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An Interview with Antony Spina, Director of The Programme

Please tell us about your background. What or who made you fall in love with cinema? How did you become interested in filmmaking and what did you work on before making The Programme?

I’m born and raised in London, England to English/Italian parents and grew up never having the foggiest about the film business. I never knew anyone in the film world or anything like that and had to make my way as most do, from the bottom up. I didn’t even really know how films were made I until my late teens I think. But even as a child I had a massive love for stories and one hell of an imagination. Always off day dreaming about something or some character I’d come up with in my head. Some hero off on some adventure that I’d thought up for them. This later turned into a bit of an obsession for story telling; not that I knew it at the time. I think first came a love for comics (Marvel boy through and through) which then lead to books. I was always reading something and suspect I always will. And somewhere in the middle a love for films developed. When I try and look back, I think the earliest films that seemed to capture my imagination as a small boy were films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Anything with such a scale of adventure had me hooked, heart and soul. But for me, whichever film, book or comic I had just delved into, it wouldn’t stop there. That character and his or her adventures would progress beyond the end of that film or that book. Because I’d then start to imagine further exploits for those heroes and villains. I’m not sure exactly when but this lead me to the idea that I could come with my own stories and that’s when I started to write some of them down. That was my introduction into writing, only In a small way at first but that progressively became more and more. Although it was a long, long time before I would show any of it to anyone. Plus I had a bad habit of starting but not finishing. Not having enough self control to stick with one story / script before getting too excited about the next idea and moving on. But where the film making began for me though, was on a short film called “Sad Little Boy”. If someone had asked me at any stage before my film career had started, I never would have said that I’d be making a drama, and especially for my first film (Not that I’ve got anything against dramas of course, just not my usual writing style). But It basically came about from an actress I knew, who I’d told some of my story ideas too. She then decided we should work together on something, and asked me to write a script for a film. Though she had one condition; she wanted the subject matter of the story to be about something sad. ‘Not my usual cup of tea’ I told her, ‘but ok, I’ll do it!’ I said. So off I went and wrote the script, and very happy I was with it too. The film was made some time later, and received some fantastic feedback and reviews. And overall and extremely proud of it.

Where did the idea for the film come from? Why did you decide to make a film about the “Advanced Inmate Correctional Programme”?

I’m not sure exactly how I come up with some of the ideas that I come with to be honest. But in this case, the core idea for the film came from a documentary I’d seen. As much as I love fictional films and box set series, I’m a big lover of documentaries too. And had watched a few about prisons and prisoners over the course of a year or so, the last of which I’d seen just before going on holiday. Now all these documentaries tugged at my heart strings as it would do anyone who watched them. Making you feel pity for some characters and anger for others. All of whom found themselves in these strange and exciting predicament they were in. I also noticed as well the terrible state some of these prisons seemed to be in, for a multitude of reasons. And in some cases how there seemed to be no overall structure in place that could make a toddler toe the line, let alone a hardened criminal. This must have been something that played on my mind, as for some reason during the next few weeks while away on holiday I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There I was, lying on a beach in beautiful Italy and working on a tan I so desperately needed when my vivid imagination started doing what it does. I thought back and remembered those documentaries and started thinking on what might those characters have been like if they had that structure there. If they were made to do this or to do that. If they would ever truly repent for their crimes or if their time in prison would somehow make them into decent members of society once they ever got out. Before I knew it I realised I had imagined up a whole knew story. Thinking passed the characters I had seen beforehand to a completely new fictional world, thought up in my crazy brain. One where the “Advanced Inmate Correctional Programme” existed. Next thing I knew, instead of being on that beach making myself all tan-tastic, I was back in the apartment writing a script.

How did you get into making The Programme which plays out like a documentary even though it can't be categorized as one? What documentaries influenced you and inspired you to take this approach?

I never really considered myself a documentary film maker because this film is fictional. The reason my film “The Programme” plays out in the style that it does, is because the story is based off an element of truth and essentially the idea came from watching a documentary. And I felt like the only way to do itself justice was to keep that same style. I don’t think making a fictional film in the documentary format would work every time with every film. But I do think it works for mine, for the most part because the subject matter is so very close to reality that people can really be gripped by it. Saying that, all interesting documentaries inspire me I’d say. As me having the sort of imagination that I have, an interesting documentary will always set my mind racing off to some imagined scenario or story. Netflix’s The Keepers for example did just that. I do absolutely love a good, thrilling documentary and always will. And maybe one day I’ll be making a proper documentary but in terms of making films for time being, I think I’ll be sticking to fictional kind.

Do you think documentaries can help to solve problems? Problems such as the one with the prison systems in the world.

Yes I do think they can help. Sometimes it’s a case that people are aware of a problem but aren’t quite aware of the scale of it, and don’t know just how big the problem might actually be. A good and fair documentary can not only help to shine a light on an issue. But give a complete understanding of how that issue is effecting whoever it’s effecting. For example, I remember seeing on the news a fair few times how this prison or that prison in the UK was doing really bad and on a whole bunch of different points. But it wasn’t until I saw a few documentaries on the subject before I began to realise just how bad the problem was. Films like mine are a bit different in the sense that’s it’s not just pointing out some issues that really do exist, but putting a fairly believable spin on a fictional scenario as well. This sends the mind (hopefully that is) racing to what could come next and how decisions like the ones in “The Programme” may effect the world around them.

What were the challenges that you faced when making this film? Tell us about the production and your experiences of making the film.

