'The inspiration behind my story was my chronically ill partner'
His dying partner was the inspiration for David Gledhill's screenplay about bereavement. Here, he describes his labour of love – and the moment he realised he was making the film while living the script for real
Tuesday 15 October 2013
In January 2012, I sat down one day and started to write a film script. It wasn't something I had planned to do. It just happened. Ten days later, I'd finished it. The inspiration behind my story was my chronically ill partner, Tracey Wilkinson. The title of the film, her mantra for life: We're Here For a Good Time, Not a Long Time.
It's now autumn 2013 and, miraculously, we're just about to complete post-production on the film. But sadly, Tracey didn't live to see it made.
I met Tracey in the spring of 1997; 18 months after she'd had a double lung transplant. She was born with cystic fibrosis, which, among other things, slowly destroys the lungs, usually leading to death before the age of 30.
But she was one of the lucky ones; she'd got a transplant. And when I met her, she was the healthiest she had been for a long time. We spent 15 wonderful years together. Her health slowly but surely deteriorated as her body rejected the lungs several times, and this led to many other complications. I think in the 15 years, we actually spent a whole year in total in hospitals.
It's hard to explain to people just what an extraordinary human being Tracey was. She was the most spontaneous, sociable and happy person I have ever met. What she had to go through physically and mentally was immense, but she never gave in. Having to watch her slowly deteriorate eventually took its toll on me. But in our last years together, as she grew weaker and weaker, Tracey spent a lot of time talking to me about her death and what it would be like, and what I should do in the year after it happened.
I remember once she was in hospital with a nasty chest infection. She wasn't very well, but still wanted to make a list of eligible single women that we knew, who might be appropriate for me to go out with once she was gone. Even in her darkest hour, she was more concerned for my welfare and how I would cope after her death.
Based on these conversations, I wrote a script about a bloke called David and what happens to him in the year after he loses his soulmate. I suppose to most people it would seem strange to write about a future that I feared, but knew was coming. But it wasn't something I consciously planned. I think I wrote it as a way of coping.
I'm a musician and have no experience of the film industry. But I had recently got back in touch with an old friend who I used to play with, Kerry Harrison. He was now a successful photographer, but he'd also branched out into video work, so I thought what the hell, and sent it over to him.
Within an hour, Kerry called me. He loved the script and wanted to meet. So we met at Bretton Hall Sculpture Park in February 2012. And the first thing I said was: "Well, from what little I know, we are gonna need at least £50,000 to make this film." And Kerry – with no doubt or hesitation – instantly replied: "Why?" From that moment, he was relentless in his approach. He didn't care how other people made films or how much they spent on them. He had an incredibly skilled and intuitive way of working, which resulted in us being able to shoot this film for a tiny amount of money.
In March 2012, I finally plucked up the courage to show the script to Tracey, who had been quite poorly for the previous six months. She read it, and, thankfully, loved it. But she also pointed out, in her usual upfront way, that I had messed up the final scene, which she soon rectified.
A few weeks later, quite suddenly on 6 April, a day before her birthday, Tracey became very ill and was rushed into A&E near our home in Sheffield. And then onto the cystic fibrosis ward in Leeds, and finally on to the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, where she'd had her double lung transplant 16 years earlier. They attempted a very risky but hopefully life-saving operation on the morning of Friday, 13 April. But her little body was so ravaged by organ rejection and infections over the years, that it finally gave in. Tracey died peacefully, with me at her side, at 11.26am on 17 April. She was 47.
She had tried to prepare me the best she could, but nothing could have prepared me for those final days of her life and what was to come afterwards. I had lost my soulmate. We always knew she wouldn't live for very long, and there were many times she had come close to the edge during our time together. But I had almost become accustomed to Tracey surviving everything that was thrown at her, like in one of those old TV shows where you see someone drive off a cliff at the end of one episode and then the following week you are shown them leaping out just before the car goes over the edge.
After the funeral, I realised that if I carried on making the film, I was going to be making it while living the script for real. But I knew Tracey loved the script and I needed something to keep myself occupied. So I decided to continue.
Kerry and I agreed we didn't want to wait around for funding or compromise our artistic vision, so we put in £5,000 each, making a budget of £10,000, which most films would spend just on the catering for a week.
We had friends in the film industry who thought we were crazy to think we could make a film with such a minuscule budget. But we were determined. And with a crew of six (including me), two main actors and a chihuahua, we set off to the Lake District in November 2012, our task utterly daunting: 12 days and 22 locations. We had only seven hours' daylight each day and the schedule was insane. But through everybody's hard work and endeavour, somehow we did it.
We decided early on that we wanted to have some real elements of Tracey within the film. The character of "Liz", who David meets in the Lakes, is loosely based on Tracey, so we decided to use lots of Tracey's amazing wardrobe. This was a little weird for me at first, seeing the actor Kelly Wenham dressed in Tracey's coat, hat, skirt, tights and boots. But I think it definitely adds something to the character.
David also carries a necklace around with him that has two sleeper earrings on it. These are actually the earrings that Tracey was wearing when she died. We only show the necklace once in the film, but I think the connection brings such power.
The other narrative element of the film is David's counselling sessions, which are loosely based on the therapy I have had. We shot these scenes at a friend's house in North Yorkshire. And we decided to use a couple of Tracey's paintings when setting up the room. In both paintings, she actually painted herself into the picture, which we zoom in on a few times. The paintings, which she did in the last few years of her life, are the creative expression of the pain and sadness she was feeling, knowing her life was slowly coming to an end. We hope these real connections to Tracey within the film give the narrative more depth.
Ultimately, making the film has been a very cathartic experience for me and definitely helped me get through that first year after Tracey died. And now, as we near completion, I can't really believe we've pulled it off. And for £13K too (yes, we did go over budget).
We've just submitted it to the Sundance film festival. So fingers crossed they like it and give us an invite to show it. We've already had some amazing responses from people within the film industry who've seen a rough version. And ultimately, Kerry and I just wanted to make something we were proud of, which we both are.
Tracey always said that knowing we are going to die is the greatest gift we have. Because if you truly know this, then you will grab life by the balls and live every day to the fullest. And I like to think I have followed this philosophy in making this film while grieving for my soulmate.
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