Spotters: A graduate film with naked ambition

9 Mins read

Graduate films come in all manners of genre and style. Their purpose is to show the techniques and understanding of Film Studies that one has acquired over the three-year course.

How these films are made varies from person to person, often relying upon kind gestures and the goodwill of volunteer actors and owners who will lend out their properties for filming privileges.

One such alternative to (hopefully) ensuring a film is made to the best quality possible is to crowdfund it, and one such NUA (Norwich University of the Arts) student, Oliver Willcox, has taken this approach to ensure his experimental final project can be executed with as much passion as possible.

Among the busy doldrums of dissertation work and organising locations and actors, Willcox took time to meet with Artefact to discuss the various aspects of the film, such as its plot, production and his own personal ambitions for the present and the future.

Profile shot of Oliver Willcox. Photo credited to Oliver Willcox.

Oliver Willcox

“So my graduation film is called Spotters and it’s about Tim, a train-spotter in his 80s, who has become jaded, disconnected and tired of his lifelong pursuit of train-spotting as well as the community of train-spotters he has known for over 60 years,” Willcox told us.

“Desperate to try and find one last great pursuit in his life, Tim has begun the process of joining a naturist society that he feels will provide him with the sense of purpose he desires for his last years. However, when he comes to leave his community of friends behind, he discovers that naturism is not quite the answer he was looking for.”

Spotters is presented as an ambitious insight into a person struggling with the sensation that they may have ended up wasting 60 years of their life on a hobby that now, at the end of their life, just feels hollow to them.

The topic of naturism was an unexpected addition to the plot, so how does it play an important role for the lead character? “For him, naturism is this new pursuit or an escape from the mundanity of his life of trains. He sees these naked people being comfortable, happy and excited and just thinks ‘fuck, why wasn’t I into that when I was 25?’

“The film examines the ideas around wasted time and we see this guy searching for something new to let him live out his final golden years in happiness. Naturism, of course, turns out to not be the miracle cure he thought it would be.”

Willcox began musing on the origins of Spotters, as inspired by the frequent commutes between Norwich and Leeds when visiting his girlfriend Kelsey: “I remember I was feeling really uninspired and totally lacking in creativity at the time and I was at Peterborough train station and I saw this group of about six blokes all standing around together on the platform silently watching trains.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“He sees these naked people being comfortable, happy and excited and just thinks ‘fuck, why wasn’t I into that when I was 25?!’”[/pullquote]”It was a real assortment of guys who all looked very different from one another but there was this mutual, calm silence to it all that really attracted me to it. I liked the look of a very silently together and comfortable group of people being this very esoteric mix of characters.”

He had noticed a group of train-spotters and was amused by how they stood out amongst the hustle and bustle of commuters moving in and out of the train station: “I thought they looked really interesting and very separate and out of place from what was happening around them and I thought they also just looked genuinely very interesting.

“I try not to rely too much on just visuals when coming up with a story but sometimes a striking image is a great starting point for something.”

It seems the group and the imagery associated with them had really inspired Willcox: “All these people rushing through this station, not really having to take the time to reflect on where they are, and then you’ve just got this group of people who, in a very intense and internal way, are completely separate from everyone around them.

“They’re there for leisure, everyone else is stressing, trying to get cases on and off trains. I had never really seen train-spotters en masse before and I was just very taken by the way they looked and the silent solidarity between them.”

Despite clearly being inspired by train-spotting as a potential idea for a film project, Willcox admits he didn’t have a story idea straight away, just the image and the idea written down, but ready for any musings and ideas that could be jotted down.

“From about December 2017 ’til June 2018 I worked on it on and off just developing basic sort of narrative concepts and looking at what the possible conflict could be for this group of very mannered and very loyal group of people.”

Location shoot for 'Spotters' Taken by Oliver Willcox

Location shoot for Spotters [Oliver Willcox]

Whilst train-spotting would play an integral role in the film’s plot, Willcox was also keen to discuss the more character-driven elements of the narrative: “From what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, train-spotting and train enthusiasm seemed like a very habitual and very ingrained thing for these spotters and so I had the idea to do a story about a pair of lifelong friends who, at the very ends of their lives, succumb to a really bad and very final falling out that would kind of rip their little routines apart.

“Narratively speaking, I think the idea of having a bond like that for life must be really wonderful and comforting and the idea of losing that connection after so long is quite a bleak prospect. I then created two characters, Tim and Paul, who would be the friends going through this falling out.”

As for the production itself, Willcox said: “It’s now gone through various stages of development and about three different iterations before the current script and I still think small things will change for a little while longer. Details and lighting are still being worked out.”

Willcox will be working alongside a film crew that will comprise fellow Film Studies students Andrius Zukas as  cinematographer, Adam Martin on production design and David Cisay Rule as sound recordist. He took us through how he and his film crew will be working on securing locations for the film as well as the intended length of the project.

“We’ll be shooting in and around Norwich as I think the general feeling of the city and the locations, we’ll be able to find will fit very well with the tone of the film that we want to achieve. The longest it can be, because of submission, is just over seven minutes and I reckon I’ll end up filling that whole time frame. This film is going to be a slow burn, so I don’t want to rush anything on it.”

Willcox is still in the process of finalising a cast for the project, something that greatly hinges on the amount of funds Spotters can raise. Getting the right actors for the roles will be a challenge: “I think a genuine engagement and enthusiasm for the story is probably the main thing. If they don’t care that much about the role it really comes through on screen.”

