Kent, facing France across the narrowest strait of the English Channel, is the county that film forgot.
Despite being only an hour or two from London, enjoying a quality of light that inspired Turner to paint his famous seascapes, and being immortalized in the 1944 classic “A Canterbury Tale,” no one much comes to shoot movies there these days.
For most film folk, Kent is just a pretty landscape flashing past the window of the Eurostar on the way to Paris.
Producer Elaine Wickham and director Jan Dunn of Medb Films are on a crusade to change all that.
Operating from the most unlikely of settings — the basement of the Royal Harbor Hotel in the seaside town of Ramsgate — they are about to embark on their third Kentish film in as many years.
“The Calling,” which starts shooting Aug. 11, stars Ramsgate’s most famous daughter, Brenda Blethyn. It’s the story of a teenage girl who shocks her family by deciding to become a nun, and was inspired by the idea that for youngsters these days, coming out as a Christian is harder than coming out as gay.
Most of the $1 million budget comes from local backers, including Kent County Council, Screen South, two production facilities — Maidstone Studios and Courtyard Studios — and some rich individuals.
All see the project as a beacon to attract more filmmaking to the region. The crew is mostly local, many of whom got their training on Medb’s earlier films, “Gypo” and “Ruby Blue.” Production services are being supplied by the newly formed Kent Film Syndicate, a group of local companies with the aptitude for movie work. Medb has its own post-production suite in the hotel, whose owner is their business partner.
Kent County Council, which is putting $150,000 into “The Calling,” is using the project as a pilot for its ambition to raise a full-scale production fund. Medb and Maidstone Studios are also seeking coin for three further films from local investors, under the tax shelter of an Enterprise Investment Scheme.
Wickham, a South African expat, is clearly full of entrepreneurial drive. The irony, as she confesses, is that building a business is not high on her list of priorities.
“We just want to make films. We’re not in it for the money, and we never will be,” Wickham says. “I’m much more in it for the social comment.”
Indeed, the reason she and Dunn came to Ramsgate in the first place to make their debut movie “Gypo” was to find a measure of artistic freedom from the intense commercial competition of the mainstream industry in London. Having made several shorts, they were struggling to stand out from the crowd.
“London is so saturated with filmmakers looking for money. There are a huge amount of people out there with scripts, and very rarely will someone take a punt on investing in a first feature,” she says.
She owned a flat on the Kent coast, and saw a way of shooting there on the cheap, using credit cards, deferments and favors from local contacts. So she asked Dunn to write a script set in the area.
Made for $100,000 cash, “Gypo” is about a family thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a troubled Czech immigrant girl in their midst. It’s a rough-and-ready piece of social realism, retold three times through the eyes of different characters. That structure, and an unexpected romantic twist, redeems it from the bleakness often associated with the genre. It attracted warm notices and a distrib deal with Lionsgate U.K., but made no impact at the box office.
Nonetheless, it was strong enough to win backing for their next project from Sally Greene of London’s Old Vic theater, and from TV sales company Target Entertainment, both making their first foray into features.
“Ruby Blue,” starring Bob Hoskins as a lonely old man suspected of being a pedophile, premiered in this year’s Cannes market. Target has now struck a three-pic deal with Medb, starting with “The Calling” and also including their first non-Kentish pic, “When Loves Comes to Town,” an Irish romantic comedy.
Wickham and Dunn are in it for the long haul. It’s clearly time for the film industry to find Ramsgate on the map.