Brown Willy is the second feature film from Cornish brothers Brett (writer/director) and Simon Harvey (producer/actor). The duo release their moving and funny two-hander, set entirely in the environs of Bodmin Moor, in Cornish cinemas this week. I interviewed the brothers about filmmaking in the Cornish moors and the origins of that suggestive title.
First of all, let’s get the title out of the way. Where does it come from?
Simon Harvey: Brown Willy is the highest hill in Cornwall, which is situated right in the centre of Bodmin Moor. Its name is a bastardisation of the original Cornish Bronn Winnilli – which means ‘Hill of Swallows’. The hill is the focal point of the story – it’s where Pete and Michael are trying to reach, initially as a nominal end point for their stag weekend quest, but as the film wears on, and reaching the summit becomes more unlikely, it becomes a symbolic metaphor for their relationship. We’ve had some grief from some quarters about the title from people who felt that it might give the wrong impression about the film – but I love it.
Brett Harvey: At first it was almost a joke I scribbled down in my note book “and it’s called BROWN WILLY” but it just felt like such a gift of a title I felt I had to use it – it’s attention grabbing, it’s funny, if you’re from Cornwall you’ll know what it’s referring to and if not you’ll hopefully want to find out!
This seems to root the film firmly in terms of Cornwall and a Cornish context, more so than your previous film Weekend Retreat, is that intentional?
SH: Probably, in that we always knew that this would need to be more containable in the way we approached it as we had less money than we had for Weekend Retreat. With that film we were intentionally trying to ‘cast up’ and bring in more recognisable faces such as Esther Hall and Dudley Sutton. With this, the idea was always to keep the story to two actors and to shoot quickly in Cornwall. The location in this film is absolutely integral to the plot, whereas in Weekend Retreat the setting (which was still massively important) was all within a house and its grounds, which could arguably have been anywhere, although happened to be in Cornwall.
The location in this film is absolutely integral to the plot.
BH: It just felt right for this story. Being from Cornwall and based here I’m interested in contemporary Cornish stories rather than the more “chocolate box” version you see on TV. I’ve always wanted to shoot a film on the moor, as it’s such a beautiful, harsh cinematic location and one that feels relatively untapped onscreen. Normally films shot in Cornwall are set on the coast so it felt nice to show a different side of it
What are your plans for the film?
SH: Learning from the five-year stint of promoting Weekend Retreat where we focused on festivals and had lots of near misses with sales and distribution agents we have thought about Brown Willy entirely differently. We always intended to self distribute so we are looking at doing a limited theatrical release across Cornwall and the Southwest. We have a really good relationship with independent cinema chain (WTW) who have agreed to take the film in four screens for a week long run, with a view to extending if there is demand. We are supplementing that run with some other short runs and one offs at other cinemas and arts centres across the Southwest and where possible the rest of the UK. We are also looking at the Ourscreen initiative – where we can book into certain cinemas and promote one off screenings. After the cinemas we will take the film out through rural touring networks and do screenings and Q&As in village halls, pubs, etc. Alongside all of this we will be selling DVDs, which we are in the process of professionally producing in a limited run. Basically, it’s going to be a lot of work but it’s exciting to see what we can achieve off our own backs – I feel like we did too much waiting and hoping for Weekend Retreat to take off whereas with this one, we’re going to do our damndest to carve our own niche.
The film feels very different to Weekend Retreat. Visually it has a really cinematic tone. How much of that was down to the DoP?
BH: I’d say it’s about 45% DoP, 5% me and 50% location. There were certain things I knew I wanted for the film:
- 2:35:1: it’s all set out on the moor and I wanted a wider frame to show how big and remote it is out there.
- Black and white: There are boring practical reasons for black and white – I knew that the weather was going to change day to day during the shoot and we had such a short shooting window (10 days) that weather continuity was always going to be against us! It’s easier to hide this in black and white rather than in colour. I also knew that given our limited budget we wouldn’t be able to afford a full colour grade whereas black and white is (relatively) quicker to grade. But the actual main reason for it was it was right for the story! It’s about a friendship that’s stark and barren and when you set that story on the moor the landscape reflects this, the starkness of black and white felt like the perfect compliment.
- Shoot 4K / edit HD: I knew we were going to be shooting incredibly quickly and coverage was going to be a problem. By shooting 4K but editing in an HD timeline you can effectively crop and reframe shots or add tiny bits of camera movement (a subtle slow zoom or pan). It felt like a good way of giving us options in the edit.
