Recently I was invited to introduce ‘Arthur and Merlin’ at the BFI, a new British fantasy epic shot on a remarkable budget.
I asked director Marco Van Belle to share some of his experiences so if we choose to shoot an dark ages epic in the woods, we’ll know what we are in for! Over to Marco.
Last autumn I directed my first feature film, Arthur & Merlin.
Like most first-time feature directors, I only had a low-budget to work with. But beyond that my team and I broke with tradition, and instead of making a single-location horror or a drama with a small cast, we made a Dark Ages Arthur and Merlin origins story that saw us visit twenty-one locations across England in just twenty-five days, dragging forty crew and as many as fifty actors and extras along for the ride.
We set out with a clear objective – we wanted to make a low-budget independent film that felt like a big-budget studio blockbuster.
Here are a few lessons I learned along the way. I hope they’ll help you if you ever decide to make a Dark Ages fantasy yourself.
- The Dark Ages are a filmmaker’s friend
Trying to replicate any historical period on a low-budget is borderline insanity, but at least the Dark Ages is just about possible (so is anything set in Medieval times). It would be much more difficult to make a 20th Century period piece, because you’d have nowhere you could film without having to change everything. But the Dark Ages were pretty much just forests and huts, so you’ve got a fighting chance of pulling it off. Most producers already know this though, which is why the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket is full of poorly-made flicks with heavily photoshopped artwork of sword-wielding warriors on the shelves. The challenge here isn’t making a Dark Ages fantasy-adventure with no money. The challenge is making a good Dark Ages fantasy-adventure with no money.
- Put your time into finding great locations
Spend whatever time it takes to find locations worthy of a blockbuster. It’s painstaking and you’ll rack up a lot of miles. But don’t rest until you’ve found locations so good that, were a Hollywood location scout to find them, they would instantly call their producer and say “Hold the set build! I’ve found us the perfect location… and it’s real!” I mean, why not, right? You will double… triple… quadruple your production values simply by googling ‘Celtic villages’ and then visiting all of them until you find the best one (actually, I can save you the trouble, it’s Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire).
They’re just cloaks, right? Right? This assumption will get you punched square in the baby-makers by any self-respecting costume designer. And you’ll deserve it. No, they’re not just cloaks. They’re layers of painstakingly researched, selected, bartered-for and stitched fabric. Just like any other costume. Don’t be fooled into thinking that costuming a period like the Dark Ages will be easy just because people looked a bit scruffy back then. Spend time and resources getting this right and avoid the shortcuts.
- Production design can blindside you too
Remember all those incredible locations you spent months looking for? Well, they look like crap on camera. Sorry, I should have warned you earlier. Everything in the real world looks crap on camera. You still need to production design the hell outta them. Thankfully, I had a fantastic production designer who already knew this, even though it was a shock to me. Get the right time and give them the time and resources they need to make EVERYTHING in front of camera look world class.
- Write smart… and remember you have to film it…
If you’re making a fantasy adventure, you of course have to write it as if it’s a big-budget blockbuster. Write blockbuster dialogue… a blockbuster plot… blockbuster characters… But don’t blindly write blockbuster action unless you have some very clever ideas about how to stage it on your budget – and in a way that doesn’t reveal your budget. But you do need a lot of action, so just make sure that you also –
- Stage smart
You can have all the action expected of a blockbuster in your movie without actually having to film all the action expected of a blockbuster. For example, in Arthur & Merlin we needed a big battle scene between Celts and Saxons. But instead of filming a generic ‘epic battle’, we focused on one very specific narrative thread within the battle (this came from writing smart). By focusing on a few key characters and their story in the battle, we didn’t actually need to stage all that big a scene. Instead, we just had to make sure that every shot was full of warriors fighting in the background to suggest that a lot more was going on. But if you watch the film you’ll see that every shot has the same warriors fighting in the background. In the end, we only had about 30 people on our battlefield, but hopefully it looks like a lot more in the finished film.