The people who take roles in student films or independent projects may understandably do so as inbetweeners for bigger jobs, so Willcox hopes to find actors who are excited about their character and role.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The costs of a film rack up really quickly as soon as you start buying props and booking locations”[/pullquote]

“I think for an actor to be of real use to a director they either have to be completely naive with what they’re doing because then you can imprint all this stuff onto them, or they’re really in it and really talented at what they do. My film is going to have scenes with nudity too, so I’ll need actors that are willing to take that step beyond the expected.”

Willcox has launched a Crowdfunder page for Spotters, which raised the issues of the prospects and risks associated with taking this approach. “From the beginning of every project you kind of know that crowdfunding will be necessary unless you’ve got a job with decent income or money in the bank. The costs of a film rack up really quickly as soon as you start buying props and booking locations. Things like on set catering and transport are expensive too.”

Crowdfunding websites are plentiful, so it was perhaps understandable that Crowdfunder could be a name that people would be less familiar with, compared with the likes of Kickstarter, Fivver and GoFundMe.

Willcox agrees: “I basically chose Crowdfunder because they were the site that took the least amount of money for themselves of what you earn. There are some crowdfunding sites that will take a set percentage of your total amount and then on each donation, they charge you again per bank transfer. Its nuts and makes the whole thing feel so hollow.

“People are donating out of goodwill and generosity and the platform making money off those people I always thought was pretty dodgy. I also think Crowdfunder seems like the least ‘beggy’ of the options too. I hate having to ask people for money,” he said.

“Crowdfunding is also great because it gets the word out too. The money is obviously really nice and it’s wonderful when people feel the need to donate, but just getting publicity and a bit of a buzz around a film is a great feeling.

“Knowing that people want to see what you’re making and are genuinely interested is such a powerful motivator. Even at this stage when it’s like 10 people donating to you, that feels like a whole load of support for a tiny film.”

Crowdfunder page for 'Spotters' Screenshot.

Crowdfunder page for Spotters

The Crowdfunder page offers different reward tiers from £1 to £100 and aims to raise around £1,000, but Willcox thinks that realistically it’ll likely raise around £300, which would still be £300 less that he would personally have to raise.

This highlights the risks associated with creating a film with little funding: “Super low budget film making is just so hard. Everything is a pain. Getting locations, decent actors and making everything look proper on screen just is very difficult,” Willcox said.

“The real risks are of it just looking like total shit because you haven’t been able to buy the stuff you need to dress your set, or you can’t afford to pay for an appropriate location and you just end up in some shit location that doesn’t even look like it should be in the film.”

He believes the biggest risk for him would be “encountering a visual disconnection between story and setting. So many films have great stories at their centre but because of budget constraints they just can’t be pulled off in effective ways.”

Willcox is not the only NUA Film Studies student who will be making films featuring an older cast: “There are actually a few people on my course who are also making films about elderly characters.”

”I’m actually assisting on set and doing some production design for one film that’s called Pleasure Beach and it’s about an elderly man who works at an amusement park in the off season. It’s a really sweet story about elderly loneliness and the desperation people feel when they’re faced with that sort of thing.”

“The other one is called Till Death Do Us A Party, which is about two old women who are lifelong friends and together they both plan their funerals. It’s going to be a wonderful, subversive take on old age that I can’t wait to see. Our three films are three different takes on old age and the diversity of films on my course is so great to see.”

'Spotters' Film Poster. Designed by Oliver Willcox

Spotters film poster [Oliver Willcox]

Willcox believes the Film Studies course has helped his development as a young filmmaker: “I’d say it’s been massively beneficial. So many of the key lessons can only be learnt by doing and being in an environment where you regularly make films.

“Naturally, film-making isn’t always a process wherein the outcome is 100% what you’d expect, it’s a learning curve, and a useful lesson we were divulged in was that, “even if the outcome isn’t quite how you hoped, you feel like you learn so much each time, even if it’s a total disaster, there are just so many new experiences and situations each time,” he told us.

“I also think that if I hadn’t come to study film I wouldn’t have made as much if I was still living at home for example. The kit we have at uni and the like-minded people we are surrounded with are such great incentives to learn and get better.

“I feel like everyone on my course has progressed with each other and it’s so clear to see that progress in our final year. Everyone’s films sound so great and I can’t wait to see them all at our degree show in June.”

As far as what the future might bring, and Willcox’ aspirations in the film industry, “After graduation, I’m hoping to move to Manchester with my girlfriend. The industry there is strong, and I hope to be running and working on as many productions as possible. I feel a change of scenery is always a good stimulant and whilst living there I’m planning on expanding Spotters into a feature-length film.”

A film-maker usually has more ideas than they can manage, Willcox is no exception: “I’ve got a lot of ideas that had to be cut for the short that I’d really love to bring back and fully flesh out the story of this group of people.”

And later? “Well to be honest, ten years from now I have no idea where I’ll be. I try not to think that far ahead,  though I’d love to be living somewhere in Europe, working and just making things. At the moment I’m just worried about our final deadline for this film, which is May 15th.”

There are plans for a mini film festival at Willcox’ university that is taking place on June 29-30, when graduate films will be showcased on the big screen. There is also the hope that industry representatives will be in attendance, which is, in Willcox’ words, “a very exciting prospect!”





The Crowdfunder for Spotters can be found here.

Featured image by Oliver Willcox

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