Welsh Stories, Welsh Talents: What’s Next for Welsh Film?

Noreen Blanluet talks to Matt Redd (writer) and Ryan Andrew Hooper (director) about their film The Toll (2021) and about the film industry in Wales.

Produced through Ffilm Cymru Wales’ Cinematic scheme, The Toll is described by Glasgow Film Festival as “mixing the dark comedy of the Coen Brothers with the antihero of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns… a madcap chain of events that leads to a showdown of epic proportions”.

How did The Toll come to be?

Ryan: It’s a long story! 

Matt: We’ve known each other a while: we met at a pitching workshop, then we went on to work together during a year-long traineeship, and then we went our separate ways but stayed in touch. Later we worked together doing youth filmmaking projects, making films and running a Film Festival with kids in parts of the Valleys. We both helped each other with short films, one in particular where I (Matt) was producing the film and he (Ryan) came in and helped, because I’d had an accident and I couldn’t see for a while. 

Ryan: At one point, I was his landlord, and he was my boss! 

Matt: It’s a weird symbiotic relationship. I guess the point is, we have just done lots of different things, and worked together in different guises. I was working as a freelancer in TV at the time working on shows like Doctor Who as part of the team that runs the set, but I really wanted to get into writing. I wrote my first feature film script and showed it to Ryan, and he gave me some good feedback on that. Then I got one in development with a production company for the first time, and I had the realisation that everything takes forever and it was going to take a long, long time. But Ryan has always just got on and made his own films, he hasn’t waited for someone else to give him money or invite him to do anything; so it seemed like an ideal collaboration.

Ryan: We discussed different ideas which we worked on for a while and which never went anywhere. And then I suggested this idea about doing a film in a tollbooth and he liked it. That’s how it works really, I tend to throw a lot of ideas at Matt, and it’s the ones that stick that we end up working on. That’s how this relationship has been forged. 

Matt: We sat down, and I wrote the script. Ryan would direct it and together we’d work out a way to get it funded. And that was 2014: it’s still a slow business. But we had a different idea first of all, and we worked on that for quite a long time. It was a very different sort of story and much darker… and nowhere near as fun, to be honest. At one point we realised, what is the sort of film we want to watch? What would we pay money to go and see on a Friday night at the cinema? Let’s try and make that. Once we hit on that, everything fell into place.

The cast is full of famous actors, this is not a tiny Welsh film?!

Ryan: It *is* a tiny Welsh film, just with delusions of grandeur!

Matt: That’s the production value that the cast gives it. It is a tiny Welsh film, and the budget is miniscule compared to the sort of films that you normally see these people in; but it has that sort of elevation in its production value, because we managed to get really experienced film and TV actors to come into it. 

We had the money before we had the cast, which isn’t the standard way in the independent film world. Usually you try and get some recognisable cast to say they will be in your film, and then you raise the money off the back of that. 

We did it the other way round, we got the money and then we went to the cast, which was to our advantage. We could say to them, “This film is going to be shooting on these dates, do you want to do it?” And it’s a simple yes or no then, instead of saying, “We’re trying to raise money to make this film, so if, hypothetically, we get this much money, and we agreed to pay you this much money, do you think you might be able to do it?” We are going through that right now with another project that we’re doing, and it’s just a totally different way of working, which is very, very slow and inefficient… and frustrating, really.

Ryan: It’s like chicken and egg. At that point I had no track record as a director, they had no idea who I was, so we were reliant upon the fact that there was money there – not a lot but it was there. And the script was really good. There are different reasons why actors choose a role. Michael (Smiley) had never been a lead before – mind bogglingly, because of how good he is – so that was an attraction for him. Iwan (Rheon) had a gap opening up in his diary and his partner loved Spaced (which Michael Smiley starred in), so she was really happy when she saw Smiley was cast. They’d also just had a baby, and we were going to put everybody up in a holiday park in West Wales, so we said, “Just bring the baby down and your partner, and have a couple of weeks of holiday.” So that was an attraction, for them. 

And the other people who said yes… I don’t know why they did! I’m joking, it was the script, it would have been Matt’s script. Acting isn’t a profession that’s purely driven by money, because they all started out in the same place, as struggling actors not making a huge amount of cash. It isn’t money then that necessarily drives them, it’s doing something that’s fun, and that they enjoy – and also being treated well, that is a big thing. It’s not always a common thing, being treated well. Matt and I have both worked in TV and been in situations on sets… let’s say they were not the most fun places to be. It was important to both of us that the crew had a good experience, because we couldn’t pay them a huge amount. We were shooting in November and December in Wales, the weather was horrendous, we didn’t have a lot of time, it was hard work! All you can do is treat people as well as you possibly can. 

