I moved into a new flat during the pandemic, so I haven’t got to know my neighbours yet. Last week, about to go for a run, I opened the front door and found a film set in the garden.
There was a cream tent, a marquee, a few people inside.
‘We managed to get all that for free,’ said a guy with a ponytail, pointing at a heap of medievally-looking treasure on the picnic bench. ‘The only thing we had to pay for is this tent.’ He gestured to the fabric, as another guy set about stitching.
The guy with the ponytail turned out to be Dale Raven, co-creator of Myrlan, a short fantasy film. The director, writer and other co-creator of the film, is Cieran Ryan. And when he’s not in Myrlan (the film is named after the fantasy realm in which it’s set) Cieran lives in the flat above me.
Over the last year, in the attic flat, Cieran and Dale (known professionally as Pale Raven Pictures) have created a kingdom. Bubbled together for the duration of the pandemic, they’ve continued work on their short film, despite COVID-19. They’ve planned and plotted, created languages and legends. They generated a staggering amount of funds through their Kickstarter campaign. And, last week, they started filming.
The yard at the side of our house became an inn. There was a heavy oak table, a hand-sewn banner and, courtesy of a pickup truck that skilfully negotiated our difficult drive, hay bale seating. For two days, there were actors in medieval costume, with added masks for COVID compliancy.
Later, I Zoomed Cieran and Dale, to find out more about Pale Raven, their film, the kingdom of Myrlan. Cieran was upstairs, I was downstairs, Dale was in his home elsewhere in Sheffield.
‘Short films don’t make any money,’ Cieran told me. ‘You invest in them in the hope they’ll propel you onto something else. We could probably convince someone we can write or direct a drama script, but trying to convince someone that you can conceptualise for fantasy or sci-fi… on paper it’s not enough. We want to put the world we’ve made into other people’s heads. Then, if we want to pitch a feature film, or pitch a series, we can say ‘it’s like that but bigger.”
So Myrlan is their calling card, their message to investors, important film people, that they know what they’re doing.
They know what they’re doing.
They’ve created the world from scratch, studied Old Norse, and started writing their own language. For a year, they worked with the Viking Society, training with swords, learning which dyes the Vikings used to colour their clothes. But they’re not historians. They’re researching to make their film look authentic, not because they want to be experts in Viking culture.
‘We’re not making a documentary,’ says Dale.
It seems lucky, to have a friend with whom you’re so creatively aligned. Someone as driven, as determined to succeed in exactly the same way. It’s a nice story: Cieran and Dale met during their drama course at Norton College in Sheffield.
‘Norton College was basically like Fame Academy,’ says Cieran. ‘There were people doing ballet stretches in the hall, people playing guitar, musical theatre people singing. Sheffield is this tiny city centre with loads of residential areas, so there are loads of schools. It felt like the weird kid from every one of these school did this course and met all the other weird kids. We realised we could do this. It was ok.’
Cieran and Dale have been working together since. They’re both twenty-seven, their birthdays only four days apart. Dale starred in Alone, a post-apocalyptic short written and directed by Cieran, and starred, co-wrote and co-directed Blessed with him too – the feature film that inspired Myrlan. They’ve done a lot together: studied, written, directed.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a bar with Dale,’ says Cieran.
‘We’ve worked in the same bar but not at the same time,’ says Dale.
Enthusiasm bursts from them. Their story, their knowledge, their perspective on filmmaking, it all flows from them easily. Listening, you absorb it, find yourself smiling.
‘We’ve got a real shorthand now,’ says Cieran. ‘I can say, ‘remember around the third era when this King was on the Throne, and then he went over and did that thing in Oaksbridge with the-”
‘Genuinely, I know exactly what he’s talking about,’ says Dale.
They give actors a ‘World Pack’, containing crucial information about the world, when they join the cast. And, though this world is theirs, they’re keen to open it up to others.
‘When you give someone a character, I think it lessens their performance if you’re really strict about what you want,’ says Dale. ‘You may as well do it yourself. When an actor comes in, they’re going to add their own flavour. With previous projects, we’ve had ideas for characters and completely switched them around after auditions.’
They even made some of the parts gender-neutral during casting, to open them up to as many people as possible.
‘It stopped the film becoming what you’re used to,’ says Cieran. ‘You start to be surprised by people and think ‘I never would have thought this, but they’re perfect for this role.’ People give you something deeper.’
They’ve written new characters into the script, specifically for actors that gave blistering auditions, and cast ex-squaddies as soldiers.
‘It’s not always about your level of experience in the industry,’ says Dale. ‘Sometimes it’s about your experience in the world.’
And your experience in the world of Myrlan. Cieran and Dale ask actors to think carefully about their character’s backstory, about the realm: to become real residents. To ensure they understand the world themselves, they tell the lore to each other, to their friends, to the cast and crew.
‘You retain 10% of what you learn but 90% of what you teach other people,’ says Dale. ‘We essentially teach each other the lore. Because we openly talk about it with the cast and with people that are interested, we’re reciting this information audibly all the time. It’s really cool because, traditionally, that’s how myths and legends were told. The story of how Naagra created Oaksbridge means absolutely nothing to you, but I’ve told that story to Cieran ten, twenty times-’
‘And to anyone that would listen,’ chips in Cieran. ‘People know this story in our friendship group.’
Not only am I left with the feeling of really wanting to know the story of how Naagra created Oaksbridge, but I also feel quite jealous. It’s pretty awe-inspiring, the way the two of them have carved out time to sit, and think, and talk, and create. They seem to carry with them a confidence, a faith in themselves, in each other, and the world they’re creating, that is enviable in this distracting, content-saturated world.
So I ask them how they got there.
‘Dale just doesn’t want to cut his hair,’ says Cieran. ‘He’s not going to get any other parts.’
‘Yeah,’ says Dale, laughing. ‘I need to create a role for myself.’
But then they say that part of it is time – they’ve spent a lot of time on this project. They’re deeply invested, have learned their own legends. Part of it comes from their time at Norton College, where being weird was normal, where committing and creating was cool. But it’s clear from listening to them that this commitment is not a chore – they love this stuff. When they’re not filming, they’re training for battle scenes. When they’re not training, they’re researching fighting styles or reading tales of the Norse Gods. Dale tells me the Death of Balder legend off by heart, no questions asked. They’re committed because they’ve found their thing. They’ve found the project they’ll stay up late for, get up early to make, lose sleep thinking about.
And they’re in it together. In the inns, in the taverns, on the blood-soaked battlefield, they’re wading through side-by-side. And soon, after shooting, when it’s all put together, we’ll be able to wade there with them.
You can find out more about Dale, Cieran, and Pale Raven Pictures over on the Pale Raven Pictures Facebook page, official Instagram account, and Twitter profile. There’s also Facebook page specifically for Myrlan, and a separate Twitter account.
About the Author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed authors for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a digital copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle