Dogging started out with a very simple idea: watching people trying and failing to go dogging would probably be quite funny. So we fleshed out a loose concept for a web series where each episode would encompass a sketch of a different couple trying, and failing, to go dogging. Done in a very slapstick, viral, type of way.
But after the first draft of a first episode it became immediately apparent to us that we were heading towards something much more character driven. Once we conceived of Keith and Val, and basically fell in love with them, the project very organically became something more ambitious: a standalone scripted film, which would need a proper, talented cast, crew and budget. This was intimidating. Sam and I had never directed or produced on any real scale before, so we really had no idea what went into making a film that way.
And I would like to say that we then meticulously planned and strategized how to make this happen with the least stress possible. But instead we just … started, really. And decided to worry about where the money would come from later. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. If an idea is good it will see you through. And once you’ve begun you can’t go back, which is good for someone like me who tends to talk themselves out of things.
The first thing we tackled was casting. We knew that something like Dogging would live and die on its performances so we figured there was no point pressing ahead unless we had actors attached who could make it sing. So we were incredibly fortunate to find two great talents in Joel (Stockhill) and Scarlett (Sweeney), via Casting Call Pro, which is a free online casting platform and something I would recommend to anyone starting out in low budget filmmaking. We auditioned around five actors for each part but as soon as we heard Joel and Scarlet read together we knew we’d found our characters. The script just came alive and we knew it was going to work.
Then we started seriously thinking about raising money. As two first timers, with a project called ‘Dogging’, the only funding option realistically available to us was crowd funding. We recorded a brief pitch video and set up a Kick Starter page, unsure whether this would lead to more than fifty pence. But it turned out that having a comedy called ‘Dogging’ was a total boon. It explained itself in one word and usually provoked a mild titter, so a surprisingly wide range of people chipped in and we actually hit our target within a week. This was money that would pay for travel, kit rental, catering, location fees and some post-production costs – a huge weight off our minds.
Once we had the actors in place we then managed to bring a brilliant DOP on board, Oliver Schofield, who in turn convinced an experienced group of regular collaborators to join him as camera crew. They had all read the script and liked it and, rather improbably to us, were willing to work on the film for free. So by the time we arrived on set in Epping Forest, one balmy August evening, with a modest budget, brilliant actors and professional crew by our side, we were convinced that despite our total lack of logistical pre-panning we were now half way to BAFTA-ville.
Until we met a real hurdle: actual doggers.
When I had picked up the location permits from the forest warden earlier that evening, he had fixed me a joyless stare and opined that I should prepare myself for the forest at night, “for I would see things.” A pleasingly alarming comment (much reminiscent of the gatekeeper in The Haunting) that had given me some pleasure. But it soon became apparent that he basically meant loads of people shagging in cars. Everywhere. This was something we had not planned for.
When we arrived on set (a wooded car park off the main road through Epping Forest that we had paid for the exclusive use of until morning) we were concerned to see that there was already another parked car bang in the middle of our wide shot. With two people in it. Not making short films. These (not so) young lovers were eventually scared off by the arrival of our kit van containing lights, generators and a gaffer called Tim. But there was a good hour where I was convinced we would not be able to shoot our fictional film about people dogging in a car park because of a real couple dogging and refusing to leave the car park we wanted to film in.
To prevent this happening further I convinced our make up artist/runner, Kate, to augment her credit to make up artist/runner/bouncer. I.E We agreed that Kate would stand at the entrance to the car park, between two piss stained bollards and a length of string, wearing a high-vis sash and friendly, but firm, frown, with her arms folded, in an attempt to ward off any subsequent doggers who might wish to enter the car park. Which they did. All night. In a semi-constant stream. So please bear this in mind when you watch the film. And the doggers we blocked in the process of making it.
This problem would recur again at our cast and crew premiere when I was approached by a somewhat frightening looking man in a suit, who said he had seen the event advertised on Facebook and thought he’d come down as it sounded like his sort of thing. My excitement at having attracted a genuine cineaste who wasn’t obliged to say he liked the film simply because he knew me, quickly drained away, as he added that he was pleased to see so many people in their twenties, and women, present this evening, as dogging events tended to be “a bit of a middle aged sausage fest” in his experience. He then enquired where things would be taking place ‘afterwards’. After a brief, desperate, pause to see if he was joking, I politely informed him that he was, in fact, at a comedy film night and no actual dogging would be taking place. At least to my knowledge. After gazing at me seriously for about fifteen seconds he then, inexplicably, decided to stay, watched the film, congratulated me afterwards and said we should keep in touch. We shook hands. He left. This is not a problem I have faced either before or since as a filmmaker.
Once we started shooting on the night everything was surprisingly straightforward. Despite the fact that we had chosen the shortest night of the year for a night shoot, providing only five hours of true darkness to get the whole thing in the can, thanks to the incredible collective effort and professionalism of the crew, we got there. Joel and Scarlet nailed the performances very quickly, with minimal takes, something that was massively aided by our decision to spend money on two days of rehearsals. I know some directors don’t bother with rehearsals for short films, or even features, but for character driven work that is just madness to me. It pays in the long run. So my advice is always, always rehearse. It’s worth the spend.
We then managed to pull in a couple of amazing favours in post-production by getting both our sound mix and grade done in Soho post houses for free. Again this is simply because we asked, they liked the film and were excited by it. So it’s always worth approaching these places even if it feels a little uncomfortable. If someone like the idea they will, in my experience, be enthusiastic to help. Having a contact or in there may help but it’s not essential.
And then it was done and we had to figure out what do with it. Originally our plan had been simply to upload the film to YouTube and promote it ourselves but once we’d finished I felt pretty confident that we had a good shot at film festivals. So we held back from YouTube, initially, and that really paid off. We premiered at Encounters, which immediately sparked interest from a few other festivals and we quickly went on to screen at loads of great festivals and comedy nights. We met loads of brilliant people and got to see people laughing at our film in real physical spaces, which is not something you get from You Tube. The downside is there’s nowhere to hide when they don’t laugh.
All in all Dogging was a massive education for us and opened an amazing number of doors. We won an award, managed to start conversations, which have now lead to a TV development deal for other projects and met so many talented filmmakers, programmers and producers along the way. And this was all through a short film, which was, essentially, a protracted wanking joke. So follow your dreams.