Stories from the Set: The Opening Night (Anniversary Special)

[Above: Lucy Hagan-Walker on the set of The Opening Night, April 2010]

   I hope that you are all well and staying safe. At the moment, it feels almost as though the world has stopped turning – but turn it does, and 2020 actually marks ten years since I graduated from University. What’s more, this week brought the ten year anniversary of when I shot The Opening Night, my graduation film, and the first film I ever got into a film festival. It was also one of the first films to feature the Triskelle Pictures signature.

   So, for this special spin on my usual ‘stories from the set’ blog post, I’ve delved deep into my archives – and my gradually fading memories – to tell you how this student film came about.


   The Opening Night was the last film I ever made at the University for the Creative Arts. For our graduation films, we were set the challenge of creating something which showed off the culmination of our skills from the past three years. Although I wanted to be director (as I still do), I had spent the previous two years specialising in Production Design - partly because I enjoyed it, but mostly because I wanted to gain extra employable skills. So I made the decision to direct a short film with heavy design elements, something which could showcase everything that I wanted to do in my career.

[Above: Marianne's shoes, which were up-cycled from my old ballet shoes, and her hand-beaded gloves. I made numerous accessories and jewellery for the film, as well as key costumes]

   The screenplay, initially drafted for a screenwriting lecture, was a love note to my memories of amateur theatre. Growing up, I never assumed a small-town girl from the Midlands could have a career in film (to be fair, it’s still not easy today), so I pursued more theatrical interests throughout my teens, such as musical 'show choirs' and dance classes. I performed in a lot of productions, and although I was never great at it, I did love it. It helped me to find like-minded artistic people at a time when I was the most socially awkward. But young love is a fickle thing, and from the moment I received my first camcorder (the Hi-8 tape camera I got for my 15th birthday), I only wanted to make movies, and I almost never looked back. So I wrote the screenplay for The Opening Night as a time capsule for my memories of teenage theatre, thanking those experiences for everything they had given me, but also saying goodbye.

[Above: my concept art for scene one]
   Because the film was designed to showcase my skills,  I appointed myself as the director, writer, production designer and costume designer (with some pretty flashy costumes to make in the process), so it was easy to see the project as a bit of a ‘Sophie show’. But I had some brilliant collaborators on the film, with a skeleton crew made up of my film school classmates, including sound recordist/designer Jesse Tadini-Rybolt, editor Laura Healey (then Brimley) and cinematographer EmmaaLouise Smith.

   I loved working with all of them, but I particularly treasured EmmaaLouise’s input on the project. She oozed creativity, and gave me lots of suggestions for films I should watch as research, including the photography of Tim Walker and the film The Red Shoes (which I’ve waxed lyrical about over since). Back then, my only real influence was Moulin Rouge!, and she helped me to widen my perspective beyond mainstream cinema. She was also keen to look at using cameras which would give us the most saturated colours and the deepest shadows, to capture the look I wanted in the best way possible, rather than immediately selecting the camera which was newest or most high-definition. As a result, The Opening Night was the last film I ever shot in SD, at a time when many of our peers were clambering to use the school’s two early RED cameras – and I kind of loved that.

[Above: EmmaaLouise Smith filming Edward McBride III's (Dorian) close-up]

   EmmaaLouise went on to make some brilliant short films with numerous festival screenings, including some work with Kate Nash. I didn’t see her for nearly nine years after we graduated, but when I did see her, our reunion happened in the bar at none other than the BAFTA awards itself.

   But anyway, back to 2010…

The Shoot

   Because this was such a personal project for me, I felt that it made sense to move the production – and all of my London & Surrey-based student crew – up to Derbyshire, where I was living with my parents out of term time. These really were the days of shoestring budgets, and I knew I’d need to rely on my family and friends for help (my grandma, a retired florist, even made a floral arrangement for the set dressing!). I also knew a local actor, Edward McBride III, who I could trust to take the male lead role in the project, and the only other filmmaker in the town (at the time), James Reader, also joined The Opening Night as my 1st AD.

[Above: Rain - because it wouldn't be one of my shoots without it! Also one reason why filming in Derbyshire was maybe not the best idea...]

   But the biggest local resource was the locations. Because I was so inspired by the theatrical performances of my school days, I reached out to my old high school, and the drama teacher – my drama teacher, Joan Hardy – embraced me back with open arms. She not only let us film in the school’s dressing rooms and stage (the same stage I used to perform on), but she supplied a group of A-Level drama students to be supporting actors in the film. Joan Hardy is very much a local legend, now retired, and I couldn’t have done it without her help.

