From agreeing to direct the short to actually directing it took a couple of years. One of the main draws for me was that the script was quintessentially American in a Terence Malick/Badlands kind of way and it needed to be shot on location in America to do justice to this quintessence. However over the months we discussed the possibility of shooting UK for US and also adapting the script to be shot as a UK story - all for budgetary reasons; raising money for shorts is notoriously difficult and over the period this hadn't happened. In the end I moved on and did a pilot for the Film Council whilst Arif and Piers had brought another young director on board and that , I thought, was that...
But no, fast forward about 18 months and fate contrived it that I was heading out to New York to start 6 weeks of pre-production with the goal of shooting in the New England/New Hampshire area in early December to take advantage of the snowy climate (the script was very specifically based in a cold snowy mid-west winter). By this stage we'd cast Greta Scacchi which was a great coup. When I came back on board we'd discussed casting but only in terms of American actresses so when Arif mentionned he'd shown the script to Greta the previous summer and she was a big fan, it was a no-brainer. The three of us met up at the Charlotte Street Hotel and spoke a bit about the script, a bit about my background and a bit about nothing in particular and at the end of this mutual interview I knew Greta would be perfect for the lead role or Julia Parchant and she agreed!
One of the toughest things about the project was shooting in the US - not because it's inherently hard but because we went there with very few contacts and of course that's how this business works. I'd been in talks with an established NY co-producer who'd agreed to come on board and help us out but he suddenly got a feature off the ground and became unavailable. He recommended a couple of young line-producers who I met and who seemed competent but turned out to be anything but. I was keen to meet prospective Heads of Departments as soon as possible but during a 2 week period had met literally one DoP who although keen was straight out of film school, didn't have a great show reel and was completely inappropriate for the job. The thing that made us reconsider personnel was when Arif and I went on a location scout - we were looking for an old fashioned, atmospheric farmhouse which was in the middle of nowhere and had a large, imposing barn under which you could imagine unearthing a few dead bodies. Our line producers had just the location!
Arif and I hired a car and drove 3 hours North to New Hampshire to find this ideal location - finding the ideal location is really exciting because it's at this point that you can start truly visualizing the film in your head. Not only were we immensely disappointed but downright confused when we found the place - a relatively new semi-detached construction with houses either side, in the middle of a village, on a road, with a 'barn' which was just about large enough to house a lawn-mower! What the fuck were these guys thinking!? I actually started wondering if they'd even read the script. Not surprisingly we parted company soon after which left Arif and I with about 4 weeks to organize the whole shoot in a country where we had no contacts whatsoever! At least everyone spoke English...
We decided the most important thing at that stage was to find a location which I was happy with and so drove around New Hampshire looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. After a few hours I concluded that the New Hampshire terrain (hundreds of green trees wherever you looked with no wide open plains or rolling landscapes) was in fact completely wrong for what the script demanded. Having been to Vermont for a Christmas holiday once, I took the executive decision and so we drove west for a couple of hours and randomly found ourselves in Woodstock (the non rock'n'roll one), a quaint touristy village with 1 large hotel, 2 restaurants and 3 estate agents! This ended up being a blessing in disguise as the estate agents we approached were all very helpful. We spent another day driving around the countryside, stopping at semi-psycho looking run down houses, knocking on peoples doors and generally ingratiating ourselves with the local ffffolk in the area. In the end, one of the estate agents we originally went to put us onto a farmhouse which was owned by a couple of octogenarians who were holidaying in Mexico for the whole of the winter, whilst trying to sell this place in which they'd lived since the 1950s. The house was in the middle of nowhere, run-down but dignified, belonged to a bygone era and had a barn which you could hold a lawn-mowing convention in and was painted a deep crimson red to boot! The place was perfect and eventhough the Octogenarians were only sporadically contactable by email through a Mexican named Juan, this was our first breakthrough in locking the film down.
