Euros Lyn: DREAM HORSE
May 22nd, 2021 by Gene Cane & Karen Burg
A modern-day true tale of hope & community...
Director Euros Lyn, Set Decorator Charlotte Dirickx SDSA, Production Designer Daniel Taylor
Dreams do come true...not just in fairy tales, but also in this naturalistic slice of life in the gorgeous Valleys of South Wales. Not in one of the majestic castles, but in one of the smallest communities which had suffered first from coal mining and the dangerous work therein, to the closure of the mines, which while good on a global scale, decimated the economy of these communities.
The true story:
Jan Vokes [Toni Collette] works two jobs, a grocery clerk by day, a bartender at night, and cares for her elderly parents and morose husband. She, like most of her community, feels stuck in an endless cycle. She used to raise & race pigeons with her father, but that was times past, now the most she does is nurse a wounded animal back to health, currently a duck! When she overhears someone [Damien Lewis as Howard Davies] talking about the thrills he had experienced when he once was part of a syndicate who owned a racehorse, something clicks. She spends her entire savings of 300 pounds on a brood mare and then inspires some of the locals to create their own small syndicate, each of 23 people pledging to contribute 10 pounds per week to cover stud fees and training costs for the subsequent colt she names Dream Alliance. The rest of the story has become a modern legend.
Jan [Toni Collette], even before taking up raising a horse, must deal with a duck with bumblefoot. The highly detailed kitchen can still make room for the wounded duck. There’s always a space for a wounded animal in Jan’s house. Photo by Kerry Brown ©Bleecker Street/Topic Studios
From Bleecker Street:
Welsh born and bred, Director Euros Lyn said early on “It was incredibly important to me that this film spoke of what living in Wales is really like. What we are like as a people, what our fears are, what our hopes are — or our lack of hope sometimes...It is one of those stories that had crossed over into local mythology. Dream was the underdog from the Valleys who had beaten the best in the world. I fell in love with Neil McKay’s telling of the story, his representation of the characters, and more than anything, the sense of hope that shone through the script.” He says, “We wanted to capture the epic landscapes of the Welsh Valleys whilst also telling a most intimate story...
And so they have...Euros Lyn and his incredibly dedicated crew, including Director of Photography Erik Wilson, Production Designer Daniel Taylor, Set Decorator Charlotte Dirickx SDSA also from Wales, and their teams.
After checking in with Charlotte, SET DECOR had a lovely conversation with the director. SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane joined me in chatting with Euros Lyn over zoom. [Edited slightly for length – here are highlights from the conversation]
Enjoy! We know you will!
The glories of Wales...filmed at Chepstow Racecourse. Photo courtesy Bleecker Street/Topic Studios.
SET DECOR: Critics responded to the visual dichotomy of the raw beauty of the settings and the grittiness of a town in a long economic slump. Would you speak to that?
Euros Lyn: Well, as a director, you’re working with a team of people to create this visual experience. With my DP Eric Wilson and Production Designer Daniel Taylor, we worked very closely on thinking about how we [A] represent this place authentically, because, you know, it’s a real place, the place where I grew up, a place that I know very well, and I wanted to represent it very faithfully on screen...but also, [B] tell a story that moves an audience and engages them emotionally.
We discussed how we use the landscape. How we use the architecture of the village. How we use our interiors. Our characters go on a journey, from the village to a place of much greater opulence than from where they’re from...how the arc of the film represents the story that they went on in real life.
So, those questions were at the foremost of our minds when we were dreaming up a set of guiding principles by which we then went ahead and shot the movie. And if there’s one thing that has provoked the kind of views that you’ve mentioned, I think, it’s the fact that we were all, as a team working very closely and in unity on this, having common goals.
SD/GC: We know the outcome of the story, yet somehow, we’re there cheering and yelling along with them.That’s an extraordinary thing that happens with this movie, and in a very unsentimental way. How did you approach making it exciting, and fun while everybody knows the story?
Stable...Jan and Brian [Toni Collette, Owen Teale] must bottle feed the young foal, the colt who will become Dream Alliance. The rustic stable was built by Production Designer Daniel Taylor and team and aged in true cinematic magic. Photo by Kerry Brown ©Bleecker Street/Topic Studios
Euros Lyn: You know, as kids, I remember very clearly myself, but also when I think about my nieces, their favorite stories are the stories they already know. I remember wanting to hear the same story again and again and again! We are fulfilled by stories having a certain structure of an underdog, which our story has, overcoming adversity against all the odds, and then triumphing, and the world becomes a better place because of the consequence. The fundaments of that story are very present in this particular true-life story.
