According to those who’ve read my work, one of the strengths of my writing, whether it be screenplay or prose, is that it evokes a truly visual sense of place for the reader. I think that’s because when I write I watch the story playing out like a film in my head and then describe it as I see and hear it.
Above all, a location is a character in its own right – it must be chosen with as much care and attention as the rest of the cast. And, in fact, had I realised just how complex it was going to be to secure the right locations for ‘Rachel’, well… I’d have done it anyway but I certainly appreciate now why so many short films are shot in one room and why people kept warning me that I was perhaps being too ambitious with my first film.
Up front I therefore have to thank my ace cinematographer, Tania Freimuth, who accompanied me on many a recce. She’s an intrepid, entertaining travel companion and she gave me the courage to just go right ahead and ask for what often seemed like the impossible.
My ‘vision’ for the film was built around a strong desire to express the emotional progression of the story through the locations and shooting style.
So, the first aim was to recreate the overwhelming claustrophobia and intensified sense of loss I myself experienced when facing my father’s corpse laid out in his coffin at the funeral director’s office. To achieve that I decided to seek out a genuine funeral director willing to let us film on their premises.
That friendly funeral director proved to be Leverton and Sons. We used two of their premises. The interiors were shot at the Muswell Hill branch, because that chapel was exactly like the one I had described in the script. The exteriors were filmed at the Gospel Oak branch, which was perfect in that the surrounding buildings – the Gipsy Queen pub and the fishing bait shop – also fed into the themes and tone of the story.
Certainly the ‘claustrophobia’ element was very real during the shoot at Levertons Muswell Hill – trying to fit three actors, cinematographer, camera operator, two camera assistants, gaffer, sound recordist, and boom (plus a coffin) into a room about 8×12 feet is no mean feat.
It’s quite an ask to be allowed to film at a location with such a sensitive role to play, so it was a true privilege to be allowed to film at Levertons and I must once again thank Andrew Leverton, John Leverton, Deborah Rush and Helen Putt for their support and patience.
The next challenge was to find a VW campervan for Rachel and Josh’s road trip. VWs are adorable but contrary beasts and their owners are, understandably, very protective of them. Mention filmmaking and immediately one thinks of car chases, stunts and hefty insurance costs, so I was not sure that I would be able to secure a VW without buying one! Enter Lex and Claire Higgs, who kindly trusted me to care of the delightful ‘Flora’, who was truly such a great character that she got her own credit in the cast.
With the VW road trip the aim was again to reflect the emotional journey of the couple though both location and shooting style, with the camera moving to hand-held as the journey started out in city streets, where Rob Dukes immediately had to learn how to manage the eccentricities of Flora the VW – trying to get up Highgate Hill, with a lorry stopping suddenly in front of us and a vintage sports car sitting on our tail, was hair-raising.
After the excitement of Camden, the journey opened up and we moved onto the M11 and then the A11. Discovering a location to film the VW from above on the highway was an mini adventure, both to recce and on the day we filmed – reached by trekking cross-country to a bridge that led to a field of corn, appropriately littered with heart-shaped wild rose petals.
And then we needed to capture the scenes of the VW travelling through countryside lanes. We inadvisably left the final search for that location until we got to Norfolk. That said, there were no adverse consequences to flying by the seat of our pants, thanks to the accommodating people at Home Farm Quidenham, who answered the door to us and generously gave us permission to film from their land.
All the above required careful consideration, no small amount of negotiation and quite a lot of cheek, but it was the beach location for the finale of ‘Rachel’ that caused the most difficulty and required the most miles travelled in the searching. To be honest, a lot of that effort would have been saved had I just gone with my heart immediately rather than trying to be practical / sensible.
Holkham Beach, North Norfolk, was the first beach we went to. It was just quite simply awe-inspiring. It had the dunes, it had the expansiveness, the wildness of character that I was hoping for – a place where one can feel totally released from the cares of the world. But it’s all that because it’s a protected nature reserve, with no amenities, weather that changes from brilliant sunshine to stinging hail and back in the space of a few minutes, and so expansive that the sea is never less than a mile from the carpark. Totally impractical, unless you have the budget of ‘Shakespeare in Love‘, which was also filmed there.
