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The making of The Secret

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Still from 'The Secret'.

The Secret was written and directed by Jon Rosling, produced by Marianna Segenhout. It won four stars and the Focus sponsor's prize at BIAFF 2009.

The Secret

Still from 'The Secret'.

Cast and Crew

Camera at work on 'The Secret'.I was introduced to Marianna Segenhout, my producer on The Secret, by Rob Speranza who runs the South Yorkshire Filmmaker's Network. Maz had just graduated from Sheffield Hallam University and was keen to get behind the camera. We got on really well from the off and I was confident I could leave the logistical planning (or most of it) to Marianna while I concentrated on getting the cast and shoot right.

Marianna actually tracked down Liam Sanderson, also a Sheffield Hallam graduate and it was clear from his work before that he would work great. We shot with a Sony Z1 HDV camera, which Liam was familiar with, and we managed to hire a Red Rock lens adaptor * to give that depth of field familiar when shooting on film. That presented all sorts of challenges - Liam had suggested that we go from smooth gliding shots throughout the film to something faster and more random, more like the Bourne Identity at the end as David flees the school. Difficult to maintain focus on a moving target like that, especially one that is running out in front of a car ! We used Canon lenses on the Red Rock. In terms of lighting, I wanted to play very much with contrasts in the film. I liked the oily black texture of the school blazers and the shadows in the corridors, the way the light floods in from the sides. There was little need for back lighting (only one scene used it I think - in the classroom). It needed very little outside.

We advertised for a sound recordist because a bad past experience had made me paranoid about sound. We found Juliet Plumptre at the very last minute (a day or two before filming was due to start) and she came up from London and stayed with Marianna for the shoot. Juliet recorded in digital for us, mostly using boom mic and picking up wild tracks in between shots. We got hold of some interesting background noises in some parts of that school that we just can't explain, far away voices and the like. Made the job of sound mixing all the more eerie!

The camera crew shooting the school bell.The sound mixer, Heather Fenoughty, gave me some good tips and pointers too - Heather is quite simply awesome to work with. She wrote the original soundtrack to the film, as well as mixing the sound, and she gave me some really valuable feedback on the cut of the film too. Her experience is much wider than anyone else on the crew and it was really valuable experience. I approached her with the first cut of the film and an idea that the soundtrack should sound something like "Any Other Name" from American Beauty, or something by Einaudi. It had to be solitary, lonesome music, not too rhythmic but still with a definite motif. I was curious as to how the sound mix could be used to heighten tension too and we played around with that too, creating layers of a single tone that would rise and fall as required by the visuals. This technique is done most memorably for me in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds - it creates a terrifying atmosphere.

Both Maz and I knew Jo Beatson from her wide spread of work in Yorkshire. She's worked on professional and semi-professional short films and worked with me when I was a runner on Mother Mine. Jo brought Cat Seymour as an assistant and Marianna also brought Rebecca Jackson to do art direction.

To find the cast we toured drama schools, spoke to casting agencies and even picked people from local schools. Nicola Haldane, who plays the teacher, was promoting herself via Shooting People*and lived locally and had a good pedigree of work behind her, so she was an obvious choice. (There's more on the selection of the cast in the next section.)

One of the earlier challenges for us as film-makers was the extent to which we had to jump through legal and child protection hoops before we could cast anyone. The entire cast and crew had to be CRB * checked, as did any adult over 18 years of age who was on set. Some people worked in education anyway, but CRB clearance isn't transferable from one job to another so everyone had to be done again. This took time to set up, cost money and in the end we wound up becoming an umbrella agency for CRB checks, which means we can arrange them for other people in the future.

Story, themes and challenges

The idea for The Secret isn't particularly original - it has its roots in older films such as Carnival of the Souls, and more recent stuff such as The Sixth Sense and The Others. But I was more interested in the underlying themes - David's frustration at why no one talks to him, how he feels he is ignored and no one wants to know him. What I wanted to do was capture that sense of isolation and frustration that I had felt as a young teenager in secondary school, create a reflection in the setting of how David felt oppressed by his environment.

The clues to the story's end are there from the beginning. The school bus that pulls up yet no one gets off; the faceless shuffling of feet along the corridors, a gliding movement that comes to an abrupt halt; a school bell echoing in a long and lonely corridor and a classroom door that slams shut in silence. Where is everybody? It's like the building is going through the same daily motions even when there's no one there; and the building was key to the film really. I wanted a location that was typical of an old style school building, not the light and airy modern buildings cursed upon us by PFI *. They're bland and they have no story - the place we found has over sixty years of history with it.

The original tiling was still up, the long corridors were dark and ominous and we had great fun playing with the perspective in the shoot. The whole building did exactly what I wanted it to - to bear down on the characters, to have a life and sense of feeling in itself. I wanted the school to be an institutionalised version of the Overlook hotel from The Shining. The building itself had to be a character in the film.

