On set of The Vanishing: retelling a fascinating real-life mystery

We go behind the scenes of the new Gerard Butler thriller to find out how the filmmakers reimagined a 100-year old unsolved disappearance

“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon, no sign of life was to be seen on the island… Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.” – Memo sent by Captain James Harvey.

The Flannan Ilse mystery has fascinated people for over 100 years. For writers Joe Bone and Celyn Jones, it was something of a no-brainer to use the tale as the basis for their screenplay, The Vanishing.

Joe Bone is sitting on the top level of a double-decker bus. It’s parked up on a camping site, a base area five minutes from the set where director Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing, Taboo) is shooting with stars Peter Mullen and Gerard Butler. This bus is where the production is organised. Like two streams of water from different directions coming together and bubbling up as they meet, there’s a soft clash of activity around the cramped entrance.

For that reason, Den Of Geek is quickly swept up the stairs. On the top deck, we unwittingly walk straight past writer Joe Bone, working on his laptop, and take a seat. Producer Ade Shannon, one of three producers from production company Mad As Birds, joins us, and proceeds to lay out the bones of the Flannen Ilse mystery.

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“It’s based on a real mystery, the Flannel Isle mystery that took place in 1894. The Flannel Isle is a tiny island off the coast of Northern Scotland, about 30 miles off the coast. Back then, lighthouse keepers always kept lighthouses in threes, that was the magic number,” he explains, all of us twisting at angles to facilitate a conversation between this many people sat in booths across the floor of a bus.

“One guy on his own would go mad, two guys would be at loggerheads, so three kind of kept everybody sane. And so the story goes, the guys have been away for six weeks keeping the lighthouse. When the relief crew came to change crews, they couldn’t get ashore, there was no one there to meet them and when they finally did get ashore they went up to the lighthouse, the door was unlocked, they went in, the table was laid for dinner, one of the chairs was turned over and two of the oilskins were missing. To this day, nobody knows what happened to them.”

The producers question why they’re telling us the story when one of the two writers is sat five feet away. Listening, suggests Shannon, “to make sure I got all the details right.”

“I was,” Bone confirms. “It was 1900, it wasn’t 1894.”

“That’s the story, basically. The film winds back six weeks and tells the tale of what might have happened. It’s what these sick guys came up with,” Shannon finishes.

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“Yeah,” Bone picks up. “I told Cel about the mystery and said this could be a great film, and pretty much he said ‘Let’s do it, let’s write it’. Here we are, and that’s how simple it all is.”

That last point, a flippant dismissal of the film coming together as simple, is delivered with a wry smile. After all, it’s taken three years of development, with guidance from debut feature director Kristoffer Nyholm, for the film to finally move into production in Scotland. When Den Of Geek visits the set, they’re only a couple of weeks into filming, with the bulk of the shoot still in front of them (this was back in April in 2017).

Over that development period, the film underwent several title changes – initially called Keepers, it became The Devil To Pay for a brief time before switching back to Keepers, and now finally settling on The Vanishing.

The script attracted attention and that meant outside influences and ideas.

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“Do you remember that day that we sent it off to all the big agencies?” producer Sean Marley asks his cohorts. “There was one day where, I won’t say who they are because that’s unfair, some of the names that were being thrown at us were unbelievable and all based on the fact that they’d had this script sent around to them that morning.”

Producer Andy Evans tells us that there were some who read the script and wanted to relocate the story to America. “They wanted to set it in Boston, off Cape Cod, and hire De Niro,” he reveals.

“I was ready to completely sell out,” writer Bone mischievously asides.

The film retains, if not its original title, its Scottish setting. Our arrival on set was even delayed by a healthy Scottish downpour, the rain hemming us back in a small guesthouse where we triple checked the batteries in our voice recorder and picked over preparatory notes. The rain subsided, replaced by a bitterly cold wind of some heft, and we made it first to the bus and then, a short time later, out to the set.

Newcomer Connor Swindells, one of the three leads, is faced with the daunting task of making his feature film debut acting opposite Gerrard Butler and Peter Mullen. He tells us that he hadn’t known it was a true story until he arrived on set: “I didn’t realise that it’s taught to a degree in schools around here.”

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Then we depart for the set, and it’s here, on a rocky walkway that stretches out into the sea stooped behind a wall so that the wind can’t sting our cheeks or shriek into our recorders, that director Kristoffer Nyholm reflects on how the unpredictable Scottish weather has provided a blessing of authenticity.

“I think living on Flannen Island, which is the original inspiration, the weather is pretty difficult to control,” Nyholm says. “It changes all the time. So it does in our film. We’re just following that. You want that for the atmosphere of the film.”

“People are educated with film being more or less in a controlled environment and when the sun shines, it shines and when it rains, it rains. And here, one character talking to another, one might be in rain, the other might be in the sun. It can be a challenge but it’s basically a gift, I think.”

The setting, as true to the original story as practicalities allow (it’s not been possible for them to shoot at the actual location), has worked to place the film for the team making it.

“Once you come here you realise people were living here, not very long ago, quite differently,” reflects Nyholm. “In the period of the ’30s, I don’t think it’s that far away. You meet spots where things haven’t changed much, the landscapes and the atmospheres, and if you go into the pubs you hear old songs. People are standing on top of each other for generations, but many places here changes are not very visible. Things might change in the big cities quickly, but here in the more deserted area of Scotland things are quite constant. And that’s very nice, it’s a good feeling, but it also makes you a little humble, because I have to respect this and tread carefully.”

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While the exact location of the original story couldn’t be captured, then, the spirit of it has been retained. The same approach has been applied to other details of the story. For example, many versions of the tale, including the one used in The Vanishing, will include a detail of food being on the table of the abandoned lighthouse, a detail without a basis in fact.

“Yeah, that is part of the folklore and so why not?” Bone tells us. “Folklore is a land of whispers and mysteries and so we’ve kept that intact purposely. In fact, we’ve set it in 1938, so we’re already pushing it forward from 1900. So it really is just inspired by the Flannen Island mysteries.”

“We’ve also probably pushed it a bit further forward now since we’ve moved here, because Flannen was never electrified. So we started with oil lamps everywhere. Once we got here, it just became almost impossible to shoot everywhere with lanterns. So we have electrified it,” producer Andy Evans tells us.

“Plus, it was only when we were here during prep, they showed one of the big diesel engines from 1930, which powers the compressor for the foghorn. When we got here when Kristoffer saw the foghorn, we wrote the foghorn into the scene, then when we saw the compressors working we wrote those in, and those were electrified, and it gives us better light, so we have pushed it. And I think with the boats, we hit a ceiling of, we couldn’t find the right boats for 1930, so it’s all gone up to 11. So we said, screw the year, let’s just do what works and tell the story.”

While the changes will no doubt frustrate some, the idea of drawing attention to the mystery is part of the appeal of making the film, as producer Ade Shannon explains. “As well as it being an amazing untold story and a mystery that not many people have heard of, there’s something really cool about people coming out of cinemas and Googling it and going, ‘Wow, it’s actually true.’”

The Vanishing is in cinemas from 29 March and on digital platforms from 1 April.