Confetti: Three Weddings and a Punch-up
If there's one thing more stressful than getting married, it's making a fully improvised comedy about the process in real time. Debbie Isitt, writer and director, kept a diary of the making of her film Confetti, an extravaganza of jealousy, nudity, ball boys....and improvised dialogue.
Coventry. September 2002
I first decided to make a wedding comedy after my sister went blind at her wedding. She had an allergic reaction to some eye drops and spent the whole day careering steadily into darkness. (She had to go on honeymoon with a white stick and it was several days before she regained her sight.) Weddings can do that to people - it's the stress.
I wanted to make the film without a script because I wanted a 'rom-com' with a difference, something spontaneous, honest and hilarious. After studying improvisation throughout a decade of touring with my theatre company, Snarling Beasties,
I knew that improvisation (with the right actors) could provide a fresh take on an otherwise well-trodden, formulaic genre, and anyway, I was in the mood for a challenge.
Soho. August 2003
Getting a feature film financed on the basis of a scrap of A4 paper is not proving the easiest ride of my life. I have spent several months with the newly formed production company Wasted Talent, trying to persuade financiers to invest in a film without a script. The basic premise is: three couples are about to get married in a wedding competition run by Confetti, a bridal magazine; the couple who have the most original wedding will win a dream house. One couple will have a tennis-themed wedding, one couple a musical wedding and one couple a naturist wedding.
The film will be shot in real time as we follow the couples as they prepare for their big day. Every-thing the actors do will be spontaneous and created in the moment of filming, including the plans for their weddings and the emotional ups and downs of their relationships. None of the actors will have any idea what the other weddings are like until the competition itself begins. And no one (not even me) will know who is going to win until the end of the shoot. I resist well-meaning suggestions that I write out a story and opt for filming a trailer to show the financiers how it will work.
Soho. September 2003
The casting in an improvised film is all-important. Not every actor can improvise and not every improviser can act. Luckily I already have the brilliantly funny Jessica Stevenson on board and I have engaged the casting director Rachel Freck to help me find everyone else. Rachel is a veritable fount of knowledge on the UK's finest comic actors. Today she has brought me together with the actor Martin Freeman, who tells me he can't improvise, and the comedian Jimmy Carr, who tells me he can't act. I refuse to believe either of them - years of directing has taught me to follow my gut.
Soho. March 2004
After spending months assembling a cast we shoot a short trailer and bingo! BBC Films and Wasted Talent secure the finance for the film. A low-budget film but a high-risk operation, we will need an SAS-style production team to get this off the ground. Months of location-scouting and crewing ensues. The actors will have a few days to work on their relationships and then a six-week shoot (the casting took longer). The wedding date is set for November 5, 2004.
Soho and St Albans. August 2004
I am about to shoot a film without a script and I am feeling very exposed to say the least. I have to engage the actors in some kind of workshop and today I am explaining to Robert Webb and Olivia Colman (who play the naturist couple, Michael and Joanna) how I will follow them with my cameras as they, with the help of two wedding planners hired by the magazine, plan their wedding.
That's when May Chu, my co-producer and right arm walks into the room waving a naturist magazine shouting, 'I've got us into Spielplatz!' The oldest naturist community in the country, Spielplatz has allowed us to film at its camp in Hertfordshire in order to provide an authentic backdrop for Michael and Joanna's story. So off to Spielplatz we all troop to check out the club and to research how these naked people really live.
As we drive up the leafy lane that leads to the club we all start giggling like kids. To our relief the man on the gate is fully clothed and welcoming. By the time we reach the clubhouse we have already spotted several naked people going about their everyday business, washing their cars, tending their flowerbeds, emptying their dustbins.
We are escorted to the conservatory where we are introduced to lifelong members of the club. We are all averting our eyes and trying not to stare at the naughty naked bits but it's very hard not to notice. The naturists are, however, completely charming and only too happy to fill us in on the nature of naturism and what life at the club is all about.
