Matt Long and Danny Cotton are two talented men who have found interesting ways to work together. Recently, they both worked on films they each came up with: Soldiers of Embers and No More Lights. The two films have completely different concepts and yet somehow got filmed throughout the same timespan of production. But just how did these two guys do it? I got together with them over a Zoom meeting (due to them being in another country and COVID-19, per usual) to learn how they worked together and balanced out the schedules. Fascinating how they created some high quality movies given the small budget they had. And soon all of Canada will be able to see how great their films are.
HNMAG: So it’s my understanding that you each wrote one film, did you choose to take turns?
Matt: It wasn’t intentional, Danny and I were doing our own thing at the time back then. Danny’s more film director type, my background is mainly as an actor. It was a bit of a chance in a way because I played lead in another feature film, and that fell through halfway in production because the company ceased. But I personally made a lot of contacts through that. At that time I was writing the script for what became Soldiers of Embers which is now released. But I really had to be conscious of the project, I didn’t want to give that control to another production company. Now I have a background in global project management which is the same skill-set as a producer. So I fully started Bulldog Films, and I met Danny on the local filmmaking circuit. We got along really well, had the same thoughts on terms of work, and I started to talk to him about Soldiers of Embers and he sat down with me to read the script that was written, threw a few things in. Then it went from there, Danny, didn’t it?
Danny: Yeah, that was a crazy time. It was an absolute pleasure to get the call at the time. We went backwards and forwards a little bit, but it was nice to have a little bit of crave input then as director guide it from the opening stages which was a really nice touch.
Matt: In terms of the two scripts, No More Lights came along.
Danny: Yeah, because I’m absolutely nuts and one feature is not enough. This idea popped into my head, and i just wanted to run with it. But obviously I knew that Soldiers of Embers was going to take up a lot of time, so I just approached Matt. I just said, “Look. I’ve got this crazy idea. I know we’re really REALLY busy right now but could you spare us any more time, just to fit in something else?” because I thought No More Lights was going to be a really short type of 30 minute piece when I originally did it. We filmed a bit of when schedules wouldn’t conflict and we had a free weekend or whatever it was. We’d jump in and see if the No More Lights shoot could take place at the time. We wrote up several segments of the script, it was a rather segmented process rather than Matt’s fully fledged feature. We ran with it, we filmed it with about 25 minutes of those small segments. I was saying “There’s more story to be had here.” Soldiers of Embers was a full script as it were, and then we scheduled No More Lights as it became more of a process morphing these two features schedules into hand with each other.
Matt: I think it was a bit therapeutic. With Soldiers of Embers, you start living and breathing it, but with two different films, it was nice to switch off and do something else.
Danny: Yeah, the fresh air between the two genres was very nice.
HNMAG: And where did the inspiration for the concepts come from?
Matt: For Soldiers of Embers, I’ve always been a big fan of action films. But I’ve got to be careful here because it’s more of a drama. But I’ve known alot of military friends on my life. I’ve had this story overtime about this ex-paratrooper who I play, Jack Bishop. Like the character, I’m a family man myself. I’ve had friends who have been away in Afghanistan, and they’ve had small children who have grown up. Obviously not being there for them is not their fault, they’re fighting for the country. It’s their job. But I’ve had to watch those people come back, trying to keep slotting in and out of family life which is really difficult. That was of the underlying things for Soldiers of Embers. But with me, like a lot of other people, we like a bit of a twist in the film. I like a bit of action to chuck in as well, so then I went off on one of these story arcs that go on during the film, and that’s where we meet up right at the end. So far it’s doing really well, it’s getting good reviews which is really nice.
Danny: As for No More Lights, I dread to use the word, but it often pops up, and it’s the word ‘Brexit’. There are other factors but it was mainly born from that one and I really wanted to cover the topic. But I didn’t want to hit it on the head. I didn’t want to do current events. I think there was plenty of publicity and controversy around it anyway. I wanted to make something that was similar and would get people thinking about what kind of questions that should be asked at the time. So I set out with these scenes, and a couple of scenes were based around family members and what was going on with them at the moment. Then I added the sci-fi dystopian twist on top of it to give it a detachment from Brexit and those other events, but keeping the same theme that I hope people will pick up on when they watch it.
