Going scouting for locations
As film titles go, The Scouting Book For Boys is intriguing but not exactly descriptive of what the movie is about – particularly when you realise that it’s not about scouting. The Scouting Book For Boys is one of those brilliant, low budget, films that the British film industry does so well. It’s a story of young love set on a caravan site in the wilds of East Anglia.
It’s a movie powered by the need to tell a good story, populated by believable characters rather than turn out yet another reality-defying blockbuster. It portrays a world which we can recognise, even if we haven’t lived it ourselves.
Shot on location in Norfolk and Suffolk, the film marks the directorial debut of Tom Harper. Scripted by Jack Thorne, of Skins fame, it tells the story of David, (Thomas Turgoose from Shane Meadows’ This Is England), and Emily (Holliday Grainger) who enjoy a close brother-sister relationship, in a typical oh-so-’70s caravan park somewhere on the East Anglian coast. In reality the caravan park is made up of shots blending a variety of locations stretching from Kessingland and Lowestoft, up to Great Yarmouth and even up to Sherringham and Cromer.
The two young teenage friends are poor but extremely happy as they spend their time exploring the caravan park. They are good friends, close friends but they are not having a romance – or are they? Things come to a head when Emily’s alcoholic mother decides to send her away to live with her estranged father – a move which would shatter her carefree existence with David.
Fortunately, David has a plan and convinces Emily to hide away in a cave but as she goes missing things start to spiral out of control.
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It’s a gripping atmospheric story, served well by the wildness of its rural locations, the deliberate tattiness of the composite caravan park and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s beautiful visuals which veer between social realism for the gritty scenes and cosy romantic for the two youngsters at play.
For Tom Harper just getting a full length feature film into the nation’s cinema’s is achievement enough but he acknowledges that part of the film’s success lies in the locations for the film which he feels matched the atmosphere of the story exactly. He was after a landscape that represented a world that was ‘out of time’ a land where a dreamlike childhood could go on, unchecked, forever, or at least until the adult concerns arrive bringing a nightmare reality with them.
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Speaking from his home, about to whizz off to a promotional screening of his film, Tom says that he was so pleased with the Suffolk and Norfolk locations that he actually changed the script to move the action from the rugged mountains of Wales to the sandy, coastal strip of East Anglia.
“We came down, scouted a few locations and I knew that this was what I was looking for – which was a real surprise because obviously there are no mountains in Suffolk. We found the cliffs we needed in Hunstanton, we shot there for a couple of days, then we moved along the coast. The title sequence is quite recognisably Wells in north Norfolk, and the caravan park was mostly Suffolk around Lowestoft, Kessingland, going up towards Yarmouth.
“But, we used the whole stretch of coast for different shots throughout the film. It’s no one particular place. It generic, wild, coastal countryside and its just right setting for this very touching, gripping story.
“At one point I was worried about moving the film from Wales to Suffolk because there are no caves there. But we sat down, thought about it, I think we have come up with a really solution. It will interesting to see if East Anglian audiences are convinced.”
He said that ScreenEast, the UK Film Council’s regional body, was instrumental in helping them sort out location problems and suggesting solutions. “They found the cliffs at Hunstanton which is what convinced us the East Anglian location would work. The cliffs were so visual, they were so distinctive in terms of the strata, the different strips of red, white and grey – quite unusual, that we knew we had to use them. Also the feel of an English caravan park is very different to a Welsh caravan park and if truth be told much more suited to the story. There is something slightly sad about it but also something very evocative and wonderful.
“It’s like some collective memory of long, shared summer holidays. You look back now and you think summers back then were always long and hot. But if you look at the records you realise that it was much the same as it is now - just half a day,” he added with a laugh.
He said the locale was very important because most films about teenagers are about them wanting to get away from where they are living. This is about two youngsters wanting to stay where they are living, so the East Anglian countryside and the coast has to be seen through their eyes as a magical timeless place. “For once the weather lived up to its obligations and actually shone throughout the shoot, which has given the film a lovely warm feel. If it had rained then it would have been much more of a challenge.”
