The story of troubled British sailor Donald Crowhurst has attracted a lot of attention from filmmakers over the years. Just this year, we’ve received two adaptations of this story. James Marsh’s The Mercy was the first. But British horror auteur Simon Rumley (The Living and the Dead, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, Fashionista) has produced his own provocative, David Lynchian take on this most unusual of heroic tales. I had the pleasure of interviewing Rumley for his film Crowhurst, as we get into the depths of his project and his ambition in making it.
Whilst I certainly enjoyed the film, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps a misleading emotional reaction, as Crowhurst was a deliberately distressing piece of filmmaking.
For sure, it’s such a tragic story on every level. It’s a film about family, about love and loss which are perhaps areas that are a bit more positive than the reality of what happened. But it’s certainly a sad story that we still endeavoured to get across for the audience.
Comparing it to The Mercy, James Marsh’s earlier adaptation of the story, what was so interesting about Crowhurst was its inclination towards a psychological horror aesthetic/mood as opposed to The Mercy’s British Heritage dramatization. Knowing your history with the horror genre, what was it about the story that you thought suited this kind of filmmaking?
Well my films largely orbit around themes of love and loss. But there’s an element of normality about the characters at the start, nice and rational, until a junction in the road that causes them to change, most noticeably in a violent manner, always for the worst. There’s always been a sense of growing madness about them, I feel. So when I read the story of Crowhurst, it suited this. It’s a story about a man battling his demons, the questionable decisions he made on his journey. A scene that epitomises this is when Donald phones up his wife, Claire, prepared to tell her the truth of his misgivings, only to back out whilst speaking to her, forever on the edge of communicating without fully giving into it. This concept of a man on the verge of a mental breakdown has proven fascinating to me. So to have a nervous breakdown on a boat is a distressing and sad experience, no doubt, that allowed us to go a little crazy with the visuals and the sound, grading the images and playing with the length of shots and clarity of the line delivery. Even in the unremitting image of fish aboard Donald’s boat, The Teignmouth Electron, implying his hallucinatory episodes, encapsulated this descent into madness. I felt it would be really interesting to shoot in this way, particularly in terms of the shoot itself. Shooting on the water has a notorious stigma attached to it, its own maddening experience that proved attractive to me in telling this story.
That aura of madness really emanated during the viewing experience. Particularly in that scene that you mention, Donald’s conversation with Claire, the denial of satisfaction in him telling her the truth, cleverly incorporates the spectator into Donald’s madness.
I’m glad that you felt that through the film, our writer Andy [Briggs] and I wanted to take the story and really make it mine, to convey that psychosis. I think of that scene where Donald is told that he’s won the competition and he reacts with laughter, but a nervous laughter where you’re left thinking ‘is this quite right?’. I wanted it to feel like a psychological thriller, irrespective of the exclusivity of Donald’s experience. For you to feel that things are going to go wrong, that kind of unsettling expectation and tension that creates real drama.
Going back to the techniques you employ, just out of interest, how much of that is done during production and how much in post?
We shot pretty much everything for real. There was a moment, filming in the Bristol channel, where the appearance of land in a number of shots required graphical editing in post. But apart from that, we shot the film on the fly, what you see was what our director of photography Milton [Kam] gave us. For example, there’s a moment where a scene becomes very distorted and Milton used a brick with a piece of glass attached as a spontaneous lens, if you will, to alter the image and provide these unusual visual effects on set rather than in post. Do as much as you can during production, in my view, it always looks better.
On the subject of technique, I wanted to hone in on your use of song in the film. Used within montages that are peppered throughout Crowhurst, what role do you think they play in accentuating the effect of the story?
Considering the historical context, the British Empire was slowly changing, but there was a definite cling to British values. I think this informs the decision to include the songs as there’s something quite patriotic about them, relating to my childhood when I had to sing certain hymns and anthems at school, songs like ‘Jerusalem’ that appears in the film. I believe there’s an evocativeness to them, certainly for a British audience. There was a very deliberate ploy on my part, using the song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as the first number sung by the entire cast. Then following that with ‘Jerusalem’ sung by a smaller group of people and finally ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ sung by the family only. It represents the British Empire slowly dying, zooming in on the family and its microcosmic crisis, highlighting isolation to amplify Crowhurst’s dilemma.
I wanted to move on to your producer, Nicolas Roeg. Being such a legendary filmmaker (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Performance, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout), how did he serve on the project, was he a guiding hand?
Very much so. I’m Nic’s biggest fan, watching his films since I was 15/16. Crowhurst’s producer Michael (Riley) had a chance to meet him and I invited the idea of asking Nic to serve as a producer on the film. After asking him, Nic jumped at the idea, as he had already shown interest in adapting the story in the 70’s himself. It was a real career high for me, listening to his advice, discussing my plans for the film. He even came to me following a test screening. He was complimentary of the film but offered his opinion, encouraging changes that were made later. My structure is very rigid normally, I rarely divert from the script. But Nic had the opposite work ethic and in a strange and ironic way, I adopted this ethic on the sea. At the mercy of nature, we had to shoot what we could when we could, as the weather wasn’t always on our side. The nightmare sequences, quick cuts, all came about due to this spontaneous method and this was all inspired by Nic’s input.
While in the midst of a discussion on your collaborators, Justin Salinger delivered a riveting performance as Donald Crowhurst. How much creative control did he have over his role?
We had an audition with about twelve different people and as the audition went on, we quickly realised that Justin, an already experienced stage actor, was the man for the job. It was a joy to work with him. He did the same research as I did. Looking into the film that Donald himself filmed with the 60mm camera available to him on the boat, appropriating his voice, he was personally dedicated to an authenticity. I’ve worked with many great actors over my life and Justin is certainly one of the best. Working in gale force winds aboard the catamaran, Justin never once complained. He got the pluckiness of the character, the tragedy. But he was happy to go head-first into the aspect of madness to Crowhurst’s character, an attribute that not many actors would be willing to explore to the extent that Justin does within the film. A pleasure to work with, so much so that I’ve got him back on board with my next project, Once Upon a Time in London.
On the subject of your next projects, I understand you have two in the pipeline. Fashionista, which is getting an online streaming release and Once Upon a Time in London which is in the process of production I believe. Can you tell us any more about those?
Fashionista will be released on the 26th of March on all streaming services, such as iTunes. Once Upon a Time in London is a gangster film coming up, focused on the lives of notorious British gangsters, Billy Hill and Jack Comer. Set around 1954, it spans eighteen years, covering the complicated relationship between Hill and Comer. We shot it all on location in London, which was a challenge in itself, trying to find locations that suited that period. We’re currently in post and it’s looking great, a more commercial film. We’re hoping for a wider theatrical release and I’m looking forward to people seeing the finished film.
Crowhurst is set to release in UK cinemas on the 23rd March. Fashionista will be available on iTunes and Sky from the 26th March.