Monday, July 30, 2018

Facing Change at the John Hewitt International Summer School

My brain whirls with such a kaleidoscope of thoughts and ideas that I hardly know where to begin. The theme of the John Hewitt International Summer School this year is “Facing change: shifting borders and allegiances.”

As I sit in the sun outside the Market Place theatre and look across the street, I’m transported back in time to see two little girls, my sister and I, swinging and tumbling on the bars between on the concrete bollards that spanned the black expanse of tarmac that once covered Market Street. This was our playground. I was an expert at hanging upside down by my knees like a little bat.

I share my flashback with my summer school friends by telling them I used to live there, point out which was our house, which one was my grandfather's tailor shop and most importantly which one was the sweetie shop. Someone says that it must have been lovely to live there, but I point out that it was 1970’s Armagh and the place did not look like it does now. Facing change in this way is a welcome thing. So much is better but as the talks and panel discussions highlight, we still have a way to go and the path can be rocky – especially apparent after the panel discussion “What went wrong?” on the very first day with Gregory Campbell, Brid Rodgers, Colm Gildernew and Trevor Ringland.

I hadn’t expected the political discussions. I try to keep local politics out of my writing. In fact, I try to keep all politics out of my writing, but that panel discussion left me feeling like all the emotional sand I’d used to cover my political opinions had stirred up and was now swirling around, muddying the waters. I’d wanted to shout at the panel, “Listen to each other.” Have we ever just asked simple questions like, “What do you want?” “What do you need?” Have we ever given simple answers? Can we simply be fair? Kind?

There were some beautifully uplifting moments too. It was a delight to listen to Liz Nugent and Claire Allan in conversation. These women were so supportive and generous to each other. It enforces what I always say about writers – we are never in completion with each other. A book can be read far faster than it can be written. If a reader loves two writers who have similar style/genres/subject matter then they will read both. Because of this week, I need to buy another bookcase! Also great to see Dave Torrens from No Alibis selling books in Armagh – perhaps he’ll consider a pop-up bookstore here in the run-up to Christmas?

My favourite speaker was Eli Davies. Her exploration of how literature portrays the role of women during the conflict here was inspiring. I fear the creative light-bulb moments she ignited… do I really want to ever write about those times from my own perspective…maybe sometime. The following day Monica McWilliams blew on those creative sparks, with her talk about Women Waging Peace as she infused me with hope for a better future.

If you ever get a chance to see Mikel Murfi’s The Man in the Woman’s Shoes and the sequel I Hear You and Rejoice don’t hesitate to go. Sometimes a piece of writing is just so brilliant it grabs a hold of you and just won’t let go. Even days later, there are moments when I laugh out loud or tear up simply thinking about these performances. Murfi savages the audience's emotions, mercilessly swinging us between gales of laughter to floods of tears. What is it about the human condition that we actually enjoy having our emotions thus pummeled?

Between the panel discussions and classes, over coffee or wandering around the city, new friendships were forged, old friendships strengthened, ideas shared, concepts explored. Thank you to the organizers of the John Hewitt Summer School for creating a diverse and stimulating programme that enables people to get together, to share and unite. This was the overall best part of the summer school experience – the way the attendees came together in a solid body, a meeting of minds, hearts and muses. The camaraderie was palpable, the laughter infectious and the tears too – especially for those of us who attended the Mikel Murfi performances.

I would also like to thank the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council for sponsoring my bursary to attend the John Hewitt Summer School.

Thanks also to the wonderful women in Women Aloud NI who were a joy to be with all week long. Despite the things that make us different, it is the things we have in common that matter. Accepting our diversity makes us stronger and more adaptable, more able to face change, more happy to accept change. I loved having you here – please come back soon. Click here to read what my friend Angeline King thought of Armagh - you might be surprised, or you may know better and might not be at all surprised...

