Irish premiere) before the COVID 19 pandemic started. We then went on to have our London premiere at Crystal Palace International Film Festival and screen at Brighton Rocks Film Festival in the UK. One of our proudest moments this year was winning the Best Drama Award at Bristol Independent Film Festival. The film also received a semi-finalist, special mention from Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival. The icing on the cake, approaching the end of 2020, has been our official selections for two Academy Award qualifying festivals, Short Shorts and Asia (our international and Japan premiere) and Hollyshorts Film Festival, Hollywood (our US premiere). Looking ahead to next year, we are excited to be screening at Cambria Film Festival, CA, February 4-7.
Give the full Official Synopsis for your film?
Sonya Sier (SR): Set in 90’s London, OF THREAD AND ALMONDS unravels the story of love unexpectedly found in the heart of a museum. SULLIVAN is a thoughtful cloakroom attendant, skilled with a needle and thread, whose immaculate routine is turned upside down by the appearance of charismatic Ph.D. scholar MANDEL, there to carry out research in the library. Despite immediate and potent chemistry between them, neither seems brave enough to make a move. But will Sullivan following his desires mean taking drastic measures?
Development & Financing?
Rebecca Manley (RM): Of Thread and Almonds is an original screenplay, and my first live-action drama, which I started working on as a competition entry back in 2014. The entry wasn’t successful and so I spent some time redrafting the script. When I was happy with the new version, I approached three producers who were recommended by a director friend of mine at Independent Films London where I was repped at the time. I was immediately drawn to Sonya, not just because of her strong portfolio of work but, because from the outset she really loved the story. So it was great when we met to discuss the script further and felt we would make a good team. We agreed to move forward together entering the project for the Film London, London Calling 2015/2016. We were long-listed (down to the final ten out of sixty-eight applications) in the Southern Exposure Film Fund section of the scheme but in the end, were rejected. This was extra tough because we had only just missed out on a place. But we asked for feedback and both the encouragement and the criticism we received spurred us on and encouraged me to work on improving the script even more.
We both decided it would be a good idea for me to seek out some script mentoring, as a substitute for the support I would have received on the scheme. At the time, I was a board member at Directors UK, so I asked for advice from three drama and features directors, in particular, fellow board members, Charles Sturridge and Iain Softley, and DUK member James Kent. They were all very generous with their time and helped me tremendously, mentoring me regularly not just throughout the writing process but all the way through into post-production. With their mentorship, over a period of a year and a half alongside other work, I streamlined the story, focusing on the main characters, crafting and working the idiosyncrasies of human nature into both their dialogue actions in order to make them more engaging. I was also lucky enough to receive advice, in various areas of making this film from script to the shoot, from three fantastic women directors and board members that I admire greatly, Beryl Richards, Susanna White, and Delyth Thomas. I learned a great deal and feel so lucky to have had such talented and experienced mentors to discuss the film with.
Sonya and I then regrouped mid-2017, with the new script, and organized a table read. This was great because we found that the dialogue ran very well and we could ascertain an approximate running time for the film. In the meantime, we had also been researching other avenues to obtain funding. We submitted applications via a few different schemes but unfortunately, although we were shortlisted for a couple of these pots, we ultimately missed out. So in February 2018, we decided to go for dinner to discuss a plan of action! Time was tight, as at that point Sonya was four months pregnant and I was planning to go through IVF in the not-so-distant future. So we decided we had to bite the bullet and make the film happen ourselves.
Sonya Sier (SS): We did explore other traditional funding avenues but they came with too many caveats and restrictions, Rebecca felt very strongly that for her break-out live-action film we needed both control and flexibility for the project. Financing ended up being private funding in three parts by a fantastic Executive Producer at Sun Bear Films who believed so much in the script he invested the majority of the money, with Rebecca and I putting in the rest. We must also mention here the in-kind support, without which the film would not have been possible. Our budget was small, around twenty thousand GBP for a four-day shoot, the huge generosity and belief of key UK companies who read the script and wanted to invest their kit, time and resources into the project were the lynchpin.
Brownian Motion Pictures supplied all our camera, lens, and grip gear, Panalux helped us light the film and support Pete our DOP with every creative need. We even had significant ‘in kind’ help from Lambeth Borough Council in London for locations. It is also imperative here to mention Tenthree Edit House, MPC, and Molinare Post, the calibre of work they produce is off the charts, from blockbuster movies to award-winning TV series and for them to believe so strongly in Of Thread and Almonds and to give such a huge amount of time in kind blew us away, we believed in the film, but they brought it out of the rushes and into glorious Technicolour reality.
Sonya Sier (SS): Production for us started with casting, like when you’re property hunting and they say location, location, the location we knew for us it was casting, casting and casting. We approached Aisha Bywaters an amazing British talent in casting, and Screen International ‘Star of Tomorrow 2020’. She loved the script and worked tirelessly to get the right people reading and taping for us. We had the luxury of time and had many rounds of casting and indeed callbacks for several combinations of actors, Sophie and Miles just stood out, the chemistry was palpable. Production, in terms of the nitty-gritty, was tough, it always is on a shoestring budget, I am a commercials and music video producer and have a great regular production team. They gave us a lot of their time to help location research, crew hunt, and pull together the big and small parts of making a film. We couldn’t afford a location manager so it was all done by the production team and Rebecca, research, call, visit over and over again until we found somewhere just right!
