Kevin McDonagh is one of the founding members of Rotunda Films, an independent production company based in Birmingham. IndieFlicks got in touch with Kevin to discuss Rotunda and their projects.
IndieFlicks: How did you get started in filmmaking?
Kevin: Originally I wanted to be an actor, but by the age of about 16 I was more interested in all the other elements surrounding a film and realised that producing and directing actually satisfied my desires more.
After leaving college having studied media and theatre, I attended a local night school course that was about the industry and production (rather than the process of film making) and through that I got a job working with the course host at his film production company. I worked on several small projects, TV pilots, and even a feature film that got developed almost to the point of full production. However, when it failed to materialise and the company looked like going out of business, a small group of us went off to make a feature film ourselves.
So in early 2001 we began putting together a small comedy script, obtaining equipment and assigning roles, and before long we were casting. We shot for around 5 nights and a handful of afternoons and before we knew it we had a film in the can. We got it edited but it was clearly a student style feature which was little more than a practise run. We began discussing Lycanthropy but it was clear we weren’t in a position to make it properly, so eventually we went our separate ways.
A year later I met up with an actor who I’d worked with, AJ Nicol, who had just finished work on a local feature film himself. We were both looking to do something as a next project and so formed Rotunda Films in order to go and shoot a feature. That feature was Actually ‘Idol of Evil’, which began in late 2004. The lack of money meant that we were slow getting across the finish line and ‘Lycanthropy’ raised it’s head due to the interest of other parties, so strangely we began work on that while still in post production on Idol.
IF: Your first feature film, Lycanthropy, come out in 2006. How did the idea for this come about?
Kevin: The story originally began as a pilot for a show about UFO investigators. The first idea was very rough and it soon became clear it was two expensive. So the aliens became werewolves, and because it all felt a little too much like the X-Files, the ‘government team’ became a straightforward police investigation.
After several terrible drafts that felt way too clichéd, we began looking into the myth of the werewolf and uncovered a truly original story, based on the origins of the myth. Working from there we ran through it and saw how it could still occur today, that people could actually become real life ‘lycanthropes’.
After getting that as the core of the story we worked with a writer called Natalie Gorton who carved out a great script from what was a very muddled, but interesting idea.
IF: Most first time feature films are incredibly difficult to fund. How did you raise the money needed for this film?
Kevin: With Idol still in production and funded by my bank account, it was a simple set up to get money. Basically we’d ask people to invest in not only the film but the idea of the company. We had the strength of showing people that we weren’t first time filmmakers, that we were a production company who were on their second product. It worked in our favour oddly enough that people saw it as a development of the company and it’s strategy rather than just a bunch of kids with the idea of a film.
So we sat down with as many friendly people as we could find and asked them to invest as much as they could afford. Luckily we had a lot of friends who either a) saw Idol and thought we were good at filmmaking so wanted in on the ground floor; or b) wanted to support me in my new business venture.
When we had raised all that we could we set out to make every penny go as far as possible. We cut deals everywhere with cast, crew, suppliers and post production houses. In fact the deal we arranged with our editor and edit facility meant Lycanthropy raced through post production overtaking Idol, so it was ready for market first. Once that happened my focus went with Lycanthropy and so Idol slowed down even more. So in the end our second film arrived first and a first shoot showed up slightly later (though it’s just secured it’s own release on DVD around the world).
IF: What did you shoot the film on?
Kevin: ‘Idol’ was shot on DV, the XL1 to be precise. At the time it was the best DV format camera and made sense for the scale of production. ‘Lycanthropy’ was shot on the XL2 , still DV but a much stronger picture quality and lots of technical nerdy things that I don’t pretend to know about. We kept with the XL2 for ‘Tied in Blood’ as we owned one of them at this stage. Since then, ‘Wasters’ was shot on HDV and ‘Celestial Sisters’ has been shot on HD, so we slowly climb the format ladder with each project.
IF: Your latest feature film, Tied in Blood, is a supernatural horror. Would you say anything has changed from your first feature to your last?
Kevin: The one thing that is the same is that despite being started as the 3rd project, our 4th film, ‘Wasters’ has overtaken it and is at festivals as we speak, while ‘Tied in Blood’ has taken a long time to get the special effects right.
What changes is the mistakes you make. You learn to prepare for everything that’s caught you out in the past, then something new comes along. ‘Tied in Blood’ was the first film where we had to shoot specifically for special effect, taking into account elements that would be added later. So while other areas that slowed us down on ‘Idol’ and ‘Lycanthropy’ were handled with ease, SFX has become a new challenge for us. And we learned a lot, much (if not all) of which has carried forward into Sisters which is a very effects-heavy project.
IF: What is your next project?
Kevin: As I say ‘Celestial Sisters’ is currently in production, I’m back in the directors chair which is nice but still a lot of production work to do so I’m feeling the weight on my shoulders again. There’s a new sense of purpose though knowing we are in a position to ensure the world sees it when it’s done.
Following that we’re working with London based film director Francois Pereire on his gritty family drama, ‘One Bird, Two Stones’. Both projects are at the highest end of what we’ve worked at before on scale, format and budget, so it’s a challenging and exciting time, but doors are opening up.
IF: What do you think of the current state of independent filmmaking here in the UK?
Kevin: It’s poor, if I’m honest. Not due to the quality of work but due to the opportunities and avenues that are available. In the US they can afford to produce lots of smaller independent films and have them sell poorly on DVD because 1% of the US market is still a huge amount. There’s nowhere for film makers to make mistakes in film over here. If you make a small indie film and it’s not a hit, or doesn’t get picked up for a release that’s kind of the end of the road, there is no life on DVD in the UK.
We’re lucky in that the distribution deal we’ve just agreed allows us to get our films out to a wide audience in the US and then filter back to the UK. That then allows us to continue to produce films which gives us a solid track record to keep increasing the scale of production. It affords me the chance to learn and fail at times in directing but not to let those mistakes bring it all to a crashing halt.
Without that cash driven market it’s tough to get people interested in investing in films, meaning it becomes government subsidised, so it has to have artistic value over commercial value, it struggles to make a financial gain, so people won’t invest and you’re in a catch 22 situation. A bit of financial ruthlessness would be a welcome breath of fresh air, and ensure that the long list of talented people that reside in the UK but can’t get paid work, would finally be able to.
IF: What advice would you give to any aspiring filmmakers out there?
Kevin: In general terms, the old cliché is ‘never give up’, and its true. You may have a 1% chance of succeeding if you try, but you have a 0% chance if you give up.
On a more specific note, you may know why you want to make a film and tell a story, but ask yourself, why would anyone else want to watch it. If you can answer that truthfully and there’s a lot of reasons then you’ll find plenty of people to help your film, back your film and watch your film. At the end of the day films are made to be watched, so make them worth watching
For more information on Rotunda Films please visit the official website - click