FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist”, Part 2

The story of the making of my first true adventure in genuine storytelling- a one-hour, no-budget sci-fi/fantasy adventure- continues. If you want to know what happenned before, here’s part one– otherwise, read on…

Part 2: Man with a Mission

October, 1990. I’d finally arrived at sixth form college, and was attempting to get my head around the severe change of circumstances. Suddenly, lessons were called ‘lectures’, they were much further apart in time, leading to more free time than I knew what to do with, and the relationship between student and teacher was suddenly a lot less informal than we were used to. In the case of English lecturer Paul Vibert, it was a little bit too much for some– our previous English teacher had been Mr Brown, a traditional but very good teacher who looked like someone had taken a rubber model of Richard Gere and stretched it to make him more gangly, and now, we had a spiky-haired bloke who dressed in denim and surf-shorts, swore nine to the dozen, and spent most of our first lecture singing the praises of indie band Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. His full-on style and his habit of being breathtakingly rude to anyone who didn’t pull their weight meant that plenty of people hated his guts after less than a month, but I never had that many problems- mainly because my rocky secondary school years had been full of plenty of people teasing me and being generally unpleasent, so Vibert would have had to have tried an awful lot harder to get me upset.

One thing was for certain, though- it was a wild and weird new world, and there was no way I was letting the presence of an edit suite, several VHS camcorders and even a small photographic studio go unchecked. I was going to make something, and I knew my friend Tris was game as well– we were together in almost every single lecture, and those two years rank as some of the happiest times of my life.

The one decision that saved me from simply repeating my mistakes from Secondary School, was when I finally realised I was going to have to finish the script before we started filming. I’d fallen prey to the “Hell, let’s just go film something!!” temptation many times before, and run out of momentum as a result. I had to prove to myself that I could do this, so I was going to have to get it all down on paper. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I would have to know where the story was going before I had a hope of actually making it.

There were certain advantages I had. One of the first was simply being in Cornwall. Full of photogenic, rugged landscapes, it’s a staggeringly beautiful area, and it took moving to London before I genuinely appreciated it. So much of Cornwall was there for the taking, and I had an extra advantage– my dad worked as a Mine Captain for the Camborne School of Mines, and oversaw two areas where Geology and Engineering students could actually learn about mining and working underground for real– Holmans Test Mine, and King Edward Mine, both only a few miles from where I lived. With plenty of interesting old buildings and waste areas, I had a whole selection of potential locations to work from, and- after a few careful conversations with my Dad- he even had an area he used to test detonators and explosives, and, if I wanted, he could set one off for me. I could actually get an explosion in the film- I just had to work out what was going to go around it.

I’d like to be able to say that inspiration struck me as a result of a dream, or on an afternoon walk– but, I’ve always been a bit of a magpie, and all it takes is seeing the right kind of story or image for me to think “Wow- I could really use that!” In the case of The Alchemist, the missing ingredient was a BBC adaptation of The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, which starred Albert Finney and turned out to be hugely entertaining, as well as being a ghost story told in a relatively challenging, off-beat manner. I haven’t read the original book, but I would be surprised if Kingsley Amis started it off with an Evil Dead-style sequence with an evil tree, or if he treated the ghost more like a science-fiction style manifestation than an ethereal villain. There’s even an appearence from a business-suited God that’s played with a completely straight face and manages to be both thrilling, funny and slightly scary. It fitted perfectly with my weird world-view, and what I particularly loved was the final episode, where Albert Finney’s character confronts the ghost of the sixteenth-century magician, and then ends up in a race against time to try and get rid of a metal artifact that he’s recently dug up, in order to save his daughter. It was brilliant, gripping, horror movie stuff, and as well as leaving me with that brain-frazzled, happy feeling of having watched something hugely satisfying, it also got me thinking. I knew the locations I could get away with filming. I knew I wanted an explosion. I also knew I fancied shooting some off-beat dream sequences.

Gradually, something was coming together in my head- it was, essentially, a flagrant rip-off of The Green Man, but there would be a chance to shoot a wide variety of scenes, from dialogue to action. It had serious potential. It would be called The Alchemist– a title I’d seen on a rental video box years ago, and which struck me as dramatic enough to pack some punch. Eventually, I had a rough structure worked out- it would be the story of two friends, one of whom digs up a piece of metal which- without him realising- actually contains the mind of a 12th Century Alchemist. They’d been trapped there for eight hundred years, not realising that the presence of an infrequent comet was a necessary ingredient to the process. Now, the comet returns, the Alchemist gets free, takes over the body of one of them, and the other has to find a way of stopping the Alchemist before his mental possession becomes permanent. This would all be done with the help of a mysterious, dream-like observer, who- in my original conception of the story- was going to be played by me. There was no way I wasn’t giving myself a part, but I wanted to work it so that the part I played was as minimal as possible, and I could stay behind the camera. At least, that was the plan…

The discovery which really made a difference, without which I doubt I’d ever have been able to get away with as much as I did, was when I discovered from my Media Studies lecturers– (Furry-cheeked Tim Beattie, and Elaine Hawkins, the woman with a croaking laugh that Tris impersonated so many times, he actually ended up genuinely laughing like her for a while…)– that for my Media Studies A-Level, 25% of my coursework was to be made up of a ‘Free Choice’ assignment, a project where we were allowed to do exactly what we liked. Any genre, any media, any method, as long as we could justify our plan to the lecturers, we could do it, and no limits of any kind. After a few enquiries, I found out that, as long as I could sell them the idea, I could do anything I wanted, and suddenly, The Alchemist went from a daft little side project to fill my spare time, to something I was going to be able to do with official college backing. The temptation to laugh dramatically and yell “Nozzink in ze world can stop me now!” was tempting, but I somehow restrained myself. On top of everything else, we somehow managed to work it so that The Alchemist would also act as Tris’ free choice project as well, and were soon ferociously planning exactly how much we were going to be able to get away with.

