Avid fans of BBC Five Live’s Friday afternoon film programme with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, affectionately called “Wittertainment”, may remember Kermode’s review of the sub-Harry Potter family fantasy Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief earlier this year, in which he said the film might as well be called Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins.
Across the world, Australian filmmaker and Wittertainment fan, Jeremy Dylan, saw promise in the idea and actually produced an independent feature length version of Benjamin Sniddlegrass And The Cauldron Of Penguins, in which the titular young man learns that he is a Wittertainer, and must be taught magic by a menagerie of characters based on the running jokes on the film programme, including, of all people, Werner Herzog.
The film ist just about to be released, and I caught up with Jeremy Dylan on the phone recently, in the midst of post-production on the film, to ask him about penguins, arm wresting for work and the amazing truth behind casting the actual, proper Stephen Fry in the film.
What kind of budget does it take to get a feature like Benjamin Sniddlegrass And The Cauldron Of Penguins off the ground? Did you have to use the Marc Price model of getting everyone to work on goodwill and only spend £45, or the Kevin Smith model of selling everything you own in order to finance the film?
Well, it’s sort of in-between, I guess. A lot of people did work on goodwill or like extremely modest fees. There was no way I could have made this film if I was paying SAG minimum rates to all of my actors, for example. I don’t have a final locked budget for it yet, but it’s gonna come in around £6,000. Some of that’s paying the actors and crew, some of it’s the recording studio where we did the soundtrack, and a lot of it’s location hire.
I went to see a band play at the Exchange Hotel in Sydney a few months before we started filming, and I realised that every room in the place was decorated completely differently and looked like it was a different building. So, I ended up hiring that, and that was the concert hall, the magic school, the villain’s lair and a pub. Twenty-five percent of our budget went to hiring that, but we shot about a third of the film there. So, the budget was about £6,000 and that all came out of my back pocket.
I think it’s fair to say that the big coup for the film is casting Stephen Fry as the narrator, what with him being a high profile fan of Wittertainment as well as the narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks in the UK.
How did he come on board with the film?
I still kind of have trouble believing I have met the man, let alone directed him. I just have to take a quick look at the photos of the two of us to remind myself that it happened.
I mean, that was a total fluke. I write screenplays with people’s voices in my head, like Orson Welles or Michael Caine or whoever, and I wrote the narration with Stephen Fry’s voice. That warm, gentle authority and that absolute trustworthiness. Like, if he told you the sky is tartan, you’d believe him.
Yeah, I wrote all the narration section with his voice in mind and he came down to Australia in August to shoot this documentary on language for the BBC. And while he was here, he did a couple of one-man shows at the Sydney Opera House. So, I had tickets for the first night down in the front row and I thought it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
So, I wrote him a letter, explaining the premise of the film, and reminding him of its inception on Wittertainment, asking him if he might possibly be generous enough to lend his voice to the project. I put in a copy of the script, and then at the end of the show, I just passed him a copy as he was about to walk off the stage, and I expected that to be the end of it. [I] didn’t really think much more about it.
But three days later, I booted my computer up and there was an email from him saying he had a half-hour window between meetings that afternoon, saying he’d do the recording. So, I packed up the sound gear, nervous as all hell, and headed down to his hotel. I mean, I’d idolised this man since I was about nine years old.
So, yeah. I’m down in the hotel for 3.30, and he turns up at like 3.32, and the first thing he does is apologise for being two minutes late. He was complimentary of my choice of jacket and then we headed off to the hotel bar to do the recording. And it took about 25 seconds to get there, with about 17 fans coming up to him, including The Strokes, the band, who just happened to be in the hotel and apparently are big Stephen Fry fans.
You should have got them to be in the film as well.
Yeah, it’s that kind of stuff. It never occurs to you at the time, and I was just like, “I should have got the Strokes in the film!”
But yeah, we sat down, just the two of us in there and his performance was just pitch-perfect, exactly as I had imagined it when I wrote it, down to every inflection. He was exactly as you would think Stephen Fry would be in real life. He complimented me on the script, which he thought was very funny, which was, of course, huge for me.
He asked me how I was paying for it and he was like, “But you’re a young person! Surely you don’t have any money?”
Did you approach any of the other high profile listeners? The “Hello to…” brigade?
He (Fry) told me I should get Michael Sheen involved, and if I’d been quick enough on my feet at the time, I would have said, “Sure, here’s the script. Pass it onto him!” That didn’t occur to me at the time, and thus I only had Twitter as a means to contact him. Haven’t heard back from him yet, but you know, there’s still time.
There are a couple of characters in the film whose dialogue is all ADR, so he could voice Lord Emmerich, the villain. And Jason Isaacs actually suggested himself for a part, a few weeks after this all kicked off, on Mark and Simon’s show when he was promoting Green Zone, I think. He said he wanted to play all the penguins.