Maltby Comprehensive School was ideal and I set up a meeting with the new head teacher pretty easily. He was thrilled to have the film made there, even more so when I suggested we cast the extras from the school's drama students. It was an opportunity for them that they wouldn't otherwise have, and it saved me and my producer from having to audition for extras. So getting Maltby Comprehensive killed two birds with one stone!

There's something that sets David aside from the beginning - he arrives at school alone, after everyone else. It seems that no one in the class acknowledges him, except in a classroom sneer or a distasteful glance in the corridor. The point I try to make here is that these side characters are metaphorically as well as literally dead - trapped in a limbo of endless competition with each other, obsessed by looks and non-personality, ready to pounce on any little bit of difference, ignorant and isolating of anyone who might have a spark of life about them.

Notice also that he is the only boy in the class without a copy of Susan Hill's The Woman In Black, denied for the time being one clue that might make him realise his situation. The book was chosen deliberately, by the way - and the storyline alludes repeatedly to it in the form of the dark angel visiting death upon people and the idea of a coach crash.

A member of the cast.We auditioned for actors at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, having selected people from various drama schools around the county. One of the people who came to auditioned was Steven Coward and I was reluctant to give him the part at first as I'd worked with Steven on Waterfall. It was nothing to do with his ability - I just didn't want him to be working with the same director repeatedly. He's maturing very well as an actor. He was great in Waterfall, but he was solid and spot on in The Secret, and captures every nuance of David perfectly. (Ironically he features - briefly - in the documentary I've just shot too!)

A member of the cast.We were also faced with difficulty in choosing the young girl who would play Rosie. I always envisioned Rosie as being younger, more innocent than David. We had a young actress called Jessa Chambers who was the same age as Steven and was really good. In the final audition we narrowed it down to Jessa and Emily Batchford, but it was Emily that was chosen simply because she was that bit younger. Emily conveyed that knowing quality that Rosie has too. She was mature enough to be subtle but retained all of the innocent beauty of her younger years.

I'm deliberately vague in the film about whether Rosie was actually in the coach crash that killed everyone. She seems much younger than everyone else, and Emily was only 11 when she was filmed. But her photo is featured on the newspaper front page at the end. She plays the role of the good angel helping David realise that he is a traumatised survivor of the crash, and leading him back to the waking reality.

Contrasting this is the faceless dark angel (played by 13 year old Jordan Smith, who endured two and a half hours of make-up for five frames of film) ready to drag David's soul into despair. Some people have compared this "character" to Sadako from the Japanese film Ringu (later remade as The Ring) and that's a fair comparison. Visually the look is the same and the idea is similar - of a dark being wanting to drag you to Hell. I wanted people to see that character as one of the crash victims who had already gone to Hell and had come back for the others so we inter-cut a few frames of Jordan in crash make-up to jolt the audience. So you have this faceless creature that everyone probably already knows from the Ring movies and then you're jolted by this flash of this poor girl, battered and bloody and face smashed in from the crash.

I pinched a bit from Hitchcock too and over the latter few frames of crash make-up I superimposed a skull x-ray to represent death (ala Norman Bates at the end of Psycho).

Member of the cast in make-up.Jo Beatson and I found some pretty horrific pictures of crash victims (the wonders of the internet!) and compiled a basic look from there. Jo had some new kit she wanted to try out and so we ordered some paints from a company called Temptu in New York, which were picked up and brought back to the UK by a friend of Jo's who was working there at the time! They cost a little over a hundred quid but did the job really well. We ran a make-up trial at my house one Saturday morning both to test the look on film, and to get a measure of how long it would take to apply the make-up. Jo had to make a cast of Jordan's face too, which was then coated with a rubber latex to make it appear smooth and featureless. We shot those scenes first before anything else and back to back. It took about an hour to get Jordan into the face mask, then another two and a half hours to get her into crash make up.

The biggest drag for us was the weather. We planned a four day shoot over Easter with some outdoor shooting on the Thursday. But the weather forecast was bad so my producer, Marianna, had to reschedule on Tuesday evening and we did the outdoor filming before the rains came in. It fell quite nicely actually because for some of the shots in the playground there are ominous dark clouds over the scene, that give it a real sense of foreboding.

The final scenes were more problematic - we were on the last day of the shoot and it threw it down. But the change in conditions was sequential through the movie that is: it's dry at the beginning, cloudy in the middle, soaking when David flees the school, and then he stands in the sunlight, post thunderstorm at the very end. That last montage was very important to me. We discussed whether the flashbacks were necessary; I thought they were essential and I think we got away with it. We did actually film a shot where David looks away from the flower tributes and back to the school building and there he sees two of the children staring blankly out of the window at him, like faces in a painting. But that didn't cut right so I exorcised those ghosts from the film.

