I Am Henry – Director’s Q&A
Q&A with Writer-Director, Jan Hendrik Verstraten
1. What was the inspiration for the film?
When I set out to write the screenplay however, it wasn’t my plan for it to be about this famous Tudor monarch. All I envisioned was a middle-aged man in an empty white room. While I sat down behind the computer, and felt this man’s presence. I started to realise it was King Henry VIII, that he just had died, and that he had not fully grasped yet what that meant.
A strange concept perhaps, but from then onwards I got really excited, started my research and looked deeper into his life. The voices of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon came alive quite easily, as if they were eager to share their experience and grief, especially what they felt when they were alive, and how Henry had tragically impacted their lives. It was the King himself who initially struggled to find his own voice, as if over the years, he had become lost, as a result of his misdeeds.
The characters are widely known, and I quickly realised that this was an advantage. There is no need to introduce them as most of the audience already knows about them, and Anne Boleyn, in particular, has a huge following worldwide. All of these elements were very helpful in making this short.
2. How did the film get off the ground? What was the process of getting the film made?
The first thing I did was send the script to Lucy Hay. Lucy is a novelist and professional script editor. She is one of the organisers of London Screenwriters’ Festival where she is the Head Reader fir its many contests and initiatives.
She praised the script for its originality, and responded: “At its heart, the story of ‘I Am Henry’ is quite brilliant (in the truest sense of the word); it’s easily one of the best stories in a short film I have seen for a very long time.” This gave me an enormous boost and the confidence to go ahead and put a team together.
Massimo, my partner in Flying Dutchman Films shared Lucy’s enthusiasm, and I immediately got going with it. It was our intention to create a low budget film, and we knew this was going to be a challenge. The script however proved to be an enormous help to attract people to come on board.
Simon Rowling, the cinematographer, was the next key figure I found through LinkedIn. He has an interest in period drama, and he really liked the script. It was for that reason he was willing to invest a lot of his time and equipment for a minimal sum. He wanted to work with people he already knew, and this certainly made it a lot easier to get a cohesive crew together.
At the same time, we connected with Kristen Ernst-Brown, our costume designer, who recommended Chanel Murray for hair and make-up.
3.Where did you shoot? How long was the shoot?
Severe winters were the norm during Henry VIII’s reign, and the river Thames was Frozen every winter. Henry VIII died in January, and of course winter and snow symbolise death and solitude. Thus it made perfect sense to start the film with an English winter landscape. That’s why the film opens with the Yorkshire moors covered in snow. I personally shot this footage with my own camera in February 2015.
We did not have a winter with a lot of snow, and maybe I waited too long, so when I finally had the chance to travel up North, I went for it. Massimo joined me, and it was our first introduction to the beautiful Yorkshire moors.
We were planning to do most of the interior shots in a studio, and therefore needed a set. This turned out to be very difficult and expensive. With only weeks to go, I was forced to change the whole concept and to film on location inside a huge crypt beneath St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Paddington, north London. This felt like a big risk as I knew it would change the look and feel of the film. In hindsight, it was so much better.
The film suddenly became more cinematic. The look of the film also began to materialise. It was as if the project had a life of its own, and an identity that I finally understood and recognised.
The crypt was a dream come true. Even though there was no running water, no toilet and no parking facilities, the location had just the right atmosphere for a Gothic tale such as this, and all the props we needed to make it look authentic were all around us.
Although I planned a 5 day shoot, we could only afford three days. It would have been unfair to ask people to work on the absolute minimum for longer than that, and unrealistic too. Everyone has to earn a living.
4. What is your favourite scene in the film?
As I have edited the film myself, I watched the footage many times over. Without doubt, my favourite part of the film is the ending, when Anne recounts her execution. The scene remains gripping each time I watch it.
Another scene that I love, is the scene where Catherine delivers her monologue. She is surrounded by candles. I followed it on the monitor when we did the first take during our first day of shooting, and the Steadicam was gong towards her. The scene looked as if it was from another world, very mysterious and truly captivating. It was a great moment.
Henry’s account of a hunt in a forest near a stream, was a scene I almost threw out while editing, as I desperately tried to keep the film within a certain time limit. Now, I love the scene, and feel touched when he wonders if the feeling he got when he was out in the forest, was in fact ‘God?’
And yes, the camera work and the quality of the acting during the emotional dialogue between Henry and Anne, which is at the heart of the short, is exactly as I hoped it would be, and that is amazing.
