wed 17/07/2024

First Person: director Richard Wilson on a musical midsummer night film premiere | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: director Richard Wilson on a musical midsummer night film premiere

First Person: director Richard Wilson on a musical midsummer night film premiere

Mendelssohn around London with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Titania, Oberon and string quartet All images One31Studio

In today’s near-normal times it is easy to forget how hard COVID-19 had hit the music industry, especially for touring orchestras like the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Masked, socially-distanced performances; streamed concerts from empty venues; and an outpouring of home-made YouTube films helped to keep musicians working and audiences culturally fed. However, there was a feeling across the industry that something more inspiring was needed.

At the end of November 2020, a month into the second lockdown, the Academy asked us at One31Studio to make a film inspired by Mendelssohn’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They wanted to move away from the look of a streamed concert, favouring a more theatrical and cinematic experience, that would engage audiences, old and new, creating a special sense of magic.

From our first chats with the Academy, it was decided that London would become the backdrop to the film: iconic monuments contrasting with hidden side-streets; the romantic juxtaposed with the gritty. And mysterious nature helping to transport the action to a special setting where the norms could be broken and magic woven. Titania leapsTo add some sparkle, and to help convey and simplify this complex story, a group of dancers would become our key characters – fairies, lovers and, of course, Bottom. An accessible, simplified story would be threaded throughout the six movements, exploring the key themes of love (in its many forms), magic, and mischief – illustrating the central idea that “the course of true love never did run smooth”. The narrative would be aided by key passages from Shakespeare’s play, familiar phrases and words to bring the art forms together.

My background is in branding and advertising, so it was important to me that this was more than a new performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a talented orchestra. The identity and personality of the Academy had to really shine through. This thought influenced its role throughout: the orchestra would be the heartbeat of the film, driving the narrative and interacting with the dancers. Individual musicians would appear randomly, Puck-like, throughout London – observing, animating and guiding the action of our characters. We also decided that the individual musicians would be introduced in the Overture, giving a sense of the ensemble’s personality and the friendship and fun that is being part of the Academy.

Filming was tremendous fun. It was a privilege to de-camp and film in some of our favourite parts of London, capturing these places afresh. This was especially true of our filming in Richmond Park where we were joined by stags, does and other animals – with many making it into the final cut. Horn players in Richmond ParkTo film in London, however, even in midsummer, comes with a warning – the weather. And, with a tight budget and dancers performing elsewhere, our window of opportunity was marginal.

On the very first day, after a great morning shoot under the Westway, we ventured with Hermia and Helena into Hyde Park to meet Lynda (our bass player). As we arrived, the heavens opened, though fortunately we were able to make it to a folly we knew, and the scene (and expensive bass) survived. Similarly, we had set up in Richmond Park to film Stephen and Jo (the two horn players, pictured above). As storm clouds gathered and the rain started, our cinematographer Ben and I – with all our expensive kit – huddled under our umbrellas. Thankfully, just as the musicians arrived, the sky cleared and bequeathed us an afternoon of beautiful summer sunshine.

Filming is, of course, just the beginning (or perhaps the middle) of the process. Once we had all the footage, an intensive period of post-production began; editing, re-editing, grading, and cutting trailers. This culminated in the team preparing the film for broadcast, ready for the premiere on Sky Arts UK on Midsummer Night, 21 June 2022. Scene from A London DreamAt that premiere screening, a year and a half after the initial brief, I doubt many will associate A London Dream with COVID-19. It’s good to remember that the film was born in the middle of a lockdown, and produced in the long shadow of the pandemic, with all the challenges that that entailed.

The film is a real tribute to everyone involved, not least the Academy, who had the vision and courage to embark on such an ambitious and creative project. I am proud to have been part of a team that have delivered such an uplifting and special film in these challenging times.

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