We made a movie
In January 2021 Jessica Fox, an author who lives in Wigtown and one of the very first people we met when we first arrived, came up to me in a Readinglasses Cafe and said, “Ben, what are you up to this August? I’m writing a film and wondered if you might help make it”. “Sure”, I said flippantly, not really knowing our diary but fairly sure we had some free days. A few months later we’d began planning our summer and so I asked Jessica which days she wanted me. “Oh, all of them”.
Jessica, along with many of us had had a fascination about an old crumbling stately home just outside Wigtown called Galloway House. It had been on the market a few years earlier for the kind of price that makes you want to drop everything and start a commune. It was right next to the sea, surrounded by an arboretum in the most stunning Galloway landscape you can imagine, and had been bought by a man called Kamal since and he was slowly doing it up. I’d always wanted to be brave enough to walk up the drive and press my face against the glass to see in, but never had. It was for this location that Jessica had written a screenplay, inspired by old folk tales, and set in 1937 about an immigrant who arrives at the house looking for work.
Over the next couple of months cogs began to fall into place and what started simply as a wild idea to actually film something slowly drew in promises of people and funding. A team was assembled; costume, make up, actors, non actors, composers, producers. The whole town seemed to be involved in one way or another. Somehow Jessica managed to snag some established actors - Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot), Susan Vidler (Trainspotting), Rufus Wright (Bond, Rogue One) as well as some up and coming talent for the romantic leads - Louis Hall and Oli Fyne. The town too provided a cast, from the bookshops, the connivence store, from the distillery and local farms, as well as the behind the scenes crew. Suddenly it was happening. We’d better clear our diary.
The story has a strong musical element. Beth was brought in to train up a children’s choir for some crucial scenes in the film, and I was asked to head up the technical crew, and to be the film’s cinematographer and cameraman. As funding goes the film was shot on a micro-budget, which considering it was a costume drama makes it all the harder. We were also filming at a time that was still flitting with lockdowns, self-isolation and outbreaks, providing the constant threat of shooting-shut down. We had 30 days total to film, come rain or shine, covid or no.
A Glasgow film-house kindly offered us a deal on cameras and lenses we could never otherwise afford, though we had little in the way of lighting and sound equipment. In my team we had musician Phil who I trained up to record sound on set. Recently graduated Felix from the US who was the only person with any knowledge about lighting (not that we had much) and Sandy and Christopher - two local guys who had the summer off before uni. Pretty much everyone on the film was making a film for the very first time. Jessica was doing about a gazillion jobs, not only writing but directing and, as the only person who actually had a grip on the whole project, proxy producing and troubleshooting everything that came up. I was amazed she could keep focus as well as she did.
The days started early - I’d be on set and ready to roll by 6am and often not done before 10pm at night. I’d filmed many documentaries in East Africa before, run and gun shooting grab as much footage as possible, blink and you miss it. Hours shot for each minute of story, so filming a drama, where you film perhaps a few minutes in a day, where you have an hour to set up one shot, one angle, get the light right, was a new process to me. Despite the apparent slowness of pace I can attest that it is no less filled with adrenaline than what I had been used to.
We had two weeks in the house, fulfilling my desire to see every inch of that mysterious and enigmatic house, at once a vision of grandeur but very much falling down at the same time. The big red opulent dining room complete with chandelier and grand piano but with mould ringing the walls. Or the splendour of the royal blue ballroom, only accessed by shuffling pas the rubble of the adjacent corridors. The magnificent views from the master bedrooms, whose only residents for the last 50 years, the pigeons and bats, now littered the floor. All of this was part of the story. All of this our set and canvas.
The final two weeks were spent in the surrounds, a week in Wigtown, filming in the bookshops and squares, up on the cliffs and down in the bays and beaches. We had one awkward clash where we were scheduled in to film the Nazi book burning scene outside the County Buildings, complete with gestapos in full regalia - with books kindly donated by the local bookshops - but it turned out to be the same joyous Saturday night that the town was cutting the ribbon on a rededication of the central gardens to local war hero and Victoria Cross recipient Louis McGuffie. We had to move that one. We saved shooting the scene where I was waist deep in the sea holding the cameras at head height to avoid the waves, just in case I dropped it.
Everyone on the team did an amazing job, we survived the schedule, dealt with the weather, avoided the plague and didn’t drop the camera. Nothing that a few last minutes rewrites couldn’t fix anyway.
Over the next six months Jessica beavered away creating the directors cut, the score was composed and recorded, and I worked on the audio post production, syncing, mixing, creating the foley and sound design for the film, crushing pasta for bones breaking, selflessly eating cold porridge next to a microphone to recreate the sound of someone eating porridge on camera. That kind of thing. I transformed the local festival office into a cinematic sound studio for a week, avoiding the hedgehogs and badgers in the alleyway late and night and early in the morning. We took the final mix to a proper film music studio in Glasgow for the final mix and polish. At the end of that day, almost a year later, we actually had a finished proper film in our hands. Made for a relative pittance in film terms, with the love and enthusiasm of the whole town doing something new for the summer, and somehow looking a million dollars.
It’s since picked up two awards on the film festival circuit - Best International Drama at the Tel-Aviv Film Festival (2022), and Best First Time Filmmaker Award at Montreal Independent Film Festival (2022).
Stella - the story of a German Jewish refugee arriving in south west Scotland just before the outbreak of war.
Out now and available to watch in the UK on itvX and STV here: https://player.stv.tv/summary/stella-films
Trailer on Instagram worldwide here: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CtME3ahoYTQ/?igshid=NTc4MTIwNjQ2YQ==