Ben Robins on the battle to get The Last Jeff made – and his own battles too.
September 2016. I was jobless and living – unofficially – with my girlfriend, in her student flat in Southampton. I’d spent the summer graduating from university, and was desperately looking for my first full-time job out in the ‘real world’.
At some point over that summer, I don’t really remember when, I had also decided I was finally going to start making my own films. I’d gone to talks and festivals, and read books about it all, and they’d all said the same thing – find some people, make some shorts, and the rest will follow. “Get a job doing whatever and fund your art; prove to the world you have a voice, it’s not hard.”
On the very top of my pile of scripts was a super strange, ultra-personal little one-room comedy called The Last Jeff that really wouldn’t leave me alone. A far-out tribute to a pair of my favourite comedians, Roy Andersson and Alice Lowe, with a head-turning twist and an icy sense of humour. All about an emotionally volatile young woman suddenly being forced to look after her seriously ill, estranged dad, who thinks he’s the last man left on Earth. It was about as low maintenance as they come: three characters, a handful of props, and a single, achingly long take. Easy peasy. Three mind-numbingly long years later, it’s nearly finished. Here’s why it took longer to make than a film 50 times the size.
If you met me, face-to-face, you might not say I’m a particularly socially anxious person. I’ll look you in the eye. I’ll make a few crap jokes. I’ll smile, and nod. I’ll try. It’s that first hurdle that I find the hardest: that extra gulp of courage it takes to cross a room, open your mouth, and say human words. I’m not very good at meeting people. And given I also have absolutely no idea how to work a camera, it’s no real surprise that my film didn’t just magically manifest itself totally out of thin air.
About six months later, well into 2017, after working on my mental health, and figuring out, at last, how to make enough money to feed myself, I took my first giant leap towards finally making Jeff. I entered a competition called Shortflix, for young writers who had never made a film before. I made it far enough to be pitching my idea to some important film people. By September 2017, a full year after feeling totally washed-up and useless, I won the greenlight from Sky and Creative England, with a decent budget, a production team and a premiere slot on Sky Arts. The only catch was I wasn’t making Jeff.
Instead, I’d been pitching and working on something different, but spiritually similar – another uber-dark comedy, all set in one room, with a handful of messy twists à la Roald Dahl’s Unexpected Tales. As desperate as I was to bring Jeff’s world to life, it wasn’t an easy sell, and Losing It – a tonally more straightforward mishmash of Skins and Enter The Void – surprisingly was. The obscenely kind people at CE, Sky, and Delaval Film cracked on with helping me make it, teaching me the ins and outs of the whole industry-standard production model along the way, and around May 2018 it was done, dusted and out into the world. I had a film. I was a filmmaker and, most importantly, I had met people. I knew real human beings in the short-film world now, and all that scary room-crossing and word-forming wasn’t nearly as tricky because I had a proper foundation to build on.
I’d also been well and truly bitten by the filmmaking bug. The Last Jeff was swirling around my brain and it wasn’t going to stop until it was out there with the others. The tricky bit was getting the ball rolling. After a few false starts, and the added pressure of having to pull it together freehand in evenings and weekends while I now worked full-time, the brilliant online network Shooting People led me to producer extraordinaire Michael Peers. He happened to be looking for his first narrative project. I sent him a message pitching Jeff, he liked it, we chatted, and suddenly it wasn’t just me anymore. Having a team – a breathing unit that both collectively believes in and challenges each other – was the most important thing, and even though there was only two of us, we had traction. Jeff was in pre-production at long last. We just needed some money to make the damn thing.
I’m not going to pretend we didn’t try to get direct funding; we applied to a few different sources, and I tried not to take it personally when we got rejected. But we ended up getting rejected quite a lot, and eventually I just sort of put my head in my hands and moved slowly away from the monotony of all the application forms. They made it feel like I was asking for permission; like I had to prove I was worthy of expressing myself, and eventually I got fed up of begging strangers for money. So we launched a Kickstarter and went after our friends and family instead. Michael and I worked out the smallest possible amount of money we would need to get things done (on top of our own contributions), threw it all into a crowdfunding campaign and launched right there and then. Many days of hardcore campaigning later, we had our budget, and no one could tell us what we could or couldn’t do.
The crew came together fairly organically – an incredibly friendly and kind combination of hardworking professionals who mostly Michael or I had managed to befriend and coerce in the past. The Crown’s Erin Doherty very graciously agreed to be our star after reading the script, and Michael worked his magic pulling together all the other behind-the-scenes bits and pieces that make a film set a film set. Then, on the 28th July 2019, over three full years after writing the first draft, The Last Jeff was born on a series of hard drives, where it now sits awaiting post-production.
A good day
The one-day wonder of a shoot was about as dreamy as it gets for a director: talented, hardworking people giving it their all with zero egos and a whole lot of love. The cast nailed the tone, the crew smashed through any technical mishaps, and at the end of it all I felt insanely blessed to have found such a relentlessly kind group of people.
Seeing something that started life as a random brain sketch actually manifest itself in front of you is quite scary at first. You sort of look of it and question whether or not you got it right. And then you remember that the process is what actually made it – the brain sketch was never going to exist as anything more than a blueprint. What makes a film a film is the journey. Learning why you threw down those weird, misshapen ideas to begin with, and what ultimately is going to make them work onscreen.
The Last Jeff started life as a twisted little story I decided might one day make a good film. It ended up teaching me a lot about my depression. And my relationship with my dad. And the importance of embracing other people, and putting a big piece of yourself into your work. It took over three years to go from script to screen, and every minute, of every hour, of every day of those three years is a big part of what makes it the most fulfilling filmmaking experience I’ve had.
Learn more about The Last Jeff over at the film’s Kickstarter page.
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