Taking to the water
As June 2015 and the start of principal photography neared, Lowthorpe and the production team assembled a superlative crew of behind-the-camera talent to help guide the shoot through the rough waters ahead. The Oscar©-nominated Suzie Davies was recruited as Production Designer, with Nick Barton a huge fan of her work on Mike Leigh’s recent Mr. Turner. She was joined by the likes of Director of Photography Julian Court, Costume Designer Amy Roberts, and Hair and Make-Up Designer Jill Sweeney; while the shoot would also rely heavily on the expertise and resilience of Line Producer Danny Gulliver and 1st Assistant Director Nige Watson. Lowthorpe had collaborated with a number of the crew on previous projects, and knew that they shared her vision for thrilling, vibrant work grounded in reality. The creative team were keen to steer clear of merely recreating earlier adaptations of the novel. They were determined not to be overly-influenced by their predecessors - the ambition from all involved was always to create something that stood apart.
And while the film would stylistically evoke the classics of the time in which it is set – with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and The Third Man serving as core artistic touchpoints throughout – the creative team were equally determined to avoid the pitfalls associated with period fare. Lowthorpe and her colleagues therefore rejected bringing anything overly-stylized or kitsch to the screen. Costumes, hair, and make-up would be natural – authentic to the 1930s. Everything on screen is true to the period, but carries an immediacy and a reality that modern audiences will recognize.
To achieve this, attention to detail was paramount. Oppenheimer is quick to join Barton in praising the incredible dedication of Suzie Davies and her art department: “If you walk on set, you’ll see that every tiniest thing that you might never see will be correct. There is a postman who delivers a letter early on in the film - and I suspect in the finished cut you’ll only ever see a postman cycling down a hill in a wide shot – but in his basket are parcels and they are all correctly labelled with the correct post mark, with the correct stamp,” he promises. Turner’s houseboat, a 40 foot 1903 Dunkirk Little Ship discovered by Nick Barton in Lincolnshire is also period perfect and was guided painstaking overland and into Coniston. With filming on-board its narrow confines a struggle, Davies recreated the houseboat with a meticulously-designed interior set housed in the Leeds studio – “a fantastic replica” of the original, says Barton; packed to the rafters with genuine recreations of the Ransome spy reports and research. With such a pronounced level of detail running through every shot, audiences cannot help but inhabit Ransome’s iconic world.
Likewise, the iconic boats which spirit the Walker and Blackett children off on their adventures have seen countless hours of attention devoted to their care and creation. Barton made it his mission to track down and find authentic vessels: “They’re very old boats, they’re clinker built, and they’re a particular size, which Ransome specified. When I came up on one of my early recces, the boat yard here said there was a very good class of boats built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, RNSA boats built for the Royal Navy, which were 14ft, perfect size, heavy and strong for the children to sail. It took me three years to track them down. I bought one instantly without consulting anyone, because I know how rare they are to find. And then another turned up two weeks later, which was extraordinary given how long it took me to find the first one!” The boats were then painted – black in Amazon’s case (“Nice and piratical”) and varnished with white elements in Swallow’s - before sail makers were brought in to research and design the sails of the rival boats – each sail stitched in different colour threads, and taking in excess of 80 hours to make. Barton says they were “as close to what Ransome intended” as they could possibly be - fit to grace the Lakes just as Ransome’s own dinghies had done almost a century before.
As any frequenter of the Great British countryside will tell you; the terrain brings its own challenges, and even more so for a film shoot of this scale. The team was confronted with communication difficulties due to the remote location; swarms of mosquito every evening; and the continuity issues of battling the wilfully unpredictable British weather. But there was never any question of abandoning the story’s spiritual home of The Lake District. Nick O’Hagan recalls that from very early in the process, he and Barton agreed it was essential to shoot a significant portion of the film in the idyllic Cumbria countryside, visiting the area together on recces during the development process: “All of these places in the story are known and identifiable places on the water, and it felt vital that we do that. There’s nowhere else in England that looks quite like it, and we wanted to capture that.”
