Leeds International Film Festival - the Welshman who says it’s a ‘game changer’ for indie filmmakers

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Actor and producer Craig Russell tells Neil Hudson why Leeds Film Festival is so important for indie filmmakers

Actor Craig Russell might not be from Leeds but a he has always wanted to be part of the city’s film festival, now in its 31st year and which is also the largest film festival in England outside London.

Craig has been an actor for more than 20 years, starring in numerous well-known dramas such as Dream Team, Eastenders, Hollyoaks and films including Score, Screwed, Magpie and his latest, in which he is both lead and producer, Canaries. But even though Canaries, a sci-fi horror comedy in the mould of Shaun of the Dead, premiered in London’s Leicester Square, it’s the publicity it will garner at the Leeds International Film Festival this weekend which he’s most excited about.

As if seeing a four-year dream become reality wasn’t enough (and it was, as he will shortly explain), he and wife, Kate, have just had their second child. In fact, when I interview him, his one-week-old son is asleep on his chest and he’s laid on the couch, speaking in a hushed tones.

“I thought this moment might never happen,” says the 40-year-old, who was born in London but moved to live in Wales shortly after. “When we got the due date for the baby, part of me thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

Thankfully, the heavens aligned and Craig, who has been a fan of the city’s film festival since he was a teenager, will be at the Leeds premier and the Q&A which follows. To say he’s pleased about that might be understating the point.

People think making the film is the hardest part, it’s not... getting it shown at Leeds International Film Festival is a game changer for us

Craig Russell, actor turned producer, who has invested four years in Canaries, which will be screened in Leeds on November 11

“I’m a huge fan of British film, I have always been. Even when I wasn’t wanting to work in it, I was always obsessed by it but in particular I have always liked the sort of films which screen at Leeds. I remember as a teenager buying a copy of The Guardian because they did a special on the Leeds Film Festival. So, I’ve always followed it, read about it. Some of my heros - Shane Meadows [This is England], Ken Loach [Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, I, Daniel Blake], Andrea Arnold [American Honey, 7T3] - were screening films here. I always thought I would love to go there.”

But it was fellow actor Dominic Brunt (vet Paddy Kirk in ITV’s Emmerdale) who suggested he send the film to the Leeds festival.

“A couple of months ago, Dominic said I should sent it to Leeds. When I even got an email back, because I’ve been obsessed with the festival for 20 years, it was like getting an email from a rock star.

“For many film makers like us, festivals like this are all we’ve got. When you invest time money, blood, sweat and tears into a project, ultimately all you want to do is get people to see it. People think making the film is the hardest bit but it’s not, it’s getting it out there.

“There are film festivals going on all the time, some bigger than others; we could go make a film on our phones tomorrow and some festival would accept it but it wouldn’t change your life. But when a film festival like Leeds, which is Bafta affiliated, takes your movie and decides to screen it that’s a game changer.”

He explains: “Because we’ve got into Leeds, for example, we are now automatically eligible to apply for the Baftas. So far, getting into Leeds is the thing I’m most proud of with this film.”

But the journey of Canaries has been long and hard, starting in 2013 when writer/actor/director Peter Stray (who appeared in the hit US TV series Lost) first touted the idea of writing a script for a film to be set in the Welsh village of Lower Cwmtwrch, which is where Craig grew up.

“It was one of those things people say,” said Craig. “And I thought nothing more about it, until one day I got the script in my inbox.”

After months trying (and failing) to find a producer, Craig ended up taking on the role himself and did everything from holding umbrellas over lamps in the rain at 2am to picking people up from the station. “I remember acting in one scene and speaking the lines but all I could think about was whether the jacket potatoes would be ready in time for the break.”

The hard work seems to have paid off, not least because they managed to shoot the whole thing for £29,000, which, apparently, is half the tea/coffee budget for the last James Bond flick.

The film also stars Robert Pugh (Craster from Game of Thrones), who agreed to appear on a vastly reduced fee.

Festival director Chris Fell, who has been with the festival since 1999, said: “Louis Le Prince made the world’s short films here in 1888. Since the festival was founded in 1987, we have tried to support short films and other films. We are Bafta and Oscar affiliated, which means the winners of our competitions can go on to be considered for nominations. We are one of only a handful of festivals in the world who have both. That can be a big boost.

“This year’s festival is focused around The Headrow and we want to try and make that the are synonymous with film over the next few years.

“This year, we have a specific season of films made in or about Leeds, a good example being a film called Leeds United, which is about a play made by the BBC in 1974 about female factory workers lobbying for equal pay.”

He added: “We have launched a new website - leedsfilmcity.com - and through that we want to shout out more about what’s happening throughout the year, because there’s so much going on. We want to celebrate film all year round.”

Leeds International Film Festival runs until November 16, with films screened at various venues across the city.

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