Oral-history articles usually detail the origins of movies regarded as classics. A Fistful Of Fingers, a cowboys-and-Injuns spoof made by Somerset schoolboys on a truly titchy budget, is not quite that. In fact, when it came out back in 1995, Empire's review gave it just one star. But with the obscure comedy about to be revived via 20th anniversary screenings in London and LA (it's still not available to buy on any format), now is the perfect time to tell a 'making of' story to inspire any wannabe filmmaker.
Back in the early '90s, Edgar Wright was not the world-famous director of Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. He didn't even have a beard. Right at the start of his journey to fame and fortune, the resilient and highly ambitious youngster was putting together a silly spoof of Sergio Leone flicks, cast with his schoolmates. A Fistful Of Fingers has as its hero a dodgily accented Clint Eastwood-a-like, Walter Marshall (Graham Low). During the film's 78-minute runtime, Walter encounters crafty Native American sidekick Running Sore (Martin Curtis), dastardly gunslinger The Squint (Oli van der Vijer), a pantomime horse called Easy (inspiring the touching musical ode When A Man Loves A Horse), some nuns (inspiring the line, "Nun shall pass!") and, for complicated reasons, some melons on sticks. There are shoot-outs, decapitations and a surprise cameo from TV prankster Jeremy Beadle. The goofiness extends to the end credits, which include the line: "No animals were injured during the making of this film. They were all killed."
Long embarrassed by his DIY debut, this is Wright's first interview dedicated to it. But we've also tracked down all the key players, from Low and Curtis (now teachers in Australia and Saudi Arabia respectively) to production designer Simon Bowles (who spoke to Empire from the African set of A United Kingdom), Edgar's brother Oscar (currently working on something highly classified at Leavesden) and van der Vijer (no longer slinging guns, but designing vehicles for Star Wars Episode VIII). Read on to discover how they all cut their teeth dealing with fake tumbleweed, endless pizza and Beadle's script notes...
PART 1: "I asked Jonathan Ross for £10,000."
Edgar Wright (director): "Between the ages of 18 and 20 I made three hour-long films. One was a superhero film called Carbolic Soap. One was a cop film called Dead Right. And the other was called A Fistful Of Fingers. I'd draft in my best friends at school: Graham, Martin and Oli. Graham, especially, was an extrovert. You could get him to do anything, up to and including full-frontal nudity."
Graham Low (Walter Marshall): "Edgar and I first met at a Saturday film club, watching a bizarre thing called Chico The Rainmaker. We both took drama with a fantastic teacher, Peter Wild, and we were both in school plays like The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Godspell, though Edgar wasn't particularly interested in the musicals. He was a perfectionist, even then, with his films. I remember we'd have school next day and he'd be in his dark room upstairs, editing until 3 or 4 in the morning. But we were also incredibly silly. My recollection is that one day we were walking down the street when I pointed a finger at him and went, 'PEW!' He did it back, and suddenly we were having a gunfight with our fingers. Then one of us said, 'Fistful Of Fingers!'"
Wright: "I was a big Western fan, but hadn't quite matured into liking Howard Hawks and John Ford. My parents used to talk about Sergio Leone films a lot. And I got really into them. I love Clint Eastwood. I love the camera angles. I love the music. And when it came to picking a subject matter for a comedy film, a Western seemed doable. We could just go stand in a quarry with some toy guns. No sets required."
Martin Curtis ('Running Sore'): "Edgar put me in pretty much all of his shorts. I vaguely remember doing something called Infrared Fred. I was the villains in Carbolic Soap, about a superhero with soap-based powers, and Dead Right. Graham was Edgar's muse, so he always played the hero. I'd end up doing whatever else needed doing, because I was available."
The Noogy, a directing technique also used by Martin Scorsese.
Simon Bowles (production designer): "My sister Amy hung out with Edgar and always played the one female part in his movies. She was usually gagged and tied up, then somebody would come rescue her. That's how I got to know him."
Wright: "Here's a really weird fact: Amy Bowles, who moved to Toronto to be the lead singer of the band Pony Da Look, partly inspired the character of Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim. I learned that when [Pilgrim creator] Bryan Lee O'Malley and I bumped into her over there one day. Isn't that crazy?"
