By the time I'd shot Phew, I'd also done a few low budget promos as well as my Super 8 trilogy and was tentatively taking the results around to a few promo/commercials companies, still not realising that my main goal was drama. The general reaction I remember was 'well it's great you've done all these films but they're on Super 8mm, can you work on 16mm?' The answer was 'well of course I fucking can'- you're either visually literate or you're not and as long as you have a crew and budget to accommodate the change of format, it really shouldn't matter whether you shoot hi8 or 70mm. That said, I felt it was important to move up a notch in terms of production values so shooting a Super 16mm short was the obvious progression.
Similar to Smiles, Laughter and Insanity, I financed this myself, this time with pretty much my worldly savings of about £2000 since by this time I'd given up my production manager day job and was officially on the dole.
Paul Tonkinson was doing very well as a stand-up comic at the time and had recently won the Time Out comedian of the year award. He was a good friend of a couple of guys I'd worked with as a runner (Ewan Moare who was my first AD on this film and Martin Phipps who did the music) so I'd seen him in a couple of shorts and felt he had the right mixture of quirkiness and comic timing to bring the character to life. Bringing Paul on board was relatively but getting Frank on board came through a much more serpentuous route.
I think I advertised in about 3 different sources for an actor in his 60s (PCR, The Stage and something else) and had received a meagre response. Nonetheless I met up with a couple of guys and was sufficiently impressed with one to offer him the job after meeting in Soho for a lunchtime drink. The guy had been a post-war stand-up, came out with a couple of good one-liners, had appeared in Leon The Pig-Farmer (at the time, a v.successful indie British feature) and was up for working for expenses only, so I figured what the hell.
I thought it was slightly strange that this guy who'd seemed so healthy when I met him in Soho turned up to our first rehearsal with a walking stick, a limp and a severely irregular breathing pattern having walked up just one flight of stairs but remaining positive I figured he'd been in a hurry to get to the rehearsal. When we read through the script, his timing and delivery wasn't fantastic but it always takes a while for actors to warm up so I gave him the benefit of the doubt even though he didn't respond to any of my directions (always a bad sign).
After an hour or so, we decided to do a walkthrough and it was during this that I had to admit to myself I'd made a big mistake. In the script, the character has to be sufficiently strong to hold Paul's character down whilst knocking him out with chloroform. And then, he has to kneel onto the floor and manipulate Paul's body to chop his finger off! Although you can cheat many things in the cinema, it was obvious as he tried to 'chloroform' Paul that there was no way he'd be able to over-power a panicked, struggling 20-something whilst desperately clinging onto his walking stick. Then, it took him about 3 minutes to kneel onto the floor by which time he was shaking and rasping inconsolably for breath. Retrospectively, the whole episode had quite a dark comic edge to it but at the time it was anything but funny as I watched on, mortified, realising that I was about to plough my life-time savings into this actor who a/ couldn't act and b/ was about to die.
After the rehearsal, I walked back to the tube station with Paul and asked his opinion; he shared my reservations and as soon as I got home I phoned up the guy's agent and broke the news. I was surprised at how well the agent took the call but not that surprised when he confided that his client was in fact 76! The agent asked my to write a letter to the actor explaining my reasons for getting rid of him and the main thing I remember is sitting there wondering how to finish off the letter. I initially wrote 'good luck with the rest of your career' but concluded this was rubbing the salt in the wound too much as obviously he didn't have much of a life left let alone a career.
This had really fucked up my schedule because I was going on holiday the following day and had organised the whole shoot for about a week after I returned and certainly didn't want to cancel and re-organise the whole thing again. I rushed up to Leicester Square and spent a couple of hours flicking through Spotlight, noting every quirky looking actor in his late 50s/early 60s. In the end, I sent out about 10 scripts and went on holiday wondering why the fuck I was putting myself through such aggravation.
Thankfully everything turned out alright on the night and when I returned from holiday, about 4 actors had responded positively. In the end I opted for Frank Williams who's best known for playing the vicar in Dad's Army and he was great; a consummate professional for whom nothing was too much trouble and who was as mentally alert and as sprightly as anyone else on set.
We shot the film over three days on 3 different locations in the West End and Hackney and it went all very smoothly apart from 15 nightmarish minutes when, half way into the second day, the sound recordist took me aside and sheepishly admitted that he'd recorded over all the first day's audio tapes by mistake! I was distraught and couldn't utter a word; I remember sitting down on the wall outside our location as this guy kept saying 'I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry' and me thinking, for the second time on that shoot that I'd blown my life savings on absolutely nothing. On a proper budget you'd re-shoot, maybe claim insurance or re-dub the dialogue but none of these were options so that was it I thought; it's all over.
Happily the soundman came back 10 minutes later and nervously admitted he'd made a mistake and had been looking at the wrong tapes - he hadn't recorded over them at all! Phew indeed.
Given the budget was so small I never planned on finishing the film on film, just tape so, similar to Laughter, it played around several short films clubs in London where everyone laughed and groaned in the right order at the right places. Phew managed to go further afield however and played at the Cardiff Film Festival and at the inaugural Manchester short film festival. I showed it to various companies around Soho and it garnered a good response but in spite of all the meetings it didn't lead to anything bigger or better. It's always hard to precise what you learn from each film you make but in reality, you always learn a lot and after completing Phew, my fourth short, I had the confidence and desire to move onto the heady world of features.
Young Man - Paul Tonkinson
Old Man - Frank Williams
Writer, producer, director - Simon Rumley
Director of Photography - Armando Smit
Editor - Ewan Moare
Composer - Martin Phipps