Matt: We had such a small crew, and it was a very ambitious shoot. We had 18 days, which is very, very short by film standards, and a lot of it was outdoors in the rain, and wind, and cold. We had limited facilities and they were really long days, six days a week for three weeks. It was hard! So we just wanted to make sure that it was as comfortable and as enjoyable an experience as we could make it.

‘Think about your overall strategy. Think about where you want to get to, and work back the steps from there.

Of all the things that make up our approach to how we make films, I think that’s the most important, the whole experience. I don’t think people always think about what kind of workplace you are providing for your cast and your crew. We did our best to make it a happy place.

It did feel like everybody had a really, really good time. All the cast and crew enjoyed it. And it was exhausting, and all of that stuff. But I think, I’d hope, that the fun of it translates to what you see there on the screen. 

How did you go about raising funding?

Matt: Ffilm Cymru Wales are the development agency for film in Wales, they are your first port of call. We knew that in order to raise the money to make this film, we needed some sort of proof of concept, some way to prove to people that we could do this, that we had a story, and that Ryan could direct it and turn it into a watchable film. For your first feature film as a director, it’s always going to be the first time you do it. There’s no way to prove you can do it until someone lets you do it. So, a good thing to do is to make short films. 

Ryan: We applied to a Ffilm Cymru fund which supports a round of between 5 and 7 short films with 10 to 15,000 pounds. We would make a short film based around a toll booth, which would be the proof of concept of what the feature film would be. 

Matt: The short version is we got the money from Ffilm Cymru, and put in some money of our own, and did a crowd funder as well, and we got that short film shot. We got very, very lucky with the cast: Gwyneth (Keyworth, who plays the triplets in The Toll) agreed to do that before we even had any money. We wanted to shoot the triplets for the short film, to surprise the audience and show that Ryan could shoot this one actor playing three characters. So we got Gwyneth on board, and then Ryan wrote a letter to Simon Russell Beale to say he was a big fan and really wanted him to be in the short film. I don’t think Simon had ever done a short film at that point, and he just said yes. The short got made, got played at one or two festivals, got a write up in The Times because of Simon’s involvement, and got a little bit of momentum around it. It’s still really small but it did endorse Ryan as a director, as well as the project as a concept. 

Ryan: What might be useful to say at this point is that Matt and I had a strategy. We knew that the Beacons existed, the short film funding scheme. We also knew about Cinematic, the feature film version of that, also run by Ffilm Cymru Wales. 

Our strategy was that in order to get a feature film made through Cinematic, we would write a short in the same world as the feature and get that funded through the Beacons. Then when we got the film made through Cinematic, we’d set up a production company – there’s support for that also through Ffilm Cymru Wales. Then we would write the next feature (we already had an idea bubbling away) and we would try and get development money. That was our sort-of-five-year plan. And it all happened! Which, you know, doesn’t happen that often. When you look at it, we set a plan, and we achieved it, which I am really proud of. It is not easy to do and you need a bit of luck also. But sometimes filmmakers are poor at thinking strategically about their career path. It is easier because there’s two of us, so we can talk about it together. 

If I ever get asked for advice to give other filmmakers, I always try and bring it back to this: don’t think tactically, think about your overall strategy. Think about where you want to get to, and work back the steps from there; it’s how you’ve got to be or you run the risk of… just flailing in the wind a little bit.

Matt: Film is like art meets commerce. Obviously it’s a creative thing that we do because we love storytelling for the screen. But really, the amounts of money involved are way beyond people like me and Ryan, so we needed to find ways to navigate the system. The infrastructure in Wales is small, but it exists; so we found out who the people involved were, the gatekeepers and the decision-makers, and we went and met them and got to know them. And they got to know us. Over a period of years of course, not just one meeting to ask for thousands of pounds, but by submitting applications, meeting them in various events, showing what we could do, and starting to prove that we were capable of doing what we were intending to do with the feature.

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Once we were selected for the Cinematic fund, where they funded three films, money came from Ffilm Cymru, the British Film Institute, the private sector, and S4C. We didn’t have to go out and raise any more money. It was a case of just making the film. We did a couple more passes on the script, and found a producer who could physically produce the film in terms of the nuts and bolts of getting it through production. That was in August 2018. By October, we were in prep in Pembrokeshire, and we were on camera in November. It happened really quickly, after a few years of trying to get to that stage. Because of COVID it’s taken longer to get to the release. 

