Jon Stanford, director of 'Long Forgotten Fields' and two of his cast members, Rebecca Birch and Tom Campion, kindly joined Clare Clare and James Baxter-Derrington to give an intriguing insight into the creation of the film, discussing everything from PTSD to cold showers.
Rebecca Birch: Lead Actress
Jon Stanford: Director
Tom Campion: Lead Actor
Firstly, what inspired you to write the story?
J: So I’d made a lot of short films before we came to this feature project that were based in and around where I grew up in Shropshire. And they were about characters who are going through a serious life-changing moment, and I wanted to take that further and explore that in a feature length film. Because me and my producing partner Ben Caird came to the realisation that we could go to all the trouble of making another short film, or push ourselves a little bit further and raise a little bit more money and kind of do a complete feature length film. So, we kind of took our experiences from those shorts, where we’d developed the story world within Shropshire, within the countryside, young characters who are going through these life-changing moments and pushed that into a feature length project. So we started looking around for interesting subjects that might be relevant to an audience, and it was around the time of service men and women coming back from Afghanistan so the British forces were slowly being withdrawn from Afghanistan. So we really kind of looked at that as quite an interesting story hook – what would it be like if this young soldier came back from Afghanistan to his small rural community? How would it effect the relationships that he had before and after? And then through that we found our way into this issue of post traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – which again became this really interesting hold to tell the story around, if you like. That was a long answer!
Not at all! It was a good answer. Do you know any soldiers, or how did you do the research for this? Or do you have friends who came back from Afghanistan?
J: I’ve got friends who are in service, but didn’t particularly suffer from PTSD, but are obviously aware of it from being in the services. So, my girlfriend’s brother is in the RAF, so I talked to him. I spent a lot of time on forums, there’s a whole load of forums for ex-servicemen and personnel sharing their experiences – not just about PTSD, but those sort of things creep into it. So you’re kind of getting a sense of what these people are experiencing while they’re in service, how they feel afterwards. The kind of symptoms, if you like, of PTSD. They’re discussing those, so their daily lives are changed when they come back. So we were drawing on that a lot. And there’s a book called The Things They Cannot Say by a guy called Kevin Sites, who’s an embedded war journalist. So he’d been in a lot of the warzones, throughout his time there he’d interview a lot of people whilst they were there about their experiences, things they’d seen and witnessed. And then he’d revisit them a year or so later when they were back at home, and look at those differences of how PTSD might be effecting them, again the symptoms – so maybe a loud noise could trigger a panic attack – and things like that. So those were our go-to sources for research. Tom did some research as well.
Yeah, I was going to say – as an actor, how would you approach that sort of role?
T: Again, I read the – Jon lent me the book – The Things They Cannot Say as well. And also there was a newspaper article about a guy called Dan Collins, who was from Wales but he did two tours, came back and suffered from PTSD. Basically documented how he struggled to get back into life, and ended up committing suicide as well. It ended up talking about, as soon as that story came out, how it affected other people, and how the same thing had happened to other people as well. And it was this Panorama hour special called Broken by Battle I think. Just basically the relationship he – or everyone – had with people when he came back was a thousand yard stare, not being completely there behind the eyes. And quite having some strange random episodes. There was an instance of his mum cooking him a lamb roast dinner and at one point he just looked at his mum and said ‘this is burning flesh’, threw the plate across the room and then rocked in the corner. So, things like that –
J: Not very nice to research actually!
T: Yeah, quite dark.
J: We kind of took a lot of stuff on, just so we had all that information but then we didn’t want to be held to it or constrained by it. So we had those things in the back of our mind, but didn’t want to explicitly recreate anything we’ve read or go too far with our portrayal. So we kept things quite held back I guess.
T: I also did some training with an ex-serviceman as well called Pad from Bancroft School. He took me through some military drills and stuff like that, but he also had friends who suffered from PTSD so he told me a bit about that. It was very clear that he didn’t really want to talk about it. So we kind of talked about it briefly, but he brushed over it fairly quickly as well.