Oli van der Vijer ('The Squint'): "I'd known Edgar since we were about 11. We lived down the road from each other and we were mates. I was one of the detectives in Dead Right and would usually do as much behind the camera as in front of it. It was really exciting when we heard he was going to shoot one on film."
Wright: "By the time I got to Bournemouth Art College, I'd been so inspired by Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez and their tiny, no-budget films that I decided to do a feature-length version of Fistful Of Fingers. It was definitely influenced by things like Mel Brooks and the Zuckers and Monty Python And The Holy Grail. My tutor warned me not do a spoof as my first movie, and he was probably right, but I ignored his advice. They had a PC in the college library, so I holed up in there and painstakingly typed out the script. As you can probably tell from the movie, I never did a second draft. It might have been better if I had."
Oscar Wright (animator/ Edgar's brother): "I think we all agree that it works better as the hour-long. But Edgar really went for it. At that point I was a model-maker at Ealing Studios, and when he came up to pitch for that movie he was sleeping on the floor in my little bedsit in Ealing. It was before mobile phones and he literally had a pocket full of 10ps, so he could go to phone boxes and set up meetings."
Wright: "I was very, very young and completely green. I hadn't even been to London before. I remember asking celebrities for money: I actually asked Jonathan Ross, because I was a big fan of The Incredibly Strange Film Show. I wrote to him asking for £10,000, and of course got a no. But the editor of my local newspaper, The Wells Journal, had always covered my work being shown nationally. And he'd asked me to make a documentary about the last run of his printing press, which I'd done. One day he asked, 'How much money do you need for your film?' I said, 'Oh, we need £11,000.' It turned out he'd just come into an inheritance. He had money to lose on us, as a sort of tax dodge. So Fistful Of Fingers was the tax dodge."
PART 2: "I only had a bit of bum-fluff."
Wright: "We shot for 21 days, until the money ran out. The crew came to Wells from London or Bournemouth, and stayed with either myself, Oli, Martin or Graham. At my house alone there were sometimes four people sleeping in a room. The local pizzeria, Luciano's, did a catering deal for us, so we were living on pizza. We'd go there every single night after filming."
Low: "I ended up going out with the head of the pizza restaurant's daughter, Franka. A bit of romance. She's married now and living in Bristol."
van der Vijer: "Luciano's are still around. I think they've relaunched as a fish and chip shop."
Curtis: "It was weird going from just a few of us, to having a DP and make-up people and grips and gun-wranglers. I got a little self-conscious, to be honest, especially as I was playing a Native American. My first scene involved a snake, which was a new experience."
Low: "Poor Oli had to kneel down next to me for a scene where I get all my clothes shot off. He was down there for longer than he really wanted to. I think he died a really long death."
Bowles: "I'd only worked on a Craig Fairbrass movie called Beyond Bedlam, but Ed asked me to design Fistful. We made whiskey out of brown food colouring. And we stayed up half the night painting plastic toy revolvers, which is actually something I did again on Dog Soldiers. I can't remember what our budget was, but I think it was literally £12. The most expensive item, the real luxury, was a spittoon that I had to hire from a real prop house."
Wright: "In all the photos I look like such a kid. I'm, like, wearing a Cat In The Hat-style long-sleeve sweatshirt that I bought at Camden Market."
Low: "My Clint Eastwood stubble had to be painted on — as an 18 year-old, I only had a bit of bumfluff. Looking back, this is ridiculous, but there's a book by Michael Caine called Acting In Film, and I used to carry it around with me. Before a take, I'd open it and read Michael Caine's advice. 'Don't blink in a close-up' — that's the only thing I remember."
Watch out, Beadle's about! The film's big-name cameo, possibly mid-prank.
Bowles: "Meeting Jeremy Beadle was the most exciting part of the whole experience for me. He was right at the peak of his fame at that point. And he was the first proper celebrity that I'd ever worked with. Everybody was saying, 'Don't shake his little tiny right hand.' But I went straight in there and shook his little tiny right hand. He was lovely."
