“Which of your characters is your favourite?”
The question I dread being asked the most. It’s very much akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child. Now I know I don’t have children but that’s not the point. The point is that characters spend a long time forming in the mind of the author, often long before any writing has begun. Even then, the characters are growing and changing as the author sets to work. A character is moulded into an individual, with their own wants, drives and fears. You put in a lot of hard work to make them what they are, for better or worse, yet sometimes they seem to take on a life of their own. Very much like being a parent.
So, let us skip ahead. The story is written, the characters are all formed, everything is done. It’s scary enough when you hand your work over to someone else to read. All these characters, these scenarios, these twists and surprises have been confined to your mind up until this point. Now you send them off into the wide world hoping people will like them. Again, very much like being a parent.
Everyone has their own view of any given character. The words on the page give us guidelines, but even the most intricately crafted character is open to interpretation. How does it feel then, as an author, when you hand over your character to someone for them to actually embody? For them to portray on screen or stage for others to see? I got my first taste of this sensation this past summer, with the creation of the promotional trailer for ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’.
It came about after a conversation with Mr. Rob Creer, the current chairman of Sodbury Players, a fine group that I joined earlier this year. We decided which parts of the book to adapt, cast it and filmed it over two sunny days in Yate and Chipping Sodbury. I was entirely in charge of casting, being happy to leave the intricacies of filming in the capable hands of Mr. Creer.
Now of course it’s quite unusual for an author to be given such direct control over who gets to play the characters they created. When books get made into massive, big-budget films, casting ultimately gets put in the hands of various producers. The joy and challenge of doing this adaptation on a smaller scale was having the freedom to cast the piece myself.
First of all, it’s worth noting that at no point did I ever plan to take on any particular character myself. I cannot imagine just how blurred the lines between character and creator would become if I had decided to do that. Having nursed these characters in my head for so long, to physically step into their shoes might just cause me to go mad. Nope, better ultimately to trust my creations in the hands of others.
The three main characters, Thomas Llewellyn, his brother Isaac, and their cousin Emily Reed were actually among the last to be cast. Thomas, the story’s main protagonist, was played by Kirk Clifford, while Isaac was played George Pugh. Both are members of the Sodbury Players Youth Section (known as SPYS) and I’d seen them in the SPYS production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ just a few weeks before filming. Particularly with George, watching him on stage I felt an almost otherworldly sense, a voice in my head saying “This kid is your Isaac.” Seeing the way that he and Kirk interacted as a pair of squabbling brothers fighting over a phone (above), I knew that voice was right. Instinct, or divine intervention?
Speaking of faith, I took a leap of the same when it came to casting Molly Coventry as Emily, the Llewellyn’s book-loving younger cousin. The character is nine years old so finding someone to play her was always going to be tricky. Initially the plan might have been to cast one of the younger looking girls in the SPYS and suspend disbelief. Then, as chance would have it, I got a message saying that the granddaughter of Stan Ward (who was cast as the Bogeyman) was interested. I’d signed a copy of the book for young Molly some time before at Stan’s request. I cast her quite blindly, schedules being what they were, I wouldn’t be able to meet with her until the second day of the shoot. Considering her lack of experience with filming, she did extremely well and as it turned out, had both read and thoroughly enjoyed the book. She knew the character inside out, bringing across the level-headed demeanour that had always been my intention for Emily.
All in all, I could not have asked for a better trio to play these vital characters.
Now we come to the more unusual characters, and they don’t get more unusual than a Bogeyman. Stan and I had only just recently appeared in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ together. Despite not working together on stage, we spent a great deal of time chatting in the changing room. A vastly experienced actor, he himself did the make up around his eyes after I said the Bogeyman should have a ‘sunken eye’ kind of look. I helped apply the baby lotion to give his face a wet and slimy look.
He certainly looked the part, but even more so when the cameras started to roll. He had taken on board what I said about the voice of the Bogeyman being raspy and had ran with it. This vaguely human-like creature, this particular interpretation of the classic Bogeyman, had leapt from my mind and was standing before me. All down to the hard work of one actor taking direction from me, the author. As this was the scene that we filmed first, this was my first taste of how it felt to create a character for a fellow actor to inhabit. That strange but good feeling of sharing something so personal was only to get stronger.
I entrusted the portrayal of two of the most important and fanciful characters to a pair of actors I’d worked with directly on stage. Simon Carney was to take on the part of Belactacus, a manifestation of organized thoughts and the Librarian to the Library that holds all books.
Whereas the part of Torvik, a member of the Council of Reality, was to go to Grant McCotter. Both Grant and Simon have a great deal of experience both on stage and in front of a camera, yet to have these great actors turning to me to help get the finer points of the characters across was a feeling unlike any other.
We’re always taught that it’s good to share, and it really is. To share something that you’ve created can take a lot of courage. We face possible ridicule and rejection, yet the risk can offer up so many fantastic rewards. This collaboration on those two sunny days was one of the greatest rewards I’ve had so far ever since the book itself was published. To not only see my characters brought to life but to be so closely consulted at every step was an experience not many authors get.
Ultimately whenever an adaptation is made from stage to screen, some elements may be changed. Having the author on set might be a nightmare scenario where this is concerned, but not in this case. As an actor I appreciate that film is an entirely different animal to books. The written word may, arguably, allow for more descriptive detail, but on film you have to actually make it happen.
Working on this trailer with such a wonderful group of friends was, without a doubt, a fantastic experience. They’ve all been told it often enough, but I’ll say it again now. Everyone involved in this is bursting with talent and I could not be more grateful that they gave their time to this project. A big thank you to you all!
The video can be seen and shared on YouTube here.
Facebook page for Ello Dave Media, who filmed the trailer, here.