Strong Language came about more by default than anything else. I'd sold my 3rd feature script, Club Le Monde, to a fledgling production company who'd passed the text onto Portman Productions who at that time, the summer of '95, were keen to make the film. Only one problem; they didn't have any money! But they were getting some! Imminently! And we should cast the film!
So that's what happened; I spent the whole of that summer auditioning about 300 young actors for 32 roles. By the end of the summer, Portman still hadn't raised the money and by early autumn the two key people we'd been dealing with left the company. This meant we no longer even had the promise of a film and it was at this stage I realised the fledgling production company knew less about the industry than I did and that CLM wouldn't happen that year. I'd got to the point where I was fed up with talking to people who were full of shit so decided the only way to make a feature was to go out and do it myself.
This was at a time when the American Indies were really kicking off and there were films like El Mariachi, Clerks and Slacker etc which were mega low budget but still possessed of an undeniable energy and aesthetic. It was Slacker especially which made me realise that you could pretty much do whatever you wanted in a film. Although I thought it was over-long, I loved the array of characters, the quirkiness of the dialogue, the free-form structure, the exposition of American youth culture and the film's overall audacity. I guess it was also a bit of a punk rock moment for me because it made me realise that the only thing stopping people from shooting their films apart from laziness was their own pre-conceptions about what a film was and how it should be made.
I think it was also the film's director Richard Linklater who noted that if you're going to make a low budget feature, you won't have the money to compete with Hollywood (or in my case Channel 4) so you really need to come up with something so different that it stands on its own individuality and idiosyncrasy. I took this to heart and, given my interest in youth culture and the fact that I'd been meeting hundreds of young actors of the summer, came up with the concept of Strong Language - an exposition about English youth culture with a unique dramatic structure.
In January '96 I went back to 15 of the young actors I'd seen during the summer and asked them whether they were interested in making this film which had no script, no money, no locations and at that stage not much of an idea - of course everyone said YES! After this I gave everyone questionnaires about themselves - things like who do you most admire, hate, what are your most recent cd purchases, do you do drugs, which ones, how often etc? And then once I received the answers I sat down with the actors and between us we formulated a fictional character some which were close to the actors' personalities, some which weren't. I came up with some more questions which the actors answered in character. From these responses and from my own imaginings, I wrote a script which involved people talking directly to camera and nothing else. This was then re-written and honed a few times before it became the shooting script.
Strong Language was shot on the proverbial wing and a prayer over about 8 days that summer. The locations we used were generally sourced by the actors or by me or by Armando the cameraman. Some of them, like the car park or the Houses of Parliament, we did guerilla style; turned up, shot them, ran away. Others were in peoples' homes and a couple, the narrators' 'cavern' and the nightclub, we went against the film's ethos and actually paid for. All the actors used their own clothes and our crew consisted of me, Armando the cameraman, Sasha the sound recordist (and later the editor), Ewan the first AD and sometimes Mark the runner! The majority of credits on the film were made up to give the film more credence (though thinking about it now, calling the costume designer Francois La Croix didn't help). The budget allowed that we had a very low film shooting ratio (although for the video this escalated to about 12:1) so I'd rehearsed with the actors ad finitum and every 'err' and every 'erm' was absolutely deliberate. Everyone was very reliable apart from two of the actresses - one of whom it turned out had a mental breakdown and the other who just flaked out at the last minute for reasons best known to herself; a bit of panicked casting soon remedied this however.
Generally with film shoots, you expect that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong but Strong Language was fairly hassle free - apart from losing some audio which meant we had to do a couple of re-shoots. But at least they were on tape and not film. Apart from that, the only thing I remember is running out of tapestock at about 5 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and finding it impossible to find any Hi8 video tape in North London; we ended up driving down to Tottenham Court road where the only places open were sex shops. On asking whether they had any Hi8 tapes for sale, the answer we received 'yeah, hardcore' wasn't what we were looking for and at about 35 a go, we declined.