For a local like me, it was wonderful to see people come and enjoy Armagh. It is a special place, has been for thousands of years, all the way back to times of Navan Fort. There’s magic here, and I feel that magic touched us all last week, helping us to listen to one another, share with each other, giving us the tools to face change together because together is the only way humans will surmount the changes facing us in the near and distant future. 

Byddi Lee

Monday, July 9, 2018

Filming 'Dark & Stormy' when it's Bright & Sunny

When I returned to Armagh in September 2018, I really wanted to learn about screenwriting. My dream is to see March To November as a six-part BBC drama. I've had a little bit of interest from screenwriters to do a movie but nothing came from that and so I thought I'd learn the craft myself.

Screenwriting NI is a Facebook group which encourages community among screenwriters They are a warm and welcoming bunch, and extremely patient with new screenwriters like me. At one of their meetings, I met the talented Marion McDowell. She generously agreed to swap critiquing scripts with me - extremely generous, considering my lack of experience compared to hers. But I felt I could at least contribute with plot structure and story since that would be similar in many ways to writing fiction.

Her script was called 'Dark & Stormy' and I offered some suggestions. She entered the script into a couple of competitions and was shorted-listed and won awards! When she asked me if I'd like to be involved with the shooting of the film, I said yes immediately.

So I had committed before I realized that we were shooting a film that would need to be filmed late at night, in the rain!

There wasn't a drop of rain for the first shoot back in April but the crew had a rain rig. I was tasked with working the clapperboard and was happy to do it. It was quite an education. One scene can take hours. The minutest details can cause havoc. The shoot ended at 3.30am. The road back to Armagh was eerily empty of traffic. But it had been a great evening of cooperation, camaraderie and making new friends.

Life gets in the way and the date for the second shoot was pushed out and out until eventually, we were all available on Sunday morning. That is Sunday morning at 6.30am. Quelle horror! That means me leaving Armagh at 5.30am.

I dreaded the early rise from the moment the date had been set but in all honesty, it was a teeth-grittingly gorgeous morning. A golden fireball of sun gave movie-magic lighting to the empty roads and rolling fields rippling with long green grass, as I made my way to the big smoke.  When I got there I had my choice of parking spots in just off Great Victoria Street! I chose one near one of those self-cleaning public toilets I'd seen across Europe but have never had the courage nor necessity to use. But as it so happened I reckoned today was going to be the day I would avail of their services since I badly needed to go and there were no cafes open yet.

The rest of the crew and cast were arriving and I thought I better get the public toilet experience over with so I could get to work. But the toilet wasn't accepting my coins. I wasn't too heartbroken - It smelt rank and I was standing outside in the fresh air. But I was going to have to get inventive. Someone suggested I try the bus station behind the Europa so I headed that way to find the gates there closed. However, the Europa Hotel was open and the security guard on the door was distracted chatting to someone who seemed to have a tonne of luggage. I slipped in through the revolving doors and tried to walk as though a) I knew where I was going and b)as if I had every right to be there. I headed for the grand staircase - following the sign for the restrooms - got about four steps up when I heard a polite but firm "Are you okay there?"

I couldn't tell if the man was front desk or security but either way, I'd have to explain myself. Oh, the shame of getting thrown out of the Europa and me not even drunk!

Should I pretend to be a guest?

Nah - better to be honest...

"Sorry, but is there any chance I could use your toilets," I asked.

"Sure, they're just 'round here." He pointed to the cafe and added, "Can I get you a coffee while you're here?"

Seriously! Instead of kicking me out, he offered me a coffee!

"No thanks, it's just that we're shooting a film up the street and there's nowhere open," I explained unnecessarily because a) it didn't matter what I was doing he was letting me use the loo and if I'm honest I was just showing off because I loved saying that bit about "shoot a film" and b) it was 6.30 on a Sunday Morning in Belfast - of course, nothing else was open and he would know that!

"No problem, luv," he said (Belfast men and women call everybody love - it's not him being sexist) "Sure you know where we are if you have to come back."