As the day wears on we are beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. We are still in our clothes - and not just clothes, winter woollies. (I think we've all had the same idea - like playing strip poker as a teenager, the more layers you put on the less chance you have of ever getting your kit off.) Unfortunately, the heating in the club is set at 'Bahamas' because naked people need to feel warm. Sweat is beginning to pour from under our thermal vests as we squirm and squelch in misery. Half an hour later we are all around the pool wearing nothing but our birthday suits. A pretty odd experience seeing your professional collaborators in the buff. We keep smiling and gritting our teeth - sure, it is embarrassing but we get into the water and begin to relax. I note that talking to perfect strangers naked in a swimming-pool is going to go down as one of the most surreal experiences of my life, but I am gaining a feeling of respect for these folk. They don't want to hurt anyone, they just enjoy being naked.
Chelsea Harbour Club. August 2004
Today is a workshop session with the tennis couple Josef and Isabelle (Stephen Mangan and Meredith MacNeill). We decide that Josef should be excessively jealous of any male attention bestowed on Isabelle. We have hired a professional coach to help the actors brush up on their tennis and have come to a posh London tennis club to have an hour's session. Even though it is just a workshop, the actors are to remain in character throughout. 'Improve your tennis and convince a stranger that you are a genuine couple', is the task I set them.
As the tennis coach walks on to the court my jaw hits the ground. He is ridiculously gorgeous - tanned, dark, with a Colgate smile. He shakes my hand and introduces himself as 'Jesus from Spain'. I am in heaven. Two minutes later he is coaching the actors (who do remain in character) and I observe that he feels very protective towards Isabelle because Josef is apparently so hostile towards her. It doesn't take me long to realise that this ménage à trois could be fantastic fun in the film. So I sidle up to Jesus and ask him if he wants to be in the movie. I watch Steve's face change.
I imagine he's thinking, 'You don't train to be an actor and work your arse off for years just to be asked to be in the same film as some amateur.' But, hey, a little bit of real-life rivalry could be fun.
Radlett, near St Albans. October 6, 2004
Stanley Kubrick once said that the hardest thing about filmmaking is getting out of the car. I know what he means. I am sitting in my car on an industrial estate near St Albans staring at the ugliest building I have ever seen. I had told the location managers we needed somewhere glamorous for our wedding competition: 'Glitz and glamour is the order of the day. I need somewhere like the Café de Paris only bigger.' As I stare at the huge, disgusting warehouse I realise that 'bigger' was the only word they had heard. All three weddings have to take place in this venue and three sets must be designed and built in the appropriate themes, so size is important - but so is seating, lighting, electricity and heating. The actors playing the wedding planners (Jason Watkins and Vincent Franklin) will design the sets in conjunction with our production designer.
The wedding planners turn up in their funny little car. They run over to me. I burst into tears. 'It's useless… how are we… I mean you… gonna pull off this competition in that shithole?' The actors look at each other anxiously. This is exactly what they are meant to be feeling. They look at my distress and by osmosis they carry it into their characters. As we film them looking around the desolate space and planning the three weddings here my despair quickly turns to joy. Soon I have stopped crying and am laughing, at them, with them. God, I hope if I ever get married they will be around to plan it.
Wimbledon. October 7, 2004
We are scheduled to shoot with the tennis couple and Jesus on court. The wedding planners turn up as eager as ever. 'Could you spend an hour or so working on a presentation for the tennis couple,' I ask. 'See if you can find any props to inspire them. It's four weeks to the big day and at the moment we're nowhere.' As usual Jason and Vince nod and enthuse as the colour drains out of their exhausted faces. I can't be sure but I think I heard the 'C' word uttered by one of them as I move away over to centre court where the tennis couple are warming up. 'Right, you've arranged to meet the planners here to push on with your wedding plans. The planners are late. The rest is up to you.'
I spot Jesus, the Spanish tennis coach, coming out of the make-up bus. To me he always looks as though he is moving in slow motion, like a movie star but I snap out of my romantic fantasy and run over for my traditional hug and kisses on both cheeks. 'I want you to just hang back and observe what happens, Jesus, and at whatever moment you feel is right, walk on to the court and try and get involved in their wedding plans.'
