Bill: the battle to get a brilliant smaller film noticed

Director Richard Bracewell chats to us about Bill, and the behind the scenes struggle to bring it to the screen.

Regular readers of Den Of Geek will well know that we’re sizeable fans of the comedy Bill. It’s available on DVD now, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.

What wasn’t so well known at the time of its release was that Bill went through a distributor change last year, which at one stage looked like it might derail a wide cinema release, and thus keep the movie away from many people’s eyeballs. We thus spoke to director Richard Bracewell about the film, and the behind the scenes story of just what was going on…

Can we dig into the untold story underpinning Bill? In particular, the problems that most didn’t see, about simply getting the film released? Can you take us through what happened? Because we had the film listed in our preview piece for last year’s cinema, but then the release date disappeared!

When did the release date start to wobble?

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The easiest way to explain all this is to go back a bit further!

The original UK cinema distributor came in early, and all credit to them. They helped make the film possible and their commitment to it meant we could realise our creative vision for the film.

I knew Ben [Willbond, co-star and co-screenwriter of Bill], who was in an earlier film I made, The Gigolos. I didn’t know Larry [co-writer and co-star] then. I didn’t know much about Horrible Histories at that stage, but one of my kids was watching it. She was a very early adopter, and she said that “you’ll like it”. She played me this stuff, and it was Ben, and I realised how funny it was and what potential it had. Ben brought Larry in, so it was the three of us [who pitched the film].

Then [Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare movie] Anonymous happened. Quite entertaining, but a weird and flawed film. Lots of good stuff.

We thought then that Shakespeare, that is the subject to do, a British subject that’ll travel all over the world that’s not really been done. The second Blackadder perhaps did a little on him, but even then they didn’t really go near Shakespeare.

Larry and Ben and I worked out a plot. Larry was a real driver at that point, and we took it – Tony [Bracewell, producer] and I – to BBC Films for some help in developing it. BBC Films got involved, and made a commitment at that point to developing the script.

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The advantage we had at that stage was the pitch to the BBC was that I wanted to do something along the lines of a Python film. The BBC said that Python, isn’t that for grown-ups? But we said that kids are now watching on YouTube the stuff that we were getting excited about as kids, because it was all a bit naughty! I remember the Life Of Brian video being handed around at school, like it was the dirtiest thing. And it’s now all over YouTube!

What happened once the BBC got involved?

We wrote the script with the BBC, and then the BFI became involved, and we developed it further. Both were fantastic. Koch Media then got involved so we could produce Bill as a family film for a family audience, based on the lead cast’s popularity from Horrible Histories. Finally, Screen Yorkshire became involved to complete the financing team, which is one reason we filmed most of the film in Yorkshire – although the main reason is it’s a great place to film a movie, and gave us everything we needed in creating Tudor London!

Suddenly, we had a film financed. Production-wise it was great and went very smoothly. No freak weather conditions or acts of God! Then we started to cut the film.

When was that?

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We shot in early 2014, we cut in the spring and summer of 2014. We had a lot of material, and it took a long time to edit – probably four or five months. It took quite a long time. It started to work, and it was the film we wanted to make.

We were working towards a release date of mid-February 2015, which the distributor had announced when the cameras started rolling in February 2014. So the film was locked in October 2014, then we mixed, recorded the music and had it ready by the end of November. The first trailer hit cinemas on Boxing Day 2014, and played across Vue, Cineworld and Odeon cinemas, in front of all the big Christmas movies and got people excited about the film. We were excited too. Then in early 2015, the release was put back until August 2015.

A bit later, Screen International reported that Koch was scaling back its UK film distribution operation to focus on home entertainment releasing. There were lots of conversations, and in the end Vertigo came up with a new plan for a UK cinema release and moved quickly. We’d been looking at an August release. 

That’s what we were told, certainly.

Vertigo were going from a standing start with a very tight deadline, though, so felt it would serve the film best if we released in a quieter slot in late September, and give the release team more time to prepare, sell the film into the big cinema chains, get them behind it, and prepare audiences with a new trailer, which went into cinemas during August. It’s not the easiest thing taking over a film from a previous distributor and releasing it wide on hundreds of screens. Vertigo did an amazing job – we ended up opening on 300 screens, including all the main cinema chains. Odeon, Vue, Cineworld and Empire all loved the film and are big supporters.

Was that a bit frustrating? August wasn’t great for family movies. I remember taking my family along at the end of the month, and there was an Adam Sandler film, and not too much else. As much as we all went off in September to see Bill, I wonder if there’s a bit of you that thinks you had a real shot at making a bigger splash if you’d have landed in the school holidays?

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It was very wet the end of August too! I looked out the window and thought it was perfect movie-going weather!

I was a bit frustrated at seeing that slot come and go, because British comedies have done well in that slot in the past. That said, by that stage we were already looking forward to the September release. It’s only looking back now I wonder if that was an opportunity missed for us.

But then you’re always wondering what if!

Bill still had a great reaction, though, and – in the nicest sense – it’s the film that won’t die! Not that I’m trying to kill it…

[Laughs]

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We’re 13 weeks or so after its original release, and two weekends ago it was playing on over 100 screens in the UK.

