Keeping Busy?

When I was a film student the perennial problem was getting hold of good actors who would appear in your amateur productions for expenses only.  We were afraid at first to ask the people we really wanted, because we thought they might take it as an insult.  In time you grow a thicker skin and realise that it costs nothing to ask and having someone tell you to eff off is not actually fatal. In fact, begging, pestering and cajoling people to lend you equipment or props or locations for little or no money – ‘blagging’ as it’s called – is a vital skill for a film maker, because even in major professional productions sometimes all that’s between you and disaster is the ability to persuade panicking producers that everything’s going to turn out fine.

In fact getting experienced professional actors to appear in student movies was often easier than you’d imagine, because most actors know it’s better to be working than sitting at home twiddling your thumbs.  On a student shoot at least you’re practising your craft and getting seen. At the very least you’ll get fed.  If the shoot’s a fiasco you’ll have some wonderful disaster stories to tell your friends in the pub, but it’s also possible you’ll be working with a genuinely talented young filmmaker.  Then your performance will be seen at festivals around the world.  More to the point, producers will be looking at it, because it’s their job to spot new talent.  If it leads to a job even that awful shoot where you sat for twelve hours in a derelict hospital ward full of dead pigeons, waiting for the director of photography to figure out the lighting, will have been worthwhile.

My graduation film Over the Wild Frontier no longer exists as a print, to the best of my knowledge.  That’s probably a good thing because although I was very proud of it at the time, and it made people laugh, it was pretty bloody rough. But now it’s gone I can describe it as a lost masterpiece.  Part of it, coincidentally, was shot in a derelict hospital full of dead pigeons.

I had never heard of the Irish actor who played the lead role before I cast him, and few other people had either.  Immensely tall and immensely handsome, Patrick Bergin has roguish charm by the bucketful, and he made every woman on the set come over all unnecessary.  He worked with me for eight weeks or so over one glorious summer, and such was his dedication he even did his own stunts.  He fell off a motorbike in the middle of a grassy field for a shot that wasn’t in the script and which in the end I never used.  I remember at the end of the shoot handing him a wad of notes as his expenses, and feeling embarrassed it was so little for all the work he had put in.  Especially as he was still limping.

But what Patrick really got out of it was a thirty-minute comedy film where he was onscreen nearly all the time.  He sent a copy to an Irish director, Pat O’Connor, who was doing very well in Hollywood that year.  And one day in LA O’Connor got a phone call from the veteran director Bob Rafaelson, who was casting a movie called Mountains Of The Moon about the Victorian explorer Richard Burton (yes, the Welsh actor named himself after him.)  Burton was from Dublin, and Rafaelson was looking for a tall handsome Irish actor, and could O’Connor suggest anybody?  And O’Connor told him about a guy he’d just seen in this wonderful student movie Over the Wild Frontier.  (OK, he may not have used the term ‘wonderful’.  But this is my anecdote.)

So Patrick got to play Richard Burton opposite Fiona Shaw, because he had spent those weeks in South Armagh falling off a motorbike. That job in turn led to a role as the abusive husband of Julia Roberts in Sleeping With The Enemy, a movie that became a huge hit, coming out very soon after Pretty Woman.

Anyway this is all ages ago now, but the principle still applies – that dumb luck and coincidence can only help if you’re already making the effort to help yourself.  Keep plugging away, producing work and getting stuff out there, because you really don’t know when it will pay off, where it will end up or where it might take you.

But if a student director asks you to ride a motorbike across a wet grassy field in South Armagh, tell him to find a stunt double or forget it.

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