ANTHONY HONTOIR — One-Man 35mm Filmmaker of “Ghosts of Glamorgan”
I first discovered Anthony Hontoir shortly after I’d purchased my Éclair Cameflex CM3 35mm movie camera last year. I was Googling for information on the camera and came across Anthony’s website downwoodfilms.com with images of him filming his newest film Ghosts of Glamorgan with an Éclair CM3.
I e-mailed him some questions about care and maintenance of the camera, to which he immediately responded. (The camera requires a high-viscosity oil to keep the gears running smoothly. Swiss watch oil is one solution—at $20+ for just a few ounces. Anthony tipped me off about using sewing machine oil—six ounces for $3.95!)
Then I looked up some of his work samples on Youtube and was astounded by a clip from his film Dangerous Coast about an incident that happened in the late 1940s about a ship that ran aground in a raging storm and the tragic attempts to rescue the crewmen. It looked just like an opening of an old 1940s Ealing Film that David Lean might have directed, right down to the shots, the music and the titling.
I ordered a DVD from Anthony’s website and was amazed to see that, like me, he makes his films almost entirely himself as a writer-producer-director-cameraman-editor-distributor. However, Anthony takes it a few steps further. While I have been able to make my films only with the advantages of the Digital Revolution, Anthony Hontoir has been making his films—on film—in 16mm and 35mm. He also sells his films, one DVD at a time, and has managed to make a living out of it.
His latest film Ghosts of Glamorgan was released very recently in March of this year. This interview was conducted last fall when he was in the final stages of the post-production process. This interview is an extract from a much longer interview for a book of interviews that I am conducting with filmmakers around the world who are producing work as one-person filmmakers. I hope to have this new volume in the Naked Filmmaking series available at the end of the year or the beginning of next year.
MC: When you shoot these, you’re doing it pretty much all by yourself, aren’t you? You don’t have any assistants or anyone helping you?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: Very rarely. I have had an assistant if need be, but normally I’m shooting on my own. I have had a focus-puller on a few occasions so I can just concentrate on operating the camera. If there are just a few dodges, I normally pull it myself when working in 35mm, but that takes a lot of strategic thinking.
MC: Since you do these films all by yourself where you write them, produce them, direct them, edit them–has this all been done by design or out of financial necessity?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: More out of necessity. I’ve done the picture editing, the sound edits—and I enjoy doing them. I like working with my hands. In my ten years as a journalist I was a woodworker and making things with my hands. That’s another reason why I like film in the place of digital, because film cameras are mechanical objects. I’m very much orientated towards mechanical things over digital things, which are almost up in the ether as it were—zeros and ones that you can’t really touch.
For some of my other films I was actually doing everything, the picture and the sound edit, here on my PC computer. But Ghosts of Glamorgan has been photographed in 35mm color and it needed to be done to much higher specifications to have a broadcast type of result. That’s why I’ve gone back to using the Avid suite and the digital dubbing theater.
MC: I make my films on the side in addition to my regular full-time job. For you and your films, is this your primary occupation or are you doing this on the side in addition to having a regular paying gig?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: No, this is it. This is it!
MC: That’s remarkable. I know of nobody who is doing that. Do enough people purchase your films to allow you to keep doing this?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: Well, yes, just about. If you are a creative artist, you have to accept the fact that you produce your material and you have to sell it for the market. On some of these films I could spend a year making each one, meaning there are so many months spent preparing, shooting, editing, and then selling. But the selling side of it is in operation in itself.
The first “town film” that we made was The History of Porthcawl and I did it all by myself. I had a master produced, which was then duplicated produced onto VHS, or now DVD. I have a local printer friend who did a nice cover for it. Then it all had to be packaged and boxed and labeled and everything else that has. Now I have my stock built up. If I have a film done by November or December for a Christmas release, in the months from September or October onward I would then be doing the publicity. This consists of me putting out leaflets door to door. The whole town would be leafleted. Over the years I’ve done miles and miles and miles of walking and thousands and thousands of leaflets with mad dogs snapping at me at the letter box. And that’s what makes life very interesting, I suppose. Or very frustrating and nerve-racking! I’ve simply bounced from one to another. And I’m still at it!
There is a cast of nearly fifty people in my latest film Ghosts of Glamorgan. I stipulated at the beginning that I was going to be using local actors and that I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay any acting fees, but that they’d get a bit of film experience. Some were actors, students who wanted to get experience acting in a film. Most of the appearances are quite short anyway, perhaps only a couple of hours or a day or two. I said to them, “You won’t get anything out of it financially,” and most said, “We’re just pleased to do it!” They were quite happy to help out because it was something that they enjoyed doing.
It took me months to build the sets for Ghosts. I use my garage as a studio. I had a proper bedroom set constructed in there with walls and windows and doors. We had a railway compartment scene, which was modeled after an old 1890s railroad compartment. That was another set that took ages to build.
So it’s not only filming and making the film, there’s also a lot of carpentry to it as well! If I’m not actually behind the camera I’m usually cutting up wood and making things.
