Annex Films director Joe Marcantonio tells an honest, personal story about how his short documentary film ‘Epileptic’ came to be made
Everyone starts somewhere, and I started at the bottom as work experience and, eventually, runner. During this time I met some tyrannical directors and always swore that, should I ever ‘make it’, I’d be a friendly and approachable guy. So I’m always open to chatting with runners, camera trainees and work experience kids in the office or on set, offering help and advice. Because of this, I’m constantly asked by aspiring directors how to break into the industry.
I’m flattered that they ask, and my advice is always the same: you have to work on it in your spare time. Do jobs that cost you money, rather than earn you money. Personal projects. For me, it really has proven to be a great way to develop my showreel and to prove to people the kind of work I can capable of.
However, it is very easy to forget that this advice applies to me as well. Having kids, the nursery run, writing treatments, going to meetings, planning and directing takes up a lot of time. But working on personal projects can be fun, as well as good for the showreel.
So, after I’d completed my short Red Light, I was busy getting on with work and home life. After a few months I was acutely aware that I’d like to make a new short film should the right idea or subject come up – but I had no ideas. No good ones, anyhow… and there is nothing as disheartening as going through the ‘old ideas’ list, only to find that they are as bad as you remember.
That was when my sister-in-law, Emma, mentioned her friend Erika. Emma suffers from fairly mild Epilepsy… but her friend Erika has seizures on an almost daily basis. She didn’t suffer one until her mid-20s, but since then it has progressed to the point that she’s had to give up work. She lives alone, thousands of miles from her family. She can’t have kids and her romantic relationships end up in disaster… and yet she is a lovely, hugely fun, enthusiastic and positive woman.
I was intrigued, and thought this might make a nice film. Documentary is a very engaging field, and perfect for a personal project – as it is cheap to make! As long as you have an appealing subject matter, you can shoot one for pretty much nothing. But the first problem - would she be interested?
I emailed – and didn’t hear back. Nothing unusual there, I’ve had enough experience being ignored by people (particularly when trying to get signed as a young director).
So, a few weeks later, I tried again.
And this time, she rang me back within about 15 seconds of me pressing send, and we chatted for an hour or two. The next day, we met up and I was shocked and saddened by her condition, but really inspired by her attitude.
But then the issues became clear. How do you make something visually interesting about a woman who lives in a small flat that she doesn’t leave very often? Is the film going to be about her condition or her life? It can’t just be a miserable and depressing chronicle of her illness.
I shot two interviews with her, in her flat. Each about two and a half hours long. As anyone who ever meets Erika will vouch - she really is a talker… and not the most concise. I spent days editing the interviews into shape. And then I realised - I still didn’t have a film. Five hours of rushes, but it wasn’t enough. It was too sprawling and rambling. I was close to giving up. But I realised that I needed to take a leaf out of her book, and remain positive.
So I went back, this time with just an audio recorder. And I worked with her to clarify her thought process and get her answers down to a sentence or two. We filled in the gaps and, when I came to edit, I was delighted.
I then set about shooting the cutaways and other elements. She had some footage of a seizure she’d had at the hospital and was happy for me to include, and then it all fell in place.
This film is on my showreel. That was the primary aim. Feedback has been very positive, and people seem to like it. But, far more importantly, the film has become a different sort of personal project– it has actually changed me personally. Specifically the idea of positive thinking and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.
So, the next time an aspiring director asks how to break into the industry, I’ll tell them about the importance of personal projects… and that the right idea can change your life in more ways than one.