There was a spirit and drive on set of Ronnie Thompson’s latest drama I Am Soldier, and a commitment to the cause not to dissimilar to the special forces themselves, with a palpable, tireless work ethic spreading around the camp. It seems only right this be the case, as the one thing Thompson – whose previous directing credit is Tower Block – was hellbent on guaranteeing, is that his film is rife with authenticity, as he uses his own personal experiences as a serviceman, to help craft this piece of cinema.
“Because I have a service background, it’s always something I’m naturally interested in,” he told us on set. “I don’t know many directors or writers that have that kind of experience to draw on and that mindset of a service person. So it’s always something I wanted to do. I’m a director who has more tools and more people I can call upon to help me make it more authentic than perhaps another director. It’s something that’s quite natural to me and something I wanted to do.”
I Am Soldier was undoubtedly a tough shoot for all involved, pushing the actors to their limits, both physically, and mentally, shadowing that of real life S.A.S. training. Thompson was quick to praise his cast – which consists of the likes of Noel Clarke, Tom Hughes and Alex Reid – in their passion for the project. “The weather has been tough, but that’s what I wanted – if you haven’t got the budget of James Bond, you need to make sure people are living what they’re acting when you make a movie like this. My cast have been exceptionally good and that’s what we’ve done,” he said. “It’s been amazing, a really good experience. Tom Hughes is a class act and set the bar really high. He’s an amazing actor, a great character actor and he understands story, and a character arc, he’s such a subtle actor. It’s made my job as director really easy as the performances are great. They’re all nailing it. It’s been hard, a very physically demanding shoot, not only for the cast but also my crew, we’ve been up in the mountains with temperatures up to -8, wind chill to deal with, but everybody has pulled together as a team and it’s been excellent, it really has.”
Thompson also had some kind words to say of Clarke, who plays Carter in the film, a tough, no-nonsense figure, who demands nothing but the best from his potential recruits. “Noel wants to grow into an actor who appeals to older people, and he’s a terrific actor, and I employed him as an actor. I wanted to push him and see if he could do a role that was way out of his comfort zone and he’s impressed me so much. A lot of people are going to feel the same when they see his performance, because it’s so different. He’s really knocking it out the park.”
Clarke shadowed these comments, believing this to be a unique role for him, and one that he hopes will challenge him as an actor, outside of a project he’s also directing or writing. “I guess I’m older now so the leadership comes naturally, I’ve been doing this a long time, weirdly. It seems like just the other day I started, and now I’m one of the older guys,” he told us. “I do a few acting roles, obviously Star Trek and stuff like that. It’s good to do that try and challenge yourself and then try and do a bit of writing or directing after if you can, or if the time’s right. But it’s good to let someone else take the reigns and just act, you know?”
When asked if he ever has to resist the urge to don his directorial hat and take charge, he said. “Contrary to popular belief, my ego isn’t that large. I’m not bothered, when I act, I do what they ask.” Meanwhile, given his work on the likes of Star Trek, Clarke claims there’s little difference between a blockbuster shoot, and an independent flick. “ Of course everything is on a bigger scale, but a film is a film set, you have a director, a crew, people you see every day, people you don’t see… It’s not that different, apart from the catering budget on something like that is probably four times the budget on a film like that. But generally the experience isn’t that different. We’ve got a hands on director so it’s the same thing really.”
Lead star Tom Hughes, who plays Mickey Tomlinson – a military chef who decides he wants to tackle the most dangerous selection process for a place in the Special Air Service, also spoke highly of director Thompson. “I didn’t know Ronnie and I’d never met him before, but as soon as I walked into the audition, there was a certain rhythm,” he said. “We’re very different people, but we just connect. He comes from a military background and I don’t, but I was fascinated by this partnership, and thought that if we can meet in the middle, I felt that there was a chance that spark could make something magnificent.”
Hughes, with a cuppa tea in hand, seemed exhausted when we spoke, after a tough day of shooting as we witnessed a scene whereby the militants are obliged to run through the barren fields. With aeroplanes soaring through the sky, Thompson was left to shout “cut” more times than he perhaps wanted to, leaving the actors to do several takes of what was already a challenging scene. “It’s been exhausting, but in a really good way. Part of the attraction of the job was the fact I got to do this. The military has never held much appeal to me, but it’s there and it’s quite unique to get the opportunity to come and find out what it’s like to be a soldier. You don’t often get that as a civilian, and I’ve never been inclined to sign up for the army, so I was intrigued to know what it would be like, and to push myself to those limits and to see if I could take it. But what we’re doing is like five to ten percent of what the guys who do this actually go through. It’s a hell of a demand, physically and mentally, and part of the excitement for me was to see if I could hack it. It’s a bit different to sitting in your slacks drinking tea, isn’t it? It’s quite hardcore.”
As we were present on the final day of the shoot, there was a good feeling around the set, with jokes and laughter filling up the room – and at the heart of the banter, is Alex Reid, who says she enjoyed being one of very few women in this male dominated arena. “It’s fine, they’re all lovely. A really good laugh. A lot of jokes, I feel like I’m turning into a fella,” she said. Reid also tells us that she’s thriving in the physical aspects of the role. “When you film anything that’s quite action, or military based, it can feel quite stilted, there’s a lot of stopping and starting and technically getting things right, it’s rare you have a long run at a scene. The days just feel really active, and I really enjoy the physical challenge, none of us are even an 18th remotely fit enough to pass selection, but I have a newfound admiration for what they do. I don’t think it will be for me, but some of the physical stuff, you do get quite into it.”
Finally, we had the chance to stop and speak to Josh Myers. The actor, who plays the intimidating Chris, a constant thorn in the side of Hughes’ Mickey, was evidently the joker of the pack. Walking around with a charismatic strut, and an inclination to wind up those around him, his optimism and enthusiasm was nothing if not infectious, which he believes is imperative to a healthy film set, while his pre-established friendships also help, in that regard. “I’ve worked with Noel before on a prison drama called Screwed, and we got really friendly on set and the banter we have here now is so funny and he’s in the room next door to me so we’re just cracking jokes with each other all the time. Ronnie obviously wrote screwed, so worked with him before. I love Ronnie. He’s a great director and we just get on really well, when he’s down in London we go out for a drink and stuff, it’s not all just about work. He’s a really nice guy and I enjoy working with him.”
We had been pre-warned before interviewing Myers, by various members of cast and crew, that there was a strong chance he’d tell us about his family connections to cinema – and he didn’t disappoint. “My family are quite well known in the film business, I’m the first of the Myers family to make it onto screen, but my dad’s a big film distributor, films like Dirty Dancing, Dumb & Dumber, The Mask, stuff like that. My grandpa, Michael Myers, he basically helped John Carpenter make the first Halloween, so out of respect, John Carpenter called the killer after my grandpa. So all my family have been in the film business a lot time so it’s a big thing to say.
“If my grandpa was alive he’d be so happy, he always said to me I’d be a great actor someday, and I’m finally getting there, building up quite nicely with a few big films I’ve done and coming up next year.”
It was an enlightening shoot and a fun day in the crisp winter in the middle of Darlington, in the north of England – and an experience that it seems will be one cherished by those on set. Like Thompson says, despite the intensity of the finished product, “It’s not a political film, it’s a piece of entertainment.”
I Am Soldier is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 17 March.