Alex Tate came on board as co-producer on the promise that he could sort out all the post-production for free which worked well for a while. The company he worked for had two offices; one from which he worked and the other from which I worked. Alex set me up in a now archaic off-line u-matic suite and I didn't see him for quite a while. Editing a feature like this (in a linear fashion) is quite a gargantuan task but you do what you have to do and I'd go to work every morning and cut the footage. After about three weeks someone from the building came into my suite apologetically and asked 'sorry but who are you?' and I explained the situation. Once I mentionned Alex's name, they told me he'd left the company about two weeks ago and I'd have to vacate the premises!
This left me high and dry for a while until I bumped into a couple of guys (Robin Mahoney and Matt Sallkind) who I'd interviewed for a student magazine about the release of their debut documentary feature - Glastonbury the movie. It turns out that they'd managed to blag the country's first non-linear digital editing system (from Apple I think) for their film but had never returned it. Just gathering dust, they were happy to help out a fellow film-maker and that's where I finished the final cut of what was then called 'Thon.
I was keen to get across in the title that the film was something of an epic as in talkathon, marathon etc and so came up with the somewhat obscure 'Thon. Everyone I spoke to thought it was a crap title and so as we approached the final cut I was desperately struggling for a better name - Strong Language popped out of nowhere and stuck.
By the spring of '97 I had a finished version of the film on tape and decided the only sensible thing to do was to take it down to Cannes and start knocking on people's doors - literally. By this stage the film had had a small amount of press - most notably from the highly enthusiastic and generous Baz Bamigboye in the Daily Mail's showbiz column. I remember getting a very excited call from my then-girlfriend, PR and associate producer, Judy Lipsey, telling me to buy a copy of the paper and check out page 42! I pulled into a nearby petrol station and read the miniscule but complimentary review ('compelling') and being incredibly excited that I'd made it into a national newspaper. It was the kind of ratification I'd never had before and I think I carried the review around with me for about a month showing everyone I spoke to!
I took 10 vhs tapes to the French Riviera and spoke to a handful of sales agents who I felt might be interested in representing the film - some who were very friendly others who were very patronising. For a while a Daily Telegraph journalist followed me around expecting to get some 'young British film-maker makes it big' story but the reality is that walking up and down the Croisette knocking on peoples' doors doesn't make for very interesting reading and after about 25 minutes, she went off in search of bigger and better stories.
By the end of Cannes, I had two interested companies of which one was the now defunct Stranger Than Fiction for whom I screened the film back in London. After the screening they took me to the Groucho Club and offered to take the film on which was an excellent result especially since they contracted to pay for the film's blow-up to 35mm. Sadly the company went bust before this happened but I did get some (now collectors' items) Strong Language t-shirts out of it, some flashy marketing and a trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival.
It's always tricky to know when to give up on something or not. From the autumn of '97 to the same in '99, I couldn't get arrested with Strong Language. Everyone who saw it said they loved it (don't they always) but no-one knew what to do with it, whether it was a documentary (a compliment I suppose) or a fictional piece etc etc and I came close to giving up on it many times but I'd get into a festival here (in Toronto or Berlin) or a magazine there (Penthouse, Total Film) and there'd always be someone hyperbolizing about how it was one of the most intriguing films they'd ever seen. None of the other distribution or sales companies would touch it however and it seemed destined to miss out on even a straight to video distribution (nowadays an accepted reality rather than the mocking insult that it used to be). Then, one day a couple of friends invited me to a party!
I wasn't going to go but was persuaded otherwise and ended up talking to one of the UK's best and most respected film critics - Geoff Andrew - who at that time had just taken on the job as programmer at the National Film Theatre. I sent him the film and within a few weeks he'd seen it and offered to release it as the first feature at the newly refurbished NFT! A very exciting prospect and one for which, to this day I'm extremely grateful.
My goal for Strong Language was to make a low budget film which would gain a sales agent, get UK distribution and lead to another film. By the time Strong Language finally came out in January 2000, (to generally rave reviews), I'd already shot my next film The Truth Game.