Mythology and folk-tales have circulated around the whereabouts of Shakespeare’s skull for aeons, and the Bard’s bonce provides the starting-point for this off-kilter tale of two men with a painful secret, and a talking bug. Known for his videos for the likes of UB40 and Bentley Rhythm Ace, director John Humphreys’ work has always had a distinctive look which he brings to bear on his first feature, using black and white to play up the contrast between inner-city Birmingham and the woods of Warwickshire.
We are delighted to host the world premiere of Numbskull, and cast and crew will be present to talk about the film after the screening.
Paul Murphy in conversation about the film with Pete Millington from Spaghetti GazetteFriday 20th March 2015 sees the premier of a movie made in Birmingham by a small ‘do-it-yourself’ production team called Compact Cinema. Written, produced and directed largely by creative film artists John Humphreys, David Squire and Paul Murphy, Numbskull tells the story of two men searching for the stolen skull of William Shakespeare with the unsettling assistance of a talking beetle.
Shot in locations around Birmingham and surrounding areas, the movie uses powerful imagery and minimal dialogue to tell a strange story exploring local mythology in a contemporary setting. In this interview about the film, Paul Murphy describes the movie as a beautifully shot, art house production which has used a punk methodology to create something of appeal to anyone who loves off-kilter films.
Paul Murphy poured the coffee as we sat at the big wooden breakfast table in his Victorian house in Cotteridge and I asked him how he first met film maker John Humphreys and what made them work together on this feature movie.“I’ve known John since the mid-eighties” began Paul in his soft Belfast accent which must be familiar to tens of thousands of live acoustic music audiences who have watched him perform as a guitarist and singer-songwriter across the region over the past thirty plus years, including a recent period as front man of the lively Birmingham based band The Destroyers.
“I first met John when I was working at Studio Nine with Jordi Rippoles who had been a fellow student of John when they studied at West Midlands College in Walsall where they were the first crew of people going through doing video production. John is from over in the east of the country, the Skegness area in Lincolnshire and he came to the West Midlands to study in Walsall, he liked Birmingham, then went to London and did his Masters, returned to Birmingham, fell in love in Birmingham, had his kids in Birmingham, likes Birmingham but knows if he really wanted to push his career, he’d have been in London. In terms of the life-work balance, Birmingham has a lot of nice things going for it, but one of the things it doesn’t have is loads of opportunities. So you’ve got to create your own opportunities.”Paul told me about their close working relationship over two and a half decades in the city, making videos under the banner of C21Vox, a creative arts enterprise which Paul ran from his Cotteridge base.
“When we started off the first thing we did was The Search For Professor Russell which was an ensemble piece where all of the actors except me were autistic and we shot that with the Thursday Club from Baskerville in about 1997, filmed in a day with about 12 autistic characters, it was great.”Paul believed in facilitating professional artists and technicians to work alongside grass-roots groups, usually young people from marginalised and excluded communities.
“We shot these short films and the great thing was that we were often working with hard edge kids where we used to start our sessions by just introducing our artists, so John shows his video work and the kids go “Wow! He did that?” so then they’re thinking they’ve actually got professionals working with them and we were saying “actually, we want to bring you the best and we want to make something..” so the kids then have got a real sense of confidence. That preference of working in the margins was wonderful when working with people like John.”During the time that Paul has known and worked with him, John Humphreys has perfected his film-making craft, including production of a BBC2 10 x 10 commission – a short film called Diary of a Madman starring Mark E Smith from The Fall playing a social worker dressed in a Gestapo outfit and he has also worked with well-known local bands such as UB40 and Bentley Rhythm Ace.
Paul describes John as bringing a punk ethos to his work:“John is in essence a punk. He grew up in that punk era, when he was 16 or 17 he was in a punk band releasing their own vinyl and stuff, so he is a punk really and I think he has a punk attitude, and he is not a man of many words. That I suppose in many ways would not endear him to an industry that, you know, likes people to be quite sycophantic”.
