“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.
“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.
“These are for thinking – these are for dancing.” Harry Sivell, most days…
We’ve moved from the coast to a farm/hotel, Giltar Grove, which is owned by old family friends. (I say that we’ve moved from the coast– we are in fact about 500 meters from the cliffs even now, but for a change not actually ON a cliff).
The Joseph’s have been custodians of Giltar Grove all my life. Old Joe Joseph had been a friend of my Dad. I think of my Dad, who died a few years ago, so often of course, but something about being back in Wales and specifically about being my own boss for the first time has made him all the more present in my mind. He was in PR, but would have made a good producer. A confident smile and an acute sense of the ridiculous are key skills for producing.
I used to come to Giltar Grove with him when Joe was alive too. We’d fill sacks of manure with Dad and then stay for drinks and cake in the house. And now, in my many hours of need on this film, Joe’s daughter, Sarah Diment and her husband have turned their home and grounds over to THIRD STAR and adopted me (and the loud and messy crew of 50 who follow me about at the moment.) The extended Joseph clan all live on the farm in various houses or in other farms in the hills around us. It’s special. They are special. And every time Sarah mentions my Dad I can’t help but think he’d be overjoyed that I was here with my circus and them.
The house is doubling as the home of James (Benedict Cumberbatch) and today we are shooting the opening scenes of the film where James is enjoying a birthday, his last, and the arrival of his companions for the coming adventure. The designers have a lot to do to make the party look real… come to think of it… where ARE the designers?
As Benedict relaxes in the sunshine, in his 40’s suit and wide brimmed hat, ready for the first shot, news reaches me that the set designers are sick and can’t work.
Most days this wouldn’t be too bad. They make sure we have the right cart and kit, and they make sure the campfires are lit and sustained, but the coastline does the rest… It’s not too ‘design heavy’. Today however is one of the two BIG set ups. Today they have to design a party and all its trappings. They have to bring a family home to life.
It’s not normal for crew to go sick. It’s not really possible. Everything is too specialised, too dependent on each crew-member being the cog of the rolling wheel that CANNOT stop. So crews are used to being hardy and carrying on. And the designers – the Campling brothers – are tough as old boots and so this is particularly unlucky.
Mild panic sets in. We are working too slowly as it is. I’m at a loss as to know how to fix this and now we have no set! I know we cannot stop, or slow down any more than we have…
As ever Kelly Broad (co-producer in this venture) laughs with me and then sets off to do what she needs to do. She rallies the runners to become the designers. Richard Campling appears from his deathbed to give some pointers and relevant info. I’ve never seen a man look so ill who wasn’t actually in the wing of a hospital where normal people shouldn’t go. To make things worse for him all the info’ he needs to impart is about what ‘party food’ they have a bought already or suggestions for what we should get. He visibly heaves with every mention of cocktail sausages.
We’re going to waste time, but there’s nothing else to do… And then, as Kelly sets about transforming the dining room I hear there is another problem.
James’s sister is played by the beautiful Nia Roberts, dressed by Welsh designers TOAST, and she is standing by, but her boring husband – from whose arms she has strayed in to the embrace of Miles (JJ Feild) is a no-show. It’s not a big role of course, but his appearance as part of the ‘normal’ happy family life is vital.
We cast our eye around the male members of the crew or any passing male from the Joseph clan… He’s got to be a bland, generic, banker type… All agree it should be me.
(I’d like to think this is based on my previous acting experience…)
So – a runner is dispatched to pick up new clothes for me. I run from beside the camera to the makeup department where I shave the producer’s stubble. My hair is given a side parting and I put on some glasses. With the help of the “smart casual” look I am suddenly “Mike… Banker”. It’s horrible.
Eventually the party has been thrown together and I find myself, after a long time away from it, ON CAMERA again.
The scene involves Bill being bored to tears by Mike at the party, with Davy looking on sympathetically. Then Miles arrives…
So we end up doing loooonnggg takes, WITH SOUND, where I am having to ad-lib to Bill (Adam Robertson) about nothing in particular but in character. Being as boring as possible, with only the odd prompt from him if I run out of steam. (While I do this I am aware that the party set design delay has eaten more time than Tom Burke has eaten prop food.)
Now- it’s also relevant to say here that Adam has been one of my best friends since we met as young actors, fresh from drama school. He was my first business partner in Western Edge Pictures and therefore we know each other pretty well.
