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.
“Satan says to a film producer, ‘If you give me your eternal soul I’ll make sure you’re next film makes $200 million.’ The producer thinks about it and says ‘OK – what’s the catch?’ ”
I’m getting used to answering thousands of questions every day. Until today the first has been ‘Do you want coffee?’ No longer. The runners now know that I will have been on set since dawn. So the answer will be – YES!
We’re on the 4th day of the proper shoot and being the guy where the ‘buck stops’ for so many questions is what I am here for. But – an embarrassing problem is emerging. The crew keeps quoting scene numbers and I don’t automatically know what happens in 23, 69a, 42d…
I don’t know whether they expect me to know as a producer or just assume I know because I wrote it. But I don’t. I don’t like numbers that much. I’ve seen the script move around a bit of course and sometimes, to be honest, I have watched the actors rehearsing a scene and thought ‘Wow. I thought we’d cut that bit’.
Anyway. We are on the cliff above Barafundle Bay. The sun is shining beautifully as ever for the boys arrival at the bay. We aren’t allowed to close the beach, but it’s REALLY early on a Monday morning and the first coastal path walkers have been asked very politely to divert slightly or wait a short while so we can shoot the beach at its – remotest.
We have thrown caution to the wind and splashed out on a crane for the camera. It’s kind of a giant see-saw, to rise the camera smoothly above the boys and capture on film the virgin beach way beneath us.
The crane guy is here for one morning with his wife. I like him a lot. He has a neat goatee, tattoos and the look of a sporty Iron Maiden fan. He has a small, but immaculate A-Team van (always a sign of a great crewman). I naively I ask where the crane is.
As if by magic, much in the way that Marry Poppins unloaded a floor lamp from her carpet bag, a whole crane quickly and efficiently comes from the small van and in no time at all is ready to use.
Could it be that at last, something is going smoothly? Thanks to Dan-the-crane-man and his professional attitude the faffing is quashed and we are ready to shoot the deserted beach…
Then – I am called to the camera. Matt, the 1st AD, is rubbing his brow with exasperation again because, having masterminded the position of all his runners to block every path to the shore, we have now have just two members of the public who are refusing to move. I peer down at two small dots in the middle of the beach.
Apparently this has been going on for the whole set up of the crane and numerous members of the crew have tried to beg and plead and cajole to no avail. I am of course at the end of this line and the couple on the beach are now costing me thousands of pounds every minute.
I run down the steps that skirt cliff and across the soft sand. I sink to my knees, panting like a Labrador, beside a middle-aged couple in what look like matching jackets. The lady has some watercolour paints and a sketchpad at the ready, and the man has the facial expression of tax inspector with indigestion and haemorrhoids, who has just found out that his favourite Elaine Paige LP is scratched. Suffice to say I dislike him immediately.
Nevertheless I stick out my hand and smile cheesily and before I can speak he barks at me “Go away. You are harassing us!”
“That’s funny.” I say “You don’t look like you’re a rude person. When people smile at me and try to introduce themselves I have been brought up to be more polite.”
This is opening gambit is a gamble, but he begrudgingly shakes my hand. I tell him my name and that I’m in charge and he tells me his – let’s say it’s Harold Git for the sake of this.
He then complains for five minutes about the abuse he has received from my crew. The Git-hold up has now meant that about a hundred people are now happily watching us from various points. They are all delighted by the manners and sweet natures of my young Runners. That these Runners have all turned this off ONLY when dealing with Mr. And Mrs. Git is really unlikely (yet, I’m already seeing, understandable.) Mr. Git then explains that they have driven for an hour for Mrs. Git to paint her view and that’s exactly what they are going to do.
I ask if there is anyway way she could paint the view from elsewhere on the beach where they are not in shot.
NO. In fact he gives me a look that suggests I have just asked for something akin to asking Michael Angelo if he could use Artex on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel instead.
I explain to Mr. Git that I need them to move for a short while, because we don’t have the budget to paint them out digitally, and so their stubborness will jeopardise a whole day’s filming.
I explain to Mr. Git that we are a small independent film and that losing this shot today will mean we can’t afford to reshoot; we won’t get the crane back; and will never catch up with the schedule.
I explain to Mr Git that we will donate some money to a charity of his choice if they would move twenty meters up the beach to sit beside a dune, which will hide them for five minutes!
For a moment I sit staring at Mr. Twat (Or was it Git?, I’m now changing to TWAT). He tells me to go away and stares at the sea. His tawdry wife’s MASTERPIECE is in its early stages, but I can already see that moving them will not be a great loss to the art world.
I can think of two options only.
One: I go up to the costume truck, put on Miles’ costume, tell Matt to roll camera, come back, drag Mr. Twat down to the sea and drown the bastard, possibly saving me time now and even money later on with divers and water tanks etc. This is preferable, but I imagine there is some film industry small print that precludes it.
Two: I had thought of something that was sure to make him move. Something that only a producer would understand I was capable of doing. (Something that only a producer could be proud of.) I was about to earn my wings…
Look. I’m so sorry, but as anti-climactic as it is, I just can’t write here what it was that I actually said. But, as the sun beat down, with all the crew and members of the public now watching this little scene from so far away… I told the Twats something that made them agree to move for five minutes.
I ran back up the beach, up the endless stone steps off the cliff. The crane drifted the camera up above the boy’s heads to show the wonder and splendour and majesty of their final destination. It really is beautiful.
And I’m going to hell.
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…)