It was. We’ve outpaced A Walk In The Woods, we’ve ambled past that! Everest came and went. We saw that off! I think Inside Out is still going, but why not, it’s a fantastic film!

I think the interesting thing is for a younger audience maybe, and I’m not an expert in the demographics, the impact of the big week of release – the previews, the opening weekend, the Graham Norton sofa – I’m not sure that matters too much for a younger audience. Bill is still a current movie to them, I think. That’s helped us. We’ve done lots of kids’ club screening. Myself, Ben, Larry, we go along to our local cinemas and do intros…

The film comes out then, it gets good reviews. But we were watching this from afar, and it just seemed to pick up a life of its own. How close were you all to that response, and how was the fanbase of it?

It generated a huge amount of loyalty and warmth. Chris Addison was nothing to do with the production, and he’s tweeted about it several times. Paddy Considine did too. Even James Corden all the way over in LA! We get nothing but terrific feedback from fans on Twitter and Facebook. And not just in the UK, but in Australia and from other territories really keen to see it.

We didn’t do a red carpet, we just did a friends and family screening on the eve of its release. I even bought drinks at my own premiere! [Laughs].

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It’s generated warmth but I think – are we allowed to say things like it’s a peculiarly British film? It feels different? It’s a little bit quirky? It’s got an intentional DIY feel to it? It’s meant to be like that. I think maybe that’s something people have picked up on. Superhero films aren’t so much our cultural history, but we do that kind of comedy really well. I hope that what we’ve done is something that’s wearing its learning on its sleeve. We do know there’s a bit of Python in it, we do know there’s a bit of Blackadder, but so what? There’s Star Wars in there too, because we love those movies.

We put on a screening of the film last December, and it was then that we learned another distributor was involved, and that Universal had picked up the DVD release.

Yes! These things do have happy endings. Universal will give us a platform. So many people have spoken to and have heard from have said ‘I meant to see it, but it wasn’t showing’ or ‘I missed it, but I’m aware of it’. Possibly that’s what we achieved with the theatrical release. That people know about it now.

How does that compare to your previous projects, Cuckoo and The Gigolos? Because if I’ve got the maths right, you put five years or so of your life into this?

Pretty much, yes. Five years since realising that there’s a great movie, a great Python-style movie in it. Being involved in the making, and developing the movie, I deliberately now had to step away from it a little, as my job now is to get on with the next film! And to talk about the making of this one. I didn’t get too involved in the release.

The fantastic opportunity with Bill is that reviewers such as Mark Kermode have allowed us to get our head above the parapet. With a smaller film, you just don’t get that opportunity, else you get crowded out in that one week. One Monday morning or afternoon week of release press screening, you’ve got to be really lucky to get a decent slot. With smaller films, it’s really hard, and if you miss that window, it’s gone.

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With Bill, it was just big enough to get the likes of Mark Kermode and Peter Bradshaw to give it a fair hearing.

Do you feel that? There were 21 films released in the UK last week. But do you feel that something as simple as the timing of the press screening slot can make or break the film?

Yes it can. When we screened The Gigolos, we were on a Monday afternoon, a 4pm slot. I was told at the time that it’s a slot for films that people really didn’t know much about. We were in that unknown slot, and it worked, because people stayed and watched the film, so we got enough good press to at least get us through to the DVD, and give it a tiny bit of a life. We were lucky with that slot.

I do think it’s still an opening weekend business. I think distributors are on the phone to exhibitors on Monday mornings, begging for more slots. In our case it was hard, you are just crowded out, the most you can hope for with a small independent film is you get enough of a theatrical release to kick it into life.

Where does this leave you? Do you personally want to try something different? Are there other projects you’re close to realising?

There are other projects I’m close to realising at the moment.

I really love comedy. What I love about it is it’s either funny or it’s not. Nothing else really matters: who’s in it, what it looks like, how it’s realised. If it’s funny, it’s funny. If it’s not funny, no amount of money on screen is going to save your ass. I like the brutality of it.

I’ll concentrate on comedy, British comedy. It’s hard to be one of those films in the 21 that does stick its head above the parapet and get noticed. Aside from doing something with Ben and Larry, and I hope we’ll do something again – there are plans, but at the moment, they’re knee-deep in filming Yonderland 3, and then they have to decide what they want to do next – but for myself I want to do a current comedy.

I’m developing a comedy set in austerity Britain. Brassed Off and The Full Monty, I loved those films. But Brassed Off was so brave, and I think we’re in a world that needs that sort of film. I hope I’m the person to do it, and the project I’m closest to at the moment is a comedy about a guy who loses his job and falls through the cracks into…. and I can’t say anymore at this stage!

We wish you the best of luck with it! One quick final question, then: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

I’m probably not allowed to say Spy, am I?

Of course you are!

It’s fantastic. I think there’s a new Jason Statham genre. Where it’s as if he’s performing in another film. I think it’s great. Every film should have Jason Statham that way. Certainly in every film comedy!

Two thumbs up for Spy.

When you’re willing to give us the exclusive that The Statham is in your family comedy, just give me the nod!

Maybe he plays the dad! [Laughs]

Richard Bracewell, thank you very much.

Bill is available on DVD now. It is ace.