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The New Film: A Kind of Blog

7th January

The crowdfunding campaign has enabled us to shoot a couple of sample scenes from the new film, to show people what it's going to look like. In fact, we're going to be shooting Scene 1 and Scene 5:3 to 5:5... It's the way we number them!

Those of a literalist mindset will be pleased to note the expanses of mud we have lined up for Scene 1 (always assuming we've got the tide times right). Those of a technical mindset will be pleased to hear that Peter got his adapted film lenses back this morning (although we can't guarantee he will be using them for this shoot).

Filming this week and next, we'll be editing the scenes so that we're able to take them to a film market event in Rotterdam later this month. There is already a list of people who have asked to see this work, so we'll be sending the material to all of them too. If things go well, we're looking to start work on the full shoot in the spring or early summer. Heigh ho!

8th November

Between the Mud and the Farthest Star... So where does the title for Amber’s new film come from? As part of the development work, Abdulrahman Abuzayd (Jamal) and Anisa George (Jo) were improvising an Arabic lesson. As a way of describing the distance he felt lay between his life and hers, Jamal took hold of her notebook and wrote two Arabic words al thara and al thoraya, drawing a line between them... Farq al thara men al thoraya – as mud to the farthest star.

At the time the film was called St George’s Day, but somewhere else in the big world of filmmaking, someone was making another film of that name: “Infamous London gangster cousins, Micky Mannock and Ray Collishaw, are at the top of the food chain, when their world is turned upside down as they lose a shipment of the Russian Mafia's cocaine...” Slowly we gravitated to the new title – and ended up liking it more than the original.

Meanwhile, back to the crowdfunding campaign... we’re kind of between the mud and the farthest star at the moment. A lot of people have been really generous (some extraordinarily generous). Whatever we raise, we’re going to be able to use to develop a few sample scenes, to show potential broadcasters and distributors, etc, exactly what this film is going to look like. We need to raise as much as we can so we can make that work as strong as possible. Crowdfunding campaigns slow down in the middle and then pick-up as the deadline approaches. But if you’re thinking of supporting the film, a contribution now would also help to encourage others!

29th October supplementary...

Thank You Crowdfunders, so far! Thank you, then (for these are they) Scoot Maloot, Diane Jones, Mark Bagott, Keith Strachan, Gail McGee, Sally Larkham, Catherine Hare, Bridget & Bill George, Nyree Griffiths, Simon Relph, Dan Rothenberg, Annie Rigby, Gem Andrews, Louise Taylor, Robert Hollands, Shameem Siddiqui, Elaine Drainville, Hazel Plater, Roger Hyams, Malcolm Gerrie, Ellen Phethean, M C Gee, Donatella Niederberger-Soldi, Jane Cox, Marion Farmer, The Stuart-Brettle Family, Richard Grassick, Leyla Asadi, John Hare, Sam Rigby, Joseph Becker, John Edwards and 4 anonymous, plus Bella's uncle and the person who posted £40 cash from Gatwick...

29th October...

When is a documentary not a documentary? When is fiction not fiction? Before we get to how we have been working on Between the Mud and the Farthest Star, there's another basic drive going on here...

High Row (1973)
High Row (1973)

Amber's first drama/documentary was, in fact, High Row (1973). Collective members worked in the small drift mine, high in the Pennines, and came up with a script that portrayed the miners' experience. They rejected it: "If it was like that, we wouldn't work here." A script dramatising a day in the life of the mine was then worked up with the men, who then acted it out - Amber paying their wages for the week.

For a while in the mid 70s Amber managed Live Theatre, then a touring collective which had been doing agitprop shows. Amber's Murray Martin persuaded them that, if they wanted to connect with the workingmen's club audience, they needed to connect with working lives. He got writer Tom Hadaway to adapt a couple of his film scripts for the stage - The Filleting Machine and The Pigeon Man. Live based itself in the premises Amber bought in 1975 and the two collectives were quite close for a while. You can hear some of their voices in Quayside and a documentary was made about Live actor Tim Healy's attempts to break into workingmen's clubs as a stand-up.

