Two Man Army Part III
Pack your bags
Before I knew it, it was summer 2018 and I decided the best thing to do would be to move to The Lake District. The only way to make a film 200 miles away from my house in Bristol was to live on location, this has always been the case with all our films. The process of pre-production is quite hands-on and you need to be close to your filming locations so you can scout them and communicate with people about what you’re doing. I think it was around late June time that me, Adam and Shane moved into a little bungalow in Ambleside. We set to work trying to come up with a story to shoot, sitting on three big bean-bags in the loft with a whiteboard. So it began.
The script started off as a creature film set on a lake island! It gradually changed into an adventure movie and I had this idea about semi-spoofing Stand By Me (1986). It would have a very similar start and follow a group of young guys who discover a dead body. Only our body would be carried around by a murderous A.W.O.L soldier! The Lakes is a regular training ground for the military and it made sense to somehow work this into the story to add some fun action.
Everything stopped. Adam was pretty stressed out, and at one point he just said “Right, I’m going to Thailand for a bit.” And just like that he was gone for a few weeks. Planning a film can take its toll on you; it’s a grinding 24/7 type of task and when all you’re doing is working, coming home and doing effectively more work and then spending your weekends location scouting it can drain you fast. So I can see why Adam pulled the ripcord. We all need a break from time to time.
Upon returning Adam looked me straight in the face and said, I don’t like the script, I don’t like any of the characters… “Hi Adam, how was the trip?” Oh man, get wrecked. Well… fair enough? I wasn’t going to force Adam to shoot anything he didn’t really like or believe in. This kind of honestly is really important when collaborating, it can be hard to hear but in the end it always makes for a better result. The projects are ours and I take his opinion on the material seriously. So with little over a month till filming, we sat down on our bean-bags and started over.
Do I know you from somewhere?
I was still working on the script when we started casting. This was quite an easy process as we had a good idea of who we wanted in the film. Firstly we wanted to get Joe Ashman back. He had featured in our WW2 film The Manor (2018) and had recently landed a good Netflix role. We get on really well with Joe so he was more than happy to be in the film. It also provided an opportunity for him to finally act alongside his friend Jack Crutch who he recommended to play James. The two had grown up together but had never had the opportunity to share the screen.
Next up was Lee Armstrong, who has the very first line in Dunkirk (2017). We met Lee early in the year at a film festival in London where The Fence (2018) took home one of its very few awards. I mentioned our plan to make a summer film and I asked if he’d be interested? And he was! Our cast was now looking really good for a no-budget short but we were struggling to fill the last friend of the group, Pete. We had a few people drop out of the role and in a last ditch effort contacted our filmmaker friend from university, Mr Sam Fowler. Sam lived not too far away in York and although he mostly writes and directs, he loves any opportunity to step in front of the camera.
Endings are hard
I was having real trouble finishing the script. I remember all the actors calling me asking when I would send the draft over? Because we were only a few weeks away from shooting and I hadn’t sent anything out! I remember a few days of waking up and immediately beginning to write in bed. I really didn’t have anything climactic in mind for the finale of the film. which was causing an issue with locations because I didn’t know where to shoot what I hadn’t written yet… if that makes sense? There was this hilarious day when we travelled quite a distance to find an old abandoned ruin in the woods that I had found a picture of online. It was very cinematic looking and would have made for a cool shootout finale. However all we had to go off to find it were some coordinates, and when we stood on the theoretical X something seemed totally wrong.
Not only was there no ruin to be seen, but we were stood in an open field, how? The picture is a ruin surrounded by dense forest with trees over 50ft tall in all directions. It was puzzling and we wandered around the area for a short while scratching our heads. Eventually I tripped on a large tree stump. I kicked more of the long grass aside to reveal another stump, and another, and another. It would appear that this was now a deforested sight. More rummaging produced the bare bones of a few shallow rock walls, the ruined remains of the… ruin.
Nothing went fine on Fine By Me
This shoot made me quit. Without sounding too dramatic I’m not much of a quitter but I was well and truly beat by this little film. Everything that could go wrong, did and it felt like a relentless pasting.
Problems began on day one, scene one. We were shooting a pub scene at 06:00AM Monday morning and the Landlady was instantly unhappy with us being around. We had acquired permission from her partner the landlord, but it seemed she would be the one present. She did nothing but moan and question why there were so many of us? Why we had so much kit? And when would we be leaving? To my amazement, locals were coming into the pub at 09:00AM to read the paper and order a pint! The locals weren’t too pleased with us disrupting their early morning ritual and by 11:00AM we were kicked out of the pub with an incomplete scene. Yikes. After some serious begging we were allowed back in the following morning to finish the scene, but this was a shocking start.
