“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.
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.