Take One: I set off rambling about buying wine online. As we make eye contact I see the slightest tweak of a face muscle that denotes Adam’s attempts not to corpse – and I’m gone. We both break into raucous laughter and the camera has to be reset. (Time and film wasted by me.)
Take Two:… I ramble about wine buying and the internet and again Adam is grimacing, looking away from me as he tries not to laugh and again I crack…. and so on…
Take SIX: I feel the giggles coming first and take a sip of juice to try and control it. It works. But this gives Adam the chance to speak. (Adam is a huge talent but ad-libbing, I’m sure he’ll agree is not his strong point.) “And you also collect… shoes?”
I collapse. This time we’re laughing so hard we can’t remain on the chairs and Tom Burke is helpless also.
No-one is saying anything or complaining. I am of course ‘the boss’, (in fact there is apparently a crowd around the monitor) but I am all too aware that if this were not me I’d be getting fucking impatient and trying to get this moving faster.
As the takes roll by the agony increases…
TAKE TEN: Now I can’t look at Adam at all. I am focusing on a point on the table and just trying to speak as dully as possible, trying to actually listen to myself, but without fail I either hear Adam snort, or catch Tom’s face out of the corner of my eye and I’m gone again. It’s humiliating to be exposed as having a total lack of control!
By the afternoon we have moved to the scenes after the party and ‘boring Mike’ is blessedly consigned to history. I am back in work gear and myself again – and trying to get us shooting faster. There’s an Exec from our finance partner’s (Nigel Thomas from Matador) on set for a visit and he can see the problems we’re having getting this film shot on schedule. I’m so glad he wasn’t there for my ‘performance’.
In the evening I have dinner with him in the beautiful, ancient Plantagenet Restaurant in Tenby. Nigel is good fun, but tough. He’s a veteran of many films and talks me through my options. I have tried them all already. “Ah well, he says…”, calm and benign as ever. “You’ll finish the film on time.”
He smiles knowingly, remembering perhaps what it was like to be in my shoes once and glad that he is no longer there…“Yes.” He says. “ You just… will.”
I’ll be on set by 5 a.m. again, solving problems, but we order another drink. I realise there is a producer’s club, and I’m in it.
I think of my Dad again… He’d often tap his head and point to his feet and say “These are for thinking these are for dancing.”…
There is definitely something alien about Benedict Cumberbatch. This was exaggerated the first time we properly met. He arrived late, he often is, but with the flurry of apology that he means utterly, and sounds faintly bored of having to give so frequently. He was wearing his crash helmet and wet weather biker’s jacket. It was a modern style so had the moulded Kevlar pads and bumps that shaped his body like an exoskeleton.
He is immediately intelligent. He’s on his front foot and yet asking questions. One instantly gets the impression there is no depth to any conversation he is not willing to plumb.
Over the long casting period we discussed with him many times, which of our four leads he could play. What makes him different from most of the actors we saw was of course that he can play so many different parts. Again it’s the hint of ‘shape-shifter’ that gilds his gifts.
At first I was loathe for him to play James (thinking he may play another role). I felt that having become well known for playing Stephen Hawking so brilliantly he would be perceived as some sort of a “rent-a-cripple”… But there was something I needed in James that so few people could portray. And of course Benedict understood it immediately, which is why he is one of the great actors of his generation.
James is a hero. We have to love him. We have to understand why the boys love him and will go to the extreme they do with him… But he’s also a bit of a pompous dick. I like to think this is what makes him believable. All these characters have flaws because we ALL do.
But it takes confidence and belief, total artistic commitment and an amazing lack of vanity for a young actor in his first real leading role to know that he can play this character on the edge of likability and get away with it. Of course Benedict does.
The ability to play these complications is another matter. He is of course just a brilliant actor. All the boys were. For me his most impressive ability, as I have said before, is to be technically brilliant, while all the while looking as though there is nothing but gut reaction going on. Watching him physically train to play James (He dieted, ran the cliffs and swam in the cold sea), and also delve into the meaning of every line in rehearsals, and then plot the effect of his illness on his body and mind as it would be in each scene (shot in the wrong order), while all the while being a joy to be around was impressive to witness. To see it as one performance in the final cut was remarkable.
He is rare even amongst the acting breed. If the character description says handsome: he is. If it says Nasty: he is. Older: he is… Younger: he is. For this reason I just can’t wait to see what he will become.
Working with him was a delight. I learned so much. It was so often easy to see what he was like at ten years old. He’s a giggler, and a brilliant mimic and, like the other boys, he thought nothing of carrying kit up the steps from Barafundle Bay, even after having been on camera all day.