“Taking himself away from his family and isolating himself, and we were just – narratively – constantly pushing that idea of isolation until they end up living in the woods together!”
So it’s sort of what they weren’t saying was just as important in the research, as what they were willing to tell you.
T: But also how much PTSD not only effects the sufferers of it, but also the people around them as well. Considering I could tell how difficult it was for him to talk about his friends who went through it. It’s just really sad, and very, very brutal.
J: For us that was a key point, the fact that people don’t like to share it. As Tom’s saying: very shut off, so that’s something we tried to draw out throughout the whole film. It’s all about his role as Sam not communicating, and shutting himself off. Taking himself away from his family and isolating himself, and we were just – narratively – constantly pushing that idea of isolation until they end up living in the woods together!
Do you think by making this film you’re going to be creating a discussion, since it’s not widely talked about?
J: Well I hope so, yeah! We were talking about, just before, that it’s not – so, as we were just saying, a lot of people don’t talk about it anyway but there’s also that in this country we don’t handle mental illness as we do ‘regular illness’, if you like. So we’ve seen it in the last year or so in the media – people trying to raise awareness for mental health disorders and things like that. I mean it would be disingenuous for me to pretend that we’re creating this film to raise awareness – we’re not trying to be an issue film. But we certainly hope that this provides a platform for discussion or at least gets people thinking about these people who spend their lives in service for us, to protect us, or to safeguard us. And then when they come back there’s what’s considered lack of support, especially if they’re suffering from things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
T: I think there’s been more films released since we shot it as well that do broach into the subject of PTSD like Sniper, Jackie, I don’t know if others have come before actually.
J: Sniper definitely is.
T: Yeah completely. One of the things I found out is that America is better at dealing with PTSD veterans than England is. I think like 20% have PTSD in America, but they only record 5% of England because they just lose the information or people just don’t qualify for treatment via the MOD because they are diagnosed with PTSD after their service – so not in active service, I think they kind of shift it to a statistic that could be caused by something else.
R: People are also more afraid to speak up as well. My best friend’s sister is in the army, and she says that if you want to go to the person – there’s like a person in each troop who is the go to person if you want to have a chat, or they’ve got a bit of psychological experience – but you’re seen as weak if you do that. People go, ‘oh well you don’t need to do that’ or you’re seen as just trying to get leave, just trying to get out. It’s really looked down on, and you’re not tough enough if you ask for help, which is just heart-breaking.
Obviously it deals with quite a difficult topic, but were there any other challenges that you faced making this movie?
J: Any challenges guys? [laughter]
T: Yeah, quite a few times trying to do too much. Also trying to approach a dialogue from a point where – not how I would say it, because obviously I don’t suffer from PTSD – but like how someone would suffer from PTSD when they don’t actually talk that much. There was one scene where we scrapped the entire dialogue and just didn’t do anything. But you kind of just deal with that as you come to it. And the elements.
J: Battling the elements. So we’re obviously a low-ish budget indie film – so we had eighteen days shoot, most of which was out on location. So if it was raining, we’d have to shoot a scene where it would suit it being raining – because we didn’t have time to delay or move on to something else. So that was a big challenge. But actually we had quite a nice summer, it was quite sunny most of the time. Other challenges…
T: Of course we’re trying to get into that place.
J: Yeah these guys had to get to a very dark place in terms of their performance.
R: We approached it quite differently.
T: Yeah it was quite exhausting actually, I was knackered.
R: Yeah, we did it opposite. Because Tom would sort of stay, in between takes he needed to stay in this really dark place. And I tried that but in the end, in between takes, I just had to have a moment of chatting to the crew and ‘hi, you alright’ and then back in. Otherwise it is just so exhausting. It’s just how different actors work. You would feel more true for you to stay in, whereas if I stayed in when we’re not shooting it’d start to not feel real. So in order to feel real I’d like to dip in and out.
