“None of us knew quite how crazy the tides were.” Simon Rumley Interview, ‘Crowhurst’ (THN)

Out to own on DVD/Blu-ray is Crowhurst, the true life story of British sailor Donald Crowhurst. His decision to take part in a round-the-world yacht race in 1968 had catastrophic consequences, as Donald found himself quite literally out of his depth. His boat was found but its occupant was never seen again.

Justin Salinger plays the title role in this unusual and powerful drama, which found itself competing against another Crowhurst picture, The Mercy with Colin Firth.

Simon Rumley is the acclaimed and innovative director who battled strong currents to tell Crowhurst’s tale in his own unique way. Producing the film was Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look NowPerformance), a trailblazer in his own right who had attempted his own version years before.

We caught up with Simon to talk about depicting this sea-bound mystery…

THN: What brought you to the project?

Simon Rumley: I was offered the project. At that point, I hadn’t heard of Donald Crowhurst, but I did some research and read the script and it was one of those things where you think “Is this really true?” It really was one of those stranger than fiction moments. And the story I felt had a lot of themes I’d dealt with in the past.

As much as anything I liked the idea of the guy being British and having what I suppose you would call arrogance in one respect and confidence in another. I thought there was a way of investigating national characteristics and our national traits.

And also the subject of isolation and loneliness. He was essentially a good guy but he makes all these terrible mistakes which have an impact on him and his family. I thought it would make a fascinating film investigating someone’s psyche.

Water is famously difficult to shoot on. How did you find working with it?

Yeah! Pretty much what everyone said it was going to be, to be honest. Initially, we were going to do 2 days at sea, and I said: “Look we should at least try 3.” Then that somehow went up to 4. We shot for 4 days and at the end, we didn’t have an opening scene or a closing scene. So we had to do 2 more days and then the motorboat we had to have for insurance purposes broke down on the final day.

We were also shooting in the Bristol Channel… none of us knew quite how crazy the tides were. It turned out it has the second strongest tides of anywhere in the world. We could only sail at certain times or we’d be f***ed. We would set up a shot, get ready to shoot it and then the captain would be like “We’ve got to turn around or we’ll crash!” And we’d just spent the last half hour setting everything up.

The other thing with the Bristol Channel is there’s land on either side, so the first morning was pretty much useless. We tried to film it so there was no land in the background but 99% of the time there was land. It proved quite challenging! While it’s not true to say the script went out the window, we tried to get as much of it as we could, but some scenes were lost.

Interestingly that gave the film an intensity because we had lots of cutaways and mini-sequences of Donald looking into the distance. We shot as much footage as we could, so even if we didn’t have the script we had enough to replace what we missed with something else. It was an enjoyable experience oddly. As a director, it was the time I had to think most on my feet really.

Nicolas Roeg is the executive producer, and he wanted to film the story himself years ago. How much of a creative influence did he have, or did he let you go your own way with it?

Mike (Michael Riley, producer) already knew him. He’s one of my favourite directors, if not my favourite, and we thought he should come aboard. We went out to a pub a couple of times, he read the script. We had some fairly lengthy discussions, which would kind of go in and out of the script and sometimes he would bring up one of his own films.

Having him certainly changed the film to a degree, because the film was written linearly, and the combination of having him on board and what I was talking about before, shooting more than what we had in the script… when we were in the edit Mike said “I want to make this as Roegian as possible. Try and do what Nic would do.” Certainly having someone encouraging me to go in non-linear fashion, to go a bit crazy and all that stuff, definitely shaped the film and obviously having Nic in the background was the main reason behind that. All of that encouraged me in the edit.

I hadn’t seen any of his films for a while and was thinking “What if he asks me about them?”. Before we met I watched some of his films and then the one he did mention was one I hadn’t rewatched, Castaway (1986). As he pointed out, it’s different of course, but had the same theme of self-imposed exile and was about a man losing his marbles.

There’s an unexpected amount of singing in the film! Where did that come from?

I’m a big music fan, films aside, and I suppose going back to what I was saying about it being a film with a quintessentially British character to it… I wanted to have a shorthand about a sense of British pride and duty. For Queen and Country. I thought it was a way of getting that emotion across.

We knew that The Mercy was in production at the same time. There was no way we were going to match the glossiness of their film, so we went the opposite way. I thought it would give it a unique character and make it different.

There was also something in Magnolia, where three-quarters of the way through all the characters sing. I guess that’s something that stayed with me. The songs are a manifestation of Donald’s isolation and loneliness.

This interview first appeared on THN.

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