Cooking Up Amazing Stories: ‘Third Star’ Director Hattie Dalton

2011-06 (Limited)

Making a film may seem a lot like baking a cake. Combine the right ingredients, stir them up to make a pleasing concoction, and, after it’s been given time to rise to expectations, proudly serve it. In filmmaking, however, worry about the product turning out half-baked, uneven, or overdone is even greater, because critics and the ticket-buying public can be either cruel or apathetic if a film is not to their taste. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Third Star director Hattie Dalton learned her craft on British films like Layer Cake.

To extend the metaphor, think of a director as a master chef ensuring that the right ingredients are brought together in the right proportions at the right time to make something special. A director must envision the way the story ultimately will be told on screen and guide a film through its many production stages. Storytelling is even more precarious than cooking, because the director has to create a masterpiece but also whet the public’s appetite for something that may be deliciously unexpected.

Dalton wants to create memorable cinematic “meals” that provide food for thought. “If I feel like a story needs to be told, I will do everything in my power to tell it. Otherwise, we’ll only be left with what I call ‘fast food films’ that most cinemas are full of. They satiate a certain hunger but leave you feeling slightly sick, numbed, and inexplicably wanting more to try and avoid the empty feeling that follows their consumption.” Dalton admits that this assessment is harsh and pure entertainment with mass appeal does have its place. Her favorite films when she is in the audience may be “commercial, but they provoke thought and resonate for a very long time.”

Dalton’s recipe for Third Star required a careful selection of cinematic ingredients, including music, sound, wardrobe, and production design. Her continuing work to further distribute the recently released film illustrates the complexity of the director’s job, one she began learning by working as an editor on other directors’ films.

When she ventured into writing and making her own films, she first mastered shorter stories, such as The Banker, which earned her a BAFTA in 2005. “The short films I have written and directed previously were labors of love and profitable in the sense that they made it clear I wanted to tell bigger stories, potentially using the same humor to access the audience. They also gave me the chance to develop the necessary skills and stamina required in directing.” Writer Vaughan Sivell had seen Dalton’s short films, which showed what she calls her “irreverent sensibility in storytelling,” and decided she would be the right director for Third Star.

In autumn 2009 Dalton began filming her first feature along the stunning Pembrokeshire coastline. South Wales’ scenery is indeed beautiful to film and gave Third Star its rugged appeal, appropriate to the story of four friends, one who is terminally ill, journeying to remote Barafundle Bay. For all the difficulty of filming in an isolated location, Dalton appreciated the atmosphere it helped create on film. “I loved that this film was a ‘walking road movie,’ which is an unusual take on the road movie genre. Like Stand By Me, having the boys walk their journey meant they were on an adventure, all together, naturally in the present moment with whatever the landscape provided. The isolation was an important aspect in this film. The audience really needs to feel they’re in a bit of a bubble with the boys—voyeurs to the precious journey of these four close friends.”

Dalton “wanted to keep the style of the film timeless overall.” She added, “Specifically in wardrobe and production design, I wanted the boys to be in a world that represented their characters truthfully but with classic, neutral appeal. With that in mind, we sought the clothes and props that were a mixture of retro and modern with a universal appeal.

“The music, too, needed to reflect the boys, which is why the composer, Stephen Hilton, and I worked along the lines of [the film] being almost a western,” with the four friends being like “cowboys on an adventure. It had to be playful, warm, and not too sentimental. The writing itself is never mawkish, so the music had to steer well clear of that. We didn’t want to manipulate the audience by telling them how to feel but instead wanted to support the strengths of the scenes themselves.”

The day-to-day reality of making a film, especially in the economic environment of the past few years, was even more difficult than Dalton expected. “During pre-production, due to the collapse in economy, among other things, our budget [was] halved and, in turn, our shooting schedule was cut right back, too. Because we had our cast and crew in place and the shoot was so weather dependent, it was a case of either shoot then with limited resources or wait to raise more money and risk never shooting it.

“We had to take the leap, at a cost, though—I never felt I had a moment to step back, breathe, let alone properly look at the rushes to check we were getting what I wanted. It was so full-on that the only option was to relentlessly keep pushing just to make sure all the necessary story points were covered. Again there was an advantage of having an editing background, because I could see the entire film in my head and knew when it was time to move on—even when I didn’t really feel ready to. If a plot point was covered, there wasn’t the luxury of doing more than a few takes at most to get the perfect performance, or the perfect light or camera angle, for example. I don’t regret taking that leap, though, and I’m really proud of what we pulled off with such little time and money.”

After filming ended, Dalton maintained her vision for Third Star as it was edited and turned from raw footage into a full-fledged film. “My background in editing has always made me feel most at ease in the cutting room. I was fortunate to spend the long, arduous time with Peter Christelis, whose sense of pace and rhythm is remarkable, to the say the least. It’s one thing knowing how to start a scene, but sometimes it’s hard to know when to leave a scene. It takes a lot of discipline. I’ve always known that the edit is really forming the final draft of the script, so there’s a need to avoid being precious about previous ideas of how the story should be.”

Even when the film was in post-production, Dalton often lacked the luxury of time. She found out only a few days before the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival that Third Star would be the Gala film selection closing the festival. “I’d been holed up in a tiny cutting room with the editor for many months, followed by a frantically tight schedule working on the music, sound design and color grade. We finished the film just before the festival, so I was still reeling from the process of getting it ready in time.”

At least Dalton had a moment to catch her breath when she, along with the EIFF audience, watched the finished film. “To have [Third Star] included in the festival, let alone as the closing night film, was both an honor and a thrill. And to be able to sit back with such a big audience watching it really for the first time as a finished film was amazing.”

The hard work finally is paying off in audience appreciation. Since the EIFF, Third Star has been screened at film festivals around the world and is now going into a wider release. Almost two years after filming ended, audiences are heading into their local cinemas to see the Sivell-scripted, Dalton-directed story brought to life on screen.

The film’s actors also praise Dalton’s work. J J Feild (Third Star’s Miles) noted Dalton’s “great vision for what she wants” and “unending energy. I’m extremely proud to have worked with her. She has great gentleness and scale at the same time.” Tom Burke (Davy) appreciated that Dalton “challenged our ideas about male friendship and held the space. That is something a director needs to do amid the hubbub of a set—hold the space.”

Benedict Cumberbatch (James) called Dalton “a very, very passionate woman” who “was so lovely—she is just somebody who is amazingly adept at giving you confidence and focus and clarity in the harshest moments of exhaustion. She is very able to eke out performance and quietly get on with things.”

The next step is to get the film out to bigger audiences in additional cities. A largely fan-driven word-of-mouth campaign fueled by Twitter and Facebook is helping generate more interest in Third Star, and the number of UK and US cinemas showing or scheduled to show the film is increasing. For first-time director Dalton, each new venue is just more icing on the cake.