“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Prospero, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest
This is meant to be the last day of the shoot. The coast of Pembrokeshire is 250 miles west of us and I miss it already. We are at an industrial estate in Essex at a specialised diving tank trying to get the shots of what happens below the surface with Benedict Cumberbatch and JJ Feild. The tank is 7m deep (easily deep enough to drown a face-puller or two). It’s also surprisingly warm and VERY chlorinated. The little old guy that runs it is sort of an East End Jacques Cousteau – bobbing about the place helping our underwater Camera team. The first thing we do is try to match the colour of the water in the tank to the colour of the water in the sea off Barafundle Bay.
One cold blustery day, way back before the beginning of the shoot, our chief underwater cameraman came on a recce with us to Barafundle Bay. While I was counting the steps up the cliff with very little glee, he took a stroll with his DVcam. When we watched his footage later it was quite startling. The grey sky and grey surface of the water quiet suddenly switched to an almost fluorescent PEA GREEN as the lens dipped under the surface – it was hard to believe. This colour change was extant while filming the boys at sea, right through the shoot.
So here we are, back in the tank, and I’m watching as the divers pour in large cans of food colouring (used in the manufacture mushy peas and baked beans) in just the right amount, stirring it by swimming with their large flippers, to try and match the colour of the tank to picture on a monitor.
[This turns out to be a TOTAL waste of time. In the edit we discover that making the colours so real just didn’t look… well … REAL. Every time we cut to an underwater shot the difference in colour looked more like it was shot in a tank than the tank actually did in the first place. Luckily we use very little of the underwater footage and end up digitally greying the water to match it closer to the look of the surface. Inaccurate, but better. This is one of those great little lessons in filmmaking that I tuck away in my mind for the future.]
While Benedict and JJ get ready, we watch the assembled rushes of the scenes above the water in the Atlantic to try and match performance too. All our minds went back to those days shooting…
Sunday 27th September 2009
Today we’re going to get in boats, take our four stars out into the bay and film them as they try to give their best friend the ultimate gift they can. His freedom. Today we are going to drown Benedict Cumberbatch.
Usually the days I liked best are those where something else (like a stunt, or special effect) takes the pressure to be the ball-breaker out of my hands. But even though the divers will be in charge of how safe the boys are, and therefore what we can or can’t shoot and for how long, I have a knot in my stomach. This is my first film in charge and my stars are about to float around freely in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s cold. It’s bound to be time consuming. Too much can go wrong… And yet it is perhaps the most important sequence of the film.
So, with wetsuits under their costumes, and wearing flippers to make treading water easier, the boys (Adam Robertson, JJ Field, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Burke) head off. They look nervous for the first time.
The dive cameraman has told me that our actors will not be able to last more than fifteen minutes in the ocean before being plucked out to dry off and warm up. This is the Atlantic and we are nearly in October. Then they’ll then need at least an hour before they can go in again. We light a fire on the beach and have tents and soup and towels and clothes ready for this process revolving. But he also tells me that as the day goes on the fifteen minutes shooting-time will get shorter and shorter. When he thinks they are too cold he is pulling them out though. No argument.
This is why there is a knot in my stomach. Though there isn’t much dialogue, filming on and in water is incredibly difficult. Basically EVERYTHING is moving. All the normal stuff like changing a lens, even moving to another angle, just eats away at the time. Fifteen minutes can vanish in a blink – and suddenly the boys will be too cold and have to come out.
The boats are loaded and gun their engines to get around the headland into the deep water off Barafundle Bay. The sea is whipping up into the faces of the actors. I am wondering if we have bitten off more than we can chew. What if one can’t take it and the others can? What if one gets sick? What if we can’t get the right shots to tell the story anyway? This is the ending of the film? It’s possibly the end of my career. Why didn’t I write a film set in a car park? With their usual humour the boys take off their coats. Adam leads them – and jumps into the sea. They follow one by one.
Back in the tank in Essex we are looking at the rushes from that day, roughly assembled into the above surface drowning sequence. The shots really do speak for themselves. We’re all remembering that is really was a remarkable day. Treading water in that kind of cold, in the currents of sea, while concentrating on what they are trying to do was exhausting. And of course that exhaustion worked so well to convey the truth of what the characters had come through to get there. Even some of the hardened crew found it quite effecting to film.
