Aliens crash land in the headteacher’s office. Outside, green light beams up into the sky while, inside the school, the aliens wriggle their way into the brains and bodies of the closest available lifeforms. In August 2017, students and teachers from Graveney, a south London state secondary school, spent their summer holidays shooting a feature film – think aliens-meet-Shakespeare – on school grounds. Three years of editing between English lessons later, the resulting movie, 7 Hours on Earth, is out.
The project was dreamed up by Patricia Sharpe. An English and film studies teacher at Graveney for 15 years, Sharpe used to work in television production. “I would spot the vivacity and liveliness of the students, and wish I could put them in a film,” she says. “It felt like a vast talent pool.”
Eight years ago, Sharpe had the idea of creating a full-length film as a moviemaking exercise for her students. The idea lay dormant until a conversation with other female teachers in the English department kickstarted it. “We were talking about why men push ahead with things and women don’t,” she says, “and one of my friends said women always wait for someone to give them permission. I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’m waiting for. I’m going to do it.’”
7 Hours on Earth is a modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sharpe picked the Shakespearean comedy for its humour (“A lot of the scenes, we could hardly work for laughing”) and for its three-strand storyline (“easier to schedule and shoot”). Having taught the play several times in English, she knew it was one of those best received by students. In this version, the lovers are pupils whose friendships and relationships are messily entangled, and the workmen’s scenes are told through the imminent curtain-rise on the school play. The final piece of the puzzle came with the decision to make the fairies disembodied aliens downloaded into human form, baffled by the workings and love interests of teenagers.
“It evolved ever so slowly,” Sharpe says. “It was just one of those nice things you talk about every so often in a busy life.” With fellow film studies teacher Andy Lamont, Sharpe began thinking about how they could make it work in practical terms, including finances. Some of the money came from crowdfunding, with one friend paying £100 to have a closeup shot of their greyhound. Some money was borrowed from STAGS, the society that oversees the school’s annual sixth form production, and the rest was private money. “My dad had died a few months earlier,” Sharpe says, “and I didn’t want a car, a kitchen or a holiday. I wanted to make a film with my kids.”
The first rule they made was that everybody involved in the film had to be linked to Graveney: students, teachers, partners, pets. Even my writing this article sticks to that rule: I was at Graveney from year 7 to year 13. Although I hated drama GCSE so much that I left my grade off my Ucas application for fear they wouldn’t let me study it at university, producing the sixth form play emboldened me to start writing about theatre, and I am now a critic.
They wanted the film to be of a professional quality. Sharpe’s husband, Steve Smith, a screenwriter, wrote the script, and they hired a cameraman, Sam Pearce, then the partner of a history teacher, and a sound recordist, Rory Cargill, a friend of an English teacher, to train and work with the students. “They treated the students as if they were fellow professionals,” Sharpe says. “They showed them what to do, then walked away and did the other bit of their job. The students were given a lot of responsibility.” Most of the crew were media students from year 10 upwards, with a handful in their first year of university. Ahmed Abdul Rahman, whom Sharpe had taught for A-level film studies, came back to help with the lighting after his first year as an undergraduate. “I’d never been on a set with professional equipment, it was really cool,” he says. He recently graduated from Brunel University, where he set up the film society. “I guess it was the start to my film-making career, being on that set.”
Open auditions were held at school, with Sharpe encouraging teachers to get shyer students to try out. Two key older characters are played by former students who are now professional actors, and my terrifying former art teacher, Ms Doherty, plays herself. The lead, Helen, is played by Rufiat Awolope, then a sixth former and now studying English at Queen Mary University of London. “It was amazing to see the contrast between stage and film acting,” she says, “and it allowed me to bring those skills of body language and in-time reaction into my A-level drama performance.” Shanaya Henry was in year 8 when they filmed, although Sharpe says she was the best at keeping everyone in check with lines and continuity. “Filming with people older than me and with professionals made me feel like getting the role was a real achievement,” Henry says.
The cast was also given a bit of star treatment with Ramona Marquez, known for her role as Karen in Outnumbered, who was in Graveney’s sixth form at the time, and Karl Queensborough, a lead in Hamilton, who was a friend of a STAGS member, and who joined the team at the last minute. “There was lots of shifting and people dropping out,” Sharpe says, “but looking back, I’m glad it all happened.”
One scene required a slow-mo shot of school governors walking up the steps to the school play, and Sharpe’s assumption that teachers would be free fell flat. “Andy dug out his suit and became one of them,” Sharpe laughs, “and the other two are his mum and his mum’s friend Sandra.” For the role of the PE teacher, Sharpe asked a fellow English teacher if she could borrow her strapping firefighter husband. “That’s what’s so nice about it,” Sharpe says. “People were just up for things. You don’t realise how adults still like to play.”
Since the actors wore their own clothes, continuity was a menace. One actor’s hat went missing every time he wore it, Queensborough forgot his scarf one day and it had to be Ubered in, and Sharpe lost the specially made alien transmitters on the first day of filming. “I phoned Ismat, my assistant, who was on the bus in Tooting. I said: ‘Are you anywhere near Primark? Get off, go in; we need 10 earrings that look like alien transmitters.’” Since five of the aliens were year 7s without pierced ears, they had to be stuck on for each scene. Sharpe laughs. “It was all a little bit like that. Whenever things got stressful, we’d order pizza for lunch. You can win any child’s heart with pizza.”
A setback hit when their editor, the school’s media technician, left to join the police, and since none of Graveney’s computers was powerful enough to deal with the mass of rushes, they couldn’t edit at school. Then Sharpe found Rob Marshall, a professional editor who was a friend of a friend of a friend who had lent the production a drone (the everyone-has-to-be-connected-to-Graveney rule was relaxed as they knew no one else with a drone, or an editing studio). For 18 months, Marshall and Sharpe edited the film. “It was a slog, but I knew I had to get it together for the students,” Sharpe says. The CGI and special effects were designed by former student Ollie Hall, who was in his first year studying game application development in Dundee. “It was a big learning curve,” Hall says. “One of my favourite things was when one character transforms into a ball of light and begins to shimmer. I was pretty proud of that.” Working on an equal level with his former teachers took some getting used to. “It was strange referring to them by their first names, when previously I’d just call them Miss or Sir. When you’re at school, it’s easy to forget that the teachers are human, too.”
Three years on from filming, this is where the film changes from being a fun school project to being a worldwide release. Through Marshall’s contacts, they found a distributor who focused on low-budget independent films. “He watched it and made us an offer straight away,” Sharpe says. “So we went: “Oh! OK!” The fact still hasn’t entirely sunk in. “When I found out,” Awolope says. “it felt like a dream.”
Would Sharpe do it again? “If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no. But now, yes, I probably would. It’s been an adventure. I feel so grateful to everybody who’s given their time to it, and the school as well. Not many headteachers would give up their office for aliens to download into.”
7 Hours on Earth is out on now Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes
This content was originally published here.