And so, what we did as storytellers, was focus on what those universal elements were, while, at the same time, honoring the specificity of this being a particular story from a particular place, at a particular time in history, and trying to be as authentic and honest about the specifics, and at the same time resisting...because we Welsh people, we’re incredibly sentimental. We cry at the drop of a hat. We sing a lot, mostly quite sad songs. We love mournful. There’s nothing we like more than a mournful old hymn. Resisting that kind of, er, untruthful emotion, and always going for the real emotion was something that we were always aiming for.
Having a brilliant cast of fantastic actors helps, because they can access the truth about their character. And, you know, all those beats in the story actually happened in real life for these people. I think that truth and authenticity helped us resist the sentimentality as storytellers.
Allotment stable...Jan [Toni Collette] brushes her brood mare Rewbell, whom she purchased with her meager savings. Note the mismatch-constructed barn with open roof and walls made up of old doors, discarded fencing and wood pallets. Photo by Kerry Brown ©Bleecker Street/Topic Studios
SD/KB: Yet we were completely pulled into the experience of it, and intimately so, even with those characters whom we only had glimpses of their homes. We’re experiencing it with everyone, and we can’t help but be caught up in the emotion, so yes, you have to keep it true.
SD/GC: I think the National Anthem scene was particularly stirring in that, not just that it was beautifully sung, but that we’re in the house with the mother, and we’re in the grocery store, and we’re in the betting parlor, and we’re in the bar...and those are the individual places that people meet, that are part of their everyday lives, and to show all the different people in those places, with the national anthem, unity...that was really stirring. And so was seeing the legendary Sian Phillips say, “We shat on them!” Another pretty glorious moment.
We did see some of their homes. We see the streets and the multi-colored plastered, houses, but then when we go to where Howard lives, they’re all brick-front detached, more upscale. And his house has the curtains that match the couch, that match the lampshade, that match the everything. Whereas, when we go into Jan’s home, we see her history. The plates on the wall have the pigeons, and all of the ribbons, and all of the tchotchkes are animals, except for that really great genie-bottle lamp. And the Zimmer frame, the mother’s Zimmer frame that seems to be in every shot! So, were the interiors shot on a stage, was that filmed in the city, in the town?
Director Euros Lyn calls the shots from the kitchen. The interiors were actual homes, emptied and redressed for character by Set Decorator Charlotte Dirickx SDSA and a hard-working crew of set dressers. Photo courtesy Bleecker Street/Topic Studios.
EUROS LYN: They were all locations that we took over and dressed. The exterior of Howard’s house and the interior were actually on opposite sides of the street, but they were part of the same development, so there’s an integrity to the architecture.
But we wanted...as you said when you were describing the national anthem kind of bringing people together in different locations...but it’s very much about an entire community coming together, and a community from very different socio-economic groups. There are people with nothing or little money, and then there’s a character like Howard, who is relatively affluent. Representing that on screen in a very literal way was important.
Jan & Brian’s den - Brian [Owen Teale] sits with his trusted TV remote before his life, among others, is inspired by the dream horse. Pigeon plates on the wall and multiple award ribbons show Jan’s lifelong ability with animals and a desire to resurrect her dreams. Wallpaper meant to be cheery is rather dreary. Photo by Kerry Brown ©Bleecker Street/Topic Studios
Charlotte, the set dec, and Daniel, the production designer, did a huge amount of research, and they spent a long time with [the real] Jan and Brian. All the photographs in Jan and Brian’s house, are actually their photographs or reconstructions of their actual photographs. The pigeon plates were remade, but they’re based on Jan’s real pigeon plates. And I have them! I’m very proud that that’s one of the things that I took from the production. I have them in my study, and I’m very pleased with them. And Daniel had a very strong instinct for Howard and Angela’s house, drawn in part from his own upbringing, which I think is really fun.
SD/GC: When people hear set decoration, they think it’s all lavish marble foyers and sumptuous furnishings. But it is not always pretty...but it’s always beautiful in its outcome, you know. That’s what was exciting about this film. I always appreciate those gentle, yet almost gritty kind of things, natural real stuff, because that’s harder to do. You can do any lovely space, but doing a real, honest, working-class home and making it look real and not staged is difficult.
