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The making of Letters From The Front

To BIAFF 2010 results | To Full Making Of Index

Ron Prosser won a Diamond Award and Best Use of Sound at BIAFF 2010 for Letters from the Front. Best Acting prize went to Rachel Heaton for her performance in the film. A shortened version, called simply Letters is one of Britain's representatives at UNICA 2010.

Still from 'Letters from the Front'.

Kate and Robert fell in love with the house the moment they saw it. However, the house had a hidden secret and exuded an ambience that suggested they were welcome. Had they known how their lives would be affected by long ago events would they have been so keen to move in?

June 13 2009 marked the end of a long filmmaking road for me. This was the day that my 'Epic', Letters From The Front, was premiered to an invited audience at the Tonbridge Oast Theatre and was very well received, much to my relief. Letters From The Front is a 47-minute psychological drama produced with a budget of less than £1500 and was filmed over a three-month period in 2008 in Sussex and Surrey.

But to go back to the beginning ...

Two stars from 'Letters from the Front'.Letters From The Front was first conceived about five years ago. The idea was brought about by a piece of music: Sibelius' 5th Symphony. This was to me, a very powerful piece of music and so very strongly visual that my mind went into overdrive and came up with all sorts of ideas - none of which were used in the final script!!

However, an idea was born and I thought long and hard about it. If anyone was following a white Renault Laguna on the East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells road during a period between 2004 and 2008 and were surprised to see it keep shooting into a lay-by, that was me when an idea would strike, and I had to commit it to paper before it vanished.

However the ideas were firmed up and the script was written. Now came the fun part, finding a cast that could do justice to it. Half the Am-Dram societies in Sussex and Surrey were approached and showed a distinct lack of interest for one reason or another. "Too busy, haven't got the right people" and in one case - "Oh, it's a film is it? We are only interested in theatre!"

So, what do I do now? Nobody was interested.

Then a friend suggested Talent Circle. This website, and the Shooting People website, are dedicated to professional actors looking to advance their career by exposure in any film that is passing. So, I posted a synopsis of the film with a list of characters required on a Sunday evening, and by the Wednesday I had 48 replies of interested 'Pro' actors. These people are prepared to work for expenses and a meal on shoot days.

What a heady situation. The Steven Spielberg in me came to the fore and I short listed the applicants to 19 and decided to hold an audition.  I managed to hire the studio complex at the Archway Theatre, Horley in Surrey for an advantageous rate, and all the short listed cast duly arrived and strutted their stuff for the camera. They were all so good I was spoilt for choice. Luckily, a friend who is involved with casting was there and between us we managed to pick the final 8.

And so, having a cast it was now go. The crew had all been recruited some time before from club members and from film friends. The main location was a house owned by friends, which was a lovely old farmhouse with an oast house attached. I suppose the atmosphere of this house was largely responsible for the way the final script developed. The owners were outstanding and unstinting in their co-operation. Nothing fazed them and they spent many a day in the conservatory having their lunch etc while we stomped all over their house filming.

The shoot took 21 days, including exteriors. Plus another 3 or 4 days doing lighting tests to get the night shots and darkened interiors right. This was over a three-month period with a few lay offs for holidays and paid jobs that cropped up for some of the cast. We had the usual problems, getting people together etc. The bigger the crew the bigger the problem but to offset these hiccups there were some magic moments, and some not so magic but funny nevertheless.

Crew at work on 'Letters from the Front'.Director and stars at work on 'Letters from the Front'.The sight of Reg Lancaster - our lighting gaffer, teetering on a stepladder at night, wrestling with a giant blue gel to simulate moonlight and in a howling gale, which threatened to blow Reg, lights, gel and ladder into a prickly bush, will remain with me for a long time.

A not so funny episode was after we had spent a couple of hours on a rowing boat that had a mind of its own (you can do what you like with those oars) shooting the 'flashback' scene. I was paying off the boat hirer when my cameraman strolled over and asked if I wanted the good news or the bad? The good news was the shots look terrific. And the bad….? "Well, I accidentally shot it all at 4:3 instead of 16:9."

The Anglo Saxon dictionary was rewritten in about 10 minutes flat after I had taken that in. However, Rod, one of our crew who is clever with things like that managed to put it through a 'Magic Box of Tricks' and converted it to 16:9. Technology's a wonderful thing isn't it? You couldn't do things like that with film.

