The more I got to talk about the trailer with Chris the Producer, the more interest I took in scouting for locations for the live footage.
I wanted it to be as true to the novel as possible and spent every spare bit of time and weekends hunting for the spots that would give me just the right look.
The battle scenes were pretty much decided for me as one of the historians, who helped me with my research, was also a re-enactor so I would have been daft not to take advantage of his fine company of men when they were putting on a display at Thorpe Perrow. This was on one of the few fine August days of the year.
The men-at-arms put up a hell of a fight, to the extent that one of the re-enactor’s swords broke in two (not part of the plan) – the broken blade arcing through the air and landing within a few feet of the audience.
The result of this is some tremendous footage that blends in really well with the motion graphics, now that it has gone through the colour mix.
I scoured the Dales and parts of the Lake District for the final scene, which depicts a triumphant Shepherd Lord running hell for leather up the fells. I thought I could mix and match some of the footage in different locations but quickly came to the conclusion that it was better filming it all on the Mungrisdale approach to Blencathra. This was very apt as it is one of the most iconic locations in the final chapters. Wainwright describes Blencathra as a proper mountaineer’s mountain – “a mountain that compels attention…..with its great sweeping curve leaping out of the depths to a lofty summit ridge.” It had it all – but it certainly posed its challenges for filming. When I was scouting for the vantage points for shooting there, on a blazing August weekend, I was confronted by great swathes of mist that rolled off the mountain. At one point, Bannerdale Crags looked like a volcano belching out smoke as the mist swirled around the hollow. Not very helpful for the views I wanted to capture. You need clear bright skies and good light so that you can blend the palate for consolidating the live footage with the motion graphics. The filming was scheduled for the following month and the hotel accommodation booked, but if the weather was against us we could not go ahead. The second problem was how to get everyone up there safely. There would be a lot of survival gear I would have to take as a precautionary measure, not to mention ladders and a spare camera. I am used to the great outdoors but this was not necessarily true for every member of our little party so I had to err on the side of caution.
On the day, we were greeted with magnificent weather and decided to head straight for the summit as we had a clear view. If we got that, we had a better chance of filming the approach on the slopes later in the day, or even the following day. I set off carrying an 80lb pack, ladders, a spare camera and copious amounts of water. I reasoned that it would be good to set up a base camp on Mungrisdale and leave some of the party there to set up camp whilst I headed off with Chris, his camera and the actor up the slopes of Blencathra.
We picked the best vantage point, half way up the mountain so that the camera showed a good perspective of the distant hills. Filming was going well until we had a technical malfunction with the shepherds crook and the end fell off. Nothing for it but for me to run down to base camp and get the spare crook (no single point of failure on this expedition). I surprised myself and covered the ground there and back in something like twenty minutes. (Time is money when you are bankrolling a venture like this yourself).
Filming commenced again immediately, and between shoots, I observed for myself why we had lost the end off the original shepherds crook. The actor, who was quite out of breath with all the running and nervous at the prospect of getting the right mean and moody image across to camera, had hit upon the idea of using the crook as a golf club as a means of relaxation between takes. He was just about to whack a sizeable pebble up to the very summit of the mountain when I noticed what he was doing, and politely asked him to desist. Well, I meant for it to come out like that but in reality it was something like “#%&6$# “that fizzing stick!”
You had to have some sympathy for the poor guy though, when you think that he was wearing the most enormous shaggy sheepskin jerkins on one of the hottest days of the year and made to run up the side of a mountain. It was not an easy job. It was made worse by the fact that the medieval boots he was made to wear have no grip whatsoever on their soles. This makes running on smooth grassy slopes extremely precarious and inevitably the worst fate befell us, and he slipped and strained his ankle. Even if we had beaten him with the stick and made him run through his pain, it would have looked silly to have a hobbling Shepherd Lord in the film.