Jan & Brian’s...A real slice of life, a kitchen clean but cluttered with assorted countertop items. The essential Tea and Coffee canisters, a mix of others, the mug tree now placed next to the electric kettle, a coin collecting bottle, the essential crock of utensils by the cooker. Opposite: all the washing, from dishes to laundry. Note the newly positioned hanging lamp and the stack of cushions on the chair so her mother can easily sit.
In Jan’s kitchen and dining area, there’s stuff on the countertops and there are mismatched things, as happens in life. On the wall where the plates are, there’s water damage, or there’s a seam, or something buckling the wallpaper. Also, the wallpapers of the people’s homes are those floral prints that are supposed to be cheery, but are the exact opposite! Again, these very natural things that are lived in. How do you feel when you walk into a set that isn’t perfectly balanced, but has all of the real qualities of a working-class family?
EUROS LYN: For me, that quest for beauty in the filmmaking is very often that you find beauty in the detail. And the honesty of the detail. And when your design team has put so much effort and thought and care into researching it so meticulously, and then spending so much time finding those perfect objects that speak of the truth of that character, and placing them in a place where it feels real and honest...you know, there is a beauty to that. And so, walking into these sets felt incredibly inspiring to me.
There’s a set that we used so little in the film, the set of the parents’ bedroom. We’re only there once, when Jan is clearing her dad’s stuff into bin bags to take to the charity shop, and it’s such a beautifully set up room, it’s beautifully lit. It’s very sparse, there’s something quite monastic, you know, but the detail in it. It reminds me so much of my grandparents’ house. That chair in the corner was a chair my great aunt had. In pink. Hers was in pink, not grey. The vase in the window is exactly the kind of ornament that she would have. And then the things like the walking crutches that speak of invalidity and aging and the trials over adversity that feels so resonant in this film. They did such a terrific job. And then when you look at that color palette, the choice of the purple pillowcase and that blue rug, or is it knitting, or maybe both! It really speaks of the production designer and the set dec’s craft.
Jan’s parents’ bedroom...One of a pair of twin beds for the elderly couple, Jan's father has recently died. An almost monastic feel to the room, with carefully chosen items including the tufted slipper chair holding the extra blanket and walking crutches showing the advanced age of the parents Jan cared for, in addition to two jobs. Vinyl wallpaper and older furniture show the couple’s history
SD: As does the allotment! Was it originally there? Was that a total build?
EUROS LYN: Yeah, that was made from scratch. It was a piece of wasteland behind these houses. And we looked into filming on a real allotment, but as you can imagine, an allotment in the South Wales Valleys involves a committee of many, many people. Many, many voices to get agreement from all of them to allow the film crew treading onto their allotment. So, we ended up with no real choice but to make it from scratch. Daniel built the stables and all of it. Mismatched doors, the doors taken from an old house with wallpaper on the side of it, and planks from all sorts of places. A tire and rope, and all jerrybuilt.
SD/GC: That’s what I’m talking about that it’s not always pretty but it’s beautiful. That put together lean-to was beautiful, when you think about what that story was behind it, how he built it, those disparate pieces found everywhere. It tells a story, just that one thing.
Allotment...Jan and Brian set up their allotment to also house the horse with a makeshift stable. A bare plot behind the house standing in for theirs during the shoot became a full multi-space garden area with plants at various growth stages, fencing and sheds, all brought in Set Decorator Charlotte Dirickx SDSA and crew. The rusted out old Land Rover was already there, so the team incorporated it as the chicken roost and Production Designer created the realistic hodgepodge stable.
EUROS LYN: And the plants. Because, obviously, we didn’t want everything to be new, it was to be an established allotment in which plants had been growing a long time, so we got in touch with a community garden nearby, and basically, we borrowed from them. They dug up their established plants and transported them to our set for the duration of our shoot. Then they got them back, to put back into the ground in their allotment. And then they went on to be sold in their market stall. It felt like a great use of a community resource.
SD/KB: Charlotte sent along a few of the allotment photos, including the muddy boots! She said they had had a torrential rain for the two weeks that they were building it, and thank goodness, when the crew arrived, the sun came out.
Were you there during this part, or were you somewhere else and came to see it finished? Did you see it in progress?
EUROS LYN: Well, because we were shooting in the village, you know, we’d been in the vicinity, so we’d see it as it evolved. But to be honest, after kind of signing off on the designs, I had very little to say, because it was all so brilliant. So, by the time a set was created, and I’d end up there, it would look the way it does onscreen, and they’d done an amazing job to it. Well, actually, there was one thing that was on that site already, which was the Land Rover where the chickens are roosting. That was parked on the site, and we kind of designed the site around it, and we left it behind when we left as well.
