Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, The League Of Gentlemen) stars in his own adaptation of HG Wells's thrilling science fiction drama The First Men In The Moon alongside Rory Kinnear (The Long Walk To Finchley, Lennon Naked), in a one-off 90-minute drama for BBC Four.
This is the inaugural drama for Mark Gatiss and director Damon Thomas's Can Do Productions. The pair previously collaborated on the acclaimed Antarctic drama The Worst Journey In The World and the popular ghost stories Crooked House for BBC Four.
As a child of the space race and an HG Wells enthusiast, Mark Gatiss explains why he chose to adapt this particular novel: "It's an ideal project for me personally – the sort of "bank holiday" treat that is still my favourite kind of thing to watch. In addition, the lovely Sixties Ray Harryhausen film version with Lionel Jeffries and Edward Judd left a very strong impression on me as a child. It's an incredibly rare opportunity to both adapt a giant of literature like HG Wells and to fulfil a childhood dream.
"I read the book a long time ago," Mark continues. "And it's such a charming, well-constructed story. All it really lacks is an ending! So it was a very straightforward job to adapt it – working out what we could and couldn't include, because of the budgetary restrictions, and then trying to give it a bit more of a climax."
The drama opens in July 1969 at the time of the Apollo 11 space flight and humanity's first steps on the Moon. A young boy meets the 90-year-old Julius Bedford (Rory Kinnear), who tells an extraordinary story of two men's journey to the Moon, way back in 1909.
"I liked the idea of book-ending the story on the day of the actual Moon-landing," says Mark. "It was immediately fun and a chance to get that 'super-8-coloured' feel of my own childhood into it. Then we get into the story told by the 90-year-old version of Rory's character, which has all the charm of the Edwardian era. The book itself was published in 1901 but I wanted to push it on a few years to give it something of an art-nouveau flavour."
With a physics degree and documentary credits to his name, director Damon Thomas talks about how this helped in his research. "I made a documentary about the possibility of humans going to Mars, so I'd met a lot of astronauts. I met the last man who walked on the Moon – so far – which was the most thrilling interview I've ever done. It's so fascinating for someone like myself, and it actually became quite useful when it comes to understanding the physics involved."
Damon continues: "Now we've been to the Moon and there's been a lot of space travel, we had to make the film with that knowledge in mind. You can't approach with the naïve sense they did in 1964. Obviously there was a space program, but people hadn't been to the Moon. You have to think about things floating around and, if they're not floating around, then they're tied down."
In The First Men In The Moon, Mark plays Professor Cavor, a somewhat unworldly scientist with an amazing invention: Cavorite. Anything to which it is applied becomes opaque to the force of gravity. And so along with Bedford the two men construct a copper and cast-iron sphere which will fly them to the moon.
"Obviously most of the science is made up," says Mark. "But we tried to root it in reality whenever possible and that was quite a headache on a low budget. Interestingly, one thing Wells never addresses is how the Cavorite effect is neutered when the shutters it's painted onto are rolled up. So I just put in the line to say that the effect is counteracted when the shutters roll in on themselves. One of the perks of writing and producing – I only had to argue with myself!"
All footage and still photography of the Earth and Moon are in the public domain and free to use. Some of the surface shots in the drama are high-res 35mm photographs taken by Nasa and, as Damon explains: "When we created the back-drop of the Moon, that was made up of stitched-together photos from the Nasa archive."
Talking about filming at Pinewood Studios, Damon continues: "You go into a big seven-and-a-half-thousand square foot studio and think 'this is quite a big studio'. But you put in 30 square meters of Moon surface, a backdrop, an interior sphere, an exterior sphere, a lounge and a crane and it's full! Technically it's a fantastic challenge."
Mark adds: "Damon and I talked exhaustively to the production designer Sabina Sattar before we started to build anything. We knew the best use of our resources would be an interlocking set that was endlessly re-configurable. We only had seven pieces of Moon arch but we used them in every possible way, knowing they could be reduced in post-production and placed in larger matte paintings of the Moon.
"It's also about having the confidence that it's going to deliver," says Mark. "You are obviously hoping that when it's finished it's going to look as convincing as you're trying to make it. It can be difficult when you're meant to be looking down a 100ft crevasse full of lights or fighting aliens that are just bamboo sticks with ping-pong balls on them."
Damon continues: "It was a difficult decision to go with so much of that approach. Do you do it with gravel pits and mines, which is obviously quite an old-fashioned route, or do we do it entirely in green screen? That can be very dispiriting for me as a director, and for the actors, because essentially there's nothing there. You can't create looks because you're just lighting two people in nothing. So I was really keen that we actually had a set, and then we enhanced that set."
Mark says: "We had these archways which you could pull apart and by the end it was like a chess game. The only thing we hadn't done was to tip them over. The very last thing we shot was Rory crawling through a cobwebbed blue tunnel, and it was literally the entire set knocked over to make it into this tunnel. We'd thought there must be something more for us to do, there must be something left here!"
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