Matt: It’s bizarre, I’ve read in a review the other day. It’s so relevant, especially with COVID at the moment. It sort of falls within that context of what could be, strange kind of film to slot it in, with the timing.
Danny: It asks the questions of What are?, What could be in the future?, and if we go down that path we are taking now, will we end up at the same state as events in No More Lights? Because I’ve got a few people who have watched it, and a few people who were in it thinking if we don’t do anything now, we could really see something like that happening in the future. They didn’t want that to happen, which is why they got involved so much.
HNMAG: Now Danny, I’m wondering, what was it like directing something written by Matt instead of you?
Danny: Interesting question, I was having a chat with someone recently about this. I really like directing scripts I’ve written because I understand the topics and the nature that go with it. And I feel that with other people, it’s really advantageous if they’re a director as well as a writer, because they’re the one that’s been breathing it for so long. It was a nice touch that Matt came to me because he had a vision ready in his head, and I knew that he could see things. But he allowed me to see my way as well and we could have that backwards and forwards. It was an absolute delight to have that experience that I could take something that I didn’t know as well. Obviously, I’ve read it and done some work on it. It was kind of freeing to be allowed to do that.
Matt: Yeah, it’s good. We bounce well off each other. There’s no stupid questions, we’ll discuss everything, we’ll get it out and come up with ideas. If they don’t work, they don’t work. At least we tried them. It’s good if you have a relationship that allows you to have that freedom. That works for me as an actor, because I produced Soldiers of Embers, but I was very conscious because I was acting. I needed to be in that zone, I could try things, that was great, and Danny was a great director. He gives you that freedom to play around and try things out.
HNMAG: I understand it was shot on a budget, but it sounds pretty elaborate. For Matt, Just how did you work given the budget?
Matt: An epic amount. Something to bear in mind, most of us were working day-jobs as well. I had to fund the film and most of that was out of my own pocket, so I had to work all the overtime I had to save up thousands of pounds. It’s funny, just the other day someone accidentally mentioned it was a zero budget film. There’s NO such thing as a zero budget film. There’s always cost, there’s always insurance, there’s always props, there’s always licensing, the list goes on. We were in THOUSANDS even right up to the point in distribution, we still had costs coming in. That was one element, to get the budget, and then there was all the planning we were doing. Danny, Adam Sturman, and I, there’s this trio of us we call we the ‘Main Core Team’. We’d be meeting regularly to plan every single detail out. Because like I say, when you’re on location, you can’t always control your environment. Such as we’ve decided to film early one morning, and an airport decided to run helicopter tests, so we had a backup plan. All those little things. I hit the peak of doing 18-hour days. I was first on set and last off set, back at home doing all the data backups and preparing for the next day. Little sleep.
HNMAG: What kind of hurdles and obstacles did you really find yourself dealing with?
Matt: I think Danny will laugh at this. The editing process was really challenging, for Soldiers of Embers. Because Soldiers of Embers and No More Lights were two different films. Soldiers of Embers was more technical in terms of the editing. We had to deal with CGI as well, which was interesting AND a challenge. Our hardware was relatively new at the time, but even that towards January was starting to struggle a little bit. Apple released an update which killed our sound at one point, so I had to go in and fix it. Software updates can kill things. For Danny, I’m not so sure with No More Lights.