- Latex and steel work together
On Arthur & Merlin we used latex swords for our big battle scene. A lot of people warned me that latex weapons would look bad on camera, but we got away with it. However, we were careful to make sure that any blades close to the camera lens that would be in focus were blunted steel, fight-safe swords. You can mix high-quality props (and costumes) with less convincing versions, providing you do it cleverly.
- Be waterproof
There weren’t many interiors in the Dark Ages, so you won’t get to film in many. Our script only ever had two kinds of interiors – roundhouses and caves. The rest of the time we were outdoors. There’s nothing revelatory here from a filming point of view. Wind will affect sound, passing planes will be more of a problem than they might be if you were indoors, and of course it’s going to rain*. The area where all this outdoor filming will really trip you up is production. Running a film unit in the middle of nowhere on a low-budget is tough as hell. Where do people go to the toilet? Where do actors get changed into their costumes? Where do you serve food? How to you cook food (and keep it hot)? How do you get vehicles full of heavy equipment close enough to the location? The answers to the above questions are all covered with a few words: gazebos, generators, portaloos and 4x4s. And runners. Lots of runners.
*Water will also be an issue in caves. Sometimes it’s wetter in caves than it is outside.
- Black bogeys
Flaming torches are awesome. They look great on camera and they’re actually a great source for lighting scenes authentically. We had flicker boxes on set, but more often than not we used additional flaming torches mounted off-camera when we needed to light an interior, instead of using electric lighting. However, if anybody knows a way of making flaming torches that don’t spew noxious black smoke into the air, please let me know. I could do without the black snot next time.
- Fish is not a vegetarian menu option
Crews and marching on stomachs, and veggies and vegans. It’s all true. Catering is a priority to get right.
- Night shoots suck
But you’re going to have to do them. And night shoots in a Dark Ages film mean campfires. Bear in mind that not every location will be happy with this. We did a lot of filming in protected areas like the Peak District. I never even bothered approaching the relevant site managers to ask if we could light fires, because I knew there would be loads of restrictions. Instead, we found some private land close to a farm building that wasn’t much to look at in daylight, but that at night could easily double for a moonlit version of our other locations. We did all our night shoots here (five in a row). It meant we were close to power, toilets and shelter – and didn’t have any restrictions when it came to our campfires and flaming torches.
- Be safe
We had sword fights, stunts and lots of general running about the place on Arthur & Merlin. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement of trying to capture the perfect action sequence. It’s also easy to rush action sequences when you’re under time pressure like I was. But bear the following in mind… Kirk Barker (who played Arthur) had to have physiotherapy after the shoot because he’d knocked, torn and sprained so many different bits of himself. At one point while filming the climactic sword fight of the film, he had to superglue part of his finger back on because he’d sliced it off and couldn’t be seen wearing a modern plaster on camera. Superglue has been used for sealing wounds before, but that was during the Vietnam war, so things really have to get pretty tasty for it to be used for medical purposes on a film set. Don’t underestimate how much risk you’re inviting if you’re going to film action sequences. And yes, even an actor running through a forest is an action sequence (Kirk sustained his worst injury this way). Hire good action co-ordinators (like RC-Annie) and remember to put the safety of your cast and crew above everything else.
- You can’t put real mud on people
Who knew? You can put it on their costumes, but you can’t put it on their hands or faces because it’s the law. You have to use make-up instead.
Your cast will make or break a fantasy film
Fantasy films are heightened, and that means heightened characters delivering heightened dialogue. If you’re going to be asking your cast to deliver heightened performances that still maintain integrity, you’re going to need incredible acting talent. Make no mistake about how challenging this kind of balance is for an actor. I think the toughest role in Arthur & Merlin was the villain, Aberthol. We were fortunate enough to cast Nigel Cooke, one of the most experienced and talented stage actors around. Boy did we need him. In a lesser actor’s hands, Aberthol would have collapsed into caricature and cliché. But Nigel’s incredible experience gave him the ability to deliver a perfectly balanced performance that delivered us the classic Hollywood villain we needed without ever pushing him into a pot of fondue. Of all the elements in Arthur & Merlin that came together to make it feel like a bigger-budget, glossy production, the actors were the most important.
Here is the trailer…
Onwards and upwards!