Dean Spanley is one of our favourite Jeremy Northam films here at JeremyNortham.net. Nick Shaw loves the film, too, not least because it was the first film he worked on. Here he talks about his experience and what the film means to him.
Dean Spanley was the first film I ever worked on as an extra. There is an old saying that the first is always the best, and that is the case with Dean Spanley.
There had been an advert in the local press here in Norfolk: “Extras needed. No previous experience required.” So I took my teenage son, Thibault, as he was keen to gain experience in the film industry. ( He has just finished his first year at Leeds University in Film and Television Studies).
The 2nd Assistant Director, who was processing the forms, looked at me with a shocked expression, and said, ”Can you fill in the form? You have an interesting look.”
After hearing nothing for weeks, I had completely forgotten about it. That’s when the call came. “Hi. Are you available for a few days? You will be playing a man of stature.”
My first day’s filming was in Wisbech, a typical freezing day in late November. My costume was waiting for me, original Edwardian clothes, pin-striped trousers, gold waistcoat, shirt and huge bejewelled silk cravat! Odile Dicks – Mireaux, head of costume, came in for an inspection of the extras. She offered me a cashmere long coat, it fitted like a glove. “Look after this coat, Nick, it cost me over £2,000!”
Soon we were on set, the closed off streets in the town centre. This is the scene in the film where Jeremy Northam is pushing Mr O’Toole in his bath chair through the park. Although the crew were really disciplined, the overall atmosphere was friendly and calm, just another days filming, day 14 of 39 etc.
In the film, you can just spot me in this scene, where they come out of the park into the crescent. We must have filmed this scene countless times, but my lasting memory was observing how the actors never missed their cue or lines.
I was asked to come back again, this time a week later at Elveden Hall in Norfolk. This is the home of the Guinness family, and the main room is totally marble, walls, ceiling etc. Dean Spanley is not the first film to exploit this magnificent room, it had been used in a James Bond film and, most famously, Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.
This was the lecture scene in the film, where Art Malik’s character, Swami Prash, gives his lecture. Again, a few more freezing cold days would have to be endured by all concerned. This time they had set up a small tent for Mr O’Toole, with heater, chair and newspaper. I thought this was a nice touch by the crew, everybody going out of their way to make things as comfortable for him as possible.
In the film, I am in the scene where they discover the cricket match taking place, where I am a spectator and later as they leave the lecture. What perhaps was more interesting were the endless scenes I filmed during the lecture, all deleted during the edit!
As a smoker (must quit), fag breaks were always on the doorstep to the hall, A-list stars mingling with crew and us extras, and I do remember once where I was outnumbered by stars three to one!
I liked Toa Fraser’s style of direction, he would just whisper his direction to each actor, a daunting task for such a young man, given the heavyweight cast he was dealing with.
By the third days’ filming I was utterly exhausted as I wasn’t used to such early mornings, usually 5-30 am starts. This is the scene where they are leaving the lecture. Another freezing cold day, and this time rain as well – the daily call sheet read “outside scene, rain expected” – great!
This was complicated as the old vintage car driven by Bryan Browne had to set off, preceded by the old horse and carriage, all between rain showers. The car was being kept dry by the crew under tarpaulin sheets so timing was critical.
On one scene, the car fired up, the sound frightening the horses, who bolted straight at Mr O Toole in his bath chair. I wouldn’t like to repeat here what he said regarding his dislike of working with horses.
I still feel very privileged to have worked on this film, my observations of great actors at work has helped me since. I will, however, never forget Mr O’Toole, his presence and stature. Here was an actor at the peak of his skills, his blue eyes smiling all the time. You could clearly tell he was loving every minute of his time on set.
It is hard to judge these performances: Jeremy Northam giving a fine performance as the long suffering son of Fisk senior. However, off camera, he was always laughing and joking with fellow actors and crew. Sam Neill, to me the quiet one, giving a fine performance as a dog. Yet the obvious star who steals the film is Mr O’Toole.
A year later, I was asked to attend the regional premiere here in Norwich, the Bishop of Norwich recounting tales of missing the smell of frying bacon around the cathedral, the cloisters of which had been used in various scenes. His memory of Sam Neill, insisting on being shown round the cathedral by an assistant, resplendent in his dean’s costume. I bet a few onlookers were shocked to see this!
Nick Shaw is pictured here with some of the other extras and MCC members. He is second from the left on the back row. The picture is taken from the film tie-in book, Dean Spanley.
As you are aware by now I am a huge fan myself of this film, as Dean Spanley for me cannot be labelled, a quirky odd ball film that given time will become a modern day classic. However in the industry this is labelled a “sleeper” film, one which is passed on by word of mouth and recommendation, rather than the usual hype that accompanies modern day blockbusters. Dean Spanley will be shown on television for years to come hopefully.
I am also so proud to be associated with a film that lovingly exploits the magnificent locations to be found here in Norfolk, a sensitive script, beautifully crafted by all concerned.
I have since gone on to appear in twelve films, most recently where I was given my first featured role in Burke and Hare for the legendary director John Landis, and this week I started work on The Adventure of Hugo Cabret, for another famous director Martin Scorsese.
After Dean Spanley I was so in love with the whole process of crafting a film, I decided to start a self appointed apprenticeship in acting, so I will mix and match any role that comes my way, and as I write this the ladder I must climb will take the rest of my life!
Again, all I can say is how lucky and privileged I feel that my first film was so enjoyable, and since working with other A list stars, none compare to the cast of this film. If you haven’t seen the film, take my word, you will not be disappointed, and I bet you will watch it several times.