Films can sometimes be like London buses; you wait ages for a biopic about doomed round-the-world sailor Donald Crowhurst, and then two come along at once. In the wake of the Colin Firth vehicle, The Mercy, the Arb talks to auteur director Simon Rumley about his much-feted (and much lower budget) version, ‘Crowhurst’, and how it’s sweeping up all the plaudits…
What drew you to the story of Donald Crowhurst?
I’d never heard of Donald Crowhurst before the producer Mike Riley contacted me. I read the script Andy Briggs had written which I thought was great and then I watched Deep Waters – which is an amazing documentary – and then I did a bit more research.
But, basically, Donald’s story had a lot of components and themes that I’ve explored before, and continue to be fascinated by: love, loss, lack of communication, good people making bad decisions with disastrous consequences, mental breakdown, what it means to be British etc.
Mental degeneration in films allows the director a freedom and creativity that you don’t necessarily get with linear films about more traditional subject matters so I thought the story offered a really exciting prospect of directorial creativity.
In addition, it all takes place on a boat and I liked the idea of joining a small but elite number of directors who’ve made films on boats: James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg etc.
How did you set about recreating the story?
Well, we were going to shoot the film in Malta or South Africa but then our film budget got cut rather massively so we had to reconsider everything. Mike had just moved to Bristol so we ended up filming in and around there, shooting the exterior boat footage in the Bristol Channel and all the interior cabin scenes in Bristol harbour.
In order to make the film work better within our new budget and environment, I reworked the script and took our writer, Andy Briggs’ original idea, and made it less about sailing through storms and more about Donald’s psychological as well as physical journey so that, actually, we could spend much of the film in the cabin.
So did you raise the money on the back of the script, or script the film based on the money you raised?
Actually, as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve spent more time filming other people’s scripts, which is great because producers only come to directors when they think the project is close to happening. So rather than writing, rewriting, pitching, sending out, waiting, trying to raise money, taking meetings etc, all of which takes forever and will happen over a 1-5 year period, the process takes a lot less time which means, in theory, I can do more.
The producer, Mike Riley, came to me when the budget was in place in the Summer of 2014. I had a meeting with the financier and him in Covent Garden and, foolishly, turned the film down at first. Essentially, another financier had just offered me money for one of my own scripts which I couldn’t say no to!
As it happened – as it often happens – that money blew out and when I went back to Mike they were talking to another director. I thought that was it but in early Feb 2015, just after The Mercy was announced, the producers came back to me and said we had a green light, as long as we could do the film on a much smaller budget. The rest, as they say, is history…
So it went ahead in spite of there being another, bigger budget film in the works?
Actually, when Mike approached me in the summer of 2014, that was one of the first things he mentioned, for full disclosure. Kate Winslett had been attached at some point and they’d been trying to get what became The Mercy off the ground for about 6 years or so – even for big films it takes time! It was only when the Oscar-winning duo of Colin Firth and director James Marsh came on board that that project became a reality.
It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to make two similar subject films (Deep Impact and Armageddon, Volcano and Dante’s Peak), so why not two strong Crowhurst stories – but this caused some conflict. Can you explain how?
Well, the first thing to note is that, yes, there have been a good few examples of two films being made about the same subject. HOWEVER, in film history (let’s not be shy here), there have never been two films about the same subject where one has been made on such a large budget by a studio (BBC and Studio Canal) and one on such a low budget in the indie arena.
So what this situation does is bring into play the current state of the film industry and how it’s becoming increasingly hard for indie films to see the light of day, but what it also raises is whether big money necessarily means good films. And as we’ve seen with this situation, the answer is a categorical no.
So this David v Goliath situation should really be taught at film schools about how a bit of imagination can go a long way in making a film much better than and number of £s or $s can…
What makes this situation more surreal is that the distributor and financier of The Mercy, Studio Canal, decided to buy Crowhurst with a view to ‘controlling’ it. Unfortunately, their controlling of the situation lead to big and relatively negative articles in Hollywood Reporter, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Guardian about their treatment of our film.
And Crowhurst now has a UK theatric release. What made Studio Canal relent?
Well, they were contractually bound to release Crowhurst. The intention was that they were always going to release it, it was just that their ability and desire to communicate this intention to us and a cinema audience has been woefully inadequate. Which is a shame because they have a film on their hands which is universally getting 4* and 5* reviews which any distributor in a more regular situation would be ecstatic about.
You had some pretty good insights into the Crowhurst story, didn’t you. How did you manage that, and do you think that helped lend your film more authenticity?
What we did achieve, which The Mercy didn’t, was access to film in Donald’s house in Bridgewater which was a surreal and fantastic thing. After the Crowhurst family moved on, a couple of antique dealers bought it and hardly touched it an iota. It’s a really beautiful country house with a lovely garden; all very elegant and traditional. So we filmed the scenes with Donald discussing his journey with his wife and children in the very rooms where Donald discussed the journey with his family. At times, it felt like Donald was looking over us and smiling.
In Crowhurst, given the psychological descent/torment of the man, not least him being the sole vehicle for the film, casting was surely critical. How did you find/cast Justin Salinger for the part?
There’s no great intrigue or serendipitous story there, really. We auditioned about 15 people over a few days and then brought back three actors for a second round. Justin was one of those and it was very much a case of the best man winning. He really embraced the role fully, as he had to, to make it plausible. He was a pleasure to work with and I cast him again in my next film Once Upon A Time In London so hopefully this is the beginning of a long relationship!
What do you think Crowhurst captures that The Mercy missed?
I haven’t yet seen The Mercy, but from what I gather from reading reviews of both films, I’d say pretty much everything! With the amazing British director Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Walkabout) executive producing the film, we were encouraged to investigate Donald’s mental journey and play with the tools of film-making to represent this so this is exactly what we did and it does get pretty leftfield towards the end of the film.
It’s a tragic tale with an emotional outcome and this is something we really tried to heighten as well…
Is this a triumph of David over Goliath? Do you see it championing the cause of independent, low budget cinema?
Yes, from reading all the press, I’d say so.
But don’t take my word for it, take that of The Guardian’s well respected film critic Peter Bradshaw: “It is frankly superior in every way.”
I’d like to think this situation will champion the cause of independent low budget cinema but the film is still not getting a big release – see above. What it does do, however, is show that bigger budgets don’t necessarily mean better films but I think everyone knows that…
What’s been the reaction to the film so far?
Nothing short of amazing, to be honest!
Crowhurst opens in the UK at selected cinemas on Friday 23rd March 2018. For more information about the film and Rumley’s other work, visit www.simonrumley.com.