Blackbird: The film adaption of David Harrower’s stage play

Stage-to-screen adaptions are a topic that are always under discussion, whether it be a debate on what productions would make for a good adaption, or perhaps critiquing one which has already been given the Big Screen treatment. Musicals tend to dominate most areas of the topic though, especially in recent years, as a high number of musicals have been made into big budget movies starring a host of Hollywood actors/actresses – Les Miserables for one, which featured such A-Listers as Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Eddie Redmayne, and even more recently, Into The Woods, which included Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp in the movie cast. Before that, theatre fans have also been given film versions of The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages, and so many more (some better than others), and it’s as certain as death and taxes that others will follow suit; the film adaption of Wicked has been in the works for years, but could now be hitting cinemas as soon as 2016.

It’s not only stage musicals that make good fodder for film adaptions however. Film-makers will just as often turn to stage plays as they do musicals, with a great number having made it onto the Big Screen over the years. Alfie, The History Boys, Equus, Frost/Nixon and The Woman in Black are just a few of the plays which have made the jump from stage to screen, as too of course, has pretty much anything written by William Shakespeare. An adaption of a play can work out just as well as, if not better than, that of a musical, as the 2011 film version of War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg showed.

Another stage play is in the process of transcending onto the screen. This time it’s David Harrower’s Olivier Award-winning 2005 play, Blackbird, for which filming has already begun. The movie is shooting across the south of England for five weeks, and is in fact currently filming right here in my neck of the woods this week.

Blackbird is the story of two people, Una and Ray, who had an illicit affair when she was just 12 years old, and for which Ray was arrested and imprisoned. Fifteen years later, Ray has built a new life for himself under a different name, but he finds himself confronted by the past when Una arrives unannounced at his office one day, seeking answers about their affair.

Harrower’s play originally premièred at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, and the following year, transferred into the West End where it subsequently won the Laurence Oliver Award for Best New Play (2007). It also ran Off-Broadway in 2007 in a production which starred Jeff Daniels, and has since been staged in countries all around the world.

In the upcoming film adaption, Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn will star opposite one another as Una and Ray.

Rooney Mara is best known for her film roles as Nancy Holbrook in the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and as Lisbeth Sanders in the 2010 Hollywood film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She also recently won the award for Best Actress at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for her role in Carol, and will star as Tiger Lily in the upcoming film Pan, alongside such names as Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Amanda Seyfried and Cara Delevingne.

Ben Mendelsohn is a prominent Australian actor who has appeared in many films throughout his career, with his most notable roles including Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom, John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, Robin Van Der Hook in The Place Beyond the Pines, and Viceroy Hegep in Exodus: Gods and Kings. He currently stars in the Netflix TV series Bloodline as Danny Rayburn.

Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his first foray into film with the project. His most recent stage work includes Sydney Theatre Company’s 2013 touring production of The Maids, starring Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki, which subsequently moved to the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2014, and last year’s West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which starred Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster.

The film is co-produced by Jean Doumanian and Patrick Daly for Jean Doumanian Productions and Maya Amsellem for WestEnd Films, with financial backing provided by Film4 and Creative Scotland.

I live on the coast of Kent, where our local pub is being used as a location for filming this week, as are several other places in the area, and Monday marked the first day of shooting there. It’s being used for a scene in the movie featuring Rooney Mara’s younger-self and Ben Mendelsohn, and while things are being kept rather hush-hush, my understanding is that it centres on the events surrounding the arrest of Mendelsohn’s character, following a confrontation with the pub landlord who grows suspicious about the nature of their relationship.

It’s rather interesting to see the detail that goes into filming what will most likely be a five or ten minute scene in the movie. As it’s set in 1997 the pub décor had to be in keeping with that time period, which involved beer pumps being replaced along the bar, items being removed or altered to accurately reflect the year, and so forth. The initial filming focused on Rooney Mara’s younger self, who comes into the pub looking for her ‘dad’ Ray before taking off again, and later moved on to Mendelsohn’s part in the story which culminates in him being chased out of the pub by the barman and several male customers (played by the real pub landlord and other bar staff – a number of locals who regularly drink in the pub were also brought in as extras, and I’m sure they can’t wait to see themselves on screen decked out in the highly fashionable 90’s gear they had to wear!)

A snippet of the script from that scene is featured below, as a little teaser of the forthcoming film:

BARMAN: “You lost her, mate?”
RAY: “Yeah.”
Ray aware of customers looking at him.
RAY: “She say where she was going?”
BARMAN: “What’s your name, mate?”
A couple of men have positioned themselves next to Ray.
BARMAN (CONT’D): “What’s your name?”
RAY: “I don’t have to tell you my name”
BARMAN: “You’re not her f**king father, are you?”
Ray makes a bolt for the door. Hands try to grab him but he shrugs them off. 

The scene continues with Ray running off, with the cast members who chased him out shouting profanities after him. Later, a police car cruises past searching for him.

The movie is shooting for a week in the area, with further filming due to take place in the pub on Thursday.

Blackbird is a provocative and intense story that raises questions of morality, inspired in part by the true life crimes of Toby Studebaker, the former U.S. Marine who groomed a 12 year old girl over the internet and absconded with her abroad for five days, before being caught and jailed for 4 ½ years. It’s a journey of understanding, with Una seeking out Ray to help her make sense of the conflicting emptions she has about the affair. The play won many highly positive reviews when it was first performed on stage, as did the many international productions that have since followed. Will the film adaption fare as well? Well, it already benefits from the casting of two such highly rated stars as Mara and Mendelsohn, who will surely do justice to Harrower’s work.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 14th July 2015

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