We decided to make a film of Sea Wall with the idea that if it didn’t work we would enjoy the production anyway and go to the pub afterwards. We did make it to the pub, but from the beginning this was always going to be a special project, with at its heart a remarkable script and an astonishing performance from Andrew Scott as Alex. When you watch the film you are watching a single take (the third) with just two invisible cuts, made out of necessity because the camera we used can only record up to 12 minutes at a time. In the theatre, Sea Wall was performed in natural light and Andrew spoke directly to people in the audience. To recreate this closeness we decided Alex would share his story with the camera. The result is a film with an intimacy and emotional impact that is very rare. It has touched a lot of people.
Everyone associated with the film really did do it for love. Just as well, there was no budget. We rehearsed with Andrew doing a single read-through in Simon’s office surrounded by books and a very impressive collection of classic vinyl. The audience was Simon, my daughter Hannah and I. It was Andrew’s first reading of Sea Wall for months and it was already mesmerising. I recorded it on my phone using Voicemail.
For the shoot we borrowed a commercial photographic studio in the building where Simon has his office and stayed in what was possibly the cheapest hotel in the East End. The following morning meeting up for a monumental American style breakfast in Hoxton Square was the first of many highlights that quiet mid-January Sunday. Simon cycled from home to the shoot, Andrew took the Tube. Limousines and trailers were notably absent.
Thin, wintry sunlight flooded into the studio. We drank coffee and water and Simon and Andrew decided where we could make the two essential cuts. The camera and solitary borrowed light were set by DoP for the day Jack Dillon. We screened ourselves off from Andrew so all he could see was the lens. This was essential so he had the real sense that there was nobody else in the room. A few hours later it was finished. All of us will never forget what Andrew did within those few hours. Being so close to a masterly actor recreating his favourite role was a unique experience. Andrew really was Alex; it’s something lots of people pick up on.
The “one last take” was Simon’s idea, brilliant in hindsight because although we had a film to cut together from what we had shot already and Andrew was (understandably) exhausted, the resulting film is, we think, uniquely fluent, personal and honest.
The simplicity of the locked off shot and lack of any artifice mean there is no barrier between the viewer and Alex. Andrew draws you in and you listen.
It was very apparent when we reviewed the footage that we needed to maintain this simplicity for the edit. No tricks, no colour grading. Just a fade up and fade down as Andrew uncovers and covers the lens and two cuts. You want to see every move Alex makes, every expression, every fold in his clothing – just as they were.
Once we had a first edit I half-heartedly sent a copy to our composer, an exceptional musician who has written and produced several film scores, thinking about maybe some subtle musical introduction and end piece. He told us to leave it exactly as it was, any music would be superfluous, really confirming what we knew already. He also told us he and his wife had wept after watching the film.
Instead of music our sound recordist Stuart Windle produced a very subtle piece of sound design created entirely from what was recorded on location – perfect. Viewers have commented on the way the very distant, indistinct sounds of the city, particularly as the film ends contribute to the film’s atmosphere. This is down to Stuart.
Simon and Andrew were thrilled with the finished film and when we previewed it at our production office we knew we had created something special when following an initial pause for thought one of our designers, a member of our own team asked me “did that really happen to him?”.
We organised a screening in Soho, which attracted an audience of a few friends and family and more than twenty of the great and the good from the British film, TV and theatre worlds. I realised my nephew was now very firmly in this category himself, although our conversations over the years have focused almost exclusively on football and music. The venue and the evening was chaotic, far from ideal, but amidst the madness people who knew seemed to really like the film.
And there Sea Wall remained for almost a year. It’s not the kind of film that distributors would normally fight for; it is inconveniently long for a short and at 32-odd minutes defiantly flies in the face of TV scheduling reason. It is also one actor and a single locked-off shot. It is not Avatar.
Then, at the very start of this year we found out about Distrify, a way of distributing your own films using the web and social media. We quickly decided to go live on Sunday January 14th, the day that Andrew would be stealing the show as Moriarty in the epic Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock and, appropriately, a year to the day since the shoot. A Tumblr site was hastily put together by our multi-tasking Production Manager Sarah, we uploaded the film to Distrify, went live on Facebook and Twitter… and waited.
It was apparent that Andrew’s performance as Moriarty and the Sherlock phenomenon were going to be big factors in Sea Wall’s success. The response hugely exceeded our expectations in a very short space of time. It remains a mystery to Simon how anyone other than his mother (my sister) would pay to watch anything he has ever written. He’s so wrong.
Within days we had 2,000 Likes on Tumblr and a constant stream of new followers on Twitter. The Sea Wallers’ comments and reviews were staggeringly intelligent and unanimously supportive, and they’re still coming in. People spent hours watching Sea Wall many, many times and shared the experience with both friends and strangers through social networking. They watched it on treadmills at the gym, on trains and buses, but mostly quietly at home. They designed posters, sent handwritten notes, joined in Q and A sessions with Simon and Andrew and shared with us a genuine wave of emotion. When Sea Wall became the highest User Rated short film on IMDB the fans could not have been more delighted for us, demanding Academy Award recognition. An Italian Sea Waller translated the entire script herself so people in Verona and Florence, Rome and Padua could enjoy the film more. People in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and the Ukraine were proud to be “Sea Wallers”.
It has been an amazing journey in such a short period of time. Wherever you are, however you found us, you are part of our story and it really is wonderful to have got to know you.
Producer, Sea Wall.