Miles (JJ Feild): “Well, you really showed that tree.”
It’s another sunny afternoon. Tom, Benedict, JJ and Adam are lying on the grassy cliff top above me for a scene where Adam (as Bill) hurls the tree that he has lovingly carried throughout the trip, over the edge into the sea.
Some 12 feet below where they are acting is a ledge, a small ‘golf green’ of grass sloping towards the drop. This is where I am standing with Tom Rogers our lovely assistant location Manager (known as T’other because his boss is called Tom as well.) Our job here this afternoon, out of sight of the camera, is to catch the tree before it descends into the rolling Atlantic.
The night before filming (because somehow they had been forgotten) we actually bought four trees that are identical. Any biologist will tell you that this last statement is impossible, but they similar enough. The problem is that they were expensive and they are already taking a battering in the natural course of filming for three days.
It’s important that Adam throws the tree, which he swings like an Olympic hammer thrower, with all the pent up anger of a man who sees the freedoms of his younger life slipping away. So we don’t want to be too constrictive in urging him to aim for a safe landing.
It’s an emotional scene and as usual we are pushed for time. The first effort lands easily near us. The second seems to be heading out of reach, but drops short on the rocks above us. The next few takes don’t get as far as the throw and T’other and I get lulled into a sense of false security.
While I wait patiently for the slight adjustments in performance, new lenses, and film reloads I fiddle with my phone as if doing so will make it find a signal (I know it won’t). So I stand there and again I am aware that for the five weeks of filming this – cliff path above the sparking sea – is my office.
ACTION! There’s the emotional rant from Adam and – knowing that every take may be his last chance – he gives this throw some serious welly. Suddenly there is a tree sailing through the air over me and towards the edge. Without really thinking about the consequences of losing the tree verses losing the tree AND me, I run after it. Its plastic covered root-bag hits the glossy grass and it shoots towards the edge. I dive for it and tackle it a couple of feet before it goes over. Only T’other has witnessed this foolishness I think, and I’m rather glad. (Even though I’m comfortable with the “Don’t do as I do – do as I say” school of producing.) My daily safety concerns for the crew should also apply to me. BUT only my co-producer Kelly Broad really understands the constraints of our budget as I do, and I realise that, though she may have done it in heels with far more style and grace, she would probably have gone after that tree too.
Grazed but in tact I return the tree to the film’s designers (the brothers Campling). The tree has been injured and as we set up for another scene I see that Johnny Campling is super gluing fallen leaves on to the tree’s wounded twigs. The magic of cinema.
“One day, in a week, a month, a year, on that day when God willing, we all return to our homes again, you’re going to feel very proud of what you have achieved here in the face of great adversity.”
The sun is baking. I thought my problem would be keeping the poorly paid crew with me in the rain and mud… so I budgeted for beer at night. I never budgeted for the bottled water and sun screen we would need in West Wales in mid September… (it can’t last can it?) But James’ lines about going to the his “favourite place on earth – to Barafundle Bay” make more sense when it looks like this – and today is our first day shooting on the actual beach.
Some of the crew haven’t seen the beach that at the moment gives the film its title and they are all suitably awestuck by its beauty… This joy lasts a few moments only as they soon realise that we have to carry ALL our kit down the steep steps to the sand. It’s the only way down there. And we have to carry it up again everyday we’re here.
I grab some sand bags that are used as weights for the camera legs and lighting stands and even on my first trip down the cliff I realise what a physical task this film is going to be – and how fucking mental it seems to be carrying sandbags onto a beach.
Eventually we get everything down on to the shoreline and start shooting. The scene involves Adam’s character trying to comfort James, who has had a rough night. Jo Evans’ make-up is great Benedict looks really, really ill. We roll camera… there is something almost ethereal about Benedict sometimes. And as he lies in Adam’s arms near the high water mark, it’s obvious that there are going to be some very special moments in this very special cove.
It’s just as well… having had the best of the early light we have to move all the gear to the top again for the next scenes in the schedule.
The steps are steeper and longer when you’re going up… as I get to the top for the first time I look down and I can see that the crew are all mucking-in, carrying not just their stuff, but whatever needs to be taken from any other department. Benedict, JJ, Tom and Adam are amongst them carrying gear as well. This is the team spirit I always hoped for and it’s the only way we will get this film made.
I head down the steps again. Every crew member I pass has a good natured jibe at me. From the fitter members of the crew I get stuff along the lines of “Couldn’t you write about a beach with a fucking car park?!” from the rest – this physical challenge is now hitting home. They just about manage to grunt swear words at me. It takes several trips for most of us to get all the kit back to the trucks on the cliff top.
I daren’t think about how many times we will have to do this… I think of The River Kwai and start whistling.
“DAVY: If the cart breaks…”
On a cliff top. (The novelty has yet to wear off – but then the sun is still shining.)
The First AD and I are worried by the pace we shooting. I’d like to be cracking the whip here, but even though there isn’t much dialogue in this scene I am very aware that this little moment could be one of the most important in the film.
If they scratch my car I’ll be livid.
Adam who plays Bill (and has been one of my best friend’s for years) has suggested taping a DV cam to the Cart too. (This is one of his good ideas.)
The shot is still being prepared… The coast path here looks perfect. It strikes us that it looks too perfect! In fact it looks like the fucking 6th fairway at St Andrews! The grass is smooth and even and green. Uniformly trimmed by the fierce hand of mother-nature into this perfect lawn that stretches a hundred miles. I hope we have enough wilderness shots ahead of us to give the film texture.