Amber made a film of The Filleting Machine in 1981 and Byker and Keeping Time, both released in 1983, explored the edge between documentary and fiction further. Seacoal (1985) was Amber's first feature film and placed two of the actors from the Amber/Live stable - Ray Stubbs and Amber Styles - in the community of seacoalers on Lynemouth Beach. Amber had bought a caravan on the site and spent time getting to know the families. Tom Hadaway wrote the script, although the actors' union Equity demanded that lines could not be written for the seacoalers themselves. It was the beginning of an experiment that Amber continues to this day. Fictionalising people's lives allows you to explore territory that it is hard to document - and crucially in some cases affords your collaborators some protection - but how can you then push things back into the kind of authenticity that allows a community to take ownership of a piece of work? The response Amber always hopes for is: "Yes, that's about right. That is what our lives are like."

In Fading Light
In Fading Light (1989)

In In Fading Light (1989) the North Shields fishermen effectively auditioned actors at sea - "Yes, he can do it... No, not in a million years..." And the cast became a crew, supervised by the fishermen themselves, but having to do the work. The late Brian Hogg was paid the compliment of being offered a job on the boats at the end of filming. For Dream On (1991) the cast and some of the crew formed a women's darts team that played in the league for a whole year. In The Scar (1997) actress Charlie Hardwick was filmed re-enacting the end of the Miners' Strike speech Amber had videoed Heather Wood delivering in 1985.

For Like Father (2001) the lead role was, for the first time, taken by someone (ex-miner and cornet player Joe Armstrong) who was creating a version of himself and of his own story. With next to no production budget to work with, Shooting Magpies (2005) took the process even further. With only two Amber actors taking on main roles, both of the leads and most of the rest of the roles were played by people playing versions of themselves (Joe Armstrong made an appearance as a policeman, but...). Extensive DV research material into the impact of heroin on East Durham's pit communities and on the lives of leads Emma Dowson and Barry Gough (not themselves heroin users, I hasten to add) sits alongside the fiction, also shot in DV. The film was shot on the fly, scenes improvised from scenario sketches of dialogue and the edge between documentary and fiction left unresolved at times.

Shooting Magpies (2005)
Shooting Magpies (2005)

Which is a long way of coming round to one of the drives in developing Between the Mud and the Farthest Star. With the exception of Anisa George, all of the collaborators with whom we have developed the script are non-professional actors involved in playing versions of their own lives. Anisa, who plays the part of an American music student and band organiser, has been drawing on various aspects of her own life and on her involvement in Today I'm With You (2010), but she also brings important skills into the improvisation process, helping to raise the bar...

Taking the experiment forward from Shooting Magpies, when we first started talking about the new feature film, we were interested in working with the texture you get when people are performing versions of their own lives, but coming up with something more visually studied. Part of that is a response to the filmic qualities you're able to achieve with some of the newer HD cameras.

Anyway, that on-going experiment runs alongside the narrative origins of the new film and this blog entry is long enough to deserve at least a few dollars thrown at the current crowdfunding campaign!

www.indiegogo.com/mudstar

26th October...

Developing the script for Between the Mud and the Farthest Star has been a long process and it's not one that will be finished until we're finished, so to speak. But we think we've got to something that works...

Gnana & Kavi, Byker Revisited, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
Gnana & Kavi, from Byker Revisited by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

It started off when Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen was photographing Byker Revisited. She was bringing back all of these wonderful images and stories, connecting with both the indigenous community (including some she's photographed back in the 1970s) and the asylum seekers, who were largely being housed in the properties at the bottom of the Byker Wall Estate, where the fabric of the buildings was most obviously frayed. It's not surprising that there had been difficulties between the asylum seeking families and other families housed in those properties. But although racism was (and is) a real problem, there was an aspect to it all that was to do with class. The asylum seekers, who were offering up so many stories of pain, loss and dislocation, were also, for the most part, middle class and aspirational.

