“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?”
“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.
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.