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Actress Vanessa Redgrave had the film crew in tears as she sang her heart out on a housing estate in Durham, director of Song For Marion Paul Andrew Williams tells Steve Pratt
PAUL Andrew Williams had been back to school. To Durham Johnston School, to name names. But he’s not an old boy, at least not in the usual sense. He spent only six weeks there during the summer holidays when the pupils were absent.
He was there as a movie director when the school played host to British feature film Song For Marion, which saw famous actors Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp, Christopher Eccleston and Gemma Arterton walking the school corridors.
He and producer Ken Marshall paid a return visit to the school last month when they came to the region for a special screening of Song For Marion at Durham Gala.
The school became the base for the production with sets for the film – about an elderly man who joins the community choir in which his sick wife sang – were built in the gym. Other locations around Durham and Newcastle were used although the setting in the story is never identified and there are no telltale landmarks on screen.
Finance from Northern Film and Media enticed the high-profile production to the region.
“It’s an incentive to go somewhere if you get xamount of money,” explains Williams, whose previous feature films were the Bafta award-winning London To Brighton, The Cottage and Cherry Tree Lane.
“Part of the investment is giving back to the region. You have to spend a certain amount up here. We spent ages looking for locations and found really good ones.
“The film is not set in any town as such. People can make up their own minds because we don’t show anything specifically associated with the area. Even if we’d filmed in London, we’d have had to avoid landmarks.
“I certainly wouldn’t be ashamed of saying this is where we filmed it. Filming here was just great. I’d totally do it again. Using the school was a really a great idea and I’d think about doing the same thing again, if I’m honest.”
Then there was the locally-recruited senior choir. In the story, Marion (played by Vanessa Redgrave) belongs to a local choir. When she becomes ill her loving, if grumpy husband Arthur takes her place.
Christopher Eccleston plays the couple’s estranged son, with Gemma Arterton as the choir director.
Writer-director Williams and Marshall found the basis for their screen choir while scouting locations in the North-East. They met Richard Scott, who runs Heaton Voices choir, and heard about a find-raising choir competition to raise money for St Oswald’s Hospice.
“We had auditions which were advertised around the local area. We must have had about 70 people turn up,” recalls Williams. “The competition was big for us because one weekend we were up here they were doing their early heats.
It happened the same day we were meant to leave but we stayed and watched. So we were like, ‘we must come back to see the final’.
“When we had the auditions, it wasn’t so much about auditioning as ‘let’s all sing a few songs’ and I went around looking at people, looking for interesting faces.
“There were certain factors to consider: we couldn’t have 34 basses, we had to have a mix of different sections. I wasn’t really focused on how well people could sing. Obviously it was a consideration but it was much more about how people were and people who could have a good time.”
They rehearsed for a month before filming.
“By the time we shot the film they were all really friendly with each other. That was one of the most amazing things. They were long and stressful days. They were obviously tired as well as us, but they were laughing and obviously having such a great time.”
When we met at the school on the sixth and final week of filming, Williams said that making the movie had been “as intense as hell” but, on the plus side, it had been a real learning curve and a good time with good crew and smart actors.
“It’s good to work with all these local people, too, in terms of the choir. They’ve all made friends and had an amazing experience which is really good – and makes my experience better.”
Stamp as a grumpy pensioner is not obvious casting. “When I first met him it was quite clear there was a beautiful man, a good-looking man.
He is playing someone who is old and totally embraced the fact that he had to look old,” says Williams.
“The thing is he’s so health-conscious and so healthy that he still looks incredibly good and his eyes are always sparkling. He’s a great guy and has been around a long time. He was this amazingly attractive young man and now he’s an amazingly attractive older man.”
Redgrave embraced the role of Marion, who is diagnosed with cancer. “It was very interesting how she went about it, obviously she’s been around that illness with certain people, so she’s seen it. She wanted to shave her head and was prepared to do anything,” says Williams.
Both actors have solo songs In the film. Stamp’s was filmed on the stage of the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle. Redgrave’s location – a housing estate in Durham – was less comfortable thanks to the cold, wet and windy weather on what was supposed to be a summer’s day. Williams admits that the first time she did the scene, he broke down.
He and half the crew were in tears.
The film has been called feelgood and heartwarming, terms you suspect Williams would like to avoid. One of his stars Christopher Eccleston sees it as being about ordinary people’s lives, explaining: “There are too few of those in this blockbuster popcorn market, which I find very depressing. But I think there is a market. The King’s Speech was not my favourite film, but what it demonstrated is that people are interested in human stories and this is a very human story about a man’s spiritual redemption through the course of the film”.
Williams takes up the point: “In all honesty, it’s just about family and hopefully one of the things about the film is that it’s relatable to most people.
I tried to make it a real as possible within the genre. It’s not schmaltzy, the film isn’t so far removed from our own lives.”
- Song For Marion (PG) opens in cinemas on February 22.
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