One of the very good outcomes of performance in the days of Covid was the creation of the film version of Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall, performed by British actor Andrew Scott. It was the right combination of “what resources do we have available?” and “what is safe?” to make something worthwhile in a time of great limitation.
The original commission of this play in some ways set it up as the perfect work to meet the moment. The Bush Theater in London had been flooded, so instead of going dark, they asked playwrights to create work that could be for just a few actors and could be performed in natural light. One of the outcomes was the play Sea Wall. So the making of this film did not require much that the restrictions of living in a pandemic would smudge out.
Andrew Scott is a remarkably gifted actor and this version has, in certain ways, the feeling of a final video message left behind and found on a VHS tape. The subject is deeply emotional and speaks the the fragility and darkness of life. It’s hard to say if that was what we were looking for from art in the midst of so much uncertainty, but the emotional catharsis was grounding and to see something great is to see something great.
The following essay comes from Andy Porter, a Producer of Sea Wall
SEA WALL – A SHORT FILM IN LOCKDOWN
“a quietly gorgeous little film that feels like a gift from the past arriving
exactly on time”
Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Times
When we shot Sea Wall in January 2011 nobody would have dared predict
that the film would reach a global audience in the heart of an unprecedented pandemic almost a decade later.
Sea Wall started life as a play. It was commissioned by the Bush Theatre in 2008 when a flood threatened the theatre’s existence and the new Artistic Director sent out a plea to playwrights for work that could be performed in the foyer with minimal props and in natural light. Simon Stephens received his email whilst on holiday in France with his family. He had 4 weeks to write the play.
His idea was a monologue. The central character was Alex, a catalogue photographer (Simon’s office was next door to a photographer’s studio). Simon knew that he only wanted one actor for the part of Alex; he wrote the play specifically for him. It was Andrew Scott, later to star in Sherlock as Moriarty and Hot Priest in series 2 of Fleabag. Andrew read the script and said yes. After knowing each other for ten years, each artist was keen to work with the other.
In the play, Andrew was already on stage when the audience arrived in the
theatre space and he spoke directly to them. To help echo this closeness, after our first pre-production meeting we decided Alex would share his story with the camera. The result is a short film with a rare intimacy and emotional impact.
The read through
Everyone associated with the film really did do it for love, which was just as well as there was no budget. A month or so ahead of the shoot, on a snowy December day we rehearsed, with Andrew doing a single read through in Simon’s office surrounded by books and an impressive collection of classic vinyl. The audience was Simon, who is my nephew, my then sixteen-year-old daughter Hannah and me. Hannah sat alongside Andrew who was talking to her for several seconds before she realised he had begun the read through. It was Andrew’s first reading of Sea Wall for over a year and it was mesmerising.
I recorded it on my phone and enjoy the memory of sitting on a couch in a very small room while one of our greatest actors told the three of us a story, with Simon occasionally laughing at his own jokes.
For the shoot two weeks later, we borrowed the studio adjacent to Simon’s office. It didn’t cost anything and saved a lot on props. Our five-person crew stayed in what was justifiably the cheapest available hotel in the East End. The kind of place where the sheets sparked when you turned over in bed and there was a faded ironing board on the landing. The following morning, a Sunday, we met up for a monumental breakfast in an American style diner in Shoreditch. Simon cycled from home to the shoot; Andrew took the Tube.
Limousines and trailers were notably absent.
Filtered wintry sunlight flooded into the 4 th floor studio. We drank coffee and Simon and Andrew decided where we could make the two cuts, which were essential as the Canon 5D DSLR camera would only record in 12 minute bursts. The camera, and solitary borrowed light were set by DoP for the day Jack Dillon, a 23 year-old trainee, whose entire previous knowledge of the camera set up and accompanying follow focus device was contained in the two days since the kit had arrived from the hire company.
It may actually have been the world’s first socially distanced film production. Andrew really did not want to see us while he was being Alex. It would have destroyed the illusion, made it less feel less authentic to him. So, we used the photographer’s lighting stands and large polystyrene reflectors to screen ourselves off from Andrew so all he could see was the lens.
Around three hours later it was finished. Yes, really. The “one last take” was Simon’s idea, brilliant in hindsight because although I thought we had just about enough to cut something together from what we had shot and Andrew was (understandably) exhausted, the resulting film is, we believe, uniquely fluent, personal and honest.
“He’s speaking to me”
The simplicity of the locked off shot and lack of any cinematic artifice mean there is no barrier between the viewer and Alex. Andrew draws you in with his story. As my very perceptive 92-year old mother whispered after several minutes while she first watched the film: “He’s speaking to me”. She had never met Andrew, never seen his work, but as Alex he makes a very real connection.
It was apparent when we reviewed the footage that we needed to maintain this simplicity for the edit. No tricks, no colour grading. Just a fade up and fade down as Andrew uncovers and covers the lens with his hand – and those two cuts. The viewer needs to see every single move Alex makes, every gesture, every expression, every fold in his clothing – just as they were. If you scroll through the film frame by frame you will appreciate the artistry in Andrew’s movement.
