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LONDON — David Tennant, sporting slicked-back hair and dressed in an anonymous dark blue tracksuit and football boots, jogs across a frosty pitch on a cold, grey January day in the far reaches of East London.
He is jogging to take his mark for United, a movie set around the air crash tragedy that rocked soccer team Manchester United in the late 1950s.
Almost unrecognizable from his sharp-dressed, eye-popping turn as BBC Television’s time lord Doctor Who — a role that propelled Tennant to major stardom in the U.K. and beyond before he stepped down after five years and 48 episodes — the Scottish actor is halted by a gaggle of eagle-eyed schoolchildren keen to snap him on their cell phones.
After patiently signing school books and posing with the young celeb spotters, Tennant, who plays first team coach Jimmy Murphy of the legendary “Busby Babes” in the movie, joins the rest of the cast, and the shoot soon wraps as the wintry light fades.
Later in his trailer, having changed into jeans and a shirt, Tennant reflects on the fact that, unlike his co-star and fellow Scotsman Dougray Scott, who plays legendary manager Matt Busby, he doesn’t even like soccer.
“I read the script and I thought that if this is affecting me as much as someone who doesn’t care much about football and it doesn’t play a central part in their life, then I can only imagine how it will affect those that do,” Tennant said. “It’s a moving and extraordinary story and a powerful experience to act in.”
The film tells the story of the youngest side ever to win the Football league and the 1958 Munich air crash that claimed the lives of eight team members and 22 of the 44 passengers onboard, including supporters, journalists and embassy staff. The script also details the story of the spirit of a city that rebuilt the team in the wake of the tragedy. The movie air Sunday on the BBC but is being sold around the world as a theatrical picture by Content Media Corp.
Another factor in Tennant’s participation is the project’s director (James Strong) and scriptwriter (Chris Chibnall).
“I’ve known James and Chris for years, and it was as straightforward as me reading [the script] and James directing for me to take the part,” Tennant said.
The actor worked with Strong and Chibnall during his Doctor Who days and said that over the years, he has developed a working shorthand with the helmer. “The better you know someone, the more honest you can be with them, and you don’t have to skirt around any ego issues,” Tennant said.
Strong said he sent Tennant the script “in hope” and was pleased when the telephone rang that night. “He said, ‘I think [the script] is amazing,’ ” Strong recalled as he wound down at the end of the day’s filming. “And that’s the point, because he’s not a massive football fan, but it appealed to him on a human level.”
The £2 million ($3.2 million) budgeted project’s attempt to get to the big screen took more than five years after beginning life as a documentary pitch, and the eventual dramatized film didn’t enjoy a trouble-free shoot.
Wicked weather plunged the U.K. under more than a foot of snow in December and hit the shooting schedule hard. They had snow when they didn’t want it obscuring football pitch grass, and when they needed a blizzard to shoot the crash, the filmmakers and backers were greeted with gray, freezing conditions without a snowflake in the sky.
One extra day cost the production a cool £30,000 ($48,000) as the project was uninsured against inclement weather conditions. But all the obstacles made for a hardcore filming pace.
For Tennant and others in the cast, which includes Jack O’Connell (Skins, Dive) as Bobby Charlton, the youngest of the Babes, and Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Any Human Heart) as star player Duncan Edwards, the shoot consisted of four six-day weeks. It’s the sort of intensity and shooting schedule more commonly found on television shoots.
“It was a ridiculously short shoot for what the film is striving for. But it was really good to work like that and with such intensity, which the story demands anyway,” Tennant said.
Added Strong: “It was a big challenge because it’s a relatively low-budget film. There was still this perception that, well, it’s just a film about football, and then it took the BBC five years to get the money together to make it and then there was this challenge to tell this huge period story about an air crash with a big ensemble cast on our budget.”
It’s all a far cry from making Hollywood fare for Tennant and Scott, both of whom are about to appear large on L.A. radars.
Tennant has a star turn in the DreamWorks-backed remake of Fright Night in the can, while Scott is about to be seen in Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons with a resume that sports a starring role in Mission Impossible II and two years on Desperate Housewives.
“It’s nice to be involved with DreamWorks and all the resources available to them to make a film. It’s good to get to define all the ways available to get a film made,” Tennant said. “It was also nice to be in an environment [of filmmaking] where you are made to feel that anything and everything is possible.”
Tennant has a theory that says filming will always expand “to fill the time it is given and that’s never enough, not matter what the budget or schedule.”
With United, Tennant felt it was being shot on a schedule you’d expect on television. “To be honest, that’s kind of the standard now [in this filmmaking climate]. It [United] was ridiculously squeezed, but there is something to be said for cracking the whip and the creativity that can spring from the limitations and intensity that brings.”
“The trailers are bigger [in the U.S.] this this,” Scott said with a smile. “It’s [making movies] different but ultimately the same. You [as an actor] just try and portray the character as best you can.”
Unlike Tennant, football is in Scott’s veins. He is a Hibernian Football Club fanatic, and his father played for Scottish team Queen’s Park.
“I always react emotionally to scripts, and I have a huge passion for football. I read the script and just wanted to be part of it,” he said.
A great admirer of the long history of tough-talking Scottish managers in the world of soccer, Scott litters his conversation with references to names such as Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and current Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. He was greatly moved when filming the crash and subsequent scenes of devastation.
“We filmed the scene [of the crash] on a military base up in Newcastle,” Scott said. “There were some people sitting in seats without a scratch on them, dead, others without a scratch on them alive, some with terrible injuries and dead. It was an emotional part of the shoot.
“Busby was badly injured, he had the last rights read to him twice in hospital after the crash. He was a tough man but had a great humanity to him. I get the impression he wanted to die but his wife persuaded him that the boys would have wanted him to go back to football. He felt terribly guilty — he had survivor’s guilt — and he had chartered this private plane to make the trip. Of course it was in no way, shape or form his fault.”
Whatever the international fate of United, Tennant will decide what movie or television job to take next in his own, imitable way.
“I just look for whatever comes up that is interesting to me,” he said. “I’ve been lucky with the choices and I suppose I should think more tactically [about my career]. But I’ve always been a bumbler and have bumbled my way through. So far, it’s worked out.”
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