Short Film – Ness (Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood)

I’ve very happy to say that, after five years since the very first frame was shot, the film adaptation of Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood’s Ness is finally finished. Started before the book was even written, the project has been on and off since late 2014 when first gaining permission to visit the famous site of Orford Ness; once a semi-fictionalised place in my mind’s eye rendered uniquely through the vision of W.G. Sebald. Adding to the increasing wealth of work responding to this evocative landscape, I hope Ness marks a strong conclusion to both my film collaborations with Robert and, realistically, my own filmmaking itself.

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Ness was shot on a variety of different Super-8 stocks, some very old, others brand new. The result is an enjoyably organic patchwork suitable for Robert’s porous prose, Stanley’s grainy illustrations and the landscape as a whole. Though my subsequent visits to ‘the Ness’, as we’ve taken to calling it, were largely for quite specific pick-up shots and vital image capture, I remember that first visit filming in 2015 incredibly vividly; it being a defining moment in my own work generally.

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Robert had organised access to the labs – then still open but now closed off indefinitely due to safety – with the rangers who manage and look after the site for the National Trust. I remember travelling in the boat over with my father, the rain incredibly heavy that morning; so much so that it seemed like nothing could be filmed at all. The ranger had met us and, exactly as if we were in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, we got onto his unusual electric buggy and, as a trio, travelled slowly into The Zone.

I was so instantly enamoured with the landscape that I got the camera out, already prepared with batteries and film stock in the car park at Orford, and began to dangerously shoot as we zoomed through the marshes. My father grabbed my arm as I was about to fall off, resulting in some of the best footage in the film (the travelling shots through the initial marshland).

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After a stop at the equally unusual and eerily named Cobra Mist, which had only recently flooded, we set up base in various laboratories, hard-hats firmly on as the gentle drizzle created a bizarre music out of the rusted buildings and laboratories. One, the so-called ‘Green Chapel’, was especially important, with its unusual cross-like designs on its walls. It ultimately resisted the Super-8, as if it simply did not want to be filmed, rather like some of the Holloways of one of my previous films with Robert and Stanley.

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Soon the ranger had left us, now in the beaming sunlight of the ever-changeable weather, to walk and explore, filming a full 6 reels on that first trip; totally drunk and delirious on a place seemingly designed to fulfil the needs I had built up over the last decade’s worth of reading, watching and writing.

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And then the reels sat gathering dust. The book was paused while other projects took precedence (Robert has released four books since then, and I have released two, my third due only a few months away), and only in 2018 did murmurs begin again of Ness’ existence. Hamish & Hamilton, who had since taken Robert and Stanley’s book from its initial limited print-run, supplied the money for one final reel and trip to capture the things from the book that weren’t apparent in what was needed from the first trip (the photo below shows how bad the weather on that second trip was, requiring a National Trust jeep to try and protect the camera). And here, after much work from the wonderful Drew Mulholland on some unnerving musical radiophonics, and the incredibly talented James Bulley, who, to paraphrase Bernard Herrmann, really finished the film for me with his stunning sound design, Ness now breaths and exists as both text and film.

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With Ness, I think that concludes my own short filmmaking for the foreseeable. I’ve spent a decade making little shorts and fragments off my own back mostly and think, unless something drastically changes with finances, that this film is as good as any to leave the decade on, being the strongest I feel I’ve made for quite a while. It’s been a fun decade, traipsing through all sorts of landscapes with friends and family, and being lucky enough to work with some amazing musicians, actors and writers. I’m grateful to everyone who has given even the smallest amount of their time in helping in these shorts and really hope overall they continue to be of interest as the accrue analogue dust in the digital world.

Onward.

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