NZTECHO Spring 2014 Issue 62 Back in the Day
William Shakespeare, dead almost 400 years, was one of those blokes other people talked about. I decided it was time to see why so much fuss. ‘In the Shadow of King Lear’ is a documentary about an actor Ian Mune tackling one of theatre’s most difficult leading roles. It all came about by luck and a bit of cunning – we went through the back door then with a wink and a nod. I wrote three pages (which were praised for their concise brevity) and two weeks later I was asked for more. Apparently when funding creative endeavours it’s measured more by the weight of the ream than the scratching upon the sheet.
Of course, there is never enough money in the production’s budget and my next task was to stretch it nine weeks plus six weeks post-production. The solution was a crew of two, this was to be the last episode in the wonderfully successful ‘work of art’ series, yet another series canned just at the point it discovered what it was.
My documentary style is about following people. I’ve followed a quadriplegic up a mountain, a famous Knight up a Holy river, a drunk director to the ends of the earth, all whilst perfecting the art of making myself invisible. So following a guy who’d told the theatre business to get stuffed 15 years previously, vowing ‘never to return’, become King Lear was what we call in the TV business ‘an opportunity’.
I rang Ian Mune’s wife Josie and asked if he had been flattered when offered the part? After a suitable pause she giggled, “Oh yes, he was…” Next thing I’m in a cold church hall in the middle of winter with a bunch of extremely talented actors and in moments Shakespearean verse is dripping off the walls. Put me in the completely novice club when it comes to the inner sanctum of the rehearsal process but my idea of a play starts on the page… but not in this case. Here are a bunch of grownups playing grandma’s steps, and now musical chairs – I love it! Then for the first few weeks it appears that the text is not all that important and the Company seem to be spending a lot of energy making tableau type creations. I was still curious to know how the actors learn all those bloody words and so were a few of the actors. I was on the climb with the cast as we headed towards an unknown summit and anything was possible and eventually the text did begin its long journey from the page to the stage via a few experiments including vast flapping sheets, moving lights, dribbling water all enhanced with a raging music track.
We had been filming 5 weeks, just over halfway, frankly I didn’t really know what we had in the can but I knew we had a lot of it. Tensions ebbed between extreme and almost bearable when it came to discussing the way ahead. The cast divided into old school and the young – young with new ideas and a few avant garde concepts from Europe and the old school thespians hung onto the safety net of the text. All while the two directors (Christian Penny and Anna Marbrook) pushed the exploration of the unknown, brilliant but completely nerve wracking. Reading the play as a continuous run was a way to see if the cuts to the text were keeping the structural integrity – the cast were doing their umpteenth version of this, I obediently rolled the camera – tables had been corralled in the middle of the hall. Tony Woollams, the recordist, had retired his pants belt in favour of braces, he held the boom with outstretched arms leaning over the void… being a man of ample girth he’d lost his trouser around his ankles on two prior occasions.
It was late in the morning, probably Friday, it had been a long week and we were at the bit where the King, now going mad, was about to challenge the greater cosmos – “blow winds crack your cheeks”. Ian Mune’s voice took on a fury as the storm within and without raged, some of the cast mimed wind and rain. Ian’s voice went low and quiet yet had a power that resonated through the floor, he reached out grabbing a full glass of water in a strangle hold – it shook in his hand, here was Mune the dangerous man, the naughty boy and someone in the room started making thundery noises. Ian swayed back and forth, he then hurled the glass behind him which smashed into the wall, the script he was reading disappeared into a mangled fist… and the tempestuous King arrived – he hissed and growled the last of the speech. Perfect.
There’s nothing less perfect or colder than an echoing church hall and after the first few weeks shooting I decided to watch some of the rushes – the pictures looked fine, it sounded brilliant (considering the amount of echo we were dealing with) but that wasn’t the issue. I could hear what the actors were saying but it didn’t make any sense… like their lips were moving but they might as well have been talking Swahili. The problem was that the cast weren’t in character wardrobe, they were in a rehearsal space – some had track pants and bright T shirts, others were festooned with sponsor signage or old film T shirt, some were dressed for shopping in Karori, it was like there was nothing to define them, it was like their images were being sucked into the walls. All I could workout was the optical nerve was somehow being confused with the collage that was somehow affecting the ability of the brain to comprehend the content. Try putting that into google for a solution? Maybe I was just tired and emotional? – I extracted all the colour out of the images and it started to make sense. Go figure?
From this insight we created three distinctive looks – the monochrome look took care of the 9 weeks within the rehearsal space and a 4:3 format. A de-saturated look dealt with any ‘talking heads’. I then set a few scenes as they might appear in a feature film which was shot digitally with a larger crew (16:9 format).
I love the editing process… part of the delight is the chance to ‘show off’ to the editor in that, ‘see what we did here’ way – their fresh eyes breathe life into what I usually find over whelming.
I had budgeted six weeks for the post-production – it took three weeks just viewing the 85 field tapes. We rendered the beast into working files and planned the story as a countdown to opening night. From the early stages I had been cautious of people’s privacy and as the rehearsal revealed itself, as a deeply personal and revealing process, I was even more relieved that I had given the cast final editorial sign off – I had no desire to rip anyone’s jugular out or expose any great foibles to the world.
Getting nine weeks and 85 field tapes to comfortably fit into a 47 minutes was initially a challenge – though to my surprise the story of the journey became more clear the more we took out.
Editor John Gilbert and I must have done something right as there was only one minor change suggested to the cut.
Ian and Christian viewed the final film together and left smiling in the same car.
You can see the completed film on the NZonScreen website.
Photo Credits: John McDermott