With hundreds of thousands of views and coverage on the national news, YouTube comedy Dun Breedin has defied the limitations of lockdown to become an unmistakable online hit.
Below, Directors UK member Robin Sheppard gives us the directors-eye-view on creating the popular web series. From working with a great cast including Julie Graham, Tracy Ann Oberman and Denise Welch, to crewing up with family members and navigating the post-production minefield, Robin leaves no stone unturned as she explains how she was able to put together Dun Breedin under remarkable circumstances.
Julie Graham and I were just about to dive into seriously researching and developing Dun Breedin, beginning with us both hosting a casual menopausal women’s afternoon at mine, when the COVID-19 lockdown stopped it dead in its tracks.
On the 6th April, our executive producer Andrew Green boldly suggested we go ahead with the production and we bravely made the decision to make Dun Breedin in lockdown — but not about lockdown — while strictly obeying all the social distancing guidelines. We aired episode one on YouTube on the 30th April, and Dun Breedin was the first drama made in lockdown to be broadcast.
The process was extremely fast. The small team quickly assembled: Jackie Green and Claire Martel producing and doing social media, Iain McCallum press and publicity, David Barrett and Al Rogers editing. We talked through our ideal cast on the 7th April. Julie Graham called Tamzin Outhwaite, Tracy Ann Oberman and Denise Welch and I called Ángela Griffin and Alison Newman, and they all said yes straight away. All systems go, Julie wrote the first script, I prepped all the shots and explored who could be crew in each family household, we rehearsed each scene and did the read through on Zoom, and we were shooting episode one on the 20th of April.
The plan was to shoot and broadcast one 10-minute episode a week for twelve weeks. We needed to somehow give the impression this group of women were in and out of each other’s lives, without them actually being able to be. Clever writing, keeping it fast and funny and creating an intimacy on screen through shooting style and performance were key. In the end the episodes came in closer to 15 minutes, and we adjusted to making 9 as the ongoing social distancing measures precluded shooting with all the cast together.
After seeking technical advice from the DP David Rom and sound recordist John Mooney, each actor’s household was given the same very basic filming kit - an iPhone 7 with a plug in Shure mic, a Gorilla pod and a Manfrotto tripod, a ring light and a floor standing LED light with both with day and night settings. My theory was if everyone had exactly the same kit there would be a consistent overall look across all the houses and that would help it feel like the same show.
I put together a mood board to begin to explore how Dun Breedin could look and feel, and when Julie delivered the first script, the style and tone became brilliantly clear – honest, straight talking sassy women telling it how it is — on FaceTime. It quickly became apparent the actors needed to shoot the FaceTime calls in big close up — much harder than you may think — because this gave us the crucial feeling of intimacy we were looking for.
Fortunately I have known Julie Graham for over 20 years and worked with her many times as an actor. Having that relationship already in place ensured there was already a level of understanding and trust between us. Working with Julie as a writer has been such a revelation – she delivered her brilliantly clever, funny and moving script in record time and we collaborated with ease. This central writer/director axis was critical to us quickly nailing the spirit of Dun Breedin. The mutual respect we had in place was a firm basis for us to follow our gut instincts and jump right in feet first.
Obviously, it wasn’t possible to do all the normal prep – no location scouting, HOD meetings — and I have to say how much I missed the creative team I would normally work with. Filmmaking is such a collaborative art, and doing all this alone and remotely was the biggest creative and mental challenge. Expressing and communicating complex film making skills and visual ideas in a simple way to the actors and their family crew wasn’t easy, and required patience on all sides. Distilling years of experience, and without the creative contributions and problem solving skills of my team, is extremely mentally intense and took me right to the edge of a steep cliff at times.
Both the idea and reality of not being on set with the actors during filming was also a real mind bender. I felt a strong need to ensure the actors were not exposed in any way by the process of filming in their own homes. Working with the actors on the floor to tell the story in the best way you can is what directing is all about for me. Doing this remotely presented the most serious challenge.
The only decent way forward was to ask each actor for an estate agent type floor plan and video for each location in the script, so I could begin to work out how best to film in this unique situation. Then came the tricky bit - how to give the actors and their family crews a clear steer on shooting each individual scene so it would cut together elegantly. Even scarier, how to capture the essence and intimacy of female friendship Julie had written with all the actors separated and confined in their own homes. And then finally the truly terrifying bit — being a comedy, it had to be funny. If it’s not funny, you’ve failed. Eek.
