FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Justin Tagg
by Chelsea Fung
Mouse-X is a short film about a man who finds himself in an inescapable position, confronting not only roles, but himself. For Writer and Director Justin Tagg he came to become a filmmaker through a slightly off-beat path; gaining experience and perspective from odd jobs and meeting a vast amount of people and story along the way. Today, Justin teaches at the University of Lincoln while creating mind bending shorts and successful crowdfunding campaigns.
Tell me about your beginning as a filmmaker:
It’s hard to know if I have ever really been given a start. I think with a lot of things like this, where you go rogue, independent and try out some entrepreneurship, you don’t get given permission to begin you just do.
It took me a while to realise that though, that whatever I wanted to do…I could do, whatever I imagined… I could manifest. So, if I was to be really pragmatic about it, I would say I started the day I realised nobody else was going to make my dreams come true, I launched a crowdfunding campaign for my short film Mouse-X and took my career into my own hands.
What sort of work had you done before you started making films?
I’ve had a lot of very unusual jobs to keep myself alive whilst writing too. I used to be part of a ‘Bouncy Castle Roadshow’ during the Summer. I also had a brilliant two weeks where I sat in a small room with one red button and pressed it to open a door whenever somebody forgot their security card (one person forgot, in two weeks). I’ve invigilated exams for the Police, counted bridge tolls in an office underground (the money was dropped down through a chute) and being employed to teach English to a very powerful Italian business man, but spent the whole time explaining Beatles Lyrics to him.
Right now, my day job is teaching at the University of Lincoln in the UK. I work on the BA in Creative Advertising and it’s an absolute joy. I work with hungry, excited creative people every day and I see them going out and getting some incredible jobs after their degree. You can teach a certain amount, of course, but most of it comes from them so we spend a lot of time imbuing in them this spirit, this confidence that their life is just sitting there waiting for them to do something about it. They come out fighting and it’s great to see.
The short that brought you to HollyShorts, Mouse-X, is intensely trippy! Tell me about it and what sparked you to create it:
Mouse-X is intense. It’s a mind trip. A science fiction short about Anderson, a man trapped in a building with a thousand clones of himself. It gets inside your head and asks you the question ‘Who are you, if you’re not the only you?’.
I’m proud of it because we didn’t compromise. We did the best we could with everything and definitely punched above our weight as an independent team. We crowd funded for the first part of our budget and then went to businesses across Europe to get ourselves some in-kind support; rooms from Hilton hotels, paint from Craig&Rose in Scotland, Hard Drives from Western Digital and a whole bunch more. We even built our own set because we couldn’t have got anybody else involved at our budget level. But it was fun. We had that same spirit, I find in my day job. Hunger. The feeling that you’re part of something. Because of that things went great on set and even better after.
We have screened at some great festivals from Rhode Island to Raindance and are now online for the whole Universe to check out. We have been a staff pick on Vimeo, Short of the Week, featured on ‘Ain’t it Cool News’ and io9 and who knows what will happen next?
Tell me about your crowdfunding process. What are some tips that you have for other fellow crowd funders?
It’s hard to find tips on crowd funding that haven’t already been said, but there are a couple of things that really stood out for me.
Firstly, is to build your army early. We didn’t do that with Mouse-X so I learnt the hard way how difficult it is to get momentum when you are starting from nothing. Get that Facebook and Twitter community buzzing, get them so excited about your crowdfunding launch that they’re counting down the days with you. I guess the point of it is, why do you have to wait to say you have something for sale until people can actually buy it. Build anticipation, make sure the day you launch you already know there will be money rolling in. I used the same principle when launching Mouse-X online and we hit 100,000 views in 10 days.
Also, and this was the biggest revelation to me- I realise that your backers are not just money. Every pound/dollar you get is another individual somewhere in the world that is supporting you, each pound/dollar is a mark of confidence in your project and, most importantly of all, each pound/dollar, each new backer is another line in the story you tell about your project.
I worked out that every single thing that is good with Mouse-X started with that campaign. We used the story of our crowdfunding success to bring on board businesses who contributed resources to our shoot. Then, we used the story of crowdfunding and the in-kind support to help bring on board the right crew… and so on.
Crowdfunding is not just about the money or just about the people, it gives you so much more than that and when I still now get emails from backers telling me that they love the film and have, again, shared it with their family and friends you realise that you’re not just building a budget… you’re building an audience. Your audience.
When you really let that be the way you view your project, you suddenly start to treat every individual with a lot more respect. Wherever possible I reply to every email, every comment, every Facebook message and Tweet because I know that I am not a household name, I am just some guy who is lucky enough to have found a few people who want to see what we do next. It would be pretty stupid of me to let them go, they’re the reason the film got made!
What inspires your filmmaking?
I’m one of the ‘what does it all mean’ people. I have been since I was very young. What that gave me was the desire to learn, to explore, to speculate about reality, about what it is to be human, alive, here and now. To ask questions and never assume we have all the answers. It actually doesn’t make you paranoid, to live like that, it humbles you, when you realise just how little we know about anything and everything. I mean, what we know is pretty incredible, but the unknown is startling and fascinating. It’s ok to say you don’t really know that much. I found my most stressful experiences in life came when I played like I really knew the stuff. You put boundaries in and hunker down.
I like living wide open, conceptually.
I love getting into conversations with others and with myself and the way we perceive the world around us… it turns into two types of stories - the kind that turn inward and show how our perception of ourselves can damage us in so many ways, I explore loss, love, addiction, fear and then I also write the kind that turn outward and explore what might lay beyond the edges of reality, what else there is to be known.
I think when my career really gets going I’m going to have fun bringing those two kinds of stories together.
Has your diversity of jobs influenced or fueled ideas for your films?
It must have. Everything I see and do will add more depth to my view of the world. It’s particularly nice to do something you’re not used to, as well, no matter how boring - it can just wake you up, make you pay attention to the details that you can miss when you put yourself on auto pilot.
However, the reason it has helped so much is that I have seen so many different types of people, living so many different lives…and yet they’re not so different, not really. The surface details might seem different. Their likes and dislikes. the food they eat. Their views on politics, or lack of them. Those things could be different… but they’re still human. They’re still trying to find meaning and a world that doesn’t come loaded with any. I stopped thinking that some people are wrong, some people are right, some people are good, some people are bad and instead I just thought – how did they get here and where are they going. I learnt to stop judging and I learnt to listen, to understand people instead of listening to just give my point of view.
It sounds almost too profound for an ex-bouncycastle operator, but by doing that I have been able to explore stories about characters I might otherwise have ignored or, worse, judged.
Any films in the works?
I have a little booklet with around ten pitches in for films and TV series. Right now it’s all to play for. I have the full production budget for a short to shoot next Summer but am also exploring turning Mouse-X into a feature, I have a couple more modestly budgeted features that are ready to move into development and a TV pilot I am really excited about. All intelligent genre work, the kind that used a really big, bold idea to shine a light on our ideas of what it is to be human. I can’t wait! I’m itching to be back in development, to be back on set and to make more work I can share with this audience we’re starting to build!