Wright: "I'd done the pilot for Beadle's Hot Shots, and showed him the video version of Fistful. He was a very nice guy — he even drove himself down from London, and took no fee for his cameo. His only request was that he didn't want to be killed on camera. He took me aside and said, 'Yeah, listen, I get it: everybody hates me. I know I'm the butt of the joke. But I don't think violence is funny, Edgar. What if I fell in some cowpat?' I turned him around on it by saying, 'What if Graham shot you accidentally?' But it was weird: being in a quarry in Somerset, having a talk about whether violence is funny or not with Jeremy Beadle. While he's dressed as a police officer."
Low: "My claim to fame is that Jeremy Beadle changed in my house. My dad loves to tell people that."
Edgar gets his eye in. Note the three watches on his wrist — "we only realised that they were not period while on set."
PART 3: "We were basically in a broom cupboard."
Wright: "To edit the movie, I moved to London. We cut it at Pinewood Studios, because [producer] Danny Figuero knew somebody there, but we were basically in a broom cupboard. It was exciting, but what brought it down was that I was absolutely broke. I was signing on at the same time. And I'd go from sleeping on my brother's floor to Pinewood by public transport, which involved the Tube, a bus and then a long walk. It was winter, so I wouldn't see sunlight for days. For lunch I'd scrimp to get a cereal bar or a piece of fruit."
van der Vijer: "One of the most fun times was when we went up to Pinewood to do some dubbing. I'm sitting there now, doing some action vehicles for Star Wars: Episode VIII, but that was my first time. They were shooting First Knight."
Wright: "At a certain point we ran out of money and needed more finance to finish the post, so two more people came on. A guy called Tom McCabe and a guy called Zygi Kamasa, who is now the head of Lionsgate in the UK. Back then he was running a PC business. This was the first thing he ever did in film. With them we managed to get the budget up to about 27 grand. We could afford a score. The score, which François Evans did, is one of the best things about it, actually."
Zygi Kamasa (executive producer): "Edgar was an encyclopedia of film knowledge, and talked with such confidence about the type of film he wanted to make. His idea of a crazy, low-budget Western in Somerset with pantomime horses made me laugh. It was so original, I had to get involved."
Oscar Wright: "Both Edgar and I used to make animations, with our Super 8 cameras. I made one called Craig Schmaig: Bike-Breaker, which had Graham and Edgar chasing a pie thief while riding cushions with legs. It was all shots nicked from Mad Max and Akira. I also used to make endless flipbooks out of school diaries. I think Edgar basically had that in mind when the title sequence for Fistful came up."
Wright: "We had to pad out the running time, so I made the end roller really long, with loads of stupid jokes. The film's dedicated to Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone and Derek Griffiths. We used a 'based on a true story' tag the year before Fargo. And Buzz Aldrin gets a credit — as one of the melons — as he does in every amateur movie I did. I just thought Buzz Aldrin was a funny name."
Oscar Wright: "My brief was to make the animated sections as long as they could possibly be. The title sequence was a riff on Fistful Of Dollars. I borrowed our dad's lightbox, a big lump of a thing he'd built for photographic work. It basically filled up my bedsit. Doing the horse stampede was such a painstaking undertaking. I was spending more time on that than my real job. Everyone hates drawing horses."
Wright: "I remember having a meltdown during editing, because I suddenly realised the film wasn't that great. And it hit me: I can never make my first movie again. It turned out to be 78 minutes long, but if I did another edit it would probably end up being 50 minutes. There just wasn't anything to cut to, to speed up the pace, because every shot is in there. I think I've over-compensated for it ever since, with the amount of coverage I get. You shoot more stuff to make the film faster."
PART 4: "Running Sore lives on."
Kamasa: "The most I learned was from taking the film with Edgar to the Cannes Film Festival, where we tried to sell it. We were desperate to get some attention and tried to convince Andy Coulson, then showbiz editor of The Sun, to print something in the paper. He wasn't interested, until we told him that Jeremy Beadle appeared in the film and gets shot in it. Our pitch was to use the headline, 'Beadle gets shot in Cannes.' Eventually he relented."