[Above: me directing the brilliant student volunteers, photos by Joan Hardy]

   For the film’s exterior shots, we used a different location. Although the school stage had grey stone walls internally, the exteriors looked very different, and clearly belonged to a school. Luckily my family’s church, which my Mum is very much connected to, had beautiful stone walls, so the back stairway of the church became a stand-in for the stage exit of a theatre. We were also able to record the film’s narrative voiceover in the church hall, where I’d held some brief casting sessions for the project as well. Funnily enough, the room we used to record the voiceover was also a little community stage, and another one which I’d performed on as a teenager. The red curtains helped us to create a sound booth which almost kept out the sounds of shooting in the nearby countryside.

   Speaking of the casting, I had found it difficult to get the perfect lead actor for this film. Because of my then-obsession with Moulin Rouge!, I was adamant that the actor should have red hair (ironically, I have since had no difficulty finding red-haired leading ladies, even when I wasn’t specifically looking for them!). Combine my picky youthful behavior with the fact that this was a student film with no budget – and therefore not the biggest draw for actors – this meant that we were nearing the shoot dates without a lead actor attached. On top of that, I was making a lot of the costumes from scratch, including a corset, and I basically had to hope that they would fit whoever we cast!

[Above: Lucy Hagan-Walker on the main stage set]

   But eventually, through a brilliant recommendation from another university classmate, we cast Lucy Hagan-Walker in the lead role of Marianne. Lucy was a theatre student at the time, but has since gone on to perform in many productions (and is currently doing a fabulous series of ‘quarantine fashion’ photos on her Instagram page!). As well as doing a wonderful performance with little notice, Lucy was happy to travel to Derbyshire and move into my parent’s house with the rest of the crew, and she even took up the baton to do her own make-up when I couldn’t secure a MUA for the film. These really were Guerrilla days!

   The shoot itself was a joy, bar the usual time pressures towards the end of day two (the first time I’d experienced the feeling of ‘hurry up guys, we need to nail this take because it’s nearly time to leave the building’!). We shot the entire film in two days, across three DV tapes, and the crew all celebrated with a bottle of champagne on my parent’s lawn afterwards. I felt elated.

[Above: the set dressing for the 'dressing room' scene featured programmes and other memorabilia from my teenage theatre days]

The finished film

   Making The Opening Night was the first time I’d got to lead a crew, and I relished it. I had full input on everything from the large details (I created the set ‘flats’ for the stage scene, built in my parent’s garage – aided by my parents themselves – as well as making some sizable fantasy-Victorian costumes for the actors to wear), to the smaller details, like when I insisted we shot a discarded tissue and lipstick stain in a certain way to make it look like ‘snowy mountains’. I went to great lengths to make sure there were (what I thought were) subtle character references throughout the film: Marianne was a nod to Sense and Sensibility, the lead male character was named Dorian because I loved Oscar Wilde, and one of the extras in the dressing room scene was dressed like Eponine from Les Miserables. I had essentially let my creative cat out of the bag, and at the time, it felt like the most important thing I’d ever done.

[Above: Laura assembling the film in our university edit suite]

   But of course, the student me was definitely not the auteur she thought she was - and despite some praise from a few of my lecturers and the tech staff in the Avid edit suite, I didn’t actually get the best grade on the assignment. I took it to heart then, but I shouldn’t have. I was young, I was learning, and therefore I was allowed to make mistakes (like not realising when my film has more set dressing than plot!), because that meant I was trying new things. The Opening Night was exactly the film I needed it to be, at the time when I needed it to exist, and in many ways it did me proud. It not only got me my first festival acceptance (at Film Directing 4 Women International Film Festival in 2011), but it went on to screen at an artist’s installation called 'Memories of the Future' in 2013, and both screenings meant so much to me – as the first of anything always does.

[Above: an article about The Opening Night in the school's local paper, Spring 2010]

   The Opening Night was tweaked in 2011 by editor Richard Winter, who re-assembled the film to make it 16:9, and also added some filmic effect layers to certain scenes. That was the version I ultimately uploaded to Vimeo, as you can see below. I also uploaded a side-by-side comparison between the footage from scene one and my original storyboards, which is here if anyone would like to watch it. But if anyone wants to watch the original 4:3 version I handed in to my lecturers, you’re going to need a Betamax player; only one copy of the original film exists on beta tape, and that tape has had price of place in my home office for the last decade.

   I hope that you guys have enjoyed this slightly different blog post – but more importantly, I hope that this pandemic subsides sooner rather than later, so that we can all embrace our loved ones and pursue our passions again. Lockdown has given myself and my collaborators the opportunity to finish Lepidopterist (originally shot this time last year), and I hope to give you more updates on that soon, as we prepare the film - as much as we can ever feel prepared - for its festival run. We're also going to run a small funding campaign, in order to pay for those festival submission fees, if any of you feel as though you are able to support us.



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