Documenting Denmark…an interview with filmmaker Graham Sheldon

It is the opening night of Hamlet and the cast has gathered on the stage for some last minute words from director Christy Yael. Everyone is chatting nervously, in various stages of ready – curlers in hair, costume pieces being buttoned, makeup half applied. One hour until showtime.

Sitting in the audience while this preshow unfolds is a man with a camera, camouflaged by stillness, quietly recording the jittery bustle. The actors, while aware of his presence, don’t acknowledge it. Perhaps they are too nervous. Or, perhaps, they are simply used to it.

For the past few months, Graham Sheldon and his crew have been shadowing Sean Cox, who stars as Hamlet, on his journey of creating the character of the Danish prince. An Emmy-nominated documentarian, Graham is developing a television pilot that will take an in depth look into the creative process of various artistic talents. It is titled “Muse” and Sean is the show’s first inspiration.

“We wanted to start off with the theatre,” explains Graham, who credits the series’ co-creator, Rin Ehlers, with the idea for the show. Working with Sean as he goes through his natural journey as Hamlet seemed like a good idea for the first episode, as both he and Rin had already worked with Intrepid in a theatrical capacity. This familiarity with the company and the key players gave them the perfect setting within which to cultivate this new idea.

“Plus,” says Graham, “the first show had to be a great story. You can’t go wrong with Hamlet.”

The series is intended to explore the artist’s path through all sorts of different mediums – sculpting, painting, dance, music, and the like, and each episode will focus on one artist’s journey, taking the audience through a practical and visceral experience of that artist’s world. Typically, this journey will center around one specific creative aspect, such as the cultivation of one particular painting or dance piece.

“It’s all about that inspiration and that spark and then seeing it all the way to delivery,” says Graham. In this case, it is a speech.

“We’re trying to show the play developing through the microcosm of one monologue,” says Graham.  “Since the episode is only going to be 22 minutes, one of the harder things will be making Hamlet accessible in that time.”

This also means introducing the show’s viewers to the terminology of the various artistic mediums without being too didactic. Graham insists that the show will not be about learning the jargon of the stage or focusing on the technical aspects of creating theatre, even though, for example, not everyone will know what a cue-to-cue is while they are showing footage from the technical rehearsals.

“The show is more about Sean and the cast and their relationship with him. It’s about the people around Sean and his own muses and creative influences,” says Graham.

To that end, Graham plans to shoot footage at Sean’s home, capturing some of this private life with his family, and see how he spends time developing the part away from the theatre and in balance with his other points of focus. “Intrepid really is a family company,” observes Graham, citing it as one of the aspects which drew him to the spotlighting it in the first place.

Another thing that Graham and his crew quickly realized about this company is that, with the multiple hats that Sean wears as Artistic Director and Director of Education, he is not always the easiest person to pin down. Or to locate, for that matter.

“We spent a half hour in the theatre one day just trying to find him,” laughs Graham, describing one of the rehearsals they were shooting. “This is such a fast moving production and Sean is all over the place, running around the entire building, doing 30 things at once.” They finally put actor Brian Mackey, who plays Laertes, on “Sean-Watch,” so he could help them keep an eye on their artist.

“Sean has so much energy that just keeping up with him has been the biggest challenge,” says Graham, who has interviewed everyone from ex-CIA agents to Cern physicists for his past projects.

Of course, it’s never easy to truly capture reality. Having cameras documenting one’s every move can be a little daunting, especially in a rehearsal space where actors need to feel free to explore. “Sean and Christy were a little hesitant about the idea at first,” admits Graham. “I would be too. Having cameras around is never an easy thing. But they’ve been really receptive to it and we’ve tried to maintain the fly on the wall method.” He pauses and then adds, “We’ll find out at the end if we’ve been successful.”

For now, Graham and his crew have shot hours and hours of footage and he looks forward to editing it into a finished product. If all goes well, “Becoming Hamlet” will be coming out very soon.  – T.T.