“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?”