The most effective solution I could think of was to write a detailed shot list and draw up a colour-coded floor plan marking up all the actor’s moves and the camera positions and angles for each scene. This was a both labour of love and very labour intensive – each FaceTime call was effectively two scenes because we needed to film both sides of the call. I showed the actors the floor plan during the Zoom rehearsals, talking them through the shots, so it made sense to them. When we started shooting two episodes a week, I barely slept. Or ate! The relief when we went back to one a week was palpable.
The other unusual element was prepping, shooting and editing at the same time, rather than prepping, shooting the whole series and then editing it. After filming the first episode, each week I’d be giving editing notes to David, script notes for the next episode to Julie, doing the floor plans, shot lists and rehearsals and read throughs on Zoom for the current week’s shoot, then watching all the rushes to give the cast and their crews the all clear. All of these elements took longer remotely – a reality all future productions will face and need to factor in.
The very tight prep time and delivery and broadcast deadlines meant no time for a director’s cut – a new experience for me. The assembly went out to Julie, Andrew, Jackie and Claire immediately and I collated all our notes for David. After David delivered the next cut we would do the final notes on FaceTime – the closest we came to it feeling like a normal edit. Except we were both often still in our pyjamas. I won’t even mention the state of our hair.
The Zoom rehearsals and read-through were key to gauging the overall pace and tone of the performances – always essential, but even more so with comedy. While Zoom meetings can never replace being in the room together, Julie and I could at least play around with the pace and style of delivery and go in to more detail about each character’s back story and future plot lines with the cast. And the actors being able to see each other’s take on every scene and the overall flow of each episode was an essential step in nailing the Dun Breedin vibe before we began shooting.
Each actor had a mini crew — members of their own households — and together we worked out who could best do the camerawork and which other family members were up for pitching in or acting the other parts. I tailored each shot list to fit their individual circumstances; some actors had more people in their homes, so a bigger crew, and some potential crew members had film making experience. There were 6/7/8 ‘mini units’ filming on the same day for each episode and I was always available for FaceTime calls to talk through technical concerns, check camera positions and finesse final blocking — avoiding bright windows/reflections etc — so the actors and their crews were more confident shooting and completing the shot list.
I have been hugely impressed by how the cast have all fully embraced and conquered the many complications and consequences of filming in their own homes. Without the structure, facilities and back up of a normal filming day in place, the actors have fully engaged in the steepest technical learning curve and quickly became experts at problem solving.
Coverage is king — or in this case queen — in comedy, so I gently but firmly persuaded the actors to shoot the whole scene from every angle. With ‘If it ain’t funny you’ve failed’ playing in my head, I scoured the rushes for any key missing shots, mentally begging for pick-ups. It’s actually quite hard to casually ask the actors for pick-ups while not appearing to panic. One of the best highs has been watching the cast and their family crews grow in confidence and ability filming. I set them more and more ambitious shots according to each family unit’s growing capability, and it’s been an absolute joy to see them flourish. You can see this when you watch the episodes — it gets bigger and better.
Because Dun Breedin quickly evolved into a full-on production, growing in scope and ambition with each episode, it required more people. Jackie introduced a talented young composer Freddie Dixon to score original music for key scenes and the band Hidden Charms contributed songs for the end titles and tracks within scenes, much to my delight.
The economic model was to raise production finance through brand sponsorship and split the profits equally between each member of the cast and crew. While some minor sponsors did come on board, with the show airing so quickly it gradually became apparent the lead time for a major sponsor was too short. Also, the adult content – swearing, drugs and candid conversations about menopausal symptoms – made it hard to find brands willing to come on board. This meant the cast and crew were effectively working for a tiny fraction of their normal fees, making this model economically unsustainable in the long term. I think it’s important to include the financial structure of Dun Breedin because looking to the future, we need to find new ways of producing content and being economically viable is central to achieving this.
The bottom line is we had neither time nor money – except a tiny budget to pay for kit, props etc – when the pressures began to mount. The really pointy end was post-production. David Barrett has been an absolute star, and a one-man post house. This one-stop editing facility in lockdown was only possible because David has an Avid editing set-up in his garden shed. Having never attempted doing all the post-production in this way, working it out was a perilously steep learning curve, particularly when we were up against a TX date on the 30th April. With no grading or sound dub facilities houses open, or the budget to pay for them if they were, this all landed on David’s Avid desk too.