[With all four boys still alive and kicking – I hope it’s ok to reveal that in fact they stayed in for longer than 15 minutes every time they got in the water. In one shot they stayed in the water for over 40 minutes. They never complained. They just wanted to get it done and get it done right. Though they lost quite a few pairs of flippers that I had to pay for… ]
Seeing them drag Benedict back to shore, forming the end tableau, the result of the journey was every bit as striking as I had hoped it would be.
The tank is a different challenge for JJ and Benedict. The temperature of the water being the biggest different of course. The tank has windows at the bottom so I can watch the boys as they take breaths from the diver’s aqualung to stay underwater as Miles (JJ) holds James (Benedict) until he gives up the fight for a life he no longer wants.
By the end of the day the chlorine has taken its toll on them. Their eyes are red and burning. They look like rabbits that have had makeup tested on them. After surviving the Atlantic without a mutter of discontent, they are now whimpering in agony.
With some time left on the clock though, we decide to capture some scenes of the boys swimming on the surface from beneath the water. Except we only have two of them. Luckily, we do have the costumes and the young, rather bemused, diving tank assistant agrees to don Davy’s outfit as a swimming double. We just need someone to be Bill.
It is fitting as a final addition to my CV of jobs on this film that it is me. I delight in telling the ‘making of’ camera that the waist on Adam’s trousers is way too roomy for me and I dive in. As I swim across the tank with Benedict and JJ I’m thrilled to be one of them for a moment. They are laughing and endlessly willing, but they really do look pretty fucked.
Finally it’s a WRAP. “Barafundle Bay” is in the can.
I will see the lads again of course, when we get in to the sound studio at the latest, with a finished cut of the film. But – there’s a whole lot of editing to do first. It’s an emotional farewell.
I get home at last. I have some beers. I feel empty.
Every film maker I know says that a schedule must include getting ill after a shoot, as the body is allowed to shut down. But, having become a challenge-junkie I decide not to give in to this and and go out and play rugby the next day. And break my collar bone.
Only after this does it all hit me. The morning after, I can’t get out of bed. I lie there letting the whole film wash over me. Dozing, I let myself drown in it all.
I get up at 2pm. At 2.30pm I realise that I have been upright for 30 minutes without people asking me questions, without the need for decisions – I seem to be in slow motion.
Perhaps it is just to do something, or perhaps it’s some weird subconscious metaphysical need to cleanse, but I decide that I should get the Land Rover cleaned. The mud and manure are not right for North London. I drive to the local car jet-wash place where the nice Greek bloke walks slowly around my vehicle with total astonishment.
“My God! Where you been?!”
“Wales. I’ve been in Wales. West… As far as you can go. ”
As I wait for him and FOUR other Greeks to find my car under the allotment on wheels, Kelly calls me.
“OK, the insurance claim came through for the damaged footage. We can re-shoot the beach scenes on Barafundle Bay. When do you want to do it?”
Brody: What day is this?
Hooper: It’s Wednesday… eh, it’s Tuesday, I think.
Brody: Think the tide’s with us?
Hooper: Keep kicking.
Brody: I used to hate the water…
Hooper: I can’t imagine why.
Today is the last day of the shoot in West Wales. (There’s one more day’s filming, at a special underwater tank in East London ). It’s an irony fitting of the finale to such an “incident” filled shoot that around mid morning Kelly Broad comes on set to whisper in my ear that she’d had the call we’ve been waiting for. We have now finally ‘closed the finance’. In other words we can now go ahead and shoot the film. Kelly and I laugh
Luckily the crew have only needed to concentrate on the job in hand. But while we are all fitter, stronger, very tanned (unbelievably) and have found a great rhythm, I can also see that everyone is tired.
The cast in particular have been amazing, uncomplaining and have lead the effort with their talent and resolve. But being together as these four characters in EVERY shot has taken its toll. A couple of nights ago, in a scene where they discuss the after-life while stoned, we all politely waited as Tom Burke gave a particularly long dramatic pause before saying his next line. The camera rolled on and on before JJ finally looked round at him and realised he had fallen asleep in the middle of a take. He awoke at the sound of our laughter and calmly said “Oh. Is it me?”
Last night we shot the last scenes on beach itself. Benedict crying out in pain was truly disturbing. The chilling sound echoed out into the night across the bay.
