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Simon Harvey on the film industry in Cornwall

Simon Harvey has worked as a director for a number of theatre companies in the region. He also works regularly with Kneehigh Theatre as an actor. His work as a producer includes two feature films: “The Rabbit” and “The Midnight Drives”. He is the artistic director of O-Region, a Truro based Production Company.  The interview took place in December 2007.


Interview: James Ellwood    Images: Oliver Berry

JE: Is there an industry in Cornwall, and if so what kind of industry is it here?
SH: I think there’s definitely an industry; an independent film industry springing up in Cornwall. I think there has been for quite a long time. Certainly before I was involved there has been clusters of people doing stuff. I think its moved on a lot in the last 5 years because I guess that’s when Cornwall Film came into practice and that’s moved things on a lot. And I think in the last couple of years it’s moved on another couple of gears, particularly with Midnight Drives and Dressing Granite being made. There is certainly a good skills-base here. I think the thing we’re struggling with here is moving it into the marketplace of the wider film industry. That’s something we’re trying to address now with Midnight Drives. So I think there is certainly an industry, but what kind of industry it is? I guess it’s a fledgling; its still finding its feet.

JE: Do you know where it all started?
SH: I think it started from the same place it comes from now, in that a group of like-minded people started messing about with film. I know of stuff that was made some fifteen years ago. People like Bill Scott (eg 'Blight' picture right) and Robin Kewell have been around for a long time as well, and are still involved.

JE: So what are you doing currently?
SH: The thing with working and living in Cornwall is that there are very few people that do one thing; people have to work in different mediums. I’ve done bits of acting, producing, directing, and I think that’s a real strength, though I am now getting to the point where I want to hone in to a role where I’m running my company, I’m interested in the creative side of producing things, both in pre-production and in post.

JE: How do you find people are coming together now?
SH: From my point of view, we made our first feature, The Rabbit, with Mark Jenkin and I co-produced that with him. At that stage we all had this idea that we were all keen on working in film, and I used to think it was great that everyone did a bit of everything. But everything’s shifted, so that Mark's focused on directing, I’ve moved away from the technical side, then you’ve got Steve who very much wants to be DOP, not the camera operator, which he used to be and Morgan who is very much a cameraman. So the roles have kind of assigned themselves, so it’s less of a fluffy kind of collective and there is more of a hierarchy. Its just a much more professional way of doing things.

JE: Is there a concern that a lot of films recently have been made in this way, with the same people doing the same jobs?
SH: I don’t think so, not in the short term. I think its a strength, because people come into shoots with a working relationship. Then people come into the next shoot knowing what they’re doing, so I think that means the product can get better and better. Long term, as an industry you could say that’s difficult for people who are coming up who want to, say, work as a camera operator, because from our team Morgan’s our camera operator and I can’t necessarily see that changing.

The most difficult thing about the industry at the moment is that the money is so tight. So we’ve done so much work for free for each other, we’re very keen to get our team into those (paid) jobs, it feels like we’ve very much earned it.

JE: So where is most of the money coming from down here?
SH: It’s a weird time to ask that question. Cornwall Film (CF) came about five or six years ago. CF is European Social Fund money, which is essentially Objective One money, which came to Cornwall because Cornwall is a socially deprived area, one of the most so in Europe. Millions came in to regenerate Cornwall’s businesses, and Cornwall Film had some of that money. They started by putting money into scripts. The one thing they could never do was put money into production, unless there was co-production money available, which has always been a stumbling block. Target talent (which paid for Midnight Drives and two other films) was the last thing that Cornwall Film 2 (the second phase) did. It was the last pot of money available, and for the first time ever it was something teams could apply for that didn’t need matched funding – which was fantastic. But that money's all gone and Cornwall Film is almost gone.

Now a lot of people are pinning hopes on convergence funding, which is more European money for regeneration, but that’s across the board so any small business could apply. So everyone’s trying to access the money. But its difficult for arts to get that money because it is very difficult to prove categorically that it is economically viable. That’s what film in particular is struggling with.

JE: So why is that? Is there a reason why films are struggling to be sold?
SH: The reason we’re struggling with Midnight Drives is because we haven’t got the wider experience in the industry – we don’t know how it works.

JE: Getting back to identity, do you feel the general economic situation in Cornwall affects the kind of films that come out of the area?
SH: Yes, I think it does, because it affects them in terms of style and content because you have to be a bit more innovative in the way you make it because you’ve got no money. For instance in The Rabbit we had to do a car crash, but we had to find a way of doing it without crashing a car! We drove the car as far up a hedge as we could get it whilst still being able to get it out again, and wedged things under the bonnet – you have to be more innovative than you would necessarily if there was more money around. The other thing is the content. Your world view, what you draw on as inspiration for stories, is very much influenced by the economic situation you live in. The Midnight Drives for example, though not necessarily about Cornwall, its essentially a story about a family, a family that come to Cornwall on holiday. But I think it does make a comment about Cornwall, it shows a side of Cornwall that people don’t necessarily see, which is the exact opposite to the touristy postcard images that we see. The Rabbit was an angry film in a way, about the way tourism has taken over from fishing and all those things. I think all of us who live here think that’s bullshit, you know, that tourism isn’t the salvation for us at all. So it has got an influence on the themes and the financial implications have an effect on the style and making of things.