Wright: "Cannes was a crazy experience. I was 21 at the time. It then played the Edinburgh Festival and finally came out at the Prince Charles Cinema in London in November '95, the same weekend as GoldenEye. Matt Lucas and David Walliams came along to one of the screenings, which is how I got the job directing their sketch show Mash And Peas and basically started in TV. I did two Q&As at the Prince Charles, but was too nervous to watch it with the audience. Because I was pacing around the foyer so much, I ended up asking out the usher on a date. It's funny — we're still Facebook friends."
Bowles: "When I was 14, I'd worked as a projectionist in a cinema in Wells. And when I left for theatre school the manager joked, 'One day you'll have your name up on the screen.' I said, 'I will, you know.' So I was so proud to see it actually happen, especially in a crazy Western font."
Wright: "One of the happiest moments was showing it in my local cinema in Wells. I had worked there, projecting things like My Stepmother Is An Alien, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Without A Clue, and had been fired for fucking up a few times. Cut to six years later and showing my film there. Derek Cooper, the manager who had fired me, ended up being a crowd marshal on Hot Fuzz."
van der Vijer: "The thing that stuck out most to me when I saw Fistful was Oscar's animation. I'd deliberately not watched it, and thought it lifted the film to a different plain, because it was so weird and great."
Oli, Graham and Martin, rocking the Western look.
Oscar Wright: "I went to a screening at the Prince Charles, and I remember Edgar being elated that it took more money than Guarding Tess, the Nicolas Cage bodyguard film. Watching it and seeing the opening titles get laughs, that was a big moment for me. I started to realise you could entertain people with this stuff."
Wright: "I remember standing in a newsagent in Wood Green, reading the reviews. It was very surreal: I felt like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka. They were mixed. The Empire review was upsetting, though I still bought the issue. The Guardian said, 'At 78 minutes, it overstays its welcome.' The Evening Standard liked it, but said, 'Be sure to look out for director Graham Low in the future.' What's On In London gave it a good review, and I didn't have any cash, so I shoplifted the magazine. I'd like to apologise to the newsagent by Camden tube station, if he's reading this. One day I'm going to go back there and quietly leave £2 on the counter. Better make it a fiver for interest."
Low: "It was Alexander Walker that said, 'What he lacks in ability, he makes up for with enthusiasm.' One of my best reviews ever!"
van der Vijer: "I hadn't seen it since 1995, but I recently found a VHS and a friend converted it to DVD for me. It's just pure nostalgia. It gives me a warm feeling. With hindsight you can see it's the blossoming of someone's career, which is wonderful to be part of. And Edgar is the reason I'm in this industry, without a shadow of doubt. I wouldn't be doing anything even close to this without him."
Low: "I'm a high-school drama teacher in Australia now, but between Fistful and my cameo in Hot Fuzz as the Living Statue I've amassed some fantastic street cred. It really inspires the boys I teach, because Edgar just got a bunch of his mates together and things went from there."
Curtis: "We all still meet up at premieres. I teach English in Saudi Arabia, and sometimes I show my students clips on YouTube: 'Hey, do you want to see me when I was your age?' It feels like a lifetime ago now, but it was such a laugh. It's weird that it's going to be on the big screen again. Running Sore lives on, I guess."
Bowles: "I think about it whenever I go down to Somerset to see my mum. Even though we've all moved off into the big world, we still have family there, and have such fond memories as we drive past those locations."
Wright: "I'm hoping to finally release Fistful Of Fingers next year, with a commentary and everything. It's funny, for a long time I've been ashamed of this film. If I've done an interview and people say, 'Your debut, Shaun Of The Dead...', I never correct them. I still can't watch it: it's absolutely cringe-worthy, like reading a diary you wrote when you were 19. But slowly I've become weirdly proud of it. I now look back at it with a lot of fondness, and the nicest thing is that I got to make a feature film with my friends from school. We've remained friends; they were all inspirations for the characters in The World's End. So it all worked out okay. I just wish Empire would upgrade it to two stars, so it would be on a par with Army Of Darkness and Brain Dead..."
A Fistful Of Fingers is screening at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 21, and at The Prince Charles Cinema in London on Tuesday, November 24.