A more magic moment was when Sarah, the ghost has to read the letters. I think it would be appropriate to let Reg Lancaster take up the description of this scene as he described it in the Orpington newsletter …

The ghost is from the Edwardian era. For Faye, the girl playing the part, it was her last day with us. If we could finish her bit then she wouldn't have to come back from North London another time. She waited patiently while we changed the set to resemble a moonlit room. I was setting the reflector to just 'lift' the shaded side of her face and she and I were chatting quietly. She said she'd never done a deeply emotional scene on film before and wasn't sure how she'd manage it. The low level blue light and being surrounded by four big fellows was proving a bit daunting. Faye supporting actress in 'Letters from the Front'.

The first two takes didn't work technically and the crew broke off to fix things. Faye wasn't happy either. As I was only about five feet away I could see her confidence draining away. She muttered "It's not working is it?" She needed some support. I made encouraging noises but she was losing it. All I could think of was something I'd seen in a TV acting master class years before. "Can you think of anything sad that's happened in your family? To your dog?" That didn't work. "Your Gran?" I said, just as the crew announced they were ready to go again.

Three things happened simultaneously. The cameraman said, "rolling," but before Ron could say "Action" Faye's mood changed totally. She got up, made an excuse and left the room! Ron looked up and asked if something was wrong? I whispered "I think she's just twigged a way to do it. She'll be back!"

Two minutes later she came back into the room, putting her hankie away. Glances were exchanged, eyebrows raised. She sat down again, picked up the letter and nodded to Ron. He whispered "Action".

She never said what she was thinking about, but she read the letter slowly then lowered it to her lap. Her head came up and she looked straight into the camera with a look so incredibly sad that all four of us old geezers stopped breathing. For ages. She held that look for ages, and then Ron croaked, "Cut!" Amid suppressed intakes of breath, he squeezed out a tortured, "Once more?"

Faye did it again and if anything, it was even better. You could have heard a pin drop. Surely the mic could pick up my heartbeat. Again Ron's voice cracked as he squeaked a tiny "Cut!" The palpable tension in the room broke; great sucks of air all round, then we were clustering around her with congratulations. Total magic!

Working with professional actors has been a wonderful, if also, at times a daunting, experience. I have learnt a lot from them and all told we had a good relationship, with many laughs along the way.
Faye ? starring in 'Letters from the Front'. starring in 'Letters from the Front'.

Faye Maughan

Matthew Curnier

We finished shooting in early September and I was then faced with 30 hours of material to edit. Good game, good game.

I had allowed about a month to log and capture all the usable clips and two months to produce a rough cut for our composer to start working on the music. David Hentschel is a professional film composer, and has written the music for films such as Educating Rita, Operation Daybreak and Any Given Sunday.

David's involvement was another stroke of luck for me. He is a friend of one of the crew and after reading the script, declared an interest in it and offered to write the music. Unfortunately, due to family problems he was unable to finish the score in time for the premiere and I had to use a couple of yards of commercial music. He eventually finished it and I was able to complete the 'Epic' with one day left before the BIAFF closing date. If you should want to look at a clip of Letters on David's website then go here and scroll down to Letters From The Front.

Still from 'Letters from the Front'.The edit went pretty much to plan. I use Final Cut Pro 6 running on a Mac Pro and Mac computers don't tend to give you surprises; a bit like Casablanca - but better! Fighting talk I know but hey, let's have a bit of controversy. It's the biggest project I have ever tackled and I would like to thank everyone, particularly the cast and crew who has been involved in any way. So many people and organisations have been generous with their help including West Sussex Fire Service, Highley Manor, Channel 4 TV and Festival Films & TV to name but a few.

P.S. Those that attended the premiere will be pleased to know, I'm sure, that we raised £228.50 for Cancer Research UK on the day. My sincere thanks to all those who contributed to this worthy charity.

- Ron Prosser

CAST CREW Lisa Jedan acting in front of a green screen.
Kate Rachel Heaton Cameras Gavin Beesley & Rod Willerton
Robert Matt Curnier Sound Len Skipper & Mervyn Huggett
Debbie(colleague) Emily Hall Lighting Reg Lancaster
Sarah (the ghost ) Faye Maughan Original Music David Hentschel
Roy (boss man) Will Fenton Props/Set Dressing Joy Prosser
Girl in Corridor Jillie Sommers Additional Dialogue Annette Armstrong Green screen magic for Lisa Jedan

Lisa Jedan in the composited shot.

Helen (friend) Toni Darlow Catering Joy Prosser & Liz Willerton
(The Rumbling Tums Catering Co)
Steve (friend) David Fensom
News Reader Lisa Jedan Writer, Director,
Producer, Editor
Ron Prosser
Estate Agent Paul Smith
Edwardian Man Peter Russell

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