Weekly Updates from the "Taliesin Jones" Shoot

Martin Duffy, 1999

Week One
One week down and seven to go.
It was actually (touch wood) a great week. We've gotten a little ahead of schedule and have kept within the working hours for our young actor JP McLeod. JP is a revelation - he is a great actor and a real find. We looked at printed material on the big screen on Friday night - he looks wonderful; you just want to look at him.
The high point of the week for me is that I've finally gotten my own director's chair, to have and to hold, with my own name. There for me to sit on whenever I get a chance. Last two films, I would be wilting by the end of the shoot and never be able to find a place to sit and rest.
Jonathan Pryce is great to work with and we get along extremely well. I have invited him into the directing process and in return he brings this great gift of performance which also inspires the others around him. He is also coaching JP on technique. We've done a few pretty heavy emotional scenes - always a real test - and they went brilliantly. Geraldine James is really giving herself to the role.
Incidentally, we viewed the material at an art house cinema/centre and I picked up a programme of upcoming events; they're showing 'Boy from Mercury' there as a Saturday matinee in a few weeks time. I'll sneak in and see how it's received.
The week began with news that we are not going to the Isle of Man to shoot and therefore I now will spend weekends scouting locations in Wales for all the places we had chosen there. The English producers never had the Isle of Man deal in place and are really at rock bottom in anyone's credibility.
I'm enjoying myself more directing this time around; thinking more on my feet, testing people more, being a bit more bolshy on set to get what I want. I have obviously already put the fear of God in the producers who rarely show up on set and don't breathe a word to me about what I'm doing - no more looking over my shoulder.
Basically I'm working fourteen hours a day five days a week then ten or so on Saturdays. It's tiring but great. I'm eating like a horse - big breakfast, huge lunch, then pasta/readymade food or out for a quick meal at the end of the day.
The only bad thing is that I've started smoking a few small cigars again.
I'm living in an apartment which would be great if not for the fact that it has horrific interior design; frills and china dolls and floral sofa.
Let's hope I can have such a bright report at the end of each week.

Week Two
... or why this is the last time I work as a director for hire.
This week, on screen, we achieved some of the most magical moments of the film. On Monday, in one 360 degree camera move, we go from bleak present to an idyllic Christmas past. On Tuesday, we go in one steadicam move from the boy at the window, to him rushing out the door in different costume/different time, to him at the piano in another room. We got out of the farm slightly ahead of schedule and went to our most gruelling location and biggest build; walking a 400 yard tunnel (mostly about five feet high) to a huge cavern beside a lake where the art department had created a magical cave of stalagmites etc. We were there for two days to shoot five scenes with about twenty shots planned. We called lunch on the first day at 1.15 with one shot in the can.
At the end of Thursday, muddy, weary, and two scenes behind, we surfaced to the news that some cheques were bouncing and the producers called a meeting at unit base to announce there was a money problem which was being sorted out. But that we might be shutting down for two weeks.
So back in we go on Friday, one scene dropped and I'm cutting back my 'vision' of the other scenes to what was barely achievable. We surface at lunchtime to the news that all cheques had bounced. But the producers saying that the distributor was trying to expedite paper work so a halt in shooting wouldn't be neccesary. We went back in on Friday afternoon (I could describe the mood - and what it's like to be a director in these circumstances trying to get crew and cast moving and energised, but let me just say it was impossible).
We surfaced with the bare minimum of material in the can to get the scenes. And the union rep waiting to discuss the situation with the crew.
I got back to the apartment and unplugged the phones. I drank modestly - I don't mix drink with depression. I checked my mobile around ten in the evening and had one message saying we are filming at least next week, another telling me my pick-up time for Monday morning. Oh yes - and on Thursday evening among my post was an airline ticket organised by the English producers for me to travel to Dublin on June 4th. No one can find out what bright spark initiated that.