Location Manager Jethro Ensor teamed with Lowthorpe and Davies to scour the area. “We’re not creating a world. It’s there,” he says of his task, “But it’s got to have a magical realism, and it’s just a question of teasing out those little spots.” Lake Coniston itself and Derwentwater took turns to become Ransome’s legendary lake – “Every time I went back to Coniston, you could see it. It was just there” – while he eventually found a farmhouse on the edge of Coniston to serve as cosy Holly Howe, home of the Jacksons. The unique otherworldly beauty of Plumpton Rocks in North Yorkshire was chosen for the Swallows’ camp; and for Ransome’s fictional town of Rio in the midst of carnival, the team dressed the cobbled streets of Heptonstall in bunting and period signage, and commandeered a local shop for transformation into the Rio General Store.
Shooting so much on location brought challenges. Ensor was tasked with laying vast lengths of track-way across the region in order to protect the National Trust landscape from the potential tumult of production. For Lowthorpe, however, the hard work and care absolutely paid off: “It’s an iconic landscape: it’s epic, it’s wonderful, it feels otherworldly, and it was incredibly important to me that we film a lot of it there. You can’t make it up, can you?” And as Gibb highlights, the character of the landscape plays a necessary part in emphasizing the challenges facing the Walkers: when you place “these little children in this majestic space...it shows the scale of what their mother was allowing them to take on.”
The surrounds certainly left an impression on the actors. Spall remembers “some of the most beautiful locations I have ever filmed in” both on the Lakes and in “God’s own country” Yorkshire; while Skinner fondly recalls a night shoot on the water under the moonlight: “We were in the middle of this massive Coniston lake at about midnight with the moon above us, and you look back and you just see the silhouette of the hills, and this clear lake, and the moon just reflecting off the lake; and you thought ‘My God: This is perfect and its going to look absolutely stunning on film’.”
“I don’t believe it’s ever been put on screen in the way we’ve done it,” says Oppenheimer, “This will be one of the first films that really puts the great British summer on the big screen in the way that people will recognise. It’s not going to be chocolate boxy: There are beautiful vistas in the sunlight, there are beautiful scenes in the sunlight, but there’s also rain and there’s cloud and there’s wind and there’s mist, and I think people will really recognise this and embrace it as the Britain that they recognise and the summer holidays that they recognise.”
The energy and adventurous spirit of the summer holidays translated to the shoot itself, with the film’s stars able to venture into Boys’ Own adventure territory. The crew certainly weren’t afraid to throw their young actors into the deep end – quite literally. In a move that would surely have won Ransome’s approval, sailing instructor John Platt insisted that the children jump in off their boats and into the chilly waters. “I was aghast!’ exclaims Lowthorpe, “I was thinking ‘You can’t do that! Poor children!’...but he made them all jump in wearing their costumes so he could check that they really, really would be okay...and that they could actually swim”. The director was suitably impressed by her young charges: They all jumped, with Bobby McCulloch leaping in half-a-dozen times.
Indeed, daring stunts soon became second nature for the cast. Teddie Malleson-Allen took great pleasure in jumping on to crash-mats as the Swallows attempted to flee their rampaging Amazon pursuers; McCulloch spent several soggy takes underwater shooting his character’s pivotal drowning scene; and Dane Hughes revelled in the excitement of sailing when the wind picked up on the Lakes, and “with the boat properly tipping”. The adult cast didn’t miss out on the fun either, with several tightly-choreographed fight scenes taking place on the specially-made boat, plane, and railway sets. “The physical stuff is good fun,” says Dan Skinner, adding “but I did take a bit of a whack to the head the other day because I do all my own stunts!” With all the logistics involved in filming the rough-and-tumble fight sequences in confined indoor spaces, they were always going to prove a challenge, but Lowthorpe fondly recalls another unexpected difficulty for Spall, Scott, and Skinner: “When we were filming in the plane, in the cockpit...They couldn’t keep a straight face. When Dan gets knocked out, the other two just kept bursting out laughing, sniggering away” – the shoot clearly bringing out the inner-child in all involved.
