Derbyshire resident and BAFTA nominated director Nick Whitfield
PUBLISHED: 16:45 19 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:24 20 February 2013
Mike Smith talks to BAFTA-nominated writer and director Nick Whitfield at his home in Bonsall
Two men are walking across Bonsall Moor. As they amble along, they pass the time of day by discussing the public and private behaviour of President Kennedy and Grigori Rasputin. Although the pair are ill-matched in stature, with Davis being short and weasel-like and Bennett having the look of a gentle giant, their identical dark suits and briefcases suggest that they might be travelling salesmen or Jehovahs Witnesses. However, when they make their first call of the day at a cottage occupied by an engaged couple, it becomes clear that their business is neither selling nor religious conversion.
Before offering their services to the young couple, they conduct a pedantic form-filling exercise based on a series of hilarious questions, such as: Can you confirm that this is your fiancs signature and that I have not tampered with it in any way? Once the preliminaries are over, Bennett and Davis put on goggles, overalls and gloves and set up equipment that has the ability to unearth secrets from the past lives of their clients. In no time at all, they are digging up embarrassing evidence of former liaisons, which they pass on in detail to the couple. As soon as their report is complete, the investigators depart, leaving the devastated young people to pick up the pieces of their relationship.
These are the opening sequences of Skeletons, a film that was largely shot in and around the village of Bonsall. Although it is impossible not to laugh out loud at the witty dialogue and the deadpan expression on the face of Davis (Ed Gaughan) as he reports on past shenanigans, it is hard not to feel uncomfortable about finding humour in a situation where two men drop bombshells into peoples lives and then walk away from the devastation they have caused. However, there are hints that Bennett (Andrew Buckley) would like to provide clients with some aftercare, in defiance of company rules imposed by the Colonel, who is their demanding boss (Jason Isaacs).
Bennetts unease increases when the investigators are hired by a woman called Jane (Paprika Steen) who is frantically digging a hole in her garden in the hope of finding her husband who has not been seen for eight years. It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when she explains her pathetic efforts by saying: I just feel that I have to do something. At this crucial moment, when the detection of metaphorical skeletons is replaced by the search for a real skeleton, there is an abrupt change of mood. Bennett cannot hide his sympathy, not only for Jane, but also for her young son (Josef Whitfield) and her 20-year-old daughter (Tuppence Middleton), who has reacted to her fathers disappearance by becoming mute. Meanwhile, Davis is delving into his own troubled past and, for some unaccountable reason, is beginning to communicate in Bulgarian rather than English.
The writer and director of this emotional comedy is Nick Whitfield, who lives with his wife and two young children in the village where the movie was shot. Although Nicks highly original creation is a film of two halves, it works as a whole because he has employed the clever trick of using humour to grab the viewers attention so that it will be firmly held for the disturbing episodes in the second part of the story. The movie has certainly grabbed the attention of the critics: hailed by one reviewer as the finest cult film to come from Britain since Withnail and I, it won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film at last years Edinburgh Film Festival, and Nick received a nomination at this years BAFTAs for an Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
When I interviewed Nick at his cottage in Bonsall, he told me that he began his career in the theatre. In fact, he became a professional actor at the tender age of 19, simply because a local theatre group, which he had joined whilst he was still at school in Wisbech, was lucky enough to get a booking for a national tour of A Midsummer Nights Dream. At the age of 24, Nick got the classic lucky break when he took the lead in Sons and Lovers at a little theatre in Norfolk after the lead actor was taken ill. His performance was seen by a producer who offered him a part in An Evening with Gary Lineker in the West End. He later landed roles in various TV movies and in two feature films: School for Seduction, starring Dervla Kirwan, and Nasty Neighbours, starring Hywel Bennett.
This sounds like a dream start in the acting profession, but Nick was less than happy with his lot and began to feel frustrated and unfulfilled as an actor. He had already taken a break inaris, where he performed street theatre, worked in a caf and, most importantly, studied under Philippe Gaulier, who runs a celebrated theatre school where students have included Emma Thompson and Sacha Baron Cohen. Recalling the influence of Gaulier, Nick said, Philippe encouraged me to write, make new work and get away from the dusty, museum-like atmosphere of a lot of theatre.
Suitably enthused, Nick began to write his own material, which he performed at various venues throughout the country. In 1996, he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in a one-man show called Albert Camus, Whats the Score? Co-written with Wes Williams and clearly inspired by the world-renowned philosophers surprising hobby of goalkeeping, it featured a footballer who prides himself on being the only existentialist goalkeeper playing in the Sunday League. The play was also performed at the Lyric, Hammersmith and Nick was invited to convert it into a screenplay.
Frustrated that the resulting script and several other screenplays that he was commissioned to write never got made into films, Nick decided that he would gather together some acting friends, including Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley, and have a shot at writing and directing his own movies. His first effort was a short film called Skeletons, which has a plot that occurred to him at 4am one morning and matches the storyline in first half of the later full-length feature with the same title. His second short film, entitled Rebecca, is about a man who refuses to get off a boat that has run aground in a storm because he is waiting for Rebecca, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination.
The full-length film of Skeletons, which was made with the help of EM Media, a group that supports creative film-makers in the East Midlands, is essentially a juxtaposition of the themes from his two short films, namely skeletons in the closet and loss. For the lead roles, Nick turned once again to Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan, who have wonderful comic timing and great screen chemistry, and he called on the services of a handful of other talented actors, including Jason Isaacs, who agreed to participate because he had seen and admired the earlier short film of Skeletons. As well as asking his brother, Simon Whitfield, to write a musical score, which turned out to be superb, Nick even gave a part in the film to his young son, Josef, who plays the role of the boy whose father has disappeared.
Revealing that his approach to screen-writing owes much to his experience as an actor, Nick said, I cant write a line if I dont feel that it can be spoken. His approach to directing is well summed up by all his appreciative actors, who see Nick as an open director, keen to encourage improvisation, but knowing his story. And Nick revealed one of the secrets behind his ability to get great performances out of his talented actors when he told me: Our work is at its best when were having fun.
Nicks up-coming film ventures include an adaptation of Liz Jensens My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time and a movie called Trenchmen, which is based on a typically quirky story of his own that he has co-scripted with Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley. It concerns a group of men who return to their village after serving in the First World War. Unable to cope with their re-entry into civilian life, they build themselves a trench on the moors and take up residence there. Bonsall and its surroundings will have starring roles once again.
In the meantime, Skeletons, distributed by Soda Pictures, has had several hundred screenings at independent cinemas in this country and in America, where it has also been very well received. It premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival last year and had its East Midlands premiere at Derbys Quad. Most screenings are followed by a question and answer session involving Nick and some of the actors. If Skeletons is showing at a cinema near you, or even at one that is not very near you, do not miss the opportunity to see this funny, moving, superbly acted and highly original film.