It was nerve wracking but ultimately really fun to get to each location and be open to the possibilities of how to shoot it.
When Adam Laity the DoP and I first starting talking about the project he read the script and suggested 2:35:1 and black and white before I’d even spoken to him about either of these things so I knew he was the right man for the job. We were totally in sync about the look and feel of the film. One thing that was different on this project was we didn’t really storyboard or shot list it. The first two days we did but as we went forward with the shoot we found we didn’t need to. The moor is stunning to look at but totally changeable in terms of weather and light, so several times you’d plan how a scene would look only to get to the location to find there was a better option. It was nerve wracking but ultimately really fun to get to each location and be open to the possibilities of how to shoot it. It also helps that it was the perfect combination of DoP and location. Adam just has a way of pointing a camera at a landscape and capturing it in a way that no one else can.
SH: Brett always said that we shot Weekend Retreat the way we did because that was the only way we could of done it at the time. Everything was dictated by what we could afford in terms of time with the actors and access to equipment. I’m pretty sure Weekend Retreat was one of the very first features to be shot on a DSLR as the 5D that we used was really, really new at the time. With Brown Willy, Brett always had a vision for how he wanted it to look – he always wanted it to be black and white and to have that rich contrast and distinctive look. Initially we had a different DoP onboard for the film, but he couldn’t commit. Adam is an old friend of ours from way back and we’d showed some of his work at our film night over the years. It just happened that he is doing a PhD in Landscape cinematography at Bournemouth. He read the script, liked it and thought he could bring something to it – so he came on board and he and Brett designed the aesthetic you see in the film.
It also feels much more mature, there’s a confidence to the handling of the material and a stronger balance between humour and pathos. What lessons did you bring to this project from your previous filmmaking?
SH: Work started on Weekend Retreat in 2008 – that’s a lifetime ago! We learnt so much through that whole process from the script, to the production to post, to the marketing to the release. On top of that we’ve fully developed another couple of feature scripts to advanced stages and Brett has made maybe thirty shorts. I think we’re bringing more experience and maturity to the process.
BH: “Hold your nerve!” was the biggest thing I learnt while making Weekend Retreat. That film, as well as this one, had a very specific tone one, which I find hard to articulate to be honest. While making that film I was always second guessing myself and then when we screened it to audiences at festivals it seemed to work. Going into this one I felt more confident, I had a better idea of how the film was going to work as a whole rather than just individual moments. I was 26 when I started work on Weekend Retreat and hadn’t really written a feature length script at that point. Whereas when I started work on Brown Willy (late 2013) not only had I made a feature film but I’d written several other scripts as well so I had a better understanding of long form story telling. I was also still finding my feet as a director on Weekend Retreat. There are certain stylistic flourishes in that film that I’m not so keen on now. They work for that film and that story but this one had to feel a bit more organic and subtle. It’s interesting because your tastes change, as you get older. Films take so long to make they become little documents of who you are as a person when you make the film.
The performances are superb. Did you spend much time working with the actors before the shoot?
SH: Thanks! I was always going to act in the film. I started out as an actor before gravitating to theatre directing and film producing. I was the right age for one of the characters and Brett and I had a short hand from Weekend Retreat and other projects. Initially we had another actor in mind for Pete and I was going to be Michael. That fell through, so we approached another old friend and it made sense to change the casting and for me to play Pete. Again the other actor fell through. We then thought of Ben who we’ve worked with in a lot of theatre productions. We did maybe two sessions before the shoot – a script read and chat, and then a few hours in a rehearsal room – then we got onto set and went for it.
BH: I wanted to cast someone opposite Si that he already had a relationship with, a familiarity the two of them could bring to the screen. I’ve been dying to get Ben in a film for years and this just felt like the perfect opportunity. Ben and Si have worked together for years and are friends. The key ingredient was Si enjoys making Ben laugh and I knew this would translate onto screen. When we were playing around in the rehearsal room we hit upon this idea that both characters are idiots. Pete is clearly an idiot and most of the things that go wrong in the story are a result of this. However there’s sweetness and innocence to him. Half the time there’s very little subtext to what he’s saying. He’s a bit like a well-meaning naughty little boy. Michael is a bit more complicated. He’s a little more mature and “grown up” on the surface but this is mostly an act. Not to give anything away but ultimately I think he’s responsible for things going wrong. I liked the idea that the more time he spends with Pete the more the “old Michael” shines through. You get a clear picture of what they would’ve been like in school. He’s a bit like a teenager who’s babysitting a toddler. He acts grown up but really hasn’t got a clue!
