Behind the Sword in the Stone – the Premiere

In the ancient oak woods on the Glendalough Estate in County Wicklow stands this mysterious mossy pillar. At first glance it might be mistaken for an old gate-post, but in fact it’s a bit of movie archaeology. For these are the woods where, back in 1980, John Boorman shot his movie Excalibur, and this relic is the concrete stabiliser from inside the artificial boulder in which Excalibur itself was stuck. There’s a slot in the top into which the sword would have fitted, and the two bolts on the side would have been tightened up to make sure that no one but King Arthur (Nigel Terry) could draw it from the stone… a trick that would appeal to my own Myrddin, in Here Lies Arthur.

I was in Ireland last week for the premiere of Behind the Sword in the Stone, a documentary film about the making of Excalibur by Mossy Hare Productions. You might remember that, this time last year, I was auctioning off signed books and drawings to help raise money for their Indiegogo fund-raising drive.  I also made a donation of my own, which qualifies me as an executive producer – so I could hardly miss the first screening. And when I told director Mark Wright that I was coming, he very kindly invited me to stay with him and his partner Kathleen. So I flew over to Dublin on Thursday night, and on Friday I helped gather wine and glasses for the reception after the screening, and watched in amazement as Kathleen cooked more vol-au-vents and mini quiches than I think I’ve ever seen in one place. Then, in a howling storm, Mark drove us down to Bray, and the Mermaid Arts Centre, where the film was to be shown. Despite the foul weather, a good crowd turned up to watch, including Terry English (who made the armour for Excalibur) and John Lawlor, one of the assistant directors. And it was great to meet one of the other executive producers, Leah Krevit, who runs the Byrneholics website dedicated to all things Gabriel Byrne. She’d flown in all the way from Texas, where she’s building a house in the mountains near Alpine.

Obviously I’m far too partial an observer to review the new film, but it more than lived up to my expectations, and seemed to go down well with the whole audience, including those who have never actually seen Excalibur. One of the things which makes Excalibur so important, and makes Behind the Sword in the Stone such a worthwhile project, is that it gave a start in movies to a lot of people who have since become household names; Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, and composer Trevor Jones. It was also a major early role for Helen Mirren, while Neil Jordan, credited as Creative Consultant, shot a behind-the-scenes documentary which Mossy Hare have drawn on for their film. Mark and his co-director Alec Moore have secured interviews with all of them, and also with Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi, Clive Swift and Paul Geoffrey, with John Boorman himself, with his son Charley and daughter Katrine (who both appear in Excalibur), with Terry English, and with important behind-the-scenes figures such as John Lawlor, and Kevin Moriarty of Ardmore Studios.

‘Behind the Sword in the Stone’ Excerpt from Alec Moore on Vimeo.

They all have great anecdotes to tell, many of which are very funny – there was a lot of laughter during the screening. They all seem to look back on Excalibur with immense affection. Gabriel Byrne is hilarious, and Patrick Stewart is particularly twinkly as he recounts his misadventures on horseback and in armour. But as the film progresses, the tone shifts subtly, remembering those members of the cast who have passed away in the thirty three years since it was made. They include Nicol Williamson, who dominated Excalibur as the wizard Merlin, and whose absence from Behind the Sword in the Stone could have seemed a major hole – but he’s there in spirit, I think, with a long-ish chunk dedicated to the cast and crew’s memories of him.

One of my favourite minor performances in Excalibur was that of Niall O’Brien as Arthur’s brother Kay. Although he was a heroic figure in the early Celtic Arthurian tales, Kay is usually portrayed as a bully and a buffoon by later writers, but Niall O’Brien rehabilitates him; he’s always there in the background, a dependable older brother who sticks by Arthur to the very end. Sadly,  Niall O’Brien died in 2009, but I was pleased to meet his wife at the screening, and also his son Ruairi, who directed his father in this short film, Teeth.

But most of all, and quite rightly, Behind the Sword in the Stone stands as a tribute to John Boorman’s vision, and to the charm, skill and perseverance with which he managed to bring it to the screen.  Always an excellent interviewee, it was great to see him talking at such length about my favourite of his films; not just about the technical difficulties, but also things like his decision to dress the actors in mediaeval armour that is far too late for the dark ages setting – he wanted to make it mythic. And, of course, he succeeded; I can’t think of a better evocation of myth in mainstream cinema.

