There I was in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Welbeck Street with my old partner in crime, John Mac (whose grandfather was the subject of one of my earlier posts - 'Bit of a Ladies' Man'), when the subject turned to my children's book (Sleeping with the Blackbirds), which I'd written some little while back.
John has boundless energy and is always looking to get involved in interesting projects, and it was his suggestion that I try and market the thing. I should explain here that the book was originally written for my kids and published by Penpress to raise money for the homeless charity Centrepoint. But following the publication and the drafting of a commercial participation agreement that released me from any tax liabilities, my wife became seriously ill and the book was put on the back burner and received precious little in the way of marketing.
As it happens, I had already written a script to promote the book that had featured a letter written by the tale's protagonist, 11-year-old schoolboy, Roy Nuttersley that appears at the beginning of the book. As an ungainly young boy who's being tormented by bullies, Roy writes to Amnesty International (only he refers to the charity as Amnesia International) pleading for their help.
I shared my script with John who loved the intrigue of it, but wasn't entirely convinced by all my visual thoughts, which were pretty static. "We just need something more visually dynamic," he said while scratching the top of his head.
In the letter narrated by Roy, we learn that his tormentor, Harry Hodges is the son of a criminal who is in prison, and it was this section of the script that excited John. "We have to find a prison to film in mate. Then we can move away from beautifully lit domestic still lifes and into atmospheric interiors with eery sound effects." I could see exactly where he was coming from and nodded in agreement. This was to be John's first valuable contribution.
His next visual idea concerned the very last scene in which Roy talks about offering his services free of charge for any future publicity. My original visual was a simple newspaper headline taken from the book. But John hated it - quite rightly. I didn't much care for it myself. He gave me one of his funny looks and I could tell he was deep in thought. "Look. It has to end with a dramatic crescendo - a flourish. I know... we can have a load of paparazzi shot against a black background firing off flashes in quick succession followed by a dramatic shot of a newspaper falling onto paving stones in slow motion." The thing with John is that he makes it all seem so easy. But he hadn't quite finished. "And to finish the whole thing, why don't we have a flock of animated blackbirds flying across the screen, forming a black background out of which we could reverse out some nice reviews?"
Most conversations of this nature would probably have just ended here. After all, the logistics of producing a short film like this to John's exacting standards would require a huge effort. But as with everything John throws himself into, he doesn't just do ideas; he carries them through. Within a couple of days he had produced an exquisite black and white storyboard that he had photographed himself and had arranged a meeting with his contacts at Hogarth Worldwide - London's premier post-production house. Needless to say, they loved it and were keen to produce it.
From this moment onwards the project began to take on a life of its own.
First off, we had to find the right voice for our eleven-year-old protagonist Roy Nuttersley. So at John's suggestion I ran an ad on the website Star Now, and set up an audition in the bar area of the Regents Park Holiday Inn. This is a perfect space for voice auditions as it's large, quiet and free. Ten parents answered the ad on behalf of their 11-year-old sons, along with one chap of 40 who was keen to audition for the part himself. Needless to say, we politely declined his offer but arranged to audition all the other candidates. We were very fortunate to have so many young actors to choose from, and by mid-day, we had pencilled two possible candidates, but following lunch this changed with the arrival of Jacob Tofts. His mother deliberately sat at another table so as not to distract her son, and Jacob took a quick look at the script and then proceeded to read it with such natural expression and feeling that John and I knew immediately that our quest was over. We'd found Roy Nuttersley. The following week we arranged to record Jacob at one of Hogarth's lovely sound studios. Jacob is not only very talented, but also utterly charming and personable. I have no doubt that this young lad has a very bright future ahead of him.
Finding a prison to film in isn't one of life's easiest tasks. John's initial idea was to use the prison set at Wimbledon Film Studios - the very same set that had been used by TV productions like The Bill. But we soon discovered that the studios had gone into liquidation in 2014 and that the film set had been torn down. So I looked into finding decommissioned prisons that one could hire out. But the trouble here was that these looked too modern for a suburban fantasy, were miles outside London and were also prohibitively expensive to hire. Most locations charge for the day; we only needed to film for a couple of hours. So it was with enormous relief that I stumbled upon Oxford Castle Unlocked, the 1,000 year old site that comprises various historic edifices including a crypt, and yes, a prison - or to be more precise, Prison D-Wing. The gaol was built in the 1800s and remained in use as a high security prison until 1996, and the whole site is now run as a museum. I was on the blower right away and discovered that we could film for an hour before the place opened to the general public. With these facts quickly established it was time to arrange our first recce.
