Life Just Is: a filmmaker’s journal

Working on his debut feature film, director Alex Barrett kept a daily record of every stage of production. As Life Just Is opens at BFI Southbank, we present extracts from his published journal – an intriguing insight into the life of a low-budget filmmaker.

Alex Barrett
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Life Just Is: Bobby (Paul Nicholls) and Jay (Jayne Wisener)

Life Just Is: Bobby (Paul Nicholls) and Jay (Jayne Wisener)

With his feature debut Life Just Is, 28-year-old filmmaker Alex Barrett has accomplished something to which many of us only aspire. After graduating from university with a film degree, he applied himself to writing and directing a succession of short films, all the while turning over an idea for a feature-length script.

This would eventually become Life Just Is, an unusually thoughtful British drama about a group of recent graduates and their emotional adjustments to adulthood.

Made with independent financing, Barrett’s film was subsequently accepted into the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival (where it was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Film), and now begins a theatrical run at BFI Southbank.

The achievement is double in that Barrett has published a detailed journal he kept throughout the long development of the project (2005-2012), which provides an invaluable insight into the production of a micro-budget film. Into these pages the fledgling filmmaker poured not only daily thoughts and anecdotes about each stage of production but also notes on films he saw and books that he was reading, people he met, knockbacks he received.

Frustrations, challenges, moments of despondency or creative breakthroughs – Barrett somehow found time to document them all. His candid account (from which we present edited extracts below) is an inspiring record of the myriad influences which shape an artistic project.

19 October 2005

Alex Barrett

Alex Barrett

An epiphany (perhaps): perhaps I have been going around things the wrong way. I have a theme (and a story) which is following me around, plaguing me, but have decided to instead concentrate on something else, an idea without a story… so, I have a story on the one hand, and an idea which is desperately in need of a story on the other. I’ve considered putting them together before, but now I have found a way which will work. An idea, a theme, and a story all in one!

It is now not so much about defining a (our) generation, as it is about examining the place of religion in the secular part of our generation. Is it?… no, perhaps it is more about religion in general, about what we would/should/could do when confronted with it.

Such strong belief in something gives life a meaning, yes, but, like Tarkovsky says, to find the meaning of life makes you a slave to that purpose… thus, if we were to all suddenly find religion, it would mean drastic changes in the way that we live our life, changes that for the most part we’re probably not ready to take.

The (possible) setup: a house of three boys, a house of three girls. One of the girls has a new, mysterious, elusive boyfriend: the Gen X character. Slowly one of the boys begins to get visions/dreams – who from? From God? From his own psyche? (Questions to be left unanswered in the film). Thus, the film would explore the lives of these characters while also exploring the role of religion in the lives of these characters.

6 June 2006

Some more ideas: the opening titles should be white lettering on ‘funeral’ black background. Bergman. Woody Allen. A legacy. While Life Just Is might be closer to the work of, say, Linklater, than Bergman, here is an idea for now. Perhaps this simple opening will help signify what kind of film the viewer should expect. Perhaps.

Pete (Jack Gordon)

Pete (Jack Gordon)

16 June 2006

Today I started writing Life Just Is, and easily smashed my target of 10 pages. By lunch I’d already knocked out 14 pages, and by the end of the day made it to 25. I’m worried about the overall structure of the work: I’m still nowhere near the main storyline kicking in after a fairly substantial amount of screen time. Other than that I’m fairly happy for now. I’m going to keep writing the script in accordance with the outline, and then develop it/rework in subsequent drafts.

22 June 2006

Finished the first draft of Life Just Is. 82 pages. I was only aiming for 80 pages, but I’m worried by the fact that this draft has only come out at 82, as I’m sure there’s some stuff that will need to be cut, and this in turn might mean I need to bulk it up to get back to a reasonable run time. We’ll have to see how the redrafting goes, I guess. I’m going to take a couple of days off and then read it through a couple of times.

Hopefully within the next couple of weeks I’ll get my ‘rough draft’ into a ‘first draft’ which I’m happy to show people. I wonder what they’ll think. I hope that on the whole it’s successful in doing what I set out for it to do. Maybe the whole thing is too full on. I’m still not sure that the paralleling of the two main stories is clear enough, so that might need to be worked on. Perhaps some of the ideas also need to be ‘buried’ a bit more, so to speak, to make them more subtextual.

27 June 2006

Spent the day working on Life Just Is, trying to make sure that each of the characters talks in a unique voice. I think perhaps I’ve concentrated more on trying to get them to all use different ‘buzzwords’ (so to speak) than addressing the actual mannerisms of their speech. I find this whole thing rather hard, actually. At least I feel that all of the characters are consistent in their voice, which I think is important. But I think that this might still need further work.