Not since I finished writing it have I been really alone. I love being part of a crew. But the day after Wales Wrap it’s just Kelly Broad and I left to clean ‘the Manor House’ at Stackpole – our unit base. I found it nearly four years earlier and now while packing it up the sadness really hits me. We dismantle the phones and pack up our numbered mugs. We empty the costume rooms, the make-up rooms, the Greenroom where the boys ate so many odd breakfasts and empty the fridge in the kitchen where we ended so many long, hot days with cold beers. The rare horseshoe bats that live in the attic will have it to themselves again.
Every so often one of the crew stops by to pick up something or leave something with us before they head back east and to their next job. We thank them for all their hard work and hope I’ll have them on a film-set again soon.
I hand the keys back to the guys from the National Trust. “Well, you were lucky with the weather anyway…” Yes. Yes. Yes. We were.
At last – I take down the banner that hangs over the door. I roll it up and toss in the back of my mud and manure-caked Land Rover. It reads “Welcome to Barafundle Bay”.
I pick up Benedict from his cottage and we leave the green and blue of the West behind us. As we drive I start to face the battles ahead – to turn our footage into a film and then get that film released… Fuck. There is so far to go. Then my phone rings.
One of our assistants, back in London already, tells me that Tom Burke was dropped at a train station in Carmarthen and then found that he’d lost his wallet. He has no ticket and therefore no way home. (Over the next two years I will discover on my travels with Tom that this not an unusual event.) Forty-five minutes later I pull off the road and collect him from the roadside. Another companion for my return to the Big Smoke.
“So Tom, we didn’t get to talk much during filming. I’m sorry. I was so busy. How was it for you? …Tom? “
Benedict looks into the back. “He’s asleep…”
“Oh… So what about you, mate? You got anything else lined up?… Hm… Well, lets chat about it. We have plenty of time now…”
“Having ideas is like having chessmen moving forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Some people have asked “why Mug 7?”
In setting up Western Edge Pictures (and producing Third Star) I wanted us to be as environmentally friendly as possible. I have always hated the waste on film sets. I think we are a particularly wasteful industry, because of the speed at which we have to produce our product. One tiny way to do this, and try and make a difference, was to ban polystyrene cups. You may think it’s filmstock, light and electricity that make films, but I’m fairly sure it’s caffeine. Millions of cups a day – made one second before a cast or crewmember is called to do his duty and so disgarded, or else drunk out of sheer boredom, the cup tossed away, and a fresh one taken to replace it. In over a decade on sets I never saw a polystyrene cup refilled.
In the week before shooting I sent the runners out into the locality to buy 50 mugs from charity shops. I told them to buy a few base-white mugs in each one. Spread the word that a local had come back to make a film, WITHOUT the money that Harry Potter and Robin Hood had had to throw at every problem… maybe they’ll cut us some slack when we ask them to wait with a hoard of other walkers while Benedict, JJ, Tom and Adam trudge past a seemingly empty vista.
Back at our production office in Stackpole, the runners painted numbers on them all, so each crewmember could choose a lucky number, or shape, or picture they liked. We took photos of them to archive our lovely crew with ‘Mugshots’. One attempt at cutting our waste. And NO chance of our endless coffee cups blowing along the shore into baby dolphins… blow holes… anyway you get the picture. Did it work?
We were so rushed, so understaffed, and so busy. Caring for the mugs went by the way side. Most ended up in unit base (still loved – but not on set) and recycled paper cups found their way on to the shoot. BUT – heartbroken though I was – many of the crew took their mugs home with their crew t-shirts. I learned what I needed to do next time to make this work, AND I have so many more ideas of how to make our film making credibly friendlier for the planet, whichever bit of it we’re shooting in. We’d love to hear from anyone out there who has ideas to do that. If we can – we’ll try them.
So – Mug 7, was mine. The 7th is my birthday. And there’s a rather blurred photo of someone’s much loved Jack Russell on the other side. I love making films, but it IS hard, and you have to be a bit of a terrier to try and get things done RIGHT. You just have to stay focused.
