‘Beats’: Up Close and Personal with Brian Welsh and Steven Soderbergh
We got a front-row seat to an exclusive virtual interview with Director Brian Welsh and Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh, moderated by Slamdance Film Festival’s Co-Founder and CEO, Peter Baxter. The filmmakers took us behind the process of putting the film together while sharing informative and insightful perspectives on the current entertainment landscape, tips to help young aspiring filmmakers successfully break into the industry, and the future of independent cinema in today’s social and political climate.
Why did you want to make Beats?
Brian: I grew up in a period where the movie was set and I was fascinated with the scene (pertaining to the rave culture) that impacted my life as a kid. The creativity, anti-authoritarian enforced behind it inspired me to relive the rave culture through this film. When I stumbled upon the play by Kieran Hurley, it instantly blew me away and felt like it was directly talking to me and articulating about my own experiences growing up. After the show, I immediately reached out to the writer, asked to be his friend, and next thing you know we’re developing the play into a screenplay. It was a challenge because the play was a month-long performance piece and we had to wrack our brains trying to figure out how we could encapsulate it into a 90-minute story.
What was your journey leading up to the making of Beats?
Brian: I started my career as a documentary editor in Glasgow, mostly editing stories about post-9/11 and social issues such as racial tension in Glasgow. My goal was to edit drama, and luckily, I got into the editing department of the National Film School. From there, I developed an interest in directing. Most of my projects were micro-budget films, and fortunately, one of the films got recognition and won the Independent Film Awards. Because of this feat, I was given the opportunity to direct an episode in the first series of the award-winning show, Black Mirror. It was a terrifying, but [a] really fucking good experience because it felt like we were making a mini film. I built my career around TV for a bit, but my passion lies in making films. However, a few years went by without any progress with my feature film scripts, but I worked hard to develop Beats while simultaneously working on other projects. It’s been a funny journey, but I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.
At the center of the film, the two main characters Johnno and Spanner, there is a heartfelt and harrowing story. You mentioned Kieran, can you tell about the script co-writing process?
Brian: A lot of laughs, fun, and we passed the baton between each other trying to figure out who’s going to be Johnno or Spanner on a specific day, who has their personalities in a specific scene. It was long and tough, but we kept the environment lighthearted to make it a worthwhile experience. We intend to continue building that working relationship in developing future projects.
You’ve got a great writing partner there with Kieran, I understand that it’s animatic what you created, really informed your visualization of the film. It’s kind of like a storyboard that you had described to me before, but can you tell us more about that because it seems that the script went parallel along with this animatic that you created?
Using the same technique on Black Mirror, I storyboarded the entire film and recorded myself playing all the parts and stage directions, then syncing it on a post-production software and layering it with music. It was like the first draft of the film. It’s important to have a razor-sharp Plan A to ensure that I know why I need to tell the story and it’s easier for us to work on set. I think it all comes back to being in the editing room a lot.
The rave sequence was one of the best musical sequences I’ve ever seen in film, there must be an extraordinary amount of planning there and I could only imagine how challenging it must have been to make it with a lower budget. Can you tell us about the making of that particular part of Beats?
The animatic was absolutely key for that. Getting the energy and emotions in terms of what the characters are going through each stage of that night in this chaotic environment was absolutely driven by the music. Most films have shitty party scenes and to do this story justice and to have that connection with the space, people, and the boys’ journey, we decided to organize a real rave party with great line up of Scottish DJs and a thousand extras in ‘90s gear. A lot of the music and sound effects in the film were all in sync – it was a live recording of the music, crowd, and bits of dialogue. It makes the audience feel more immersed in the story.
Steven has helped a lot of independent filmmakers in Slamdance form their career. What attracted you to Brian and this project as an Executive Producer?
Steven: It’s a stalking story actually. I’ve seen Brian’s episode of Black Mirror and I just thought it was beautifully directed and I tracked him down and reached out to find out what he was doing, who he was, what plans he had, and I was just offering any kind of assistance that I could provide. He told me about Beats, which I thought was terrific, like a Scottish-American Graffiti. I was happy to work on the project and help make it happen.
Brian: Steven wasn’t actually happy with the black and white style initially for commerciality’s sake.
Steven: There’s a bias attached to black and white films that still exists, but creatively, there was no question regarding its intention and purpose. The rave won’t work the way it did if the movie wasn’t in black and white.
