Steen Agro: making a film splash on a shoestring

Steen Agro, photo:

Steen Agro made a big impact with his first full length feature film, the British-Czech black comedy ‘Shut up and shoot me’ (Sklapni a zastřel mě) in which Czech actors Karel Roden and Anna Geislerová had star roles. Five years on, he has moved to Prague and is seeking to build on his debut success. …..I asked him how tight were the purse strings for that first feature film.

Steen Agro,  photo:
“It was extremely low budget. I can’t go into figures because I was not the accountant. But I think that we were talking about 100,000 to 150,000 for the actual shoot. There was more money for post production. One hundred and fifty thousand, that is sterling. At the exchange rate at that time I think it was around 3.0 million crowns, maybe a bit more. It was not so bad.

We had a very short preparation time and that was very difficult. Going onto sets, walking onto sets not having seen them before and then having to shoot a feature film. That was tricky. But thankfully when I started out as a director I did a lot of quite low budget commercials with ridiculous and crazy deadlines and for ridiculous and crazy clients that kept changing things. So I was used to the changes and to adapting quickly. At the time I hated it, I hated those kind of commercials, but it is a great way to learn.”

‘Shut Up and Shoot Me’
Presumably with that sort of budget a lot of the shots had to be right the first time?

“I think we started off doing quite a high ratio: the amount of takes in relation to the footage used. So it was quite a big ratio, I think 1:15. So for every minute on screen I was shooting 15-20 minutes of stock. We calculated we would probably have double the amount of footage at the end if I had carried on like that. The producer came over at one stage to have a quiet word with me and asked me to do 1: 1, which means to shoot only what I needed. I said: ‛That is not going to work. What if there is a scratch on the negative.’ But yes, it did mean you have to cut your cloth rather close to the edge to make it fit. But you know, it was a first feature and with first features the great and the good give you a lot of rope to hang yourself with. Hopefully, if you survive and do still have the drive to go through the mill again you can do another feature and, touch wood, that’s what I’m going to do.”

David Rauch
You lined up some quite big Czech names for this film. How did that come about?

“Again, I cannot take the credit for that. That was done by the production company over here which was working with a British production company. That was David Rauch who was running U.F.O Pictures. They were the local people on the ground. They were the fixers, the ones making things happen. And we were trying to cast the lead, the Czech lead, and I had made some suggestions. I was not sure. I did not even know these people. At the time I was quite green about the Czech film industry. And I was taking a tram into the office and I saw a poster for a stage play with Karel Roden in it. And being a silly foreigner, I did not know his significance here. I had seen him in the film ‘15 Minutes,’ which I adored. I thought he blew Robert De Niro off the screen. I came into the office and I said What about Karel Roden. And everyone looked at me and said ‘Are you crazy?’ And David went ‘I know him. I can ask him.’ So he gave him the script. I saw him for a meeting in the theatre lobby after he had finished a performance and I was clever to keep my gob shut because he was suggesting some things that I had not even noticed in the script. And when he said ‘It is like this and this.’ I said ‛Yes, Yes, that is what I meant. You’ve got it.’ So I think he liked the space he was given and the way the script was heading, though that was not my intention at the start.

Anna Geislerová
Anna, I have to be honest with you, I do not know how she got on board. David said ‘Anna is going to do it.’ and I said ‘Great.’ I met her when we were trying on the fur coats (for a scene in the film.]. I remember I had never talked to her before. We were going to do a shoot outside and I said ‛I will drive with Anna.’ I was a bit nervous, I did not know what to say. We chatted a little bit, her English is excellent. And she said ‘I am really looking forward to doing an English language film.’ I did not have the heart to tell her she did not have a word in English. And it was not until we started shooting the film, she looked at me and said ‘There is no English in this, is there?’ I said: ‘No there’s not.’ I would like to do a film with her in English because her English is good enough.”

Karel Roden,  Anna Geislerová and Andy Nyman - the stars of Steen Agro's film. Photo:
And how did the film turn out box office wise? Was it a success, a critical success?

“That’s a big question. I think it did okay box office wise in this country. We were in a different time then and you could expect a different audience. I think there were 40,000-50,000 people, I do not know the figures exactly. I do not know, it could be less, it could be more. I am satisfied with that for an English language film, ostensibly a foreign film, in this country, albeit with good stars. Critically, I think we did excellently. I was a little shocked about how it was received over here: very well. I was pleased. And then there were some prizes. We won a big prize in the states, a prize in France, and a small prize in Wales at the International Film Festival in Wales. I think that it went down great and I managed to spend a whole year just trotting round film festivals, which was great fun. I had never done that before. And when you go to film festivals you are surrounded by people who love films. So it is always an easy audience. So it is very gratifying and it recharges the batteries after the real slog of trying to get something on screen. It is a nice pick me up.”

Steen Agro,  photo:
Apart from the film festivals, did it lead to anything more concrete?

“Well, I think a lot of irons were in a lot of fires and they may have been there anyway. But it is easier to approach a financier if you have a film under your belt. If you do not have anything then they think ‘Well, this guy is going to be in charge of a lot of money. Can he do it? Will he freeze? What is going to happen?’ When you say you have done a film you immediately get put in another pigeonhole. Whether the film is good or not, that happens. So I think it was a step onto other things. And people look at you differently and consider you differently. They say ‘That guy has made a film. It has a beginning, middle and end and was on at the cinema. So he must be able to do something.’ Concrete things on the back of that are much more difficult to predict, but it certainly helped.”

‘Shut Up and Shoot Me’
Since then you have moved from Britain to the Czech Republic. What were the reasons behind that?

“Well, apart from the personal reasons which are many and varied: my wife is Czech and I have two kids and their grandparents live here. My grandparents when I was growing up lived in Denmark on my mother’s side and in Sicily on my father’s. So I did not get to see them that much and I did not that for my kids. The second thing is just the city itself. I remember when I was editing here, because I cut here with a Czech editor, Michal Lánský, who I cannot thank enough. Prague: I remember walking into the editing studio, across the bridge, across the river, with the sun coming up. It was just a beautiful, romantic city. And the city was small enough to get around. The city was a big attraction.

Czech Version of the ‘Shut Up and Shoot Me’
Also, in the Czech industry I was more established believe it or not. The British film industry is so fragmented. I am from Manchester originally and there is only a very small outpost of struggling filmmakers there and there is not enough money are there are not enough projects. And I think I would have made about three or four low budgets there. Plus, even the film industry here, I do not mean the creatives, I mean the crews, they work so much with American and British producers, or used to, that kind of went away a little bit but is now making a resurgence. And I started shooting commercials here and am having some success as the industry gets back onto its feet.”

And future feature films? Have you got some plots and scripts safely stored somewhere in a draw?

Russian Version of the ‘Shut Up and Shoot Me’
“Yes, I have an inexhaustible talent for coming up with lots of ideas and not seeing them through. So there are probably five drawers full of ides. I do force myself sometimes to write something and I have projects with several different collaborators. Probably my principle one is a thriller set in South America. There are some thriller type projects and I am trying to do a Czech-based project which is a road movie. Then there are some other things I am trying to push through the States in which I might only be in the capacity of a writer. And I am working with a British guy as well on a script for a thriller, a psychological thriller. So there are lots of things.”