We travelled to a spillway for the next scene and on the drive it began to absolutely chuck it down. Rain so heavy it was like a wall you could just about see through. It did not stop and we had no choice but to attempt the scene in the wet. Hilariously we had only packed one umbrella…Quality! The only saving grace was that it was August, so despite being soaked to the bone it was still mild in temperature. So to report, we have one incomplete scene and another completely waterlogged… Nice.
The following morning we were straight back inside the pub and the camera began playing up. We didn’t know why or exactly what was wrong with it but it seemed to be struggling for power so we swapped some batteries and the scene was wrapped up. Upon exiting the pub Adam’s car had run out of battery so we needed to jump start it before we could move to the next location, which was a 20 minute drive, followed by a short but steep hike into the woods. Upon arriving in the woods we needed to rig the camera to a small gimbal so we could run with it smoothly. However after two or three practise runs the camera really started to go wrong. Half of the frame (the image) disappeared and there was a bizarre kind of wobble effect happening to the picture. Nothing we did seemed to fix it so we packed it all up and dragged are heels back to the car.
There was still a good few hours of daylight left so we decided to travel to another location to shoot a scene planned for a different day. It was a precarious climb down into a lagoon like quarry which took over an hour to travel all the gear and set up. We popped off a few shots using our backup camera (A second Sony A7s MkII) before it also decided to die. What the hell was happening to us? Now shattered, annoyed and frankly embarrassed in front of the cast and team we travelled back to base (the bungalow) to discuss what was happening. It was nearly the end of the second day and we had two scenes under our belt (Just) and two broken cameras.
I’m now in my room (switching to present tense) with several of the cast and crew all asking me what are we doing now? What’s the plan? And my head is spinning, I have no idea what to do or where to go, the schedule is shot. I charge out of the room, go straight into the bathroom and begin throwing up. Something is really off because no matter how much I seem to bring up, I don’t stop feeling terrible. I try to go back into the room but as I do my sight starts to blow out, and it begins to sound like I’m under water. What I’m experiencing for the first time in my life, is a panic attack. This may read a little dramatic but I had never experienced anything go so badly before. And I’ve always felt a great deal of pressure to do well for my family, to not waste the sacrifices they’ve made for me to have the chance to be a filmmaker and I just felt like I was letting everyone down in this moment. I kind of pass out for a second or two and the next thing I know I’m lying on my back with my head resting on my girlfriend Vanezza’s lap. After about ten minutes I’m functional, but I’m white in the face and I’ve had it with this project.
Adam comes into the room and he also looks pretty awful. He kneels down in-front of me (I’m sat against the wall now) and says “If you wan’t to just stop everything right now. I’m okay with that.” And I say that I do. We convince ourselves (Easily) that now’s just not the time and we can try to do this again later in the year (Which we definitely can’t). Sam Fowler comes into the room and asks what we’re doing, and we tell him we’re stopping. Now Sam had recently finished shooting his first feature film (The Young Cannibals, 2019) in the unforgiving terrain of Snowdonia (Welsh Mountain range) at night. His crew filmed for several weeks and were battered by weather and fatigue so he was no stranger to tough filming situations and to him our problems weren’t real problems. He gave a short speech about how we were fine, how we had lots of time and that we just needed to grab a camera and get back out there A.S.A.P.
Inspired for another round. Me and Adam dragged (switching back to past tense) ourselves up and told everyone to put their hiking boots back on. Sam suggested that we shoot an easy scene, something we knew well in a location that wasn’t too far and we knew just the scene. We were however out of cameras… (For the record that’s £4000 of cameras cooked inside 24hrs) so with no other options we rigged our behind-the-scenes stills camera (A canon 5D MkIII) to be our new cinema rig and it was a total monstrosity. Nicknamed the Frankenstein camera. Not pretty, but it would have to do. Normally in these tough situations, you really want to believe that your choice to carry on and persevere was the tough part, a break-through moment where the tide turns for you. Let me tell you, things did not get easier fast.
We arrived at the location and it was literally under water. The river bank that was originally a quiet, sunny, pebble-beached oasis was now a white water rafting zone. But with Sam pushing me and Adam in the backs we continue and we ground out the scene second by second, and although it was absolutely nothing like we had planned, it was done and there was a small victory to be celebrated that night.