30 January 2009

Spent the bulk of today chasing up companies and then emailing friends that I thought might be able to recommend people to me. I now have a fair few people looking at the script, but the whole process just seems so slow. I hope that this isn’t indicative of how long it will take to start shooting once I’ve found the people. I don’t want to spend a year in development. I just want to get it made.

Jay (Jayne Wisener)

Jay (Jayne Wisener)

15 April 2009

So, today was the first official production meeting for Life Just Is. I’m very excited about it all, though also somewhat apprehensive. I think the meeting went well, but I’m slightly worried that they might both have a lot of other time commitments. They also didn’t seem to have an agenda to discuss as such, which I was a little disappointed by. I suppose I’m now worried that they might be a little inexperienced. Still, time will tell and it’s good just to be rolling with it.

9 July 2009

Feeling very unmotivated. No one is doing anything. There’s no drive. No push. Nothing. I feel fed up, exhausted and worn out. I don’t believe in giving up, but I sort of feel like it. I’ve started thinking about the next draft, so I sat down to watch Magnolia [1999] today (as a few different people have commented on it being thematically similar to Life Just Is). Seeing it again, I still think it’s a great film, but I don’t really see the connection with LJI. For me, Magnolia is not really a film about people not being able to control what comes their way, but a film about chance and the random interconnected nature of our lives.

30 August 2009

This morning Christine [Hartland, executive producer] emailed over the new budget that she’s done. I think we’re fucked. Each draft of the budget takes the figure higher and higher, and I feel like we’re now so far removed from the original plan of doing it cheaply so that we can get it made. I now feel like it’s never going to happen and I’m thoroughly depressed. The whole thing has spiralled out of control and I feel like it’s me that’s lost the control. I’m starting to think that I’m working with people who don’t understand the intention, the point, of the whole thing. The whole thing is just fucked beyond belief. I feel like giving up, but I know I won’t.

11 June 2010

Two very long days of auditions, but we saw some great people, especially today. Paul Nicholls [Bobby] and Jayne Wisener [Jay] were both really nice and really good. The response to the script is great, and so is the response to [the character of] Pete, which excites me. One actor came in and basically told us he was Pete. And he was great. So it’s all starting to come together. Too tired to write more, but we definitely saw people today who we can cast.

L to R: Tom (Nathaniel Martello-White), David (Will de Meo), Pete (Jack Gordon), Jay (Jayne Wisener) and Claire (Fiona Ryan)

L to R: Tom (Nathaniel Martello-White), David (Will de Meo), Pete (Jack Gordon), Jay (Jayne Wisener) and Claire (Fiona Ryan)

18 October 2010

Well, after all those late nights of prep, it’s finally here: Life Just Is, principal photography, day one. It’s been long (5.30 alarm and as I write Tom [Stuart, producer] and I are just finishing things off at 21:54). I don’t feel like it’s been a great day, but there haven’t really been any major catastrophes. We started with Scene 13 in the art shop. I think that went well, but then we hit the pub. The actors were delivered late to set then we had some issues with sound. We got all the shots but there were inconsistencies in the light (the sun came out and went in, etc.), so I don’t know if they’ll cut. We overran, and then when we hit the bus stop for Scene 22 we were behind and we ran out of time.

The solo stuff with Jack went pretty well (the supermarket stuff looks great). Scene 9 looked good and Jayne and Paul were great, but we had sound issues with planes and neighbours. Hopefully there’s a take in there with decent audio. I guess we won’t really know till the edit. I’m realising now the reality of how tight our schedule is. We should have held out for extra days. Hopefully tomorrow will be smoother, but that’s unlikely as it’s our Steadicam day, and they’re now predicting rain for the afternoon. I guess we’ll just have to do our best.

22 October 2010

I think we got some nice stuff today. We ran late again though. The shot we ran over on was problematic too. It was Scene 38. We lit the shot for daylight, but there’s a window in frame and I think you can see that it’s dark outside. Time is our biggest problem.

27 October 2010

Very tough day today. The camera body went down and we had to find a replacement. It didn’t take too long, but by the end of the day we’d only managed to shoot about two thirds of the storyboarded shots for the scene (7). This evening I did a cut of the scene to see if we need to shoot the remaining angles another day, and I think we can make it work with what we have – we actually have a lot of coverage on the scene. I think it’s a good example of a debut director panicking at a scene with too many characters. Must. Do. Better.

