A Brief History of Coventry's Indie Film-making Network, Call The Shots.

PART ONE: Director Robert Altman once said that film-making is a chance to live many lifetimes. With this single remark, Altman sent forth what is arguably one of the most laconic endorsements for film-making ever, in which he refers not only to the subject matter of each film, but to the lives and times that revolve around them. 

Those who have ventured the form will understand what this means more than anyone.  Film-makers by their nature have broad tastes and interests. They’re risk-takers. To them, film-making may well be the closest thrill to a quantum leap.  Between every film, a flash of hot white light that scorches a lifetime with the memories of creative expression and experiences, proud and sometimes regrettable.

Altman should know of course, he lept from M.A.S.H to Popeye.

Quite simply, film-making is a catholic addiction, and in Coventry, there are plenty of people that can’t get enough of that exhilerating, cosmic hit.

Up until a few years ago, Coventry had a rather a dubious film and television heritage. For years, all the the city really had to boast about was its appearance in the original The Italian Job (which was nothing more than a city sewer pipe). This may be mildly impressive to a bus full witless tourists but it’s hardly Marfa now, is it? Recently however, Coventry has seen a bit of a resurgence of professional film-making. Last year, Cov-kids Debbie Isitt and Emma Fryer elected the city as the backdrop to their latest work, the festive comedy Nativity! and the BBC sitcom Home Time, respectively. Naturally, this coughs up a reminder of Coventry’s impressive reputation for spawning some of the film industry’s brightest stars. There’s Isitt and Fryer of course, together with the likes of Sharon Maguire (Director of Bridget Jone’s Diary), BAFTA winners Geoff Thompson and veteran actress Billie Whitelaw (not forgetting the dearly departed, Nigel Hawthorne and Dame Ellen Terry), while over in Hollywood right now, Oscar nominated actor Clive Owen (“our Clive”), and ace composer Clint Mansell (“our Clint”), are practically deified.

But these stars are the just tip of the iceberg.
Deep beneath the twinkling freshwaters resides a huge gathering mass of mysterious, reaching ambition and it’s all lashed together by an innovative film-making collective in the city, known as Call The Shots.

“The main purpose of Call The Shots is to nurture and network local, aspiring film-makers and to get some short films made, to get them out there.” Says Richard Wood, an award winning producer and the group’s current chairman. “We believe in hands on training. Hands on experience. I never went to film school. I couldn’t afford to spend three grand a year learning how to do it, which is why Call The Shots appeals to me. I learn by doing.”

Richard Wood, Call The Shots head honcho (Portrait by Alan Van Wijgerden)

Back in 1995, a small band of independent film-makers in Coventry, inherited a film night called Head Cleaner, which was launched three years earlier by Enda Murray, the original Video Officer at the Belgrade’s Depot Studio. When Murray left town, Head Cleaner was fostered by his colleague Anne Forgan, who was supported by a slew of local film-makers. Murray had been inspired by London’s Exploding Cinema, a coalition of disenchanted film and video makers committed to new modes of exhibition.

“We were a bit clueless, and bearing in mind this was pretty much pre-internet, found it very hard to track down cool films, so we had to show anything we could get hold of really.” Forgan remembers. “I recall one particularly dark film causing a heated debate on censorship and taste! We also booked Wolly the Clown as our compère, who always managed to lighten a dodgy moment by balancing a table on his chin and making the audience applaud, whatever dross they’d just been made to watch.”
Head Cleaner was supported by Coventry City Council and West Midlands Arts, although everyone worked voluntarily. It endured for nearly a decade before fizzling out at the turn of the new millennium, which Forgan puts down to the film-makers’ frustration and fretting ambition.
“I think a group of film-makers organising a film night was always going to cause tensions and the group fell apart mainly because we all wanted to do our own thing.”
Possibly. Another reason could have been the huge fucking gong given to the audience so they could “gong off the films which they judged to be shite” as Murray puts it. “This led to lots of interesting discussion and a few fist-fights.” He adds.

Punch-ups aside, Forgan and Murray are nostalgic about the group. “I do look back very fondly on Head Cleaner.” Says Forgan. “Any film-maker will tell you that there’s nothing quite so sweaty and euphoric as showing your film in public, even if it’s to a noisy, half-cut Cov crowd” while Murray aligns his memories with the virtues and vices of the Exploding Cinema, describing Head Cleaner as “an occasional screening event punctuated by technical breakdowns and heavy drinking.”

Shortly after Head Cleaner’s demise, a master-class by screenwriter Jon Costelloe at Warwick Arts Centre proved to be the breeding ground for a brand new endeavour, which would effectively pick up where Head Cleaner had left off. After his class, Costelloe was chatted up by a number of local film-makers. Their exchange ended with the Poirot scribe encouraging them to be more proactive, to create their own opportunities. The film-makers then returned to the depot to pitch a new, hands on film-making collective, which after a vote, was dubbed Call The Shots, a clear term of empowerment and a direct reflection of the group’s new-found determination.

