How hitting an invisible brick wall spurred two budding filmmakers on an incredible journey to success.
Zander Weaver (@CosmosMovie)
My brother Elliot and I fell in love with filmmaking when, at the ages of three and five, our parents encouraged us to make a little movie at the weekend. We grabbed the family camera, assembled our favourite toys and brought them to life, and that was that. No going back. Through school, we got friends together, shot short stories, and screened them to classmates. We submitted documentaries in place of essays, and produced a 25-minute World War I film while juggling exams.
After we left school? We wanted to make features. The big kind. Every filmmaker needs to make their first feature; it’s the first hurdle down the track. As such, we spent three years in development on a film called Encounter. We wrote the script, attached industry talent, and developed an investment strategy. But despite the strength of the story, the team and the plan, we were then just 21 and 24, seeking a seven-figure budget with no feature experience and, understandably, faced scepticism from investors. We thought we could run at the first hurdle, and with enough momentum and belief we could vault over and begin our journey as ‘proper’ filmmakers. It was more like slamming into a brick wall, but an invisible brick wall, one you couldn’t see coming.
Instead of pushing ahead, attempting to secure an unrealistic level of finance for two young, untested directors, we decided to detour and make a new film at the opposite end of the indie spectrum. This ‘no-budget’ movie, although much smaller in scale, would be no less ambitious in story or creativity, and with it we could prove to the industry we had the talent and drive to be feature film directors. To get over this wall, we’d need a ladder, one we could make ourselves that wouldn’t cost a lot. Enter Cosmos.
The last place we wanted to find ourselves again was needing the support of others for a budget, so we decided to self-produce; we’d cover the cost ourselves, use gear we’d built up over years of freelancing, and create a team that was passionate enough about stories and storytelling to forgo a paycheck. Technology has democratised filmmaking like never before, and inspired by the independent spirit of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Gareth Edwards, we’d undertake every crew role throughout production, except composing the soundtrack.
That was the plan, and we stuck to it. Working part-time over three years, full-time for an extra two, my brother and I would make a mini-blockbuster in our home town of Birmingham. Cosmos would be a contemporary sci-ﬁ mystery following three amateur astronomers who accidentally intercept what they believe is a signal from an alien civilisation. We wondered what it would be like if three normal people made the greatest discovery in human history – would anyone believe them? How could they prove it? What would their moment of discovery be like?
With our idea laid out, we got to work… Picture everything involved in making a film, with the exception of acting and writing the music – we did it all. We scripted 100 pages, storyboarded 1055 cells, cast four actors, location scouted, prop designed and built, costumed, set dressed, directed, shot, focus pulled, blocked and lit, sound recorded, edited, graded, sound designed, re-recorded and mixed, created all visual effects, and heavily collaborated with the composer on the writing of 90+ minutes of orchestral score. We lit entire night shoots with three battery-powered LED panel lights and a gas-powered smoke machine. We used iPads as light sources. Our matte box was made from cardboard, our wind machine was a leaf blower, our camera dolly was a wheelchair, and our camera rig was handmade from copper piping. Our actors slated shots, our camera slider was often propped in the middle by paint pots, and our mom monitored continuity, hair and make-up. It was the most basic, ad hoc, guerilla filmmaking imaginable, and it was as ludicrous as it sounds.
We didn’t make Cosmos on our own because we wanted to show off that we could, we made Cosmos on our own because we didn’t want to wait any longer to pursue our passion, and wanted to prove to the industry that we could direct films. We wanted to demonstrate that there’s no link between the strength and depth of a human story and the size of a production budget. And after almost exactly five years, a core team of just three actors, ourselves, our mom and our composer have delivered an ambitious and entertaining sci-ﬁ film of a production standard that few would dare demand on such minimal resources and zero financial support. We hope the way in which we’ve made Cosmos will demonstrate our creativity and commitment as directors, and assist us in obtaining support for our next, larger scale production, and we hope it will inspire others to take the leap themselves.
But the biggest thing I’ll walk away with from making Cosmos is the people. I will always credit our team with providing the foundation that allowed Cosmos to be made. Spirits were never low, smiles and laughter were always abundant, and we held each other up. Our cast trusted us – they gave us 60 days of their time without payment because they believed in the project; think about what that does for the spirit of a filmmaker. Talk about belief.
One particular memory from filming sticks in my mind for its poignancy. It was a cold night shoot in a forest, our torch batteries died, and filming stopped. It was about 3am. A little deflated and with numb fingers, we began to de-rig our gear, but as the four of us stepped out from under the forest canopy, we were greeted by a glorious night sky: crisp, deep, sparkling and striking; we literally stopped in our tracks. There was audible gasping at the sight and then, perfectly timed, across the inky black, drifted a satellite. If you’ve never seen a satellite fly over, they’re rather magnificent, as bright as a star but moving swiftly through the gaps in the constellations. A moment made all the more poignant for its relevance to our story, as one of our characters goes out to watch satellites fly by. We couldn’t stop talking about it for the whole 45-minute drive home.
That single moment summed up our entire Cosmos journey: things go wrong, it happens, sometimes your batteries go flat, sometimes you don’t get the budget you need, but walking out from under that canopy can reveal something beautiful, something you would have missed had you not been looking. Cosmos started out as a ladder; it was designed for a purpose, it was going to get us over the ‘first feature wall’. But now, looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I love our film and I love the team we made it with – I’m glad people didn’t trust us with their money, I’m glad we hit that invisible brick wall. In our official spiel for the film, there’s a line that reads “Cosmos offers thrills and adventure but reminds us success is nothing without people to share it with”, and I think it’s fitting that this sums up both the film and the story of those who made it.