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Lights, camera, action, Francis

22 August 2014

This summer, Hilfield Friary, Dorset, has been turned in to a set for the shooting of a film on the life of its patron saint. Olly Grant goes on location


Double take: Peter Stickney as St Francis

Double take: Peter Stickney as St Francis

SOMETHING unusual is happening at Hilfield Friary, a Franciscan mission in deepest Dorset. In one half of the central courtyard, life continues as normal. Two visitors munch packed lunches on a bench. A Brother crosses the flagstones to the chapel, rope girdle bouncing gently against his habit. Behind them, the thick woods of Hilfield Hill drowse peaceably in the midsummer sunshine.

Look across the courtyard, however, and something else emerges. In the shade of a walkway, half-hidden by clumps of flowers and a statue of St Francis, is a film crew. A lens glares across the divide, poised like a gun.

Alongside it, twenty-somethings in sneakers make strange technical points about long-shots and camera speed. "Set," someone says. "Action." "Cut." Then an older voice speaks: "Jamie, have we got time for one more take?" It is the director, Paul Alexander, the man responsible for bringing these two unlikely universes together.

Alexander is a 69-year-old tertiary Franciscan who joined the Third Order in his thirties. He is also an actor, writer, and first-time film director. For the past two years, he has been working on a project which has become a personal obsession: a feature film, Francis, about the life of his spiritual hero, St Francis of Assisi.

It has not been easy. Financing any film in today's funding climate is akin to pushing an elephant up the dome of St Peter's Basilica, let alone an "arthouse" drama about a 12th- century Italian ascetic. Alexander has been operating on a "shoestring" budget - of which more later. But small trappings belie big ambitions on Francis. And now, finally, it is all coming together.

The film is actually set in the modern day. The plot centres on a character called Peter Stone, a young City worker, played by Peter Stickney, who is on the verge of a breakdown as the film opens. One morning, Stone turns up at the doors of a small Franciscan retreat, which precipitates a gradual spiritual awakening.

THE story of St Francis is cleverly stitched into the background of the piece. On arrival, Stone discovers that a film crew is on site to shoot a contemporary, dramatised life of the saint. The director (played by Alexander) is fretting because his principal actor has just dropped out of the film.

Stone finds himself stepping in to play the main role. As that story unfolds, so does the full history of St Francis - woven in using the voice of the narrator telling the saint's life story, and through cutaway shots of the biographical paintings that happen to be hanging throughout the friary.

Splicing a modern film with the biography of a medieval saint might feel esoteric, were it not for the fact that Francis is such a spectacularly colourful figure.

His life was a riot of drama and incident, from soldiering to kissing lepers, extravagant generosity, and befriending sultans. This is why the Hilfield backdrop for Alexander's film - a contemporary friary living out Franciscan principles in Dorset in 2014 - makes sense of his stated aim in creating the film: to make Francis known to new audiences.

"That's the reason I wanted the modern setting," he says, when we talk a few weeks before the shoot. "I didn't want anybody looking at the film to say: 'Well, that's all very pretty, but it was 800 years ago; it was medieval, and it doesn't really apply today.'

"We all have this picture of Francis as being sweet and lovely - birds perching on his hands and all the rest of it. Those things are true, but they are only a fraction of him. The full story is extraordinary. This is a man who had his temples seared with a red hot iron to stop him going blind.

"[He was] a man who covered the full gamut of folly - the Bishop of Assisi called him 'a complete and utter fool' - and yet he was capable of being enormously wise. He had a deep compassion for people and nature. He also had a fiery temper, and frequently had to apologise, and pull himself together.

"He is a wonderful example, to me, of a real human being, and that's what I wanted to get across."

SO, ALEXANDER's film is a modern-day primer for Franciscanism through some very contemporary allusions. He has tried to keep his two primary aims in mind throughout the process: first, "to bring the story alive, and [make it] relevant to a modern audience who may not be familiar with Francis, by placing it in a modern context"; and "to show a present-day Franciscan friary living out the principles of Franciscanism in a modern setting."

Nevertheless, he insists that it will not be overtly didactic. "That's exactly what I want to avoid. It just doesn't work. What I'm interested in is telling the story of a fascinating man."

In a way, Francis is also a journey into Alexander's own past. He first encountered the order half a century ago, when two Brothers visited his Devon school. "They were so completely different to everything I had seen, heard, experienced [of Christian-ity]," he says. "They broke every rule, it seemed to me, and yet they seemed to epitomise what the Gospels were saying."

That meeting kick-started his fascination with the Society of St Francis, and Hilfield, an Anglican community of First Order Brothers (five at the present time) and lay members, which has been operating at the site since 1921. As a teenager, he cycled there for a weekend break. In his twenties, he returned for a spiritual retreat. "By that time, I was a young actor, and having a bit of a rough time. I remembered Hilfield, rang them up, and asked if I could come and stay. I ended up staying for ten days."

