Actor/writer/producer/editor Poppy Roe tells us about the whirlwind journey she and her partner went through to make their first feature film, the critically acclaimed dark comedy A Serial Killer's Guide To Life...
"What's not funny?"
And so began our journey into comedy filmmaking.
Back in 2013, during an idle chat over tea with my husband Staten Cousins Roe (now also my production partner at Forward Motion Pictures) and good friend Katie Brayben, the idea of our short film was spawned. This Way Out - a comedy set in a euthanasia clinic that had run out of clients. Okay, a dark comedy.
Staten wrote it, I script edited - together we raised a few grand via crowdfunding, gathered an enthusiastic team (Katie and I acting in it) and shot the entire thing in our one bed flat in south east London.
The finished short went on to screen at over 30 international festivals, win a bunch of awards, get longlisted for a BAFTA and was acquired by HBO Europe and the Sundance Channel.
So, we said happily, 'what else is not funny?'
We had a pause - while having a go at turning the short into a comedy series, and meeting with great people about our film ideas - but we wanted to get on and make something. One day, on his way home from one such meeting, Staten called me and said "Let's make our own feature film" - him writing and directing, us producing, me acting and both of us editing.
This seemed a great idea.
Little did we know we were stepping into a project that would consume us entirely for the next two years...
In 2017 we keenly began crowdfunding, as a way of testing the concept - if we raised the funds then it was proof that there was an audience out there. We launched a Kickstarter page over a cold January - people seemed to really connect with it - and we smashed our target in the first 5 days! This gave us the confidence (and finance) to start pre-production - we were really going to do this.
The idea of A Serial Killer's Guide To Life was to take the two main characters from our short film and place them in a completely new world - this time Staten was satirising the multi-million dollar 'self-help' business (which we found was filled with potential comedy): Lou Farnt - a woman addicted to self-help books - goes on a road-trip of alternative therapies with her new, psychotic life coach Val Stone, launching herself unwittingly on a killing spree, of violent self discovery...
Staten fervently wrote and rewrote the script, and we began to gather the team (I made a target of 50% female crew, to gain a balanced perspective on set) - including multi-talented new producers Charity Wakefield (Wolf Hall & The Great) and Giles Alderson (director of The Dare, and founder of The Fillmaker's Podcast). Staten and I travelled around the south coast scouting locations. We secured the shoot dates for April 2017 - and we hurtled towards the first day on set.
To be honest, at no point did we have everything in place - shooting on a ridiculously tight budget meant problem solving continuously. Our DOP, the excellent James Leyton, helped us source an F55 camera (the one used on The Crown) - that Sony generously let us use. We collected local people who were willing to support an independent, interesting project - they offered discounted accommodation or locations - and we adapted the script to incorporate what was available to us.
We were able to secure some brilliant actors - most of which were only required to shoot for a day or two - Sian Clifford (Claire from BBC's hit series Fleabag) gave a brilliant performance as 're-birthing therapist' Cynthia, and Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Divergent, Me Before You) smashed it with his hilarious American 'Life-Guru' Chuck Knoah.
There were stressful moments - we lost a location last minute - and at one point I carefully took a bag of salad out of the fridge and pummelled it to mush, before calmly putting it back. Pressure can do that to a filmmaker.
Despite both of us rapidly losing weight and looking like we'd aged a decade - we got it in the can [May 2017]! Now the lengthy process of editing and post production, which would take over a year...
I found myself an editing mentor in Colin Goudie (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Monsters) - whom I met on an editing workshop he spoke at. Colin encouraged me after watching a rough cut - giving some golden advice (one gem of which was "no one knows anything" - my mantra during my most self-doubting moments).
Next I sought out a recommendation of a Sound Designer - Anna Sulley, and we began the to and fro of sound ideas - which, for me, was one of the most transformative moments. Anna and her team worked with us to bring the production value to its peak with soundscapes and foley that highlighted the twisted comedy tone. Added to that was Laurence Love Greed's beautiful music composition, Claire Winter's colouring and Bluespill's Ant Brownmoore's VFX (he made us a helicopter!) and BOOM we had a movie.
We had our first industry screening during a grey afternoon in Soho in January 2019 - a horribly nerve-wracking experience. After working away on the film continuously in our bedroom it's a big moment to finally show it to actual people (other than the Star Wars figurines on our desk). I sweated and shuffled timidly in the back row. Industry screenings are not a fun experience. Especially when you're showing a comedy - it's not exactly a fun-filled atmosphere you want, rather a lot of single, very busy people, who don't know each other, watching on their lunch break.
I handed out sweets to lighten the tone. Big mistake, the wrappers crinkled, and I discovered the jelly sweets got stuck in your teeth. Not a good start.
...But the response we got was wonderful. They actually laughed! Hurrah!
We signed with the brilliant people at Arrow Films - and premiered to a roaring response at this year's Frightfest in London's Leicester Square. The reviews came in - 4 & 5 stars, calling it a 'cult classic', 'wonderfully funny' and a 'bloody Thelma & Louise... hilarious'.
And now here we are. The journey's certainly not over. A Serial Killer's Guide To Life releases digitally on all known platforms (Amazon, iTunes etc) on January 13th 2020 - in UK, USA and Canada, and a UK theatrical tour. So, now our job is to get the film watched, get the word spread. Get it enjoyed. It's been quite a ride.
And now we're in the crazy position of writing the next one together.
In the future if asked "What's not funny?", I'll answer:
It's as serious as it gets.
Follow Poppy on Twitter: @PoppyRoe - she's happy to answer questions on there!
A Serial Killer's Guide To Life is available now via Amazon Video, iTunes and all digital outlets, and the soundtrack available on iTunes and Amazon. Go to aserialkillersguidetolife.com for links, latest news, merchandise and theatrical Q & A screenings near you.