Clive James said this about Steve McQueen:
“It’s his hands, every time – he always gets into the character through the hands… He moved beautifully; all the great male actors do. All the great male actors move as beautifully as women, all of them”
The same can be said of Andrew Scott.
Edit previews and a screening
Once we had a first edit, I half-heartedly sent a copy to our composer and suggested he thought about maybe some subtle musical introduction and end piece. He called me back a few days later and told me to leave it alone; any music would be superfluous, really confirming what I knew already. He also said that he and his wife had wept after watching the film.
Instead of music our sound recordist for the shoot, Stuart Windle, produced a very subtle piece of sound design created entirely from what he recorded on location – it was perfect. Viewers have commented on the way the distant, indistinct sounds of the city, particularly as the film ends, contribute to the film’s atmosphere. This is all down to Stuart.
Simon and Andrew were thrilled with the finished film. We previewed it at our office to people unconnected with the production and I knew we had created something special when, following a lengthy pause for thought, one of the design team asked me: “Did that really happen to him?”
We organised a screening in Soho, which attracted an audience of a few friends and family and more than twenty of the great and the good from the British film, TV and theatre worlds. My nephew was now very firmly in this category himself, although our conversations over the years have focused largely on our shared passions for Manchester United and music. The venue and the evening were chaotic, far from ideal, but amidst the madness people who knew seemed to really like the film. Barry Ackroyd, the BAFTA winning cinematographer was there. He spoke generously about the originality of what we had done. All I could think about was one camera, one lens and the inevitable issues as Andrew had drifted in and out of focus while Jack had tried gamely to follow him.
Overnight Success after a year on the shelf
And that was Sea Wall for almost a year. It’s not the kind of film that distributors fight for; it is inconveniently long for a short and at 32-odd minutes defiantly flies in the face of TV scheduling reason. It is also one actor and a single locked-off shot. Not Festival material.
Then we discovered Distrify, a new way of distributing your own films using the web and social media. We quickly decided to go live on Sunday January15 th 2012, the day that Andrew would be stealing the show as Moriarty in the epic Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock and, appropriately, a year to the day since the shoot. A Tumblr site was hastily put together by our multi-tasking Production Manager, Sarah. We uploaded the film to Distrify, went live on Facebook and Twitter… and waited. It was apparent that Andrew’s performance as Moriarty and the Sherlock phenomenon were going to be big factors in Sea Wall’s success.
The response hugely exceeded our expectations in a very short space of time. It remains a mystery to Simon how anyone other than his mother (my sister) would pay to watch anything he has ever written. He’s so wrong.
Within days we had 2,000 Likes on Tumblr and a constant stream of new followers on Twitter. The self-dubbed “Sea Wallers’” comments and reviews were staggeringly intelligent and unanimously supportive. People spent hours watching Sea Wall many, many times and shared the experience with friends and strangers through social networking. They watched it on treadmills at the gym, on trains and buses on their phones, but mostly quietly, at home. They designed posters, sent handwritten notes, joined in Q and A sessions with Simon and Andrew and shared with us a genuine wave of emotion. When Sea Wall became the highest User Rated short film on IMDB. the fans could not have been more delighted for us, demanding Academy Award recognition.
Re-release: A week in Lockdown
It was a remarkable story. And in 2020, in Lockdown we thought it was time to add another chapter. Sea Wall is the most human of films. One man, isolated in a single space, talking to a lens. With its central themes of loss, love, doubt and hope the film speaks for our time as Alex speaks to you.
We re-released the film for free on Monday May 11, initially for just a week on YouTube. Andrew and Simon filmed personal messages and we used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to let the world know. In the week that followed, Sea Wall was discussed on BBC Radio 4’s the World at One, featured in Time Out’s essential online listings both in London and New York and received a glowing review from the New York Times. I was contacted by the Evening Standard, Metro and one of Japan’s biggest entertainment magazines for publicity stills. 100,000 people clicked the link to watch the film on YouTube.
Most importantly, 99% of the people who watched it were both moved by and loved the film. Andrew Scott’s performance resonated with their own experiences of grief and isolation.
We extended the free streaming event by a week and by May 25 had reached over a quarter of a million views.
On the surface it is the simplest of films and its creation was the result of a series of happy accidents. But its impact continues to be both lasting and profound. It is something I feel proud to have played a part in and privileged to have had the opportunity to work with two artists whose love for what they do is woven into every syllable and every frame.
“At a time when everyone in the country is experiencing some kind of loss, some more intensely than others, this unadorned, emotionally raw exploration of bereavement feels as if it speaks directly to us, to each and every personal loss…
Sea Wall makes the everyday epic. It doesn’t shirk the clumsiness of emergency and the gaucherie of grief”
Lyn Gardner, the Stage Door
Producer, Sea Wall.