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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,