On March 20 a very special film, Wondrous Oblivion, makes it's way to DVD.
Wondrous Oblivion started life as "Outfielder", a screenplay by writer/director Paul Morrison. Paul has an illustrious background as a documentary director, and his first feature film Solomon and Gaenor won several awards and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Wondrous Oblivion brings together many members of that award-winning production team, including Director of Photography Nina Kellgren and Composer Ilona Sekacz.
Paul explains how he came to write the screenplay that was to become his second feature film: "I started with an image of this kid who loved cricket but wasn't any good at it, had been laughed at, at school, but carried on regardless. I also had a West Indian mate who evolved into the character of Dennis, who loves cricket and knows how to play it. Cricket becomes their point of contact. The older guy teaches the kid to play, a friendship grows, and the story evolved from there."
He continues: "The kid starts off being wide-eyed and innocent and taking everything life throws at him but he begins to realize that the world isn't all that great. He sees just how narrow-minded and bigoted the people around him are. In his own small way he has to take a stand and make good the wrong he does; he finally has to do that thing we all find so very hard, which is to say sorry."
Paul decided to set his movie in the very early 1960s, a period of transition both socially and culturally: "The period the film is set in is a lovely moment in English history, on the cusp of the swinging sixties when Britain was beginning to be a multicultural country and the excitement of the times was bubbling under the surface. This manifests itself particularly in the character of Ruth, David's young mother and, of course, in the new arrivals, the Caribbean family who move in next door bringing all this energy and enjoyment of life with them. So it is a lovely period to grapple with."
Producer Jonny Persey, whose company APT Films co-produced Solomon and Gaenor with S4C recalls how the movie developed: "Paul and I were developing a slate of films together for APT. Some two years ago we ran one of our monthly script development workshops when a group of actors read Paul's script Outfielfer to an invited audience. It was a fabulous reading. People laughed and cried in all the right places and suddenly the project became real.
"About two weeks later Paul asked me what I thought of the title Wondrous Oblivion. It's taken from a line in the script, which describes David's seeming complete unawareness of his own lack of skill at cricket. It's a quality he carries through into all the other areas of his life, but it also describes the outlook of the surrounding community, and instantly the script took on a life of its own. The new title seemed to reflect the state of mind that all children go through and the state of being that David moves himself and the whole community out of. We began to look at each of the main characters in the film, each of whom goes on a very personal journey at the same time as David; the journeys of Ruth, Dennis and Victor will mean different things to many people."
Indeed many of the themes of the film are timeless, with echoes of the intolerant atmosphere of that period, seen in today's society: "I think we are still dealing with the same themes of racism, fear of change and the fear of the unknown. Post September 11th we are grappling with those issues, but we also need entertainment, the chance to lose ourselves in a good story.
Wondrous Oblivion combines elements of comedy, fun and humor with serious issues within the context of a universal story."
Paul elaborates: "It was an era when Britain had to grow up. It is a period piece and you have to be in some way true to it. But there is also magic in the film, and I definitely wanted to get away from social realism. It is about finding a way of being both truthful and magical."
By April 2002 plans for the movie began to move very quickly: "Within the space of just three weeks we had interest from the biggest, most successful commercial film companies in the UK. To the extent that at the Cannes Film Festival, we had people fighting over the script and managed to close the deal with Michael Kuhn whilst we were still in the South of France."
At the time Variety wrote: "After the unlikely success of a movie about an Indian girl who wanted to play soccer (Bend It Like Beckham), it shouldn't come as a surprise that the latest project to get the UK distributors buzzing is about a Jewish boy who wants to play cricket." It goes on to give a synopsis of the film and adds: "For the vast majority of readers to whom cricket is still a mystery, it should be explained that West Indians are notoriously good at the game."