Danny: Well, in terms of the editing, it was an absolute dream because it was the filming that was a struggle. It was just a longer rehearsal process because it’s all in one shot. You have the luxury of cutting away something on Soldiers of Embers where if something went wrong, you wanted to do it again, you could easily shout “Cut! Restart! Set it up again!” When you’re on No More Lights I think some of them came out to about 7-8 minutes, maybe even more. I think we pretty much rehearsed with the camera from the start. Just so the guys could get used to having a camera in their face because it was a documentary. I became an actor within it anyway. So it became just going through it, trying to tweak certain points, I’ve done some blocking with it as well. We had a rough plan with where we wanted to go but as you know with these things we often gravitate in a slightly different direction. We just kind of run-and-gunned it until we hit that magic spot because I didn’t want any cuts for the majority of it. That one shot had to be the one.
Matt: I think the other challenges were trying to get cast and crew together at the same time, especially when you’re doing two features. Even with quite a large cast, the lineup were all professional actors. They were all very busy, and for Soldiers of Embers there was one long shot we did towards the end which was the climax. We had to choreograph that because there were lots of bodies in the biggest of rooms. So you can imagine we had to coordinate all actors with the camera and the sound people, and try not to get anyone in shot that shouldn’t be there. I reckon it was two hours of going over and over again until we finally got it.
Danny: Yeah, we had to rehearse it without the camera because it was the 4k and that’s slightly larger than what we expected in a small space. When I come up with these ideas about doing a one shot people look at me like I’m crazy and say “Really? You’re going to da THAT?” There’s a couple little in Soldiers of Embers building up to the end. I was given a bit more creative freedom in that as well.
Matt: The final problem for me was members of the public. We were on a massive beach, got full permissions to film there. It was bad timing in a way because there was a big film (Yesterday) that had been shot at this particular beach. They had paid thousands and at the time, The Rock was shooting in our city. As you can imagine, it seemed like the councils wanted to charge us an arm and a leg to film there. As Indie filmmakers who haven’t got those budgets, we were very fortunate that the people who owned the beach allowed us to film there. But even with an area of the beach bordered off, we had members of the public who thought they just had to stand in the background. As you know, you need continuity for filming. We had to shoo them off.
HNMAG: So how many crewmembers did each production consist of?
Matt: Now you’re asking something because it’s been so long since we’ve been on set. An average day for Soldiers of Embers is 20 people, maybe even more. It depended on No More Lights, didn’t it, Danny?
Danny: It was a lot more reduced. I’d say 5, as a core team. To be fair, the luxury of it was most of it was our lead actor Monty Jordan and then one more actor. Then we just had the crew who could do the many bits that a few would need to do so it was a very condensed and cozy shooting. There were a couple of scenes that were a bit bigger where there were more actors and more crew, but I think we still had the core team. Maybe a couple of add-ons, maybe a couple of production assistants to help out.
Matt: I think the biggest scene for us was the club shoot because there were lots of extras on set and it was a real night club so we were very conscious. There was alcohol on the set. We didn’t have any alcohol on the shoot but we had to make sure everything was secure. But it was all about security, making sure everyone was safe, everyone’s doing their thing, signing people in, so that was quite a significant day for us, it was the biggest shoot.
HNMAG: Do you have any sequels in mind or are you looking to create more original ideas?
Matt: For me, I’m writing two more features at the moment, one is a drama-type action thing. Take from that what you will. The other one is a horror film which I’m halfway through with writing. I want to do something totally different, but it was weird because I wanted to write a horror film and I started getting into that. I don’t know if Danny’s the same, but I’ve got this really weird thing where I don’t sleep a lot and wake up early in the morning with an idea in my head. I always keep my phone next to my bed on silent, so I can write my ideas down when I’ve got them. I had some writer’s block with the first one and it was really weird. Just two weeks ago, I had this flash of inspiration. I know exactly where I want to take it, I’m getting it on paper now. I’m a third through it by now. I’ve had to dump everything away before it, because another film stood out. It was like the idea in my head, and it was a big Hollywood blockbuster. Everything I had written was in that film, it was really strange. I had to start over again.