Today (Saturday) I stayed in bed until noon. I'm waiting for the rain to stop so I can go into town. I'm drained.
This film will be made. And then I take a year writing and focusing on getting 'Mothership' made. I'll be a writer for hire from now on, but not a director for hire. Paul Brady was right - 'someone else's dreams will get you nowhere'.
This will be a great film and the cast and crew are great (though I had a major, unexpected row at the end of the day on Friday with the make-up woman who apparently resents my two attempts to date at asking her to let us shoot). At the open meeting on Thursday evening I launched a tirade of abuse against the producers and on Friday many of the crew, one by one, came up to me and thanked me for speaking their minds.
All a learning experience, I suppose. And boy am I getting any soft edges knocked off my personality.
On to week three.....

Week Three
The only way was up and that's the way we went.
Spirits were very low at the start of the week, but at least we set out in more controlled conditions - the bedroom set of the central character Tal, then an office scene, a classroom scene, and two days covering (with two cameras) two scenes set in a school auditorium.
The 'visiting star' this week was Griff Rhys Jones ('Alas Smith and Jones', 'Not the Nine o'clock news' etc) and he was great to work with; extremely low maintenance. He told me this was a week off for him; his company (co-owned with Mel Smith) is very busy and he also has two writing gigs to complete so being here he spent much of his time reading and resting. It was just what I needed; a technically excellent actor doing his thing and leaving me in peace.
The days went well after the extremes of the first two weeks, and I suppose the most harrowing task was dealing with 120 schoolchildren on Thursday. Something kind of funny happened on Thursday. We would roll cameras on the crowd of kids for reaction shots and they'd sit there like "Children of the Damned". Then they had a cue to leave and they stood up in absolute silence and filed out of the hall like zombies. So. I set up the cameras to roll without their knowing. I stood in the correct eyeline for their listening to the speaker. I chatted and joked and they were relaxed - I talked to them about what was wrong with what they'd done and they laughed. Then I said we'd take a break and they could leave the hall for a while; I got all the reactions I needed and the natural animated banter as they left the hall.
What we all needed was an uneventful and pleasant week. That's just what we had. On schedule, on budget, fine performances, and a breather. The delay in payment proved to be a way of saving for some, and we wrapped early on Friday as people left with cheques and in some cases cash talking about what they might buy over the weekend.
Next week we take on some more difficult tasks; my first crane shot, a scene with 200 schoolkids, steadicam - and all weather dependent in Wales which at the moment is experiencing a spate of thunder storms.
Oh yes; and I've been moved to a really great apartment with tall glass doors that open out onto a man made lake/wharf about the size of Central Park reservoir. I could sit and watch the water forever.
Last year in NY I met two guys about to make their first film and one of them described the process of directing a film as 'one of the last great adventures'. That's true, I think, and this week was one of those easy slopes on the way to the peak. The 13 year old boy playing my central character, JP McLeod, is absolutely wonderful and always focused and casting him was the luckiest and best decision I made in this film.
Bye for now,

Week Four
This week I want to write in praise of Tony Imi. As director of photography, and a man who has filmed everything from the lush ('The Slipper and the Rose") to the Hollywood barf ('"Seawolf" with Roger Moore and David Niven etc) to the down and dirty ("Shopping") he knows it all.  Tony is English, but in his blood is the visual heritage of Italy all the way back to the Romans. Indeed, Tony looks like a Caesar.
So by now, I have the confidence on my third film to break out of my cutting room mentality and try to make a frame work on its own rather than breaking shots down so that it's the editing that tells the story or carries impact. The result? For instance, at the start of the week, we were doing a two minute scene in which three boys chat and then the girl comes along and says her lines and end of scene. In my storyboard book it was nine shots. What is it now? One shot. On steadicam, we walk with the boys (my idea, I admit) and then Julie comes along (Tony's idea) and it all happens in a lively frame (Toni's idea worked out with AD Jon Williams) with other kids rushing around in the background. It's all beautiful but not showy. I listen to Tony more now and look at ways of making the frame come alive. The routine is that we discuss my storyboarded ideas and Tony shows me how that can all happen in a frame which as a result becomes more dynamic and riveting. I look at the rushes and see images richer than I could have imagined. Tony and production designer Hayden Pearse are forever lifting the film higher than I could. My job is to have the confidence to accept their gifts.
In other words, this week we were shooting a film. Not looking over our shoulders at political or financial intrigues. Not battling with impossible schedule demands. Just being creative.
The first three days of this week were exteriors around the schoolyard. Then a day back at the farm doing steadicam and crane work. We were blessed with the weather. On Friday we were back on a set. Today (Saturday) we travelled around the locations for the upcoming weeks. Tomorrow I look forward to being alone. After a certain length of time being questioned by everyone and being in constant conversation, this other side of me starts wailing for privacy. Which reminds me - we had a 'midshoot party' last night (mainly a confidence booster after all the uncertainty) and showed some of the edited footage. It all went well though I bailed out early to come home and look at the water and drink a beer.

