Ever wanted to be famous? Judging by the proliferation of TV talent shows clogging our screens, there’s quite a number of people who’d like to be discovered, for singing or dancing or even dog-wrangling, and become just famous enough that they can perpetuate that by being sent to the land of the convicts to eat various marsupial genitalia while being mocked by slightly receding Geordies. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that compulsion, but it was put to the test a couple of years ago when the village where I now live became the setting for a feature film.
While I’ve been a lifelong fan of film, and that love has grown to almost obsessive proportions in the past few years, it’s what’s on the screen that’s always interested me. I’ve certainly come to question the artistic decisions of a few writers and directors over the years, but I’m not sure the creative urge has ever burned that brightly within me, nor for that matter have I ever been a fan of the spotlight. Even at school, I was quite content to take on the backstage roles and to allow others to get their lights out from under bushels; and although one of my other hobbies has always been singing, I’ve always been more comfortable taking a role in the choir rather than out front singing solos. But moving to the village allowed me to take on another role, that of choir master of the choir at the village church, and it’s ideal in the sense that the back of your head gets more attention from the congregation or audience than your face ever does. Few roles offer such power and such anonymity in the realm of artistic endeavour.
But it was through the church music that I first came into contact with an actual film in production, back when The Movie Evangelist was just a glint in the milkman’s eye. I had an e-mail from the writer and director of the film, a lady by the name of Dictynna Hood, and she’d been scouting for a village to use in her first full-length feature film. As there were potentially scenes in the church and involving two of the characters singing in the choir, I was involved in discussions about the possibility of using the choir on film. No sooner had my visions begun of seeing my name in lights – admittedly very tiny ones at the end of some credits – than the decision was made to go with a choir more suitable to the filming process: in other words much better singers than us and people who could be subjected to the vagaries of filming schedules more easily.
When the actual filming happened, it all pretty much passed me by. I was aware that something was happening, by the fact that the village pub had suddenly developed blacked out windows, but I can recall neither seeing a film star or anyone that looked like they might be a director of photography, a key grip or even a best boy. Consequently I thought little more about it until earlier this year, word came through to the village that the film was finally nearing completion, after a duration by no means uncommon in the world of movies, and that it was hoped to gain a cinema release later in the year. I also discovered at this point that the film had actual proper famous people in it, including Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch.
How had I missed that? Had it been kept secret to avoid hordes of screaming Cumberbatchites swamping the filming? Admittedly this was pre-Sherlock, before he became a household name (and any household, surely, would be thrilled to have such a fantastic name, packed full of rich consonants and exciting syllables), but he’d still been in Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl and Starter For 10 when he came filming, and I’m not saying the village isn’t exciting, but I’ve known people who’ll come out for the opening of a bottle of pop, never mind somebody famous. Or maybe I was just off in the cinema, taking in big screen dramas while a smaller one was unfolding right on my own doorstep. But when the news came in that there’d be a screening in the village of the film before it went to cinemas, it felt like too good an opportunity to pass up.
Which is how I found myself conducting my first actual interview, in a quaint little tea room in the next village, on a cold afternoon in November. I had engineered opportunities to talk to two other directors last year, one of whom was Mark Cousins, whose 15 part epic The Story Of Film sits unwatched on my Sky+ box as we speak, desperately waiting for me to find time to watch it. So the fact that this was actually coming to me seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and Dictynna and I enjoyed a cream tea, while talking about everything from the films of Michael Haneke to whether Benedict would make a good Doctor Who. (I’m still so busy that a month later, I still haven’t typed it up, and I’m even sat writing this on my iPhone on a train to London. But at least it’s in the can. Or the voice memos. Or something.)
The screening that followed that evening was a real triumph for the power of cinema to bring people together, and marked the first time that I’ve attended an advanced screening where the director brought crisps and home-made cakes for the audience. (I genuinely hope it’s not the last time.) Sadly, there was nowhere in the village with suitable facilities to hold the screening, but the nearest town has a hall where they hold a monthly cinema club with a projector and a big screen. Which I also hadn’t heard of. But that evening, over 100 villagers and a few curious members of the film club packed the hall to see an advanced screening of Wreckers.
It took me around ten minutes to actually be able to focus on the film itself. I’ve seen a few films where I’ve known the landmarks, and it does give a slightly eerie sense when watching the film; if you’ve ever seen London landmarks featured in a film and walked those streets, you’ll have some understanding of the principle. I also saw another British film recently, Weekend, which was filmed on the streets of Nottingham, and which caused me to have a few moments of recognition which took me out of the film slightly, having worked there for two years. But this is nothing to the effect of watching a film made on the very small streets of a village that’s been your home for the past four years, not least because film geography and actual geography can be two different things.
Take, for example, the church. There’s a number of scenes set both inside and outside the church, and on two occasions characters have a conversation outside the porch, then turn and walk off through the trees to their houses. Here’s a shot of the porch itself:
There are trees to the left of the porch, which the characters wander through on their way home. And here’s a shot of exactly what’s through those trees:
Yes, through the trees is not a leafy, tree-lined path, but a walled churchyard from which the only escape is the gate opposite the porch, in completely the other direction. The temptation to stand up and to shout at the screen “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!?!” was one that I barely resisted. Similarly, walking to your house through fields which are not connected, or walking to the school which appears to be in another village entirely in real life, were all disconcerting reminders that what we see on screen is a construct, and only as real as our imaginations, a point which Dictynna attempted to remind the audience of before the film.
The reaction afterwards was mixed, although I firmly believe that was the audience rather than the film. Every film needs to find its own audience, and Wreckers rather had one thrust upon it rather than naturally finding its own, but it was at least a lovely and heartfelt gesture to reward the patience of those that gave their time to its making. There is, I’m sure, some irony in the difference between the fictional village and its hotbed of infidelity and secrets, and the warm, open welcome which the actual villagers provided, but at least that generosity has been repaid in kind.
And as for me? Anyone who’s read this blog before may recall that I’ve already had one inanimate object I’d come into contact with become more famous than me; I have a music stand in church which I use when conducting, and that stand was used by the visiting choir’s director. It is in the film for around two seconds by my estimation, but it’s there on screen. If you look really closely.
So now, even my own music stand is more famous than I am. On reflection, It’s a good job I don’t like the taste of kangaroo testicles.