[6 March 2012]
It’s a warm February night in Los Angeles, but the crowd packed into the ballroom clearly prefers to be inside the hotel’s convention center. As the lights dim, writer Simon Guerrier steps out on stage. He briefly smiles at hundreds of eager faces watching him introduce the first Guerrier Bros. film. Fourteen minutes later, the audience enthusiastically applauds. Cleaning Up has just made lots of new friends at its US premiere.
The film abruptly drops the audience into the workday of hit man Mr. Jackson (Mark Gatiss, Sherlock, The League of Gentlemen) and his new landlady, Mrs. Pellman (Louise Jameson, Doctor Who, EastEnders, Doc Martin). Whereas Jackson is all business, Mrs. Pellman has other, more personal plans for the newest visitor to her B&B. Suspenseful, fast paced, tightly scripted, and intriguingly filmed, the short demands the audience’s full attention and makes them anticipate where the plot will go next. It teases a longer story that could make a killing at the box office.
As it did in L.A., Cleaning Up has been introducing itself around the world. So far, it has been screened in the UK, US, France, and Germany and was named Best Thriller at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in 2011. Now it wants to grow up to be either a full-length feature or a television series. It may be politely making its way to film festivals internationally, but it has a deadly serious ambition—just like its creators, Simon and Thomas Guerrier. These friendly English guys may seem soft spoken, but should be taken very seriously. As Simon reminded me, he now knows how to dispose of a body. (I’m taking his word that his newfound knowledge is only the result of diligent research for this film.)
The Guerrier brothers excel at research and have gained quite a bit of cross-media experience. Simon has written tie-in novels for television series Being Human, Primeval, and Doctor Who; scripts for Big Finish audio productions; and comic strips. Tom began his career as a special effects technician on the Harry Potter and Batman films before shifting to directing and producing short films and documentaries. Together they produced the BBC Worldwide documentary about the influence of H. G. Wells on the Doctor Who story, “The Ark”. They also helped out on Girl Number 9, a web series written and produced by BBC writer James Moran. By the time they developed their own film, they had figured out the best way to launch it on the world.
Tom explains that “Festivals are a good way to network, and a lot of them won’t show your film if it’s on the internet. When we started making the film, our number of contacts was quite small, but since the film’s been shown, it’s opened a lot of doors for us.” After several film festivals—and that Best Thriller award—“some industry people got in touch,” Simon continues. “As did Shaun Lyon at Gallifrey One [the largest Doctor Who convention in the U.S., now in its 23rd year]. Louise [Jameson] was going to be a guest at the convention, so it seemed like a good fit.”
For a first short film, the Guerriers gathered an unusually high-powered cast, led by Jameson and Gatiss. How did they convince big-name actors to take part in a short independent film? “Blackmail!” Tom jokes.
Simon showed his script to Jameson, with whom he worked on a “making of” documentary about the four-episode television story “The Sun Makers”, and to BBC television scriptwriter/novelist Joseph Lidster. Simon recalls that “we asked Louise first, straight after we’d worked with her… We’d originally just hoped she’d read the script, and maybe get the theater group she works with to do a read-through. But then she was really enthusiastic and said she’d love to play the part, and suddenly it was a real thing. So I sent the script to Joe Lidster, asking him for advice on how to make it better. And Joe was astonishingly thorough. He didn’t half make me work—on draft after draft after draft. We had a few people in mind for Mr. Jackson. And then Joe talked to Mark about it at a party for Sherlock, just before the first series aired.”
Tom remembers that “Mark took longer, but we were confident he’d do it as he’s a big James Bond fan [and Cleaning Up would provide him with “Bond” action moments]. I think with shorts all you have to offer is the part, so you have to try and find actors who you think would love the opportunity to do something they don’t usually get to do.” Once both actors had agreed to join the production, the filming was scheduled around their few free days between other projects.
The Guerriers even have a distributor for their film, something almost unheard of among new filmmakers. “The deal with Big Finish is that we get to exploit the film as much as we can through film festivals and whatever else, and then Big Finish gets to distribute it. So it’ll get a wider distribution, but we get to make the most of it first.” Simon couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity than that.
The Family Business
With award-winning Cleaning Up gaining international attention, the brothers’ partnership seems like it was meant to be. Tom says that he and Simon “always worked together. When we were kids, we were writing stories [or] drawing comics. The BBC docs are just the first time we ever got paid for it.”
Nevertheless, their professional partnership began as a fluke. According to Simon, “We ended up working with each other by mistake. Tom was working on documentaries. He said that the Doctor Who DVDs had really good extras on them and asked if I knew how he might get involved. So I took him to a pub where I knew the head of the DVD extras, Dan Hall, would be. And Dan assumed we were pitching together. He was looking for new people, so he offered us a small amount of money for a test documentary. The H.G. Wells doc, on ‘The Ark’, is the first time we worked together.”
Is it weird for the siblings to work together? Tom merely acknowledges that “we’ve both been inspired by a lot of the same stuff, so I get where he’s coming from.”