30 October 2010

Our big day. It was mammoth, but we got through it all. Some nice moments captured, and others rushed through. Andrew Hawley was great as Nick. My suspicion that I’d underwritten his speech turned out to be on the money, so I got him to improvise some stuff. Very funny. Jack also threw some improvised lines into Scene 31, and Paul and I got the giggles. I’m a bit worried about Yosuke [Kato, director of photography]. He’s working fucking hard and probably not taking enough care of himself. He’s as much of a perfectionist as I am. It’s looking good though.

Bobby (Paul Nicholls) and Jay (Jayne Wisener)

Bobby (Paul Nicholls) and Jay (Jayne Wisener)

2 November 2010

Final day went pretty well. Some nice shots and some good work by Jack. Scene 44 came together especially well. That said, I do feel like I’ve lost track of the bigger picture a bit. Despite all my planning regarding Pete’s emotional consistency, I think it all became a bit off the cuff. Anyway, we are wrapped. It’s been a tough two and half weeks, but we made it. I feel all kinds of emotions, but think the predominant one is relief.

21 December 2010

Well, the rough cut is done. No idea how I feel about it. I have no perspective on it at all. It’s running at 98 minutes which is too long in theory, but actually watching it through it seems to be more or less working. Some scenes are problematic, but I guess for a rough cut it’s not too bad. Murat [Kebir, editor] is happy, which is good. He has more distance from it than me. Hopefully I can manage to not think about it at all for a while and then view it with fresher eyes when we show it to Tom on 30th. I think his opinion will be very important – he’ll be our first audience. I hope he likes it…  

2 January 2011

I promised Murat a while back that I would draw up a list of audio that we need to add to the film for the first proper cut, so I decided to get it out the way today and then send it on to Jason [Creasey, sound recordist] and Murat. I also wrote up a document summarising the ideas behind my editing choices on the paper edit, so that Murat can get a better handle on where I’m coming from with it all.

This evening I went to see Cries and Whispers at the BFI, which was just as unmitigatingly brilliant as I remember it. Despite being a completely harrowing film it seems to have awoken me from the depression which has been clouding me recently. I’ve seen so many disappointing films of late that it’s refreshing to see a genuine masterpiece. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my love of cinema, and, perhaps, even my love of life. It’s a shame that I didn’t rewatch Cries and Whispers before making Life Just Is. Our close ups should have been closer.

Claire (Fiona Ryan)

Claire (Fiona Ryan)

20 January 2011

Have been working a lot on the edit, writing notes on the changes that I think we need to make to polish it up for the screening. Jason has sent over some sounds for us to put in (such as doorbells ringing and phones going off), so I’ve started to track lay them along with some temp music. Didn’t manage to get all the way through the film, despite working till two in the morning.

18 Feburary 2011

Another day of mixed emotions for me with the film. Spent it at Murat’s, working on the edit. He showed me a new cut of Scene 8. He managed to overcome his block and has really done a great job with it. He’s given it the energy it was lacking and I think he’s really made the scene work. He’d also made some changes to Scene 7, which I think were good, but they hadn’t really addressed my own concerns with the scene. So we worked on it together, and then looked at Scene 6 again. He’d done a new version which didn’t quite work for me, so I made some suggestions and I think we pulled it together. It’s definitely the best cut of the scene so far. I think we worked well together today too.

After we’d finished cutting we watched through what we’d done, and I started freaking out a little bit, feeling like we’d changed the style too much and made it all really cutty. I felt like a failure. I really believe that as an editor you have to find the natural rhythm of the material and can’t impose a style on it. Which means that if it goes fast paced with more cuts it’s probably the right thing for the film from an edit point of view, but it means that I’ve failed as a director.

But when I got home I watched the cut again, and I think I was worrying over nothing. Yes, it has more edits, but I think it’s still the style and pace that we were aiming for. We’ll see how it feels when we watch the whole film through. But I do feel like we’ve actually made really good progress today and that the new versions of all three scenes are a big improvement over the previous cuts.

10 January 2012

The film is now fully assembled and mastered. It is complete!  

20 February 2012

I’m feeling very happy today, as I had an email earlier telling me that Life Just Is has been ACCEPTED INTO EDINBURGH. I’m really fucking pleased.

15 August 2012

Some great news today: I spoke to Geoff Andrew at the BFI. He really liked Life Just Is and it looks like he might give us a run in the Studio in December. It might mean shifting the DVD release back by two weeks, but [DVD label] ID seem okay with that so fingers crossed we can make it work.

30 August 2012

Anyway, our big news of the day is that the BFI confirmed that they’re going to give us a run in the Studio. Which means fucking everything to me. No matter what happens from here, no matter how the film is received, I’ve succeeded: the film is going theatrical in my favourite cinema in the fucking country and it’s coming out on DVD. It’s all I ever wanted. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

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