United Kingdom

How did they film a new adaptation of Birdsong using Zoom and iPhones

It is an epic and powerful family saga set against the mass slaughter in the trenches of the Somme. Now a new screen adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s acclaimed 1993 novel Birdsong aims to recreate that ambitious scope – with actors recording their performances in their homes on iPhones.

And the biggest challenge of the lockdown production? Shooting a pivotal, passionate sex scene when the two participants are several miles apart.

‘We are currently trying to find a way you can do that,’ director Alastair Whatley admitted, given that the scene is ‘very important to the story and you can’t really ignore it’.

Now a new screen adaptation (pictured) of Sebastian Faulks’s acclaimed 1993 novel Birdsong aims to recreate that ambitious scope – with actors recording their performances in their homes on iPhones

It is an epic and powerful family saga set against the mass slaughter in the trenches of the Somme. Pictured: Birdsong stage production by the Original Theatre Company

‘It’s one of those areas where we are going to get playful with the cameras and use film making techniques,’ he suggested.

Stage actors Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight, who reprise the central roles of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire which they played on tour in 2018, live at opposite sides of London, while other cast members are in Hastings, Brighton, St Albans and the Wirral. They communicate by video conference and film their parts in front of a green screen so backgrounds can be added by computer later.

First World War trench scenes are being recreated by the cast ‘writhing around on their kitchen floors’, said Mr Whatley.

The cast of 14 have been given historical prop weapons, period costumes... and a crash course in hair and make-up.

And for a crucial dramatic scene in which Stephen must make the treacherous journey across no man’s land, the action will switch to narration – with Faulks reading his own words.

The author praised the ingenuity of the new 90-minute production, saying: ‘I don’t begin to understand all the tech but it’s a bit like making a feature film with all the actors in different places. It will probably have the odd glitch but I wanted to support the project because Alastair had shown so much enterprise.’

Stage actors Tom Kay (picured left) and Madeleine Knight (pictured right), who reprise the central roles of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire which they played on tour in 2018, live at opposite sides of London, while other cast members are in Hastings, Brighton, St Albans and the Wirral 

The new production, from the Suffolk-based Original Theatre Company, follows a hit 2012 BBC adaptation starring Eddie Redmayne which was made on an altogether bigger scale, with cast and crew flown out to Hungary to recreate the horrors of the Western Front.

The new version will be screened online for three days from July 1, the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, in which more than 19,000 British troops died on the first day alone. Faulks describes the date as ‘perhaps the most calamitous day in British history’, adding: ‘It’s important to understand the story of July 1, 1916, of the war as a whole and the Spanish flu that followed it, taking more lives than the fighting. It puts today’s troubles in perspective.’

Tickets for the film can be booked at birdsongonline.co.uk from £10, including a donation to the Royal British Legion.

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