Interview with Dan Freeman (Writer/Director/Producer) and Clare Eden (Executive Producer)
by Jackie Emery
The Minister of Chance is described by its makers as a sonic movie: a film produced without a camera, but with filmic sound, orchestral score and script.
This five episode movie-without-pictures is now complete, the story arc satisfyingly resolved. It's an utterly absorbing tale that combines mystery, fantasy, magic and science with wonderful characters and strange creatures. The cast is a host of well-known actors, including Julian Wadham, Lauren Crace, Jenny Agutter, Tamsin Greig, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred – and of course, Paul Darrow.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Minister of Chance is that this quality production was crowd-funded and available to all as a free download. With no budget for publicity or advertising, its fame spread by word of mouth and social media. Audiences grew into a vibrant fan base, attracting generous sponsorship and high profile actors asking to take part.
Despite being frantically busy with the launch of the series finale, Dan and Clare gave their time to provide an exclusive interview to Horizon. We started at the beginning...
HORIZON: What are your backgrounds and how did you end up working together?
Dan: I'd worked a lot in radio as a writer, performer and producer. I met Clare through my voice agent.
Clare: My background is a broad mix, but mostly in agenting; originally with actors and then directors and designers. Now I work in lots of areas that spring from that by some route. We met because Dan’s voice-over agent used to represent my clients when I looked after actors, and she introduced us.
HORIZON: In terms of genre, how would you describe Minister of Chance? Is it science fiction, fantasy, adventure, satire, political drama… ?
Dan: Well, I quite like the idea of it being all of the above! In some ways I am always trying to control what I write, and categorise it, rather than just spewing it out. However, there's a sense in which you just have to create stuff as it comes and hope that people like it.
Clare: I describe it as sci-fi fantasy: Dr Who meets Star Wars meets Merlin!
HORIZON: Which came first, the script or the idea of creating a ‘sonic movie’?
Dan: The script for the Prologue was originally a film script, but it was only really when the possibility of making it came up that I wrote it into a sonic movie. That said – I make very few concessions to the medium, I write it as a visual film.
Clare: We started with the aim of making high quality audio drama for direct download – then in doing so, Dan used a lot of film techniques and his real passion for his soundscapes created work that just sounds like a film in your head!
HORIZON: How did you initially go about raising funds for the project?
Dan: Overdraft! Then we tried crowdfunding. What a revelation that was! An absolutely brilliant way of making anything.
Clare: Initially it was all out of Dan’s overdraft, but when the wonderful reviews came in and fans were desperate to know what would happen next, we decided to try our hand at crowd-funding. This meant that we could pay the cast (albeit a risible fee) and cover production expenses. But Dan and I still work for nowt but the pleasure!
HORIZON: How did you go about assembling your cast, who include very well-known, busy actors. And what was it like working with them?
Dan: We just asked them! It was hard for Clare to get them all in the same place at the same time (and sometimes not at the same time). I can't say that it's not intimidating to have to direct big names like that, but you can't let that show. Also, they were really keen on the project so they were very kind and accommodating.
Clare: When you look at the cast list, it beggars belief that so poorly funded a project, in such a brand new left-field venture, would attract them. The reality is that I just sent an offer and Dan’s script and they wanted to do it! It helps that my background is agenting and that undoubtedly coloured my approach - from then the issue was whether they would come back for another episode... Again, I think the agenting background helped – a low budget is no reason not to make the cast and crew feel properly valued, or to enjoy working on it with you! I wrote a blog profiling all the cast and crew recently (www. ministerchance.simplesite.com) and was very gratified and touched to hear again and again that they really loved working on it. The catering seems to figure regularly, too!
HORIZON: Could you describe a typical recording day?
Dan: We would tend to have a cake and coffee and talk through the scenes and how it would work. We'd have a run through on mic and then we'd do takes until we got it. We had some spectacular lunches at Clare's (as well as everything else she's a brilliant cook). We also had some boozy post-recording sessions in the pub. To be honest, we tried to make it as much of a party as possible.
Clare: We’ve recorded at both the RADA studio and in my home, and in essence for me they run the same way. It’s my role to make sure that ahead of the day, everyone has their call time and contract, and that I’ve scheduled the scene order in such a way that no-one has to hang around waiting for hours. The days before are a sea of scenes and sides whirling out of my computer and flying into cast-named folders... lots of coloured wallets and post-it notes - it’s a stationer’s dream!
I print out a full script for myself as the main 'bible', then the core production team - Dan, Chris (sound), Abi (production assistant) and I have all the scenes we're recording that day in shooting order, which is never chronological. The actors get the scenes involving them placed in files with wallets in the order of shooting. For example, an actor may be recording scenes from two separate episodes, so it helps us all stay calm if the scripts for his scenes are in shooting order and we're not frantically flipping around pages. It takes me time outside before the recording, but we've found it makes it all run more smoothly in the studio. Afterwards, we keep all the scenes and sides and I make them into packages that fans can buy as a perk.
