By Nia Edwards-Behi
In cinemas soon, The Lighthouse is Chris Crow’s fourth feature as director, and his second feature collaboration with producer David Lloyd. Following Devil’s Bridge, Panic Button and The Darkest Day, The Lighthouse is a chamber piece, a psychological drama based on a real life event in Welsh maritime history. Chris and David very kindly took some time to answer some questions about the film for us.
BAH: So, is Welsh maritime history something that particularly interests you?! Where did the idea to adapt this story come from?
Chris: Very much so, maritime history in general in fact. As a species we’ve been at sea for a long time and I really love the mythology and folk superstition that has grown around it. The Smalls Island tragedy is such an incredible story anyway and the fact that it took place in a period of Welsh history that is in itself really quite fascinating made it a very attractive idea for a film.
When we were shooting Devil’s Bridge, Vern Raye (who produced DB with us) told me the story and I was hooked, we talked about it as a film idea, then on the same shoot Mike Jibson brought it up. We talked about if for years and actually took it in a few directions; Mike tried a more modern ghost story set on the newer (stone) Lighthouse, I actually transplanted it to a space station, then I read about Gravity being in development and thought ‘bugger’. Eventually we all decided that it was pointless in doing anything with it other than telling the actual story.
David: I’d always had an interest in maritime history and culture and first came across this story in a book on the history of Welsh lighthouses, which Chris had bought me as a birthday present many years ago. I’d forgotten about it till it was brought up again as a possible next project, and with that connection it was a given – we had to make this film!
BAH: How much historical material did you actually have to work with in terms of adapting the story?
Chris: Fragments really, bare bones. A lot is lost to history however this particular tragedy did change the way in which Lighthouses were kept (from 2 to 3 men) which in itself is a fairly important shift. I did find some great accounts from other lighthouses from the time (British, American and French) which I used to flesh out the daily grind and routine of the keepers, their tasks, duties etc. What was lovely about tackling the bare bones was that you could fill in the blanks, imagine what happened, extend things.
David: Filling in the blanks meant we could take this somewhere that interested us, beyond a more factual historical retelling. Whilst we tried to remain as faithful to the small amount of information there was about the event, it also meant we could take some major artistic license with the story and fashion the world and events of The Lighthouse to suit our own tastes and ideas.
BAH: The project was funded by Ffilm Cymru Wales’ Cinematic project, chosen as one of three successful projects from many other strong contenders. How did you go about pitching the project?
Chris: I created a wealth of visual materials – mood boards, concept art etc. We also shot a mood reel/teaser, I think that gave the backers a feel for what we wanted to achieve. We were confident that we could achieve a fairly ambitious project on a tiny budget and we were extremely single minded in our pursuit of getting that green light. We’ve got a great relationship with Ffilm Cymru Wales, they’ve been really supportive of us and so it was great to actually fit this film to that particular funding scheme and work with them and the other backers on the film.
David: At all stages of the pitching process we wanted the backers to be able to visualise the look and the feel of the film, to make it feel like a finished and fully realised entity. Chris’ visuals and the mood trailer we submitted along the way went a long way to helping win the backers attention. At one point we made up fake DVD cases and covers to hand to the backers to solidify the idea in their heads. Our previous experience in film making also went a long way to help us answer the tricky questions about how we’d make the production work on our limited means, safe in the knowledge we knew we could do what we were saying.
BAH: Once you had secured funding, what was the process of planning the shoot like?
Chris: It is always relentless – exciting, terrifying at the same time. We had an exceptional crew and so putting everything together was a joy. There was a much bigger set build and CGI element for The Lighthouse than anything I’ve done before so everything really needed to be planned and budgeted for within an inch of its life. We had a fantastic production crew before we brought the HOD’s in too, so there really were months of nailing the approach and balancing the budget to put as much money on screen as possible.
David: Ideally we’d have had another month or two to plan, but given the scale and budget we had to shoot when we did and have it all ready for that. The planning was furious and demanding. The big things fell into place quite quickly, but some smaller elements took a lot longer to bring together, and even with all the planning that was in place, things happened.
Our first day’s shooting location backed-out less than 48 hours before principal photography began. This left us with a real headache and need to reschedule and rearrange so we didn’t lose that valuable first day. Thanks to the team’s work, an alternative plan was quickly made and the day was saved.
Whilst the big things like the studio and set were there and ready
on time, a couple of smaller elements were a real battle that didn’t come together till the very last moment. Given the scale of the production, you would be amazed at the problems securing a small pilot gig and church caused us in comparison!
BAH: Tell us a bit about building the lighthouse set – what an achievement! Were you using the original architectural plans?!
Chris: The lighthouse was based roughly on the original but we had to create something that would also work as a fully functional set. Tim Dickel designed the set and did an incredible job, Wild Creations (recently famous for the rugby ‘Ball In The Wall’ in Cardiff) did an amazing build and they worked closely with the VFX team who created the 3D CGI Lighthouse. We knew that the set had to look 100% authentic, lived in, filthy and claustrophobic but we also had to be able to swing a camera about and light it. They all did an incredible job of that set. I wanted to live in it after we’d wrapped. I even measured up my living room to see if it would fit, sadly it was too big and eventually followed its original counterpart to the big sea in the sky.
David: Whilst they look very similar in their outward appearance, the original and ours had differences that were made out of budgetary necessity and shooting practicality. I think the original was either 8 or 10 sided, but ours was 6 sided, and our internal layout was difference. Given the way the film is shot, you never see the whole layout for any length of time, our six sided one feels as real as the original.
BAH: You shot some scenes on location too – where was this?