The final shot is reminiscent of the final shot of Schindler's List, of Steven Spielberg standing by the grave of Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem. Two very different purposes in the respective films, but I liked the composition and I love the light David is turned towards at the end of The Secret. Marianna went and raided the local florists bin ends for all of the flowers - fortunately I used to live next door to the woman who runs the florist so it was an easy blag!

I've worked on a number of drama shoots like this and The Secret was by far the most comfortable. There was an easy atmosphere, a clear direction and the planning was so well timetabled by Marianna that nothing had been left to chance. Even when we had to reschedule it was more or less a case of swapping two days over and notifying the cast and crew members. We were forced to shoot within time limits because the school was only open at certain hours.

I'd originally budgeted £2000 for the film - it went over (when don't they?) but only by about £240. We'd hired a lot of equipment we'd not used. For example, we hired a Glidecam but ended up preferring to use the track instead. Also, we had a crane for a shot in scene 5 that we couldn't use because the Manfrotto tripod I have wouldn't support the weight. In any case, scene 5 was cut from the film so even if we had pulled it off it would've been a waste!

The edit of the film was pretty straight forward. I'd storyboarded the film really tightly and aside from cutting scene 5 (mentioned above) it stuck pretty much to that.

Scene 5 was a short scene just before David encounters the dark angel. The script called for him to break into a wide open space, a canteen, where he sits down and cries. He is disturbed by a ghostly noise coming from a door at the end of the room and goes to investigate. Originally we were going to shoot this in the canteen at Maltby Comprehensive, but it was being rebuilt during the holiday period so we shot it in the hall. It was very dark, long red curtains, dark wooden floors and looked like the White Lodge in Twin Peaks. But the scene just didn't work - aesthetically with the scenes either side, or in terms of where David was at that point in the story. So I cut it completely.

The first cut of the film was seen by the Creative Networks here in Rotherham. They quite liked it, advised me to cut down (time wise) some of the transitions and texture shots. Sue Everett and Rob Speranza also gave me some valuable advice ahead of the screening in Sheffield last July. 250 people turned up for that - quite a buzz had been generated by the film despite the press showing no interest.

One interesting aspect - and a pleasing one from my point of view - was how the film had people discussing and debating afterwards. The original intention of the story was that David, traumatised, walks into school a few days after the coach crash and witnesses the ghosts of his dead school colleagues going about their lives as normal. He is unaware until the end that they are dead and he is alive and it takes Rosie to guide him away from the danger of the dark angel who may well keep him in a traumatised state.

But after the first screening it was suggested that possibly David wasn't traumatised at all; that maybe he was in a coma, maybe in limbo, and that the good and dark angel were fighting for his soul. I liked that alternative view of the film and I liked how people could give their own interpretation.

Tony Dixon, the Emerging Talent Manager at Screen Yorkshire, said it was a problem if people were debating the film like that. It hints that the director is unclear about the purpose and intention of the film. I don't agree - I was very clear about what the film was about when it was written and made. The alternative views came after, from others. And I think there's something to be said for films that make us think about different ways of looking at them. Film would be terribly boring if the only interpretations open to us were those fed to us by the film-makers.

- Jon Rosling

Portrait of Jon Rosling.Jon Rosling is a 36 year old freelance director and writer, living and working South Yorkshire.

After studying History and Philosophy at Keele University, he began a teaching career in primary education that lasted 11 years. During this time he was very keen to promote creativity in learning, and in particular find ways of improving Literacy and language development through the use of film and media.

In the summer of 2006 he funded and filmed a 65 minute feature film title Waterfall, with a local cast, and a crew of three. The film was shown briefly in Sheffield but had no other success outside of that area. Furthermore, the constraints of the education system left Jon feeling that there was little room for individual creativity and in 2007 he left teaching to start his own media education consultancy.

In January 2007 his one minute film Celebrate? was a regional finalist at the BAFTA Orange Sixty Seconds of Fame competition. Concentrating on education and consultancy work and helping local charities and organisations create corporate video, Jon began writing the script for what would become The Secret.

He is a keen gardener, and grows his own vegetables in a small plot on his back garden, ably assisted by his three year old daughter. He is an avid supporter of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

* References

Red Rock A device which holds 35mm camera lenses in front of the camcorder and projects the image they create onto a small glass screen. The camcorder lens focuses on this screen.

It allows the use of top-class lenses, depth of field and variable focus effects not normally available on camcorders and can be used to generate images in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, the same as that commonly used in cinemas and on commercial DVDs.

It is made by Redrock Microsystems LLC - www.redrockmicro.com

Shooting People A website where people offer their skills in various aspects of film making. Some may be willing to work without payment in return for the filming experience and/or some material for their showreel. www.shootingpeople.org
CRB The Criminal Records Bureau is an agency of the British Home Office which vets applications for people who want to work with children and vulnerable people.
PFI A controversial scheme called Private Finance Initiative used in many countries to introduce private funding for public works.

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