The release of The Scouting Book For Boys is the realisation of a life-long ambition for Tom. He has made short films before – Cherries and Cubs – had those movies screened at the London Film Festival and Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in the US, but the release of a full length feature film into the nation’s cinemas is the culmination of a dream.
“I got a job between school and university in a editing suite. In order to find out how the editing process worked, I bought myself a camera and went out and shot some footage. I discovered that I enjoyed shooting the footage and telling a story much more than cutting it all together. From that point on I was hooked.”
Even so, the step into feature film making was rather daunting. “To begin with, it did seem rather strange, to be fulfilling this great ambition but the truth is that when you are in the thick of it you are so busy, there is so much to worry about that you haven’t time to think about it. Because the financing of a film is so complicated and so protracted , the development stage seems to go on forever. You get some of the financing in place, then you have to go after more, you start casting, you get someone, they then drop out for one reason or another, then you have to find more money while casting other roles, you are busy worrying about all these other aspects right up to the moment when you actually start shooting. It really was all-consuming.
“It’s only after you’ve finished, talking to people like you that you start to realise what a big step up it is. When you are actually doing it, you simply don’t have the time to stop and think about it.”
He said that the fact that the production process was so fraught and busy meant that you got more honest films as a result. “You don’t have time to agonise over your decisions. You can’t revise what you want to do, like you can do if you are writer, you have to be instinctive and just do it.
“To be honest that’s the way I like to work.”
Some commentators have raised eyebrows that Tom Harper is one of the few young directors who is not also a writer. Most emerging talent, like Andrea Arnold who has won critical acclaim for her films Red Road and Fish Tank, only work on scripts written by themselves.
Tom feels that although he won’t rule out working on a self-penned script, feels that sometimes an outside eye gives a script a chance to explore new avenues which a writer/director can’t see because they are too close to the project.
He said that he and Jack Thorne became friends when they were both part of a Channel Four-sponsored emerging talent project called Coming Up. “I read the script, we met for a cup of coffee, got along, stayed in touch and it developed from there. So far as not written a script, I think everyone works differently. Jack is a wonderful writer and each morning he wakes up and is compelled to write something, whereas I am much more interested in making films. I want to get out there and talk to people. I would hate sitting in a room by myself, staring at a blank computer screen.
“My first job in the film industry was as an assistant film editor and spending all day in a darkened room trying to get computers to work was my idea of hell.”
Although he doesn’t write the script, he said, that the collaboration between the writer and the director was the secret of good film-making. “I am a great believer in people talking and sharing ideas. In my opinion a lot of the problems with television stem from the fact that the director is one of the last people to be appointed. Because you are coming on board at the last minute you don’t really understand how the story has been developed, what the themes and motifs are and it often results in work that is not as good as it could be.”
Tom believes that the terms writer and director are too black and white to really describe their real working partnership. He said that they both worked on the early drafts of the script and shaped the look of the film together. “I was there while Jack was writing the screenplay, then Jack was around during the shoot and the edit, so he had input, and at the end of the day, as I said, it was a very collaborative process.
He said that the state of the British film industry always seems on the verge of great things without it ever truly blossoming into a bona fide golden age. “We have a lot of talent here, some first rate studios and facilities. I think we make some wonderful films look at the success of Andrea Arnold, she is a beacon for me and many other young film-makers, but for every Andrea Arnold there are a host of other talented young film-makers who are struggling to get their films made. It’s tough but we keep battling and we do make good films.
“But things are changing. A low budget film today is about �500,000. Five years ago it was about �4 million and the fact that we can make films cheaper is resulting in people being stimulated to be more resourceful. Do things in a different, more creative way.”
However, he does warn that the creative freedoms that digital technology represents doesn’t always result in better work. “Just because you can shoot lots of footage doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to be good. I think that the discipline of shooting on film, the cost of shooting on film, meant that you thought about what you were shooting before you shot it and you made sure that every shot counted. It made you stop and think about what you wanted before you went out and shot it.
As for his next film, he says he is just looking around for material now. “People ask if there is a recurring theme to my work or a motif that I keep coming back to. I hadn’t really thought about it until now but I suppose, it is young people and events during your teenage years just because it is such a momentous transition and it is dramatic and shapes the person you will become. I find it endlessly fascinating.”