How Dustin Hoffman helped Hull become City of Culture 2017

nova studios and Sir Tom Courtenay

Ten years ago, in 2013, we won the contract to produce the film This City Belongs To Everyone which played a significant role in helping Hull to secure the bid to become City of Culture 2017.

And to celebrate the anniversary, here’s a short selection of some of the out-takes, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips that never made it into the final cut:

Time flies…

In 2013, Hull had made it to the final City of Culture 2017 shortlist, which also included Dundee, Swansea and Leicester. The brief for the film was to get the whole city behind the bid and to bring the spirit and character of the city into the last round of interviews and presentations before the final decision would be announced on November 20, 2013.

At that time, Nova was just two people – Matt Stephenson and Alan Jones – so we brought together a team of Hull creatives to help us produce the film including musicians John Rowley (Red Guitars) and Steve Cobby (Fila Brazillia), playwright Rupert Creed and our friend Simon Wilson.

We’d explored approaches with Rupert and we seemed to keep coming back to the idea that there was a unique and almost-magical-but-still-gritty atmosphere in Hull, that it somehow felt different to other cities.

Rupert remembered a preface by Philip Larkin to a book of poetry inspired by Hull –  A Rumoured City (Bloodaxe Books, 1982) in which Larkin writes:

“Hull has its own sudden elegancies. People are slow to leave it, quick to return. And there are others who come, as they think, for a year or two, and stay a lifetime, sensing that they have found a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance.”

What makes resonance?

We liked the idea of a forgotten city, geographically isolated and almost forgotten by the rest of the country – a proud, independent, free-thinking place still connected to its stories and memories, somewhere that had grown its own creative voice.

And that idea of a different resonance… how do you capture ‘resonance’ in a film?

Borrowing Larkin’s lines seemed like a great place to start – particularly when the bona-fide national treasure and Hull-born actor Sir Tom Courtenay agreed to read them. This was followed by a script written by Matt, building on Larkin’s ideas, with lines delivered by a diverse group of real Hull people.

“Let me tell you something about this city, all of us, we’re all just passing through, and we’ve all been here forever…”

A portrait of a forgotten city

In terms of shooting, we wanted to capture the real Hull – not just the tourist stuff, but the Hull we know, the factories, terraced streets, and council houses too – and yet at the same time find those “sudden elegancies” – the ferry coming in on a misty morning, the sunrise over the old fish docks, the empty streets of the old town.

But what makes resonance? That’s harder to pin down. It’s an atmosphere, a sense of history, a feeling. We wanted the film to be immersive and connect with people emotionally – so not only did we look for images, but for sounds too. We had the idea that we’d open with the sound of a fog-horn, then build to a crescendo on a rising, droning ‘C’ note at which point bells would ring out and there’d be a sense of a rebirth – a huge party before a new dawn.

The resonance builds through the script, which hypnotically repeats lines and motifs, listing people’s jobs and spelling out plain-spoken ideas that mean something to city’s identity:

“all of us, it’s our time, listen, we are Hull… rules are made to be broken, because that’s how things get done – their freedom is our freedom, and this city belongs to everyone…”

Keys to the city

For the two months we worked on shooting the film it was like we’d been given the keys to the city.

Our friend and colleague Simon was responsible for bringing in the participants and scheduling the production. Everybody we called wanted to help, no door was closed. Every sports team, every school, every artist, every gallery, venue, company or community organisation we asked made time for us. The help, support and enthusiasm was remarkable and uplifting.

It was exhausting work but great fun. It felt like the whole city really was uniting with sole aim of becoming city of culture.

Editing the film and creating the music with Steve Cobby was a huge, but very satisfying job. Bid director Andrew Dixon was heavily involved in a kind-of executive producer capacity – he’d come round at the end of a busy day to watch the latest version over mint tea and biscuits. His input was invaluable – always constructive and positive, always useful – and he became, and remains, a real friend.

Presenting the film to Hull and the world

Toward the end of October 2013 we were ready – but also slightly nervous – to show the final cut of the film to the council’s bid team and to our own friends and relatives.

The reactions were more than we could have hoped for. People cried with pride.

And when the council posted the film on YouTube just a week before the final decision was to be made, watching the views go from hundreds, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands overnight was incredible.

The film was shown on everything from BBC Breakfast to the News at 10, it was applauded loudly during half time at Hull City games, shown as part of the Christmas lights switch-on, and Match of The Day even made a parody of it.

The approach was completely original at the time, and it sparked a whole mini-genre of proud, poetic, place-making films centred around real people delivering lines.

As we know, Hull won the bid and the rest is history.

It was brilliant to play a part in that, and This City Belongs To Everyone had a big impact on the development of our business.

10 years later, Nova Studios Ltd is a full-time team of six staff and we’re busier than ever.

A little help from Hollywood

Favourite moment from making the film? We’re outside the Minerva with Tom Courtenay and he explains to us that he’d called his pal Dustin the night before and read him our lines:

“What, Dustin Hoffman?” we said.

“That’s him” said Tom “He loved the script but Dustin suggested we just make one small change. Do you mind if we do that?”

Who are we to argue with Tom Courtenay and Dustin Hoffman?

I can’t remember the change, I think it was one word – but at least we can say that Dustin Hoffman edited our script.

Maybe that one word made all the difference…

Thanks Dustin – without that vital change from you and Tom, who knows how Hull’s fortunes may have turned?

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