You are sitting down, the popcorn is at the ready, the lights are dimmed and you are poised to lose yourself in the scene setting music. Shuffle down comfortably in your seat: the opening credits are rolling. This is a familiar scenario in most households and cinemas across the UK. With cinema admissions in the first three months of 2016 reaching 43 million this is obviously still a vibrant part of society. But how do these stories and visuals become a reality? Through ‘on-set’ stories and anecdotes from Director Rita Osei the new film Bliss! offered the perfect opportunity to shed light on the creative and passionate individuals behind the scenes.
Bliss! is based on Award Winning Writer Alex Ferguson's play of the same title. A coming of age film about Tasha Robson, played by new comer Freya Parks, who runs away from home to Scandinavia in search of her unknown father: “The Viking”.
Before delving into the background of Bliss!, it is worth highlighting the interesting social commentary of this particular story. The words of lead actress Freya sum it up very nicely: "Films about girls searching for their fathers don't come along very often on the big screen, yet so many girls understand Tasha's story. So often girls have to put themselves into a position of understanding adventures through the eyes of boys, and now here is a chance for girls like me to finally relate to the heroine and the girl's side of the story."
Bliss!, produced by Alan Latham and produced and directed by Rita Osei, aptly has its World Premiere on Father's Day, 19 June 2016 at the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival, "The true home of innovative and exciting cinema". Bliss! is part of the stable of films for 2016 from GSP Studios.
Rita Osei is a producer, director and writer, and it is clear that there would have been no ‘Bliss! the film’ if she had not been inspired by the writing and passion Alex Ferguson has for his fellow Sand-dancers (South Shields Locals). She immediately saw the textured layers of his descriptions, dialogue and characters and was determined to translate them onto the big screen.
The first step was to turn the writing into a formal screen play. By joining forces with Alex himself and 1988 short film Oscar nominee, Jenny Wilkes, Rita was able to develop the cinematic commentary needed. The three of them share the “story by” credit for the film.
With the story confirmed it now needed the visuals and actors. Casting Director Lucy Jenkins was brought into the Bliss! ‘family’. Lucy is UK based, and has a gift for coming up with ideas that are eclectic, fresh and yet classic. Amongst the massively talented actors selected was Freya Parks who so succinctly introduced the film earlier. An instinctive and naturally gifted talent who writes and plays music, as well as acting. The Norwegian actor Lars Arentz-Hansen is a huge fan: "She is probably one of the best actresses I've ever played opposite. She conveys emotions that I don't think I've seen, or acted opposite before". Lars himself plays Truls, the guardian angel character in the film and he apparently fully embodied that stance on set in Norway too, bringing an ease and tranquillity to those scenes.
Turning to the visuals and the art of the films development it was time to look at locations. Once they were agreed, Production Designer John Ellis transformed what was unfamiliar, into lived in and elegant spaces. Rita’s ideas begin with the characters and their natural environment, whether a pub, fjord or the beach; the physical space in which the viewer will get to know the character most in the film. It is a case of extracting information from the chosen environments. Embracing colours and textures and in essence building an overall visual landscape for the film, one which presents and compliments each character's individuality alongside their collective existence within the film.
The fact that Bliss! has two very distinctive and unique locations was an interesting challenge to the visual team. Rita herself explored Shields and Tynemouth and identified the spaces and places for the UK scenes, and with the help of Norwegian Co Producer Njål Lambrechts, they discovered the stunning Hotel Mundal, in Fjærland. The hotel itself has a very interesting history that the hotel owners shared with the cast on their first night: "The first visitors to the fjords and Hotel Mundal were explorers and artists of the latter part of 1800, looking for unspoilt and magnificent landscapes. The great painters of the era, both from Norway and from other countries, romanticized the landscape and contributed greatly to the “fjord dream."
These connections with the arts and visual enjoyment is in keeping with Rita’s vision. As a Visual Arts graduate from Camberwell College of Arts, London, her career has spanned film and documentary development, award winning animation for Turner Broadcasting and saw the creation of her own company: Sugar & Water Films. Her first short film, Threesome, was nominated for a Stella Screen Award and further short films soon followed. Rita wrote, directed and produced, Room To Let, Too Much Love, and The Curry Club starring Cleo Sylvestre, Ruth Sheen and Kenneth Cranham.
Throughout her work Rita holds true to her art background and lists Egon Schiele, Stanley Spencer, Picasso, Edmonia Lewis and Jean-Michel Basquiat amongst her favourite historical artists. Rita is sensitive to the feeling she gets when viewing their work and defines this as integral to how she sees scenes and images through the camera lens.
For the practical delivery of Rita’s vision, a highly skilled team was assembled. The Head of Production and Associate Producer was Alex Ashworth. She was guided by Producer Alan Latham and her role was to run the day to day production from the office whilst the filming schedule was underway. This, when balanced by UK based cinematographer Richard Stoddard and the First Assistant Director, Patrick James Stephens, meant that filming could proceed smoothly, timely and with the creative flair that matched the script and casting. Driven by team work, Rita declares that Patrick is a master scheduler, and with over 20 years of experience, he brings great confidence to any set. Costume Designer Georgina Napier added to this essential group, bringing her unique eye for costume detailing to the set which enabled the actors and actresses to fully embody their roles. And let’s not forget Kiri Nicholetts who embraced the job of ‘best boy’ and transformed it into ‘best girl’. Another area Rita rates highly and passionately for all her films is music, feeling that the mood and style of a film is only complete when enhanced by a musical score. Bliss! has music and singing throughout the script and it was therefore essential that the actors were musical themselves. Like the sea and the shore, music became the heartbeat of the film. Sound is an equal partner to picture, and as exciting.
In 2014 Rita began working with composer Hélène Muddiman who is Ivor Novello nominated for her score for SKIN, and founder of the charity Hollywood Elite Composers helping to protect intellectual property. Freya Parks had already written a song with Bliss! in mind and Rita was taken by one particular section. Hélène was asked to compose music in response to that piece and the Tasha theme running through the film was born. Once shooting on the film had been completed the team began the spotting process and the musical landscape for the film was created. Hélène translated that into a breathtaking score, playing many of the instruments herself. In the words of Eimear Noone the conductor, who flew in from Chicago for one night to conduct the orchestra, “Hélène is a unique compositional voice”.
The Bliss! score was recorded with a 40 person union orchestra at 20th Century Fox, on the Fox Newman scoring stage. Maria Newman, Alfred's daughter, was the principal viola player, making the experience poignant. The orchestra was made up of a diverse group of people, each musician generously contributing from their hearts. Stephanie O’Keefe, the team’s contractor, put the orchestra together in a very short amount of time, John Traunwieser brilliantly mixed the score and Martin Longstaff of The Lake Poets also acts and performs his Dave Stewart produced track Vane Tempest in the film. Leeds based re-recording mixer Adam Severs role was to give the audience what they expect to hear. Conceivable sounds required to transport the audience into the world the filmmaker creates.
The final celebration of the remarkable family of Bliss! is given to London based editor Kant Pan. Nominated for an Oscar for cutting Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, Rita says she has learnt much from him. Through viewing the ensemble edits along the cinematic journey they were able to control the vision and story of the film as it grew.
All of these talented and passionate individuals helped Rita realise her vision. And there is a very real possibility of a Bliss! baby one day, thanks to a new couple formed on set: A true testament to the unique family that Bliss! brought together.