by Roy Boulter
Following ‘Of Time And The City’ we have just released a quite different film – ‘Under The Mud’ a drama-comedy about a day in the life of a dysfunctional family, was written in collaboration with 15 teenagers. The film has had an incredible seven year journey from the first writing session to its DVD release this month….
So there I was with John Travolta, striding down the red carpet, heading into the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel, while trying to suppress a big stupid grin. He’s the legendary star of ‘Grease’, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ – I’m the producer of ‘Under the Mud’, a feature film written collaboratively with a group of Liverpool teenagers that cost just £45,000 to shoot – less than a month’s fuel bill for ‘Danny Zucko’s’ private jet.
Five years earlier, and a few thousand miles away in the slightly less glamorous South Liverpool suburb of Garston, ‘Under the Mud’ started as a writing workshop at a youth drop-in centre. The area – politely described as ‘deprived’ – had the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe, so despite potential ‘distractions’, we managed to attract a group of interested participants. At the first session, myself and fellow producers Sol Papadopoulos and Julie Currie, were disappointed by the group’s reticence – which we put down to shyness. In fact, they thought we might be undercover police – who else would ask them all these questions. The issue was quickly resolved after the session, when my name came up on the credits of ‘Brookside’ – we suddenly had ‘credibility’.
Over the following months, we assembled a group of enthusiastic teenage first-time writers and developed an outline. The story – which The Times would later describe as “an energetic and surreal account of 24 hours in the life of a dysfunctional family” – featured characters based on the writers’ friends, families and neighbours – though it owed a lot more to the imagination – with it’s aeroplane boarding-steps chase sequence, a holy-communion dress with mechanical fairy-wings and an ‘imaginary friend’ as the central character (based on one of our writers’ ‘real’ imaginary friend).
The story really started to take shape over three residential writing weekends. We sat around the table discussing, arguing and laughing through every scene, character and plot line. Eventually, we had a sixty-page treatment and a story that we were all happy with – but how do you write dialogue with fifteen writers?
Improvisation worked well for some scenes and characters, but not others. We tried working in groups of two or three on individual scenes – which I would then give notes on. After countless re-writes, our production line eventually delivered a final draft – which Kathy Burke (an avid supporter of the project) described as the most enjoyable script she’d read in a long time. Next up, was the small matter of raising the budget. This funny little slice of ‘social surrealism’ had taken two years to write, and a further year to fund – with a budget eventually coming from drug money.
All the usual sources of funding had proved fruitless – the Film Council and our local screen agency, both declined to get involved (though they would eventually invest in the film), but pharmaceutical giants Glaxo Smith Kline – once a major employer in the area – had just closed down it’s factory, leaving behind a social fund, which we successfully applied to. We set a date to begin pre-production – intentionally choosing April 1st – deciding that whatever amount we had raised by that date, would be our budget. Along with the GSK grant, local social initiatives were really supportive, South Liverpool Housing provided us with two houses, one for the main set, the other for production.
The three-week shoot was one of the most exhausting but enjoyable that any of us had ever experienced – the professional crew were aided by the writers, members of the community and anyone else we could rope in. We renovated, decorated and furnished a derelict church and two houses – including a landscaped garden (a family were able to move straight into a newly decorated and furnished home after we’d finished).
Throughout the shoot, we had to beg, borrow – and though we didn’t actually steal the ‘stolen car’ needed for a scene – it did nearly get us into trouble. A wrecked car was donated by a local scrap-yard, but The Police turned up on location and stole our stolen ‘stolen’ car. It had actually been pinched that morning and quickly sold on – the scrap-yard had even smashed it up to look authentic for us. Luckily, the boys-in-blue kindly provided us with another car and the crucial night shoot went ahead.
With an eventful shoot completed, more fund-raising meant a long wait before the edit – the Film Council had finally come on board – thanks to a development exec Marc Boothe, championing the film.
Unfortunately, timing issues resulted in us having to submit a cut that we weren’t happy with. Having the film narrated by the ‘imaginary friend’ character – which had seemed so funny and really clever at script stage, just didn’t work. Basically, the central focus of the film was an empty space on screen, it was confusing. The cut was rejected and with it went further funding. The film sat on a shelf for a year while Sol and I went off to earn some money (Sol to make an award-winning documentary on the history of air warfare – and me to write, including an episode of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street – a total education).