MC: You shot Dangerous Coast and Ghosts of Glamorgan with a 1950’s French Éclair Cameflex CM3. How did you come to choose that?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: It’s a very iconic camera. How did I come to choose it? Well, by chance, as a matter-of-fact. Back in the 1990s when I had Dangerous Coast in mind to do, I knew that I wanted to do it in 35mm and in black and white. I didn’t have a 35mm camera at that time so I had to find one. I saw that one person was selling a Mitchell BNC for £5,000. I thought that would be something to have it if only I could afford it. But, fact, you need a big crew for that and a whacking great dolly to put it on as well, so that was ruled out from the sheer size.
I was looking for an Arriflex IIC when I found a listing for an Éclair Cameflex CM3 for £850 or £900. I knew all about the CM3 from my moviemaking scrapbooks. I had catalogs on movie cameras sent to me from Mitchell and Arriflex and Éclair, and I knew that the CM3 was one of Haskell Wexler’s favorite cameras. So I thought, “Well, that would be all right then!”
It’s an odd looking thing. The front lens turret looks like a gas mask. Not the most attractive looking camera.
The first thing I did to it was a lens conversion. I could do quite a lot with the 50 mm Kinoptik lens that came with the camera, but I’d rather use a system of lenses from an SLR, so I had a conversion on one of the lens turret ports to use Olympus lenses.
Then a couple of years ago I was nosing around on the Internet, looking at old cameras, thinking of adding a second one, and came across a chap selling a Wall 35mm camera. I was originally thinking of using this as a camera for going around and making talks about the history of movie cameras. So I bought it and got it home and started trying it out and—it worked! So I thought, “Well, I might as well use this!” So it became a sort of a studio camera for Ghosts.
MC: When I was watching Dangerous Coast I felt like I was watching a documentary made during the 1940s—from the music and the titling and the composition. I honestly thought it had the look of the opening of one of David Lean’s pictures from the 40s—yet the film was made in the late 1990s.
ANTHONY HONTOIR: That was deliberate. I spent ages and ages watching old 1940s films. I studied how they were shot and noted what type of lenses they were using. In fact, the majority of Dangerous Coast was shot with the 50 mm lens. Everything about the film, including how it was shot and edited, was aimed at that period look. In fact, there was an instance when a chap bought a DVD of the film in a shop and he went back afterwards and said, “I didn’t realize anybody had made a film about this at the time!”
Ghosts of Glamorgan was started in 2006 and most of the people who acted in it were people I knew or were picked almost at random. “Would you help me with this scene or that scene?”
Last year the film was actually in the doldrums. A girl I cast in one of the major parts had lost interest in the film and didn’t want to finish it, so I basically had an actor who’d walked off the film.
It was by chance that I met with somebody in Porthcawl who was one very much behind the films that I’ve been doing and asked, “Do you have any scenes coming up where you need a hand?”
And I said, “Actually there is. There’s a part that I’m still trying to cast and I could do with a bit of help.”
He started bringing in a few pals and the group sort of grew and grew. They all had parts in the scenes and that’s really what saw it through—this little group of enthusiasts who pitched in. Sarah Gunn, the girl who plays Mamie Stewart, was brilliant in the part and in some quite difficult scenes. She was a drama student who became a professional singer and dancer.
Oliver Purches, who plays the one chap who is driving the car throughout the film, was trained properly and has worked in theater and film production. He came over from Bristol for nothing. He’d never been in a 35mm film and he just wanted to do it. And the girl, she was a sort of drama student a singer and dancer.
Every time I needed to do something someone would pipe up and say, “Yes, I’ll do it.” Put on a costume, dress up as a gamekeeper, get all covered in blood—every one of them, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. If it weren’t for the volunteers I couldn’t have been able to finish it.
In one case we were filming in a pub at 7:30 in the morning. One of the girls part had to get up at five o’clock just to do her hair. Nobody thought twice about it—and nobody was being paid! Yet, there they were, all willing volunteers right there on the dot at half past seven, carrying all the gear in and setting it up. We had to be finished by 10 o’clock before the customers started to arrive. It was a very busy couple of hours but they were happy as could be. Of course, for them it was something different and I think everyone was getting a genuine enjoyment out of it.
Personally, I was absolutely worn out by the time we finished. You can guarantee on any film set that the one person who never gets any sort of a break is the cameraman. There’s always something to be set up or you’re doing the shot or your breaking down and setting up for the next shot while everyone else gets to take a break.
I always get very nervous before a setup. Even now after so many years, I get very nervous. I think, “Oh gosh, have I said the lights in the right position? Is the light reading going to be right? Are the actors going to act properly?” There’s a lot that can go wrong. And when you’re the producer-director-cameraman there’s nobody else who’s responsible. It can weigh very heavily on the shoulders.
