I met John Healy, an extraordinary man who would have died fighting over bottles of wine in the park if he had not discovered chess in prison. He gave up drink for chess, won a major tournament, then gave up chess for meditation. At this this point he wrote the novel of his life story, and that was the story of the film. THE GRASS ARENA is the public park, and also the gladiator’s arena where broken nosed winos fight over a bottle of wine.
John Healy’s novel won Autobiography of the Year Award and later became a Penguin Classic. John himself is a one-off – part funny, wise and insightful, part driven by rage. Having given up chess because this middle and upper class world was even more stressful than being with the winos in the park, John ended up devoted to meditation. I once asked him if he is now addicted to meditation. He replied- “Meditation is a good thing to be addicted to.”
I will never forget walking into the rehearsal room and seeing it full of hostile looking actors who actually growled and glared at me as I passed them. I thought “Hell, they hate me. This is going to be a disaster!” It soon sunk in that they were all in character, playing freaked out, murderous winos. Really, it was nothing personal.
Casting Mark Rylance in the role of John Healy and Pete Postlethwaite as the Dipper was a perfect match and formed the core of the film. I especially remember D0P Rex Maidment, a small and amusing man who shot well and fast and kept us laughing. Every morning he showered the actors with foul mouthed abuse to help them get into character as winos. He and Pete Posthewaite struck a hilariously abusive double act.
Mark Rylance, more than any other actor I have worked with, seemed a kind of shape changer. When we visited John in his Caledonian Road flat, I saw Mark physically and mentally soaking up John’s character. I watched him ‘become’ John Healy. I loved working with Mark. I was very clear how and why scenes were to be constructed – I felt I was building a world believable enough for Mark to inhabit, be in, or burst in upon. Representing John Healy, Mark was the human centre of the film.
THE GRASS ARENA won awards wherever it went and nearly had a cinema release – but (damn it) not quite! I am waiting for the day when someone at the BBC remembers this film and gives it another screening. It was after all Mark Rylance’s first screen appearance.