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.