But provided all the preparation’s been done and the lighting’s been set and the exposure’s been checked and double-checked, it’s like the old adage from what I was doing my woodworking: “You measure twice and cut once.” I think it’s the same in photography. Don’t become complacent. A film camera has to have tape measurements taken for the focusing and the light meter for all the lights. Those are the tools of the trade. Then when you come with the actor in front of the camera and turn on the lights and press the button to roll, the only thing at that point that can go wrong is if you have a technical failure like a camera jam, or perhaps the actors might get it wrong. And 99% of the time that’s what normally happens. So you say, “Right. Cut. Let’s do it again.”
With digital photography and the automatic systems built into those cameras those mechanisms can take care of themselves or less. Whereas, with a film camera you’ve got to do it all.
MC: Do you ever feel that by making your films in your way–and making them on film–that you’re preserving and carrying on the history of that type of filmmaking?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: I never sit back and think much about it. I’m sure that in this day and age it seems a bit weird to be working in this way. And I’m sure there are lots of people who think I’m a bit of a nut case. To me, it just seems a natural way to do it.
It would be very nice to have a more modern camera like an Arriflex 35BL which, would run quite a bit quieter. The Éclair Cameflex is quite a noisy camera. You do a sound take on that, chances are that when the actors are saying their lines you’ll hardly be able to hear what they are saying—you just hear the camera churning away. Of course, it means all the sound will need to be post-synched afterwards. That is a task in itself, which harkens back to the old times. Nowadays all you have to do is just turn a digital camera on, record your sound and that’s it. So the idea of post-syncing it’s almost a complete curiosity. At one time it was done routinely. It’s quite nice when you do it and get it right. It’s quite an achievement.
When we did the filming of Ghosts we did all the post-syncing afterwards with the help of Andy Edwards and Matt Creed. So the actors who did all the lines would say their parts again days afterwards in a proper studio environment to get the best sound quality. I would play back the guide tracks and the actors would listen to them, with the original camera sound as well, and as soon as the playback was switched off and they would say the lines and recapture the same type of emotional content. And sound doesn’t cost anything like what film does so you can do as many takes as you like.
MC: And that you never know what the next one is going to be. That must be quite nerve-racking?
ANTHONY HONTOIR: I’ve got a rough idea what it will be now that I’ve got a small group of film enthusiasts here around me eagerly chomping at the bit to know what they can do next. Never mind any semblance of documentary, they want to do a proper drama like a murder mystery, a whodunit. That really would be another change of the game. A film noir that harps back to the stark black-and-white style of photography of the 1940s, but set in the present day.
I’ve put quite a lot of money into Ghosts of Glamorgan. Probably more than I should have done. Hopefully it will all come back in sales when the DVD goes out. There’s a lot hanging on it and it does need to sell a lot to break even.
I’m trying to see if I can be able to do the next one without having to finance it so much myself. One of the people in the group suggested trying to get some sponsorship from businesses that would be used as locations in the film as a sort of advertisement. If that works, then we could probably get a budget together to make a little drama, which would take the pressure off quite a bit. So the next one will probably be different from Ghosts.
In a recent e-mail from Anthony Hontoir regarding publishing this interview to the website, he sent me back this update on his newest filmmaking effort:
I began work on the pre-production of my next film a couple of weeks ago, and this one is entirely different. It’s back to the documentary genre again with a very low budget production entitled “The Classic Atkinsons”, about the Atkinson lorry which graced the roads of Great Britain between 1933 and 1975. I am a member of the Classic Atkinson, Seddon and Seddon Atkinson Club, and hope that enough other members with restored lorries will let me film them. It is intended to be a 25-minute documentary, shot of 16mm film, in which the sight and sound of these old lorries is the main ingredient, with just sufficient narrative to inform the viewer without getting in the way. I have attached a picture of Tony Henwood’s restored Atkinson, an early 1970s model called the Borderer, to show you what it looks like. It is of the same type that I drove in the late 1970s during research for a book. It was a bit of a handful! I wrote an account of it for the Winter 2012 edition of the club magazine. Models from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s look much older and more primitive, of course. There are lots of pictures of old Atkinsons on Google Images – they were the last of a certain breed of heavy goods vehicle and are something of an icon these days. I will shoot the film on a minimum amount of 16mm Kodak colour negative stock and do all the editing and dubbing myself, so the budget only needs to cover film stock and processing.
Ghosts of Glamorgan
Cast: Sarah Gunn, David Murphy, Abi Joseph, Chris Johnson, Owen Harris, Sarah George, Heather Protheroe, Andrew Morgan, Elizabeth Sumner, Katie Marks, Frank Gmitrowicz, Wendy Davies-Williams, Laura Morgan, Darren Joseph, Tim Strong, Stag Marks, Ed Rees, Steven Flett, Debbie Trindle, Stephanie Davies, Kelly Green, Hannah Williams, Carl Richards, John Warnaby, Hywel Owens, Caroline Davies, Owain Hume
Music: Christopher Hontoir
Editor: Keith May
Sound Editor: Andy Edwards
Dubbing Mixer: Matt Creed
Gaffer: Stag Marks
Costume Design: Averina Williams
Continuity: Adele Hontoir
Production Assistants: Sarah George, Diana John, Carl Richards
Produced, Written, Directed & Photographed by Anthony Hontoir
A Downwood Films Production