Working out the post-production work flow with Al Rogers, David soon realised it was an intensely and terrifyingly time consuming process. The amount of file transfers, uploads and downloads took serious time, and that was at the expense of David doing what he does best — editing. At the last moment, two days before TX, Jackie Green pulled a grade for episode one out of the bag and Stuart Fyvie came on board, and while this was great news, raising the production value to another level, it meant more transfers, uploads and downloads. Getting episode one ready in time for TX was a herculean task.
Andrew Green brought the front titles, end credits and trailer designer Luciano Ruocco in and Jackie Green cleared Kylie Minogue’s Fever in record time. Seeing the first episode come together in such a short time was breathtaking – Dun Breedin looked like a proper comedy drama and I was quite frankly amazed by how good it was. Better still, the audience absolutely loved it – the very positive comments on YouTube gave us all a massive boost and the courage to continue. We have all been buoyed by how well received Dun Breedin has been – especially by women going through the menopause seeing their symptoms portrayed with such honestly and wit, but also by their families too. As Julie Graham says, the whole family goes through the menopause with them, so everyone can relate to it.
After episode one aired, Alex Marcou got in touch and offered to do a dub – again great, but this added another layer of transfers, uploads and downloads. It soon became clear we needed to take the pressure off David and Al – the extremely long hours they were working was unsustainable for the duration of the series. When David’s father Ron Barrett very suddenly and sadly passed away from COVID-19 in his care home, the only way to give David the time he needed was to bring on another editor. Nick Ames stepped in, a very good friend of David’s and an editor I’ve worked with before. Nick was a very welcome addition to the team.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think we would have set up the production and post-production work flow very differently. The initial enthusiasm to be the first show to be filmed and broadcast in lockdown meant we were up against almost impossibly tight deadlines right from the start, and it put a lot of pressure on people at a time when anxiety levels were already high due to the pandemic. Having a longer lead time would have also helped to raise the necessary finance to fund the production and ensure the cast and crew were paid appropriate fees. While the main aim was always to secure a commission from a broadcaster to do a full series post lockdown, I realise we couldn’t have made Dun Breedin outside the unique lockdown circumstances and without a serious amount of generosity and good will.
Shooting and broadcasting one 15-minute episode a week was an intense workload for the whole team. Shooting two episodes a week — the idea being broadcasting two a week would keep the audience hooked – took it to another level and meant David, Al and I were working flat out seven days a week, unsustainable on a human level. The reality bit and we agreed to go back to making one episode a week — a good decision.
The production and post-production team, the actors and their families have all been extraordinarily committed to and up for the challenge. Without their bravery, cleverness and passion, Dun Breedin wouldn’t be the groundbreaking show it is. Big thanks to Andrew Green for giving us the opportunity to follow our vision and be bold in lockdown — it’s been a total blast. With Claire Martel and Iain McCallum running superb social media and press and publicity campaigns, Dun Breedin is reaching a growing audience. We even made the national news, with Tamzin Outhwaite giving a brilliant interview to ITV’s news at six.
During filming it became obvious Ángela Griffin has all the qualities to be a director and when she asked me how she might make the leap, I realised this show would be the perfect place for her directing debut. I called Jackie Green and Julie Graham and they both agreed this was completely in sync with the ethos of Dun Breedin – women supporting each other. We decided Angela could direct episode nine, the final episode, with me mentoring her. To give Angela enough prep time, we stood the shoot down for a week, Julie wrote her character Susie a small scene for the episode so she could focus fully on her first directing gig. I have to express how happy I am to mentor Angela - the perfect end to an extraordinary experience.
As for the future of film-making post-coronavirus, I think it’s a case of constantly adapting to the new landscape as it changes. The prep and shooting schedules will need to reflect how much longer it will take to keep people safe. Social distancing is the biggest obstacle. Our filming environment is usually packed full of highly skilled people working closely together to tell the story in all its intricate glory. And actors are rarely two metres apart. We found our way with Dun Breedin — massive hats off to Julie for reimagining her story of female friendship through FaceTime calls so we could film and capture its spirit while strictly following all the lockdown guidelines. And a massive thank you to the cast and their families for embracing and conquering a completely new way of working.
While every new idea will present its own set of unique challenges, we have proved it can be done by working closely together to crack telling this story. Whatever medium — film, tv, advertising — it’s all about telling the story the best way you can. And therein lies the way forward. Directing Dun Breedin in lockdown has been the biggest learning curve imaginable, and never a dull moment. What I’ve learned the most? It’s reinforced something I’ve always believed: top team work is a thing of great beauty.