Danny: In terms of what I’m doing at the moment, I’m kind of doing a lockdown film. That was intended to be a short, but I just can’t do shorts anymore, it seems. It’s going to be a feature now. It’s called Recension Chronicles, and it’s something that builds up to a big conclusion in the end. It’s sci-fi with a little horror, it centers around several characters who are stuck within their homes during what they believe is some kind of infection that’s infecting the entire world. That then suggest that there is something outside causing these things to happen but you only see what’s happening from the interior of these character’s homes. I’ve got most of the footage in, so I’ve gotten it into post-production which is nice. Alongside that, I am writing another feature, which is called Existence Fading which again, didn’t mean it to be but it’s kind of what’s going on at the moment where these characters purposefully live in their homes and don’t go outside ever. They are in a kind of VR state and in a black mirror-esque vein, they have to not compete, but the harder they work the more rewards they get at the end of the month. What happens to the main character is she has a power-cut so she can’t do the things she was meant to do anymore. She can’t eat, she can’t walk, she can’t do all the processes that these people have to do these things for 10-20 years. So it’s an adventure for her in discovering who she is when she goes outside for help and then discovers the things as they always go and what they are perceived to be. As for sequels, a lot of talk is going on about if we’re doing No More Lights 2. The answer is Not at the moment, but ideas are there. I know exactly where it would go if it was going to happen. I know how it would be filmed, I know which characters would stay, and which ones won’t be seen, what format it’s going to be. But that’s it at the moment. What I wanted to do is write a novel which will be split into two halves. The first half of the novelization of the movie, and the second half will be the events that happen in the second movie. If the book comes out first, then people will know what will happen in the film.
Matt: I think it’s fair to say, that the problem with any new filmmaker is it’s EXTREMELY hard to get a budget. You can do crowdfunding but you often find you end up giving all your perks away, losing your budget. It was all about showing what we could do on a small budget and they were modest budgets. If they do well, our plan is to go pitch for the bigger budgets. It’s all about getting that credibility and there’s a lot of people waking up wanting to be a filmmaker all of a sudden. There’s really good filmmakers out there, but just realized, it gets a bit difficult, and they’re not ready for the endgame. They just give up, wastes everyone’s time, and unfortunately for new filmmakers, that makes people intend less to invest in you. We had to build that credibility, but these films are over the line and they’re doing well.
HNMAG: So how does it feel to have these films being released around ?
Matt: It’s CRAZY, it was really weird. Someone sent me a picture on Twitter the other day where they purchased the DVD so Soldiers of Embers is out on DVD and VOD in US and Canada at the minute. No More Lights is due in… September?
Danny: 28th, I believe is the DVD release.
Matt: Really surreal. I mean I started out with the intention of getting this out. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m very tenacious. I don’t stop until it’s done. It’s nice to see it out there, after quite a long journey. It’s really satisfying, and firing me up to do the next one, I just really want it to be out there. But at the same time, I’m an actor as well, so I need to be getting on the camera as well.
HNMAG: You mentioned it being a journey, how did you finally get the release given your struggles?
Matt: Yeah, it was quite painful. Danny knows. We went through several months of going through distributors. We were giving them screeners, and it was really an eye opener because both films did really well in the film festival circuit, winning awards. And in MY mind, I don’t know if you said, Danny, you’d think awards, wins especially would work straight away, wouldn’t you?
Danny: Yeah, I don’t know how they think or how they work if they’ve got a product. But you would think naturally that people would see in a certain light that they would be inclined to pick it up. It’s a very surreal world, I know they’ve got their reasons for picking up films and not.
Matt: I didn’t even get to the point of who had seen the film and who wrote back saying they’d watched it, clearly hadn’t. It got a bit disheartening at the time, but you can’t give up. We were lucky we found a really good sales agent in the end. He opened up doors for us, I can’t thank him enough.
It was incredible to discuss these two films with these two gentlemen. If you want to learn more about them and their films, check out any of these links:
Matt Long’s Production Site, Bulldog Films
Danny Cotton’s Production Site, Fabrication Images