T: Yeah I was really quite depressed afterwards, but remembering that you are just acting.
“There was one scene where we scrapped the entire dialogue and just didn’t do anything. But you kind of just deal with that as you come to it. And the elements.”
For yourself [to Rebecca], with the research and how you approached the role it was quite different when you didn’t have necessarily the PTSD to have that focus…Where did you try to find the emotion and the responses to the character for your own portrayal?
R: I think we’ve all loved. We’ve all had this heart breaking love, and I think with the PTSD side of things, a lot of partners of vets won’t have had the research before experiencing it – do you know what I mean? So I wanted to go in instinctively and just react. And Tom was so brilliant and such a good actor – I’m not licking your arse, I’m just being genuine! It was really easy to work off of it. And these guys would sort of go off and I wasn’t aware of really much of what was going to happen and what was going on with Tom’s psychology. So it was instinctive, just sort of went with the flow of it – which was horrific sometimes. There’s this chicken scene where he comes in with this chicken and – aah – and there’d be times when Tom would just scream in my face, or be really quiet.
T: Yeah we did that once, just screaming.
J: Well we actually tried to shoot – although we were beholden to the weather a little bit – we tried to shoot as much of it in sequence as possible. The narrative starts out these guys are very much in love, he’s back from the service. And then it’s starts to decay and gets worse as it were. So we tried to shoot in sequence so these guys – as they got more exhausted over the course of the shoot – that kind of suited the narrative. So as they start to look more haggard –
R: Yeah – 5 AM starts and we did most of the locations first round Shropshire and all the lovely local people who would let us use their farms and their shops and it was really fun in getting to know them. Because these guys are actually from Shropshire, and I’m not, so I got to learn it and love it. And then, yeah the last big block of shooting was all done –
T: – On our own in the woods.
R: Just on our own in the woods. In the shack – shed, shack?
J: These guys have got the thousand yard stare just thinking about it!
R: Yeah, we did!
J: Don’t want to go back to that.
R: Back into those deep, dark woods.
Was there a favourite part – feel a bit strange asking that now!
T: Working with Simon, Francis and Paul. It was awesome.
R: Oh, cheers. [Laughter] No he’s totally right because we’re – it was both our feature debut, and to work with these three, sort of really fab names, who’ve been around the block, and learn from them was great.
T: It was awesome, yeah. Also shooting at home was quite cool. Tried to stay at my parents but then, just didn’t work. Just stayed with the crew, which was much more fun.
R: All the cast and crew stayed together which was really nice. It was real family affair there, like Jon’s cousin was a chef so he came in and cooked for us. You know stuff like that, it was really – I was sad to leave.
J: We were like a weird commune, film-making commune.
J: Where we’d play Frisbee in the garden, eat food and then go crawl back into the woods near the house.
It must have been just such a relief from the heaviness of filming, then coming and you’ve got meals cooked for you and Frisbee in a garden.
T: Although we were sharing hot water.
J: Yeah there wasn’t a lot of hot water.
R: Oh yeah, the morning showers were… yeah. That’s actually one – I’m always going to bring this up. I had to do a shower scene. She’s managed to escape from the woods just to get home and have a quick shower and the hot water wasn’t working in this flat we were shooting in, so it was ice cold. And Jon was like, just doesn’t look real enough – I want you to actually wash your hair. So I’m actually shampooing my hair in this freezing cold water, and I’ve got like a bikini on or something. And then the first screening, didn’t make the cut. It’s not in the movie.
J: Yeah I never intended to put it in the movie – it was payback. No that was a – but you did it!
R: Yeah. And that is one of my biggest acting challenges, like imagining that it’s your first shower in like two weeks and that it’s really hot and relaxing.
J: My bad.
R: It’s alright, will put it on my CV – ‘can do hot water acting’.
J: ‘Won’t work with Jon Stanford again’.