There were many challenges to making this film. For one thing, going from my first film “Sad Little Boy” to this one, was a big, big jump in size; which was daunting enough in itself. And it meant there was an extremely high amount of prep work I needed to do in advance to make sure everything would run as smoothly as it possible could. But even with all that prep work and going over and over every detail, again and again, there was still a lot of problems that required coming up with quick solutions. And a lot of thinking on my feet. Such as, one actor who didn’t know one word of his lines practically. So realising he wasn’t going to suddenly remember them on the spot, I decided to turn the tables slightly and instead of getting him to read anything, I simply started asking him questions. Questions like; “but if it were you then what would you do in this situation?” and “how would your character feel about this?”. And strangely enough, by the end he gave a rock solid performance. Then there were crazy problems that no one could have expected. Such as: the DOP canceling the night before filming. And turning up first thing in the morning with a full cast and crew, only to find we’d been locked out of the studio. There were many stressful moments I won’t lie. But there was a lot of fun to it as well, and despite all the hard work and all the little things going wrong, I’m glad of it. As it all goes to making me the director I am, and better at what I do. And as a whole I’m really, really proud of the outcome.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with small budgets? Does it liberate the filmmaker or limit his or her freedom? How do you think filmmakers can overcome the problems that arise when making independent films?

The advantages of independent film making are that you haven’t got anyone leaning on you to make your film their way. Or out of a desire to make money off you, rather than to make something beautiful. So, you’re not changing a character’s character because the studio feels they’d like to be represented differently. Or working to a timetable that someone else has given you, when the last thing you need is a studio telling you to basically cut corners to meet someone else’s deadline. When you make a film, especially one you’ve written, you’re pouring your heart and soul into it, and if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right. Independent films allow you to do that for the most part I think. On the other hand though, a big disadvantage to independent film making is the budget; or lack of. It’s not the easiest thing to get the budget to where it needs to be on an independent film in most cases I would believe. Especially if like me, you write stories that might require big expensive sets, or big expensive shots. And therefore if you do manage to scrape the money together, you can’t really afford to get those shots wrong even once. Let alone do any reshoots. One thing a film maker may do to overcome problems like this though, is to think of these potential issues well before time and plan around them for ‘just in case’ scenarios. By that I mean if you’re writing a scene a certain way that you know might be difficult to make happen due to cost, think of a back up plan that will cost you a lot less but may bridge that gap just in case you need it. Here’s an example of what I mean: Let’s say someone has written a big costing car crash scene into a script. Now the film maker would have imagined doing this again and again, and would try his/her hardest to scrape up enough cash together to shoot it the exact way they wrote it. But if they can’t find the budget to do that particular shot that particular way. Spending cash they haven’t got on hiring stunt drivers and/or CG animators - then use sound instead. Don’t cut the scene completely, but think of a way around the problem. Showing the main character stepping out into the road. Then if it was to cut to a black screen but we hear tyres screeching, people screaming, crashes crashing and bodies thumping to the ground could be just as effective. And sometimes less is more. This is just a quick-fire silly example of course, but you get what I mean… I hope.

I believe The Programme has won several awards. Tell us about your festival run. Have film festivals provided you with the experience and exposure you needed?

I’m so very proud (and a little surprised if I’m honest) to say that the film has done amazingly well in the film festival circuit. Something I’m absolutely over the moon about. I wasn’t really brave enough to put my first film in the ring with any film festivals the first time around, so putting “The Programme” in any was a brand new experience for me. And not one I thought was going to do all that well either if I’m honest. At the beginning I went for a couple of festivals and thought I’d just leave it there. But then to my surprise it started winning. So I thought ‘Oh go on then’ and slowly but surely I added a few more. Then a few more on top of that. And then a few more still. Every time it won or got close to winning, I’d get this and that festival contacting me, asking me to enter the film in their competition too. In the end it’s gotten to almost 70 festivals now I believe. They have certainly helped in terms of both experience and exposure. The former, because even if the film hadn’t of done so well. Having people see your work gives you an insight in to where you’re going wrong and need to fix things, or where you’re doing a good job and giving you the confidence to keep going. And the latter for making more and more people aware of the film and leading to it getting some fantastic reviews and of course interviews such as these. All of which helps in the big picture.

Your film is now available on Amazon Prime. Tell us about the distribution, and the reaction of those who have watched the film.

This is something I’m still in shock over but so, so pleased about. Yes, the film is on Amazon Prime in a bundle pack of both my films. Which was a great idea from my distributor So you can watch both “Sad Little Boy” and then “The Programme” one straight after the other. It’s only been up on Amazon Prime a few weeks now but so far it’s had nothing but 5 star reviews from everyone who’s watched it (which I’m surprised about as The Programme especially isn’t a film for everyone) and seems to be doing really well. This of course is fantastic news of course and I hope it keeps going. Plus the same bundle pack with both my films will be going up on Google Play, Apple TV and as well in the coming weeks which is something I’m very pleased to announce. For anyone who would like to watch either film, for now though, just go to Amazon Prime and search either my name: Antony Spina, or “Sad Little Boy” or “The programme” and they’ll come up.

Please tell us about your future project(s). What are you working on?

I’m someone who’s always got something of the next project in mind. Always coming up with ideas for this and that, and always, always writing. During this whole time while I’ve been trying to get the word out there in regards of The Programme, that hasn’t changed at all. I’ve been spending a lot of my down time writing my next script for a film called “Promises of Betrayal”. This one’s a thriller and a very different type of story compared to the first two films. I wont give too much away but I will say this one is a story about someone who’s tricked into murder. Ooooo - Exciting! There’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m about 80% - 90% done with the script, and so far I’m very happy with it. Fingers crossed, everyone else will be to :)


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