It’s been four months in coming, but here’s more of the story behind my first true adventure in genuine storytelling– or, what happens when an over-enthusiastic sixteen-year-old gets hold of a video camera and decides to make a film. For those who want to play catch up– the previous Alchemist-themed entries are all here, along with Youtube links, while here’s part one of the making-of story, and here’s part two. Otherwise, read on…
Part 3: The Show Must Go On
1991 dawned, and I had a schedule to work to. It was vital that I got all the filming done by the first week of March, otherwise I wasn’t going to have anything to do during the week I was planning on avoiding all lectures. The schedule was written down, and there would- theoretically- be enough time to do all of this, but it was dependant on a lot of things, including other people. I wasn’t going to be able to do this without help.
The people side of the equation was soon causing me some problems thanks to fellow Theatre Studies student Hayley Morgan abruptly dropping out from playing the lead. Admittedly, I should probably have worked out that she was unlikely to stay the course, but it would have been nice if she could have told me in person, rather than waiting for the first scheduled day of filming with her, not turning up, and then shouting through the door of the College Darkroom that she’d decided not to do it after all. Not much I could do about it, but it did leave me with a considerable problem. Wanting to direct, I knew I had to spend most of the time behind the camera, and while my exhibitionist tendencies meant I was damn well going to play a part, I only wanted it to be small. I was so sure I was going to play the exposition-spouting Intruder, I’d already filmed a short ‘TV insert’ that was going to appear in one sequence to fill in an important bit of plot-information, but it soon became clear that there was only one solution. If I was going to get The Alchemist to work, I needed to know that my actors were actually going to turn up, and the easiest way of doing that was by playing the biggest role myself. It wasn’t something I was happy about- I hadn’t written the part with myself in mind, and it was really just a generic cypher designed to be the hero, but I didn’t have any choice. This casting reshuffle also meant that Tris ended up not only playing the part of the main character’s friend, and the possessed Alchemist, but also the role of the Intruder. None of this was ideal, but it’s amazing how an approaching deadline sharpens up your ideas of what you’re prepared to do to get a project finished.
Another change in the project came thanks to the discovery that I could amalgamate another part of my Media Studies coursework into The Alchemist- it was a project entitled ‘Exercise in Style’, and as a result of a study of classic film noirs, I decided to restructure the opening of The Alchemist and turn it into a noir homage. I stole the idea of a shadowy figure in the opening credits from legendary 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, and the idea of rain-spattered streets, darkness and shadows led me to a conversation with my Dad– and soon, I had a new location for the opening of the film. The story would open with the hero trapped and hiding in a mine, and would then flashback to find out exactly how he got there. My Media Lecturers were starting to give me the kind of looks that suggested they thought I was barking mad, but my unstoppable determination seemed to be sweeping them along.
I was taking influences from everything I could lay my hands on– and while my rekindled love for beautifully mad Sixties action series The Prisoner was helping with a certain degree of surrealism (and led to the omniprescent appearences of a blue-and-white umbrella, which also features in many of my other productions), what really sent my mind spinning was the fact that season 2 of Twin Peaks was airing on BBC2. David Lynch’s exercise in soap-opera mania was regularly blowing my mind, and introducing me to ideas, visuals and concepts that would never have even occurred to me. As a result, obtaining a strobe light was top of my list and, thanks to a visit to the science block, we were soon in possession of one. I was searching through all the films I could to get ideas about how to shoot things in the most interesting way possible;- while we were studying films in Media Studies, we hadn’t moved much further beyond the principles of filming a conversation without breaking the ‘line of attention’ between the two characters. All important stuff, but when it came to chase sequences, I found myself scrolling through particular sequences of Die Hard, just to try and understand exactly how they worked and what it was that made them so exciting. As I started shooting, I started to find out certain ideas about what looked good and what didn’t– and my idea of what we’d be able to acheive began to evolve along the way.
Probably my biggest target, following my determination to ‘think big’ was to shoot a scene on the roof of the six-storey Art Block. In an earlier version of the script, there was even the idea that the Alchemist was going to be thrown off the roof, although how I was going to realise that is lost to the mists of time. Amazingly- despite repeated attempts- I wasn’t given permission to shoot up on the roof, although I did manage to score the chance to shoot on the roof of the one-story catering block. It was a fairly big, flat roof, with plenty of substructures dotted around, the kind that people frequently made escapes across in action thrillers, and the idea of shooting up there was definitively exciting– unfortunately, once the day arrived, I was so ill that any filming went right out of the window. And, just to add insult to injury, as soon as I was back to health and ready to start shooting the chase sequence again, Cornwall received one of its once-in-a-blue-moon snow storms, and outside filming was once again out of the question.
Plenty of the initial periods of filming have blended together in my memory, but the first few weeks, going from January 1991 into February, were intermittent, with occasional productive days interspersed with days when we’d be lucky to cram in a couple of shots inbetween lectures. Having divided up the script into chunks, I knew it was simply a matter of sticking to the schedule I’d worked out and gradually filling in the gaps. The whole thing took on a somewhat demented feeling of energy, as the only thing that mattered was getting to the end of February, and making sure I had something to edit. The idea of following rules was also thrown out fairly quickly, as we took over the wire-cage elevator in the Humanities Block, simply because I loved the exposed workings and retro 1930s feel of it. We weren’t even shooting something simple in there- it was one of the biggest dialogue sequences in the whole script, shot in conditions so cramped that Tris and I had to film each other’s reaction shots, and there was barely enough room for a shot of both of us. People complained afterwards, but we were moving too quickly to care.
Throughout all of it, however, Tris was there. Others helped out sometimes- particularly David Simpson, whose house we borrowed on two occasions to shoot a variety of sequences- but it was Tris who was there for virtually every single day of shooting, and putting up with all manner of indignities, especially when I had him dressed in a trenchcoat, gasmask and wide-brimmed hat, running around the College campus brandishing an airpistol (Actions which, I suspect, might get us in severe trouble if we’d tried them nowadays). He was the first to joke, the first to giggle during takes, the first to take the mickey out of me whenever I was taking things too seriously (which was frequently), but while he’d sometimes be a little late, he was always there, ready to help out. We’d been good friends before, but it was the insane experience of The Alchemist that truly welded us together, and kept us even better friends for years afterwards.
As we progressed, the script altered and changed, sometimes in good ways, and sometimes in bad. Unhappy with the dialogue for the initial scene between main character David and ‘the Intruder’, I decided (for some unknown reason) that improvisation would be the most sensible plan. What we ended up with (especially as we were shooting with only one camera) was a mess of a scene that was a nightmare to edit, but going back seemed to be too much bother. The whole thing had its own momentum, and even on a week where Tris disappeared off (I believe on work experience) I didn’t let the absence of anyone else deter me. As a result, there’s several shots in the big chase sequence that were taken simply by me setting up the camera, pressing record, and then sprinting into shot and hoping for the best– behaviour that earned me a universe of odd looks, but nothing was going to stop us– not even inclement weather, despite the fact that it played merry havoc with the continuity.
It was all fun. It was all good.
And then, came the final week….
(TO BE CONTINUED)