A Tudor Romp
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We’ve done a significant amount of work for the University of Liverpool in the past but the number of sword fights we’ve been asked to choreograph for them has always been depressingly low. In a bid to redress this glaring imbalance we sat down with the University’s Head of PR, Samantha Martin and Sarah Peverley – Professor of English Literature, broadcaster and lover of all things medieval – and birthed the ingenious idea of using Tudor iconography melded to the aesthetic of a 21st century action movie trailer as a metaphor for discovery and adventure in the world of higher education.
We wondered why we’d never thought of it before.
Sarah, among her many other talents, is responsible for establishing and overseeing the Liverpool Players – a student organisation that specialises in performing medieval and early modern drama at various indoor and outdoor locations across the region. The Players – as well as being a fantastically talented and personable bunch – are also in possession of a dizzying collection of stunning period costumes thanks partly to the generosity of The Friends of Liverpool University and The School of the Arts and partly thanks to Sarah’s well-developed tendencies as a hoarder of medieval treasures.
Also – and perhaps most significantly in terms of the look of the film we were making – the Players have not inconsiderable connections with the staff at Speke Hall, having performed various shows in and around the grounds for visiting tourists and locals. Speke Hall is a gorgeous timber-framed Tudor Manor house, a location which – on our micro budget – would have been way out of reach in a folder labeled ‘don’t be silly’. The goodwill between Players and staff though, meant we were able to use the location for a whole day completely undisturbed by tourists, which – along with the pre-existing and fairly bottomless dressing-up box – made this arguably one of the smoothest running, most cost-effective costume dramas ever staged in merry old England.
The film’s central concept had to bring all of these elements together in a way that presented the University as a vibrant place of excitement, opportunity and adventure. The students had to be positioned as bold adventurers, dashing their way across a landscape of discovery and flinging open doors to knowledge, learning and personal growth. With this in mind, I sat down and started on a script that would throw our students into a vaguely Shakespearean narrative while also evoking the hurtling, thumping, boundless sensibilities of a contemporary action/adventure film.
For reference I watched a lot of Shakespeare adaptation trailers including Lurmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Fassbender’s Macbeth, Branagh’s Hamlet and Mel Gibson’s arguably less successful stab at the haunted Dane. It was a fine afternoon. Ken and Emma quipped and frolicked, poisoned goblets got hurled across throne rooms and Mel Gibson did his damnedest to be taken seriously as an eloquent Danish Prince. What I like about a Shakespeare trailer is that it gives you the sensation of having watched the film – along with all of the intellectual superiority that that state of affairs implies – without actually having to sit through the thing. Brows furrow, music builds, snatches of action burst in and out, everything seems to drip with a profound significance and it’s all over in just less than two minutes. Lovely stuff. In a 21st century culture of denuded attention spans and multi-screen viewing experiences it was this data-blast of implied meaning – of inferred and unearned profundity – that I was aiming to replicate in our trailer.
The script I wrote had a reasonably well-defined story at its heart. A hero – despite having promised his heart to the Queen in return for a knighthood and power – falls in love with one of her ladies in waiting leading to regal fury, the murder of the Queen’s brother, a full-on rebellion and the usurping of the crown by our heroine. The heroine then goes on to rule for many, many happy years over a peaceful kingdom full of loyal subjects in thrall to her grace, beauty and kindness to animals – although that probably doesn’t all come across on first viewing.
The protagonists embark on this quest via a vague time-travel / cross-dimensional / alternate-reality device in which modern day students – we know they’re students because they’re carrying folders – are suddenly whisked off to 16th century England though a magic door. At our climax, the crowning of the heroine then morphs across space-time and through several metaphorical filters to become a student putting on a mortarboard on graduation day. Again, an audience might struggle to pin down the exact mechanics of the crown-to-mortarboard transformation but like the piece as a whole it’s an impressionistic moment best not thought about too literally.
In terms of the shoot, it was – although insanely packed for a one-day affair – a whole lot of fun. Indeed the opportunity to try out our newest bit of kit – a DJI Ronin stabilization rig – on a sunny day at a gorgeous National Trust property with actors in period costume gallivanting about, was a joy. Using the rig allowed the camera much greater freedom of movement allowing the lens to fly through woods, circle dancers and rush fluidly towards swords locked in combat, adding further cinematic edge to what was already a ridiculously epic production. When I think back on it in years to come I’ll remember it as a flurry of costume changes, rubber swords, understandably nervous National Trust staff hovering and ballroom background artists hitting the deck due to spin-induced, long-take dizziness.
When the initial edit was in place I called everyone in the office over for a viewing, and as soon as the swords and gowns and bombast cut to black, people started to laugh. Not in a bad way – just in a “What did I actually just watch? – Play it again!” sort of way. As concepts go, this one’s pretty out there, and the amount of swash-buckling and bodice-ripping in Mocha’s back catalogue has always been – as discussed – sadly limited. The joy of doing something so totally different from anything we’d done before was invigorating, hilarious and very welcome. The best jobs are usually the ones that seem to come out of no-where, so it’s with heartfelt gratitude to Sarah Peverley, Samantha Martin and the hugely talented Liverpool University Players that we say thank you. Thank you for finally giving us the chance to produce the Tudor-action-movie-trailer-romp we never knew we needed.
It was about time.
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