At 33-years old, Tom Paton is a dauntless young writer/director/producer who’s shot five films in five years using very unconventional methods. His career proves that sometimes, to be successful in film, you need to reject the “rules” of Hollywood and forge your own path. From the United Kingdom, Paton tells his truly remarkable story about making the films Pandorica, Redwood, Black Site, Stairs and G-Loc to fellow filmmaker Giles Alderson on The Filmmakers Podcast. This episode’s sponsor is The Tracking Board.
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Here are the top 10 things you need to know about Paton’s journey.
1. Tom Paton is self-taught.
Though Paton knew he wanted to make movies from the time he was a teenager, he wasn’t sure how to accomplish his goal. Having never attended university, let alone film school, one of his first jobs was with a tourist company on the island nation of Cyprus in the Mediterranean ocean. It was there he came up with a brilliant business venture. He thought if he could shoot videos of people enjoying their vacations he might be able to sell those videos to the families on holiday. It’s a great money-making idea but Paton didn’t know the first thing about shooting video, special effects, lighting or editing so he had to teach himself everything. “My university was three years living in Cyprus,” says Paton, “filming bar crawls and booze-cruises, editing them together really fast and selling them back to the customers. I’ve never really done film that hasn’t been as a business.”
From there he moved on to making promotional videos for deejays and his business really took off. Paton’s advice to anyone who wants to be a filmmaker: “It’s not about who you know, but what you’re willing to sacrifice … it’s about how much work you’re willing to put in.”
2. Editing is the final draft of the script.
As a writer/director, Paton focuses heavily on theme but he understands that just by choosing a particular shot, the story could go in an entirely different direction. Learning how to edit will make any writer/director a better filmmaker because you won’t need to film extraneous close-ups or wide shots, saving both time and money. But if you do hire an editor, it’s important to be on the same page. “Unless [your editor] understands the theme as well, they’ll start to imprint their own version of the theme onto it … you need to find an editor who agrees with what you’re trying to achieve.”
3. Respect your own personal journey.
Paton tries to remind himself he’s only in competition with himself. “It’s very easy in this industry to compare your journey to people around you, your friends or colleagues that you admire; it’s very easy to start to berate yourself or be hard on yourself because it’s not going the same way for you it went for them.” Every filmmaker has their own unique voice.
4. Stay business-minded.
A lot of filmmakers have trouble making peace with the business part of “show business,” but not Paton. “For me, [the business] aspect is what I’ve decided to live and breathe ever since I decided to film a bar crawl. I’m business orientated.” If you don’t feel you are terribly business minded, get a mentor who is to help you.
5. Seize control of your career.
When Paton wanted to make a feature-length narrative film, he grew frustrated taking meetings and waiting for green lights to appear. Since most of his other video projects could be successfully produced for £2,000 or less, he began to wonder what he could accomplish for £50,000 – a still relatively small amount of money. Wanting to explore a post-apocalyptic story, he wrote the script for Pandorica and was able to raise the money from his other business contacts. His confidence that he could make a great, micro-budget film easily convinced his producers to pony up the money.
6. Get creative.
Because the budget for Pandorica was so small, they had to figure out cheap ways to create special effects. A forest at night is notoriously difficult to light, so they got a giant white helium balloon, attached it to a c-stand and shone light onto it. The glow from the balloon gave the illusion of moonlight. They added a campfire and had all the light they needed.
7. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling as long as you know who to sell it to.
Once your film is made, it’s important to get it in front of the right audience. Paton knew fans of comic books would love Pandorica. “We did this prequel comic book which on the back page had this website URL that took you to watch the movie. We sold those prequel comics to [subscription service] My Geek Box for a pound per comic and they ordered – let’s just say a lot. We were alright.” He made his £50,000 back and then some.
For Paton’s second film Redwood, he got a £1 million budget from Poland. Since the movie is about a young couple who goes hiking and disturbs a nest of vampires, he knew bringing on Nicholas Brendon, an actor from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, would create a built-in audience. “To the sales agents, [casting Brendon] didn’t mean anything, it was worthless. He’s not a big name star. But they didn’t understand what I understood. I had been to ComicCon and the idea that someone from Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be in a [vampire film] is a done deal. I knew this was a clever sales pitch.”
Paton says the need for niche entertainment content is at an all time high, “If you can identify a hole and fill it, you’ll be fine.”
8. Film festivals are your friend.
Redwood getting into the London FrightFest Horror Film Festival was huge. They premiered the opening night of the festival and lots of distribution companies were interested. But having a bigger budget for Redwood didn’t alter Paton’s mindset. “One thing I took away between Pandorica and Redwood was the toys don’t necessarily matter. The only thing that really counts is, did you put the story on screen.”
9. Take risks.
Paton’s next film, Black Site, is about an elite military unit that encounters a supernatural entity. He describes it as an action comedy melded with Lovecraftian-horror – certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. “Everyone was like, ‘Do not do that!’ and I said, ‘I think I’m going to try it.’” An investor who was fascinated by films gave Paton £150,000 to make it which was much less than his £1 million budget for Redwood. “We almost reversed all the big budget stuff we’d done with Redwood … although the reaction [to the film] is polarizing now, I feel like I made something that people will revisit.”
10. Movies should be personal but are meant to create a shared experience.
Filmmakers are generally smart people and most likely could have chosen any career but chose to make films because they want to leave a legacy behind; a work of narrative art that will remain long after the filmmaker is gone. But Paton rejects the idea the idea that movies are made only to please the director, as many directors often say. “I don’t really trust filmmakers. They say ‘I only make films for me,’ and I say, ‘What are you lying for? You make films so that an audience watches it.’
Paton’s fourth fifth film, Stairs, about a special ops until forced to climb an endless flight of stairs, will premiere this summer in the United Kingdom. His fifth film, G-Loc, a sci-fi thriller about refugees from Earth, is currently in post-production.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards
Photo credit: Clara’s Ghost