Jesus smirks. He knows it will drive Steve/Josef up the wall if he interferes. Jesus looks up at me with his innocent Spanish eyes. 'Will it be OK if I attack Josef if he is rude to me?' 'Oh, sure,' I say. 'You go for it.'
Meanwhile, in the production bus the bond company (like an insurance company) has decided to show up to see how things are running. They can call a film to a halt any time if they don't like what is happening. The savvy woman from the bond company is in deep talks with our co-producer and 'boy wonder' Nick Jones as he tries to reassure her that the shoot is not chaotic and everything is under control.
Tensions are running high on court. The planners have just presented an ingenious and hilarious 'parade of the ball boys' demonstration to Josef and Isabelle, who appear unimpressed. Josef is getting very wound up with the planners when, right on cue, Jesus strolls on to the court and starts sticking his oar in. Jesus and Josef are pushing and shoving each other - is it the characters or is it the actors? It's so real it's hard to tell, then suddenly all hell breaks loose. Jesus has jumped on Steve and they have pushed Meredith out of the way - they are writhing on the floor and genuinely fighting with each other. Vince, either as himself or Archie the wedding planner, has jumped on Steve and is holding his neck in a locked position and threatening to break it.
At that moment the third assistant director runs on to the production bus screaming 'Fight! Fight! A real fight has broken out - out there - on the tennis court!' The woman from the bond company stares intently at Nick as he rolls his eyes and tries to convey to the third assistant that he should 'shut the f*** up'.
Steve is badly winded and there is talk of emergency medics and lawsuits, but I am thrilled to have caught it all on camera. Steve staggers off to recover with, 'I hope that makes the final edit.'
Walthamstow. October 11, 2004
The musical couple, Matt and Sam (Martin Freeman and Jessica Stevenson), have been working their socks off for the past three weeks, writing their wedding vows with a little help from the planners and the composer Paul Englishby. They have also had singing lessons with a professional coach and a rehearsal with the choreographer Jenny Arnold. In total they have had three days' rehearsal for the Busby Berkeley-type dance sequence they have planned for their wedding.
Martin and Jessica are pushing ahead with their plans. Today I have arranged for the planners to visit them in the house they share with Chris, Sam's mum (Alison Steadman). Also present is Sarah Hadland, who plays Jen, Sam's sister, an all-singing, high-kicking cruise ship dancer who has come home to be chief dancer at the wedding. Matt has been under unbearable strain after nine months of living with his overbearing in-laws. The atmosphere in the living-room is extremely tense when the planners arrive with a very sparse, under-designed set.
As the actors respond to the presentation, Martin (or his character Matt - again, very hard to tell) suddenly loses it completely with his mother and sister-in-law, starts swearing at them and a huge argument breaks out. I am glued to the spot - will there be another fight? I can't really see Alison Steadman and Martin Freeman writhing around the floor but on this shoot anything is possible. The electricity in the air is astounding as they all have a real go at each other, no doubt releasing weeks of pressure that has been building up not only as characters but as actors. The planners storm out, Alison's character throws Martin/Matt out of the house and we all sit there stunned.
'Well, that was great,' I say. 'But the wedding is in two weeks and you've effectively split up with Jessica and fallen out with the planners.' Vince rushes over: 'I think we as wedding planners would ask Matt to come and stay with us for a while.' The only problem is I have to reschedule tomorrow's shoot to accommodate that. The weary-looking location manager is backing away as I start running towards him.
South Bank, London. October 2004
Everything hurts this morning. My eyes are swollen so I look like ET, my shoulders are agonisingly tense, it is 5.30am and I have just got out of the shower. I take a moment to wonder what madness has got me up at this ungodly hour for the fifth week in succession.
I hear the pitter-patter of exhausted feet coming from the other bedroom of my rented apartment and thank God that at least I am not alone. May Chu, my co-producer, has moved in with me for the duration of the shoot. Together we have been getting home late at night and then sitting up till the small hours eating Pringles while watching the previous day's rushes. Hours and hours of improvised material by day and hours and hours of improvised rushes by night.