“Can’t we just light the fuckers here? ” Miles
For nearly the whole shoot we have had the four guys together (as the script requires). This has been nice in one way – but early on we became aware of the problems of constantly shooting a ‘dinner party’ in terms of angles and coverage. On many occasions, with things happening so slowly, I wished the idiot writer, had foreseen this and written a few more scenes with just two guys talking…
Today however, we’re on Freshwater West and JJ Feild and Benedict Cumberbatch have a moment alone together. So, I go off with Adam Robertson and Tom Burke to film some stuff. Our second camera/B crew have been totally amazing throughout – great characters who created their own infectious team-spirit. As well as being the second camera for the scenes of the four stars, they have also captured so many great shots of the doubles enjoying the miraculously warm weather. (In fact earlier on they nicknamed themselves “28 Sunsets” as they set out in a 4×4 to capture the “magic hour” of every evening in the schedule.)
So we’ve run both cameras pretty much all day, every day. Our camera department budget, and most alarmingly our film stock budget, has doubled. With my producer-hat on I had to explain this to our financiers, but when they saw just some of those sunsets they seemed happy… No that’s a lie. Not happy. They just didn’t shut us down. “They seem happy! Let’s move on…” is just what I told anyone who asked about it.
Today I get to muck around a bit though, getting some stuff of Burke dropping little pebbles in a rock pool contemplatively – only to have Robertson drop a boulder into it from behind him. In doing his shock response Tom makes the most hilarious roaring noise – once again proving his comic genius.
These scenes are nearer the end than the beginning of the journey and over the next few days we will shoot some of the saddest, as the shoot draws towards a close. But tonight we film a firework display and the comedy of the camp catching fire. It’s a long night. The hours I spent in the script wondering how we will manage to shoot this mishap are about to be answered.
We are now well into October. The temperature drops. We huddle in the dunes as the last flocks of birds leave for sunnier climbs. Darkness descends and the props guys send a rocket down a wire into the tent, treated with fire retardant to make it burn slow enough to catch on camera. (It still goes up in seconds)
Then we shot the actual fireworks. JJ, Tom and Adam are brilliant fools on and off camera and, as he watches the ill-judged display above them (a section of the script I titled “My Firmament Falling Down” in a very early version) the look on Benedict’s face pretty much says it all…
By midnight it’s freezing and as we pack up for the day and hurry to warm cottages, I’m aware that the gracious welcome of this coast may be about to run out.
“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless
Despite nearing the end of the shoot it seems I am still the only one who can draw out cash for the film’s daily expenses. With alarming regularity the production office tell me to go and withdraw about seven grand… sometimes ten!
This is annoying as it forces me to leave the set for half an hour or so, which I dare not do, or it means I race off during lunch – which means I don’t get to check-in with people and our daily problems… and I don’t get to eat! (Our caterers are amazing and I love and NEED lunch.)
Today the call for cash was urgent so I raced into the nearest town to get the money. The first time I did this, a few weeks ago I learned that withdrawing seven thousand pounds on a normal Wednesday afternoon from the Barclays Bank in Pembroke is not possible.
The teller laughed and called other staff over to laugh at me as well. I stood there, dusty and tired, missing lunch, holding open a cotton sack and glancing furtively at my watch.
“Seven thousand!? Here?! We don’t have that, Love!”
“Oh… I assumed, being a bank and all… Uh, how much CAN I have… ?”
At this point it was starting to sound more like a hold up than a legal withdrawal, but with less satisfactory results. After much debate they worked out that if I raided another two branches I would be able to make up the seven grand. They phoned ahead to warn them of my arrival… from another world. Film world.
Anyway – we have learned to order cash in advance, but it still annoys me that I have to leave set today to go into the bank.
While on my way there I suddenly come over the brow of a hill and a rare sounds echoes through the Land Rover. My phone is ringing. I have barely had a signal for nearly five weeks so this is an event. But it’s not good news.
“Vaughan – you need to come on set. The council have turned up and shut us down.”
We are filming at Freshwater West today. A stunning beach where filming for Robin Hood and Harry Potter also occurred. But to be exact – at the moment we are doubling up the location and using the interior of the toilets in the car park (where JJ Feild is meant to have his Rolex stolen by the Angel Boy). Apparently a cleaner arrived. Didn’t know anything about us and called his boss, who called his boss, who sent a man in a van with an order to cease and desist or the police would be called.
I won’t bore you again with the ‘time vs money’ problems of this shoot but suffice to say THIS. CANNOT. HAPPEN.