SD/GC: Now, Euros, your previous work has been sort of high profile, cult-following stuff with DOCTOR WHO and BLACK MIRROR and BROADCHURCH. What brought you to this wonderful, intimate slice of humanity rather than these sort of cult fantasy driven things?
EUROS LYN: I think what I loved most in something like DOCTOR WHO was telling the story about the outsider. The Doctor was always the outsider, the lonely outsider who arrives into the middle of some kind of mystery or conflict, and then has to do the right thing, has to wrestle with morality in order to make the world a better place. And there’s a simple honesty to Doctor Who, that was the fact that he really cared emotionally, that makes the DOCTOR WHO stories. That really spoke to me. I guess in lots of ways, it wasn’t necessarily the scale of the worlds, or the epicness of being able to travel ANYwhere in space or time that really set me on fire, but he cares about somebody so much that he wanted to fix their problem and make the world a better place. I think that’s probably a common thread through all my work. BROADCHURCH is a social-realist detective show, and I made a show called HAPPY VALLEY set in the north of England, which is a social-realist show, but again, the thing that I feel is the common thread is how much I cared about those characters and how hard I worked to make the audience care about them as well.
SD/KB: You’ve given the precise reason why we love DOCTOR WHO and many of the others. Speaking of precision, was there anything along the way that you particularly asked Charlotte to include?
EUROS LYN: Well, one of the things that you can see along the wall in the Club, are photographs of the valley as it used to be. I’d been talking to somebody who is from Cefn Fforest (where the true story actually took place), who’s a poet and an up-and-coming filmmaker called Claire. She made a short film based in the hairdresser’s Cefn Fforest, and in the hairdresser’s, on one wall, are all of these photographs of how Cefn Fforest used to be. She very kindly let the set dec team go and take copies of all these photographs, and that’s what you see lining the wall. Bringing the history into the fabric of the production design, was something we really wanted to do. And they made such a lovely job of it, I’m enormously grateful to them.
SD/KB: And one other thing, because you were telling a true story, this was a workingmen’s club. This is not the usual trope of just a pub. That’s a lovely touch as well, for those of us who don’t usually experience it.
EUROS LYN: Well, you know, it’s a place where the workingmen historically would chip in some of their earnings to build it, and fund it, and it would be a place for them to go. The history of this location is that it was built as the workingmen’s club of the locals. Howard’s telling the story of owning a racehorse in the past, Jan walks across the space picking up old pint glasses, and in the distance, there’s a huge frieze on the wall, of the factory that was associated with this club. For this location site, it was the old brewery. That’s a tradition of a workingmen’s pub, where you see the factory or the mine or the steelworks on the wall. And that was real, that was there in this location and was one reason we went there. [Editor’s note: The location was The Brewery Sports & Social Club, in nearby Rhymney, Caerphilly, South Wales.]
SD/KB: What a delicious piece of information that was, thank you! And one last question. Was there a favorite for you of any of the sets?
EUROS LYN: I loved the allotment. I loved the allotment so much. I loved the goat. I loved the geese and the Land Rover. And I loved the magpie set of the lean-to, of the barn, the stable where the horse was kept. It was such a beautiful creation.
SD: Perfect. Well, for the magpie in all of us, thank you.
EUROS LYN: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
SD: Thank you so much, Euros, the pleasure has been ours,
Editor's note: For more photos, see galleries above and below.
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Behind the Scenes...The camera crew camera-tested the voiles to work out effects on wallpaper for Jan & Brian’s house. More playing with Patterns in a camera test on the right. The amount of work on colors, fabrics, wall papers is an important and mostly unknown part of the Design and Decoration process.
Behind the Scenes - Production Designer Daniel Taylor holds the swag lamp, red drawn lines mark how the fixture will hang. The table is adorned with tchotchkes and accessories awaiting placement by Dirickx and the set dress crew, note the amusing hound dog in a cap cookie jar, which may have ended up inside a cupboard as a pleasant surprise for the actors.
Jan’s parent’s home...Darker colors and matched furnishings and medallion carpet immediately bring to mind older trends and lifestyle. Like Jan’s, the tchotchkes are mostly animal figurines, here a focus on elephants. A pair of Deco-esque vases, perhaps a treasured gift, take a prominent place on the mantel. A birdcage in the TV corner, lace antimacassar coverings on the furniture and the ever-present Zimmer frame complete the look.