Smoke and mirrors and The Dancing Floor

Smoke and mirrors and  The Dancing Floor
Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 18.22.12
Screen-grab of drone footage of Brechfa Pool by Tim Browning

Some people have asked me to say more about this film and so I am going to try to do that – without giving away anything which would spoil it for you when you see it. I am especially going to try and avoid analysis: ‘this stands for this and this is what is really happening here, and this whole chunk actually means this.’ There is already too much analysis out there and it is an enemy of storytellers.

Sita (Renu Brindle) and Gethin (Seiriol Tomos) argue over the spiral Dancing Floor, with Ewerton Mendonca on sound.

So, the story is about a forty-something psychiatrist, Sita, who lives in London and is trying to get money for research into the role of the brain ventricles in mental illness. Sita is half Indian and half Welsh, and in my film is played by Renu Brindle who is a medical woman herself! She is called back to Wales when her uncle Mal dies and finds she has inherited his house – and a mysterious and troubling task. At first reluctant and sceptical, she meets the Welsh builder, Gethin (played by Seiriol Tomos) who has been looking after the house and thinks that he should be Mal’s inheritor. Misunderstanding and anger arise between them and then….


Sita finds out that the tradition which her uncle Mal carried is that of the ‘Children of Don’ (Irish: Tuatha de Danaan, Welsh: Plant Don), the tribe who, in the oldest tales were said to bring magic to these islands (which we now pitifully call ‘The UK’). In particular they brought the four ‘Hallows’ which are the Sword, the Spear, the Cauldron and the Stone. These crop up everywhere in our mythology: think of the ‘stone of Scone’ which the monarch sits on to be crowned, think of Lleu throwing his spear through the rock to kill his rival, Gronw. To me, magic is about understanding the basic principles of creativity, especially how something comes out of nothing. It’s something I have studied and discussed endlessly (yes, often in smoke-filled rooms) with kabbalistic friends, explorers of metaphysical philosophy in Saros/Sareoso groups and Buddhist meditators. You could say the quest to know something about it has haunted and animated my life.

I wanted to weave all this in to a film and it has taken me five years to get to this point, where I am making a short film which will be used to gather finance for a full-length feature. This is only possible because I am working with a group of highly-skilled people who are, actually, magicians in their own way. Cinema is in essence a magical art which seeks to put a spell on its audience. These skilful people (Aes Dana?) have been doing it for love not money so far – not love of me (though there is plenty of affection around) but love of being part of a creative process.  “It’s all smoke and mirrors, Mal, cheap magic” says Sita to her uncle in the film.  Well below you see a smoke machine over the mirror-lake at Brechfa, ‘smoke and mirrors’ indeed, but without them, we would dwell in nothing forever and never know the joys and pains of somethingness.

"It's all smoke and mirrors, Mal, cheap magic!"
We make some smoke over the mirror-calm pool at Brechfa

I have re-written and re-drafted the screenplay about twenty times. Patient friends have read it and commented, sometimes very candidly (ouch!). I have attended two Ffilm Cymru Wales writers’ labs, which both provided screenwriting mentors who helped me see what needed to be done. Believe me, screenwriting is a hellishly difficult process – and yet, the day you see your words, your painfully crafted scenes, brought to life by actors, you instantly forget all the angst. My real breakthrough came this summer when a fine writer called Rebecca Lenkiewicz said she liked my screenplay (the film she co-wrote, Ida, has had brilliant reviews). Then another of my mentors said he thought I should and could make it as a ‘micro-budget’ feature for £250,000. So that’s what I am going to do.

Filming at Ciliau
Seiriol and Renu, with Danielle Williams (make-up) and me in the old house of Ciliau

We have just spent three days in an ancient Welsh manor house (graciously lent us by the inhabitants, Emma Beynon and Roger Capps) telling our story on film, plus one day around Brechfa Pool where I live in a little chapel overlooking the mountains. I think every person involved, from our seven-month pregnant make-up lady, Danielle, to our most distinguished DOP, Richard, felt the magic of that ancient place seep into their bones and out into their work. As we sat in the kitchen at dawn or dusk with a fire flickering in the open fireplace a hush would sometimes fall on us and we could feel infinity pressing up from the earth under our feet. The Children of Don were present then, not in ghostly form, but in us, their inheritors, as modern magicians and storytellers trying to keep an old tradition of understanding reality alive in a new form.

The last morning, with a smoke machine coming and a friend (Tim Browning) of a friend with a drone-camera, about to arrive from far away (God bless him), I lay in bed praying for good weather. I went out at five and felt the soft breath of dawn coming as I looked up into a clear sky. No fog, only stars – Caer Gwydion (The Milky Way), Caer Don (Cassiopeia) and Caer Arianrhod (Corona Borealis.) Yes, there are names for these constellations in our own old tradition, though few people know them now. Later the drone sailed out over the still, glittering water of the pond, tinged with pink, and on through the dancing trees, then soared upwards to see them from high above. Little Sita (played by Isha Gurung, a child of Gurkha parents from Brecon nearby) raced up the hill in her red duffle coat and the drone followed her from above. The force certainly seemed to be with us that day!

Isha’s dad, Bel, brought us home-made momo dumplings to eat. Our youngest crew member, Jordan, must have had at least twelve.

Young Sita (Isha Gurung) and her uncle Mal (Rob Howell) at Brechfa Pool.

I felt dazed. It was in the can, except that there is no ‘can’ any more, only a ‘stick’ or hard drive. After everyone had gone, I realised we had forgotten one shot, but I didn’t panic. As all film-makers know, there is usually a ‘way round’ it. Magicians have to be flexible and ingenious, don’t they? Isn’t that part of the secret? That, and the right people coming together at the right time and the right place? But I am saying all this very quietly: I don’t want the gods to hear and think we are getting cocky…