However, after filming a few more scenes Adam wasn’t happy with the footage we were getting on the 5D and decided we should take a risk. We couldn’t match the A7s for resolution but we could hack the camera to shoot 14bit colour. The ‘catch’ is that we wouldn’t have any playback (Meaning we can’t watch any shots back) and the file sizes would be huge. This was a big call but we decided to go for it, thinking at this point it was all or nothing and we’d come this far. It turned out similar to our experience shooting on film and ended up making us quite efficient in the end. The footage looked much better and the most we suffered from then on was a broken microphone and a few dropped scenes, but nothing half as bad as those first two days. Thank you Sam Fowler.
Yes but did you die?
After seven days of principle photography. Everybody went home. It was odd seeing our tiny bungalow emptied out in a flash. We put 14 adults in a three bed… which was actually more like a 2.5 bed. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is walking out of my room in the morning to find Lee Armstrong shaving his stubble straight onto the carpet using a reflective radiator as a mirror. By the second day it was carnage and nobody cared about personal presentation anymore.
We still had some missing scenes so me Adam and Shane would need to body-double for the actors in order to get the missing shots. This was only made harder by the simple fact that there was just three of us and we needed to film at least three people running around. This is why if you focus on any of the running scenes you’ll usually only see two people in the frame at one time.
One of these missing scenes involved the characters leaping off a cliff to desperately escape the pursuing solider. We had already faked someone falling off a waterfall but this was different and I couldn’t see a way of doing it without really doing it. So I went and found a cliff to jump off.
The 50ft cliff in question can be found at Banishead quarry in Broughton-in-Furness. I had seen some videos of people jumping into it so I presumed it to be “Safe enough” for us. Adam and Shane were dead against it. They would not do the jump for love or money. I wrongfully retaliated by calling them both wimps. I conjured the idea to do the jump myself to show them how easy it would be. I was wrong. The next morning I found myself stood on the edge of the drop, looking way down at the placid, black water. It’s a really miserable day to boot and so, looking unbothered (Even though I was really bricking it), I shouted “COUNT ME DOWN THEN!” and Adam counted down from three.
You know it’s quite the fall when you have time to think about how much falling you’re doing. I hit the water really hard and when I surfaced my leg and shoulder cramped up, making swimming quite difficult. I tried not to panic and gradually paddled my way to the waters edge. White as a ghost I looked up at Shane and Adam and said “I’m really sorry, you do not have to do that.” So the plan was to have me do the jump three times in each characters costume and Adam would composite the shots into one. However, that night, Shane decided he was going to jump with me! Adam was furious with Shane, although he still insisted he wouldn’t jump.
We waited for a sunny day and hiked are way up to the quarry. Adam had ‘accidentally’ forgotten the tripod… so we had to build one by stacking up pieces of slate (which is everywhere in Lake District). We stuck a life-jacket under Shane’s costume (We only had one) and climbed up to the edge. We must have told each other 17 times who was going left and who was going right because the last thing we needed was to land on each other. This time I was fully clothed on the jump and I can’t say I’ve done much fully clothed swimming so I was very nervous. I also made the mistake of looking down as I landed which resulted in me basically being punched in the face by the water. I surfaced with a bleeding lip to find Shane gasping for air and saying “Will, Will, I’m not okay, help.” Struggling myself I paddled over and calmed him down a bit before we both swam to safety.
The sun was now really hitting the spot where we were, so climbing out felt really warm and bright. Shane was absolutely buzzing with joy and confidence, he was like “That was amazing! I’d do that again!” This only made things worse for Adam who was now climbing into costume. I was like “You don’t have to Adz.” to which he replied “No! I bloody have to now don’t I. God sake.” Very funny at the time I must say. You could hear him bitching all the way up, but fair play he launched himself straight off the top. He climbed out shivering, still bitching about us as we wrapped a heated towel around him and handed him a flask of hot chocolate.
What doesn’t kill you
Filming was complete and we sat at the bottom of that quarry for hours just skipping stones in the bright sunshine. It was a golden moment, one I’ll never forget. We had really struggled on this one, unlike anything before, but we’d come out of it with some great footage and our friendship still intact. From now on we’d always joke that “Well it can’t be much worse than Fine By Me.” And having that experience for reference would make us a stronger unit, capable of taking things to the next level. And that’s exactly what we did.
Tune in next time for part IV as I dive into me and Adam deciding how exactly to step things up. Trying our hand at horror before tackling the biggest challenge of our lives, The Fence feature film.
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Thank you as always, till next time.