(The Toll premiered at Glasgow Film festival 25-28 February 2021, and was released in theatres on 27 August 2021.)

Was it always going to be set in Pembrokeshire?

Matt: Yes. I grew up there. We’d always said it’s like the Wild West, the end of the earth, everything is slightly frontier-like… and if you’re going to make a Western in Wales, it felt logical to do it here in West Wales. I wanted to write about where I grew up as well, so it just made perfect sense for the sort of film we wanted to make.

There is a shot of the Cleddau Bridge toll at the beginning of the film – it’s gone now actually, it got knocked down in 2019 and you can pass on that bridge for free now. But when I was a kid, there was a boy in my class whose dad worked on that tollbooth. He did the night shift as well. When Ryan first started talking about a toll booth as an idea for a script… obviously the Seven Bridge toll was iconic for Wales, but the funny thing about the Pembrokeshire toll was that back then, it was 20p, almost not worth the effort. It’s an absurd thing to do, because how much money could they really make, especially the guy working the night shift, who’s going to be taking less per hour than the cost to put him in there. That’s a start, a wonderfully ironic sort of paradox and absurdity that you can work with creatively.

Michael Smiley and Annes Elwy in The Toll (Signature Entertainment)

Ryan: I (Ryan) am from Gwent, so for me tolls mean the Severn Bridge; and it had this weird psychology, with having to pay to come back into your own country. I’d spent a lot of time in West Wales on holiday as a kid, so I knew the area pretty well, and when Matt mentioned the Cleddau Bridge that’s where it sort of all came from. 

It added to other apocryphal tales about tolls… like the single lane toll bridge in Bath, where it cost 50p and I remember driving across the bridge and another car was coming across in the other direction – and I thought, the people running this bridge have got one job, that they charge you 50p for, and that’s regulating the traffic. I remember thinking, I wonder if there’s just a bunch of chancers who one day rocked up to a bridge with a bucket and a sign and pretended to be official and just charged people. And there’s that other story of the car park at Bristol Zoo where an old man was taking money. I don’t think it’s true but everyone knows the story – it’s a lovely story, I love the entrepreneurial spirit of it. 

That’s the interesting thing about the toll booth. For me growing up it was the Severn Bridge that was the looming thing, and for him it was the Cleddau Bridge, and that’s why we riffed on the toll idea.

Why The Toll and not The Tollbooth?

Matt: The toll is metaphorical as well as financial – you pay the toll at the tollbooth, but a toll is also paid by the characters. One for example (no spoilers!) has a moral choice to make at the end of the film. In the promo photos you can see Michael Smiley and Annes Elwy standing next to each other underneath the sign that says, “pay here”. 

Ryan: It’s quite an interesting word, toll, in terms of what it signifies. Like a lot of the English language, words can mean different things. This had more metaphorical meaning, and it just felt right. It’s a pity that another film came out not long before ours also called The Toll – and I’m sure they’re not loving the fact that ours came out just after theirs. But it just felt like the right title. It’s not about the booth, the booth is irrelevant, really.

How did you do all the planning? 

Matt: We use a nonlinear storytelling technique, so there are lots of little things that you probably wouldn’t notice on the first viewing, or realise they will be significant later on. There are clues in the background of the scenes, where things are and where they moved. The time is always correct chronologically when you see a clock. When we were shooting it was painstaking for our art department, which was essentially one person running around moving everything herself to make sure everything was where it needed to be. We needed to make sure it made sense chronologically, to then take it apart and put it together in a nonlinear way. 

Ryan: We did a sense check and there are no plot holes, nothing happens that’s incorrect. If I decided to edit the film in a linear fashion everything would make sense, but it wouldn’t be as interesting a film. It’s a dangerous road to go down doing nonlinear editing because you immediately set yourself up for comparison with Tarantino, and no one’s ever going to come out of that looking good… That’s why it’s a dangerous thing. But it was important for the film that we were able to do that. And it was important for us that it would all make sense, that the attention to detail was there. 

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Matt: There are no errors because we were so meticulous. I had a spreadsheet of the whole thing. We printed it out in the production office and put it up on the wall. It’s really long as it has the whole sequence in chronological order, and some scenes are also next to each other because they technically take place at the same time in different locations. If anybody wanted to check something, you could see where things happened on the actual day itself. 

