As the UK Premiere looms for Wilfred Owen film 'The Burying Party', Richard Weston looks back on the process, and what he set out to achieve.
I was standing in the middle of the barren field in Suffolk, barbed wire curling along the ridge. It was threatening sub zero as the sun began to fall behind the trees. All our Manchesters were getting ready to march single file. After speaking to Meurig, I planned out the direction the tank would go over the rubble. Bags and Taff had to shovel the debris away, and suddenly I was handed a megaphone. Keith told me “The tank's ready”. I paused.
We often talk about how hard our jobs are. In our case we were getting very little sleep, very little food and doing various jobs at once. But the moment you're asked to direct a tank at sunset with a megaphone along a reconstructed WW1 battlefield, you turn into a kid again. It's the same feeling I got when I first played the SNES, when I first used a camera, when I first went on holiday, when I first watched the Dollars Trilogy, when I first got to go on stage, and when we received our judging status notification from New Renaissance Film Festival.
NRFF hosted 5 Oscar-qualifying films last year, and The Silent Child ended up winning Best Live Action Short. It is one of the foremost voices in LGBT film in Europe, holding events in both Amsterdam and London. It's a perfect fit for The Burying Party – subversive, daring and ambitious.
Giving your film to a festival for its premiere is quite the commitment. It's like choosing which school your child goes to. But on receiving the news, it wasn't hard to say yes. NRFF is a pacesetter, and it's only a couple of years from becoming a luminary. The end of post-production for The Burying Party now seems like years ago, and now that the dust has settled and its UK Premiere is just around the corner, it's easier to take some time to reflect.
We filmed at the end of Summer and at the beginning of Winter. The first leg was made up of Wilfred's flashbacks, and the second his final march towards Ors. The cast, except for Wilfred, was entirely different. Sid, who played Sassoon, spoke to a more curious and younger Owen. One who has been shaken by his condition but determined to pursue his craft. Ben, who played Thompson, got an Owen who was more confident and world weary, who had become synonymous with the subject of War. Watching Matt's progression in the role was fascinating. None of it was overplayed. The goodbye was coming, and it shimmered in his eyes.
The moment you're asked to direct a tank at sunset with a megaphone, along a reconstructed WW1 battlefield, you turn into a kid again
Our tagline is “If you could have seen”, which is an extrapolation from the sentiment of Dulce Et Decorum Est. It sits well under the title, and underlines Wilfred's desire to experience everything of the War, to dedicate himself to his subject. My original pick was straight from his mentor's pen, which would have been: “Have you forgotten yet?”. The line is taken from Sassoon's postwar masterpiece Aftermath, and far more on the nose. For me it encapsulates what I was trying to achieve with The Burying Party. It's not just meant as a Wilfred Owen film, it's a time capsule.
In the First World War, huge chasms existed between the nations, and the world as they knew it fell before their eyes. Russian Imperialism came to an end, artillery was devastating. On visiting the Reina Sofia Museum in July, I was lucky enough to visit the Russian Dada exhibition. As innovation accelerated with technology, and as the things they knew fell apart, the Dada movement reacted with the same volatility.
Kazimir Malevich is endlessly quotable in this regard, writing “I tell you, you will not see the new beauty and the truth, until you make up your minds to spit.” and “Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without "things" (that is, the "time-tested well-spring of life").”
And so Art went to War. Although far and away from that movement, Wilfred Owen's poetry similarly rids of traditional structure, and his half-rhyme in the phantasmagorical 'Strange Meeting' is case and point in the innovation that happened as a direct result of his surroundings. He wanted to question what was taken for granted:
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend”
It took another World War and two treaties, but finally there was multilateralism. It hasn't gone without its problems, and it has been no utopia, but finally fascism was beaten in many countries, finally the Berlin Wall was torn down, finally the U.S had a black President.
Despite everything that was achieved after 100 years later, the world has reverted back to being dualistic. Despite everything we learned in the last century to abandon nationalism and individualism, Trump is President and the UK is leaving the European Union. The rules are being ripped apart again, logic has been abandoned. It's important that those who observed this chaos and inequality are heard again. Timeless poetry such as
“The old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori (It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland)” and,
“Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.”
To invoke Karl Popper, intolerance will not be tolerated.
And looking back on the process, I hadn't spoken to a single cast member who wasn't submerged in this mindset, commited to what we were trying to achieve. To the point that members of our Manchester Regiment helped create a landscape of dead bodies for Benjamin Longthorne to crack Corporal Thompson's disturbing hypervisual monologue, to the point our whole crew helped create a serene environment throughout Owen and Sassoon's final goodbye. At moments, due to the intense research and emotional investment these actors gave, it felt like we were watching history unfold before our eyes. They created a whole world to show what can happen when intolerance reigns, what did happen.
We had a knack of wrapping just before the light faded, and the final day of filming was no different. But somehow we'd always get it done. Near misses, near setbacks, the process of The Burying Party existed on a knife edge - Chasing a steam train through Wales, shooting at sunrise on Calton Hill, flying a drone in a kitchen - but everyone came together to make sure we never fell short. From Sound to Camera, Wardrobe to Makeup, from Principals to Background.
