Jay Moussa takes us through the making of Ruth: The Musical.
Jay Moussa (@jbmoussa)
When I first told people I wanted to make a biblical feature film musical, shot in North East England, I got some funny looks. The first question was always “Isn’t England, well, a bit too green?” But the film did not begin its journey in England. Back in 2008, I adapted the story of Ruth to be shot in an Eastern Turkish village. Teesside or a Turkish village were the same to me. They were both as far from the original as could be, and that was the point. What I absolutely did not want was to make a traditional biblical film: Monty Python-esque, bearded men, dressed in unflattering robes wandering the desert with towels on their heads. I wanted the film to have heart, be more personal than the convention of a bible film. What we ended up making was a musical with the production design of a Turkish village, against the backdrop of the North Yorkshire Moors and the wheat fields of Stokesley.
Like my own split cultural identity, I spent most of my time fighting for the rights of all those seemingly conflicting parts, whilst trying to schedule and fund a film for £50,000. Often, trying to explain to the crew that it was perfectly legitimate for two married couples to share one room in a Turkish village paternal home was the most exasperating task. Ruth, then, is about a young woman who, after the death of her husband, accompanies her mother-in-law, Naomi, to her late husband’s homeland. Unable to work as single women, she must glean to survive. She happens upon the field of a wealthy landowner, Boaz, leading to a series of events that changes the course of the two women’s lives, and history, forever.
I had always wanted to write a musical. One day in 2008, I padded into where my mother was sitting and said, “I’d really like to write a musical but I don’t know what to write about.” She looked up at me over her glasses, the ever-present tiredness of having a daughter who demands the daily drip of drama to feed her creative aspirations. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, thoughtfully. “I’ve always thought that the story of Ruth would make a beautiful musical.” I read the short book, which instantly resonated with me. Like Ruth, I was caught between cultures. Like her, at that time, I faced living a single woman’s life in a society that does not make allowances for women to be single, alone again after the end of a relationship. Like her, I turned to God for security.
By 2016, we had a distributor and had started to gingerly gather potential crew. For some reason I will never fathom, I already had the complete faith of a brilliant sound recordist called Philip Quinton, years before we even attempted to raise the funds. Phil knew the power of sound, bringing a richness to the audio and the final mix. Emma Dalesman, our cinematographer, brought the tenacity we needed. She tackled prep with fiery determination. I have hazy memories of trudging miles through the moors of Westerdale, as she stopped at each location, raising her camera ever so carefully to her eye, surveying every plot with the dedication of a reconnaissance troop. She lit every scene with the flair of a seasoned artist.
Locations were difficult. Unable to afford studio space, my father suggested we overhaul our office and build the set into the walls. We dutifully emptied our entire office into our bedroom. My set designer mother used Styrofoam to make it look like the inside of a sparse Turkish village house. An interior created, we would shoot those scenes, move to the outdoor locations whilst our production team changed the entire set over.
Most of the film takes place in a wheat field, which proved trying. Farmers were not inclined to offer up land for filming without money we didn’t have. Angrove Park was a godsend. Allan, a ruddy, sunkissed man with a welcoming smile and a laid-back manner, gave us a field to film in, as far into the wheat as we wanted. After rejection upon rejection, he was like a warrior knight among farmers, sent to redeem us. All was well. Until the rains came. Our entire shoot depended upon the wheat being ripe. One week early and we would lose the field to the harvest.
The musical aspect did nothing but add to the pressures. Songs needed to be recorded ahead of time and given to the actors to learn. We recorded digitally, after discovering that an orchestra would cost at least £20k. While crew swarmed our house, I would disappear in a frenzy, scrabbling to re-record a song for the following day, after realising during blocking that as it stood it was too long and in the wrong key. Actors who could both sing and act well were hard to come by, and Naomi was an even harder role to fill. By chance, a friend suggested Lindsey Danvers, who had played leading roles in the West End and was a member of the all girl 80s group Toto Coelo, with the hit ‘I Eat Cannibals’. To my complete surprise, Lindsey auditioned and accepted the part, bringing her incredible voice to the film. Little did she realise her fate as we later stood, shivering in 58 mph winds, singing the apt line “I’m not as strong as I thought.”
On our last shooting day, whilst waiting on camera, I heard the wheat singing. I leaned in closer and could hear it popping and cracking, emitting beautiful notes as the entire field reverberated with a kind of choral hum. I toddled over to Phil. “Can we record this?” Without any hint of concern for my sanity, he immediately joined me in the field where we stood, silently, listening to the wheat, his boom suspended in mid-air above the golden, musical spikelets. It was as though the wheat itself was sanctioning the endeavour.
Find out more about Ruth: The Musical at www.ruthfeature.com