Lowthorpe and her team were in on the excitement too, with the sailing scenes requiring some unusually high-octane methods of shooting. The marine team – led by Dan Travers, son of Virginia McKenna (Mrs. Walker in the 1974 adaptation) – took charge of the camera boat, swooping in on Swallow and Amazon to capture the action on-board, deftly navigating the wind-whipped waves...most of the time. “We did have some near catastrophes in our camera boat,” laughs the director, “we’d be so intent on filming that we wouldn’t see a big wave or big wake coming towards us, and quite often we would be seen pumping the bilge water out.” But, like the Walker children themselves, the cast and crew embraced and overcame every obstacle. “Children, boats, water, weather, rain: We had it all to contend with!” Quite the summer adventure, all things told.
After sailing in the wake of Arthur Ransome and his fictional creations throughout the thrilling shoot, all involved in the project are hoping that the film will inspire audiences to make a journey into the wild themselves and seek out the unbridled excitement that sits on our doorstep amidst the rolling hills of the British countryside. It’s a call “to let children engage with the real world, with nature in a way that puts health and safety questions aside,” says Joe Oppenheimer, “When I sit down and tell my children about this story, what captivates them is ‘Wow, they’re doing it on their own!’”
Philippa Lowthorpe agrees, admitting that upon showing her son a rough cut of the Walker children out on the water, he said bluntly “‘You would never let me do that, would you mum?’ and I thought, ‘God, you know, we wouldn’t!’” Her film can therefore be a catalyst for a change in attitudes – sending “a message from the past to the present about how we bring up our children, and to make us aware of another way of enjoying ourselves out in the open; sailing or climbing or camping or any of these things which are almost for free and which are nothing to do with technology, and I think it brings a wonderful sense of freedom and adventure to children.”
Ransome’s was “a world before health and safety; a world where you would think nothing of sending your children off on a boat for a week on their own. Can you imagine that happening now?” asks Rafe Spall. He hopes that Swallows and Amazons will remind watching children of the boundless power of the imagination: “I know growing up that was the case for me. It’s absolutely informed my life choices because I’ve gone into a world where I carry on using my imagination and I’m part of everybody else using theirs as well. It’s so important to develop that as a child and nurture it and this is a film and testament to that I think, and that’s why I hope it will be rather lovely.”
For writer Andrea Gibb, she hopes that the project “will really resonate with a contemporary audience in that kind of classical film way. In harking back to films like Whistle Down the Wind, The Railway Children, or My Life as a Dog; films that have stood the test of time that have been about childhood. Because in actual fact, it cuts across - it speaks to the contemporary in us, because we were all children once, and we are all children still.” - None of us too old to follow the example of the Swallows and Amazons and head out on our own great adventure.
The film’s release marks the end of journey decades in the making for Nick Barton. That purchase at the Boat Show back in 1992 has culminated in the completion of a Swallows and Amazons for the twenty-first century – the fulfilment of a dream that must have once felt as distant as The Island did for the Walker children as they looked out from Darien. He’s delighted with the result: “I think we’ve been very sympathetic to the classic story that is there already. I think audiences will understand what we’ve done and we’ve tried to be as faithful as possible in our adaptation to the true story that is Arthur Ransome’s life. His adventures in Russia are quite extraordinary - so if we can be true to the original and tell this wider story that is quite an achievement.” Barton believes too that the film can inspire the next generation of explorers, outdoorsman, and fans of the sport he holds dear: “I’ve always felt that the people who sail absolutely sail because they read Swallows and Amazons as children - and I suspect that’s so true for most of the sailors around the UK. Ellen MacArthur was five when she read the book and it sent her off on her adventures”...who knows how many more future adventures the film will inspire.
TAKING ON THEIR CHARACTERS
RAFE SPALL ON JIM TURNER / CAPTAIN FLINT
“It is some people’s interpretation that he would be based on Arthur Ransome, the author of the book. So for that you have a wealth of research - something to anchor your characterisation in - because there is a lot of material that exists about Arthur Ransome. He was an endlessly fascinating character who had a love affair with Trotsky’s personal secretary, who was in Russia at the time of the Russian revolution. There are MI6 files that exist on Ransome because Ransome was a spy: He worked for MI6; some also say he worked for the Soviets as well. He was whatever the Russian version of an anglophile is! He was very interested and fascinated by Russia and communism and a lot of that has gone into our interpretation of the book. There is an espionage element to the film - a thing that starts off as make believe for the children’s adventure turns into something real. They find themselves caught up in a real adventure involving extremely high stakes, life and death matters; and Jim Turner, or Captain Flint as the children know him, is at the centre of that.”
