Recreating Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, in Dreamland, a derelict Margate funfair, was a total joy. I decided to cast the Jews (the victims and heroes of the biblical Exodus) from Margate’s asylum seekers and the local marginalised population, some of whom resent them bitterly. The risk was that we would inflame prejudices and deepen the rift.
But it didn’t happen.
We set out to make an epic, dystopian film on a tiny budget. In my Exodus story, Moses is a member of the ruling class, son of populist politician Pharoah Mann. Pharoah has found the perfect solution for the Promised Land: all the unwanted elements of society - in the biblical version of Exodus these were the Jews - are forced to live in Dreamland’s shanty town.
When Moses reaches adulthood, he visits Dreamland and discovers that his real mother is a poor Romany woman who gave him away as a baby so that he might have the chance of a better life. But when Moses kills a guard after witnessing a violent attack on a young woman, chaos ensues and his life changes forever.
To realise my interpretation of Exodus, we had to build an entire shanty town, make and burn a 25-metre sculpture, and provide costumes for a cast of hundreds. Our solution was to imitate poor people all over the world and construct our town out of waste materials. Each day council trucks tipped rubbish in huge piles next to our site. Hundreds of extras were cast from local schools, pubs, shops and by word of mouth. Every day the “dreamers”, as these extras became known, would arrive at dawn ready for filming. The local police did arrest our workers occasionally and we had the Youth Offending Team holding meetings with some of our young cast in the canteen at lunchtime.
Exodus was commissioned by Jan Younghusband at Channel 4 Arts and produced by Artangel, which works with artists on site-specific projects. As part of the film, we created Wasteman, a 25-metre high sculpture designed by Anthony Gormley and built from discarded furniture. Burning the sculpture is one of the turning points in the film. On the day it took place, tens of thousands of people from all over the world turned up to watch. We didn’t know whether it would collapse and burn the town down or not burn at all. But it went up in flames and for a couple of hours you could see all the individual bits of wood glowing like little charred bones. When its raised arm crashed down it was a magnificent moment.
The burning of the Wasteman happened on what we called the “live event”, one day in a seven-week shoot. We shot 16 pages of script that day, all in one take (never, ever again). We decided it would be cool to provide something for a live audience as well as make the film.
The day started with the Pharoah (Bernard Hill) delivering a fascist speech in the centre of town. People started to gather, some of them not realising it was a performance. The crowd reacted enthusiastically to his speech - for several days afterwards we had requests from people who wanted to join his party.
Then we swept down the streets of Margate to Dreamland with our “Home Official Police” (Pharaoh’s right-hand men) sweeping up “riff raff” along the way. I had four crews and at one point managed to lose all of them. We somehow managed to get to the entrance of Dreamland, where the “unwanted” were being incarcerated. And one of many small miracles happened. A black South African teacher turned and recognised two white boys behind him - they had been throwing things at him and shouting racist abuse. But now they were trapped together in a queue, all three branded as “unwanted”, so they had a big chat and apologised to him: “Next time we see you we’ll say hello.”
Twelve hours later, the live event day was finally over. After it we felt we could do anything. Battle scenes on the beach in the pouring rain, parting the Red Sea, riots, plagues...
When we screened the finished film in Margate, hundreds of people came and it was a joyful occasion despite the harshness of the film. One woman came up to me afterwards and we looked around at the incredible mix of people. “This is what the film is about, isn’t it?,” she said. “This is the Promised Land.”
Exodus is an Artangel production for C4. It airs on Monday 19 November at 10pm
Penny Woolcock: My tricks of the trade
Choose people who are talented. Trust your instincts.
Choose people you like. Making films can be brutal so surround yourself with people who make you laugh, inspire you and believe in you.
If a cast or crew member isn’t right, part ways quickly before it gets worse.
Be clear. All day long people ask you questions and all day long you have to know the answer... or pretend you do. You can always change your mind.
Enjoy the shoot. It’s not something to “get through”.
I wear a horrid bum bag containing script pages, a mini-script, lipstick, glasses, a pen and chewing gum. And a plastic necklace blessed by a shaman in the Colombian rainforest.