Michael Kuhn explains why he was attracted to the script: "You see many scripts with a young kid and a big obstacle that he overcomes and triumphs. They are ten-a-penny. But this was more complex, as much about the kid's family as it was about the kid. And it was an emotional script. It's a coming-of-age movie coupled with people overcoming race, but there's also a twist in the writing which makes it a bit different." Wondrous Oblivion is Kuhn's first British feature film. In fact he set up his company to make bigger budget international pictures and confesses: "This is totally against what I am supposed to be doing!"
Jonny was delighted: "With Michael Kuhn, we knew we were not going to get swallowed up in a big machine. He is very supportive, he really empowered us, and his track record says everything."
With the money now in place, filming began during the warm late summer of 2002 with a vitally important three-week rehearsal period beforehand. Writer/Director Paul Morrison, who received an Academy Award nomination for his first feature film, Solomon and Gaenor, emphasizes that Wondrous Oblivion "is not about cricket, but it is a good metaphor. It's the story of the coming of age of David, his mother, father and the whole neighborhood. I think that the big issue for the twenty-first century is people learning to celebrate and enjoy difference rather than being afraid of other people and I suppose that keeps popping up in my work."
Casting was now underway in earnest, and finding a young boy to play David was the first challenge. Paul explains: "Over a three month period we saw hundreds and hundreds of boys for the part and actually I began sort of despairing because we had found some great actors but none of them were David. David has that unselfconscious air that all the boys we met seemed to have grown out of. But then we saw a tape of a short film called Chasing Heaven starring a young boy called Sam Smith and he really stood out. His performance was terrific, full of sensitivity and warmth. He has a wonderful, natural ability and worked through the issues his character was dealing with in an intelligent way." Sam had also recently starred in Alan Bleasdale's production of Oliver Twist for the BBC. Jonny describes Sam as "angelic but aware - which are terrific qualities and just right for David."
Paul elaborates: "For the main part of David, I needed someone an audience would fall in love with immediately for his innocent goodwill against the odds. Sam Smith gave me that. Sam and I worked for three weeks before we started shooting with Sean Kempton, a clown and physical theatre specialist. Sam is a terrific and sensitive actor. He needed help finding David's naivety, awkwardness and clumsiness - and the physical comedy that comes out of that. I think the work with Sean really shows on the screen. It was an extraordinary part for a 12-year old - on set every day of the shoot bar one. Sam handled the demands with equanimity, and the camera loved him from day one through to day forty."
Sam was thrilled at being cast - but soon realized he was going to have to learn a few additional skills. He played a bit of cricket at school: "But since I wasn't in the team I didn't spend much time with it. To me it looked more like rocket science than a game as it seemed so complicated, but now that I've spent some time learning I can see why people love it. Once you play you understand what fun it is."
For some three weeks before filming began Sam was coached by former West Indian all-round cricketer Phil Simmons who taught him three basic strokes to look convincing: "Forward Defensive, Cut and Drive", explains Sam, demonstrating each stroke beautifully. When not on the pitch, Sam pored over a book on Test Matches and went to watch cricket matches with Phil. Paul points out that every ball bowled in the film is part of David's journey, and Sam agrees: "David just loves everything about cricket, all the paraphernalia, the whites, the cards, the magic surrounding it."
He comments: "I think David likes cricket partly because it is a very British thing. He really wants to integrate because his mother is German and his father is Polish. Although David was born in England, he's Jewish, not Christian, and it's quite hard for him to settle in." Within a few weeks, Sam could walk out onto a pitch in his cricket gear and look convincingly keen. His large, spiky, gloved hands made him laugh: "My shadow made me look just like Mickey Mouse; all I needed was some ears!"
Born in Arima, Trinidad, Phil Simmons is a well-respected all-rounder turned cricket coach. He has played for Trinidad & Tobago, Durham, Border, Easterns, Leicestershire, Wales Minor Counties and the West Indies and made his test debut - West Indies v India at Madras - in 1987. He was 'Wisden Cricketer of the Year' the same year. A strapping six feet tall, he was renowned for his infectious enthusiasm and optimism - just the right qualities to coach two young children and a Hollywood actor in the art of looking convincing on a cricket pitch... "It was mainly a question of coordination of feet and bats, about looking convincing."
