East End-based filmmaker’s second feature takes three prizes at Kevin Smith’s inaugural event
It’s a venue the Limehouse-based filmmaker knows well – a grand palace of a place on Commercial Road filled with comfy leather upholstery where he can often be found working away on scripts.
The smile is not down to the welcoming atmosphere, however. It’s because his second feature film as writer and director recently won best drama, best actor and best ensemble at the inaugural Smodcastle Film Festival on its world premiere.
Dead On The Vine, which is set for its UK debut later this year, is a film that was never meant to exist.
Originally from Yarm, a town nestled in the bend of the River Tees in North Yorkshire, Mark grew up wanting to make movies.
“I always wanted to be a filmmaker since about the age of three, when I saw lots of great films like The Wizard Of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jason And The Argonauts,” he said.
“I also got to see a huge number of inappropriate movies thanks to my aunty and uncle, including Deliverance because he liked the banjos.
“It wasn’t easy in the North East when I was growing up. There wasn’t a film industry or even the possibility to dream really, but I kept it in my head and just watched endless movies.
“I made a few films with my brother and my friends, but that was it until I went to university in Liverpool where I tried to do it a bit more.
“I was on a general media course, not specifically about making films, though – a huge error on my part – and I was useless at it.
“I meandered through, enjoying life but not doing anything significant. I was just lazy, I had no motivation.
“I passed by 2% and that was only because I did really well in the parts related to making films or writing them.”
Having moved back to the North East, he tried a different course and made some films with people he met there, one of which won an award and spurred him on to move to London.
In his 20s he was writing furiously while working in Wetherspoons to support himself.
With people he met through a writing course, he created a company called Joined Up Writers, creating plays for the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington – “tickling success” when BBC radio offered to mentor him.
“I was struggling in my head at the time and thought they didn’t mean it so, after a couple of meetings I didn’t follow it up,” he said.
Returning to film, he wrote scripts for shorts and found fresh success in an industry that often moves at a glacial pace.
“One of the shorts was screened at the Raindance film festival and I got noticed by a producer who asked me to write an 18th century drama about the first black boxer in Britain,” said Mark.
“It’s called The Gentleman, but the producer who was involved was also producing The Expendables, which became an unexpected success, so they went off in that direction and my film didn’t get made.
“There was lots of promise, lots of fun, but I was sad because, had it come out, I’d have been paid a lot more.
“I currently have four different versions of it – a play, a six-part TV series, the film and a monologue in my desk.”
Further successful writing jobs followed, before Mark decided he wanted to get back behind the camera.
“I had always wanted to be a director first, rather than a writer, but I had to write my own scripts because no-one else would, so I fell more into writing,” he said.
“In 2015 I made a short film called Corinthian, which did well at festivals and I liked doing it.
“We did that on a tiny budget and through that process I worked out how to shoot a feature in 10 days.
“So I called up my mates, told them I’d write parts for all of them and they all said yes.
“That was my debut feature Guardians – shot in the house in Limehouse, where I live, and featuring St Anne’s Church and the Queen’s Head pub, where we shot from 11pm-4am.
“It was a very silly comedy and won quite a few awards, which set me on the path I’m on now.
“Through that film I met my producing partner Laura Rees.
“Our next project was a film called Limpet and then the pandemic arrived and just killed our plans dead.
“Fortunately I’d got a couple of writing jobs, which tided us over a bit but as soon as they finished, I was going crazy with nothing to do.”
He called Laura up, who suggested doing something with a small cast in a vineyard where she was staying.
Plucking an idea about two suspicious guys who break down and end up on a farm from his archive, the pair set about assembling a bubble of cast and crew for what would become Dead On The Vine.
“We got together this crew of incredible people who were desperate to do something,” said Mark.
“They liked the script and Laura called in some old favours, so we had this amazing crew – being in a vineyard in the middle of summer was also quite appealing.
“It was 77 acres, you could be outside, socially distanced and in an incredible environment. The film almost has the feel of a western about it – Fargo was a big influence.
“Theses two chaps, one of whom has had an epileptic seizure and is unconscious for the first 20 minutes, come to a vineyard where the two women owners are preparing for a make or break wine tasting evening to save their business.
“Certain things happen, bits of violence pop up, some revelations occur that cause everyone involved to make some very important life choices and moral choices about how they want the rest of their lives to go – do they want to save their businesses, their lives or each other? It’s a darkly comic thriller – certainly not grim.”
With work nearly complete, Mark and Laura entered the film in writer and director Kevin Smith’s first Smodcastle Film Festival in New Jersey.
“Two people who saw it there randomly described it as if Reservoir Dogs had been made by the BBC,” said Mark.
“Kevin Smith has been an inspiration to me – his film, Chasing Amy, was one of those movies that gave me a boost when I was at university.
“I saw it and thought: ‘I want to write like that’.
“I first met Kevin while he was walking his dog in the small town where the festival was held, and I was completely nervous about approaching him.
“My friend David had no such qualms and went right up to him – he was lovely.”
Dead On The Vine won in three categories including best actor for Tom Sawyer and ensemble cast – including Mark’s partner Victoria Johnston who he lives with in Limehouse, close friend and frequent collaborator David Whitney and Sheena Browne.
“I am one of those people who gets disappointed if I don’t win at awards ceremonies,” said Mark.
“At Smodcastle, the reaction the film received at the festival made us believe we might take something home.
“But you still can’t be prepared for the moment when you win. When we got best ensemble, we sat back, pleased. Then when Tom won best actor it was even better.
“But then we won best drama and I was in a daze and didn’t realise what was happening.
“The rest of the cast had legged it up to the stage, and I was right behind them: ‘This one’s mine’.
“Then I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be a sycophant, so I just garbled some pleasantries about the crew deserving the thanks because were all in a bad place and they really stepped up, coming into an unknown situation – then a legend like Kevin Smith had said what we made was good, and it made it all worthwhile.”
Dead On The Vine is set to get its UK premiere in east London later this year although exact dates and times are yet to be confirmed.
Readers can watch Mark’s first feature Guardians via Amazon Video.
Meanwhile, Laura and Mark continue to work on the production of Limpet.
He said: “Dead On The Vine was never really meant to exist – we see it as a bonus film because it gave us purpose and saved our sanity over the lockdowns.
“It really shows off what I can do as a director and Limpet is a bigger film so hopefully people might trust us with a bit more money with that on the CV.”
- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via email@example.com