And so, I still hold out hopes for that. There’s still time. I sent a tweet to David Morrissey, asking if he’d be up for a cameo, and he came back saying he wanted to play all of the penguins, and suggested that he would arm wrestle Jason Isaacs, considering they’d both suggested themselves for it.
It’s not a situation that’s arisen for those actors before, is it? Arm wrestling for work?
Yeah, probably not! I think there’s value in that, instead of having their agents haggle over the fees.
Are you a fan of the Harry Potter series? How much did those books and films influence the script, as opposed to the knock-offs, like Percy Jackson?
That’s an interesting question, actually, because legally, it’s a parody of Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief, but I’ve neither seen nor read Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief. I’m essentially going off of Mark’s review, which was entirely about how derivative it was of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. So, the film is derivative of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone.
It’s not scene by scene, but a dorky kid with an awkward home life discovers that the reason he doesn’t fit in is really because he’s a magical boy with a magical heritage, with a magical father who he didn’t know about before. And once he finds this out he has to go off to magic school to learn a bunch of magic. And instead of Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Hagrid and Lord Voldemort, it’s Benjamin Sniddlegrass, Werner Herzog, Pentangle and Lord Emmerich.
I am actually a big Harry Potter fan, probably more of the films than the books, but I sort of put myself on a Harry Potter blackout once I started making this because I didn’t wanna –
Well, there’s that as well. Yeah, I just didn’t want to be too tied down to the structure and the characters and the books. I just wanted to be free to go off in other directions.
Kermode and Mayo have a pretty big worldwide fanbase, and I think this film is clearly going to be something those fans are interested in.
Do you have any worries about a wider audience understanding the jokes? Or do you think the film stands on its own for people who don’t know their Wittertainment Code of Conduct from their elbow?
I think it totally stands on its own. For people who don’t know the show, it’s just weird. It still makes sense, but it just seems incredibly weird. There are all sorts of jokes in this film that are references to Wittertainment, but I think they’re funny on their own merits.
Most of the cast in this, for example, they’ve never seen a Werner Herzog film or heard a Dodge Brothers album, or been subjected to a Kermodian rant. But, you know, the script still made sense.
Like there’s references to skiffle music and quiffs and Pentangle and Fairport Convention and David Morrissey and Roland Emmerich, Werner Herzog getting shot, Professor Mumblecore and Unfortunate Events, and all that.
That wasn’t a spoiler was it, involving Mumblecore and an Unfortunate Event?
The Unfortunate Event doesn’t involve Professor Mumblecore. Actually, the Unfortunate Event is the first thing in the film. I do want to avoid spoilers.
But I don’t think you need to be one of the Wittertainment faithful to get the film. Although I am considering running out the Code of Conduct before all of the screenings, just to keep people on their best behaviour.
Definitely, you should play it during the trailers. How will the film be distributed? Do you have any studios interested in exhibiting the film?
Not at this stage, and I can’t really imagine that Miramax is gonna be knocking my door down any time soon. I’ve just sort of set up the premiere. The film’s going to premiere in Sydney on Monday 31st January, and based on how quickly we sell that out, we’ll almost certainly be doing more screenings in Sydney and Melbourne throughout next year.
David Braithwaite, who’s one of the producers on the Kermode and Mayo show, suggested to me that I should have a screening at the Phoenix East Finchley (Kermode’s favourite cinema), which sounds like a marvellous idea to me, so that’s under consideration. And we’re gonna be selling the film online at the website, as a digital download, and also a special edition DVD with all the bonus features, and that will be available not long after the premiere. Around early February.
When your blog was first featured on Wittertainment, it was mentioned that the following six instalments of the Sniddlegrass saga were already planned. More than that, Dr. Kermode has since spawned Being Jason Isaacs as a new film idea. Will you be dipping back into the world of Wittertainment for your next feature, whenever that may be?
At this stage, anything is possible. I think Being Jason Isaacs could possibly make a great short. There’s a big short film fest in Australia called Tropfest, so that’s a potential project for that. That idea would work great as a seven minute mockumentary kind of thing. But that would really depend on whether Mr. Isaacs wants to be involved or not.
I’m writing a couple of things at the moment, like a black comedy TV pilot about the music industry and a neo-noir feature film. But at the moment, I’m mainly concentrating on getting BSATCOP [buh-SAT-cop] out to the people and we’ll see where that takes me.
That’s a great nickname for it, there, BSATCOP.
Yeah, Mayo was reading my email out at Septemberfest and when he said that, I thought, “That acronym has some legs.”
Jeremy Dylan, thank you very much.