I skid to a halt. The crew are sunbathing around the dunes besides the car park above the beach. Benedict is in costume playing frisbee with some of them. In the centre of the car park is a Pembrokeshire County Council van. A tall man who is “just doing his job” is leaning against it.
My arrival causes some stirring in the crew. Whatever I am about to do I’d rather it didn’t have the audience, but it can’t be helped.
I walk towards the man, let’s call him Steve… I actually think he was called Steve… So let’s call him Dave, and as I do I try to work out something, if possible, about him, to help formulate a plan for my approach. I am no Sherlock it seems – and I’m getting closer – so, for some reason, with tone that suggests I’ve missed him terribly – I say “Hi there! How are you?”
Though as a desperate producer I am prepared to bend my morals in this encounter I decide the moral high ground is one I’ll try first and I begin with the most abject apology for wasting his valuable time. His expression softens, but I realise he is also now considering how valuable his time that morning actually is, and that perhaps, hanging about in this car park is… well… a fairly normal use of it.
Nevertheless – that I value it more highly than Pembrokeshire District Council intrigues him if not endears me to him.
I shepherd him to our catering truck and soon a coffee is in his hand. I have made the necessary call to our location manager Tom from the car on the way and Tom assured me the suitable permissions will be in place asap. The problem is that there is no evidence at all of this and this ‘Dave’ – not only the guardian of the toilet, but currently holds the completion of the entire film in his hands.
I can’t recall exactly what I said, but I know it was in the vain of Ford Prefect in the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide’ convincing the council Rep’ to lie down in front of his own bulldozer so Arthur Dent could take a break from protecting his house.
I basically managed to confuse the timing of the necessary phone call he would get with the message that we can recommence filming, with the act of our actually recommencing the filming. I was verbally back-dating the former with the latter to make the latter possible immediately, as the former was of course ‘a forgone conclusion’, which therefore made his staying here only a further waste of his time, as we would be already be filming anyway, ‘though of course he is welcome to stay and watch! Love to have him there!” – but it would of course mean that he was unable to drive away to get a signal that would definitely mean he could receive the phone message that gave us permission to recommence the filming, which we were already doing…
He scratched his head. I made fast circling motions with my hand behind his back – the signal to the crew to recommence filming.
A short while later, as Dave drove away with some cake, our breathless location manager (dear Tom Jenkins) turned up with news that we now had the permission to use the toilet and explained how the error had occurred (not his fault at all for the record.) It didn’t matter. We had dropped a few minutes, no more. And the scene was being completed.
As the First called lunch I sighed and got back in my car. Co-Producer Kelly stroked my head. “Well done. Where are you going? “
“The fucking bank!”
“Oh… I’ll save you some lunch.”
As I drove out of the car park again I remembered the words of Douglas Adams, one of my favourite writers; “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s just really, really, really, really, really, really, really unlucky” The Beachcomber
Hugh Bonneville is here to help us do the impossible.
In the film James, Miles, Davy and Bill stop for coffee at a cove littered with flotsam and jetsam. Amongst it they are surprised to meet ‘The Beachchomber’. This eccentric man is one of the characters that make the trip something of an odyssey. He tells the boys a strange story about how he spends his days looking for a lost consignment of faulty, brown Darth Vader action figures. They were swept off a container ship nearby some years earlier and he believes this cove will eventually be the place that they are all washed ashore by the rolling tides. It’s a nod towards the part in so many of us that are searching for something that we may never find.
It’s been a favourite part of the story for most people who have been involved in the development. I love that The Beachcomber gets interpreted in so many different ways. It is meant to throw up questions about what makes life worthwhile. And it’s lovely that the Beachcomber instinctively sees the gentle kindness of Davy, having spent too many years alone with his thoughts, suddenly remembering the value of community, and friendship; in needing people, and in being needed… But OH MY GOD… this little episode is running at well over ten pages and we only have a day with Hugh to shoot it. I brace myself for a day of fighting to get things shooting faster than ever. (The bit of my job that I hate.)
It’s 6am. I’ve been running around a while already trying to sort out the day’s fresh load of compromise when I’m told that Hugh has asked to talk to me. Immediately I think something must have gone wrong. I know his hotel is nice and we haven’t forgotten his breakfast – he can’t have been here long enough for us to fail him in any other way surely? I look around the morning mayhem – maybe he has.
