How Bristol director talked John Hurt into appearing in his latest film
HE'S appeared on the silver screen as everyone from the Elephant Man to Quentin Crisp, but what does it really take to get a star as big as John Hurt to appear in a 12-and-a-half-minute short film?
It's a simple enough question for Michael Davies, the Bristolian film director who managed to talk the star into appearing in his latest film – Love At First Sight – which premieres at the Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol next month.
"It's all about the script," he says. "We had a script that he liked. It's amazing what can happen if you have a good enough script."
Michael, from Stoke Bishop, wrote the script last year, after wondering how he could encapsulate the poignant sadness of Alzheimer's in just a few minutes' of film.
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The result is an unlikely romantic comedy, in which John Hurt plays an elderly man who wakes up each morning in his old people's home and falls in love with a fellow resident – played by Phyllida Law.
"As the day progresses, he decides it truly is love at first sight, and they decide to get married. Only the next morning when they wake up, the previous day is forgotten, and they relive it all over again.
"I just thought it was a touching idea," Michael says.
It is certainly a long way from his day job – which is directing episodes of Tracy Beaker for Children's BBC.
"My background was originally in documentary film making," Michael explains. "But a few years ago I went along to the Encounters short film festival down at the Watershed, and I was inspired to have a go at making a short film myself. It struck me as a real art form to be able to tell a story in so brief a time – sometimes little more than a minute."
The result was Michael's 90 second short What's Virgin Mean?, which focuses on a mother tasked with answering her young daughter's awkward most questions.
It may have been over in little more than a blink of an eye, but the film was a runaway success at Encounters in 2008 – scooping the top prize at the festival.
"Since then, it's gone on to feature at more than 40 short film festivals around the world," Michael says proudly.
"It also led directly to me getting a call from the BBC and being invited to direct the Tracy Beaker series.
"Given the success of a 90-second film, I'm hoping this 12-and-a-half-minute movie might lead to being offered a full feature film."
Michael says John Hurt was the linchpin upon which the whole project was based.
"Once I'd secured John, everyone else had a great reason to get involved," he says.
"I started out, very ambitiously, by sending my script to one of the biggest casting agents in the country. Luckily she liked it, and called me and simply said – who do you want me to get?
"I immediately said John Hurt would be my first choice for the main part, and to my amazement, he immediately agreed. He had a short window between feature films in the spring, so we would have three days in which to get the film in the can.
"At first we wanted to film in Bristol, but we decided it would prove too expensive – because it would have meant having to pay for accommodation for the actors and crew.
"So in a shrewd move, we arranged to film it at a big house near Pinewood studios. There were lots of crew members living nearby who had just finished working on the new Bond movie, so we employed about 60 crew and 20 cast for three days without any real problem."
But the project nearly collapsed when a Government-backed arts grant fell through, and Michael was left with the task of finding the tens of thousands of pounds needed to make the film in just a few days.
"I don't want to say exactly how much it cost, but we needed to find a hell of a lot of money very quickly," he says. "Luckily, a couple of years earlier, I'd made a Secret Millionaire documentary for Channel 4, and so I called the Secret Millionaire from the show, whom I'd got to know quite well.
"It was a lady called Roisin Isaacs, who had once worked as a nurse, so felt passionately about highlighting dementia care.
"When I showed her the script, she was so inspired by it that she offered to step in with the funding there and then to help keep the project on course.
"We were so lucky – and I hope we made a film that Roisin can be proud of. I really do think it's a touching tale.
"Sometimes you can say more in a short film that has a clear story to tell, than you can in a long feature film. That's why festivals like Encounters are so inspirational.
"We're just incredibly lucky to have one of the major international short film festivals right here on our doorstep."
Encounters runs from November 16-21 at venues around Bristol's Harbourside. For more details, visit www.encounters-festival.org.uk.