He considered taking full vows, but a Brother dissuaded him. "You're an actor," he told him. "It's patently obvious you'll always hanker after acting." So he took Third Order vows (essentially, to live by "simplicity, chastity, and obedience"), and threw himself into full-time acting. Over the years, he has had small roles in everything from a 1968 Doctor Who mini-series, "The Mind Robber" ("I still get fan mail") to Steven Spielberg's big-screen version of War Horse.

Crucially, he also spent a great deal of time in theatre, which led to a lifelong interest in one-man performances. Beginning with St John's Gospel in the 1980s, he would take a single theme and deliver it in monologue to the audience. It was a Brechtian idea, dissolving the line between actor and listener, he says. And it proved remarkably popular. He toured extensively in Europe and the United States, with self-penned shows on Shakespeare, the Old Testament, and, eventually, St Francis.

BY THE 1990s, he had the finances in place for a "huge" film version of the Francis show, with several US backers. But that fell through. "Thankfully," he laughs, "because it was changing beyond recognition."

Things changed again two years ago, when he bumped into an old Franciscan friend who worked in fund-raising, and said that he would be interested in the Francis project. Alexander rustled up a new script, and the present film took shape, under the aegis of his production firm, The Little Portion Films Company.

The new Francis is an exceptionally lean operation - although Alexander won't be drawn into precise figures. "Put it this way," he says: "The consensus is that you really cannot do a feature film of 100 minutes for under £60,000, and we're doing it for under £60,000."

Creative thinking has helped make up the shortfall. The First Assistant Director is his son, Jamie, who is 22, and has been through film school. The crew and actors mainly come from Jamie's Alma Mater, the Arts University, Bournemouth. The aforementioned paintings are by Alexander's sister, Angela Thomas. Locations on the month-long shoot are virtually all within 200 yards of Hilfield, which has provided accommodation "for a pittance".

Needless to say, the process has not been without challenges. A few weeks later, we meet at Hilfield for the first day of filming. As writer-director-actor-editor, Alexander is everywhere, and is everyone's point of reference.

He is about to drive to Yeovil to pick up a lighting "polyboard", and to drop Stickney at the railway station. Later that afternoon, he will be filming the entire one-man show in front of an audience of friends and community members (clips and voice-over from the scene will be used to create the narration). He looks calm, but does not feel it.

"I'm glad I show the appearance of being relaxed," he says over a hasty lunch, giggling loudly. "I feel as though I have several ulcers impending."

THERE have been plenty of hiccups: one actor lost his costume; the camera stopped working; the Hilfield sheep would not stop bleating throughout a take; the opening scene was thwarted by a parked car. "Right in the middle of the shot! Nobody knew whose car it was. They still don't. 'Can we bounce it?' 'No.' 'Can we tow it?' 'No, we can't.' 'What are we going to do?' 'Put it in the shot.'"

And yet, somehow, it all feels appropriate to the material: the equal pay-scale for actors and crew (although it does not amount to much), the minimal set-up, the make-do-and-mend mentality.

Francis, you suspect, would approve. "We're back to first principles here, and in a way that's much better," Alexander says. He still cannot quite believe that the project is finally under way.

"The other day, I was thinking: I have to touch people to make sure this is real." He smiles. "Or is it all just in my head?"

He hopes to take the film to festivals, and is also aiming for a DVD release in time for Christmas. If it proves successful, he hopes to follow it up with a sequel, The Story of Peter Stone. But perhaps some of his aims in making Francis are already bearing fruit in its production process.

Callum MacDermott, the 22-year-old director of photography, speaks for many crew members when he says that he has been challenged by the Francis story. "I've learnt all about his life and ideologies from the filming experience," he says. "The fact that he went against the grain, and decided to live radically; he could have had a comfortable life, but he decided to go against all that. I found that very interesting."

It is a view echoed by Brother Samuel SSF, a friar at Hilfield and a former Minister Provincial of the Order. "I think the story of Francis is a really important one that can speak to us today - not just in the Church, but way beyond the Church," he says. "It's a really challenging, exciting story of a young man who is brought face to face with the gospel. And that's why we're supporting this film, because we think the Francis story actually has something to say to people."

AS THE afternoon goes on, Alexander brings that message, warts and all, to the assembled congregants. The crowd listens attentively to tales of imprisonment, and papal snubs, the speaker's animated body framed by an old stone cross and the supple folds of Blackmore Vale beyond the hawthorn hedge.

When he ends, some two hours later, with a description of Francis's death, a long silence falls across the cemetery. The camera keeps running, but the garden goes still. A cow calls in the distance. A single sparrow drops on to the cross, and stays rooted there, as if transfixed. And, somehow, that seems appropriate, too.

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