Chris: We worked closely with Atlantic College with the boat sequences, we shot the Island sequences there, the rowing scenes in Cardiff Bay the Chapel and Tavern just outside Cardiff. The lighthouse was actually built in a warehouse in Splott which we essentially tuned into a sound stage.
David: It was important to keep everything fairly contained in terms of travel. We didn’t have the budget to put up cast and crew at locations so had to be able to travel from base. Luckily for us Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan offer everything we needed for the shoot, with stunning exterior locations at Llantwit Major and St Donats, perfectly aged interiors like those we shot at Gileston and Penced House and the unit base right next door to Splott Market, which led to a few interesting noise related moments and the ability to nip out and pick-up a top notch breakfast roll on market days. We were also a 100m from our post house, which meant we could easily go back and fore during the shoot with rushes and rough edits.
BAH: How did you go about casting – you’ve worked with both Jibson and Jones before, did you always have them in mind for these parts?
Chris: Yes, we developed the film with Mike and Mark was perfect for Griffith, PERFECT. Both are incredibly gifted actors, both fantastic character actors. I knew that they’d do a great job and both can grow admirable beards! They were the perfect casting for me, I also love working with them both, we have fun and we collaborate.
David: Both Mike and Mark went above and beyond in their services to this film, their performances are top-notch and I think they were born for these roles. Given the seriousness of the roles, you’d be amazed at the laughs we had during the making of the film.
BAH: How long was the shoot? What was it like working in such as small space? Presumably you had space to manoeuver outside the structure as you built it in a larger space.
Chris: It was a 4-week shoot, but we really could have done with 6. It was claustrophobic and cold (especially when the rain and wind machines were going). We designed the cabin so that each wall came off. So we could really get coverage. Even with the walls off you felt like you were abandoned it a bleak wooden lighthouse. We shot through Oct – Dec, that warehouse was cold and gloomy.
David: The warehouse was huge, but with the sets built and the green screens hung it felt a lot smaller than it was. And trying to heat a space that big in the midst of winter was impossible. But the freedom that studio set-up gave us to move around and dis-assemble parts of the set was essential to getting the shots we needed.
BAH: How did you make the storm? Were you working with much water, or was it mostly VFX work?
Chris: We used rain machines (indoors) that Tim our designer had actually built and wind machines, really that was just to effect the actors. The rest was pure CGI. Vern did an amazing job of working out the green screen logistics, I think at the time we had one of the biggest green screens in Wales. The CGI was actually hellish to be honest, really difficult to create a storm without the Hollywood budget. I actually designed a particle rain system in after effects that matched the rain machines, but the stormy sea almost killed all of us! We had a fantastic VFX team (I also worked on a lot of the VFX) but it was tough on a low budget.
David: Seeing the torrential rain happen indoors was both a moment of pride and panic, but the systems we had in place worked a treat and the end effect was well worth the effort. With the wind machines going too, it was really a bizarre experience to be in the eye of a storm whilst indoors.
BAH: What has reaction been like to the film so far? What do you expect people will make of the film?
Chris: We’ve only really done a few test screenings, so we’ll need to see what the wider world thinks. People love it or hate it, we really wanted to make a film that felt like an ordeal, like you’re stuck with them in that terrible place, lost in that storm. It is a fairly dark film, a very personal film. Starburst were the first to review it and they gave us a fantastic 8 / 10 so hopefully the right audience will get the film and enjoy that darkness.
David: We know this film won’t be to everyone’s taste, but saying that people that I wouldn’t expect to have liked it have done. I think at its heart is a very human story and ordeal that everyone of us can relate to and take a stake in as it unfolds. That was always our intention, to leave the audience feeling like they’d spent months stuck on that lighthouse in those extreme conditions, battered, bruised and on-edge. A couple of screenings we’ve been at end with a very palpable silence once the end credits role, which for me is the kind of reaction I’d hope we’d get.
BAH: Is there anything you would have done differently, either in the content of the film or how you went about making it?
Chris: When you finish a film you look back and see so many things you could have done differently. At the end of the day it is what it is, it is what you achieved at that time with that budget. I try not to look back these days, only learn from each one.
David: I can’t look at the films I’ve been involved in without spotting the mistakes we made along the way. I won’t point them out because most of the time they’re irrelevant to other people watching the film with no idea of what’s gone on behind the scenes. There are a few things we’d liked to have done if we had the money, but chances are they wouldn’t have worked out as planned. As it stands, for what we did and had to do it with, the whole cast and crew can hold their heads up and feel proud of what they achieved with The Lighthouse. I know I am. [Nia agrees!]
BAH: I believe you’ve got another medieval project in the works, called Conquest – is this something that we might see in the near future?
Chris: ‘Conquest’ has a lot of interest, I love that project so hopefully yes. Probably a film or two down the line though as it needs a big, big budget.
David: We’re still actively developing ‘Conquest’ and it would be a dream project for us to get our teeth into next. However, given its scale and the current film-making distribution and financing climate, we’ve made the decision to make something a bit smaller first. That said, the next thing we do will be considerably bigger than The Lighthouse, for our own experience and the peace of mind of the backers too. I mean, look what we did with £300,000. Imagine what we could do with a million!
BAH: Any other upcoming projects?
Chris: Yes, but none that we can quite announce yet. We’ve actually got a great little slate coming together.
David: There’s a number of very commercial and exciting projects in development at the moment, once The Lighthouse gets out there we’re hoping we can use the momentum built to bring these new films on and get them made. The next couple of years will be an exciting and busy time for Dogs Of Annwn.
Huge thanks to Chris and David for talking to me about the film and their work. To keep up to date with the film, give The Lighthouse a ‘like’ on Facebook and for more on Chris and David’s work visit www.dogsofannwn.com.
Soda Pictures release The Lighthouse in UK cinemas on 8th July.