“He worked on some big productions with UB40 using state of the art cameras. He made videos for some of their big hits and went on tour with UB40 to South America, Asia, Africa and during the Mandela thing they did a big concert in Johannesburg and John made a documentary, which is still shown on Channel Four.”“This is part of what I mean about his punk sensibility, he went out into the townships and recruited indigenous film makers so that he had, I don’t know how many cameras, and they shot a lot of it on Hi8 which was when video had got compact at the time and the colour was nice and so he directed that as well as the big bit where they did the multi camera shoot. He has done plenty of stuff, Bentley Rhythm Ace, very fast quirky videos, some were big budget, some low budget, but they’re always inventive.”
Paul had often contemplated suggesting to John that they work together on a feature film:“We were restricted by being in Birmingham and not really wanting to shift that and a kind of feeling that “blimey, you’ve done all this stuff, you’re a bloody great film maker, you haven’t got a feature, let’s do a feature, let’s not wait, let’s not knock on any doors, let’s just do it”.
Invigorated by their punk, do-it-yourself attitude and tooled up with a digital SL (DSLR) camera and a few decent interchangeable lenses, the pair recruited some friends and set out to make a feature film.“And that was great” grinned Paul “once we’d committed ourselves to that, you know, that was brilliant. John was shooting the thing and directing it and editing it and that’s fantastic because in a way that’s a model for the future, because the industry itself, as with the music industry, the days of the big advances and all that, if it comes with big advances they come with so many manacles that your creativity is chained up before you start. We wanted to just practice a model which was about liberating creativity and saying, we’ve now got the tools at our disposal.”
|Spud and Nev|
But what was the movie going to be about? I was surprised when Paul described how they shot the first scene in a friend’s flat near The Rep theatre in Birmingham city centre without even knowing what the storyline was:“We had access to Dan’s flat, there was another actor who I had never met which was David Squire, who plays the other lead part and was to thenceforth become a co-writer and co-producer as it evolved, so we said let’s just start, we’ll just shoot something and then we will interrogate it and see where it might go. So that’s how we started, we started with me arriving at the door of the flat, the guy was called Nev. And that’s just it, as he arrives (Paul knocks on table) he goes “hey Nev” (Paul goes into character) ”its Spud, hey man, take away the beard”. So that was how we started, we thought “ok, so where does this go?”
“Yes we shot that first bit without the full story. We just thought, “lets have a starting point and then let’s see where it might go”. So we know what we’ve got, and we’ve also got a beetle, because John’s brother Paul does animation stuff so he made this 3D beetle. So we knew we had a beetle. We had a flat. We had two old guys. What’s the story?”As I stared with astonishment at the very idea of a group of professional movie makers starting their first shoot without having a story, Paul filled me in on the ensuing thought processes which quickly led to the story of Numbskull. They agreed it should be something about transitions from past to present as the environment in and around Birmingham lent itself to those kind of concepts. They therefore started looking into local mythology and were initially tempted by a local legend of Queen Boudicca (also Boadicea) who a Birmingham University archaeologist speculates was buried under MacDonald’s at Parsons Hill in Kings Norton.
Their quest for a storyline into which to place Messrs. Nev, Spud and the talking beetle then turned to tales of relic stealing and Paul’s online research led to a eureka moment:“I came across this old myth, it was a pamphlet published in 1870 attributed to a Warwickshire man and it was called ‘How the skull of William Shakespeare was stolen and found’ and it told the story of a guy called Doctor Frank Chambers who in the 1790s came to Alcester and while he was out there he became involved in the local gentry and one night at a dinner party at Ragley Hall there was a discussion about how the gothic writer Walpole who built Strawberry Hill in London, offered 500 guineas to anybody who could present him with the skull of William Shakespeare.”