What was your favourite part in directing it?
J: Favourite part was probably finishing it. And still being alive. Not in terms of it being a horrible experience but taking on so much, you’re constantly worried all the way through that you’re not going to make it to the end or, something’s going to go horribly wrong. So as a co-producer I was constantly thinking as a director but also as the producer so trying to balance the fear against the optimism of what you’re doing. So the final scene in my film is actually the final scene shot. So for me that’s my final scene because it encompasses the whole thing, the journey we’ve all been on. How tiring and exhausting it was for everyone, that kind of – how to describe it – kind of exhaustive excitement you get at the end of a shoot? So, we all had a nice party afterwards. It was just a relief, but a good sort of relief to have reached the end. Which is why the end is my favourite part. Or the beginning, when you’re full of optimism!
Just not the middle.
J: Just not the middle! I’ve never given birth to a child – being a man – but I imagine [laughter] it’s a lot like this. I’m going to go there. I spoke to my mother about giving birth to someone and everyone – at the time it’s horrible, but you look back on it and you’re like ‘aw, I’ll definitely have another kid – it was lovely’. Because you block out the –
R: – Yeah they do say that when you’re holding the baby, you’re like ‘that was fine’.
J: I’m comparing the film to a baby.
So you do have plans for another film then – is that we’re taking on that?
J: Yes. I’ve forgotten that bit so I’m going to do it again.
Perfect, have you got that in mind already, what you want to be doing, or?
J: So we set up a film company to make Long Forgotten Fields, it’s called Wildgrass Films. Set up with me and my co-producer Ben and we’ve got a slate of film projects we’re developing. Got a first draft of a couple of things, but these things take a long time. This film took four years from beginning to end so – it won’t happen quickly! But things are brewing, things are happening.
How did you find writing it [the screenplay]?
J: That’s the best bit! Because you’re just in your room dreaming stuff up. You can go on forever and ever, so it wasn’t until we kind of set a date that we had that motivation to stop writing and stop dreaming, and kind of get on making. We actually, from the early stages, got some money from Creative England to help develop the script. So we were in a really lucky position where they put us in touch with some script editors and we kind of had some professional insight into structuring a screen play a bit more effectively. Because obviously it was my first feature so I’ve written a lot of short form stuff, but it was good to have a mentor to help oversee it. So, I like writing a lot. But sometimes you’ve got to close the laptop and get out and make things happen.
“I’m comparing the film to a baby”
How does it compare to doing short films then?
J: It’s the same basically. I mean you go through the same amount of hard work to make a short, it’s just that features are much longer chunk of time. So you come out a bit greyer than you would if you made a short. But narratively it’s the same, you kind of have an interesting start and then hopefully have a conclusion that’s satisfying. I think as a writer you do use different parts of your brain, so obviously a short film – structurally – is probably more challenging than a feature length narrative, because there’s more scope to kind of weave about in a feature length film. Whereas with a short it needs to be… this is what I’m saying, I’ve got fifteen minutes, how am I going to say it most effectively? So you have less time to wind around – am I blabbing? I feel like I’m just going on?
Not at all! What sort of life for the film do you see beyond Raindance – are you pushing for general release? That sort of thing, or what have you got in mind for Long Forgotten Fields?
J: So this is our world premiere, so this is the start of us hopefully playing at a few more festivals. It’s a great chance to build up our audience we’ve got online already, so we’ve got probably on Facebook a lot of supporters who actually helped with our initially kickstartering. So there’s a strong audience there –
T: All my family, godparents, people I went to school with will not shut up about it!
J: So those supporters are already keen to have a localised release. So we might look at that in the Shropshire region, do our own distribution there. But we’re also talking to distributers about our options after festivals. So there are options there for us, it’s just kind of taking our time and making sure we make the right decision. Once you make a film you want it to be seen by as many people as possible so, that’s the goal!
Certainly, well best of luck with it!