Bloodsuckers united

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Pupils from Transylvania and Norfolk bonded over a vampire film project they could really sink their teeth into. Meabh Ritchie reports on how these creatures of the night were transformed by the experience

Floppy haired, teenage boy, strapped into a straightjacket is throwing himself against the sides of a padded cell, covered in red scribblings. His crazed eyes are hollow and he has an inane grin on his face, not unlike Heath Ledger's joker in the latest Batman film. The camera focuses on his quivering lips as they attempt to clutch a blood-red crayon and then slowly write the letter V followed by a plus sign.

"That was in our school gym, only a couple of weeks ago," says George Worrall, a 15-year-old pupil at North Walsham High School (NWHS) in Norfolk. "It's not quite finished yet - it still needs the sound, which will make a massive difference," adds classmate Matt Neave, who was the chief cameraman.

The scene is a sneak preview of V+, a feature length vampire film made entirely by pupils from the age of 11 to 16 over the past two and a half years. The project was shared between a school in Mayen, Germany, another school in Zimnicea, southern Romania and the NWHS in Norfolk and was filmed at different locations in Transylvania and Norfolk.

Written by James Coulson, head of media studies and English teacher at NWHS, the film tells the story of five young teachers who go on a teacher training trip to a town in Romania that is home to a community of vampires. The 50-strong cast and crew was made up entirely of pupils from all age groups, who were initially taught the basics of everything from filming to stage make-up beforehand.

From a curriculum point of view, the film production ticks boxes for drama, media, languages, design and technology, textiles and music. But it was the cross-cultural element that was the initial springboard for the whole project. The German and English schools had a longstanding languages partnership and the idea of a film came about when Mr Coulson, who is also international co-ordinator at NWHS, was on a school visit to Germany in 2007.

"On our last night there, we were sitting around after dinner having a few drinks and thought, what can we do to keep this going?" says Mr Coulson, who thinks most language exchanges don't really submerge pupils in a new culture and don't filter through to the rest of the school.

"(The teachers and I) thought making a film would have a great appeal. It's actually the least glamorous activity, when it comes down to the number of hours involved in filming and editing, but the kids want to get involved."

When a Romanian teacher was visiting the Norfolk school the following academic year, Mr Coulson thought about extending the project to include a Romanian school, and it was at this stage that the idea of a vampire film was decided on, drawing on Romania's legend of Dracula. The success of the recent Twilight novels and films starring teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson meant that the vampire theme was sure to appeal to lots of pupils.

The school may have been chosen by coincidence, but the aim of the whole project was to further the pupils' cultural understanding by working together. While Germany is part of Western Europe and widely English speaking, Romania is a world away from Norfolk and Mr Coulson wanted to expose his pupils to its different culture. The 11-16 Norfolk comprehensive is in an area of social deprivation with a high number of Neets (people not in employment, education or training) and teenage pregnancy. The number of pupils with special educational needs is above the national average at the school of 850 pupils and ethnic minorities only make up 1 per cent of its intake.

"The isolation here is economic and geographical, but it's also cultural," he says. "The entrenched attitudes towards race and religion and other cultures in general is truly shocking. I wanted to do something about the root cause of that. Surely as a teacher it's my job to correct ignorance."

James Coulson first became concerned about his pupils' limited outlook when he took them on a trip to the Globe Theatre in London three years ago. "We were on the train going through east London and I heard one of the kids call someone a paki," he says. "My immediate reaction was to tell them off, but I forced myself to sit there and listen to the conversation. I realised they just had a fear of what they didn't know. Racism is to do with hatred, but a xenophobe is someone who's afraid of that difference, and as a teacher, I can do something about that."

The English and media studies teacher lived and worked as an EFL teacher in Greece, Spain and the Czech Republic for 12 years before moving to North Walsham four years ago so thought he would be in a good position to inspire his love of other cultures in his pupils.

After writing the script for the psychological horror and getting all the schools on board, Mr Coulson managed to secure funding from the UK German Connection and the Ernest Cook Trust. Then in February last year, a group of English students went to Germany to run some drama workshops, as German pupils don't study acting at school. Some of the auditions and castings were carried out and eventually, they found their Dracula. The following October, an entire film set was constructed near the Norfolk school as they set the scene for a burial shot in the pitch dark with tombstones and smoke machines in tow.