Sam says that there is a line in the film which he thinks sums up the story: "Know what your goal is and you can reach it." When the film opens David seems positive and enthusiastic and completely unaware when he is being insulted. But he and his family live in a truly repressed environment, with everything under strict control. It's a story about growing up, about understanding racism and the fact that it doesn't matter what nationality you are. In fact David realizes the hard way that his real friends are not the people from school who he so wanted to be accepted by, whose friendship he has won through becoming good at cricket."
However, learning to play cricket was not the only new skill Sam acquired whilst filming Wondrous Oblivion. He also had the opportunity to draw on his own family background for the movie. The son of a Jewish mother and a gentile father, Sam has not been brought up in the Jewish faith. But for the film he had to recite some Hebrew prayers. "I had to learn four tunes - which required a great deal of concentration! And I'm still not quite sure what I'm saying in Hebrew."
It was, however, an interesting learning curve. Sam turned thirteen during rehearsals, and he began to wonder about having a bar mitzvah: "My grandparents would have been delighted at the compromise, and I quickly learnt to respect the Jewish faith. It was good to learn Hebrew and to explore my roots and find out about Judaism but I don't think I'll ever fully convert. My mum calls me 'Buddish' as I love Buddism!"
With cricketing skills and a convincing Hebrew accent under his belt, Sam still had to learn to look 'wondrously oblivious.' He thoroughly enjoyed having clowning lessons which were designed to make him less self-conscious. Sam elaborates: "David and I aren't very much alike. I'm much shyer than he is, but I can see lots of his qualities in my friends. He is also extremely clumsy at the beginning of the film and I needed to be able to coordinate that without looking fake. Sean Kempton, the clowning expert, taught me to find a part within me, to enable me to do anything without feeling self-conscious. David might be no good at cricket but he has no idea and carries on playing badly with great enthusiasm." Sean taught Sam to relax completely: "He told me to play everything to the full and just enjoy myself."
Sam soon overcame his natural shyness, and learnt to let go of his inhibitions and anxiety about what people think. He was taught to pump lots of adrenaline before each take, to work up a sweat: "My warm-up routine included ball playing, egg and spoon races, sack races, running, curling up and exploding like a spring and jumping. I got hot and sweaty and then did a quick shake up, doing what Sean called sparkly hands and wizard hands." As part of his preparation, Sam also watched Buster Keaton films with Paul. But he also learnt to switch off between takes: "I couldn't be David all the time, or I would wear myself out!" And finally, Sam learned to love ska music: "David has to dance - badly, thank God!"
With all the requisite skills to hand, Sam had to undergo one last transformation before he could call himself David; he said goodbye to his golden blonde hair, which was dyed a mousy brown. He looked so completely different that even his father had difficulty recognizing him on the set. The hair dye had occasionally to be touched up during the filming period, and Sam had a shock one day when a faulty batch left his hair bright red! "And it doesn't fade!"
Sam appears in most of the scenes, but he managed to find time between bouts of schoolwork to read: "I love fairytales. Whilst we were filming I read Land Of Green Ginger , a comic adventure story by Noel Langley, author of The Wizard Of Oz. With two leading roles under his belt, Sam has returned to school to study for his exams: "I guess they're going to have to take priority. Unless they start shooting Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy. I would LOVE to do that..."
As the film was being shot, Sam was often to be seen with a DV camera in his hand. He was given editing lessons by Editor David Freeman and has decided he might like to write and direct himself one day. But for the moment it's back to school - and he's convinced that the whole experience of filming Wondrous Oblivion has changed him: "Playing David has made me much more outgoing." He also has no doubt about his conclusion about the period: "I think that the main message of the film is that racism is awful and very hard to get over."
Paul adds: "I don't agree with that maxim that you should never work with children or animals - at least, I agree with the animals, but the young people we worked with on this film are so skilled, professional and good."
- Run Time: 106 minutes
- Rating: Not Rated
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