We were hoping that he would attend the premiere, but sadly the weather on Friday night was so bad that he decided to stay at home. But on Sunday morning Mark drove me over to Glendalough (through a surprising snowstorm in the Wicklow Gap). We met Alec at the Glendalough Estate and they showed me around some of the Excalibur locations there, including the little hill in the woods where the sword in the stone stood…

Photo: Alec Moore

 and the avenue of conifers where Arthur and Guinevere were married.

Photo: Alec Moore

How very strange, having come to know these scenes so well from the movie, to walk around them in real life. And how very much stranger, shortly afterwards, to drive up to John Boorman’s lovely old rectory and meet John himself, who gave us coffee and some (very good) cake.  We didn’t stay long, and I was struggling to avoid having a FANBOY MELTDOWN, so I never got around to telling him that I think he’s the best film director we have, and that his films helped to turn me into a writer. But I’m very happy to report that he is still hard at work; he had just returned from Roumania, where he’s been shooting his latest project, a sequel to Hope and Glory called Queen and Country.

Photo: Alec Moore

It’s been a pleasure to be involved with the Mossy Hares, and Behind the Sword in the Stone, which they shot at their own expense over the past two years, is a great achievement. Next year they will be arranging screenings in London and New York and, hopefully, some TV broadcasts. After that, Mark is planning more documentaries, while Alec has already shot a short film, In This Place, currently in post-production, and he is working on a feature.

Snow, Reddit, Mossy Hares

Our pond on Friday. Thanks to Frank Kelly for pointing out that the trees look like three frosty trolls …

Winter finally reached us on Friday last week, with a heavy fall of snow overnight.  I gather it’s mostly melted down in the lowlands, but here on Dartmoor it’s not going anywhere.  It’s very picturesque, but the lanes around our house are all quite bad, so I think we may be stuck here till it thaws. At least we’ve sorted out the pipe from the borehole, which used to freeze every winter and leave us without water at the coldest times of year.  And the new studio is toasty warm with the woodburner ticking over, so I have no excuse to slack off. I’ve completed three projects so far this year – the text for the second of my OUP books with Sarah McIntyre (keep watching her blog for updates on the first, Oliver and the Seawigs) and a couple of short stories which I’ll tell you about when the anthologies they were written for are published. I suspect that rate of productivity will tail off pretty sharply now…

Last night, as mentioned here previously, I did an AMA session on the Mortal Engines sub-Reddit.  I was a bit worried that nobody would log on, but quite a few people did, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve done: there were good questions about the books from all sorts of angles, and people could come back with further responses to my answers, so it was like half a dozen conversations going on at once. I hope I didn’t miss any of the questions: I’ll check in a moment in case I did.  You can read it all here, but because of the way Reddit operates, with people voting things up and down, it’s all got cut up and rearranged in the manner popularised by William Burroughs, with some of my replies appearing long before the question to which they relate…  maybe that makes for a more interesting read, though.

Finally, thanks to everybody who shared or re-Tweeted my posts last year about Mossy Hare Productions, and all who contributed to their quest to fund their documentary about the making of John Boorman’s Excalibur.  They raised very nearly two thirds of the $30,000 they were aiming for, which will enable them to at least start the post-production work.   I look forward to blogging my report from the star-studded Dublin premiere in due course.

Spot the Difference

Back in the eighties I bought a bunch of stills from Excalibur at some convention or other, and they came complete with a ‘Distributor’s Information Pack’, containing various different sized press ads which cinema owners could run in their local newspaper – and this rather odd ‘spot the difference’ competition.  Yes kids, this is how violent AA (15) certificate films were publicised before the internet arrived.

There’s one week left to contribute to the Excalibur ‘making of’ documentary Behind the Sword in the Stone, by Mossy Hare Productions.  They’re about half way to their target, and all sorts of rewrds are still available on their Indiegogo page, which is here.

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