And so, regretfully, I moved on. Tania and I went to West Wittering in Sussex, where we got stuck in traffic, soaked to the skin again – what else did I expect of British beaches – and somewhere on the dunes I lost the quirky, treasured little bracelet that belonged to my Indian great-grandmother. I was wearing it that day because my great-grandmother was an adventuress, who never followed the rules and literally ran away with the circus – I felt some of Rachel’s character had come out of that fabulous woman and I wanted to channel her spirit in making my film. All I can hope is that it’s not truly lost, that one of the windsurfer girls at West Wittering will have found it (Indian, brass chain, with small oranges hanging off it ) and that it’s having an interesting life with its new owner. But sadly the beach was not right – lovely, but no filming allowed on the stretch I wanted to use.
Next stop was Dorset. After a day of rehearsing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – one of my favourite orchestras to play with – I went first to the beach right there, which is beautiful but didn’t have the wild, deserted quality I was seeking.
And then out to Studland Beach – another absolutely stunning location. In fact everything I could have asked for, with grand scale, dunes, just a short walk from parking, toilets and a cafe. The practical solution. However, when I spoke to the National Trust they were very helpful but, even with a generous attempt to make the location affordable on my low budget, the price per hour was just too high and, more importantly, they said that there was no way I would be allowed to use a drone.
And that was the thing – in order to be true to my ‘vision’ I wanted to film the final scenes using a drone, in order to create a feeling of Rachel being liberated, entirely free of her earthly self. I could find a way to raise more funds but I just couldn’t give up on the drone footage. Nonetheless, Studland made it into the finished film, in the form of a photograph (taken on my recce day) that hangs on the wall of the funeral director’s chapel.
All this time I just couldn’t get Holkham Beach out of my head. I knew it was impractical to take a crew and equipment to a remote beach and I knew it was virtually impossible that I would be able to convince anyone that my crew and I could be trusted to protect the nesting sites of endangered bird species whilst filming with a drone. But I went back up there for another look anyway, and fell in love all over again – it really is the most breathtaking, exhilarating place.
It wasn’t easy – first there was lots of negotiating around the use of the drone, certainly helped by the fact that I was able to say that our camera assistant, Matthew Fox, had a degree in zoology, so we really did understand the importance of placing the safety of the birds over our filming needs and would respect all the restrictions placed upon us. I cannot thank Paul O’Grady at Norfolk Locations enough for his advice and help in arranging use of the beach with Holkham and Natural England.
Then we had to find the four hour window of time on one day (all we could afford) when we could film at high tide, which would nonetheless require us hauling the equipment a mile – the My Tide Times app on my phone is a still a nice reminder of those exciting days spent anxiously planning the logistics of our shoot around the ebb and flow of the sea.
When the day came we had a manic schedule, starting early in the morning with four hours of filming in Camden, followed by many hours driving through pouring rain to the Norfolk coast, and culminating in arriving just in time for our high tide 5 – 9pm slot. On earlier visits the weather had been dramatically changeable but always intermittently sunny and blue-skied. On June 16th it had rained heavily most of the day, all six miles of Holkham Beach was utterly deserted, it was freezing cold and the line between sea and land was constantly blurred by a cloak of eerie, white sea mist. It was tough on everyone involved, especially Rob Dukes and Aislinn De’Ath but we were helped both by our wonderful beach guide, John Wollard, who allowed them to sit in his Land Rover to warm up, and the knowledge that we would eventually be gathered around a fire, drinking hot chocolate at the Holkham Estate’s warm and welcoming Victoria Inn.
If I had dreamed it, I could not have made up a more magical location in which to play out the closing scene of ‘Rachel’. As Aislinn walked away down that beach into the mist – filmed to perfection by our drone operator Mark Bullen – I knew that whatever happened, that shot alone would make the whole endeavour of bringing Rachel to the screen worth all the time, money and effort it took, but of course you’ll have to watch the film to see it.