The smell of airports is always distinctive - you know where you are as soon as that first wall of air hits you as you leave the plane. It’s a moment that defines your holiday, your work trip, your visit home.
Last week when I arrived in Bristol I stepped off the plane and was convinced it smelled of manure. It probably didn’t, but as this journey was my return to Somerset to screen the film we shot there 18 months before, a film shot mostly on a farm, perhaps something in my brain was triggered. It was a smell that lingered with me for months - in my car, on my wellies, and on the waterproofs sitting in a bag at the back of a cupboard I just never got round to washing.
Somerset had come to feel like home for me. It got under my skin. Location and context are so important to me as a storyteller that I needed to have that relationship with where we were shooting. And so in prep I spent hours driving around, walking around, climbing into ditches, being shown around people’s homes and farms. Learning to milk cows. As such, last week was a homecoming, and like all homecomings, it was emotional.
Driving to Taunton to go on BBC Somerset’s breakfast radio show meant driving through where we shot. We zipped passed our old unit base, along the road where we plodded in a car, back and forward for hours to get a shot right. The colours were different now - the lush greens of spring rather than the faded tones of autumn. We drove past an old basket factory that had been destroyed by the 2014 floods, and had stood empty and abandoned while we were shooting (it features in an early shot in the film) - and I was happy to see it was cleaned up and a new business was in place there.
After interviews in Taunton, the film’s star Ellie Kendrick and I were taken to Wells for the rest of the day, to the beautiful Bishop’s Palace. Quite a far cry from the mud we had come to associate with the place, this was immaculate - historic Somerset displayed in the most spectacular way. (Wells is named after the, literal, naturally occurring, wells on this site - some of which have no bottom, and so are mystical and ancient in a way that this part of the country does best).
All of this, however, was leading up to the film’s Somerset premiere at Strode Theatre in the evening. Getting the film right was an obsession of mine, and no audience would be able to smell inauthenticity more than this one. The stakes were high. The Strode Theatre is an arthouse venue in the village of Street. It’s the kind of place every rural community would be lucky to have, as it not only brings people together, but takes them to all kinds of places via its inspired programming. When we arrived we were introduced to the theatre cat - Harvey - a discerning looking feline, whose implicit judgment only fuelled my nerves.
I stayed in the cinema for the first few minutes, checking the sound, listening to the audience. The first few minutes of the film are dark and abstract, perhaps disorientating for an audience waiting to see their home on the screen. But then we cut to wide landscape shots, and the audience around me whispered and pointed. At that point I left them to it. There was nothing more I could do.
I shouldn’t have worried. The audience were so supportive and incredibly complimentary - one saying she couldn’t believe a woman who grew up in Hong Kong had got life on The Levels so right. We had a brilliant Q&A hosted by Xan Brooks from the Guardian, and even joined on stage by the film’s secret star - Milo the dog. It was the kind of evening I had hoped it might be, and we were all delighted.
This is the beginning of our preview tour with the film - we start on the 2nd of May until the film’s release on the 12th. I’ll be writing again from the road, so stay posted!