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Menhir

Written by George Nixon

It’s natural to feel nervous before a shoot. Especially when you’re producing it as well as directing it. But the week before shooting MENHIR, I was a nervous wreck.

It was a film pulled together by friends and family; a close circle keen to make it happen.

It started with a walk with Mum. We spend quite a lot of time walking the dogs on the North Coast, and around the West Penwith Moor. Mum was talking about some ideas and sketches she’d had for her first collection of men’s work, and how she wanted to capture the textures of the stones you find on the moor. These massive monoliths, crystalised granite giants poking from the bracken and heather. 

We’d been talking about me making a film for her for a while, and this new collection felt like an obvious first one - I wanted to capture the mysterious, wind-swept and haunted landscape that inspired the collection. The standing stones and quoits older than Stonehenge, with stories that are equally unanswerable - ever since I was a boy I’ve been fascinated by the folklore surrounding them, the unlikeliness of their construction and the mystery of them being there at all. This childhood fascination turned into an obsessive curiosity, the more I read about their history the more questions I had - and maybe that’s where the interest comes from.

When planning the film, I initially had a plan to make a three minute film of the jewellery being worn by a model as he walks around and climbs the rocks on the top of a couple of hills - connecting the granite textured pieces with the places that inspired Mum as she was making the collection. This would have looked like the first half of the film, and would have still been interesting, but it didn’t have a climax, a moment for everything else to hinge around. 

I began to think about how plausible it would be to put up a granite standing stone of our own, and like my interest in the ancient folklore of the moors, it quickly became an obsession. It would definitely be the moment of tension that I was looking for, and there is something really tangible in connecting the collection to a physical thing… but where do you start? 

The first thing was to find some people who would be up for the challenge. I spoke to Chris Wootton, my cousin Flo’s partner, over a pint, and he reckoned it was doable - we then chatted to Ollie Burch, family friend and builder, and he not only thought it was doable but had always wanted to do it. Their confidence in it slowly got the ball rolling. I called my old school friend Iona, and asked if her Dad would be up for us putting a standing stone up in his field - and over a cup of tea on a rainy Zennor day, he agreed. 

The location was beautiful, on the moor and in view of the sea. But it was made better when Mark (farmer and owner of the field) said that according to an old map of the farm, there had been a standing stone in that field, and a layline that ran right through it.

So with a field secured, we had to find the granite. After a few weeks of searching I happened upon a lichen covered 800 kg lump in a builder’s yard in Cape Cornwall. It was from the area, and perfectly shaped. The ideal stone. So after a bit of negotiation, it was brought up to the farm in the back of a flatbed. 

Chris and I set to work digging a hole in the field, after measuring out where the stone should be - and he built an a-frame to help pull the stone up and in. We were a bit worried about the ground, and whether or not there would be buried granite - but after about 20 minutes the easiest hole we’ve ever dug was ready for a stone. So far, so good.

That night, the camera crew (DOP Alex Stanley-Ruthven and AC Joe Mullin) arrived with a car load of camera gear - and we set about a briefing on the next two days shooting. It was the tail end of a storm, so we needed wet weather gear, and we needed minimal kit on the first day as there was a 40 minute uphill walk to the location…

In the dark with mist and pouring rain, Valentina Concordia, (my girlfriend and photographer) picked the model, artist and family friend Finlay Abbott-Ellwood, up from his house in Towednack. We met with the rest of the crew at the bottom of the hill, and there was a nervous atmosphere. The wind was relentless. The rain was meant to pass, but before that we needed to lug boxes of kit up the hill. It was an extreme day. We had heavy tripods for the camera, but the footage was still shaky. We were shooting on film, and in the windy conditions taking light readings and changing magazines was almost impossible.

After a blustery December day, we had all the shots we needed, and wrapped before it got dark at around 4. 

I managed to twist my ankle in the midst of all the action, and could hardly walk - so the prospect of the more demanding day being ahead of us was terrifying. I didn’t really sleep that night - and arriving at the farm with a yard full of cars and a rabble of enthusiastic rope-pullers eating breakfast didn’t calm my nerves.

We had a motley crew of people who were excited to work on the project. There were Chris and Ollie, who are experienced builders and would be in charge of the actual lifting of the stone. My Dad, and brother were enthusiastic extras. One of my oldest friends, Rupert was there. And Jeremy, a crazy Frenchman and dear friend who is always up for an adventure, had come up from Penzance. 

We shot everything other than the stone being pulled up, as none of us had any idea how hard it would be - but after lunch, the time had come to give it a go. There were some tense moments as they started to pull on the ropes, but after one pull the a-frame fell and the stone was in. Ollie secured it, and filled the hole around the stone with rocks and soil. 

It was a touching experience. A group of people working together to make a permanent mark. The sense of achievement was great but it was bigger than that - I’d been caught up in all the stress of production, and until that point hadn’t really thought of how it would feel once we were done, but I wasn’t expecting to feel so overwhelmed. 

Now I’ve finished the film, and it’s out, and I’ve had time to decompress, I’ve come to realise that the best thing about the whole process is that stone. If you stand in the doorway of the Gurnards Head, and look towards the farm over the road, in the field with the shed you can see it - and it brings me so much joy. The feeling of connection with the people who helped put it up was so great - and the idea that it will be a permanent structure on the landscape is beautiful.

I worked with the incredible Daisy Rickman on the score - trusting that she would be able to capture the atmosphere of the area without needing a brief, and she did it beautifully. The score adds so much to the film.

The process of marking MENHIR wasn’t like a normal commercial, it was a collaboration between a big group of people from every time of my life. Family, friends, people I’ve known forever. The final product, a bit like the standing stone, is a result of the hard work of a group of passionate people working together to make something - and I hope that it does their hard work justice.

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