I shouldn’t. But I will …

I shouldn’t. But I will …

Stewart Buck, of Dinu Pass Productions, is directing/producing a full length documentary, ‘A World War II Fairytale’, on Michael Mann’s cult film ‘The Keep’ which my father, John Box, production designed. Stewart approached me, just recently, to see if I would be willing to contribute a few words to the documentary.

‘My father had a favourite saying – ‘I shouldn’t. But I will.’ Whether it was having another whisky, another cigarette or going off on location for two years. ‘I shouldn’t. But I will’.  And it was always said with a very wicked glint in his eye. And my very long-suffering mother – the costume designer, Doris Lee – would groan as the glass was topped up, the cigarette was lit or my father disappeared out of the front door, a suitcase in his hand.

But I’m sure she would have agreed that ‘I shouldn’t. But I will’ was a much better way of living one’s life than ‘I should. I could. But I won’t’. Or, even, ‘I can’t’. There was no such thing in my father’s life, or indeed my mother’s life, as ‘I can’t’. As my father said, ‘If you run out of winter, then you have to create it. That is making movies. It’s the art of the impossible.’

It takes an exceptional imagination, plus extraordinary technical know-how, to create a snowbound Russia in midsummer Spain, transform Wales into China, or paint desert sands black to simulate a mirage. He was known in the film industry as ‘The Magician, and for good reason. With four Oscars, two Oscar nominations, four Bafta Awards, a special Bafta Life Achievement award, and a career that included ‘Inn of the Sixth Happiness’, Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago, ‘A Man for All Seasons’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Nicolas and Alexandra’, ‘Rollerball’ and ‘A Passage to India’, he was, and still is today, a legend in British film production design.

And then, there is Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’ released in 1983. Location scouts were sent to many mountainous parts of Europe, in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but failed to find any suitable ‘black mountain passes.’ The ingenious solution lay in realising that a rocky background could just as well be below ground as above it – which led my father back to North Wales, where he had located the China of ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’, and specifically to the old slate mines of Llanberis and Blaenau-Ffestiniog.

As Ian Christie wrote in his book ‘The Art of Film: John Box and Production Design’, ‘There was no suitable castle in this part of Wales. But rather than shoot exteriors elsewhere, John realised that this film could actually benefit from not using a real castle. Fabricating a façade, with entrance and drawbridge, would enhance the stylisation needed for this symbol of malign power … A wooden bridge across an apparently deep ditch forms a dramatic threshold between the natural and supernatural world.’

My father’s greatest wish was that his career should encourage by example. May these films, made by these hugely talented film-makers, inspire you to go out and paint a line in your own life’s sand.

‘I shouldn’t. But I will …’