Oliver Milburn on his debut feature School’s Out Forever, that’s become the first movie from Rebellion Film Studios.
“I love Predator and I love Die Hard,” grins writer-director Oliver Milburn, a man who’s cunningly timed the release of his debut feature film with moving into a new house (quite a nice one too, from what we could gleam via a Zoom window). The director of those two films, John McTiernan, “is the cornerstone for me of all action. Predator and Die Hard were such influences on this film.” He rules himself out of taking on a reboot of the latter should Hollywood come calling.
Which it may well do. Milburn’s film – that he put together with his producing partner Emma Biggins – is called School’s Out Forever and it’s testament to what happens when ambition trumps a low budget. Perhaps unsurprising, given how long he’s actually being trying to get it made.
“It’s been a very long road,” he explains. He and Biggins first met at film school the best part of a decade ago, and made a film that came out as a feature, called The Harsh Light Of Day. It actually started as their grad film, and their tutor suggested turning it into something full length. They duly did. Around the same time, Milburn was working part time in a library, which is when he happened upon a book called School’s Out Forever from author Scott K Andrews.
“I absolutely loved it, and said to Emma this is the next thing we should do.”
Ten years later, here we are. In that decade, Milburn’s worked as a VFX supervisor and Biggins has been producing. But they never lost the ambition to get this made.
“We developed the script a lot. Almost had it financed two or three times. People were scared of the content: schools and guns and things like that. We kept coming up against watering it down, or making it a zombie movie.”
The turning point was when Rebellion – who owned the book – decided to jump into making its own films. “Rebellion had always been involved in that we’d kept sending it the script and it had given feedback. By the time Rebellion became a film entity itself, it really, really liked the script.”
When it decided to produce movies, here was a project not too far off being ready to go. Finally, Milburn and Biggins got the greenlight. Of course, that’s where the hard work really began.
“Emma is an absolute master at making the best of the budget in financial terms. I try to do it technically and make it look as nice as possible, but it’s a real team act. I’ll say ‘can we do this’, and she’ll say ‘we can’t do that, but we can do this’.
“I always wanted the film to feel substantial,” he adds, of the decision not to do this as a contained, single-location feature. Still, that upped the difficulty level. The school of the title, for instance, had its interiors and exteriors in two different places. But even more taxing was the home for the lead character, Lee (played by Oscar Kennedy), which they decided to shoot on location.
“That was the first day of shooting. We spent two days in a house in South London. It was the hardest location to get on our budget, to get someone to give over their home when there’s not much financial cushioning should it go wrong! Then we shot there on the hottest day of the year in 2019, one of the hottest days on records, I believe. It was a very small house, and we’re all sweaty and really packed in together. The DoP nearly passed out at one point. We were making sure everyone was very well watered, and it was safe, but it was such a heavy first day.”
Given they’d only landed the location four days in advance, most residents were nonetheless helpful. Not all. “There’s a lot of stuff in that street in reality that doesn’t make it into the final shot, that we paint out.” That work in VFX came in handy. “You ask some of the residents, do you mind just not going out a drive for a second while we get this shot? And they go ‘no’, and just do it anyway! You’re on a wing and a prayer a bit.”
“In most cases, we did get cooperation, although there’s always someone on the street calling the council and the police, even though you’ve shown them all the permissions.”
We can’t not talk about Samantha Bond, who takes a substantive and very welcome cameo role in the film. But how do you lure someone like that to an indie movie?
“The only thing you can hope for is that you have a script that people like. The really lucky thing with School’s Out is whilst I originally had ambitions way beyond my station for it, the way it worked out was even better than I could have imagined. A cliché, but it’s true! Basically, you’re hoping that someone really likes the script.”
The plan worked. “We got a bunch of passes, but then Samantha Bond expressed interest. It’s Miss Moneypenny for my era of Bond, and a great reversal of that role. It bleeds into her being a really nice person too, because she really liked the script, and she really got the humour. She’s a big old lefty, and loved the idea of sending up this country lifestyle parish councillor!”
With the film now on digital platforms, Milburn and Biggins are keen to get more going.
“Quite often a filmmakers’ career is defined by the offers they’re given. I have other scripts, but even choosing between them or what to focus on next is very odd. Basically I’m excited to see what happens next. There are things of my own I want to make, and I’m interested to see what, if anything, opens up for me, opportunities-wise.”
Just don’t go offering him a Die Hard movie…
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