The day itself starts with me either wheeling my magic suitcase to RADA bulging with snacks, water and all the scripts, or running round my home with a hoover... and we’ve never recorded without bananas being available to the cast so somewhere along the line I’ve been banana buying! Why bananas? Well, they seem popular because the actors like eating them and they keep you going until lunch, whilst still being good for you! They are good energy foods.
I always try to be in studio when they’re recording, but that’s very much the area that Dan rules. It doesn’t work for the cast if we’re both chipping in with notes, and over the series I think we’ve got a pretty good understanding in studio – I think I do now know when to shut up and when he needs me to proffer something to help!
HORIZON: How long did it take to record the voices for each episode?
Dan: Oh blimey. I have no idea really, because in some instances we were recording bits of two different episodes, and where actors couldn't be together in the same room we had to split scenes, and in some cases record them months apart.
Clare: Completely variable! When I schedule the scene order, I have to make sure proper breaks are available and that’s all guesswork. Sometimes a scene I think may take a while just falls into place beautifully very quickly and sometimes we find the opposite.
HORIZON: We would especially like to hear anything you can tell us about Paul Darrow’s involvement. How did he come to take on the role of Lord Rathen, and what was it like working with him? Are there any anecdotes or behind-the-scenes stories you can share with us?
Dan: That voice! I do love hearing him growl and spit malice as Lord Rathen. As with everyone else we asked, he said yes! He's a one-man variety act. In between even the most serious takes he was doing John Wayne impressions and telling endless jokes. He has great delivery – I almost persuaded him to do a standup comedy show.
Clare: When you look at Rathen’s lines the jump to Paul Darrow’s voice is very easy – he brings a delicious mellifluence to it; like a cat toying with a mouse. In the studio he’s a gent and has a stack of career anecdotes at his fingertips, along with a terrific John Wayne impression. It would have been very easy to shut up shop and just listen to Paul’s wonderful stories instead! He does make me laugh. In the first block of episodes, he threatens several of the cast with a gun, which of course we didn’t have available - so he used one of the infamous bananas instead… I shall never forget the sight of him very aggressively threatening Jenny Agutter and Lauren Crace with a banana…
HORIZON: What was involved in the post-production process – building up the sound design and music?
Clare: This is Dan’s world - once we’ve recorded the lines, he’s at home working on the sound design and editing.
Dan: I take the raw audio home after recording, then I select the takes I like. I then start putting in the sound FX. In some cases they are stock FX, but I record a lot of them myself, using a small field recorder. For example, I'll get to a bit where the Minister is running through a tunnel, and I'll go into the basement of my house where there's a stone floor, sprinkle twigs on it, then record myself running on it. I slowly build up the environments like that, then I add the music. Then I get more expert ears than mine – Chris Mock and Dan Logan - to alter the sound so it sounds (for example) interior or exterior and then finally mix it.
HORIZON: Now that the story is complete, are there plans for another series?
Dan: We are working on the next step for The Minister – it's already underway. I can't say anything yet, but it's very exciting.
Clare: I think Episode 5 beautifully wraps up the story arc for the first season. I’m very pleased with the way we’re bringing that to a resolution, and hopeful that fans will be, too. From here on it’s a question mark… Dan and I can’t realistically invest our working days endlessly in something unpaid, but we also can’t bear the thought of not making more, so we’ll have to find some way to square that circle. In my world, Minister of Chance is just waiting to be a screen project, either on TV or film. We’re putting together a film sizzler now, and are hoping to make a short film of the Prologue. But beyond that… that film mogul with a load of dosh gathering dust.. phone me?
HORIZON: How successful has Minister of Chance been, relying as it does on crowd funding and word-of-mouth publicity?
Dan: I can't believe how successful it's been, our fans are just incredible. I mean, people not only fund it with their own money, but they go to amazing lengths to help out. It's almost as if we've got a community rather than a fan base. It's humbling to think of how far we've come!
Clare: It is frustrating that there are so many people out there that we haven’t managed to get this to yet, and that we just know would like it if they heard it... and lack of a publicity budget scuppers us often. But we started with a script, two computers and a lot of coffee in our homes, and out of that we’ve gathered an extraordinarily talented and supportive cast and crew. Our reviews sound like we wrote them ourselves, we’ve been nominated for Best Online Drama at the BBC Awards and just recently for the USA Parsec Awards. Also, as well as our leading actors constantly coming back for more, there are two cast members in Episode 5 (Jed Brophy and Philip Glenister) who approached us because they wanted to be in it. It’s been a phenomenal journey, with a lot of twists and turns, but when I look back at what we have achieved out of nothing - yeh, we dun good, I think!
The Minister of Chance website is here: Minister
Episodes are available as free downloads here: Episodes
Clare's blog with cast profiles and behind the scenes interviews is here: Execcer's Blog
The Horizon forum discussion is here: Minister Chat
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