How the The Dig's Simon Stone fell in love with Suffolk
- Credit: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021
Although, Australian director Simon Stone went to Cambridge University and had visited Suffolk in his youth, he admits he didn’t really know a lot about Sutton Hoo until Moira Buffini’s screenplay for The Dig landed on his lap.
Stone was approached after he directed Billie Piper in the hit play Yerma at The Young Vic. He still has a clear memory of the impact the script had on him and the fact that he was on a train travelling between London and Switzerland and the fact that he was so engrossed in it he missed some pretty spectacular scenery.
“I remember exactly the moment of reading the script, I was on the Eurostar and I had no interest in doing anything else apart from finishing it. It was such an unpredictably interesting story; I didn’t imagine I would be so fascinated by this home-grown archaeological project.
“Having the opportunity to tell a celebratory story of cultural complexity and of the solidarity of community in a time of crisis and the breakdown of social boundaries excited me. It felt like a very appropriate look at how teamwork is the core to success in a world where we are more interested in categories and resurrecting borders between people.”
A location recce to Sutton Hoo quickly established in his mind that the Suffolk landscape itself was an important character in the story and the bulk of the film should be shot in the area adjoining the River Deben.
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“Unfortunately, we couldn’t shoot on the actual site of Sutton Hoo because it is now a scheduled historic monument and is a protected National Trust site but we could shoot in the area around it. We set up base in Snape and shot at Snape, Rendlesham, Iken and at Butley.
“I was fascinated by the landscape and those big skies. We built replicas of the mounds and recreated the excavation of the ship in Surrey but I was so taken with the genuine Suffolk landscape that I managed to squeeze eight extra shooting days out of the budget and moved scenes that we had intended to shoot in Surrey and we moved them to Butley Creek.
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“When I was growing up in Cambridge, I didn’t come to Suffolk much. I had a few trips to Ipswich for swim meets but that was about it. I certainly didn’t know the area around Woodbridge and when we went to look at for the film, I was completely blown away and fell in love with the area.”
He said that Suffolk looked nothing like the rest of Britain and very much had its own identity. “It reminded me a lot of the Netherlands actually – very flat. There are lots of rivers and waterways crossing the landscape which gives it a very Dutch feel. I like the fact that Basil has to transport himself and his bicycle by ferry, by boat, to get to where he needs to go.”
He said the landscape gave the film just as much character as the Suffolk accents which he was determined should be right. “Charlie Haylock did a great job on the film, getting the sound of Suffolk just right. It’s a very beguiling accent and very particular to that part of the world. We decided to put a lot of work into getting it right because if it came across as West Country then it would be wrong.
“Ralph got very attached to Suffolk and he wanted to get it right for Basil (Brown) and he and Charlie Haylock really bonded over the accent and wanted to get it exactly right. Monica Dolan, who played Basil’s wife, also worked extremely hard and the result is quite astonishing.”
So what made Basil special? What spoke to you – what made you want to make this film?
“I am an outsider and the film is about Basil Brown as an outsider, someone who doesn’t necessarily belong in the position of responsibility that he has been given. He doesn’t follow the protocol of the class system, his blindness to it is what lets him get away with being so determined in his work. I suppose a certain level of Australian irreverence is helpful there.
“Basil doesn’t believe that he shouldn’t be capable of knowing as much as the people who were educated at Cambridge.”
But, the key to the story for Stone is the relationship between Basil Brown and Edith Pretty. “It’s a pretty unconventional story. In most movies you would expect some element of romance but this film doesn’t have that – not in the conventional sense – Basil and Edith bond over the archaeology – and they discover that they are more alike than they would have thought.
“They have a moment of connection over their discriminations. He being of a social class not allowed or supported to go to University and she as a woman whose father didn’t want her to go to University. They connect over these forms of oppression and that’s a beautifully modern look at how the obstacles that women and the disenfranchised classes are uniquely connected. They do have a relationship but it is an extraordinary relationship of the mind.”
The Dig is now available on Netflix.