“So Chambers, decided that since he had access to some grave diggers, which doctors did in those days, he went with this group of three grave diggers to Stratford, to dig up Shakespeare. In fact, when he arrived they’d started digging up the wrong place because there was a Shakespeare in the graveyard but Shakespeare is of course buried inside the church. So they got into the church. We shot the final scene on Shakespeare’s tomb, we actually got permission to shoot on Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. It’s just a slab.”
|Paul Squire as Nev|
“It says on the tomb, ‘Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forebear, to dig the dust enclosed here, blessed be he who spares these stones, and cursed be he who moves my bones’. So Chambers anyway got the skull, according to this legend, and took it back. The agent from Walpole came up from London, didn’t really want to hand over the dosh, trying to get it on the cheap and Chambers wouldn’t let him have it. So Chambers then had the skull.”In the storyline of Numbskull the character Nev is a descendant of Tom Dyer, one of the gravediggers who, according to the original legend, ended up in possession of the great man’s skull which reputedly ended up in the crypt of the Sheldon family in Beoley church. Having given me the ‘back story’, Paul brought me up to speed as to how the old legend relates to the one about to be unleashed at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham:
“Nev has heard this story. The back story which you don’t really get in the movie, because we start the movie when they’re old, we start the movie forty years after they went and stole the skull one night, because one night when they were just youths in a drunken situation Nev had told Spud who said “oh man we know where the skull of Shakespeare is, let’s get in man, and sell it”.“But Nev wasn’t sure because he knew there was a bit of spook around it and it had been passed down in his family, this information about where it was, but Spud convinced him they should go and get it. So they went and they got the skull. Spud had meanwhile found a buyer for it over the far side of the country, they got the skull, they drove across country, Nev was freaked out, there was thunder and lightning and the car broke down, they arrived at the guys house to see an ambulance there and the guy being carried out on a stretcher, so they’d freaked, even Spud had freaked and they decided to bury the skull in this marsh and they’d marked it and paced out where it was, the compass thing in the movie, so they buried it and made a pact that neither of them would go back without letting the other one know. Well our story starts when Spud goes back to the place, but he can’t find it. So he has to go and find Nev and then realises…”
At which point Paul and I simultaneously realised he was in danger of revealing the whole plot before I had seen the movie and with some disappointment I conceded that it would be best if I wait a week longer. He did reveal to me the privileged information about the true identity of the talking beetle, something to do with sonnets and a lady with wires sticking out of her head, but other than that, my lips are sealed.Instead, I resumed the interview with a few more questions about the intriguing ‘punk’ methodology to making a feature movie.
“I managed to find somebody who was prepared to put a modest amount of money into it through an SEIS scheme which allows people to invest in film production and then claim a tax break on it” Paul continued, with no further hint of the character of Spud. “So this person was prepared to let us have an amount of money which compared to making films was a small amount, but it was enough for us to be able to employ two more actors, we can employ a sound person, John shoots it and directs it, Valeria works as our production assistant and drives, etc., and then we set the schedule to the start of September and shoot for twenty days, so Monday to Friday for four weeks. So we shot the whole thing during that month and then John went off and edited it and we had a rough cut by January.”“Our company is called Compact Cinema and we initially thought we would be channelling it to Vimeo, distributing it on small screen, however, Mark Radcliffe watched it and he loved it and thought it was a really nice piece, which gave a boost to our confidence and other people said “you should get this out to festivals” so we had a little premier here in my home for small screen last July for the crew and people involved but since then John found a place at the National Film School that allowed him to do a proper grading of it for cinema and to do a Dolby mix, so when you are in cinema the sound would be really good as sound’s important in it, minimal as it is.”
