Teesside Writer on His New Film Dead on the Vine
Teesside-born writer/director Mark A. C. Brown’s new feature film Dead on the Vine has already achieved awards before its UK premiere
Mark has loved films since he was three years old; he always wanted to watch them, and eventually make them. ‘Me, my brother and my friend made a lot of very silly camcorder movies before I went to university where I essentially messed around, not having a clue what to do with my education,’ he admits.
‘I scraped through and moved back home where I started writing scripts in earnest. After months of doing very little, I was sent (by my mum) to get a job at the local college media department but instead, I signed on to do a City & Guilds in Film and TV Production. It was here I made my first film and won my first award.’
After spending a year looking for film jobs in Newcastle, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Leeds, Mark took the leap and moved to London. ‘I didn’t have a clue how to make any headway in the capital but it was an inspiring place and I kept writing,’ he says.
‘After a chance encounter with a writer in a Camden bedsit, I signed up for Barrie Keeffe’s (The Long Good Friday) Dramatic Writing course in Islington. And there I met the people who would become my friends and creative partners. We set up a theatre company at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel. This eventually resulted in me being asked to join the BBC with a view to them mentoring me for writing for radio.
‘Unfortunately, I had recently been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and I didn’t handle certain situations particularly well. And so the BBC came and went. I continued on and finally came back to film when Phil Haine entered my life. He came to direct theatre but film was his love and he asked if we had any film scripts he could make. Obviously, I did and so we made our first short film, An Empty Chair, starring Matt Prendergast and David Whitney – both would go on to star in my first feature Guardians 10 years later.’
Their second short film, Stalker, got selected for Raindance and Mark then wrote a period boxing drama. ‘While that film never got made it opened doors, for me that meant I could move into professional screenwriting full time,’ he adds.
Another film he wrote was produced and screened at Cannes, which meant a few more doors opened. ‘This, combined with the success of my short film Corinthian and having my first child, was enough encouragement for me to dive into the world of feature film directing,’ Mark says. ‘And the end result was my debut, Guardians. It was a cheap and cheerful film but it won enough awards and got enough good reviews to be bought by Sky. That led to meeting producer Laura Rees. We worked on some projects until Covid hit and shut everything down. From those ashes rose Dead on the Vine.’
Laura had managed to get the use of a vineyard, Mark wrote the script and they put together their team in record time. ‘Time and money were non-existent but we had innovation, talent, generosity, insanity and desperation,’ says Mark. ‘And we did it. As someone who struggles with their own mental stability I can safely say that Dead on the Vine and those involved saved me during those dark times. And it continues to give me hope that even in the worst times we can bring some light.’
They shot the film straight after the first UK lockdown, so none of the Covid rules were in place yet. ‘All we knew was that we had to be safe,’ Mark recalls. ‘We weren’t prepared to risk anyone’s safety so we bubbled up where we could, socially distanced, separated the different departments and made sure all the food and drink was individually labelled for each person. We were on a 70-acre vineyard at the height of summer so we spent a huge amount of time outdoors which helped. But we kept things small so we could minimise the risk.
‘The shoot itself went smoothly, but the post-production took two years. And that is almost entirely down to Covid. Once the industry got back on its feet it all changed. Netflix had just opened their studio outside of London and were hoovering up all the crew, so finding affordable post-production facilities and technicians was almost impossible. Fortunately, our producers Laura and Julie Baines are savvy and managed to call in favours or do deals so that little by little we could piece the film together.'
Dead on the Vine is already an award-winning film, which Mark says is ‘incredible’. At Kevin Smith’s Smodcastle Film Festival, it took home awards for Best Picture, Actor and Ensemble. ’Making the film has been a slog,’ he continues. ‘Joyous at times and incredibly frustrating at others. The industry is in flux and so every step has been unpredictable. So to get to the other side and have it received as well as it has been has been amazing. The fact that it was one of my heroes, Kevin Smith, who gave us the awards makes it all the more sweet.
‘It is a step up from Guardians in scope and ambition so we hope that UK audiences react accordingly. Guardians had a good life for such a small film. We want this to do more. It’s a different genre so it’s hard to say exactly how it will be received – but so far so good.’
Mark speaks passionately about the arts industry, and prides himself on representing North East creatives. ‘The North East is one of the most beautiful and eclectic places in the UK,’ he says. ‘I tried so hard to make a go of it here but at the time there was no outlet for what I needed to do. Now it seems that is changing. And I want to be part of it. My next project, Limpet, is set in Whitby and I hope it showcases that crazy, amazing place in the way it deserves because there is nowhere like it on Earth.
‘My family (Teesside on my mum’s side, Durham on my dad’s) have been here for too many generations to track and it made me so sad to see places like Stockton, the place I spent the most time going to the cinema when I was a kid, become so deprived. It seems like there may be some light on that score and it is my hope that I can help in some small way to keep that light bright. I am currently talking to the Arc in Stockton about screening Dead on the Vine. We screened Guardians there and it was wonderful to come back home and show people that thing that may seem out of reach aren’t necessarily.’
Favourite place to walk in the North East and Yorkshire.
The Moors. Osmotherley particularly. I spent so many Sundays with my family wandering and playing around there. Sheepwash, Roseberry Topping and Carlton Bank. I love it. And Whitby. There is nowhere on Earth like Whitby.
An item you couldn’t live without.
My laptop. I write every day and I’ve pretty much lost the ability to do it long hand.
A book, series or podcast you’d recommend.
Podcasts that I love are Script Apart, SmartLess and All Killa No Filla. Books I recommend are The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale and Leviathan by Paul Auster. For series, Arrested Development, Northern Exposure and most recently Daisy Haggard’s Back To Life.
Advice you’d give your younger self.
More confidence, less drink.
Tell us about a hidden gem in the North East.
Strickland & Holt in Yarm. A shop/café that I have loved for my whole life. It has everything in it and has existed for generations. It is beautiful.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing the project that Laura and I were working on before Covid. It is a horror/comedy called Limpet, set in Whitby. I’m predominantly a writer and I work with director Brad Watson, so we have several scripts doing to the rounds of companies. So hopefully one of those will find a good home.