Peter Treherne‘s account of shooting his film ‘Atmospheric Pressure’ on a Sussex farm.
What follows is an account of the making of a film called Atmospheric Pressure. It was a process of accumulated disaster that made little sense during production, and for the majority of post-production remained an intransigent set of fragments. I began the film in 2016 with a script based on the medieval text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nothing survives of that text within the film, no characters, no scenarios, nothing, except perhaps a sense of the seasons. Near the beginning of the poem a pastoral interlude recounts the swift passage of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and as the ‘year yields up its many yesterdays’ so time and death stalk the eponymous Gawain. The georgic, pastoral and venery themes in the poem attracted me to rural locations and after scouting for some months I came upon a farm in Sussex.
The farm lies at the bottom of a steep valley. It is set a few meters above the flood levels of the river and has pasture on both sides. The pastures are often under water in January and February. Additional fields lie on the ridgeline to the north. Here the deep Sussex clay gives way to sandstone. The improved drainage allows for cereal crops, but the wind and rain of autumn regularly lodges the grain and reduces the yield. When I first came to the farm mist covered the entire valley. The medieval barn roofed in WWII asbestos, the farmhouse once a hunting lodge, the 17th century oast de-crowned of kiln and cowl, the new barns of steel and corrugated iron – they were as substantial as smudges. The farmer stood in the milking parlour with his arm up to its elbow in a Frisian. The creature made no sound. Dried blood from a midnight nativity cracked around the Farmer’s arm. He pulled out a fist of afterbirth that was gently rotting in the womb of the cow. Nothing smells as bad as that. And this isn’t that bad, said the Farmer. It smells much worse after three days. After anymore days then the cow’s gone.
We did a round of the farm. A calf born the previous night was dead. We hauled it out of the barn from amongst the others who stood without attending. I noticed two piglet carcases hanging like softest veal from a stack of gates – their mother crushed them in her sleep. Another calf was still alive but its tendons were not yet taught, so it knelt on its front legs like a pilgrim. Everything that day was soft, as if everything, the hills, the fields, the barns, the farmyard, the animals, even the Farmer with his fraying face, had sunk into a bath and stayed there until the temperature of the water had cooled to the temperature of everything else. The temperature of the hills was the same as that of the slurry pool that overflowed down the hill.
At 7:30am we went to the farmhouse kitchen. The farmer sat in his high-backed wooden chair. I later discovered he slept there and had done so for the past 9 years, ever since a cow kicked in his spine. A dark sheen made of the oils of his skin stained the headrest. His 90-year-old father joined us after spreading hay for some new calves. He had a gap in his teeth from smoking a pipe and told stories about Soho strip clubs while striking matches that would burn out before he remembered to light his tobacco.
And the farmer said they had never had so much water for so many months. The lower pastures had been drowned for the entire winter without drying, and much mineral goodness had washed away. And you couldn’t put the cows out to pasture, and you couldn’t take any vehicle into that mess or it would sink. So there would be no early planting, and no fresh grass for the cows whose faeces had turned diarrhoeattic. And with every added week yet more feed had to be bought in for the mouths and stomachs of the cows, and every morning their udders had to be emptied and because the hygiene inspection had yet to happen the insipid milk was fed to the fattening pigs that were the only beneficiaries of this sordid state. They screamed in a barn where a malicious sow the volume of a bath held court and bullied the lesser pigs and ate their snouts if they strayed close to her trough. And every now and then a little piglet carcass, flattened in the filth like a bog body, was exhumed and draped over a gate.
Needless to say, the location charmed me. Maybe not the carcasses but the texture of it all. For some time I had been fixated with texture, particularly the texture of the filmic medium. It started off as an unthinking preference for images unified and animated by fields of dancing grain or flickering pixels. But after hours spent on the farm in the viscosity of mud and moisture, or mornings watching the hills thicken as the mizzle burnt away, or thin as that mizzle fell as rain, I saw the grain of film as just another weather system. Through the changes of weather we understand the world no longer as a set of discrete, bounded objects related only by location, but a perpetual communion of time, motion and matter. It is motion and time incarnate, made material. After days of experimentation, of searching for that perfect grain that might match the dissolving and particular world, we chanced upon a combination of ND filters and an ISO wavering between 51,200 and 409,600. The pixilation and the darkness rendered the landscape oblique and amalgamated, and thick with motion just as it was thick with weather.
I doctored the script after visiting the farm and much of the medieval text disappeared, but when we began to shoot, first in autumn and then again in winter, the last vestiges vanished, and the script along with it. Something as definite as a script could not survive the contingencies of weather and farming. For the first few days I stubbornly clung to the shooting pages, and kept the schedule in my pocket, and at night the cast & crew read their call sheets and we spoke of motivations and camera angles. We woke early, drove to the farm and set up first one shot and then another. Much of my planning with the cinematographer took place in the summer months when farm activity occurs in the fields, but come winter the relocation of labour fills the barns to bursting. Every shot was compromised by busy machinery, or errant animals, or the forecasted weather remained buried in the clouds; or the farmer must rush away to induce a cow that had been served by a bull with too large a head, and her foetus was growing just such a head inside her and would not pass through her pelvis.
The farmer was to play himself in the film, but we could never shoot his scenes, for he must always be elsewhere. Every day he and his profession must witness more change, more intimately than any other. The regularity of milking is misleading, so too are the so-called seasonal rhythms, for every time he repeats a chore its elements have changed. His routine, therefore, is but a loose container for compromise and improvisation. It is not surprising that he carries bailer twine in his pocket and at all times, but only for the time being, tethers things together. Industrialisation can go but so far in farming. It can never exist in conveyor-belt simplicity. A farmer will listen to the weather forecast, but only his boots on the ground can tell him what is happening now, and what must be done.
The script disappeared then, and the best we could do was arrive and respond. We set up the camera. We waited. Our main character walked through the mist, or lay on saturated ground, or watched doves flutter above the barns and flash down into feed corridors to snatch at grain. Then the routine ended and our cast and crew dispersed and I was left with two hard drives full of pixelated, dark images of a world of weather and animals; images that were densely uncommunicative yet surfeited with sense and matter, and full of a forever-flicker that commingled all things.
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