My motto for the shoot was “lean into the punch”
You fulfill the classic micro-budget indie feature criteria of only having two actors in the film, but then you simultaneously put yourselves under immense pressure by setting the film not only outdoors, but in the wilds of Cornwall. What was the thinking there?
BH: I always knew we’d be making this film on a low budget so before I worked out any story ideas I tried to work out what this meant in practical terms: small number of actors, small crew and in theory one location. I liked the challenge of writing a two hander, keeping the story really contained and intimate but then juxtaposing this against great big wide-open spaces! I knew if the crew was small enough, limited to 2 – 3 cars, we could be quite light on our feet so the prospect of shooting on the moor felt tough but achievable! My motto for the shoot was “lean into the punch” – we knew it would be cold, we knew it would rain, we knew we’d have to work fast so we tried (as best we could) to prepare for these things – hot meals at lunchtime, walking boots, water proofs, plenty of snacks, keep things light on set, a tight but effective schedule etc. Turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had making a film! This is down to the crew to be honest, everyone was a pleasure to work with and no matter how tough it got on set it was always fun!
SH: We were initially going to shoot in summer 2014, but a variety of factors made us bump the shoot later into March 2015. For financial reasons we had to shoot by the end of the financial year. We basically took a big risk and decided that we would go gung ho and make it work whatever the weather. It was kind of calculated, because we’d been involved in another shoot years ago, which was at that time of year. Luckily the stars aligned and we had that crisp, bright Cornish spring weather – which looks great on camera. It was very, very cold though and that was punishing in a lot of ways. Also some of the locations were tough to get to, so we had to be light on our feet and able to carry everything we needed to each location. We built our way up to the Brown Willy shoot on the last day – there’s no way of getting cars close to there, so we shot scene by scene as we climbed.
The film at one point teeters on the edge of becoming something really weird – like something by Jodorowsky, or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Was there ever a temptation to go really weird, existential and surreal?
SH: This one’s for Brett really, but from my point of view, the film goes kind of weird as the narrative dictates on this occasion – it might be fun to go stranger with the next one.
BH: Ha! Now all I’m picturing is remaking Holy Mountain starring Si and Ben! Now there’s a film! The pace of the film is very deliberate, it gets slower as it goes on and the dialogue gets more and more sparse. It’s very dialogue heavy to begin with but gradually as things become more desperate for the characters the dialogue dries up! There’s very little talking in the final ten minutes and the last scene has only two lines. I think we pushed the “existential dread” as far as we could with this story, it gets as “out there” as I wanted it to in this instance. I love it when everything stops and you’re just watching two figures making their way through the landscape, the dragging stuff towards the end was one of the first images I thought of and I really love that sequence. Earlier edits pushed this stuff a little further but it felt like too much of a tonal change from the first half of the film. I’m always aware of the audience when I’m editing, I think you have to be clear what you’re asking from them and if you’ve set up a certain expectation in the first half you can’t deviate too far from that in the second half.
What have you learned from making the film, and what’s next?
BH: In terms of making the film you learn new things everyday on set: what works, what doesn’t, how to make decisions quickly, how to deal with things going wrong etc. The nice part is when you have things you already knew reaffirmed: cast it right, crew it right, keep people happy, make sure you listen to the crew and respect them at all times, feed people and look after them, love your characters, look after each other, be polite no matter how tired you are, it’s not “your film” it’s “our film”. By doing all these things the cast, the crew, everyone buys into the film and gets behind the project. If you can reach that point it becomes a little gang, a little family where you’re looking out for each other and making the best film you can. If you reach that sweet spot you can do anything!
It’s not “your film” it’s “our film”.
SH: I think this film has renewed our confidence in what we can achieve on limited means. Both this and Weekend Retreat were really happy shoots – this one in particular had a great atmosphere. I’m a massive believer in creating a strong team environment. Everyone involved believed in what we were doing and was fully invested in the project. That makes the work feel important, particularly when the odds are seemingly stacked against you. We’re taking that attitude into the promotional side of the film – we’re absolutely determined to build an audience for this film and starting from a grass roots level by doing our own release is genuinely exciting.
What’s next? Brett has started developing a new idea and we’ve recently applied for some development funding through one of the big lottery funded schemes. Outside of that we’ve started to think about what we can develop with a similar self financed initiative, obviously it depends on how we do with the cinema release of Brown Willy in the first instance. In an ideal world, I’d love to be making a feature every other year and maintaining and further developing an independent audience for the work at a grass roots level and beyond.