By mid November 1990, the script was done, and printed out. Thanks to the fairly primative word processor I was using (which was run on a BBC Model B, and printed out on a dot-matrix printer), the formatting wasn’t exactly Hollywood standard- single space, and rather small type. I’d recently learned in Media Studies that in filmmaking terms, one page equalled one minute, so when my script ran to about twenty five pages, I figured I knew exactly how long it was going to be. I don’t remember much about that original version, now lost to the mists of time- but I do remember that the ending was surprisingly unexciting. Everything built up to a big confrontation at College between the main character and the possessed Alchemist- there was a brief fight, the main character snatched back the metal carving that contained the Alchemist’s mind, ran for it, and was able to get rid of it. End of story. It was David Simpson, one of my other school friends (with whom I had a relationship which went, yoyo-like, from good to dreadful and back again) read it, and pointed out how the ending was rather flat. I ended up agreeing with him, and so recrafted the chase into something that might be actually fun to watch.

While this was happening, I was scribbling down plans in a notebook. Going through the script, I divided everything up into sections, and started trying to work out how long it was going to take to film everything. I also knew, from my previous experience with the Rock Mime videos, that editing always takes about ten times longer than you wanted it to. I’d overrun massively, and that was just attempting to cut together two seperate shots, as well as dubbing sound over the top. With The Alchemist, I was entering a whole different ball game, and was well aware that I was attempting something that was very ambitious. The one thing I didn’t want to do was shoot tons of footage, and then end up having to snatch an hour of editing here and there.

There was only one way in which I could actually see it working, and this was where it paid to think ahead, and also to throw caution to the wind. I was going to need alot of time. Instinctively, I knew that I was going to need at least a week. Five days solid in the edit suite, and I would probably have something close to the finished product. If I was honest with myself, I knew I’d probably need more time on top of that. It was going to be a major job, and if I’d needed a lecturer’s permission to book the edit suite, things would have been extremely difficult. As it was, however, I didn’t need a lecturer’s permission. I could go ahead and book it myself, and if I wanted it for a week, all I had to do was book it far enough ahead.

Of course, there was no way I was ever going to be given permission to disappear from my lectures for an entire week. There was no way I was going to get every single one of my lecturers to give me the go ahead to do this. All it would take would be one to say a definite “No, you’re not allowed,” and I’d have been sunk. Therefore… I decided what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, and I didn’t tell them. I booked the edit suite for the entirety of the first week of March 1991, and then grabbed it for all of my free periods for the week after, figuring that would have to be fairly close to being enough. Not surprisingly, the diary for the edit suite was rather clear four months in advance, and the booking was in. The countdown had now begun– I had to have all of the footage done by the first week of March, otherwise I wasn’t going to have anything to edit.

We had a script. We had locations. I even managed to talk one of my fellow Theatre Studies classmates, a girl called Hayley Morgan, into playing the lead role. I was going to be playing the mysterious ‘Intruder’ who would unload most of the plot exposition, and Tris would be playing Darren, the guy who got taken over by the Alchemist. We had the added assistance of David Simpson on camera duties when available, and the advantage of being able to say “it’s for a college project!” when trying to organise things.

We were ready for anything. What could possibly go wrong?


9 thoughts on “FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist”, Part 2

    • Re: Elaine Hawkins
      Well, sir, memory may be cheating, but I do remember that your laugh did get kinda surreal for a few months circa 1990-1991. Although you did flush it out of your system eventually…


      • Re: Elaine Hawkins
        Weeellll, it was rude of me not to really.
        Are you going to cover “The essence of a Super Lion….
        and phallically challenged Jackie Cornwall?


      • Re: Elaine Hawkins
        Oh and by the way – you didn’t happen to catch that recent documentary all about alchamy last week on Channel 4 did you?
        I was tittering to myself all the way through it but I gotta admit – you sure did your homework before the video was made!
        I kept expecting the narrator to start going on about “John of Littleton”…


      • Re: Elaine Hawkins
        Didn’t catch it. My TV situation is rather complex at the moment, due to dodgy arials and being in a bad reception area.
        I was tittering to myself all the way through it but I gotta admit – you sure did your homework before the video was made!
        Much as I’d like to say that that’s true, I think it had more to do with lying convincingly in a way that kind of fitted the facts…
        (I’ve never gone strongly for research)


      • Re: Elaine Hawkins
        Probably not- although I will be giving Jackie a mention as she’s the only one who actually gave me a telling off for quietly disappearing from lectures for an entire week to edit. I know plenty of people were unhappy, but most of it was second hand…
        Lord love Gerry Finch and his curly-haired, eccentric vibe. Acoustic testing has never been the same again. The guy was a complete fruitbat- but I still slightly preferred him to the sweaty mutant Lloyd-Webber lookalike David ‘Gregor’ Gregg…


      • Re: Elaine Hawkins
        (The above was replying to your previous post. Livejournal’s comment structures occasionally give me a headache…)


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