Guy X is based on an American novel, set in Greenland, directed by a Scotsman. It takes its title from a pivotal character: an amnesiac, paraplegic combat casualty who has been hidden away from the world. And it’s a comedy.
Producer Mike Downey explains the genesis of its development:
“I had just finished a film called Deathwatch which we shot in the Czech Republic with Jamie Bell. I’d come back to London from a very difficult six week outdoor shoot in terrible, freezing conditions. And I swore to myself I would never do a film in difficult locations, in a difficult place or anywhere exotic.”
This decision taken, Downey proceeded to look for new projects:
“I went to my local bookstore, and saw a book sitting there on the shelf. And it was called No One Thinks of Greenland by John Griesemer. So I picked up this book, read it that weekend. It was a fantastic, troubling and very funny story of an official cover-up and a young soldier who discovers truths about himself and his world. I talked to our head of development on the Monday. I think by the end of the week, we’d bought the rights to the book: which is of course a very exotic story set in a very difficult place to shoot!”
“It’s a very, very dark comedy.” adds director Saul Metzstein. “The humour of the novel spoke very directly to me - deadpan, with lots of pain underneath it. It many ways, it’s an odd mix of European and American humour, which is also one of the reasons I find it so appealing. So, filming partly in Europe and partly in North America seemed quite logical.”
The novelist John Griesemer was very pleasantly surprised when told that a production company wanted to pick up the film rights to his book. In 2002, so soon after the events of September 11th, it didn’t seem that a story concerning US military deception and incompetence would be the first place a producer would look:
“I got the idea from reading a travel book written in the 1960’s by a guy who traveled all the way from Norway to Newfoundland, following the routes of the Vikings. He wrote a chapter about camping out in a US military installation in Greenland. Housed there were the most horribly wounded soldiers from the Korean War. They kept them there until they died and then cremated them, strewing their remains out by a glacier. According to this book the remains are still there. So it’s this sort of ghostly truth out there.”
The novel was adapted by writers John Paul Chapple and Steve Attridge, who worked with the director up to pre-production. Basic choices had to be made: the story was updated from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s, for example. Metzstein explains –
“We moved it to 1979 because we felt that people have closer memories of that date, and more emotional ties to it. Also there’s a fair amount of similarities to M*A*S*H and that is, of course, set in the 1950’s in Korea and we wanted to distance ourselves from that. But I didn’t feel it worked as a contemporary story, as part of the craziness of the place is that it’s totally isolated. And you have to get the feeling of not having any communication with the outside world and no-one would believe that in 2004.”
Also meticulously discussed were the political ramifications of the story:
“I was very keen to make an army film that treated the soldiers compassionately – this isn’t specifically an anti-war film, rather it’s a pro-soldier film. The government or military leaders might know why troops are sent somewhere, but it’s very unlikely that the troops themselves have any real idea. And updating to 1979 put us into the late Cold War which was, of course, an extreme, surreal version of the same problem, as the amount of actual enemy contact was minimal.”
As the script was finalised, and finance was falling into place, the UK Treasury closed down the loopholes in Section 48 tax relief, which dealt a death blow to 40% of the film’s finance structure. Says Downey: "The sad thing is that we are one of the few projects that survived this. The blow dealt by Black Tuesday by the Treasury is one which will be very hard for the British film industry to recover from. We were delighted, however, to find support elsewhere in the film financing community and to finally work with Producers Michael Cowan and Jason Piette of the Spice Factory. Also, The Film Consortium and Movision chose to throw their full support behind the project."
After this major obstacle was negotiated, Icelandic co-producers Anna Maria Karlsdottir and Fridrik Fridriksson scouted locations in the volcanic landscape of Iceland. Shooting began in early April in an old US Army base in the lava fields below the magnificent Snaefellsnes glacier . A place of overpowering and bleak beauty, it immediately cast a spell over the cast and crew.
Jeremy Northam felt : “I’m not the sort of person given to believe in ghosts and spirits in the landscape but you could really believe it there as you see flurries of snow kind of bolt across the landscape – both frightening and beautiful, day-by-day, hour-by-hour.”
And it was a constant source of inspiration for Francois Dagenais CSC, Director of Photography -
“It’s just an incredible setting to shoot. It’s an incredible opportunity for a cinematographer. So basically, it is a matter of finding an interesting angle. When do you want the character to be lost in the environment and when do you want the environment to be more of a background? And it’s great fun to sometimes go very wide so the character is very small. So we got to make really playful big frames that the actors could move through. The location and the light sets up a very other-worldly and surreal visual tone that lets us have a lot of fun with the images.”
For example, the presence of puffins was vital for Metztsein. The crew had just completed prepping the next shot – and the little birds are easily scared. Jason Biggs and Jeremy Northam begin their scene. Northam weighs a baseball bat in one hand, immersed in the character of the eccentric Commander Woolwrap. Biggs pitches baseballs which Northam strikes into the darkness of the Arctic night. On cue, twenty puffins waddle through shot. Mission accomplished.
Like Northam, Jason Biggs used the location to better understand the tone of the story and the dilemma of his character - “A land that at one time of the year has 24 hours of light, and then the opposite time of year 24 hours of darkness. And shooting in Iceland got to me a bit! Not in a good or bad way, just in a… it helped me understand Rudy’s discomfort with where he was and his uncertainty with everything.”
“Rudy is a pretty fantastic character” says Biggs, “different from all the characters I’ve played. There’s a lot of comedy in this movie but it’s more situational and not as obvious. The laughs come from playing every surreal thing as real as possible: which for me is great, because most of the projects I’ve worked on, the point has been to go all out for the joke.”
Canadian co-producer Allan Joli-Coeur set up the studio shoot in St Hubert, Montreal, where movie icon Michael Ironside joined the cast as the furious forgotten man, Guy X.
“I’m a big fan of Catch 22 and Altman’s M*A*S*H and it had that kind of story of bureaucratic screw ups that send people’s lives in different directions. When Guy X comes in it morphs into a story that deals with misuse of authority, how humanity gets lost in bureaucracies. For all the sort of violent characters I’ve played, I actually don’t believe in violence and I like what this film is trying to do. Guy X’s story is about the incredible waste, the loss. He’s the living human flotsam from people’s past mistakes. He drifts in and out of reality… And he binds the film together. He is the question at the heart of the film and, like the rest of the characters, is a human being with a lot of questions of his own.”
Luckily, the character interested Ironside enough to go through four hours of prosthetic make-up every morning. And the make-up was so good that even his fellow actors related to him differently.
“I don’t meet anybody. Do you know most of the cast hasn’t met me yet, they’ve only met this character. I’ve been in here four, four and a half hours ahead of everybody else as part of the crew call. I get all the make-up on, they’ve only met me in make-up, they’ve only met Guy X and then they all go home and go drink their beers and watch hockey and shit and we’re stuck here taking the make-up off for the night!”
So, here it is. Guy X. Based on the novel No One Thinks of Greenland by John Griesemer.
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