|Paul Murphy as Spud|
“Mike Hurley who has worked with me on many occasions, we brought him in to compose the music, recorded it all very simply, actually in my back room and very inventive Mike is, John wanted something minimalist, I said “Mike’s the man”, I got him to meet Mike. So Mike did the music and we did an initial mix of the thing at Gavin Monahan’s at the Magic Garden in Wolverhampton. But that wasn’t really a proper sound mix for putting it up on the big screen, so we’ve now just got that finished, we’ve just gone out on a bit of a limb to get that finished and this is our first festival. So it will really be quite interesting to sit in a cinema and watch it.”“So it’s very much about going against the grain if you know what I mean, the actors are old, there’s no fanciness in it, we don’t play to any of that, we simply stay within ‘practical, get it done!’ Cut the cloth according to what we need and let’s not stray off into areas that we can’t pull off, so keep it nice and tight and we decided it would look best in black and white, which was for practical reasons as well because in the course of a month, trees change colour, light changes, when you try to edit together in colour you notice those kind of things, so we thought for practical purposes we would work in black and white. We didn’t have the finance to go and do all the colour correction that would be required to do it in colour. And black and white suits what the movie’s about.”
Finally I asked Paul about the locations they chose for shooting the movie, in the trailer I had recognised one or two familiar places in Birmingham and surrounding areas and suggested to Paul it was a bit like watching the children’s television series Brum the little motorcar, where the adult viewer can gain entertainment value from calling out all the local places they recognise as backdrops. I asked him if it had been easy to find so many evocative and atmospheric locations:“John and I talked a lot about location because we knew that one of the themes, certainly that John wanted to deal with was about these transitions. You can find places, like in Harborne, its surprising, when you find that walkway and you go along and there is a stream. So we played up a lot of those things, old pathways, just out beyond the city, it is essentially about the transitions that Birmingham has been through, you just go through somewhere and you are out in a really old place near the Roman Road and the old church and stuff like that.”
“And forests, we shot in the Wyre Forest and we shot in Sutton Park and there were a few interesting shots, like the one where I come over the hill with the guitar case towards the start of the movie, that’s shot from Kings Norton. John is obviously also a person who goes around Birmingham always looking at locations. And we used, of course, under Spaghetti Junction. All around that canal area it’s fantastic and it works to really good affect in black and white. We hope that we’ve captured a bit of that kind of feeling of layers of history. But we don’t ever say it’s Birmingham. It’s a city, we don’t ever say where it is, but obviously to people from Birmingham…it’s Birmingham and the surrounding district. But it never comes up where the city is and we used some really nice shots.”“It’s an art house movie really and we didn’t have any commercial pressure. We wanted to make a movie that we feel is good and is strong. Next year is Shakespeare’s centenary, it’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. So there will be people looking for stuff that somehow relates to the Shakespeare story. Off-kilter stuff as well as mainstream stuff, so we’re hoping that maybe getting it out into the festivals some people will see it and think “oh yeah we could programme that in to this or that” and hopefully it will also be a calling card to get John making another movie, he’s got an idea already of what he would like to do.
“I got to the point where I could not go to another meeting, I just could not go to another forum about finance and production and John felt a bit the same, so that was why we just bypassed all that, nobody knew we were making a movie, we didn’t go and ask for permissions, except of the church and Stratford church. We shot on streets, we just went and did it. It’s very easy to get caught up in the whole thing of talking up the movie that you’re going to make and never actually get the movie made. So we thought we won’t talk about it let’s just make it! And then when it’s made, let’s see what people’s reactions are.”“It’s been a very nice journey, it’s taken us a few years, from the start back then to premier is probably, must be four years, so yes, very good, and it was good being an actor in it, it was about ‘use what we’ve got’. It was punk. It was DIY, let’s do it ourselves. Let’s not wait for permission, let’s do it to our own aesthetic, let’s do it to our own beat.”
Numbskull has its premier as part of the Flat Pack Film Festival at the Electric Cinema, 47 Station Street, Birmingham B5 4DY on the 20th March at 9 o clock.
Directed by John Humphreys
Co-produced and co-written by John Humphreys, Paul Murphy and David Squire
UK 2015, 75 minutes
Co-produced and co-written by John Humphreys, Paul Murphy and David Squire
UK 2015, 75 minutes