Week Five
This was another tough week - mostly physically tough. Two days in a workshop/studio which was dark, airless and stuffy, then a day on a bus in brilliant sunlight that had us all sweltering, then a day at the mouth of a cave - lumping up and down in the heat and mud. Then back into the blacked-out and even clammier workshop/set. A charming aside is that one night I'd closed the bedroom window because of noise outside and woke up gasping in the middle of the night from the stench of my sweaty dirty washing.
Oh yes - and let's hear it for the director; The crew are brilliant and on our day at the cave entrance a group had teamed to carry a very heavy piece of equipment (the 'dolly' used for camera moves) down to the bottom of the hollow. In admiration, I grabbed my camera and dashed up to the top of the hill overlooking the entrance to photograph the event. I was up there when Toni Imi called me to check out something. So I raced around and grabbed the safety rope to hold as I rushed down the steep incline to him. Meanwhile on the other path the guys are calling out and I don't know what it's about until I realise when I reach the base; I had added to the weight they were struggling with because the rope I was using was their safety feed being released as they lowered the dolly.
We did a lot of magical stuff this week, which was great. On Friday, for instance, we did one shot where the boy's bed changes to a boat and he sails out of his room into a dark harbour. Started work at 7.30 in the morning. The take was in the can at half three in the afternoon. But it's great.
Most of the week I was working just with young JP who gets better and better and is a real trooper. On Friday, for instance, he lay patiently in the bed on the set for hours amidst dry ice and crew and mayhem as we tried and tried to get the shot right. There's a really strong bond growing between he and I - and he's a marvellous young actor.
This morning (Saturday) I looked at all the edited material to date with the editor and we are running WAY over-length. We have been averaging twenty minutes of screen time a week - though at least this week is mostly complex shots with less screen time. I have to go over what's left to be shot of the script to try cutting back some more.
This afternoon 'The Boy from Mercury' was being shown at an art house cinema here so I went along. I sure can draw an audience; there were about ten people there. But there was a family - parents and two kids - in front of me and they really enjoyed the film and that's always gratifying.
Next week we do mostly outdoor. Will the weather remain sunny? Hmmm.

Week Six
Another week another world. One of the many interesting challenges about this film is that the boy engages in many different worlds; so we did two weeks in the farm with Jonathan Pryce and heavy family drama, then a week or so in the school world and the energy of the schoolkids. Then some days in Tal's bedroom - the home of his imagination. This week we shot the events in his Mam's world; a seaside town. All is light and bright and airy. The camera moves a lot. Mam and her new partner are close and happy. Tony Imi shot this material on a different stock to highlight colours and I suggested that in fact the character 'Toni' is a sometime painter so Hayden did paintings that colour the room. The material looks great.
But then there was the fascinating experience of 'Black Tuesday'. First off, I went to bed feeling fine on Monday night but woke up about 4am feeling awful. By the time I went to work I had terrible stomach pains and felt dreadful. We blocked the scene in the hair salon run by the Toni character. Boyd Clack plays Toni, and while Boyd wears rather thick glasses we had given him contacts. While the hair salon was being lit we got word that Boyd had dropped one of the contacts and to clean it had used some high strength formula and then put it in his eye; which bulged up red. It took an hour and a half to sort out the problem, and Boyd, being a trooper, wound up playing the scene not able to see a blessed thing around him.  We barely managed to get out of the location before it opened for business. Next we were set to do a car scene. The plan was that it would be rigged while we rattled off a wide shot for a beach scene we'd done the previous day. So. First we find there's been a mistake and the car is in the showroom sixty miles away. Then it finally arrives and the news is broken to me that the beach shot (the extras are now gone) was shot with an incorrect filter and might need to be reshot.
In the end we got all the material (and the beach shot was fine) but the first assistant director, Jon Williams, noted "I'm glad we're not doing any stunts today".
Finished the week on Friday back in the workshop/studio to complete the fantasy sequence of Tal's bed going out to sea, then picking up some shots we needed.
Next week, Ian Bannen.