I think it's true to say the film could've imploded at any second and there were more than a few times that I (and I'm sure Arif) felt that we weren't going to get the thing shot. Being a father and husband Arif couldn't spend all the 6 weeks in the US and so did a large amount of the work from London but bit by bit we dragged together a crew. Something which also didn't help was that we wanted to shoot 2 days after Thanksgiving which is America's largest holiday when EVERYONE goes home to see their relatives (something the line-producers never even mentionned) but by the time we worked this out we were stuck into dates with Greta and couldn't afford to change them!
We had a few more lucky breaks on pre-production - one was finding our cameraman Milton Kam. Recommended by Merchant Ivory NY, Milton had recently shot a pop promo which had all the depths and subtleties of lighting that I was looking for so we met up, got on and Milton got the job. During those prep weeks we must've met about 6 times to discuss the script, its influences and the lighting which impressed me no end since I'd never met any of the cameramen on my features more than a couple of times! We'd also been holding out for an A-list actor who never came through and 2 days before Thanksgiving realised that we were about to start shooting a four day schedule without our leading man! Yikes! A few phone calls later and we were put on to Adrienne Sterne who became our casting agent and literally had two days to cast the parts of Caleb Tucker and Hal!
Although I hadn't heard of Bill Sage his cv was pretty amazing, I'd seen a handful of the films he'd been in and he'd worked with several of the directors (such as Hal Hartley and Mary Harron) more than once (a good, easy way to check actors and their likely ability to collaborate is to see if they've worked with any director more than once - if yes, this is a good thing and it probably means they're OK!). I saw a few other people but we met up and he had exactly the brooding, charming quality which could turn a dark corner at any time and this comes out perfectly in the finished film I think.
So finally with not a second to spare we had a full crew, with a competent line-producer, a location, and three actors! Greta flew in from the UK, we picked her up in Boston and had a day of rehearsals for her and the two Bills (Sage and Mitchell). The only thing we were really lacking by this stage was snow!
It sounds kinda stupid but some of my favourite films (Gremlins, It's a Wonderful Life, Scrooged) have snow in them so I very much saw The Handyman as my 'snow' film and this was one of the reasons we scheduled the shoot in North America during December since we thought we'd be guaranteed snow. But what with global warming et al this couldn't've been further from the Spring-like reality that benignly confronted us. Our 1st AD wanted to schedule the exterior shots on the first day but given that at this stage there was no snow I argued the point ad nauseam - I hadn't travelled 5000 miles to shoot a film with no snow! If it snowed, we had a sufficiently self-contained cast, crew and schedule to stop what scene we were doing and shoot exteriors straight away. So we pushed the exteriors back to the final day of the shoot in the hope that it'd snow any day. Each morning I'd get up at about 5-5.30 and look out the window hoping to see a smattering of white stuff outside but by the last day I'd resigned myself to the fact that we weren't going to be blessed - it was still a great script - oh well...Arif claims he did a snow-dance the last night in the middle of Woodstock whilst everyone else slept - I'm not so sure. Either way I woke up on the Friday morning, opened the curtains and couldn't believe my eyes - snow! Hurrah! It spent the whole day snowing heavily enabling us to get some truly atmospheric shots with some v.impressive sized flakes.
Given that no-one really knew anyone else on the shoot, everything went incredibly smoothly and everyone worked together really well. Although as a director you spend most of your time in a fugue of intense concentration, it was a pleasure to work with a bunch of such highly respected actors and an equally professional crew and I think this comes across in the final film.
Although for various reasons post-production has taken a lot longer than any of us had hoped (partly because I've spent the last 9 months working solidly on The Living and The Dead), we're very close to finishing The Handyman and I think it's a great short and out of the people I collaborated with I've gone on to work with Milton Kam (DoP), Tom Beach (writer), Richard Chester (composer) and Adrienne Sterne (casting) again. Hopefully the film will be coming to a festival near you soon...