'Third Star', Making the Festival Rounds, Pits Benedict Cumberbatch Against a Taboo Topic

by Lynnette Porter

31 May 2011

With a difficult theme and a challenging landscape, Third Star, an official selection for film festivals around the world, takes the characters and audience on the road trip of a lifetime.
cover art

Third Star

Director: Hattie Dalton
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Tom Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch

Limited: Jun 2011
UK theatrical: 20 May 2010

Director Hattie Dalton and scriptwriter Vaughan Sivell don’t believe in making a film the easy way. Instead, for Dalton’s first feature, Third Star, they not only took on a difficult theme—death by cancer—but the challenging landscape of rugged Barafundle Bay in Wales. Dalton describes the short shooting time and limited budget, made worse by a collapsing economy, in a single word: “grueling”. The filmmakers also braved the obstacles facing any small film: finding a variety of funding sources, pulling together cast and crew, and, perhaps most daunting of all, getting their film distributed to the right audience. Third Star’s motto for success seems to be akin to that of the Little Engle That Could: “I think I can, I think I can.” This mantra is rapidly turning the festival-favored feature into “the little film that could”.

The film chronicles the road trip of four longtime friends; however, this is hardly the typical buddy movie. James (Benedict Cumberbatch) is terminally ill but determined to visit his favorite place, Barafundle Bay. Helping him accomplish what seems, at times, to be a foolhardy venture are Davy (Tom Burke), who becomes one of James’ caretakers after he finds himself out of work; Bill (Adam Robertson), who has settled for a routine job and relationship; and Miles (J J Feild), who is seemingly successful and self-assured but hides a few secrets. Along the way they laugh, bicker, make mistakes, make amends, and share philosophies along with beer and weed. They are not perfect people, and their trip of a lifetime is far from ideal. But their story is very human.

Dalton sums up her assessment of the film’s power by explaining what Third Star is not:  “I like this quote my sister sent from Rotten Tomatoes:  This is a film that is not the Hollywood ‘even though the main character is dying, his friends find salvation and the meaning of life’ rubbish . . . [nor] the Oprah version of life (i.e., if you look into your heart, you will achieve all you desire, even though you are dying). No, it is a film about real, flawed characters’ reactions to the imminent death of a loved one. It is funny, poignant, sad, and ultimately harrowing, but at the end the humanity of the characters shows through, despite their selfishness on occasion.”

Despite the theme of death, which is often underscored in reviews, Dalton sees the film as far from depressing and, indeed, would not have wanted to make the film if it was only about death. “Humans have an impressive capacity of dealing with difficult situations, often through humor. I think big, important stories can be told without having the audience leave the experience feeling depressed. Through honesty and a lightness of touch, the audience can hopefully be entertained, even laugh, so they have the capacity and space to contend with the discomfort that comes with life’s difficulties and dramas. Yes, Third Star has illness and death in it, but let’s face it, no one escapes death. It’s the only certainty in our lives, and most of us have been affected by someone close being very ill or dying.

“It’s important to point out that if the film was only about death and dying, I wouldn’t have been so interested. It’s more about friendship and living. A young man in his prime, full of the simple regrets of not having lived his life as he always imagined he would, is the most important theme and what interested me most. We all have to face death at some stage, and I think it’s important to ponder whether we are living the lives we want to live. Every day. And that comes down to our choices.”

Third Star is a good example of why less-than-blockbuster-sized films need to be made and personal, if sometimes difficult, stories shared. It illustrates the role that lower budget, independently spirited films must continue to play within the entertainment industry.

On the Road to International Distribution

Third Star held its world premiere in Edinburgh, where it was chosen to become the closing night Gala film of the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival. In 2010, the film also gained distinction as an official selection for film festivals around the world, including those held in Taipei, Warsaw, Torino, Sao Paulo, Zurich, and Seville.

Dalton is highly enthusiastic about the festival experience. “It’s such a privilege to be amongst so many talented filmmakers and share stories—and sympathies.” During these festivals, the director met with many like-minded filmmakers and audiences. “It’s fantastic to share the film with film lovers at these festivals. It played to a full house every screening I went to, and it was a joy to be able to witness the impact the film had on the audiences. I’ve had a lot of people contact me to express the affect the film had on them.”

The film festival circuit also brought home the difficulty of distributing even popular festival selections to a wider audience. Dalton acknowledges that “many of the best films I’d seen in a long time were finding it even more difficult to find distribution. It’s quite heartbreaking. It seems with the current climate that unless a film has huge name stars attached [and] a vast budget with special effects, preferably 3D, or wins awards at the few most prestigious independent film festivals, it won’t have a chance of being seen.” Dalton is disheartened that more people don’t have access to “fantastic films because distributors are playing it more and more safe, only spending money on prints and advertising on so-called ‘guaranteed’ money earners.”

After its release in London on 20 May, Third Star opened in cities around the UK while, in Australia, director Dalton showed the film in her home nation at the Sydney International Film Festival. In June, Third Star will be part of the Seattle Film Festival before it joins other UK films being screened across the US as part of a film-distribution project called From Britain With Love. Third Star is scheduled not only in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami, but in smaller cities or those usually overlooked for special screenings. With each venue it picks up more fans and positive word of mouth.

An increasingly important grassroots campaign to make the public aware of Third Star began with the requisite film web site but also included Facebook and Twitter. Meeting the audience outside of film festivals further helped establish a bond between those who created the film and those attending early screenings. In April 2011, a special screening of Third Star in Cardiff included a Q&A session with cast and crew, a process to be repeated in May and June in some UK venues.

Recent Facebook and Twitter contests for film posters and t-shirts garnered dozens of entries. The number of Facebook friends steadily increased in May, from a few hundred to more than 800 by the London premiere, but the count is still climbing. Several fans posted their plans for road trips to see the film, or they petitioned From Britain With Love to include more cities on the film’s US tour. The people behind the film clearly appreciate this support, and Third Star benefits from fans’ “we think you can” spirit.

For all that good feeling, Third Star is not a film that everyone will like. It graphically deals with James’ daily struggle with cancer, as well as the baggage four friends bring to a rocky reunion. Some scenes are as heartwrenching as they are cathartic and ultimately transcendent. However, these friends’ issues in dealing with life and death will resonate with many filmgoers.

The film’s title is based on a throwaway line midway through the audience’s and characters’ journey. “Third star to the right, then on toward morning,” James says, only to be corrected by one of his friends; “I thought it was ‘second star’” (which it is, according to Peter Pan). Like this line, some scenes seem to be just a touch off the mark, but to the London audiences with whom I attended screenings on the film’s opening day, Third Star was right on target.

It’s the kind of film that gets the audience talking during the credits, even if they never spoke to each other before sitting down in the theater. During one screening, it brought the initially-giggling teenaged fans of Cumberbatch to tears. It prompted a former NHS worker to post a congratulatory message on Third Star’s Facebook page for the film’s honesty and humor. It made the young woman sitting next to me comment on what she would do if faced with James’ situation. It also made the audience laugh at the film’s snarky humor. Third Star is a film, instead of a typical summer movie.

Dalton is well aware that not all reviews will be positive and is “not surprised the Establishment critics don’t like this film—life is nasty, brutish and short, as the saying goes, and life is not the wonderful thing that the mainstream entertainment industry would have us believe. I would like to thank the cast and crew for making this film and for addressing issues that affect everyone every day. If the mainstream critics don’t like that sort of film, well, to hell with them. Death is the last taboo in our so-called society, and films like this can only help in forcing people to address the fact that everyone [is] going to die, because that’s what people do.” The director’s advice is to “see it and judge for yourself.”

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