As I brush my teeth I begin to perform the mental gymnastics of figuring out what exactly it was that we watched last night and add that up with what was shot yesterday to see if that gives me any idea about what we should shoot today. The day before yesterday + yesterday = blank. How is anyone supposed to work out storylines and potential storylines in their heads at 5.30am after four hours' sleep? Last night May and I arrived home from the shoot so exhausted that we stood in the lift for a good half an hour before realising that neither of us had pressed the button to move it up. I close my eyes and repeat a little mantra to myself: 'It's only a film, it's only a film, it's only a film.'
The big day. Radlett. November 5, 2004
This is it. Our wedding day. By 7pm three couples will be married. (OK, three couples will have pretended to get married.) The planners are running around like maniacs - after all, we have only one shot at this, it is a live event, and the success or failure of it depends largely on them.
Each couple will have one camera on them all day. Everything they do and say will be filmed. They have been at the venue since 8am and will stay in character until the end of the competition - probably at 9pm. They are all genuinely nervous. It is a big job, getting married - in a competition. We are all excited and terrified. I have long given in to the reality of this day having its own force - my directing is basically redundant. My role now is as documentary filmmaker, observing the action and clutching my rosary beads.
As the families turn up, the backstage tensions start to rise. Snoopy, Matt's best man (Mark Wootton), has lost the rings - genuinely lost the rings. One of the top hats goes missing. The musical family accuse the tennis couple of stealing it. The naturists are backstage having a fight with Joanna's mother (Selina Cadell).
One hundred and fifty audience members, a mixture of the cast and crew's real friends and family and naturists from Spielplatz, are arriving for the live event. The judges have arrived and the magazine owner (Jimmy Carr) and editor (Felicity Montagu) are engaging them in conversation, trying to settle everyone down.
Backstage the wedding planners have been called to attend a crisis. Matt and Sam have decided not to go through with the competition. This is a justified character choice but I really need all three weddings to be filmed so I send the planners to talk them back into it. As they disappear inside Matt and Sam's dressing-room I return to the competition arena.
On the stage area I spot the tennis couple spying on the MGM musical set. Their camera is filming them but I find time to run up and tell them to get backstage and wait in their designated area. 'It's not fair - they've got a better set than us.' For God's sake, they are really upset. I spot the planners chatting to the judges and we run up with the camera: 'Please tell me Matt and Sam are getting married today.' The planners assure me they will. The actors playing the judges are asking who they should vote for. Everyone looks at me. 'You vote for the wedding you like best, of course.' 'But haven't you got an actual plan?' 'Plan? There is no plan. This is real - you watch the competition and then you judge it, honestly!'
The weddings are about to begin. I look around me and I can't believe that this event is actually going to happen. The first wedding music starts up…
Coventry. April 2005
My partner (and editor) Nick Ager and I have been in our spare bedroom for months and months editing Confetti. One hundred and fifty hours of improvised rushes, enough material to make 100 feature films and we have to make just one. We have been wading through the material sometimes in amazement at the fabulous performances, sometimes in despair - 'Didn't you ever tell them to stop talking?' 'I didn't want to interrupt the flow.' 'Well where am I supposed to make a cut?'
We have been laughing, crying, and fighting passionately about what the story might be and breaking our hearts in the realisation that not everything we love can go in and somehow we have whittled the material down to a roughly feature-length version.
Cannes. May 2005
In a meeting in London it is decided that 20 minutes of the rough cut will accompany the producers to Cannes. Not to sell it, you understand, just to get some interest in the film. Nick and I are not invited - we have to stay in our bedroom in Coventry and keep working on the material. There is a lot to do and I for one would rather be doing the work than partying on a yacht in Cannes and sipping champagne in the sunset.
They have been in Cannes for 24 hours when I get a call from the producer Ian Flooks. 'Hi, Debbie, just wanted to let you know we have sold your film to Fox Searchlight for worldwide distribution.'
I don't respond. I can't respond. They've sold my film to the world and I'm not even there? I look at Nick's tired eyes and roll mine to the heavens. I hang up the phone and hear champagne corks popping all over the Riviera. 'I've got some news…'
'Confetti' is released on May 5
© Telegraph Group Ltd 2006