As we thought, the prison with its corridors, creaky gates and Dickensian cells was absolutely perfect for our purposes. The only problem was that John was going to need a minimum of two hours to set up and shoot at least four sequences, so he took the manager aside and suggested we double the fee if the museum could double the filming time by opening up 2 hours earlier. It worked, and two weeks later we were back, this time with camera, lenses, lighting equipment and a fully kitted out prison guard in the form of one Philip Francis. Phil does a lot of film extra work and looked the part in his prison guard's uniform, which I had managed to secure from Foxtrot costumiers and ebay. While John positioned his camera and lighting for the first shot Phil told me about his previous jobs. Among other things he'd been a gardener and had lovingly tended the late Douglas Adams's garden.
With the central section of the film in the can, we now had to find props and a studio for all the other scenes. My first port of call would be The Stockyard in the less than salubrious NW10; an extraordinary Aladdin's Cave of a place. Whatever you need for your film production, you'll find it here, whether it's great big Grecian columns, Norman arches, statues, water mills, petrol pumps, bus stations - you name it. With the constant stream of vast articulated lorries coming and going and carrying off enormous quantities of props for some far-flung multi-million pound productions, I felt something of a fraud. After all, all I needed was a couple of antique book shelves, some old books and a few fake rubber flagstones. The lovely Reg who's been part of the place man and boy helped us find everything we needed and arranged for a couple of strapping lads to put it all in the back of my old jalopy of a car. Then I had to spend the best part of a week tracking down all our other props - everything from flooring and tablecloths to camping stoves, teddy bears and kettles - all of which had to look right in camera in black and white. This entailed trawling the internet where possible, but more often than not, traipsing round fabric suppliers, DIY warehouses and specialist shops.
The studio we chose to use was Photofusion in Brixton. It's a good space, and being Brixton, doesn't charge West End prices. It took John three full days to shoot most of our set-ups here, including the paparazzi, one of whom was yours truly minus spectacles.
The opening shot of the clock was shot in John's living room, and the final setup of the stack of newspapers falling onto the paving slabs was filmed in my garden at night. For authenticity, I mocked up the front page of the fictitious Echo that appears in the book and even went as far as setting the type for the editorial. John was keen to create a rain machine for this scene to add atmosphere, but as luck would have it, the heavens opened for real. This, however, was very bad news indeed, and caused John to swear and curse profusely, as it meant he'd be unable to use his very expensive tungsten lighting, which would be open to the elements. The alternative was battery operated LED lighting, which was fine until John realised that he'd need some 'fill-in light' to highlight the side of the newspaper stack. After much further swearing and cursing I offered my mobile phone, which has a powerful LED torch. Surprisingly, it worked beautifully. While my son helped operate the Heath Robinson rain machine, I had the unenviable task of dropping the stack of newspapers onto the fake paving stones while being rained on by the rain machine as well as the real thing. I think we did about 30 takes, and my son had a lot of fun soaking his old man in the process.
With everything filmed, it was back to Hogarth to talk about music and sound effects. From my own experience of making commercials, music can often be something of a sticking point, but in this event, we got lucky from the outset. Andy the brilliant young sound engineer at Hogarth played us two tracks that he thought had the right feel. The first one was very good, but the second was absolutely perfect, and John very cleverly suggested building a ticking clock into the rhythm section to tie in with our opening scene.
A couple of days later, we were invited by Vee, Hogarth's senior editor to come and have a look at the first rough cut. Seeing this on the big screen for the first time was quite something, and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It worked really well, and little Jacob's voice sang out as clear as a bell, while both music and sound effects added just the right level of atmosphere and intrigue.
The animated blackbirds sequence was the last piece of the jigsaw, and as John rightly said when he had the idea in the first place, it would be "a beautiful and memorable way to finish the film."
It's mind-boggling how much work goes into producing a two minute film. But you know instinctively when it gives you goosebumps after the first viewing that you've done something right, and that all that hard work had been worth it.
View the film here:
Take a look at the website and hear Nigel Havers read an introduction and some extracts here.