WHEN Andy Simpson set up a production company to kick-start his dreams of making a feature film, it marked the start of five years of hard graft, financial struggle and a pretty steep learning curve.
But the end-result, which saw him driven in a limo en route from a four-star hotel to a film festival in Texas where his Young Hearts Run Free won a Platinum Award, was as good a pay-off as any.
The getting-his-name-out-there cycle might be now starting all over again as he begins a national cinema tour to mark his film’s release over here but “it was a bit of glamour for once!” laughs Andy, “although I did have to pay for my own flight.”
The writer-director from Ashington is telling me about the making of his first, self-funded feature film – which makes its Newcastle debut at Tyneside Cinema on Sunday – and, in light of the newly-announced funding cuts, it’s an inspiring story.
Set in Northumberland during the 1974 Miners’ Strike, it’s a coming-of-age drama about 18-year-old Mark who’s forced to choose between new love Sue and old loyalties, and Andy is rightly proud of the fact it was made for ‘less than the price of a family car’.
Or £15,000 to be exact. And, besides winning that Best Low Budget Feature category at Houston Worldfest, it’s taken an award at a festival here and one in India. “I couldn’t afford to go to that one!” he says.
Young Hearts Run Free is a love story set against a backdrop of gritty social realism, with friendships and family put to the test when Mark (played by Andy Black) takes a maintenance job in the pit during the strike to fund a move to art school in London with Sue (Jennifer Bryden).
It was written, directed and produced by Andy, a former pupil of St Benet Bishop school in Bedlington – tough going, especially in the current climate.
“I started writing it years ago and I’ve had my company, Bede Films Ltd, for nearly five years now to try to raise finance for it.
“It was really hard. I tried all the traditional methods but I couldn’t get funding so ended up putting in my own money from working part-time jobs.”
Finding work at film companies gave him valuable insight into the business.
“I started as a runner taking cups of tea then became a production manager and I learned a lot from working on other films.”
The cost of essentials – a riot scene, for instance, called for a particular kind of insurance, while a fight coordinator was brought up from London to tick the health and safety box – meant no pay, other than travel expenses, for the actors, their pay-back being a boost to their CV.
“It’s a nuisance not being able to pay people,” says Andy. “It’s a bit cheeky to ask but they realised my money was going into it and they thought it was a good project and would be good for their careers.
“They got a copy of the film.”
And the 70s setting proved cost-effective too, with easy-to-come-by retro fashions.
“I wanted to do something on the North East heritage and this seemed like a really interesting period to set the story.
“I felt the 1984 Miners’ Strike had been well covered – Billy Elliot is quite a recent film.
“But 1974 wasn’t and, stylistically, I thought it might look good.
“Just before we started filming, a lot of high streets shops went through a bit of a retro phase and we found a lot of clothes.”
They also trawled second-hand shops to kit out minor characters while large numbers of extras were asked to dig out their own clothes.
And someone he knew created the film’s soundtrack for free.
“Applying for rights to play original 70s music would cost four times the budget for a minute’s worth!” points out Andy.
Instead, it features 70s-style songs, some glam rock and Northumbrian pipes to draw on the area’s folk traditions and “give it a really distinctive flavour”.
People were equally obliging when it came to filming in South East Northumberland. Woodhorn entered into the spirit of things by allowing exterior pit scenes to be shot there.
With post-production complete in 2009 there came the touting around festivals, where it also won the Best Feature Film category at the UK’s Bootleg Film Festival and Standout Actress Award, for Jennifer Bryden, at Stepping Stone Film Festival in India.
In Texas, the audience was fascinated to learn how the film was achieved on a low budget and how the area differs from London.
Andy hopes his Q&A sessions to accompany screenings around the country – with other local dates at venues in Hexham, Durham, Darlington, Sunderland and Teesside yet to be confirmed – will attract young people interested in an educational slice of local history.
“I’ve about 15-20 dates so far and 40 places are looking to find a date,” he says. From now on, his focus will be on directing and writing – he’s already on to his next story, featuring domestic abuse – and he’s keen to team up with producers to shoulder that side of business.
The learning experience has made him a better director and he adds: “I hope this will be a good calling card.”
Young Hearts Run Free, plus Q&A, will screen at Tyneside Cinema on Sunday, Monday for over-60s, and Tuesday. Visit www.tynesidecinema.co.uk or call 0845 217 9909.