Simon provides a bit more insight into their collaborative process. He remembers a time “when Tom was living on my sofa a few years back, [and] my wife started to notice that we’d communicate without speaking. We like a lot of the same things and see the world in the same way, so I think [the professional partnership] works pretty well. If it’s weird, it’s [only] weird for other people because we have this shorthand. And telepathy. And evil.”
Their working relationship is quite simple: “Once we’d worked out logistics—that Tom’s the boss who hires me when he wants to—it all worked out quite smoothly. So we started talking about other things we could do.” And thus, the Guerrier brothers began making films.
Developing a Script
Simon first had the idea for Cleaning Up years ago, so it was one of several possible stories he pitched to Tom when he suggested they create a short film. Then Tom researched short films, watching dozens, talking to filmmakers, and analyzing festivals that one day might show the brothers’ films. Simon then received the directive “to write something that people would remember, even if it got shown with five or six other films.”
Tom describes going “the more standard route of applying for funding, which we did three times, but never got anything. However, it did mean we kept going back and looking at the script. It also meant I rewrote my director’s notes and storyboards a lot.” Cleaning Up “was always going to be a short film until we decided to put our own money into it. At that point we decided we should use it as a vehicle for doing something bigger.”
Although Simon already had established himself as a successful writer, he most often was hired to create a story for an existing television series. “Writing original stuff is very different, because you’ve got so much more work to do. The world, the characters, the tone of the thing—that’s all up to you.” Although a short film may lack the length of a feature, “you have to do a colossal amount of work on a short: the shoot takes fewer days than on a whole movie, but pretty much every other stage is the same [according to people who have made both shorts and features]. I spent two years working on the script, trying out different versions, getting every bit of it right.”
During a kaffeeklatsch session at Gallifrey One, Simon enthusiastically discussed his writing process as a path of discovery. Learning something new and incorporating it into a story are the exciting parts of his job. Part of his learning curve for Cleaning Up was deciding “the exact type of gun Mr Jackson uses (although that never made the final film).” Simon also wrote scenes that placed Jackson in some strange situations, given his profession. “There was a sequence where he pretended to be part of an IT help desk to get into one woman’s office . . . loads of stuff that got cut from the film but might make it into a series.”
The time involved in writing what becomes 14 minutes on a big screen and the number of revisions from idea to shooting script are staggering, but Simon feels that ”having done it, making my own stuff is much more satisfying than working on other people’s series. I wish I’d done this years ago.”
Filming Louise Jamison
(photographers: Sebastian Solberg, Alex Mallinson and Debbie Challis)
On the Set
The three shooting days went by all too quickly, but Tom relishes being a director. He recalls the day when he knew he’d be changing careers. “I always wanted to work on big-budget, high-concept stuff. So special effects seemed the best way of getting into that. It was only when I got on set and saw the director that I realized I was in the wrong job!” In the past few years, his work on more than a dozen documentaries and shorts cemented the move into directing.
On set, Simon could relax and let Tom take charge. “Once the script was locked, it was all down to [Tom]. I turned up to the shoot to make tea, fetch things, and shout for silence when they needed it. I also rang round some Big Finish actors and called in favors with them. And I played a bodyguard—though you’ll barely see me in the finished film. I was basically staff.”
As director, Tom became very much aware “that every second counted. We wanted to create a sense of you seeing something much bigger than a short. So you have the intro sequence, which is a way of getting the audience to sit up and pay attention. Then you have act one, where Mark and Louise’s characters meet, and then an intermission, and then a final act.
“Because of this there are two different styles. One is more action, with lots of music and little dialogue. This means you have to be more creative with the shots and the edit as this is how you tell the story. The second is more traditional to shorts, which is where you pull everything back and let the writing breathe. So the first and second acts have almost no music or cutting as they’re about creating the atmosphere through just the performance and a rich sound score.”
The brothers’ enthusiasm for the film spread to everyone on set. For Simon, “the most enjoyable bit was when people got behind it—cast and crew wanting to make it and to give up their free time to do so. I spent the shoot in a bit of a daze, amazed all these clever people had shown up just on the promise of lunch.”
Taking the Show on the Road
The filmmakers’ work continues as they take Cleaning Up on the road for more screenings. Simon has already written “a full script for an episode plus outlines of other episodes” but acknowledges that “Tom’s keener on a [feature-length] film, and it looks like a film might be more viable in terms of practical things like funding. But we’ll see.”
The short might be earning more frequent flyer miles this year, but it also needs to make virtual inroads into the industry’s and public’s awareness. That’s why the Guerriers promote Cleaning Up via social media, on Facebook (Cleaning Up-Short Film) and Twitter (@cleaningup_film), as well as through the film’s web site, where visitors can watch the trailer. Word-of-mouth promotion helps get the film on as many screens as possible.
Although the brothers look forward to seeing how the story may evolve, both are busy with new projects. Simon has written “another short for Tom,” who is “working on a full, low-budget feature with Joe [Lidster]. We’ve also got outlines for other projects, including a huge sci-fi extravaganza.” Their collaboration is pure (and only slightly evil) genius. By pooling their contacts and talents, Tom and Simon Guerrier may soon be Cleaning Up financially in the film and television industries.