I think there’s something funny about our paramedic. Firstly his ambulance is a rusty banger with the word ‘Ambulance’ stuck on the side. Secondly his med-kit box looks like he sometimes keeps live fishing bait in it and has done for thirty years. Still – he comes from an official data base and seems a nice chap so I pay it no heed…
Just as the Ist AD is getting we are ready.
It’s a scene where ALL the boys climb on James’ the cart and ride it down a hill. It seems a meaningless little stunt, but if it looks like I hoped it would when I sat alone writing the script, it will be an instantly recognisable image of freedom and ‘boyhood’ and friendship.
We’ve tested the speed and route for the descent. Benedict must steer the unstable three-wheeled cart with Adam hanging on the back, JJ on one side, and Tom Burke on the other. It’s liable to be very bumpy and fast and near the cliff edge…. but the stuntman is happy and therefore so am I. And the minutes tick by and I’m more concerned about time now than ever… (If we drop a scene we may never get it back.)All cameras are ready including, Jamie Stoker’s stills camera. Matt the 1st the first calls ACTION.
The cart rolls forwards the boys jump on… it slowly gathers pace and jolts down the hill along the cliff edge faster and faster…
It looks amazing. Adam roars with delight! They look they’re having the time of their lives. They are.
The shot is in the can. And it’s good, but there isn’t time to enjoy it. We move on…
(Little did I know at that moment that it would become one of the iconic shots of the film and that one of Jamie’s snaps would be used by designer Franki Goodwin to create the poster…)
“LUNDY : South westerly – calm. Fair to good and falling. Squalls later.”
My alarm goes at 4am.
I haven’t slept much… but then I haven’t slept much in days.
I get my work boots on and get in the Land Rover. As I drive to the unit base on the National Trust’s Stackpole Estate, I am kept awake by a desire to avoid smearing the myriad of wildlife that use the road as their own at this time in the morning. (I have no grievance against them and I have to drive the actors in this car later. I fear the cull-splatter may disturb the thespianic preparation.) I am listening to the shipping forecast on the radio. For the first time ever I have a really good reason to want to know how the weather on this particular area of our waters – the patch of the Atlantic off the Pembrokeshire coast known to seafarers as Lundy – will effect my day.
For the first time I am about to have my own crew making ‘a real movie’. It’s exciting. But I can’t help but also think about all the millions of things that could easily go wrong between now and the end of the shoot in five weeks time… if we get there at all.
The schedule and budget are tighter than my amazing set photographer’s skinny jeans…. I wonder, if we do derail, what it will be that finally ends the ride.
I haven’t even started yet and I know already that at least two key members of the crew are camped on the boarders of insanity – primed to invade that land of lunacy if there is the slightest increase in pressure… and pressure is the one thing I have in abundance for both…
But then as I pull up at the old farm Manor House I see the giant Kitchen truck. We are a small film compared to Nottingham and Harry Potter that have both filmed in Pembrokeshire this summer and yet somehow we’ve managed to afford a catering truck that may have room for Knight Rider in the back, as well as the kitchen. It glows and steams in the dawn light and excitement swells like a wave inside me. I smell the bacon and the coffee that will fuel the nearly fifty crew.
I greet the location manager who arrives seconds later, and then my partner in production, Kelly Broad who looks like she’s arrived for London Fashion week. As the rest of them rock up I greet them with overly gung-ho slaps of encouragement. Knowing that I haven’t even closed the finance on the film that I am now DEFINITELY shooting, I wonder if one of the crazy people is me. In fact maybe no one would try what we are about to do if they aren’t a few rashers short of a fry up. Its sobering…
But – here’s the thing… This is the last moment I have time to consider it.
Before I know it the four actors, Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Tom Burke and Adam Robertson are in costume and we’re heading to the first shot… The boys are loading the cart that will carry Benedict’s character, James, on his journey to Barafundle Bay… and already I’m putting out fires… Telling the designers to find more kit to weigh down the cart (it’s a problem because we need it all duplicated for the second unit version of the cart that will be filmed with doubles). I’m also cutting lines from the script, still trying to shrink the scenes… And we’re choosing the tree Bill will carry and we’re wondering if we actually have permission to use the local cows as background artists… and onwards…
And in the blink of an eye… with some disasters narrowly averted we’re on the last shot of the day. Literally as quick as that! With the sun setting behind the headland to the west I tell a white lie to the director about a bi-law (I just invented) that prevents Adam Robertson from strolling naked as the script dictates, in the area we had chosen for the shot initially (which is now too far away). We swing the camera round and shoot in a hurry and with failing light that does wonders to shield his manhood, Adam strides naked across the hillside in front of two extras… (played by an old teacher of mine from the school I had attended just down the road)… And suddenly we wrap Day 1.
And we’re ferrying the crew back to unit base for a cold beer and to give them the call sheet for day 2. Matt Hanson, the 1st Ad, slaps me on the back. I’m exhausted… We all are, but I can’t show it. It was amazing and hilarious and fun and terrifying…
The boys did the magic trick that only great actors know how to do. They have conveyed the freedom of the trip they’re on – alongside the love and antagonisms of real friendship in just a few moments of film passing behind a lens. We have one day in the can and they look like they’ve been pushing Benedict in that fucking cart forever already.
I check the last shoot site for rubbish (we will leave everywhere we go on this breathtaking landscape untouched) and head back to unit base…
Along the farm track I pass a farm worker bringing the cows in. I stop to wait for them to pass and he nods and says “Well, you had a nice day for it, boy! “
I nod and drive on and remember how my day started “Calm. Fair to good and falling. Squalls later.…”. And I realise I don’t have enough time to sleep before tomorrow.