What Suffolk needs to do to attract more films after The Dig
- Credit: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021
With the release of the celebrated Netflix film The Dig, Suffolk has never been more in the movie spotlight than it is now. Suffolk, having doubled for other locations or provided picturesque but anonymous backdrops for other movies is now enjoying its moment of Cinemascope glory.
Yesterday, Richard Curtis’ love letter to The Beatles, set the ball rolling in 2019 with its story set in north Suffolk, centred around the Latitude Festival, but The Dig is the movie that really celebrates the timeless nature of the Suffolk landscape.
James Cutting, experienced location manager for movies like Kingdom of Heaven for Ridley Scott and Alexander for Oliver Stone, scouted locations in Suffolk for The Dig, something he loved doing because he lives just outside Diss and went to school at Sir Joseph’s College in Ipswich.
“It’s great being able to work on your doorstep and bring your home county to the screen,” he said but he said that he also had to widen the net to Surrey and Buckinghamshire for some sequences when filming in Suffolk proved impractical.”
He says that the Suffolk landscape is very photogenic and easily lends itself to becoming an atmospheric cinematic backdrop. “Suffolk is beautiful with its big skies, beautiful countryside, winding country lanes and gorgeous sunsets – and it’s not too far out of London, just 90 minutes or so, but, it’s rural nature is a big selling point but is also a stumbling block.”
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He said that he would love to bring more film work to the county but there are a number of practical issues that the local authorities need to address before Suffolk and Norfolk can join the cinematic big leagues.
“Suffolk is perfect for period films because it is so unspoilt – you can go from the middle ages to the 1970s without too much trouble but while the small country lanes look good on camera, the lack of a major road network nearby, that will enable full-scale film unit to get here quickly and easily is more of a problem.
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“We’re not talking about a couple of lorries and a caravan here, we are talking of a sizeable portable village, an entire community bringing several hundred people, along with lights, generators, cameras, cranes, dolly equipment, wardrobe, props, dressing rooms, catering wagons – and then all of these need to access the site and not be parked up a couple of miles away.
“There are a lot of practical problems which need to be taken into account when choosing a location. What it looks like on camera is important but access is also very important. You need good access. I have had to turn down spectacular locations simply because they were too difficult to get to.”
Overnight accommodation for the actors and the crew is also a priority and something that Suffolk can struggle with. “You are talking about a lot of people, who largely are coming from a long distance and need to be put up. A major film can have a crew of 400 quite easily. The director will always prefer that the unit stays together so they are all in one place and close to the location. Crews work long days on location. They have early starts and late finishes and don’t want to spend an hour to an hour and half driving to get to set or back to the hotel.
“If Suffolk’s authorities did just one thing that would help entice more production to Suffolk then they could do worse than build accommodation or convert buildings at the former Bentwaters airbase into a film village.
“We already use the facility for storage and overnight parking, so it would be a perfect place to house the crew. Just make sure there’s bar there and perhaps a facility to screen rushes and everyone will be happy. It’s location is superb because it’s in easy reach of many favoured locations in north Suffolk and on the coast.”
He said that picturesque Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk has been popular with film-makers since The Witchfinder General came to Lavenham in the mid-1960s and Lovejoy roamed the country lanes in the early 1990s. “It would be good to get some sort of accommodation sorted in the west of county as well.”
He added that the boost in film-related tourism would help pay for this added infra-structure. “New Zealand’s tourism has exploded since Lord of the Rings and that is a lot more difficult to get to than Suffolk.”
James, who splits his time between Suffolk and his home in Morocco, said he was brought on board The Dig in early August 2019 to scout locations. “I had just finished working on Last Christmas in London, scouting locations for re-shoots, just a week’s work, and I got this call saying could I find locations in Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey that could double for Suffolk.
“I then spent three weeks trying find areas that could double for the roads around Sutton Hoo and I thought: ‘This is ridiculous -why don’t we just shoot this in Suffolk? Places like Butley, Ramsholt, Felixstowe Ferry, Snape, you can’t easily replicate because of the water and the countryside.
“I was instructed to find particular locations in Suffolk but they had to be within 45 minutes of the accommodation. The toughest location I found was the hotel in Cromer which was for Lily James honeymoon scene which they dropped from the film.”
James Cutting spent three days photographing the tide levels at Butley and Snape to enable the film to double for the River Deben. He said that having been to school with many of the landowners made approaches to access private land easier.
“The area of the tumbledown building where Lily James character has her rendezvous with Rory was terrific. I managed the location for shooting because it was hard to get to and we put down boards in the nearby fields for the trucks and trailers to park on. It’s quite a logistical operation. We boarded a couple of acres and it took a day to build.”
James says that his next project is a TV series taking bomb disposal experts across the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. “It’s a project I have written and developed during lockdown and we are hopeful we can start shooting fairly quickly after we escape lockdown.”
We have approached Screen Suffolk to comment on the feasibility of accommodation being provided at Bentwaters Park. The Dig is now screening on Netflix.