As I had the most luxurious pee, (for free) all I could think about was how lucky I'd been to avoid the smelly mysterious public toilets that never seemed to work but smelled like they were used all the time!

When I got back to the rest of the crew, Marion was laughing in that I-can't-believe-this-is-happening way. The building we wanted to use for filming now had a crane in front of it and a team of window cleaners were getting set to work. Marion decided that the footpath in front of the Millenium Building would work just as well - actually better since the trees across the road had leafed out since she'd first scouted the location and the shot from Fratelli's of the original choice of building would be awkward. Serendipity at work!

The team got set up and started shooting. The actors are so game. Poor Shannen Lofthouse, playing the lead role, had to lie on Great Victoria Street for a good half hour. It was now past 7am and Belfast was waking up, or at least the tourists were judging by the wheelie cases trundling past giving us curious looks. By the way that's not the security guard from the Europa... that's our actor PJ Davey who was scary to watch in front of the camera (on purpose, of course) and a really nice guy behind the scenes.

At least it was a nice day to be lying about the streets of Belfast but that posed another problem for us. The script called for it to be dark and stormy but it was gloriously sunny and dry! Yes, we had a rain-rig but we weren't sure how that would go down what with there being a hosepipe bad in effect. Just our luck...

But the scriptwriter is God of their world- at least within the body of the script. When one of the actors Griffin Madill suggested a switch out of the words "dark and stormy" with the words "bright and sunny" in one of the lines, Marion ran with it realizing it actually made the script even better - you'll have to watch the film to understand! But serendipity strikes again.

Then when we were in the swing of things, with Griffin Madill aka The Slasher, giving us his chilling stare, a team of road workers struck up their tarmac cutting saw right beside us. Not quite the "slashing" we were pitching for. I went and had a wee chat with them to see how long they planned on making hat God-awful noise. I reckoned they might well tell me where to go but no... they were simply lovely. Promised they'd have finished this piece of noisy cutting in 5 minutes and then quiet for a while. When they planned to resume cutting it would be in bursts of 5 minutes and they'd send someone up to warn us. I thanked them and told them no need to send anyone since we'd hear for ourselves but sure enough one of them came up to tell us they were starting the drill. I was sweet of them, but I suspected they were happy for a wee nosy too - I would be - which was why I was there!

Behind the scenes time works in a weird way - sometimes it's a mad scramble to get things done and then there's loads of waiting around time. Our cast & crew camped out at the bus stop for a while - grateful of somewhere to sit down.

The camera and sound crew work seem to have a big workload - to my inexperienced eyes.

But there's always time for a bit of craic with the cast. Shannen's knee looks so sore but that's all down to our excellent makeup department!

The second half of our shoot took place in Fratelli's, and oh boy, was that a luxury!

Frederika Machala

The cast for the next set of scenes arrived and we were working roughly to schedule which was a miracle considering the window cleaners and the saw guys, not to mention the fact we'd had to work around using the rain rig.

We had a coffee station and even fancier toilets than the Europa - I know go on a lot about loos but these things are important to me.

Ray, the restaurant manager was welcoming and helpful. We took over the upstairs and filmed a scene with three obnoxious men ogling a young waitress. That was their characters. Behind the scenes, all the actors of both genders were simply lovely - a pleasure to work with! The actors at the table below are Tim Ferguson with his back to us, Nigel Boone drinking his pretend whiskey (cold tea) and Corey Millar.

Things went pretty smoothly. We even had time for a bit of messing about with the gender roles between setting up shots. The original line had Nigel's character leaching over the waitress (played by Frederika) and saying "Can't beat the twenty-year-olds."

Frederika turns it all around.

The camera-woman (me) wasn't too bad for this, but I'd sack the sound person (also me!)

For me, this has been a fascinating process. I'm in awe of movies now, and the patience that actors must have (our actors are so tolerant and wait for long periods of time between shots in sometimes uncomfortable conditions.)  I'm grateful to be a part of this project and am looking forward to seeing the final product.

Byddi Lee