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NEWS > Alumnae News > Unearthing a Glittering Tale

Unearthing a Glittering Tale

Netflix's smash-hit film The Dig was a true labour of love for producer Ellie Wood, Class of 1993, who spent 15 years bringing the beautiful, heartfelt period tale to the screen.

The Dig, which was released on Netflix at the end of January, explores the story of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939.  The film is based on a novel of the same name written by John Preston.  Many of the events and the characters depicted in both the film and the novel are inspired by real events and real people.

The rather understated, beautifully-told and very British film about making the most of fleeting friendships and loves, packs an emotional punch and has topped viewing figures around the world. It stars Carey Mulligan as landowner Edith Pretty who asks local archaeologist Basil Brown, played by Ralph Fiennes, to investigate a series of mysterious earth mounds on her estate.

The horde of Anglo-Saxon treasures, and the delicate remains of a 27m-long boat, which are subsequently unearthed just as World War Two is breaking out, has been described as “one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time” and revolutionised understanding of early England.

The film has been hailed as “one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time”, “understated, yet passionate”, “wonderfully shot” and “a near perfect balm for these difficult times”.

Ellie first came across the story before it had even been published as a book, knowing as soon as she read John Preston’s manuscript that it needed to be turned into a film and “just becoming completely obsessed with it.”

She stayed with the project throughout its long development as it went through the hands of a succession of writers, directors and actors – both Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett’s names have been attached to the script at times – before finding its current script writer Moira Buffini and director Simon Stone.

“All those years I kept telling myself I’m going to make it happen.  I was just determined. It is such an amazing story and I could picture it all. You don’t come across such good stories that often and I always believed that audiences would be drawn to it.”

It is perfect lockdown viewing and is currently the film that has got everyone talking. The hashtag #SuttonHoo has been trending on Twitter, traffic to the British Museum’s web pages about the treasure has tripled, and their videos about the famous Anglo-Saxon helmet which was uncovered have gone viral.  And the film has received rave reviews and hit headlines around the globe.

“I don’t think any of us were expecting a reaction quite like this,” says Ellie, who now runs her own production company called Clearwood Films. “It’s bigger than we could have imagined.  It really seems to have struck a chord with people who are stuck at home, and that’s been combined with the might and reach of Netflix.  All the stars have just aligned. I couldn’t be more delighted that all those years of just believing and working away have finally paid off.”

Filming for The Dig was completed before the pandemic hit, but the last stage of editing had to be done remotely, with the editor and director working from their homes in different countries. And the pandemic restrictions have had a huge impact on plans for its cinema release and publicity tour.

Having trained at the Royal Academy of Dancing, Ellie began her career in casting and at a theatrical agency before joining the BBC as a script editor. From there she moved to Clerkenwell Films, progressing from head of development to executive producer, working on such productions as The Diary of a Nobody for the BBC. Then she joined Tiger Aspect productions as an executive producer, where her projects included a BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall.

Lockdown has put plans for some of her current projects on hold.  This year she was due to exec produce But When We Dance, a BBC drama about two people who share a sense of humour, a love of dance and Parkinson’s, but it’s being pushed back until current restrictions are eased.

“But generally I’ve been doing masses of work,” says Ellie.  “I’ve been doing lots of script development with writers on Zoom, exploring options for more book adaptions and looking at drafts of new shows. It’s got things happening quite fast as suddenly people’s diaries have unlocked and they are responding to emails that might otherwise have taken weeks to get a reply.  It’s been a rather productive time.”

The Dig is available to watch on Netflix and is highly recommended.  To see the review by the BBC’s Will Gompertz, please click here.



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