When we cast him in Third Star, his role in Sherlock was yet to make him the global star he is now. This of course did so well for us in to one respect and yet his schedule, by the time we released, made it impossible for him to do enough press. Fame had swept him up. And yet, when we talk, I am really aware that he is enjoying it by revelling in the experience of the work far, far more than any of the perks of it.
One evening long after the shoot he called me to ask if he could come to my home to watch Have I Got News For You. “Sure. Why?”
“Because I’m hosting it?”
I sat and watched him watching himself. He was thrilled that he “got away with it”, that his suit looked nice; that his memory of people laughing at the right times, on and off script, were real. He was edgy throughout and so relieved when it was over. It was strange to see him so effected by it at first– but of course I realised he was having to be himself. Like the great chameleons of the stage and screen, having to decide on a version of himself to go on camera was a risky business for him.
I’m not sure to what extent that was a turning point, but throughout that period I really felt he had to adjust to life as Benedict Cumberbatch in some way – and he found his feet. Whatever personal doubts he had had, that were inaccurate, are far fewer now. Being really appreciated for what he does best has made him happier in his own skin… So he can spend the rest of his life enjoying wearing other peoples.
Davy (Tom Burke) “That could have been bad”
Today the crew are assembled to film a tricky leg of the boy’s journey. In the story, having found the going a bit slow, they decide to cut out what may be a day’s walking at their current pace, by lowering themselves and the fully laden cart, down the cliff face on ropes. So we are in the quarry near Barafundle Bay, which has a vertical cliff face that’s used for teaching rock climbing, and a mains power source in a hut that also has plumbing.
The Face-pullers – JJ, Benedict, Adam and Tom – are milling around in costume in a clearing at the top of the cliff. There’s a qualified team of rock climbers playing with bits of rope that will lower them down. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing with the rope but they’re experts and they seem cheerful. There’s our jolly paramedic standing by for this, our biggest ‘stunt’, with his seventh cuppa of the morning, served from the giant kitchen truck, which is within feet of us for the first time in two weeks. And the rest of the trucks are here too and parked on concrete not sand or cow shit. And there’s a real loo! It flushes and everything!
And so – sure – the rope-fiddling seems to be taking a tiny bit longer than normal – but today is already shaping up to be a good day.
No cows. No sea birds. No tide coming in. No boats moored in frame. No walkers sitting in shot painting infantile keepsakes, before going home, having pissed me off on purpose, to eat boil-in-the-bag-cod in front of Songs of Praise! Anyway. You get the picture – TODAY – is a GOOD day.
I go about my business, making sure we are ready for various other things that are coming up. I have a chat with our new Key Grip, the theatrically named, Warwick Drucker, about laying track (that man can LAY –TRACK – by the way. Neat van too. Brilliant. I make a mental note.)
Oh – did I mention the sun is still shining?
So then I go up to the top of the cliff for a gentle investigation into the time. The Face-pullers are still relaxed. And there is some amusement amongst the Rope-pullers. One of them wants to tell me something. He’s a local guy, part-time fireman. Typically handy looking. He has concerns about the paramedic.
“The paramedic?” I say.
“But he’s great, he’s been really helpful… and he loaned us a quad bike.”
“Well he’s not a paramedic.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He treated one of the crew a few days ago when his hand was sliced open!”
“Well he’s not a paramedic.”
“But… he’s got a uniform and an ambulance!”
“Well he’s not a paramedic.”
I look down that the tubby and affable ‘Paremedic’. The rose tinted view fades and I see that his uniform is a tatty green fleece with a badge sewn on. His ambulance is an old Vauxhall Carlton with the word ‘Ambulance’ stuck on the side, and the whole thing looks like it’s been carrying fish bait for a bit too long. It turns out that this is because it’s been carrying fish bait for a bit too long.
I turn back to the fireman-Rope-puller. “….But…But he… What?”
The fireman tells me that the ‘Paramedic’ is well known to the local emergency crews. He allegedly has his own radio scanner and listens-in to emergency calls. He then likes to turn up first to accidents, especially those involving pregnant women, to lend a hand… He also runs a sex shop on the side… Apparantly the BBC made a documentary about him.
“Sorry. Could you say all of that again?”
The colour drains from my face. Behind the fireman-Rope-puller his colleagues are tying Benedict Cumberbatch to a rope that looks thinner than ever and they are about to dangle him of a cliff edge that is suddenly higher and steeper. I tell them to hold on a moment and go for a chat with the ‘Paramedic’.