One of the advantages of telling a nonlinear story is that it gives you an extra location shift, in a way. We were trying to do as many scenes as possible in and around the toll booth, because that’s the cheapest way to do it. We put the lockup next to the toll booth, and that was a second location. In fact you have the booth, and just outside the booth, then the lockup, and also just outside the lockup. We made four locations out of one. That was very deliberate, in order for the whole thing to feel bigger, and it didn’t cost any more apart from the rental of an old shipping container. On top of that, when you jump in time, even though the new scene is taking place in exactly the same place as the previous one, there is a new momentum. It creates the illusion that there’s more going on than there actually is. More than two thirds of the film take place just in and around the booth itself… that’s a long time to be in one place – and we didn’t want it to feel like theatre, we wanted it to feel like cinema.  And I think it worked.

Ryan: If you’ve got a low budget, the received wisdom is that you should use a single location, a very small cast, and try and put as much money as you can into that one thing. We discussed it, and decided we didn’t want to watch that film. We did the opposite: just stretched the budget as much as we could (and it does show at times, the reality is, it is a very, very low budget film) and just went nuts: we had vehicles, we had dogs, we had gun fights, we had everything, because we might never make another film… so we might as well have fun. 

‘If you look at the sort of films that are being made in Wales, there are a lot of really talented people who are doing really interesting things. We are seeing a rise in genre filmmaking, things like thrillers and horror, which we haven’t had that much of in the past. 

We’ve done so much low budget filmmaking that we’ve learnt how to get the most bang for your buck. We had a difficult first week, which meant that we were behind, and we’d run out of money. And I was just sitting there thinking, “I know how to make this film.” Because I’m always working with no time and no money, all of every film I’ve ever made has been no time and no money. You make things work with what you have, and that stands you in good stead because it comes to times like this and with no time, no money, I knew how to do it. We’ve been doing our bootcamp for making this film for the previous 10 years. 

What are the challenges and opportunities for Welsh films made in Wales?

Matt: One of the biggest challenges to film right now is TV, because it’s become so big. There are streamers putting a lot of money into it, and productions in general in Wales now are for TV and not film. Covid-19 has put film distribution in a strange transition as well, between theatrical in cinemas and streaming online. We’re in a real state of flux as we get used to what the post-pandemic viewing habits are going to be: how many films are going to be made for theatres and how many are going to be going straight to streamers. 

Potentially it’s a really difficult time, but it does also open other doors. Streamers are coming in with huge budgets, so if you have a successful film that audiences like, you could go to a Netflix type to fund it – so you won’t have to do what we’re doing right now with our next project, which is going to all these different places to try and find money. A few years ago, this wasn’t even an option. 

No-one really knows what’s going on right now, because it’s all changing so quickly. But if you look at the sort of films that *are* being made in Wales, there are a lot of really talented people who are doing really interesting things. We are seeing a rise in genre filmmaking, things like thrillers and horror, which we haven’t had that much of in the past. 

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Ryan: The big opportunity for Wales right now is talent: cast and crew. There are a lot of really interesting filmmakers working here now. Gareth Evans has come back, he did The Raid which was a huge success, and now he’s doing Havoc with Tom Hardy. Craig Roberts is doing really well with Eternal Beauty, and Prano (Bailey-Bond) has just done Censor, which is sort of tearing it up – although that’s not based here, but she’s a Welsh filmmaker. And then there’s people like Lee (Haven Jones) and Roger Williams, who’ve done The Feast, a Welsh language horror, which is another interesting way to do things. There are a few of us who sort of bubbled up at about the same time – like Keri Collins, who did a feature called Convenience. And Ryan Andrews has come back into it with a really interesting short (Hiraeth). The fact that there’s so much TV production is major, because we’ve got a crew base which is really experienced, who can apply their skills to making other things, and that’s really important for the local ecosystem.

Ffilm Cymru Wales have done a really good job in supporting and facilitating filmmaking here. They picked our film for example, they took a chance and they trusted us to be able to make it happen. They support some really interesting projects. 

Another opportunity is also Welsh stories, like Dream Horse that Euros Lyn made – that is a Welsh story. And our film is a Welsh story. The Feast, which Roger and Lee did, is a Welsh story. Craig (Roberts)’s first film was based in the place where he grew up. It’s about taking advantage of all that Wales can offer, which is more than just the landscape (lots of films are shot here, though not many are set here). What we tried to do is showcase Wales – that is our production value. 

Maybe we just need a little bit more confidence in ourselves to start making films that could, and should, travel well – and have a broader audience than just Welsh people. What we have potentially here is very positive. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Noreen Blanluet is the Director of the Co-production Network for Wales

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