‘As is often the case in my life, it all began with a book.'
In this case the book was called ‘The Tyrants’ which I bought on a whim from a discount bookshop. It was a compendium of evil, detailing the lives and misdeeds of numerous dictators and despotic political leaders ranging from the Emperor Caligula to such modern day monsters as Pol Pot and Idi Amin.
I do not use the term ‘monsters’ lightly. It proved to be extremely grim and dispiriting reading, but I wanted to understand why these people committed the atrocities they did – were they mentally ill, were they somehow inhuman, did they ever suffer guilt or question their actions? It seems few of them did and this led me to wonder how they justified their actions to themselves and to others.
I conceived the idea of making a film which would be a fictionalised series of interviews with some of history’s most notorious ‘monsters’ in which they would be asked to review and justify their crimes against humanity. It would be a trial for their souls. This idea would eventually metamorphose over several years into the short film, Mea Culpa which we shot in October 2018.
And so it began
The format changed considerably from my original idea but I decided that I would create a composite figure to represent the various individuals which had comprised my research. I constructed a powerful criminal in the form of Mr Castlin. His background, country or organisation and even time period are left deliberately unspecified. His name itself is a combination of Castro and Stalin - both political idealists who committed various crimes in the pursuit of their political ambitions. I decided that I didn’t want to write a story which was simply a condemnation of an evil person, but rather one that would offer them a chance to explain their actions, to confess and to confront their atrocities, and ultimately to maybe find some form of redemption.
The first draft of the script was written over three days during Christmas week 2016. The irony of working alone in the office on Christmas Eve while writing a story with strong similarities to A Christmas Carol was not wasted on me. *
Then life intervened for a year or so until in summer 2018 when I gave the script to Barbara, a producer here at Peracals. I asked her if we should film it and together we set about making Mea Culpa a reality. She also made the somewhat genius suggestion of making Castlin’s accusers female. I then set about rewriting the script and the changes made for a much more dynamic and interesting piece.
I have always believed that finding the right location is absolutely vital in filmmaking. I feel that certain locations have atmospheres which somehow become part of the film. For Mea Culpa I wanted a place with an almost timeless feel. I wanted the hotel to have a sense of being located in an ‘eternal now’ where past, present and future all entwine. ** We scouted the Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel and it immediately felt perfect. It had the rare combination of the modern and the timeless – I could almost hear the sound of footsteps from the past echoing in the empty hallways.
The casting for Mea Culpa proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the film. I had always known that whoever played the devilish Ms Sylvian would have to have a certain iconic quality. Unfortunately, cinematic icons can be quite a rarity, so it was quite a miracle when we found one. Like many others, Blade Runner has always been one of my favourite films (I could write several books on why it is amazing) and Sean Young is one of the most extraordinary elements in that film. We contacted her, she liked the script and said a very welcome, ‘Yes.’ I have to confess I was a little anxious about directing someone I had admired for years, but she proved to be delightful to work with and her performance was something of a genuine revelation.
Next, we needed to find two other actors which proved to be surprisingly difficult. We constructed a shortlist of some twenty or so named actors and set about contacting their agents. Many said ‘Yes’ but were unavailable. Five days before filming, we had a script, location, crew, and a film icon, but were still short of two actors. I spent most of the week trying to suppress the overwhelming sense of panic which was gripping me.
Ultimately, this proved to be a blessing in disguise as we were able to cast two actors with whom we had worked with before and, despite the extremely short notice, they both proved to be amazing. Paul Dewdney played Castlin with a remarkable combination of power and vulnerability bringing a unique soulfulness to what on paper may appear to be a very unsympathetic character. Leonie Zeumer brought a suitably mischievous and possibly divine quality to her role as the enigmatic Concierge.
I made one quite significant mistake during pre-production which was that I somehow decided it would be possible to shoot a sixteen minute scene in one day. I have told people that if ever I suggest doing this again they must stop me by any means necessary, as it is an almost physical and statistical impossibility. Yet, somehow we managed to do it. It was one of those extremely rare occasions where the gods of film smile upon you, everything goes right and there are no unexpected disasters. I like to think this is because of my directorial brilliance, but the truth is that we had an amazingly dedicated and professional crew and cast and they made it happen. Somehow we managed to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and create what I believe to be a quite magical film – Mea Culpa.
*Although it is not specified the film is actually meant to be set several years in the future.
** One slightly sinister coincidence that occurred while writing that X’mas Eve was that I popped out to the local shop to buy some snacks, used the self-service machine and the amount due came to… 666. I have to confess that this unnerved me slightly so I quickly devoured my snacks and headed home to resume writing my diabolical script another day.
By Jason Fité - Owner at Peracals Productions Ltd and writer/director of Mea Culpa.