I ask him if he is qualified as a Paramdic. He tells me he is not, but he IS qualified as an Special Emergency First Aid Assistant or some balls…. I ask if he is insured. He says he is. I ask if he can prove that. Now. He says the paperwork would take some time to find… I ask if he has ANY kind of credential on him. He takes out his wallet. It looks like it has been used to shovel the fishing bait into the ‘ambulance’. Inside it he finds a business card of considerable age and usage. It has the name of a private medical training company and a phone number so old that its London dialling code places it at least two decades back into history. He asks if someone has said something… I don’t answer.
I take it away and race to the office. We phone the number – it doesn’t exist. We look into how we found him. He had added himself to the Welsh Screen Commision database. We took this as a credential enough it seems. We were wrong. I ask Kelly Broad to find a new medic because the current one is going to need medical assistance himself in about five minutes.
I go back to set. He is still there though a little sheepish now.
“If this is a company that provides medical training that you paid for I should be able to call them.”
He thinks about this rather too long and says. “See, they aren’t so much a company, but an… organisation I started in order to-“
GET OFF MY SET. NOW.
I am shaking with rage. He drives away quietly. I get a bit shaky. I realise rage has been joined by fear. Fear of what happened there, because of what nearly happened – because of what could so easily have happened.
At the office the amazing Ms. Broad has been on the phone.
35 minutes later Adam Robertson is tied to Benedict. They are half way down the cliff because the new paramedic has arrived. He is tall and clean shaven. He is quiet. He has a big shiny Ambulance and a fluorescent uniform. He has an oxygen tank and foil blankets. He has the benign expression of a man who has just washed his hands and can resuscitate a dying woman without getting an erection. He has more qualifications to be there watching no one get hurt than I will ever have for running the whole shebang.
But he doesn’t have a quad bike he can lend us.
But hey – the sun is shining on the Face-Pullers, Rope-Pullers and on Warwick’s track. The smells of cooking from the kitchen fill the quarry and maybe… just maybe we’ll catch up the hour we lost. Maybe.
I had been a fan of Tom Burke for a while. Having first seen him in the BBC’s Dracula I was immediately struck by the fact that he is gifted with that certain something you can’t look away from.
He came late to Third Star. That is to say that for nearly three years, whenever we had auditions we had asked his agents to get him in, only to find he was always busy. It is of course a quirk of fate, as in so many areas of making a film, that lead to his finally being available to come and meet us when we were finally well and truly ready to shoot.
His reading of Davy was perfect. What more can be said?
In his first reading I was able to see at last, right there in front of me, exactly why Davy is my favourite character in the script. Davy is no more confused about life than the other four, but his honesty (about everything that makes his life difficult) makes his fear and uncertainty seem to be far greater. In fact – his honesty make his life the most simple. This is subtle stuff to play at times and where the script let’s Davy down Tom’s portrayal more than makes up for it.
Tom is a handsome chap of course, but even in the rushes Davy’s calm face gained a kind of enigmatic beauty. For all his over cautiousness and moaning – that beauty comes from inside the character of Davy – and it’s why we would all want him as one of our best friends. But the brilliance in being able to create that is all Tom.
That talent would be enough for any actor – but I think what I cherish most from working with Tom on Third Star is that he is one of the funniest bastards I have ever known. I actually think his mind follows paths that only the great comic creators take. He is a skilled writer and I’m sure he’ll be an equally talented director.
It was actually only after filming Third Star that Tom and I became close friends. Some time later Tom did ‘Design For Living’ at the Old Vic. I went to see it three times and EVERY time, I found that I was still totally enthralled at his performance, in a way that one can usually only experience with someone who maintains a certain mystery, because their real personae is unknown to you. And that mystery is the alluring thing that he naturally possesses – and why he is so fascinating to watch as any character and equally exciting to know in real life.
This week, I am going to see his parents in a play together. His father, well known for his elaborate practical jokes backstage, is David Burke and his mother is Anna Calder Marshall. I’m sure I’m going to see evidence of where ‘the talented actor Tom Burke’ comes from. But I also know that at some point in the evening, when the lights come up, Tom will say something to me that I could never have expected in a million years. And apart from his love of the work and the text, in writing this, I wonder if it simply his devilish taste for seeing the absurdities of every human around him that drives his talent.
I cannot, for one second, imagine being bored by Tom Burke. And that is about the nicest thing I can say about anyone.