KELLY MACDONALD ON MRS. WALKER
“I think the Walkers are a very tight knit little group and I feel like Mrs. Walker is left on her own with the children mostly, and I think she does it very well. It was a different time but I think Mrs Walker is a little bit, not eccentric, but she is a little unusual in the lengths that she will let her children go, and she gives them respect and she gets respect back. Because you can’t imagine now letting children of that age go off on a boat to an island in the middle of the Lake District all by themselves, I think even the Jacksons find it a bit odd and want to check up on them. But she knows she has brought John up very well and she expects him to do the right thing and look after them.”
ORLA HILL ON SUSAN WALKER
“Susan is just as adventurous as the others, but I think because it’s set in the 1930s she is meant to be a sort of motherly character because that’s what the eldest daughter is expected to do. But she definitely tries not to fit in to that stereotype all the time and tries to change it slightly. She is very dry, with a funny sense of humour and she is trying to fight to be heard because her elder brother John is always in command and takes control of everything. So it’s her job to say ‘actually, wait a minute. Think about this’, and it’s his job to make her see the sort of funnier side and show her how to take risks and stuff. If had to sum her up in a word it would be adventurous probably, but misunderstood in a way.”
DAN SKINNER ON ZUKIN AND LAZLOV
Zukin and Lazlov are a pair of Russian gentlemen. They are spies and they are interested in Jim Turner who has plans for rockets on his boat, he has been working on these plans. They want to capture Jim and take him back to Russia to use the knowledge he has discovered. Now whether they are good characters or bad characters...we are very conscious not to really make them good or bad. Jim, Lazlov, and Zukin are all doing the same sort of job - they just happen to work for different countries. They have sort of a mutual respect for each other. They understand they are each doing a job and these are the rules in which they play by. Zukin is a little bit more straight forward and route one, shall we say, than Lazlov who is a bit more cunning. He will play the long game a bit more patiently, whereas Zukin sees something and thinks ‘let’s do that and then let’s go home and let’s eat’, because he eats quite a lot throughout the film, lots of sandwiches, scotch eggs... He is interested in British fine dining and cuisine! Yeah he is a bit more slap-bang-wallop - which is sort of slightly at odds with Lazlov’s measured approach; cool and charming. So it makes for a pretty good double act between the two.
RAFE SPALL (Jim Turner/Captain Flint) has established himself as one of his country’s leading on-screen talents. Spall is perhaps best known for his roles in Ang Lee’s multi-award-winning “Life of Pi”; Ridley Scott sci-fi “Prometheus” with Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace; and for starring opposite Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale in the Oscar©-winning “The Big Short”, forming part of the group nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. A versatile talent, Spall has also found success in the comedy genre with notable roles in the likes of “I Give It A Year”; “What If”; and in frequent collaborator Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, and “The World’s End”. Further film credits include: “Anonymous”; “One Day”; and a much-praised performance in “X+Y” for which he was recognized with a nomination at the British Independent Film Awards. Spall’s television credits include: an International Emmy-nominated turn in Charlie Brooker’s bleak comedy “Black Mirror” opposite John Hamm; “Sons of Liberty” with Ben Barnes; and “Pete Versus Life”. Spall is also renowned for his theatre work, working alongside Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” on Broadway, and on the premiere of Nick Payne’s Olivier Award nominated “Constellations” at the Royal Court.
