FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist”- Part 3

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….


6 thoughts on “FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist”- Part 3

  1. That Bloody Lift…
    I remember us being severely crammed in that lift, I had a raging cold, sounding snotty as hell, trying to deliver dialogue (from the script which which was held just out of shot) Learn it? I had trouble pronouncing half of it…
    The the strobe light came into play.
    I’m sure I have been affected in some way from being in such a confined space, in such dark conditions, with a strobe going at it ten to the dozen. Then every now and then, inexplicably, it would start to click as it flashed, rendering the 14 paragraphs of speech I’d just delivered useless.
    We would also hear people milling round in the corridor outside, which again, occasionally would ruin the sound and I’m sure there were a few curse words uttered by people realising we’d commandeered the lift for the whole morning. I’m sure Sax wanted the umbrella putting up in the lift at one point but realising there was no way we could do it in there without gouging out our eyes, we simply put it up in the corridor outside instead.
    The sequences where the dialogue was delivered outside was pretty scarring too.
    We were filming right between the science block and the mechanics training building. From the science block on one side we’d hear abuse like “Go on, melt him with a bunsen burner” and “let’s flick potassium manganate at them”, then the mechanics abused us fom the other with discussion of the insertion of various metallic proboscises into unmentionable anatomical parts using words that I’d never heard before at the time but have heard plenty of times since.
    My one saving grace was being in ‘disguise’. At least I could keep the balaclava on so I wouldn’t be recognised as easily as Sax.
    It was quite a heady mixture of fun, fear and adrenaline shooting that footage.
    We also had the horrific problems with continuity, where most of the sequence was in relatively bright early morning dewy grassed areas, then there was a shot or 2 right outside the college library where I brandished a gun directly at Sax’s face – which was filmed in pouring rain. Then a few last minute script revisions meant that we had to film a couple of tight head shots in May or June, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – and I was there, this time in front of the catering block, in a t-shirt and jeans, delivering dialogue with a balaclava on.
    Sweaty didn’t even come close…


    • Re: That Bloody Lift…
      Okay- this is odd. I just got two responses from you, one of which had a little extra on it.
      The missing material was this:
      I think the mine will live with me for the longest. Possibly one of the most fascinating places I have ever been, let alone make a sci-fi spectacular in. Our main problem was lighting it. We had no lights, merely a few torches but it did kind of make for a few moody shots.
      I always laugh at the sequence where I killed Sax’s dad – just so I can take his helmet into the mine.
      Yes folks, even 12th Century Alchemists need to adhere to the rigid health and safety laws prevalent in today’s society.
      “Have you been injured in a trip or fall at work that wasn’t your fault? Have you been possessed by any unruly spirits trapped in buried 12th century carvings? if so call Injuryandpossession Lawyers 4 U”…

      It should be pointed out here that Tris didn’t actually kill my dad. And yes, the sequence where the Alchemist kills a passing miner to hi-jack his helmet is utterly ridiculous, but it’s also a very good example of the kind of “Oh hell, we’re going to have to do something” thinking on our feet philosophy that we had to use. I basically thrashed that sequence together in about twenty minutes when we realised there was no way in hell Dad was letting either of us underground without a safety helmet.
      I don’t remember any heckling when filming that dialogue bit. It’s very possible that I was just “in the moment”, but you’ve got to remember that I actually had to go back there and film stuff on my own a couple of weeks later. If anything did happen, it’s lost to the mists of time.
      Ah, nostalgia….


      • Re: That Bloody Lift…
        I edited that out because when I re-read your original post, it ended on “then came the final week”…
        I wasn’t sure whether you were going to go into any more depth about the mine sequences and I didn’t want to steal your thunder.
        I am sorry.


      • Re: That Bloody Lift…
        I would also like to point out that I didn’t take any joy in “killing” Saxon’s dad either. When I said I laughed, it wasn’t a Delgado style cackle as I mowed him down in a maelstrom of lighting effects – it was more the “stealing of the helmet” that was amusing.
        Plus the fact that the standard helmets were those lovely white or blue plastic moulded jobbies, which didn’t really go with my costume. Your dad’s helmet was a lovely old fashioned brown leathery stylee one (did I really just say that???) that suited the costume much better.
        Hence the cold blooded murder.
        Didn’t we both try and co-erce him into letting us into the mine without one and when he just sort of looked at us, we gave up and improvised the necessary scenes?


      • Re: That Bloody Lift…
        As for the heckling, I think you were too busy being wound up with me pissing around so much, doing Nev (David Nevett, not Nev the bear from CBBC on Sunday mornings) impressions right into the camera to notice the commotion outside. There were definitely a few bangs on the doors and if I recall, the science department was particularly put out, because they had big trolleys of chemicals they had to push around the corridors.


  2. Don’t worry about stealing any thunder- to be honest, it’s taken me nearly four months to do part three, and I don’t even know if anyone’s reading this other than us!
    Yes- the “Alchemist steals the helmet” bit was a result of Dad giving us an icy stare. Weirdly enough, despite the fact that it’s ridiculous, it actually all cut together pretty well- much better than some of the stuff that was better planned… (Hmm…)
    Sorry- I meant the heckling when we were doing the stuff outside with you wearing the official Alchemist(TM) balaclava. Don’t have any memories of any heckling there. (Although I do remember that the original dialogue there was bloody awful- and while the reshoots are very obvious (Hello blue sky) it’s a hell of a lot better). And hooray for completely nonsensical continuity! (This is the film, after all, where I knock you out as a result of hiding in a corner where I was in full view. After a while, realism really wasn’t on the agenda…)
    Yes, I remember all the lift-related stuff, though. As with many things from that time, I think the only way we got away with it was just going ahead, doing it, and then running away very quickly…


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