Director Riyad Barmania takes us through the making of Ashens And The Polybius Heist – a film that took several years to realise.

You may not have heard of it, but in 1981 a mysterious game appeared in arcades with the ability to control people’s minds. It was mesmerising and addictive – but it was accompanied by disastrous side effects in those who played it, including several reported fatalities. It was rumoured to be part of a government-run psychological experiment, with ‘men in black suits’ periodically visiting the machines, until suddenly it disappeared, never to be seen again. Its name was Polybius.

At least that’s how the legend goes. This story, referenced in both Ready Player One and Stranger Things, was the inspiration for our new feature Ashens and The Polybius Heist, which (due to COVID-19) was released on demand in November 2020. Led by YouTube stars Stuart Ashen and Daniel Hardcastle, alongside Robert Llewellyn (Red Dwarf’s Kryten), the film puts a comedic spin on the myth, opening with rumours of the Polybius machine being sighted in Norwich, England. It’s up to Ashens, collector of rare but worthless collectables, to assemble a crew to recover the device before it can be used by the film’s antagonist, Antony Agonist, for his own dastardly ends.

Chart Topping

As I write this, the film has been sat at #1 on the UK Google Play and YouTube Movies charts for the past three days, having reached #2 on Amazon, and #5 on iTunes. It’s rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been the subject of a BBC feature. For a film made on a very small budget, it looks like a nice, simple indie success story. But of course, that’s only the half of it…

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Step back to 2016, by which point we’d already been working on the project for two years. Off the back of our successful first feature Ashens and The Quest For The GameChild, we’d secured funding for a follow-up, sending fans into a frenzy when we announced it to a packed house at London Comic-Con.

Co-writer Stuart Ashen and I were called to a meeting to sign the final paperwork, but as we sat down we were told our financiers were pulling out at the very last second. Dazed, I wandered the streets of London in shock, almost getting hit by a car crossing the road.

For a further two years trying to get the budget together, we were hitting dead end after dead end. “We know there’s an audience for it,’’ everyone said, “it’s just not the kind of thing we normally do.” Broken and about to give up, in 2018 we took one last roll of the dice, and launched a crowdfunding campaign. The response was incredible, and we raised an amazing £150,000. Suddenly we were in production!

Perhaps at this point, we should address the elephant in the room. So-called ‘YouTuber’ or ‘influencer’ movies have an awful reputation, and it is deserved – almost all of them are terrible! Seen as a quick cash-grab, companies sign up online talent to front films, just as they ghostwrite books for them and put their faces on beauty products.

This film is not like that. As the co-writer and director, my approach was always to make an ambitious and cinematic film. To succeed, you need to have the necessary skills, but most importantly you must surround yourself with talented filmmakers.

Stuart is a passionate creator who wants to take his work to the next level, and we teamed up with equally passionate filmmakers such as producer and editor Linton Davies and DOP Christian Mario Löhr, who helped ensure the whole thing was done right. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme (trust me, far from it!), but a project seven years in the making, put together purely through blood, sweat and more than a few tears.

Challenge

No expense was spared: the film was shot over 21 days across London on an Arri Alexa (the same camera used to shoot many of the biggest budget movies), it has over 450 VFX shots, and had colour and sound work done by the world-renowned Technicolor and The Farm Group.

I often say that if you don’t absolutely love filmmaking then you wouldn’t be doing it, but this has been the biggest challenge of my career. There are too many setbacks to list, but buy me a drink and I might just tell you about the actor who pulled out after having shot for several days, the £4,000 of erroneous congestion charges that took over a year to reclaim, the very filming location that stole our deposit… the list goes on.

But we made it! We sit here today watching thousands of amazing comments pouring in, saying how much they enjoyed the movie, how much it meant seeing people like them on screen, and how much they needed a good laugh. I don’t know yet if we’ll make a single penny from it, but I know we’ve put together a story that’s connected with people, and had an impact. And that’s the whole point.

Please consider giving Ashens and The Polybius Heist a watch, it’s a little movie with a big heart.

Ashens and The Polybius Heist is available in the UK from Amazon Video, YouTube Movies, Google Play and Apple iTunes, or you can just head to www.watchpolybiusheist.com

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