Byker had become a centre for asylum seeker dispersal around 2002, as a result of deliberate government policy. Sirkka started serious work on Byker Revisited around 2005. Newcastle has a long-standing Bangladeshi community in the West End and the cultural make-up of the city had been changing for a while (I write this the morning after the Ameobi brothers did such sterling service against FC Brugge), but in 2000 it was rarely celebrated for cultural diversity. Culturally, it still felt like a white working class city. When asylum seekers began to arrive from 2002, the face of Newcastle began to change.

In Amber, one of the first responses to the stories Sirkka was bringing back was: "There's drama in this..." The original documentation of Byker in the 1970s had resulted in an exhibition, book and film (click the link and you can watch on SideTV until the beginning of December - or, plug, plug, you can buy the DVD of both Byker and Today I'm With You at our Online Shop). We were already beginning to think about the film documentary that was going to be part of the Byker Revisited project. But we knew that there were the possibilities of a new feature drama in what was happening. And that it was important...

There you go... That's the trouble with these blog things. You start off thinking you're going to do something about the script process and you end up having to explain so much before you get anywhere near the beginnings of the actual script. I'll come back to the subject in future postings!

25th October 2012...

Baltic Flourmills, 6 to Midnight, 1974
Baltic Flourmills, 6 to Midnight, 1974

Thought it would be interesting to have a look at Amber's 1974 17 min day-in-the-life-of-Newcastle film 6 to Midnight so we've just put it up on YouTube - here. It was made for Newcastle City Council, but they didn't like it - rejected it, in fact! "It might be all right for the Straw Dogs generation," one councillor commented (probably the only time Amber has ever been compared to Sam Peckinpah). They didn't like the meat being unloaded on the pavement outside Grainger Market, apparently. Or all the To Let signs on Grey Street. They're back at the moment, of course, but watching the film now is to see just how much the city's cultural face has changed. Which is one of the starting points for Between the Mud and the Farthest Star.

There's something interesting between the perceptions of the characters in the film played by Krystal and Abu. She feels painfully the breakdown of a traditional working class community that was lost before she was born. He is attracted to the Toon and Newcastle's working class sense of itself.

24th October 2012...

Watch a short Work in Progress film - some of the documentary footage and improvisations feeding into the new drama. Help crowdfund the making of it: www.indiegogo.com/mudstar!

Between the Mud and the Farthest Star is a new feature film exploring the vast cultural changes that are going on on Tyneside at the moment. The script has been developed out the stories and improvisations of a group of collaborators, who will be taking on the main roles in the resulting film.

Krystal Spencer, 2007, Byker Revisited
Krystal Spencer, 2007, Byker Revisited

Amber member and photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen came across Krystal Spencer while she was developing the work that became the 2009 book and exhibition Byker Revisited and the 2010 film Today I'm With You - if you've seen the film, she's the one who thinks the photograph Sirkka likes makes her look like some kind of lost cracker. Abdulrahman Abuzayd (or Abu for short) was in the refugee/community music project Crossings, about which Amber made the short 2011 documentary We Are All Survivors. When we first started working with him he was a Sudanese asylum seeker. He then got refugee status and now he's got a British passport - that's how long Amber's films take to develop!

Abu demonstrates Sudanese singing
Abu demonstrates Sudanese singing, We Are All Survivors, 2011

Other members of Crossings, Fred Phethean, Chantelle Warden and Jewan Mohammed were also drawn into the development process - as was the American actor and film director Anisa George, who, after helping Sirkka with some of the shooting for Today I'm With You, was part of the ensemble involved in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008).

The crowdfunding campaign is about enable us to film some early scenes, so we can draw in the full production funding we need.