Forgan was heavily pregnant at the time and describes the frustration of the film-makers during that period. It’s an interesting alloy of biological and artistic circumstance. Forgan, the embodiment of the group’s resounding readiness to bear. “I remember holding a meeting for film-makers to talk about how the depot could support Call The Shots. People were very concerned that Head Cleaner had become a ‘talking shop’ and that they wanted Call The Shots to be about making the films, sharing skills and getting hold of kit, which seemed entirely reasonable. So we gave them the depot space to meet and the kit to make the films, and in time, the group became independent and self-sufficient.” She says.

This new incarnation quickly drew the attention of two future chairmen, Richard Wood and Chris Pinches, who joined the fledging outfit on the same day. Galvanised, the group pervaded deals all around the city and got down to the business of making short films. The first thing Call The Shots produced was a sweetly observed short called Bus Story, directed by Chris Harris.

At the time, Wood was desk-jockeying in a criminal courts office, thumbing through detailed witness statements and graphic, often macabre photographs, with surprising relish. “I’ll be honest. This inspired me.” Admits Wood. “It was the best research material you could hope for. These were real, epic crime stories happening on my doorstep. Since my only film-making experience up to that point was experimental, I was suddenly introduced to the idea of telling true stories, representing real life as best I could and I was keen to pursue that through Call The Shots.”
Inspired by the likes of Shane Meadows and Nick Broomfield, Wood’s approach to film-making landed somewhere between the two. Just as Meadow’s uses Nottingham as the backdrop to his films, Wood chose to hang his work against the tangled skyline of Coventry, his adopted home town, of which he has become fiercely patriotic. Recognising he was not particularly strong at writing but a dynamite networker, Wood sought out compelling human interest stories, historical figures and significant local events to observe and explore, inevitably falling into the lap of documentary film-making. His work includes Ghost Town, a film about young people in Coventry discovering their 2-Tone heritage and End Of An Era, which focused on the dismantling of Coventry City Football Club’s Highfield Road stadium and its emotional effect on the fans.

I first met Wood in 2003 at Baginton airport during the shoot of an independent feature film called Porcelain Man, (directed by Sameer Kumar). I’d gotten involved in a number of low key crew roles while Wood was there doing what he does best – hustling. During a break in the passenger lounge, Wood and I got talking. He told me about Call The Shots (which was chaired by Chris Pinches by that time) and a monthly screening event (programmed by Future Shorts) he was hosting at Taylor John’s House, while I purred about my recent experiences as a mere film extra and how it was my dream to become a writer or a film director or both. The first thing that strikes you about Wood is his near-deranged enthusiasm. He makes Meatloaf look like Nick Drake. His hands swirl about expressively in front of him, furling his fingers and making impassioned fists, like something you might see at a Westlife concert. When he speaks, he always tries to build towards something inspirational, thinking out loud in an effort to sound-bite.

He talks highly of some people. Roots for everyone.

Wood quizzed me greedily about the extra work and the films I’d appeared in (Jersey Girl, De-Lovely and Hawking); wanted to know who directed them, who produced them, who was in them, what I had to do (mostly, I tip-toed over the shoulders of other extras and watched what the directors and crew were doing). Everything was either “brilliant” or “fantastic”. So we kept in touch and for several months after, I dropped in on his film nights, which were often sparsely attended. Nevertheless, Wood was always cheerful, conducting the program from a rickety laptop, funnelling a mishmash of short films across a smoky beam of light on to a wonky projector screen.

However, despite Wood’s ballyhoo and a succession of award winning short films (Pinches had recently scooped an award for his horror short, Mirror, Mirror) the Call The Shots enterprise had started to wilt. Ironically, the group’s autonomy began to create problems. Vital creative partners, such as Creative Coventry (a consortium of city arts organisations), were severing ties with the group. “We had a deal with the Herbert to create material for their slot on the community channel. But we stopped doing that. We started making films about necrophilia and constipation!” Wood smirks, sheepishly. “Not really suitable.”
Another film produced by Wood and written by Les Doherty was called Welcome To My Country, a politically charged short film about Irish displacement in Coventry, which although won an award for its screenplay at The Swansea Bay Film Festival, was decidedly unwelcome to the Herbert’s community slot.

Despite the success, the level of output diminished. The group became inactive, unproductive; starved of support and even a place to meet after the council announced plans to demolish, eventually relocate the Depot Studios (now Herbert Media). From my perspective at the time, a bewildered graduate, ushered into meager employment and slipping too comfortably into the slippers of drifting ambition, there didn’t appear to be anything going on and nothing to get involved in beyond the film nights.

Forgan adds: “I have a feeling that this group also got a bit stuck, as they seemed to churn out a lot of ninety second films. But it was great to have somewhere to point A-level media students to learn their craft.”

With the group mostly in exile, new film-makers feeling neglected and existing members seemingly more interested in pursuing darker, edgier ambitions, Call The Shots lumbered through a couple more years, inevitably becoming the very thing the group set out to resist – a talking shop. Wood’s film nights were also numbered. He must have known the collapse was coming; heard the creaks and crackles of the apathy all around him. In the flickering darkness of these film nights, the prowling shadow of expiration drew near.

Inevitably then, in early 2008, Call The Shots cut to black…

Continued in Part 2: The Rebirth