Monday, 25 January 2010

On making the 17th century book video

An increasing number of authors are creating video trailers to promote their books. Historical fiction gives an added depth and flavour to the process, a chance to show off your period garb or highlight the elements of history that your book draws out.

I was very fortunate that my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, arranged for me to create such a trailer for my forthcoming novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. The history of the Pendle Witches is so rich in its own right, it's just crying out to be filmed.

My marketing director arranged for me to work with London filmmaker Callum Macrae of Outsider Television. Callum is a seasoned veteran who has filmed in war zones, done documentaries, and worked for programmes such as Panorama. He has also recently started doing "Lit Vids"--literary videos. Here is a link to the trailer he did for Tom Levenson's nonfiction book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

First, Callum and I worked out a draft script by email. Callum had many brilliant ideas. What we ended up aiming for was something quite ambitious--more like a mini-docudrama than the typical promotional video.

Callum drove up on a Thursday with his assistant camera woman, the beautiful and brilliant Livvy Haydock. The first day we discussed the script while driving around various locations in the Pendle region. The rugged landscape proved to be as indispensible for the filming as it was for the actual storytelling. You could just picture the characters emerging from the misty moorland.

We shot on location at my stables with scenes of me on horseback since riding my horse around the Pendle region was such an instrumental part of my creative process. I had considered riding in costume, but, alas, I never learned to ride side-saddle. Callum actually thought it was better that I just ride as Mary in the twenty-first-century, and so that's what I did, less-than-flattering-riding-helmet and all. Booshka, my Welsh Section D mare, was impeccably well-behaved, even though she couldn't understand why we wanted her to keep walking back and forth over and over again in front of the camera for over half an hour.

I had never realised how many "takes" you need to get a scene just right.

After Miss Boo got her treats and was turned out to play in the field with her friends, we drove on to Malkin Tower Farm, where the owners, Rachel and Andrew Turner, gave us a warm welcome and showed us what are believed to be the ruined foundations of what was once Malkin Tower, home to my protagonist Mother Demdike and three generations of her family.

Malkin Tower Farm has a number of lovely, inviting holiday cottages in an area of outstanding natural beauty. If you ever visit Pendle, it's the perfect place to stay. They welcome walkers and cyclists, and have two very friendly and engaging dogs.

I crouched down near the stones, explaining their significance to the camera, while camera assistant Livvy donned historical costume and did a sequence in the background, walking down the steep slope around the ruins, as Mother Demdike's granddaughter, Alizon Device. Callum filmed another sequence of Livvy as Alizon walking through gnarled winter trees. With her long blond hair and porcelain skin (she wore no make up for the filming), Livvy was hauntingly perfect as Alizon.

Since we were so pressed for time, having to do all the filming on one day in the fleeting winter daylight, we put the historical costumes on over our modern clothes. So, in the costume sequences, I was wearing a long skirt over my riding breeches and tall boots. In the non-costume sequences, I wore my 17th century bodice and chemise-like blouse and corset under my winter jacket. I spent the entire day in my corset, rode my horse in my corset, even mucked out in my corset. How is that for historical authenticity?

After Malkin Tower Farm, we drove on to the old quarry outside the village in Newchurch in Pendle. It was while walking past this quarry at daylight gate--twilight in the local dialect--that Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, first met Tibb, her familiar spirit. In traditional English folk magic, no cunning woman could work her spells without a familiar, or otherworldly ally. So the day she met Tibb was really the turning point of her life, when she first came into her powers. A fanciful Victorian stonemason carved a man's head on the quarry stone to commemorate the legends of Tibb.

In the quarry I discussed all this for the camera before changing into costume and reciting an excerpt from the novel, in character as Mother Demdike, describing the moment when she first met her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man. Callum wanting me speaking, not reading, so I had to learn all the passages by heart.

The light in the quarry kept changing dramatically. At once point we were enveloped in dense fog before it lifted to dazzling evening sunlight. Then, off down the valley, mist lifted off the damp green fields like plumes of rising smoke.

By the time we finished the filming, daylight gate was closing. It was getting dark and we'd finished filming all the outdoor sequences just in the nick of time.

We drove back to the stable where we turned an empty stall into a witch's cottage with dried herbs hanging on the wall, an old fashioned willow broom, candles, and even sheep skulls for ambiance. Callum also had a smoke machine going to create an eerie atmosphere.

Our props included facsimile editions of the two historical books my novel draws on as primary sources, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witchcraft in the Countie of Lancaster, by Thomas Potts, the official transcripts of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trial, and Daemonologie, written by King James I, a witch-hunter's handbook that his magistrates were expected to read. I found jpegs of the original, historical title pages of these documents on the internet and then Callum printed them out at home and treated them with tea stains and coffee grounds until they resembled yellowing, crumbling old manuscript pages.

In our "witch's cottage," I discussed the significance of the historical documents and then recited some more passages from the novel, in costume and in character as Mother Demdike. My chosen excerpt was from the opening of the novel, when Mother Demdike, her daughter Liza, and granddaughter Alizon confront churchwarden Richard Baldwin who has refused to pay Liza for the work she's done carding wool for him. According to the primary sources, Baldwin tried to drive the women away with a horse whip, calling them whores and witches. He is recorded as saying, "I will burn the one of you and hang the other."

To punctuate these scenes of conflict between Mother Demdike and the authorities, we used a braided leather whip, purchased from a London joke shop. Callum cracked the whip on the floor while Livvy filmed close up shots.

I was worried that the noise might spook the horse in the next stall, so I went out to check. The horse in question merely nuzzled my pockets for treats, so he didn't seem too traumatised.

A dog club was meeting at the stable grounds that night, so our audio takes had the odd bark and howl in the background which added to the aura of mystery.

We weren't finished at the stable until nearly 9:00 at night, by which time the fog outside was so thick, it made the smoke machine redundant.

Back at my home, we finished the voiceover takes.

I can hardly wait to see the finished product, which Callum and Livvy will edit. After the publisher has approved it, the short film should go live on sites like and Watch this space.