However, it was the filming in Romania last spring that made the biggest impact on those students who made the journey over there. They were filming non-stop for nine days in a row, often for 12 hours at a time in temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius. Becky Atyeo, 15, was one of the main characters who is eventually taken over by the V+ virus and becomes a vampire. "It's madness looking back at it," she says from the relative comfort of the school's editing suite. "I don't think we really thought about the fact that we'd be in freezing conditions when we were thinking about the costumes. I was wearing knee-length shorts the whole time."

Most of the outside shots were filmed in the grounds of medieval buildings in Sighisoara, birthplace of the historical character associated with Dracula, set against the Transylvanian hills. In one scene, the camera follows a teacher out of the building and around a path in snow. As she makes her way down the hillside through a covered walkway, a group of vampires dressed in black, hooded cloaks slowly close off her exit and a pair of disturbingly pale, identical twins appear behind her, trapping the teacher before going in for the kill.

It was in Romania, where everyone came down with a cold and where they all stayed in the same hostel, that the pupils from different schools and countries properly bonded. George Worrall, 15, who was responsible for sound, was impressed by the Romanians' hosting. "They know how to party," he says. "We had a party in a cellar on the last night of filming and they brought along two huge speakers." The group became "like a small family", he says, and they are still in touch on Facebook.

At 12, Josh Duckmanton was one of the youngest in the group and only knew two people when he started. "I sort of kept myself to myself and waited for other people to come and talk to me. But in Romania, I learnt a lot," he says knowingly, which prompts eruptions of laughter from the others.

A group of pupils have given up weeks of their summer holidays to edit the film while the German pupils have been busy recording the score. But this isn't the only thing that went on at school over the summer break: a new world map has been painted on the tarmac in front of the school entrance and scenes from around the world now adorn the sports hall. It is all part of James Coulson's mission to broaden his pupils' horizons, but he has come up against some resistance.

Some teachers have questioned why Mr Coulson spent so much time raising money to do the film when other schools get as much of the benefit.

Mr Coulson has also led assemblies and Inset days tackling homophobia in schools - another project that proved to be contentious, but he doesn't mind courting controversy. "Some of the pupils told me that it made them think twice about the language they use, so it did make a difference," he says. More and more families are now willing to host foreign students when they come to stay in North Walsham and parents are more enthusiastic about showing them around the county.

As the final touches are being made to the film, Mr Coulson is proud of the pupils' progress but keen to point out that it was all about the process, rather than the final result. "The truly brilliant lesson I wanted them to learn is that despite superficial differences between different nationalities, we are all essentially the same," he says. "If you ask the kids what they learnt, they'll tell you that they learnt how to edit, how to do camerawork and lighting, how to do film make-up. They don't realise all the other stuff."

A lavish film premiere is going to be held on October 2 in central Norwich at the Forum building. More than 40 of the children involved from all three countries will arrive in limos and in full evening dress to walk down the red carpet. In a nod to the multi-cultural aspect of the project, a teacher from each of the three countries will give a speech in each other's language; "me in Romanian, the Romanian in German and the German in English," says Mr Coulson.

The whole project has taken an enormous amount of organisation and co- ordination, from sourcing locations to putting together a film storyboard, and all between 90 pupils and 30 staff from three separate countries. "It's always been about devolving as much power and control over to the children as we possibly can," says Mr Coulson. "As the project's gone on, we're basically at the stage now where we're just overseeing things. The pupils are running it now."

To read the pupils' blog about the making of V+, visit

The story of V+

During a teacher training day at a school in Norfolk, five young teachers decide to take up the offer of a trip to Romania on a school visit.

When they arrive, the local residents seem to be behaving quite strangely: they walk around in packs and are always wearing hooded capes.

It turns out that the town is full of vampires and a sinister looking man in a top hat turns out to be Dracula. One by one, the teachers are taken down by the vampires and are stricken with the deadly V+ virus. It's a race against time for those who remain to escape.

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