Last month the big budget film The Mercy was released, but there is another film out this month that will also be exploring Donald Crowhurst’s tragic story. Simon Rumley, the director of Crowhurst, takes us behind the scenes of the making of this film.
Words: Simon Rumley
Images: Mike Riley
By now, it seems, everyone in the UK must have heard about the British inventor Donald Crowhurst who, in 1968, set off on the Golden Globe Race, sponsored by the Sunday Times, to sail non-stop, single-handedly around the world with disastrous and tragic consequences.
There are two films that have highlighted this tale of British derring-do gone severely wrong; the big budget The Mercy starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, which was released last month, and with less than a hint of an Oscar on the horizon there is Crowhurst, a film I directed starring the excellent but not so famous Justin Salinger and Amy Loughton.
It has generally been reported that my film Crowhurst was made as a reaction to The Mercy, but this is not the case. I was approached in the summer of 2014 to shoot Crowhurst when I was at the Cannes Film Festival. Foolishly I turned the project down and the Crowhurst producers started talking to a ‘named’ actor who wanted to direct his first feature and also star in the project. By the end of the year, though, things seemed to have fallen apart with the project.
When it was announced that Colin Firth was to star in the, as then, untitled film I was literally kicking myself, rueing the day I had turned Crowhurst down. However, I received an email confirming that everything was on track and if I wanted to direct the film then it was mine.
The one caveat was that the budget had been slashed dramatically but, never one to shirk away from a challenge, we started filming Crowhurst a few months later.
It was not so much with a view to stealing The Mercy’s glory, but as an independent alternative to a glossier version of the same story, a version that would investigate the darkness of Crowhurst’s final hours and weeks.
The two largest challenges facing us was where to film Crowhurst and on what.
Initially Mike Reilly, the producer, had found a craftsman who was going to completely rebuild/recreate Crowhurst’s boat, the Teignmouth Electron. But once our budget was slashed, this idea withered and the hunt got going for a seaworthy Trimaran from 1968.
We trawled yachting magazines and sailing forums and did find an almost identical one in France but would have had to purchase and then ship the boat from Europe which was impractical and too costly.
Perseverance is a producer’s trademark, however, and Mike happened across an owner of a 1969 Trimaran in a Bristol yacht club. Not identical and 10ft shorter than Teignmouth Electron but close enough and, importantly, sparse enough for us to add the necessary elements to make it historically convincing.
The bigger challenge, it turned out, was where to set Crowhurst’s production. Initially the idea was to film either in Malta or South Africa with probably a combination of filming on the high sea and in a water tank.
But after our budget cut these alluring options went out the proverbial peephole. Mike had recently moved to Bristol so it seemed logical that we base ourselves there. We discussed shooting all the exterior footage in Bristol harbour against a green screen, but the green screen would have been the size of a few tennis courts and thus impractical.
We also looked into lowering our trimaran into a disused mining pit full of water (basically a mini-reservoir) but were told there was no way this would happen by our nervous boat owner. For our budget we were running out of options until I had the seemingly not very genius idea of actually shooting at sea.
Most adults of a certain age remember the negative publicity that accompanied Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995), a film that went massively over budget due to shooting on the unpredictable, uncontrollable sea, so my idea was met with immediate concern.
How would we get all our (small) 20 person crew onto the boat? Who would sail the boat? What about the weather? How could we control the Forces of Nature and Poseidon’s potential wrath? Basically would we become our own low-budget Waterworld?
The more I thought about it, however, the more it made sense and I was also keen to become a member of an elite club. Not Oscar winners, but directors who have filmed at sea or at least on a boat: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski and Katherine Bigelow to name but a few!
In the end we opted, by necessity, for a minimal crew: myself, the Director of Photography, his assistant, a boom op, the sound mixer and our Donald. In addition we needed a skipper and an assistant for him. Usually the sound mixer and skipper’s assistant would sit below deck whilst the rest of us would be above deck, hiding behind the camera. In addition, there was, at all times, a safety boat following us which consisted of two safety experts and either the producer or a member from production.
Mike initially suggested we film at sea for two days and I upped this to three, but by the time we got to work it became apparent we would need four, and in the end was six. We actually shot not in the sea but the Bristol Channel, which brought its own idiosyncratic challenges, mainly due to its ludicrously strong current which meant as soon as we thought we were ready to shoot a scene, the skipper would need to tack and we would have to wait another half hour to get back to where we wanted to film in the first place.
In addition, it being the Bristol Channel, there was land everywhere we pointed the camera with the exception of a 30 degree gap towards the Celtic Sea. Of course, this was not going to work for Crowhurst’s story, but in the end we had no choice but to film every scene with land in the background and then use CGI to get rid of said land.
For the interior scenes, where much of the film’s action takes place, we moored in Bristol harbour for 11 days and did pretty much what we had done ‘at sea’ but with the rest of the crew – hair, make-up, costume – by our side on dry land.
In order to hide all the buildings and objects sailing by in the background, we had to stick misty opaque plastic over all the cabin windows and apart from the high level of noise, including police sirens, airplanes, traffic and a fair amount of crying babies, this part of the shoot went very well.
The younger crew members (runners and assistants) became adept at gently rocking the boat whilst we were filming to give the impression that it was sailing and not moored in the Bristol docks.
Whilst Crowhurst is very much about the sailor’s mental and physical journey, the other main location we needed was Donald’s home – where the emotional core of the film takes place. Donald playing with his children, Donald telling his wife he had entered the race, the family learning he was still alive when they had not heard from him for months.
Mike was adamant that we would use Crowhurst’s actual family home. This seemed ambitious but, armed with his charming two-year-old daughter and the knowledge that Donald lived in Bridgewater, Mike ventured that way.
A few pubs, questions and locals later, Mike turned up unannounced at Donald’s home. His family no longer live there but sold the property to a convivial couple of antique dealers.
Tucked away down a hidden lane, it is really an idyll of British country garden charm and it felt little changed from when the Crowhurst family lived there. It was strange shooting the intimate scenes between Donald and his wife, between Donald and his children, knowing that very similar scenes must have happened in those exact rooms.
The days passed slowly but surely and I remember leaving after the final day’s filming, walking alone, meditating on what a unique experience it had been, feeling that Donald’s spirit had been watching over us happily, approving of our version of his story…
Crowhurst is released this month.