5. What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
The last day of shooting was by far the most challenging day for various reasons. In the morning we found out that some of the rushes from the previous day had accidentally been erased during the digital transfer, and they could not be retrieved.
Unbelievable, but true!
This caused a lot stress, frustration and panic, especially as it was going to be the busiest day of filming, and now there was extra work added to it.
It made me realise that a good first AD on the set is essential to keep the pace up. We didn’t have one, and this cost us valuable time, but we got there in the end. This was largely because everybody was highly motivated to get the film done.
6. The film is told after King Henry VIII’s death. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
The truth is it just developed that way. Of course as a writer I could see the dramatic benefit of this approach. It’s fascinating to be able to hear Anne tell us what she felt while she was in the tower, and how it was to walk towards the scaffolding and her tragic death.
In a lot of my writing, I have a strong interest in the feelings of the characters, but I am also curious about the forces in life that cannot be seen, and the things in life and beyond that we merely can sense or can only speculate about.
Death, and the possibility of life after death, intrigues most people as much as life does, and I feel as a writer drawn to explore it, and venture into the unknown. It raises fundamental questions: ‘How will I feel? Nothing? Is there a God? What’s the ongoing journey that awaits us?
7. Describe the casting process. Was it easy to find actors to play the lead roles?
The quality of the actors we saw during the castings was incredible. We found Fleur Keith, an amazing Anne from among 150 applicants. Catherine and Henry the Duke were easier roles to cast. Maria de Lima brought an emotional intimacy to the role that was mesmerizing. The only one that was missing was the King himself.
After much effort, I searched IMDB and other sites and found a trailer starring Sebastian Street. He came across as a very versatile and strong actor to me, and he had just finished his Scorsese film ‘Tomorrow’, I immediately thought he would make a great Henry.
I sent him the script right away and didn’t expect to hear back from him but to my surprise, he called me the very next morning. He had just returned from Cannes, where he was promoting his new feature. He told me he loved the script and was interested in being in the short. “When were we going to shoot it?”
8. What format did you shoot the film on? How did you shoot it?
Most of the film was shot on 2K (2048) Video Resolution.
A Steadicam was used throughout the film and very often placed at a close distance to the actors as in the film ‘Birdman’ to give the drama a dynamic character even though the overall atmosphere is intimate and quiet.
The framing of the long emotional dialogue between Henry and Anne was inspired by Bergman’s ‘Autumn Sonata,’ which invites us as the audience to engage with the individual feelings of the characters in a very personal way.
The inspiration for the lighting was drawn from Rembrandt’s compelling use of light, space, atmosphere and texture. Rembrandt’s skill is to create a strong focus of light within darkness. Simon, our cinematographer, filmed each scene with these elements, using candle light to draw you in and keep your attention focused on the characters’ faces. A distinct colour palette of black and gold was reflected in the luxurious costume design by Kristen Ernst-Brown.
9. As the film’s screenwriter, what do you think the essence of the film and its characters are about?
At a critical point in the film, Anne says to Henry: “The hour of one;s death is a time for truth, reflection and repentance.” Indeed it is.
I tried to show what it is to be human, and how a life and one’s actions, are more often than not, filled with contradictions and shortcomings.
10. What are your plans for the film? What else are you currently working on?
Ultimately, I would love to find an audience for the film. We’ve started to build a following on Facebook, and so far the response has been amazing, especially with the release fo the trailer. A lot of people are fascinated by the Tudors. It was, after all, one of the most transformative periods in English history. Anne Boleyn also has many loyal fans, and we’ve established links with several fan sites to promote the film. Many people especially from the US have already been asking when they will be able to view ‘I Am Henry’ on TV, or download it from the Internet. This is very encouraging.
Although it’s a complete story in itself, I wrote ‘I Am Henry’ with a twist at the end. The audience is left wondering what happens next? This ending allows for the possibility of turning the short into a TV miniseries, and we’re already working on ideas for that.
I’m currently working on a script for my next film project, and have the first draft for a Greek tragedy based on a well-known character, Medea. I’m very clear about the kind of stories I want to tell and how they look visually. In the future, I’d love to be able to make a feature. I have several award-winning screenplays in development, including ‘Flood’ and ‘The Trap’. I was unlucky in the past, when a big film deal fell through at the very last minute. I guess every filmmaker experiences that disappointment at some point.
But I’m an optimist. With the quality of technology readily available to us now, I believe that the next decade is going be a new renaissance for independent filmmakers and for films with an individual voice and vision.