When we found the combination of Stanley Halls and Battersea Library and secured them then it was getting all the key talent available for the same week – no easy task! With production it is all the little things that help make a successful shoot, are there enough small props to make it feel alive, lived in, has enough time been allowed each day, can we get a good lunch to keep everyone going. The big things of a great camera, amazing lenses, award-winning crew are more obvious, but the devil as they say is in the detail. Unit signs, hot drinks, great insurance for peace of mind, all these elements come together with long hours of tireless work done by a dedicated and hard-working team. You become a family for a time, all for one and one for all. Speaking of family, I was thirty-five weeks pregnant when shooting. It was physically draining but emotionally so unbelievably fulfilling to go into labour then motherhood knowing it was in the can!
Rebecca Manley (RM): I work mainly in animation and, just like two directors I admire Wes Anderson and Park Chan-Wook, prefer to storyboard live action. So that was the first step for me in pre-production. Once that was completed, talented DOP Peter Ellmore and I spent a long time discussing the look of the film. This included a couple of recces to the two locations in order to work out a shooting plan as well as copious notes and mood boards from me. Peter lit the film beautifully and really captured a 90s atmosphere and colour palette that I was aiming for. Costume design was also key to the 90s look, as well as story, so we brought wonderful designer and maker Natalie Wilkins onboard very early on. This gave us time to develop a vision for the costumes together and meant that Natalie could source and create key bespoke elements that were crucial to the narrative. We shot the film over three days on location with the principal cast and one day in the studio shooting close-ups with stand-in talent. There was a lot to get through in a short amount of prep time as our main location, the cloakroom, didn’t actually exist. So it had to be cleverly dressed, and created from scratch, using set pieces and props by our fantastic production designer Agnieszka Debska and her team including art director Caspar Phillips.
Sonya Sier (SS): I had a bit of a break from the film after shooting during which time I gave birth. Rebecca started working on the score with brilliant composers Oliver Davis and later Lennert Busch. She wanted to begin working with a composer as soon as possible so that there was ample time to work together to get the music right. At that time she also had to undergo two rounds of IVF which was extremely tough on her all round. We don’t do anything by halves! At that point, we also secured the fantastic Chris Roebuck to edit. He took the reigns and we left him for a time to piece the film together without us peering over his shoulder. It was then a case of getting child care, or in Rebecca’s case waddling into town to through morning sickness to Tenthree edit house to hone and fine-tune the film into the story you see today.
Festival Preparation & Strategy?
Rebecca Manley (RM): We began preparing for the festival run quite early on, collecting the three major festival lists (i.e. The British Council, BAFTA qualifying festivals, and Academy Award qualifying festivals) and putting together a spreadsheet of the festivals that we wanted to enter. We attended an event at Bafta with panels discussing various aspects of festival strategy and I went on a course, run by Bird’s Eye View in association with Underwire Film Festival, which consisted of panels discussing all aspects of short filmmaking all the way through from production through to festivals, marketing, and distribution. We also earmarked a couple of big festivals as potential premieres. To be honest, we started big and I think it’s always good to be ambitious! But you also have to do a lot of research, looking into the back catalogues of festivals and watching previous official selections and award winners online in order to discover that particular festival’s style. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of wasting money entering festivals that most likely wouldn’t screen your work anyway.
Rebecca Manley (RM): The film isn’t yet on general release as it is still on the festival circuit. We are coming to the end of our run, however, so we are looking into how we might want to approach distributing the film in the latter part of 2021.
Advice from the Filmmaker?
Rebecca Manley (RM): My advice is firstly to make sure that the film you are planning to make is the strongest idea you have and the one that you are the most passionate about. You will be living with it for at least a couple of years, probably more. Write the first draft, get some perspective, be that time away from the script or advice from a mentor – someone at least one step further on than you in the industry. Then be open to rewriting and do as many drafts as is necessary. But write the shortest version of your story as is humanly possible. Baggy scripts are weak scripts. Definitely have a table read to be able to feel how the action and the dialogue flow as well as listening to the actors’ perspectives, which can be informative. At the same time be selective about how much input you take on board and make sure you stay true to the core narrative and characters. It is easy to dilute your vision unnecessarily.
Join forces with a great producer, who you get on well with, you will struggle without one. Be realistic about what you can achieve with time and budget – don’t write a car chase unless you can do it well! But be inventive and bold with the means you do have. As a director be decisive and kind. Make sure you eat well on the shoot, even if your adrenaline rush is making it difficult. Don’t focus all your energy on making the film and discount all the work that needs to be done to get it seen. A film without an audience is pointless. Entering festivals, creating websites and social media pages, and keeping them all updated is almost a full-time job in itself. Make a plan on who will handle the workload/how it will be shared and stick to it. Make a budget for festival entries and stick to that too. If you don’t, they can easily get out of control. Preparation is key in all areas and will make your filmmaking experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Enjoy the process, you are making a film!
Sonya Sier (SS): Work hard, short films are not easy, you have to enable the director to share their vision in a way that makes people want to get on board and put their time, money, and resources into it. This can be a big ask of the crew as well as companies. I agree with Rebecca, it’s so important to be kind. I know the old-fashioned vision of a producer can be hard-nosed and cutthroat, but when it comes to a short I think to kill them with kindness! You need to be grateful for what people are doing for you, encouraging when the budget is nowhere near what they need to achieve the vision in mind, and be the chief cheerleader for everyone in any moment of doubt. With all of the above my caveat of course is that you need to be honest too when people are not living up to your expectations – and on occasion step into their role, whatever that is, until that void is filled. You need to be a reliable boss, runner, consoler, and tea lady as well as the person who holds the ship together when everyone thinks you’ve hit an iceberg. Yep, I think that just above covers it…oh and be able to live on very little sleep!