Poppy Roe takes us through the story behind her debut feature film, the acclaimed A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life.
The day before we were due to start shooting our first feature film – a hugely ambitious project with a tiny budget, 28 locations and only two weeks to shoot it in – our car broke down. We stared forlornly at the garage mechanic as he told us the gear box had to be replaced, which would take two weeks (and a lot of cash). Oh f**k, I thought, let this not be a sign of things to come. This is how we made our first jet-black comedy feature film, A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life, with only a pencil and paper, and a lot of perseverance.
Our filmmaking journey began in 2013 when my production partner (and, conveniently, my other half) Staten Cousins Roe and I made a short film called This Way Out – a comedy set in a euthanasia clinic that had run out of clients… Yep, darkly comic. We raised a few grand via crowdfunding, gathered an enthusiastic team, some witty actors – including my good friend from drama school, the brilliant Katie Brayben (who had first mentioned euthanasia whilst we were having a cup of tea, like you do) – and we shot the entire thing in our one-bed flat in South East London.
The finished short went on to screen at over 30 international festivals, win awards, get longlisted for a BAFTA and then was acquired by HBO & The Sundance Channel in Europe. So, we said. That went well. What next? After a while of developing TV comedy and having meetings with companies about film ideas, we got itchy feet. Staten decided that we should just get on and make our own feature film ourselves – him writing and directing, us producing, me acting and both of us editing. I mean, how hard could it be?
We energetically began crowdfunding as a way of testing the concept. If we raised the money then it was proof that there were people out there willing to watch it. We called the film ‘Self-Help’ and Staten shot a pitch video of Katie (by now an Olivier award-winning actress) and I talking about the film and our fun characters (a comedy duo). Together we Kickstarted the money over a long January in 2017, going crazy on social media, emailing everyone and getting the idea out there. We smashed our target by 150%. So, there were people who liked the concept. That was a good sign. Now we had to get shooting.
The idea of A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life was to lift the two main characters from our short film, which audiences had responded so well to, and place them in a new setting. This time Staten was satirising the multi-million-dollar ‘self-help’ business: Lou Farnt – a woman addicted to self-help books – goes on a road trip of alternative therapies with her new, psychotic Life Coach, Val Stone, launching herself unwittingly on a killing spree of violent self-discovery…
Staten wrote and rewrote the script, and we began gathering the team, including the multitalented producers Charity Wakefield (actor in Wolf Hall and upcoming The Great) and Giles Alderson (founder of The Filmmaker’s Podcast, director of The Dare), and an excellent cast and crew. Everyone came on inspired by Staten’s script with his dark, edgy comedic tone. We set the shoot dates for two weeks in April, Staten and I regularly travelling down along the coast (Brighton and Sussex) to scout locations and source local accommodation. To be clear, at no point did we have everything in place. Shooting on a ridiculously tight budget meant problem solving continuously. Our DoP, James Layton, helped source our camera. Sony generously agreed to let us use their F55 (the one used on The Crown), and many location owners gave heavy discounts – to help support a local, independent film. It was a fast and furious shoot, often getting one take and moving on. There were stressful moments – we lost a location last minute, and had yet to secure an actor for a crucial role. At one point, I carefully took a bag of salad out of the fridge and pummelled it to mush, before calmly putting it back. Pressure can do that to a filmmaker. But we got it in the can. And it looked good. It looked great. Now the lengthy process of editing.
I found myself a mentor in Colin Goudie (editor of Monsters and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) who I met on an editing workshop he spoke at. Colin encouraged me after watching a rough cut, giving some golden advice (one gem of which was “no one knows anything” – my mantra during my most self-doubting moments). We also kindly got edit notes from Julian Doyle (editor of Brazil, and Monty Python And The Holy Grail), which supported the comic timing beautifully. Next, we sought out a recommendation of a sound designer – Anna Sulley – and we began the to and fro of sound ideas. This, for me, was one of the most transformative moments of the filmmaking process. Sound is everything. Added to that was Laurence Love Greed’s beautiful music composition, Claire Winter’s colour grading and Ant Brownmoore’s brilliant VFX from Bluespill. BOOM, we had a movie.
One dark afternoon in Soho we had our first industry screening, a horribly nerve-wracking experience. After working away on the film continuously in your bedroom it’s a big moment to finally show it to actual people (other than the Star Wars figurines on our desk). I sweated and shuffled in the back row. But they laughed. They responded! We signed with the brilliant people at Arrow Films, and premiered to a roaring response at this year’s Frightfest in London’s Leicester Square. The reviews came in – four and five stars calling it a ‘cult classic’, ‘wonderfully funny’ and a ‘bloody Thelma & Louise’. Staten was nominated for the Screen International Genre Rising Star Award and we were both Long-listed for BIFA’s Breakthrough Producer Nomination.
And now here we are. We released A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life on all known digital platforms on 13th January 2020 – in UK, USA and Canada, alongside a theatrical Q+A tour. So, now our job is to get the film watched, get the word spread. Get it enjoyed. It’s been quite a ride – a learning curve like no other. I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of it… Now we’re in the crazy position of writing the next one together. And as for the car, we bought a falling-apart old Mazda for £200 – we used it in the film, and it got us (just about) to set and back each day, before being cut up by the fire brigade for practice. Filmmaking: take it one problem at a time.
Follow Producer/Actor/ Editor/Writer Poppy Roe on twitter @PoppyRoe – ask her questions there.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is available via Amazon Video, iTunes and all digital outlets, soundtrack available on iTunes.
Go to www.aserialkillersguidetolife.com for latest news, merchandise and more.
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