York’s ‘film revolution’ has been a slow and steady burner over the past few years. Whereas before, the odd York-made short would appear in a festival or two, or perhaps talk of a high profile TV series or film shooting in the area would do the rounds, the 2010s have seen some genuinely giant leaps for York as the oft-touted ‘media hub’ that a vocal minority knew it could be.
In the case of The Knife That Killed Me, the first feature film from Green Screen Productions in Bubwith, York, that vocal minority have proved that York can pitch itself confidently as this ‘centre of filmmaking’… and come out swinging.
"Right from the get-go, the audience starts wondering 'Whydunnit?' as well as 'Whodunnit?'"
With the rights originally obtained to Anthony McGowan’s bestseller in 2008, co-directors Marcus Romer and Kit Monkman - of Pilot Theatre and KMA respectively - were, at the time, aware of a spate of knife crime activity on the rise: "We wanted to make a film that reflected on what young people were experiencing," says Romer, "and in the six year time period since we made the film, events have come full circle."
The director refers to the tragic incident earlier this year when life imitated art - and irony - and Anthony McGowan’s form tutor was the victim of a knife attack in the very school where the story was set. "A fifteen year-old took a knife to school and someone died," Romer explains tersely, "so these events haven’t stopped. But this isn’t a ‘Don’t do knife crime, kids’ film; we navigate through the story to find something with weight and relevance and with a wider reach about what it’s saying."
It has been two years since filming wrapped on The Knife That Killed Me, and now the film is ready for audiences, presented by Universal Studios and Focus Features. The film is not, however, a straightforward film in the terms that most audiences would understand. Shot entirely in the green screen studio at Bubwith, the filmmakers then added backgrounds, weather, graffiti and other elements in the edit, meaning the young cast were called upon to act in a purely green space with only an idea of what was all around them. In short, the film was an experiment.
Romer elaborates: "There’s a sense of a jungle, of isolation, an open space and an uncertainty as to where to go which we’ve all experienced at school or later in life. Anthony wanted to write a 21st Century Kes, highlighting the outsider at school, struggling to fit in and find meaning. The green screen gave the actors and the film sense of isolation and being a loner in a space where you don’t belong. While it’s recognisable, it’s not set in a specific time or place so elicits an emotional response to that headspace."
"Being a teenager is a particular form of madness."
"It’s a potent time," says co-director Kit Monkman, who oversaw the special effects and the edit. "You’re adjusting to being an adult, you have a kind of emotional myopia and all the people you used to run to for help are no longer the ones you run to. So, for a year or two, you could be in a dark place as a teenager; not exactly mad but the closest a lot of us get to madness."
Monkman explains that, while they had lofty goals for the film, they didn’t know quite what they had until the edit came together and the effects began to gel. "It’s sort of not a film; it’s a ninety-minute visual story. I never considered making it ‘avant garde’ but the fact is we deliberately didn’t pull focus or use those kind of traditional cinematic techniques, so there’s a Rousseau-esque naïvety to it." "The film feels to some like ‘art’ in that it it doesn’t really fit into a genre," adds Romer. "We wanted to make sure it had a good narrative, but be something new. We were finding our way in the dark, using the resources available. The actors felt very at home and the rehearsal room was right next to the set, so there was an improvisational element to it."
Universal Studios were attracted to the project despite what the filmmakers admit was a ‘sketched out’ vision of how it would look and feel. The closest films that preceded TKTKM in terms of style and vision are perhaps Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, with its chalk-drawn borders and props, and Sin City, purely in terms of having been shot entirely on a green screen stage with ‘sets’ added digitally, and camera movement simulated largely by revolving platforms.
With the script development stage a typically long, drawn out affair, it can often take years from the project being ‘green lit’ to actually being filmed. "It was a tiny production in our minds when we started to get the film together," admits Monkman. "I didn’t believe we’d quite pull it off; I was half thinking we’ll never do it and half convinced we would."
"We wrote nine drafts of the script over three years and shot Draft 9.2."
"At draft eight we got the screenwriting report back saying it was 90% there," says Romer, "which was a year before we started production, and then money started to come in so we knew we were actually going to make it."
Neither of the filmmakers, however, still had any solid idea of what the film was going to look like: "We’d mocked up six screenshots that don’t bear any resemblance to what the film finally became," says Monkman. "When we edited it we had thousands of split takes on green screen and we had to piece it all together."
"The rough cut (what they call ‘suicide screenings’ in Hollywood) was hard to watch but the narrative drove it," continues Romer. "the FX would come later but the quality of the acting carried it, so I knew then that we had a good movie. There were moments, that despite the roughness, we thought were quite magic and felt we had something." The release and distribution plans for The Knife That Killed Me are also characteristically unusual: the film is about to be shown to the world via an intriguing Kickstarter Campaign that will see the film exhibited in theatres, repurposed buildings and other spaces serving as unlikely cinemas, with a live link to the filmmakers who will provide a Q&A afterwards. Romer, who is no stranger to staging productions in challenging places after taking Blood and Chocolate to the streets of York last year, says the plan fits the film perfectly:
"Making new things is a mechanism you can really explore now. ‘Multiplatform’ can mean lots of things and as long as you’re telling good stories, you can find the right medium to tell them. Being on an indie level means you can navigate through the existing structures, whether as a thorn in their side or right between the building blocks." If you want to see The Knife That Killed Me, you can support the Kickstarter campaign below and help the film to be shown simultaneously in various locations around the UK.