This post was written by Ryan Whitaker.

I’ve spent the last two days shooting a battle scene in the rain, complete with eighty stunt men, twenty horses, a stockpile of rubber swords, and a generous supply of fake blood. Under the persistent downpour from the rain towers, the otherwise firm ground quickly transformed into a quagmire.

What was already a complicated scene became a taxing, monotonous slog, as a hundred wet, mud-caked humans played slip and slide across the boggy marsh. At its most difficult moments, filmmaking can feel like an elaborate form of self-flagellation.

'Surprised by Oxford'Courtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

While I will recall some of the frustrations of the long resets, the repetitive choreography required for every take, the slow drag of my boots through the glutinous bog, the inconvenience of the making of the scene will be mitigated by the satisfaction of having made it.

When audiences watch Surprised by Oxford, the romantic drama I wrote and directed that releases for a limited time in theaters on Sep 27th and Oct 1st, they will experience it as audiences do: a story unfolding in real time, at twenty-four frames per second, adding up to approximately 102 minutes of total movie. What they will not experience, what they never could, is the five year odyssey that precipitated that 102 minutes of screen time.

Behind the Scenes: The Making of Surprised by

I could gripe about the uphill battle to get the film made: the many false starts, the crushing days of self-doubt, the slight embarrassment I feel about the decade long break between my freshman and sophomore efforts behind the camera, but the truth is, I don’t particularly want to talk about any of that. It’s not that I don’t remember the pain of the process; it’s just that the pain pales in comparison to the gratitude I feel at having survived it.

When I first spoke to Carolyn Weber, the author of the memoir on which the film is based, I told her I saw an opportunity to do something different with this film. In Nashville, I was surrounded by friends and colleagues making movies in the so-called “faith-based” space, but I never had much of an appetite for that—at least, not in the way I had seen it done in the past.

While Carolyn’s book chronicled her gradual movement towards faith, it was also about her experience as a young, headstrong student at the University of Oxford, her fraught relationship with a young American named Kent Weber, her eclectic friend group, her eccentric professors. Many faith-based films have a tendency to present an overly simplistic view of faith, but Carolyn’s story was refreshingly honest, complex, and messy in the way that life is messy.

It didn’t resort to over-generalizations about religious (or non-religious) people. And it didn’t hurt that it was set in Oxford, one of the most beautiful towns on planet earth, which, under Carolyn’s deft hand, jumped off the page as a character in its own right. After several conversations about my vision for the film, she graciously allowed me to option the book, but that was only the first hurdle; I was now faced with the gargantuan task of adapting it.

'Surprised by Oxford'Courtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

I spent the better part of a year wrestling a 400-page memoir into a shootable script: condensing, excising, combining characters, tightening events, and all the other minor grievances required in adapting a true story for the screen. Along the way, Carolyn was nothing but understanding and supportive.

While the cinematic potential of the project was obvious to me, studios and investors weren’t so quick to catch the vision. It was a genre hybrid—a coming-of-age story that was also a faith journey, and an academic drama that was also a romance. The “un-categorizable-ness” of it was an obstacle for them, but it didn’t bother me. In fact, it was part of what attracted me to the material. Why should a story have to be only one thing? The film, like Carolyn’s life, like all of our lives, is not an either-or but a both-and.

It became obvious that if I wanted to preserve my vision, I would have to make the film independently, and I couldn’t do it on my own. Thanks in large part to the efforts of producer Ken Carpenter, Jen Lewis, Joel Edwards, and Daniel Kiedis of Evolve Studios, and Bart Ruspoli and Hester Ruoff of Ascendant Fox (who have recently been riding a wave of critical and commercial success with their one-take BAFTA-nominated film Boiling Point and the forthcoming BBC series based on the film), this film was collectively willed into existence by a group of filmmakers who would not stop until we had accomplished what we set out to do.

'Surprised by Oxford'Courtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

From the moment I saw Rose Reid in a film called Finding You that Ken produced in Ireland, I knew she had that indefinable something that’s impossible to manufacture. Call it charisma, mystique, the It Factor.

All I know is that when Rose is on screen, you can’t look away. When she signed on to play Caro, I knew it would be her most difficult role yet, but she was up for the challenge (and she delivers in spades). From there, it was our goal to assemble the best ensemble cast possible, and I couldn’t be happier with the results: Ruairi O’Connor (The Morning Show) as charismatic foil Kent Weber. Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey) as tender-hearted mentor Provost Regina Knight. The list goes on: Mark Williams (Harry Potter, Father Brown), Michael Culkin (The Nest, The Crown), Simon Callow (Shakespeare in Love, A Room With a View), Lourdes Faberes (The Sandman, No Time to Die), Ed Stoppard (Nightfall), Louis Landau (The Serpent Queen), Emma Naomi (Bridgerton), Jordan Alexandra (The Winter King), and more. While this is ultimately Caro’s story, it is populated with memorable supporting characters who all deliver in their own right.

Because of delays with our financing, we had to push past our original summer production window into the fall, which meant we were shooting during term time, when the city is overrun with students and the colleges are hesitant to allow anyone to disrupt their academic routines.

'Surprised by Oxford'Courtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

By some mysterious sorcery, our location manager Ben Richards and unit manager Nuno Antoniotti managed to charm their way through nearly every closed door. The beautiful Exeter College allowed us to shoot in their quads, dining hall, and senior common room. Oriel College lent us their chapel and front quad. We shot in streets, on rooftops, in pubs, in museums. Over twenty days of production, we bounced from one stunning backdrop to another, from the clamor of High Street to the cloistered stillness of the college quads to the pastoral beauty of the Cotswalds.

Often we had multiple unit moves in a day, in effort to capture as much of the city as possible, to stretch out the corners of the cinematic canvas. We staged a pop-up movie theater on the Magdalen College docks, with students seated in punt boats on the river. We took over the Duke Humphrey reading room at the Bodleian Library, home to some of the world’s most priceless books (all individually alarmed).

'Surprised by Oxford'Courtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

Cinematographer Edd Lukas worked tirelessly as we navigated an aggressive shooting schedule in logistically challenging locations. Our goal was to capture Oxford in all its beauty, to craft a cinematic love letter to that singular city. We leaned into wider compositions, longer takes when possible, allowing the visuals to breathe. The Oxford of the film is slightly romanticized, one seen through Caro’e eyes, but it’s not a gauzy romance; we wanted the images to have shape, contrast, and richness.

I returned to Oxford some time ago. As I wandered the streets I had come to know so well, a strange sense of unfamiliarity settled upon me. The city that once felt like home to me now felt suddenly alien and cold.

The explanation was obvious, though it eluded me at first: the Oxford I was looking for is one that exists only in memory now—the one in which I lived in a house with my wife and children within walking distance of our favorite pub. The one in which I would walk to set in the cool, blue mornings when most of the city was still sleeping.

Surprised by OxfordCourtesy of Surprised by Oxford Movie LLC

The one filled with familiar faces greeting me as I arrived, gratitude welling in my chest for the sheer gift of being alive at this moment, in this place, to do the thing I had come to do. The Oxford I remember is the one where I made the film I set out to make, with the people who came alongside me to make it, and those memories are now forever intertwined with the finished film that is being released into the world.

My hope is that audiences will be swept away by this story of love and discovery — that they will laugh, cry, and even do some soul-searching of their own, as they journey with Caro to the “city of dreaming spires.”

This post was written by Ryan Whitaker.