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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best entertainment magazine in the UK“, JJ Barnes talks about the making of her new film, Hollowhood, and what she loves about filmmaking.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m JJ Barnes, I’m co-founder of Siren Stories, and editor here at The Table Read Magazine. I’m also an author, an artist, a blogger, a singer, and the co-writer and co-director of the film Hollowhood.
Away from work, I’m mother to two girls, step mother to a boy, partner to Jonathan McKinney, and owner of Mollydog the Springer Spaniel, and Batman the cat. I’m a lover of coffee, wine, music and food, a film fan, a book lover, and a dancing around the kitchen enthusiast.
When did you first realise you wanted to make films?
I knew I WANTED to make films when I was in my teens. I bought all the books about filmmaking, behind the scenes books about my favourite films and TV shows, and watched loads of documentaries about the process. But it seemed so far out of reach that I don’t know if I actually let myself want it properly. In my 30’s I decided to let myself want it for real.
What is your favourite thing about films?
Stories. Same as books, it’s just stories in a different medium. I love stories. I love how stories draw you in and make you feel, they make you want things, care about characters, and experience things you’d never get to. With stories you can go to space, you can fight monsters, escape murderers, or fall in love over and over and over again, waiting for that first kiss. Stories can make history come to life, teach you to see the humanity in people you thought were your enemy, and make you aspire to be a better person. They can move you to tears, make you laugh hysterically, or teach you things you didn’t know you needed to learn.
With film, you get to be absorbed into the action. You see what the director wants you to see, witness the feelings and emotions the actors get into their eyes, and be surprised or scared or elated by what you’re watching. It’s just magical to me.
What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?
Nothing formal. I watched and learned from professionals I saw do the job when we were making Gracemarch back in 2018, and read extensively about the art, but it wasn’t taught in an education setting such as a film school. Most of what I learned about filmmaking I actually learned on the set of Hollowhood. Learning while doing means you make a lot of mistakes, but you really get hands on experience that is irreplaceable.
What was your first film industry job?
The aforementioned Gracemarch. I wrote a script for a short, which was read and loved so much that we adapted it. At first into a pilot of a TV series, and later into a film script. We ended up with an incredible cast of actors and wonderful crew, and filmed the first hour. Hopefully we’ll be able to get back on set and finish it soon, but in the meantime I’ve novelized the script so that will be coming out at some point and might stir up some excitement (investment?) in getting the film completed.
What was your most recent film industry job?
Hollowhood. It’s an entirely independent film created by myself and my partner Jonathan McKinney with our Siren Stories company. We wrote it, produced it, directed it, acted in it, and sang on the soundtrack. I edited it, Jon scored it. We cast our family and friends, scrimped and saved to get the bits of kit we could, and made it with no money or time, but with loads of love and passion.
Tell me a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.
In terms of the making, being on the Hollowhood set. We stayed in the house we filmed in, living and working together. We got up at funny hours and got ready with mugs of coffee. We stayed up late talking after a long day of filming. We bonded and created this incredible film family of people just loving every moment of telling the story we loved so much.
However, an incredible post production experience was when Francis Perdue at Scooter P Entertainment contacted us to say she believed she could sell our movie. Originally, Hollowhood went onto our YouTube channel and we didn’t think it would go further. But now, we’re streaming internationally because we worked with such an amazing distributor who believed in us and gave us this chance!
What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?
Two things, really. During Gracemarch, we were away from our children and we found it tough. It’s not easy traveling around and working long hours when you know your babies are at home missing you. Making Hollowhood was much easier because we were in our home town.
With Hollowhood, the hardest thing was that lockdown came before we had finished filming, and we didn’t know how long it would last. We had to edit the film while homeschooling the children and dealing with all the stress of that era. I got covid and was in quarantine and very poorly for a long time. It wasn’t the quiet, focused environment that I think most films are edited in.
What inspired you to make Hollowhood?
The story was inspired by circumstances. We decided one day, on a bus into town, that we were sick of waiting for other people to invite us to make movies, we were going to do it ourselves. First we contacted everybody we know to ask if they’d be willing to book time off work to act for free.
When we had our cast, we contacted people to ask about using locations for making it. From there, we figured our very low budget would be best suited to a horror style. From that, we came up with the characters and the storyline for Hollowhood, using who and what we had.
What is the main conflict of Hollowhood?
The conflict running through is the heart of the film, the relationship between Olivia Harkness and Penelope Jones. They’re an estranged couple after Penny wants to take a job at CERN, and Olivia wants to stay in her home town. However, they’re still in love, and Olivia hopes that a weekend away with friends will give her the chance to rekindle that romance.
The other conflict is that once they arrive in Hollowhood, creepy locals are following them around and staring at them, and soon members of their group start disappearing.
How long did you spend in production?
Technically a year and a half. But that was broken up by lockdown! In reality, about two weeks.
How long did you spend in post production?
We edited the film we had during lockdown, so a year and a half, then we edited the last bit of filming in the following couple of months.
Did you work with a writer, or write Hollowhood yourself? Would you do the same again?
Wrote it ourselves, and would ALWAYS choose to do that again. I love writing stories. I would spend my life writing stories very happily.
How did you find your cast and what made you choose them?
We asked our family and friends who would be willing to do it. Once we knew who was willing and available, we wrote characters based on their looks and personalities and how we thought they could best perform, and who would have the best chemistry for different relationships or situations.
How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?
The crew was just me and Jon most of the time. I was on camera, he had the boom mic. However, we were also both on screen for some of the scenes, so we had to get the actors to help out and point the camera or hold the mic, depending on who was available. It was very much a collaborative effort! All hands on deck.
How did you find your locations?
My parents own a holiday let, Squirrel Barn, and were kind enough to give us two weeks rent free in the January. Then we contacted local pubs that we drink in, the Green Man in Milwich where the holiday let is, and The Sun in Stafford where we had our engagement party. We told them what we’d be doing, and asked if they’d be willing to let us coming during closing hours and film. Because they’re wonderful people, they agreed.
Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?
I would like to make more films, in similar circumstances. I want to write the script, point the camera, and edit it together at the end. I want to cast people I love as dearly as I love our cast in Hollowhood who I can trust to deliver their lines and work hard, but also be truly lovely and fun people to be around. And I want to do all of it with my partner Jonathan McKinney, because he makes all things that bit more wonderful.
I also want to write more books. I love writing books. I have so many stories in my head just screaming to get out, and I owe it to myself to tell them.
Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.
How much I enjoy directing. I thought I would be awkward or unsure, and I definitely didn’t think I’d be able to lead. I’m not very confident about myself or my ability, and the idea of running a set seemed well out of reach. But, I have to admit, I LOVED it. I have a very visual mind, and so I can see the stories I write playing out in my head like a movie, and I got to make that a reality. When other people direct, they don’t necessarily see what I see, and then it’s a bit jarring adjusting to the new version.
What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?
If you think there’s some secret club you need to be part of to make movies, it’s not true. Technically, all you need is a camera, a script, and some people willing to say the lines from that script. Point the camera at your actors, record the lines, stitch it together and you’ve got a movie.
Of course, the more kit and bigger budget you’ve got, the better quality your film will be. But still, if you want to make a movie, you’ve got to start somewhere, and it doesn’t have to be a Hollywood studio. It can literally be you and your mates, a love of the craft, a desire to tell stories, and a willingness to work hard to achieve your goals.
From there, it’s only up. You’ll just keep getting better at it. So do it. Start now, and who knows where you’ll be in a few years time?
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