I knock on the door of the green room where he is changing and preparing.
I’m thrilled that he has taken time out to come do this roll. I have been a fan of Hugh for so long. He seems the most ‘natural’ sort of actor on stage and screen with a gift for gravitas and exquisite comic timing – and here he is – staring seriously at the pages of the script. He looks up with an equally stern expression and I am ready for the complaint, in fact I almost apologise involuntarily. Of course the complaint never comes. He breaks into a broad smile, assures me that he is comfortable, happy to be here and looking forward to hanging out with Benedict, JJ, Tom and Adam. Then his stern expression flicks on again and he tells me he wants to talk about the script.
“Oh!” I exclaim. Rather taken aback. I have sort of forgotten that’s my job as well.
I sit down opposite him as he launches in to a detailed question about the meaning of one of his early speeches. Only now do I notice that he is wearing alarmingly small, denim hotpants.
Thankfully the shock subsides when I realise these are half of his ludicrous costume. But I don’t have the time or inclination to over-examine this as Hugh rattles through the ten pages asking if he can move the odd line. Cut a bit here. Add a bit there… He even says that he remembers a line from an EARLIER DRAFT that had a phrase he thinks was important. He’s so right. It IS important. I tell him that he should put it back if he’d like to. A few minutes later, he’s done and I leave him pawing over the words. I walk down the stairs with a spring in my step. It lasted five minutes, but it was the an insight into the incredible talent, skill and knowledge of a REAL PRO. A no-nonsense, business-like, approach to the job of bringing the Beachchomer to life the very best way he knows how. I am so proud to have been the writer (and producer) that will benefit from it and it is again proof that actors are horribly underused in the development of films.
I am determined that any film that Western Edge Pictures makes will have this input from as early as possible and that the writer is always in the room to hear it. And we’ll make damn sure that this all happens long before the actor in question is wearing his denim hotpants.
I tell a runner to “take more tea to Mr. Bonneville straight away!” – she looks at me confused as it’s only been a few minutes since she did exactly that – I just want to give him SOMETHING – and it’s all we have. “And make it hot… or strong or something!”
A while later. We are on the rocky cove. Hugh looks hilarious but the women on set seem suitably pleased to gaze at him. His performance is breathtakingly good. He makes catchphrases of some the smallest lines – wistfully opening the door to the pain and confusion in the soul of this lost man with just the subtlest of gestures and intonation. It’s a masterclass.
But as ever I’m worried about the time. We cannot waste a second today. And Hugh is getting progressively colder and more uncomfortable as a light rain starts to fall and dampen his hotpants. Then something rather wonderful occurs to me. Today nature is on my side and in a way that couldn’t be more apt, she is on the side of our Beachcomber. We CAN’T run over time and it isn’t ME that has to hurry the proceedings at all today – because the tide is coming in.
I notice that the sea is now lapping at the feet of Moritz, our young lighting apprentice, who is holding a reflector at the edge of our ‘set’. He is Bavarian and made of too stout a stuff to even acknowledge it, but nevertheless the Atlantic has decided we should move on and it won’t take no for an answer. I sit back and watch Hugh. He must be tired, but doesn’t complain.
‘Time and tide wait for no man’ and at last we are done. Hugh is taken to meet a train. I won’t get to see quite how good his scene is for some weeks yet. His day on set seems like it’s been at least two.
At this point I’m told that we don’t have a night security guard and someone has to stay there all night to watch the vehicles, make sure the pig is roasting properly for the next day’s carnival scene, then turn on the kitchen truck at 3 am to power the freezers and heat everything in time for the crew’s breakfast. I sigh.
The last of the crew leave. I sit alone with a beer in one hand and my ‘Night Security Torch’ in the other. I sit on the bonnet of the Land Rover looking at the cove. The pig is rotating slowly on the spit – looking at me every 37 seconds as if to say “You think you’ve got problems!”, the seagulls are settling on the cliffs and the tide is starting its endless turn again.
Adam and I met while playing teenage school boys in a ‘Taggart’ feature – his first job out of drama school. I was the good guy, he was the bad guy… our roles in real life soon reversed. Adam is a moral compass. (You just have to know how to hit it when it gets stuck.)