KELLY MACDONALD (Mrs. Walker) The Glasgow-born actress has emerged as one of the talents of her generation following her on-screen debut in Danny Boyle’ seminal “Trainspotting”. Since then she has worked alongside many of the industry’s most renowned directors and performers in films such as the Oscar©-winning “No Country for Old Men” from the Coen Brothers, for which she was nominated at the BAFTAs; Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” opposite Keira Knightley; and “Brave”, winner of the Academy Award© for Best Animated Feature. Other notable film credits include: “Gosford Park”; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two”: “Choke”; “Elizabeth”; “Finding Neverland”; and “Nanny McPhee”. Macdonald has also found great success on the small screen, and has a Primetime Emmy win in her name for her role in frequent collaborator David Yates’ Richard Curtis-penned “The Girl in the Cafe”, in addition to a Golden Globe nomination. She is known too for critical-darling “State of Play”, while her performances in the acclaimed “Broadwalk Empire” have recently seen her recognized with a further two Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy nod. Macdonald has been part of four casts to have taken home the prize for Best Ensemble Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
ANDREW SCOTT (Lazlov) is a BAFTA and Olivier award-winning actor. He began his acting career at the age of seventeen in the acclaimed Irish film “Korea”. He is best known worldwide for his portrayal of Moriarty in the multi-award winning “Sherlock”, for which he received many awards, including the BAFTA for Best Supporting actor. Andrew’s major recent and upcoming projects include “Spectre”, “Victor Frankenstein” with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe for Fox, and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with Johnny Depp. He is currently filming British Independent “This Beautiful Fantastic”. Andrew’s credits include “Legacy” for the BBC, directed by Pete Travis; “Dates” with Sheridan Smith; the critically acclaimed drama “The Town”, written by Mike Bartlett; BBC’s “The Hollow Crown”; “Blackout” alongside Christopher Ecclestone; and “The Hour” with Ben Whishaw and Dominic West. Other work includes the multi award-winning “John Adams” opposite Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti for HBO; “Sea Wall”, a one man show written especially for him by Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens; and “The Vertical Hour”, his critically acclaimed Broadway debut opposite Julianne Moore, written by David Hare and directed by Sam Mendes, for which he was nominated for a Drama League Award. Andrew’s other films include “Saving Private Ryan” and “Nora”, the Irish films “Dead Bodies” and “The Stag”; “The Scapegoat”; and “Locke” with Tom Hardy. In 2014 he also starred in the BAFTA- winning “Pride” alongside Bill Nighy, Dominic West & Imelda Staunton, for which he was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. In 2014 Andrew returned to the Royal Court for a second time to star in Simon Stephens “Birdland”, for which he received rave reviews. His other extensive theatre credits include “Sea Wall”; “Emperor” and “Galilean” (National Theatre); Cock; A Girl In A Car With A Man (Royal Court) for which he won an Olivier award; Design For Living (Old Vic) and many plays in Dublin and London. Along with his BAFTA, Olivier and BIFA awards, Andrew has received two IFTA awards, a Drama League nomination, and has twice won the BBC Audio award for Best Actor for his work in Radio Drama.
DAN SKINNER (Zukin). Emerging with his win at The British Comedy Awards celebrating his breakthrough role as character Angelos Epithemiou in “Shooting Stars”, Skinner has established himself as one of the UK’s leading comic performers. The writer and actor has starred in a number of acclaimed television comedies in recent years including “The Office” with Ricky Gervais; “Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge”; “Mike Bassett: Manager”; “My Family”; “Pinky and Perky”; “The Wrong Mans”; “Drunk History”; and “The Kennedys”. Film credits include Ben Wheatley’s “High Rise” opposite Tom Hiddlestone and Sienna Miller, and the upcoming “Notes on Blindness”. Skinner is a member of sketch troupe Perrier Award-nominated Dutch Elm Conservatoire.
HARRY ENFIELD (Mr. Jackson) One of British comedy’s most familiar faces, Harry Enfield rose to popular attention in the 1980s with his spot-on impersonations in the hugely successful “Spitting Image”, before becoming one of the country’s biggest names starring alongside the likes of Steven Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton, and Rik Mayall in “Saturday Live”. With writing partner Paul Whitehouse; Enfield later starred in “Harry Enfield’s Television Programme”; “Harry Enfield and Chums”; and “Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul”. He is also known for bringing his comedy creation Kevin to the big screen in “Kevin & Perry Go Large”, in addition to roles in television’s “Skins”; Bad Education”; and “Men Behaving Badly”. Enfield is the recipient of two BAFTAs; two Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards; and a British Comedy Award.