JE: A lot of films down here don’t seem to deal with things that you might expect to be in the films. For instance Carl's “Kernow's Kick-Ass Kung-Foo Kweens” (pictures X2 above) doesn’t sound like a Cornish film...
SH: The Kung Foo Kweens is good really, I think it’s a good example, its actually got a really strong point about Cornwall, what he’s done well, and what Brett does really well and Mark is doing well, is making points about Cornwall and about things they know. So the whole thing about the Kung Foo Kweens is that the villain in it is trying to destroy Cornish wrestling, all very tongue-in-cheek. There’s a bit where he goes through fishing, mining, low cost housing, and he kills off all the things that are part of our culture. He kills off the things that make Cornwall distinct. So there’s actually a really strong thing about Cornwall, but what Carl did really well was putting it in a format which is really accessible and funny – which is more sellable. That’s something we’re looking at now. The Rabbit was too overtly political, and possibly Golden Burn in a way, whereas you can make a similar point with something like The Midnight Drives, without even mentioning it – its just there. I think that’s the way forward really. We’ve got to look for things that reflect the social and economic situation that we’re in without being preachy or putting people off.

JE: Why is Cornwall different? A lot of people refer to “Cornish Film” but you don’t for instance hear of “Devon Film”.                                                                                                                                SH: I think it is because Cornwall’s got a very strong identity. You do hear it about other places that have strong identities and have had an influx of money – you certainly hear it about Irish film and about Scottish film and to an extent Welsh film and there is a strong Breton filmmaking community. And I think Cornwall has just naturally got a very strong identity. Devon and Somerset and Bristol and Avon are all lumped into Southwest Screen and Southwest Screen adamantly tries to put Cornwall in amongst that, and its only because Cornwall’s got quite a strong identity that people buck against that. And I think that is really important, having a strong identity.

JE: It’s interesting that you mentioned all the Celtic nations…
SH: Yes. But regionally as well, there is regional identity within those nations. But it tends to split into London, there’s certainly a filmmaking scene there. The Midlands, there are core groups there as well, and Manchester but certainly the ones on the fringe are the Celtic ones that have got very strong identities. In a way they are just further ahead because Scotland had a big influx of money and we the cinema-going public have seen that – Trainspotting etc.

JE: Are all these other Celtic countries places you can look to as model?
SH: Yes. I don’t know a huge amount about them. I just know that they are well established. And Cornwall, especially if no more funding comes in, is in danger of not getting as far ahead as it could be. But stuff like the Cornwall Film Festival is quite robust now – most of the entries were shorts, not all of high quality, but still 140 films a year being produced in and around Cornwall and with digital technology getting more and more accessible and cheaper more people are going to be able to create things.



JE: What are your thoughts on equipment, for instance The Midnight Drives was going to shot on film.
SH: Well, it was supposed to be shot on digital originally, and then the DOP we were originally working with, who works on film, was kind of saying: look I think I can make this work on film in terms of budget. So we went to Cornwall Film, because it was really strict that it was supposed to be a digital film. I made a really strong argument to do it on film; there was a really strong case. But as it transpired as we got closer and closer we worked out there was no way we were going to be able to shoot it on film.

JE: What was the case for film?
SH: It would be more sellable, whether it would be or not in retrospect I don’t know. But it’s really hard to argue a case for it because I know we just never would have got it made. So A) it would have been more sellable. B) The look. The visual dynamic of it was always going to be filmic so we might as well have shot it on film. C) The cinematographer had a team that he was going to bring in & he was going to get the camera for free and we were just going to pay for film development. So that was the argument.

JE: Have you got any thoughts on film over digital down here; is it something that has to happen? For instance the films we think of from Scotland are shot on film.
SH: Yes, they are definitely film. And financially that’s way way more – the cheapest film on film would be a hell of a lot more than we spent on Midnight Drives. I can see that things would be more sellable [on film] but long term, people say that film is going to go anyway, I don’t know if it will or not. I guess we would aspire to do one [on film] eventually, I do love the look of film, it does look fantastic. It would take us up another league. For me it’s more important to get films made, and I like the amount of control you get with digital. But I think, certainly from the festivals we went to they asked for prints of stuff, there’s a lot of festivals we can’t get into with Midnight Drives because its got to be on a print. You can blow up from digital to a print, and maybe that’s the intermediate step we need to take.



JE: We’ll finish up with your thoughts for the future. Is Cornish film something that’s going to die out once the funding has gone?
SH: Well, Cornwall film is morphing into something else at the moment, likely to be Cornwall Media. So there will be money available, the difficulty would be whether there would be production money. I don’t know, the future for me and Mark and the wider team is that we’ve got those links with Pippa Cross and those links are starting to come to fruition, you know, so Midnight Drives will open doors for us at the very least. So we can start to look to the Film Council and say: would you fund the development of something? And we are going to talk to Southwest Screen about plans for next year.

The immediate future: what I think would be great would be to shoot something digitally with the same team of people on Marks new idea, taking what we’ve learnt on Midnight Drives (MD). The new idea is a romantic comedy, so its more sellable. So ideally it would be to work with a budget between £100,000 – £200,000 which is between three and four times more than MD the difficulty is that if we got more money than that, then the more money you get, the more people meddle with it. And the beauty of MD was that we were actually just left alone so we have ended up with the film we wanted to make. So that’s something I’d like to keep control of, but financially I’d like to make enough money to live on! Which MD certainly didn’t pay enough. So it would be great to pay people enough, so people aren’t always struggling – that would be a great step for all of us.

JE: So most of that extra budget would go on wages?
SH: I think so, and also it would make things slightly easier, we could have that bit more to spend on locations. On MD we had to do so much buttering people up – for instance the guesthouse, we weren’t even paying commercial rates so although your paying them you still end doing a hell of a lot of walking on eggshells. So if you’ve got that little bit of extra money all that becomes slightly easier. We could have a longer shoot and take the pressure of everybody. I think that would be the next stage for us.



O-region on YouTube: 'The Midnight Drives' trailer



Midnight Drives on YouTube: Simon Harvey and Mark Jenkin