Week Seven
Where to begin...
Monday we were doing no-brainer stuff; establishers and link shots outside the home of the character Billy (Ian Bannen). But a carry-over from Friday was the fact that people hadn't been paid for last week and would only continue working until Wednesday lunchtime. On Tuesday, with more emotional stuff to do on camera, the day began with the generator breaking down and the union rep coming out because the word he had received was that the crew was about to walk. Work recommenced, but a few of the crew were chatting in the corner in one take while I was directing JP in one of his more emotional scenes. Later, Tony and I had an argument - but everyone was just dispirited. I also had an argument (again) with the sound recordist who I'd love to fire - but how can you fire someone who isn't being paid? By the end of the day something happened to me; I lost heart. Next day we arrived at the fantastic set designed by Hayden and I was chatting with him and Tony. Hayden commented that I kept pouring energy into the film and the producers kept pulling the plug. I told him the plug had won.
That day was strange because I was quite aloof from the crew. By lunchtime the producers arrived signing cheques (as indeed they had promised they would) but I was sitting back working with the actors and keeping to myself. I've never done that before; and I discovered a director can have nothing to do with the crew. I wonder how it would be if I only dealt with the department heads? The crew are great, but their allegiance is to each other (they'll be working with each other again in weeks or months - they're unlikely to see me again).
Ian and JP are fine and the material looks great. We're running two cameras so we can get all the material we need within JP's working day and not have Ian work without JP. The film, I am certain, is a very strong piece of work. But I can't wait to be done with the shoot.
This evening (Friday) as I was dropped off at my apartment Tony Imi said "see you Monday refreshed and optimistic." I answered in truth "Refreshed I can do."
Next week is the last week and I count the days hoping for no more bricks hitting me in the back of the head. I take a break for two weeks after that before launching into the edit and naively feel the edit won't be this kind of roller-coaster. Who knows.
Tomorrow I go to London for the day to work with the editor and view all material cut to date.

Week Eight
The last day. This morning I sat gazing out the car window; past Pontyprydd where we had out first day filming (the train station) and Bedlinog (where we filmed on the farm for almost two weeks) and out over open moorland to a tiny village overlooking the valley town of Fochriw. On Thursday we'd worked a long day to get a sunset shot. So Friday we finished and wrapped at lunchtime. Monday and Tuesday we'd finished with Ian Bannen. Wednesday was some really visually interesting stuff at a Welsh church. I was marking time to some extent, knowing that the heaviest drama was in the can and we were joining dots in the story.
On Friday I gave people turns at directing shots; Hayden set up the first one, Tony the next, JP the next.
But I end with the following absolutely true story;
Way back, we were casting this cameo role of a character who crops in two scenes that bookend the film. I was shown various people and saw a still of Robert Pugh. I knew him from various things in films and on TV. The casting director tried for him and came back delighted to say he'd do the film even though it was way smaller than what he would usually do. He was busy at the time so I couldn't meet him. He was away when we were doing the read-through and wasn't available for rehearsals. He arrived in Cardiff too late the night before shooting for me to meet him so I met him for the first time the morning of doing his scenes. And.... he's not the guy I thought he was. He's an actor I've never seen before in my life. I kept looking at him wondering if maybe he was the actor I thought I was casting but had lost/gained weight. But no. I confessed this to the Toni Imi (who nearly gagged with  laughter on his breakfast) and to the first AD (in case this was a wind-up). So we have Robert Pugh. A fine Welsh actor well known in Britain. But I didn't know I was casting him.
And now the film is in the can.