BFI NETWORK caught up with Scottish writer-director Sean Dunn to talk ‘siege mentality,’ and embracing the chaos
Dunn’s latest film, British by the Grace of God, stars Kate Dickie (The Witch, Couple in a Hole) as a woman struggling to find her place in in the world as the Brexit vote divides the UK.
How did you get into filmmaking?
When I left school I had no idea of how to get involved in filmmaking. I think this is – or was – common for a lot of kids growing up outside of London. I worked in bars, supermarkets, an office, before deciding to get a degree in English. After graduating, I applied to the MFA in Film at Columbia University. I didn’t have much experience in making films before I went to Columbia. I had written screenplays - just amateur attempts, but they helped me to figure out formatting and how to think visually.
Without being given the go ahead by a fund or competition, what motivated you to start this project?
The fact that it was harder to get people to listen to us in the early pre-production stage. We’d never had the backing of a public-funding body, which gave us a kind of siege mentality and galvanised the crew even more. It was a real lesson in being resourceful and in how to make a film truly independently. We had something to prove, and ultimately we believed in the strength of the script, so we felt it was important to bring it to life despite the hurdles put in our way.
And why now?
I finished the script in March and I knew I wanted to have the film made by the end of the summer, which left about four months of pre-production. I don’t think I ever felt like we were ready to shoot, I just set the date and worked towards it. A deadline is important for when you want to start principle photography because if you don’t have that you may never feel ready. There’s something to be said about embracing the chaos and trusting that you have the people around you to make it happen, even if it means long days and sleepless nights to make sure you get there!
How did you raise a budget to get the film off the ground?
It was mostly down to the massive support given to us by friends and family, and doing our best to cut costs (i.e. people working for nothing). I was very, very fortunate to have people around me who believed in the project, and I’m forever indebted to so many. You can only ask friends and family to invest in a film once if you’re lucky, so being aware of that adds a little extra pressure not to screw it up. Making films is a very difficult thing to do, and nobody owes you anything. You feel like you’re an outsider. It’s a feeling I thrive on, and I think it’s good for art in general.
How did you find the right people to support you?
Pretty much all of the crew were undergraduates from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was a case of lots of very kind people who love film pulling together to get the film made. You need to have a strong script, which starts a domino effect. Once Kate wanted to be part of the film, it really boosted everyone’s morale and gave us the belief that we could do something special. Looking back, it was a miracle that we got it made. The odds were stacked up against us, but I really believe that had a positive force on everyone.
Watch British by the Grace of God , our former Postroom Pick of the Month, here