There are a lot of ways you can learn how to make films. You can go to film school. You can study film books/history/theory. You can get a job as a PA on a film set. Or starting at age 15, you can make 300+ rap music videos in the nooks and crannies of London, England. As you’d expect, Charlotte Regan did the latter, which is perhaps why her work stands out as being beautifully offbeat, charmingly nonconventional, and — best of all — funny.
Funny short films are a rarity. Maybe because they’re so hard to pull off. Unlike the dark, brooding “visual poems” that saturate Vimeo today, there is no ambiguity when it comes to comedy. You either laugh or you don’t: a rare binary gauge in the current landscape of indie films.
We recently talked to Charlotte Regan about comedy, rap, and her most-trusted critic: her nan.
Musicbed: We heard you started making music videos for rappers when you were 15.
At 14 or 15, yeah. A local rap group needed someone to do their YouTube videos. They’d call me at like 2 a.m., and then we’d be out doing a performance music video on a rooftop or something. They’d be holding aggressive dogs or doing finger guns at the camera. I did that for about five years. By the end, I think I’d made over 200 music videos.
Were these videos pretty planned out or did you just go for it?
Eighty percent of them were just us turning up and seeing what happened. A lot of these groups wanted performance-based videos. So you get a load of those shots and then cut them together. It was pretty easy for a 15-year-old. And it was great because I’d get like 50 quid a video. It was quite good fun at that age, and quite good money.
How did you learn how to make these films? Were you watching tutorials online or reading books?
How I started learning film was by doing press photography. Like paparazzi photography. So on a Sunday, I would cycle down to the main city and shoot pictures on sets like Skyfall and Trance. I wasn’t officially allowed on set. I was just a paparazzi person. Everyone hated me, but I could get away with sitting there because I was a young kid. What were they going to do? So I got to watch Danny Boyle and the crew all day. Seeing these incredible crews and immersive stories is what pushed me to start thinking more about narrative. After that, whenever a rapper sent a song to me, I would push a treatment on them instead of doing the usual jumping around thing. And after that, I studied film in Uni. Standby was my graduation film.
Did you learn anything at film school?
I was a pretty awful student because I was still obsessed with doing rap videos and making money. But school is where I learned to work with a crew. I’d never worked with a DP before. It was an amazing experience having all of these great crew members that you speak to beforehand, and they completely get your idea and bring their own ideas to the table that enhance the project. It was kind of eye-opening. If you want to make a great project, you have to have someone you trust in your closest roles.
Where did the original idea for Standby come from?
I got the idea about three months before we shot it. It wasn’t a story that had been burning inside of me or anything like that. It was just an idea. I like to write things very quickly. If I get an idea, I immediately write a really crappy script in a day. Then I improve it from there. For me, the idea of Standby is all about the characters. The rapper in the film is based on all the rappers I worked with over the years. The nan in the back is based on my nan. She’s a funny character who’s full of energy and loves to nick the occasional apple. I just started thinking of all these people who deserve to be in the back of a police car, and it stemmed from there.
How did you take the script from crappy first draft to the final product?
The comedy was built around the relationship of Gary and Jenny (the two main cops). I wanted to be sure the emotional core of their relationship was there before I wrote any of the comedy. So I made a diagram of the ups and downs, the progression of their relationship. And then honestly, the comedy came naturally after that with a lot of help from the amazing cast. When we shot it, we did long takes and let the actors improvise. I’d give them a subject point or a beat to hit, and they’d just go for it. I was lucky to be working with some incredible actors who are naturally very funny. We ended up getting a lot of footage. The first cut of the film was 15 minutes, and the final cut was 5. So it was cut down pretty severely.
Did you learn anything about how to make something funny?
The biggest thing I learned was how important the edit is. Whether you’re working with an editor or editing it yourself, just a few frames can make the difference between something getting a laugh or falling flat. The script is important for sure. But I think comedies are really crafted in the edit.
Was it hard to know what was funny after watching it so many times?
Oh, yes. And it’s been the same on my other three films. You’re watching it and not feeling anything. You don’t know what’s funny. You don’t know if people like the characters. So that’s why I created The Grandma Test.
What’s The Grandma Test?
It where I show things to my nan. When I showed her the first cut of Standby, within two minutes she’d get up and head to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. So I kept shortening it for her, keeping only the stuff that made my nan really laugh. I figured it would make other people laugh too ’cause she’s a tricky critic.
So now you always show your films to your grandma?
Yes. I have to lock the door now. I force her to stay in there and watch it. A few weeks ago, she watched my latest film. She says it’s terrible, but at least she sat through it.
What makes a film good, do you think?
In a good film, you feel attached to the characters. You go on an emotional journey with them. I think all good films have some element of comedy. But maybe that’s just because of the environment I grew up in. When a relative of mine went to prison, the first thing my nan said was, “It’ll be nice to have a break from him.” Even in the darkest films, I love little elements of humor. I really enjoyed Manchester by the Sea. They’re in the hospital talking about “What illness is a good illness?” It’s this little laugh in the middle of a dark moment. It brings you into the characters.
Do you have a writing process?
It’s changed now. I do a lot of notes in a notebook, and I will work on initial ideas with Jack (my producer) and some of my other collaborators to make sure I’m not just going off on a mad one. Sometimes it will be six months of notes about some idea I have in my head. This notebook has no sort of order to it. Just random sketches of a prop, things that make sense to me and probably no one else (other than Jack, of course!). I’m not very good at the standard breakdown method. I’m working on it though!
Do you have a normal point of inspiration?
It’s always based on a character. I work different jobs on the weekends; and whether I’m working at a scrapyard or in an electrical shop, they are full of funny characters. My ideas always stem from the funny people I meet — a film will flow up around them. I think if you keep yourself grounded in the real world, you’ll keep thinking of stories. That’s why I like being on a building site or hanging around with funny rappers. There’s inspiration everywhere. You just have to look for it, rather than being consumed with the practical process of filmmaking all the time.
Not every piece of inspiration will lead to a good film. I’ve made some terrible short films. And I’ve never spoken of them again. But I quite like making bad short films. Someone said it’s better to make a few bad short films than a terrible feature. So I’m happy. I feel like I’m learning on every film. My producer and I want to do a lot of films. We don’t like to linger too long on a success or a failure. We’re trying to do a short film every three months. Not all of them are going to be good. But in the end, you learn much more from the crappy films than the good ones. At least that’s what I’m hoping.