Chris, said there was nothing else for it but for me to don the medieval attire and get running. When I protested that I was hardly of the same age group as the actor and did not have his matinee idol good looks, he assured me that these would be long distance shots and waist-down pans of the camera so this would not matter.
The waist-down shots were not too much of a problem as I slipped, slided and stumbled along the slippery slopes. The boots were a nightmare though and the sheepskin jerkin was like the lagging of an immersion-heater jacket. The overall effect was like that of running across a marble floor in your stocking feet whilst being baked in an over-heated sauna.
The real problem was when Chris insisted that he wanted some long-distance shots of me and pointed to the distant slope of Bannerdale Crags. The instructions were to get myself down from The Tongue (for it was there that we had been filming the last sequence) and clamber up Bannerdale Crags in a jiffy and then run across the ridge, three times for good measure, to ensure he had some good footage.
I don’t think he realised how far away it was, but conscious that time was pressing, I threw myself into the task and bounded down the slope, ready to make my ascent of Bannerdale. I was not too long into my journey before I encountered a really smelly marsh that sucked at my legs and tried to cling to my knees. I then had to traverse a stream, I think it was the River Glendermackin, and by the time I got across there, the mosquitoes found me. Now I have been to many places in the world including tropical rain forests, equatorial Africa and deltas on the Nile but these mozzies were the Daddy of them all. Perhaps it was the, by now, very smelly sheepskin that attracted them but attract them it did and they proceeded to take lumps out of me. Can one contract malaria in Cumbria? I’m still not feeling very well now…..but back to the events of the day, I trudged wearily up the bucket-drop slope to Bannerdale, leaning heavily on the shepherds crook, and lay panting like a wounded wildebeest as soon as I got to the top.
I signalled to the crew across the valley that I was going to take a rest but I’m not even sure that they saw me. I took on what water I had left and prepared myself for the scene. I got my breathing right, waved the crook in the vague direction of the crew and commenced to run, trying to give all the appearance of a fit young shepherd lad. I got half-way across the ridge and I’m ashamed to say that I had to stop. I wheezed like someone who had smoked 60 Capstan Full Strength ciggies a day. It was the heat that had got to me. The sun blazed relentlessly down on the ridge and the sheepskin jerkin acted like an incinerator. I eventually recovered and then set off again. If they wanted a continuous run they would have to go to blazes. What looked like a short run from where they were was something like three quarters of a mile – they would have to do something clever with the camera to get the effect they wanted.
I looked across and waved the crook to get their attention but I could not make them out in the distance. Did they really want me to do this again for another two takes? Nothing else for it but to crack on and I ran, slipped and stumbled across the ridge, on the final occasion encountering a lone lady walker who greeted me with a polite good afternoon, as if it were an every day occurrence to happen across a demented, smelly medieval shepherd on the fells.
By the time I started my descent to meet the others, I knew I was in trouble. I had used up the last of my water supply and was badly dehydrated. My legs were like jelly and my head pounded like the percussion section of the Hallé Orchestra. Through blurred vision I could just make out the river but I could not find a suitable path down to it, the descent was far too steep. I staggered across the terrain, eventually finding a little break in the slope that allowed me to slide down into the river. Wading through it helped refresh me somewhat, and I was tempted to drink some of the water, but the thought of potential dead sheep languishing in the riverbed upstream made sure that common sense prevailed.
When I eventually joined a few of the others on the path, I could not speak for several minutes and just made jerking motions for them to give me water and some energy gel. Having recovered my breath and my senses, I eagerly asked whether the camera crew had got any good shots from the sequence? I was told that they had given up half-way through the first attempt as I was too far away for the camera to get proper focus and that I “looked just like a large sheep running across the ridge with its tail on fire”.
Well, that’s my first and last attempt at acting. If a chap goes to all that effort you think they would have captured something on film. I still have got rather a large blood blister on the side of my heel and every time I take a bath it reminds me of that hot afternoon on Bannerdale Crags. It makes me thirsty just thinking about it.