Sex and the city - Suffolk style
ANDREW CLARKE Two East Anglian film-makers have just made the most star-studded British movie of the year. Andrew Clarke caught up with them and found out how they had to persuade actors and crew to give up their time to make a film for almost nothing.
It may have a slightly erotic, come-hither, title but to East Anglian film-makers Ed Blum and Aschlin Ditta, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, their debut movie together, is a gentle, poignant - and above all funny - look at the lives of seven couples who pass by one another on Hampstead Heath.
It's obviously an opinion shared by most of Britain's acting luminaries because, based on the quality of the script alone, Ewan McGregor, Adrian Lester (Hustle), Catherine Tate, Hugh Bonneville, Gina McKee (Notting Hill), Benjamin Whitrow (Pride and Prejudice), Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge (Red Cap), Mark Strong (Syriana), Polly Walker (Rome), Andrew Lincoln (This Life) and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) all signed up to take parts in the film for Equity minimum wages and with no financing for the film in place.
Newmarket-born director Ed Blum is still is state of shock. He says that with two weeks before filming began, they had virtually no cast and no money. Hugh Bonneville was the first to come on board, then Gina McKee, then Ewan McGregor and Douglas Hodge - who were then appearing in Guys and Dolls together at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Ed remembers the moment when he took the phone call which told him that Ewan, Britain's biggest contemporary movie star, had committed to his debut feature. “It took a minute or two for the news to sink in. Then I put the phone down and just started jumping up and down.”
Ed and Ipswich writer Aschlin Ditta have been friends since they attended school together in Ely, Cambridgeshire. The pair have since moved to London and work extensively in TV - Ed directing The Bill and Crimewatch and Aschlin appearing in and writing The Catherine Tate Show. But both have been yearning to take the next step onto the big screen.
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Aschlin remembers a fateful evening last year: “We had got together to have a drink and just chat some things over when Ed came out with this amazing statement: 'We have to make a film by next summer'. I made generally encouraging and supportive noises but I didn't think it would really happen.
“We batted a few ideas around - Ed was very keen on this film happening on Hampstead Heath, which he regards a forgotten area of London, I said I had a few ideas floating around - short stories almost - which I thought would eventually end up in a book or something but I said I would go away and try to turn these stories into a film script.”
Ed adds: “I think that Hampstead Heath is one of the lovely parts of London - a very romantic place - which only exists for the locals. It's an oasis and provides a picturesque background to bring together a number of different stories. When we were planning the film I realised that it would be easier and quicker to shoot if it was all set outside because we wouldn't need expensive lighting or pay for locations. Also, if actors were needed for short scenes then they were more likely to come on board for the limited money we could afford to pay them.”
He said that both he and Aschlin had a huge confidence boost because these huge names only had the script to make their judgement.
“It was then we knew we really had something. Once we had such an array of stars on board, we could then talk to some private financiers to loan us the budget which was no more than £260,000 - less than a high profile TV drama or the catering budget for Love Actually.”
Aschlin said that he wanted the film to be imbued with a very British sensibility. “We British are very bad at expressing our emotions. We are very uncomfortable letting people know - even those closest to us - exactly how we are feeling about anything. We try and hide it, cover them up, even things that are very important to us. We are not romantic like the French or passionate like the Italians - we are rather clumsy and self-deprecating when comes to letting anyone know about how we really are feeling. It's in that reticence that we find the humour and the poignancy.
“What I was looking to do was capture the essential British nature. I think that appealed to the actors, too - that we weren't making the film as a transatlantic compromise - there's not the token American in the script - it's about us.”
He said that they were lucky that casting agent Emma Styles really got behind the script and really pushed it with all the actors' agents, making sure that the actors actually got to see the scripts that were sent out.
Ewan McGregor and Douglas Hodge were so enthused about the material that they rehearsed their lines on stage at The Piccadilly Theatre before audiences for Guys and Dolls were admitted to the auditorium.
“As a result Ewan and Doug had their lines down perfectly before they even got to the set. We only had Ewan for two days and it was great because I was able to just let them get on with it.
“For most shots we ran the scenes through complete - scenes that ran for about five minutes which is very rare for film usually cut up into 30 second chunks.
“It was more like theatre because it gave the actors an opportunity to get a feel for what they are doing, a feeling for their part and for the scene itself. All I had to worry about was the camera. It's funny, the only time I had butterflies was on the first day of shooting.
“It was a scene with Hugh Bonneville and Gina McKee, we had the location as we wanted it, we had the lights and the camera set up, then it came to that point when the actors and the crew are looking at you expectantly - waiting for you to say something and it was then that I felt my stomach go - it was then that I realised what we had done and what was expected of me.”
Aschlin said that the fact that they were a self-financed project gave them an incredible amount of freedom. “As far as the script was concerned I had no one looking over my shoulder wanting to make sure that this joke was understood in Missouri or they would get this cultural reference in Omaha. We could just get on with making the best film we could. I took the view that we were Brits making a film for ourselves. There are a lot of cultural references in there which the Americans just won't get - so what? Of course we'll be delighted if it does get picked up and shown in America but that wasn't why we made the film - it's a film for us Brits, about us as people.
“The other benefit, of course, is that we escaped the commercial pressures of writing for a distinct 18-24 audience.”
Ed explained that commercial cinema tries to aim most films at the lucrative 18-24 age range - young people with time and money on their hands. “What I wanted to do was make a film which reflected everyone who uses the heath - regardless of age, background or sexuality.
“We have an older couple, brilliantly played by Benjamin Whitrow and Eileen Atkins, who play a couple who met on a park bench 50 years ago and realise that their current older selves are indeed the same people they met as mysterious strangers all those years ago. It's these touching stories which give heart and depth to what otherwise would have been a very funny comedy but this adds in something extra - something special.”
Ed and Aschlin still have friends and family living in Suffolk. Aschlin's mother and father have moved back to Ipswich several years ago to be close to Aschlin's mum's family, while Ed still has family and close friends living in and around Debenham. Both say that they return to Suffolk every other weekend.
Both encouraged each other to become involved in the theatre. Both made their mark at The Edinburgh Festival before heading south to London. Aschlin started out as a stand-up comedian where he first met Catherine Tate and the pair went on to become good friends - so much so that when Aschlin turned to script writing she invited him to script her television series - which now takes up six months of his year.
Ed, meanwhile, joined The National Youth Theatre before entering the world of television and found himself directing episodes of The Bill and producing and directing Crimewatch re-enactments. “My experience as a director/producer was invaluable for Scenes of A Sexual Nature because it gave me the skills to do both jobs and taught me how to delegate.”
Aschlin said that he has a new TV series in development, which will be entirely set in Ipswich and hopefully will be on our screens in late 2007 or early 2008. “I have always admired the writing of David Nobbs who wrote A Bit of a Do - a series where a large family only really met up at a large formal gathering.
“I am looking to do something similar with a large extended family in Ipswich. See how different individuals fit into the family set-up - how the family works on different occasions. I think Ipswich is a fabulous place, a very diverse place, especially now as it is changing, and has been overlooked by television for years. Suffolk can only live on the Lovejoy factor for so many years.”
Scenes of a Sexual Nature is on general release from Friday November 3.