Brian: Creatively, it works out, but I know that there would probably [be] more doors that would open in terms of distribution if the film was shot in color. At the end of the day, we’re still proud of everything.
What do you think younger filmmakers should aspire to do? Should they focus on films or focus on their craft and get TV gigs or working with platforms?
Brian: I realized to do good work, I really have to fall in love with the story that I am telling and that’s not necessarily that easy. I have a slate of ideas that I love but it doesn’t mean that someone will like it too.
Steven: As a producer and director, what I’ve been pushing is a sort of auteur approach to TV where a single director is basically making a 6, 8, or 10-hour film. It’s hard to argue with a young filmmaker coming up to beat me for a seat on a TV show that’s going to be a great training for you, and it depends on the kind of show. The fact that it’s viable now, I think is really interesting. I get projects where I am asked to be a director for a pilot, but I keep explaining that I am all or nothing, either I’m doing the whole thing or I’m not doing anything. I think that results in really fascinating television. But during the lockdown, I went back to writing and it was really good for me. As per independent films, the biggest negative on festivals having to pivot away from showing movies in theaters, there’s no opportunity at the moment for any young filmmaker who ever dreams of having their film screened in theaters. It’s unfortunate that it was taken away, and it’s harder to create noise around your movie. I think it’s going to be a while [before] we’re going to have theaters that’s going to get filled up enough to really make that business thrive again.
How will filming change from this point onwards?
Steven: The four main guilds in the US has released a list of safety protocols that needs to be followed on set. There will be a lot of targeted testing. What we want to know is what would be the surcharge in terms of time to be safe now and how will that affect smaller independent films, and if it’s going to become prohibitive. The COVID is here to stay and we just have to learn how to deal with it.
We’ve gathered around campfires to tell stories; cinema is an extension of that where we can see people bigger than life. Cinema is having a hard time right now, what is the future of cinematic storytelling in the theater during this social climate and then also now politically. So, what are those other questions you’ve been asking yourself about that?
Steven: I made a film that was finished this year and was supposed to come out this Fall about the Queen Mary 2 crossing from the US to the UK, which now instantly became a period film. It’s already part of a reality that doesn’t exist anymore and might not exist in that form. Now, I think we’re all grappling with how to incorporate both COVID and the protest movement into any contemporary story that we’re going to tell because it’s clear that both of these waves are going to result into changes that are going to be permanent to try and imagine for creators right now which ones will be permanent and which ones won’t be if you’re trying to shoot a movie this year.
What is your hope for independent film going forward?
Brian: There’s an audience out there for single films that have something to say and have a life in film festivals. The thing is that we live in this global marketplace. In order to make something successful, it needs to be available across the world for it to work. The model of regional distribution is beginning to feel dated to me. For example, if a film festival is able to find a platform where they could screen all the content outside the festival, then filmmakers who have a run, people from around the world will get a chance to see their films. I believe that [where] there’s a will, there’s a way.
Steven: Part of it is to make sure that success is defined on our terms and not the studios’ terms. Part of the problem is that it’s a false dichotomy and I think we need to not lose sight of the fact that for an independent filmmaker, to be at a festival at all and to have your movie picked up by someone and distributed in a real way anywhere is a huge success. For young filmmakers, don’t necessarily set up a kind of a vision board that inevitably leads to getting this giant studio movie. Know that just being able to work on a film one after another, that’s a real career and overtime if you stick it out, opportunities will arrive that you can take advantage of that provide the opportunity for you to have a bigger platform to show your work. Keep your head down and your feet moving and don’t get sucked into somebody else’s idea of what constitutes a success or a hit or any of that stuff.
How sustainable is making a film on an iPhone?
Steven: In both cases of films that I made, it’s sustainable for a small amount of money as we could, and sold them for a factor of three and a factor of seven. That’s a viable business, do one of those films every year, and that’s a business I’d be happy to do. That may not be flashy or newsworthy, but it’s absolutely viable especially for a young filmmaker whose lifestyle doesn’t demand a ton of money. To paraphrase, “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive,” and so how do you get to let people know that you’re there and if you talk to anybody in any aspects of this business, the marketing costs is what’s killing everybody. The expense of just wanting to let people know you’re there, to get awareness keeps rising and that’s hard on everybody.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.