And that is both a testament to everyone involved and the legacy of all the people depicted. Although a Wilfred Owen film, it is also a study of a world that lurks in the shadows, of a world that can be resisted, but works its way through the cracks. These voices are more important now than ever, in order to make sure it is defeated again. It's not absurd to think artists can still make a difference.
The Burying Party premieres on August 23rd, 7pm at the Closeup Centre, London.
There is a particular feeling that accompanies the portrayal of someone who actually lived. It’s difficult to articulate. It isn’t quite so grandiose as to merit the label of “responsibility”, nor should it be cheapened with the label of “challenge” or “thrill”.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is to reference a child walking in to an antique shop filled with fragile items of a bygone age: intense curiosity accompanied with a sense that if you aren’t careful you might find yourself face to face with a lot of very angry adults.
That feeling was with me throughout my preparation for Siegfried Sassoon in The Burying Party.
The thing is, being overly careful means you are more likely to break something, as the child in the antique store is probably able to confirm, so at a certain point in time you have to let go as a performer and just do your job.
It’s a fine balance to strike, and one that no actor can achieve on their own. As with all productions, there comes a point in time where a leap of faith in to the director’s vision is required. Sometimes that leap of faith is justified, sometimes not, and all the actor can do is their best.
Every so often, a project comes along where the leap of faith happens almost without one noticing, so total is one’s belief in the team of people surrounding you.
The Burying Party is one such experience.
From the first read-through, the sense of apprehension all but vanished, and I was able to enjoy the ride. What a ride.
I am not prone to superstition, but film is not unlike sport in that one can train and prepare for every minute detail, and the ultimate difference between success and failure will be entirely outside of your control. As such, over time one comes to notice the moments of chance during a production, and whether they seem to be aligning in one’s favour or not.
To say they aligned in our favour would be an understatement. It was the sense of every slight bounce and ricochet of the ball going our way. It is hard not to feel as though success is somehow pre-ordained under such circumstances.
It is a joy to be able to say that chance seemed to favour a story in which I have become so invested. These lives mattered. These people and their viewpoints mattered. As I have said before, we are living in alarming times, and turning our eyes to a century ago when the shortsightedness of nationalism led to the decimation of a generation seems advisable.
We know where these roads lead. We have been told by those who have walked them.
Perhaps we should listen.
- Sid Phoenix
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In a strange way, it is sad to think that if I had not had the wonderful opportunity to be part of this film, I would now be poorer without the insight into the untold story of an extraordinary human being. Moreover, before The Burying Party my knowledge about the life of Wilfred Owen consisted of, as I imagine also for a handful of people, a collection of ‘useful quotes’ half - learnt, and in no particular order, hither and thither, the subject matter ultimately crammed in, trimmed at the edges, left colourless and under a subject heading, WW1.
My role in The Burying Party was to portray someone who had lived, fought and endured this unimaginable period. I had, as we all did working on this project, a responsibility to truthfully portray the world that surrounded the lives of these remarkable people. It was a true gift to have been given the freedom to research and develop the character as I felt was right. I was only one, small part of Wilfred Owen’s life, but it felt no less important.
Richard is an incredibly inspiring Director that I feel very lucky to have worked with. To have a Director on board that has devoted endless hours into the research and development of the material, continually taking more and more on board to make a film Worthy of the Life Wilfred Owen had bravely led, had been more than enough evidence for me to know this project is going to be something special.
The first day on set was a mixture of nerves and anxious excitement to create this vision. We were all in it together, and this camaraderie endured throughout the whole filming period, despite the usual bumps in the road, the spirit was always high. Such a talented cast and crew made the whole experience feel meaningful and always professional.
The fragility of circumstances when performing in front of a camera, on location and to the attentive eyes of the crew can be a daunting process. I can happily say that on this occasion, this was most definitely, not the case!
It is extremely difficult for an artist of any medium to do justice to the sacrifices and bravery of servicemen and women both past and present.
World War One was one of the bloodiest conflicts ever to have battered our planet and for me there is a distinct lack of understanding of a world so far removed from the comforts and luxuries I take for granted today- in spite of the books I read, the films I watched and places I visited in an effort to research life in the trenches and the impact that had on one’s sanity.
While as an actor I can never truly feel what these people felt, it is so important to me that it is never forgotten and I believe ‘The Burying Party’ supersedes many other films of its kind in portraying that world for how it was- with no romantic or melancholic sentimentality but grittily with the acrimony and trepidation that pervaded the zeitgeist of Britain in the 1910s.
Despite the intensive hours and daunting challenge we had taken on, the process was hugely enjoyable and not only am I immensely proud of the collective effort that has gone in to the project, but I believe at this early stage as though we’ve got something very special on our hands in this film.
- Will Burren, October 29th 2017
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Meurig Marshall (DOP), Richard Weston (Director), Sid Phoenix (Siegfried Sassoon), Matthew Staite (Wilfred Owen), Will Burren (Robert Graves)
Wilfred Owen films are hard to come by and it is difficult to see why. Perhaps the question should more be why aren’t there many films about World War 1 period? As the marketers busily rewrap the rather excellent Dunkirk for the DVD market place, it is apparent that WW2 seems to be a better economic risk for mainstream film-makers.