We eventually reconvened, reinvigorated – watching the film with a fresh eye; the year’s break was the best thing that could have happened. We had always maintained that the film had no central character – ‘the family’ was the main character. Wrong. Only ‘Magic’ – the family’s unofficial lodger, was actually pro-active – he fought to keep everyone together, he set out to ‘win the girl’ and was the catalyst for almost everything that happened – it was his story. How clever were we!
Fortunately, the actor playing the role of ‘Magic’ – Lenny Wood (also one of the writers) – had turned in a great performance. A day of re-shoots resulted in us book-ending the film with two new scenes, beautifully setting up and resolving his story. Our editor, Liza Ryan-Carter then skilfully re-shaped the film. Thankfully, it worked.
The icing on the ‘mud pie’ was the score, composed by the legendary Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah! – who also contributed five tracks from his classic album ‘Songs Of Strength And Heartbreak’ – with a further two tracks provided by my former band, The Farm. A selection of additional songs, chosen during the writing sessions – also needed to be cleared, and though we knew it would be expensive, we had decided to include them as they were key to the story (it was a decision that would eventually prove costly – in more ways than one). The film was finally finished and we were ready to tell the world.
Invitations started coming in from film festivals. The response from our first – Victoria in Canada – was amazing, with the film likened to “early Mike Leigh” – “A fiercely funny and achingly compelling portrait of a working class Liverpool family.” Blimey. Several trips followed – we invited writers whenever we could raise money or afford to pay for them ourselves. We visited places as diverse as Northern Ireland, California, Keswick, Colorado, Cambridge, Cannes (Sol shot an RTS award-winning documentary on that trip), and even Hollywood – where we rubbed shoulders not just with John (Mr. Travolta to you), but also with Brad Pitt, The Afflecks, Zac Effron and Michael Sheen amongst others.
Back home, things weren’t running as smoothly. Endless visits to distribution companies resulted in the same outcome – they loved the film, but with no big names, it would be prohibitively expensive to market. Getting word to the film’s audience would be difficult – though they all acknowledged that it did have an audience – and potentially a big one. Ultimately, it was too much of a gamble.
The stunning Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool hosted the premiere and was followed by a big party – but with no distribution deal, the film remained unseen – prompting The Guardian to describe it as… “may be the best British Film you’ll never see”. We were convinced that it at least warranted a release – but we couldn’t even put it out ourselves, the initial quotes to clear the music came to nearly double what the film had cost to shoot!
Another year passed and meanwhile, Sol and I produced our second feature -‘Of Time And The City’ directed by Terence Davies – a critical hit at Cannes and around the world – as well as a success at the box office. Our two films couldn’t be more different – in every sense.
Fate finally conspired to get ‘Mud’ released. After a chance meeting, an old school friend of Sol’s passed a screener on to an acquaintance, who fell in love with the film and decided to invest in it’s release. First job was to clear that soundtrack. Our music supervisor from ‘Of Time And The City – the fantastic Ian Neil – cajoled, harried and charmed the publishers and record companies, and cut the bill by two thirds – but it meant a DVD release only.
So now we are dealing with individual retailers and branches of HMV, Borders and ASDA, who have all agreed to stock the film (yet the nation’s biggest retailer, Tesco, won’t – despite their commitment to source and support local ‘producers’ – and their CEO Terry Leah wearing his support for his hometown of Liverpool like a badge of honour). Online sales have been good, so far – itunes, Amazon and play.com – but sales from our own website (underthemud.com) are what we’re hoping to push in a effort to repay the investors, finally pay all the contributors.
And so, more than seven years after the first writing workshop, ‘Under The Mud’ is finally available. Self-distribution – increasingly the only option for micro-budget UK features – is difficult and time-consuming (like everything else on this film!). We’re still in touch with the writing team – some continue to write, some act – some have just got on with their lives, but like us, they are all extremely proud of ‘Under The Mud’.
As The Producers – would we do it all again? No chance.
We have got two copies of the ‘Under the Mud’ DVD to offer up as competition prizes. To enter, please send your answer to the following question to firstname.lastname@example.org (please note, you must be on our mailing list to be eligible for entry. You can sign up in the box at the top of this page); “Which Liverpool rock’n’roll legend wrote the score for ‘Under the Mud’. The competition closes at mid-night on Thursday.