I’ve recently revisited this project (for reasons that will become apparent during the next few months) and decided that it is time to reflect on what was a both a rewarding experience, and steep learning curve.
Looking back, it is remarkable to think that a film that genuinely cost no more than £500 and a lot of volunteered man hours, went on to win three festival awards, play at festivals around the world, and helped set me on my way towards a career in writing – but that is what Legend of the Chained Oak did. It remains one of the most successful films made in Staffordshire, and even now its reach continues to grow. To each and every person who gave their time and energy to this project, I cannot thank you enough. (You will all be named at the end of this article.)
So, how did the film come to be made?
Many of you know how I fell into writing; I was made redundant, became a stay at home dad, but had always harboured a desire to write. To many, the first rule of writing is “write what you know”, and thus I set about penning my first supernatural tale inspired by a local legend I had grown up hearing about as a boy, and the fabled chained oak of Alton.
The first draft wasn’t all that great, but with the help of Scath (my first publisher) I was able to polish the tale into something resembling a presentable story.
A friend of mine (who I would later cast as one of the leads) suggested that I might want to pass the story onto a film producer by the name of Dean Maynard. Dean had attempted to make a film based on the chained oak several years before. I sent Dean my story, and he liked what he read. Several emails later the chained oak film project was back on track.
Now, lots of people asked me why did we choose to go with a found footage type film? (Especially when the original draft of my story centres on events past!) The answer is simple – cost. As fledgeling producers with no experience and little money, found footage is both the cheapest and simplest way to present a half-decent horror movie.
The next step was to round up a cast and crew. Most of the cast are family or people that I grew up with, and I look back on their performances and can’t help shake the feeling that their lack of acting experience adds an air of credibility to their performances. As for the leads, their stellar performances really helped to sell the tension of the film, and many of them (and said crew) have gone on to bigger and better things in their careers.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing (as any film-maker will attest) and there were a fair number of odd occurrences on set that have stayed with me to this day.
While the crew experienced more, I will report only what I saw during my time on set, and leave you to decide for yourself whether the project was completed against a backdrop of paranormal activity.
The shoot was conducted over two days and three nights.
The bulk of the shoot was carried out in an old townhouse, hired for the occasion. The house was built by bricks used to build a former monastery in the village.
Day One – Producers Meeting.
Dean and I were discussing the plan for the shoot in the upstairs front bedroom. Dean was perched on the edge of his bed, and I sat in the window sill opposite. The remainder of the crew were downstairs, or outside in the back garden.
As we talked, we heard shuffling feet emanating from the corner of the room nearest to Dean. We both stopped speaking and instinctively looked in the direction of the sound: there was nobody there.
Both of us acknowledged that we had heard the same sound, and had accordingly reacted in unison.
Day One (Night) – Scene:Mabel comes to the house.
It is late on the night of the first shoot. The cast and crew are gathered in the dining room, preparing a take of the scene where Mabel is first seen at the house. I (for reasons that I won’t divulge due to spoilers) am in a room behind the dining room, awaiting my cue. The night’s shoot has progressed well, though the house we hired as a location (and the crew’s quarters) had a cat that continually walked on set during a take, sometimes distracting the actors/crew.
As I was waiting for my cue, I caught movement to my right. Expecting it to be the cat (again) and mindful not to let him walk into shot again, I cross towards where I saw the movement of a shadow, expecting to see the cat.
There was no cat.
There was nothing that could have moved across the room in the way that I observed.
I told nobody of my experience until the shoot had completed (as the cast/crew were already a little freaked at other occurrences that they had witnessed).
Final day of the shoot – The Finale.
Again, eagle-eyed viewers of the film often ask me why does the film switch from a first-person, found footage documentary to a cinematic, third-person finale?
That is down to a series of unusual incidents that caused complete chaos on the last day of the shoot, taking me and the actress who was set to play Mabel off the shoot entirely.
Alton is a small village, known primarily for Alton Towers, and its roads are both narrow and twisting. On the morning of the final day of shooting, we were set to film the interviews with local eye-witnesses (seen at the beginning of the film) when an accident in the village delayed the arrival of our lead cast for almost two hours.
This set us back sustainably in terms of time, and we had to rush through what we could, without principal actors involved. (Though I feel this did not impact the final feel of the film.)
The last scenes to shoot were to be the finale, but a second road traffic accident in the village that morning (two RTA’s one day in one village is almost unheard of!) led to the injury of the actress playing Mabel, and to my wife (who was travelling with her).
Both suffered back injuries, and both needed medical attention, which meant that I was taken off set to drive them to the hospital.
With the shoot descending into chaos, and neither of us sure if we would be able to finish the film without our actress) Mark and the rest of the crew (determined to finish the film they had worked so hard to make) continued, casting a stand in Mabel, and making the best of what was available.
My wife and the actress set to play Mabel were released later that day with only minor injuries.
As with any film, there were some parts that would not make the final cut – but rest assured I am grateful to everyone who gave up their time for this project; it really could not have been completed without everyone’s involvement.
So, a huge thank you to:
Carolina Montava Arsis
With thanks to:
Jude Cann Hunt
The staff at The Blacksmiths Arms, Alton
Carolina Montava Arsis
Jude Cann Hunt
Written by Dan Weatherer
Edited and Directed by Mark Mooney
If I’ve forgotten anybody, it’s just because it was so long ago, I was wet behind the ears and much of my records/notes have perished inside a crashed laptop!