Pretty much as I had predicted, in pursuit of an actress for this film, getting through to London agents proved difficult. I even approached one well-known casting director only to be dismissed because as they saw it, the project was insignificant. Hardly surprising, I thought, since the brief calls for only one cast member.
The task, I concluded, called for some lateral thinking.
Checking out the credits for my wishlist of actresses on IMDB, I decided to contact one of Ireland’s leading casting directors, Frank Moiselle, whose credits include many major feature films and TV series. Frank doesn’t know me but very kindly offered to make some calls on my behalf. Two actresses’ names were mentioned, coincidentally two of the names on my list and, thanks to his intervention, the door opened to their respective agents.
Suddenly I had a dilemma. “Voyageuse” is an unusual film. It takes a leap of imagination for anyone to get their head round the script and my unorthodox methods. Both actresses, I knew, were highly accomplished and experienced. Who should I choose? Arguably one of them (who will remain nameless) in screen terms is the more recognised and would undoubtedly raise the profile of my film. The other has greater experience on the stage and in broadcast and can also bring attention to the work. But as I reminded myself, this film is all about the voice. After some intense listening it became blindingly obvious who I should opt for: Siân Phillips.
The call was duly made to her agent. Having sent the script, within two days Siân replied with an emphatic yes that, given the fact she was on tour with a production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, was gratifying. In short order a contract was drawn up, a fee agreed and dates discussed. During our first phone call Siân mentioned she had watched “The Devil’s Plantation” and loved it. It was a stroke of luck too that her tour ended its run at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, offering us the chance to meet. Dutifully I wrote 12 pages of notes because the script was written with no action or description so many blanks had to be filled. For form’s sake I also went along to a matinee of her show and thought – genuinely – she was the best thing in it.
The following day over lunch, I realised I was dealing not only with a true professional but a decent human being. Not for a second did I feel in the presence of an 82-year-old woman. Siân is warm, curious, intelligent and frankly, a force of nature. Her opening gambit – “I have a lot of questions” – as she pulled my script out of her handbag – filled me with joy because I knew she was taking the role seriously. In fact she had already marked up the script, placing stresses on her lines, with added marginalia that she expected answers to.
Given the odd construction of the film, I took with me a set of frame grabs of the locations I’d already shot. “I’m making this film back-to-front,” I admitted, recounting how I started shooting before the script was finished. As for her questions I did my best. She picked up the tab for lunch. “Oh, and another thing,” she said, “I want to give a copy of your Devil film to Mark Rylance – he really loves this kind of thing.” Who knew?
Two days later, with my husband for support, I took the train to London. Only hours earlier Siân too had boarded the Glasgow to Euston train, having performed her final two shows the day before. We had scheduled two days of rehearsals, the first at her beautiful London home, the second at my hotel where the staff kindly gave me a meeting room.
Here we did a table reading of the script, discussing Erica’s life and her changing moods over the course of the story day. Gradually we agreed on an approach to her ‘storytelling’ and ‘inner’ voices. Never has my work been quite so scrutinised and is all the better for it. Better still, the intimacy of the process – it was just me and Siân in the room – allowed us to swap life stories and form a bond of mutual trust that allowed us to talk freely to help her better understand the woman I now placed in her care.
Though our rehearsal time was short it proved invaluable for the recording at Voiceover Soho, a Berwick Street studio where for the next three days Siân performed beautifully; from the opening lines her possession of the character was total and, as I hoped, her voice was absolutely compelling. I had made the right call. Even the studio engineers, John and George, were in awe of her. During the sessions she regaled us with stories about her long career: her two appearances on ‘Desert Island Discs’, working with ‘Sam’ Beckett and her recent nude photo shoot for Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’ Christmas production of ‘Calendar Girls’ that features in the current issue of the ‘Radio Times.’
By the time we wrapped on Friday afternoon, I had several versions of the script plus some additional material taken directly from Erica’s papers and correspondence. We had just enough time to present Siân with a parting thank you gift before she ran off to prep for her next gig that coming weekend, an evening of music and recitals in her native Welsh. She added that she’ll soon be in rehearsals for a play at the National Theatre. Does she ever stop, I wonder?
Later Siân texted me: “Thank you so much. I have been completely riveted by the script. It was a wonderful week. Can’t wait to see the FILM!!!”
Walking round Soho later that evening I was in a kind of trance. Only rarely do the planets align and this, I felt, was one of those occasions. Now I have a daunting task ahead of me as I edit the film but thanks to Siân’s amazing performance I can’t think of a better distraction over the Christmas holidays and the coming months.
To those following my journey on this film, thanks for reading my blog and I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year. This is my last post for 2015 so if you can, please take a moment to leave a comment and I’ll be only too happy to reply.
The above image is a frame grab of Josef ‘Bob’ Eisner’s 16mm film. He used hand-painted captions from 1929-1932 before changing to a modern sans serif font in 1933, the year of Erica’s – and – Siân’s birth. The card roughly translates as ‘In Autumn Erica is already.’