After years of friendship, during which we had both made the mistakes in life that most of the people I find I like best seem to have similarly made, we went for a long walk. On our walk I told him I had been thinking that he should join me in a new kind of film and theatre company. By that time Adam was about to start running a vegetarian food business out of Borough Market with his lovely new wife Anna, but acting and producing had always called him away from the various other businesses and sensible jobs he had done so successfully.
A week later he’d read all the stuff I’d written so far and agreed that he wanted ‘in’ on the company, which we then named Western Edge Pictures. We sat on the South Bank and decided pretty quickly that we wouldn’t make a ‘short’, as so many industry insiders in the UK feel is necessary. We wanted to go straight to a feature.
“Any ideas?” he asked, as we watched the grey Thames oozing towards the sea in front of The National Theatre.
“Well, I have this idea about some boys on a camping trip in west Wales…”
One of the first things I did in writing the story was cast Adam in my head, as Bill.
Adam is a good man. He cares about people and the world equally. His goodness is infectious to most people, and hilarious to me. His goodness has a bluntness. A straight, heavy, indelicate absurdity that no matter how sincerely expressed – I just can’t take it seriously. (Of course my seat in Hell is already paid for, but recognising the humour in his finest quality is at least what makes the character of Bill so watchable in Third Star I think.) You can totally see in Adam’s role, even though their views are poles apart, exactly why the other boys – indeed why we ALL – would love to have a Bill in our lives – and why I need Adam Robertson in my own.
So, skip forward to pre-production. It becomes obvious that Third Star is going to be a bit ‘bigger’ than we first imagined and the producing is going to need both of us full time. Adam immediately stepped aside from acting. He didn’t NEED to be a movie star. The film was more important. But a strange thing happened. The more we auditioned guys, with Adam reading Bill for guys trying out to be James, Davy and Miles, the more obvious it became that no one – no matter how good – was going to replace him as Bill. It seems crazy now to imagine we wouldn’t have cast him.
(It also seems crazy to imagine that we would have made the film without Kelly Broad who we brought in at this point to replace Adam in production. Another lasting friendship and partnership was created there – but that’s for another day.)
Over the coming months the cast was solidified around Adam. And he was unwittingly still providing me with dialogue for the film.
“Biscuits… they’re great on their own – but dip them in tea – it’s a whole other journey.”
A direct quote from Adam in the office that he would repeat as Bill on camera a year later.
That’s not to say there is no divergence between the character and the man. The complications of real life are after all inevitably greater than those of any invention. Adam is also considerably brighter than Bill (no matter how well he hides it.)
He is sensitive and passionate and for all his confidence and bombastic Alsatian pup-exuberance, arriving on set threw him a little. After all our hard work on bringing our first Western Edge picture to production, exactly as we planned to, I noticed a rare uneasiness about him in the first few days. Eventually I was able to ask him how he was doing and he admitted to being a little in awe of what we had achieved, and a little humbled by the opportunity to shoot in that location, with such a great crew, and with such a heavyweight cast. I was amazed. No one could deserve it more. No one could understand how we had got there more clearly than he and I – but where I, thrilled though I was by all of it, had begun already to be frustrated by the small scale, his humility was touching. Where so many men about to star in a film would find their ego taking over – he experienced a fleeting moment of doubt in his otherwise sure-footed stride though life.
Within days of course he was well into the groove. He went up a gear in fact. There are still so many ‘Bill moments’ that make me laugh. And his delivery of the line “Why can’t you take an overdose like normal people?” that he so effortlessly imbues with the innate humour and the gut wrenching tragedy simultaneously, as only great actors can, is just one example of his huge talent.
Any actor will tell you that playing close to yourself is the hardest gig you’ll get. Adam had to get his version of Bill spot on and all the while receiving less care than I gave to the other cast. He triumphed.
We opened the film in his native Scotland, at the Edinburgh Festival. Adam had won one of the festival’s Trailblazer awards fro exciting newcomers and was determined to enjoy the experience “to the max”. I realised, in a rare moment of warmth, that seeing that big-hearted freak on the red carpet in his kilt was pretty much all the reward I needed for the journey he and I had shared. His joy was typically unfettered, uninhibited and honest. Somewhere between an overgrown Hobbit on his way to a rave, and a young Sean Connery – as if shouldering the mantle of being the next King of Scotland would be as easy as breathing.
Long live Adam Robertson.