Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye
Part 3: Production Blocks 1-2 of 5 (May 2015)
Start with something easy. A short exterior scene, one actor, a skeleton crew. Set a fast pace and the rest of the team feel like they’re catching up.
1 May 2015. Day #1, Shot #1. Karl J. Claridge, as private eye Dick Nicely, walks into an alleyway and looks around.
It’s a sunny Friday morning and Glasgow is of good cheer. Passers-by are polite. A guy who usually parks his car in the alleyway agrees to come back in an hour. We’re done in 59 minutes.
The art department, led by Daiva Ivanauskaitė, is already busy at tonight’s location – a huge flat in the west end. Gut the living room. Go to my parents’ house. Pick up furniture, set dressing, props. Go back to the flat. Dress the room. Fit the 1940s brief. Have it ready for 6pm.
Producer Myke Hall drives the van back and forth between the flat and Scottish Youth Theatre, our city centre unit base. He ferries equipment, set dressing and food.
Sean McInally, our first assistant director, manages the set. He runs Young Filmmakers Glasgow, knows SYT and blagged our base. He issues walkie-talkies to the crew. I’m not allowed to have one.
From SYT we skip around the corner to Wilson Street to shoot a scene. We need a period-friendly wire mesh bin. I know a private park in the west end where they have one. I send Myke to borrow it and leave a note saying we’ll return it in a few hours.
Karl drops the newspaper in a bin. We push into a close-up of the headline. This shot precedes the alleyway scene. I remember the mouth of the alleyway starts in centre-frame and is roughly the same square shape as the headline. We compose the close-up for a match cut. One of my favourite improvisations on the film.
Myke returns the bin, as promised. Nobody has called the police. It’s a sunny Friday in Glasgow.
We relocate to the flat. The room looks great. Furniture I’ve seen all my life in my parents’ house, and assumed immobile, is now in the make-believe home of a character I’ve had in my head for ten years.
The lighting set-up, inside and outside the flat, is complex. Director of photography Aaron Rivando works with gaffer Graham Stevenson and the camera crew. Scott Mackay sets up the crane – it runs diagonally across most of the room.
We shoot. We burn time. Sean tells me, In five minutes we’ll be an hour behind. This becomes his tagline. If we had the resources we’d put it on a T-shirt.
We simplify the scene a little. We fight the clock. Setting up one sequence, I tell Sean we have two shots to get here. He says, Pick one. So we pick one.
After Sean leaves the room, we get both shots anyway.
Wrap shortly after midnight. Vacate the flat at 1am.
My head is pounding. Drive home. Field phone calls, emails and messages for a couple of hours. The phone wakes me at 6am. My head is pounding and my stomach hurts. I fill it with breakfast, go to unit base, and throw up.
Day #2 is catastrophic. I can’t keep food down. Someone plies me with blue sugar sticks. I throw up blue. My phone rings and pings and rings and pings and rings. I don’t answer unless it’s one of the actors. I ration my water intake to single sips, just enough to keep the bile churning.
We drop the morning scene. Instead we record voiceovers with Karl and Nima Séne, who plays femme fatale Brigid Astor. For clean sound we wrap ourselves in a thick stage curtain at SYT.
After lunch, of which I cannot partake, we get a couple of exterior shots around the city centre. While the crane is set up, some of us wait in the lobby of the arts centre at 103 Trongate. The place is busy with an exhibition. I sleep for ten minutes on the floor.
Meanwhile, Daiva & Co transform my Govanhill living room into Nicely’s boudoir. The rest of us arrive around 6pm. There are two dozen people in my one-bedroom flat. Karl and Nima puff cigarettes. We have a smoke machine. The atmosphere turns my stomach. I have to queue to puke in the toilet. I worry that I’m not fulfilling my leadership duties. I worry that I smell of sick.
We shoot. Post-coital dialogue. Karl and Nima lying in bed, surrounded by crew and lights. I start to flag. The actors start to flag. I invite them to jump up and down on the bed. We buzz. We shoot.
We wrap around midnight. I crash out on the couch and wake up to phone calls. I drink a gallon of water and eat toast. Better.
Day #3. The office scene. Femme fatale comes in, tells the private eye a bunch of lies, hires him to follow someone. It’s a film noir staple.
Ryan Pasi, one of the producers, got us the location. His uncle has an office in a furniture store. The store is open nine-to-five, and his uncle doesn’t work Sundays or Mondays. Today is Sunday. Nima isn’t available on Monday. We need all of her shots today.
Get in there. Move the office furniture into corners, cupboards and corridors. It’s a place of business. Don’t break ANYTHING. Don’t lose ANYTHING.
Dress the set. Put the private eye’s name on the door. Gather dust from the window sills and neglected shelves and add it to the props and set dressing. Stand lights outside the windows, run cables through the store.
Shoot the scene and get out of there by 5pm.
The set takes time. We’re still dressing it through lunch. We roll at two o’clock. We fight time. It’s a close thing. We frame our last shot at 4.45pm while everything but the camera and lights are being hauled into the street.
We’re exhausted. We drop the evening’s scene and wrap for the day. Costume designer Elizabeth Brown lives nearby – we regroup there, devour the catering supplies and talk about the schedule.
It’s too ambitious. It’s punishing. We can’t do this in three shooting blocks. We’ll need four or five.
Day #4. Let’s fucking redeem ourselves.
8.30am. Art goes to our afternoon location, a church hall. They dress the interior as a blank warehouse-type space where we can stage an interrogation and a fight. Meanwhile the main unit goes back to the office to shoot pick-ups and inserts with Karl – stuff we didn’t have time for yesterday.
11am. Inserts are done. We switch units. Art restores the furniture store office to its former glory. The rest of us move to the church hall to shoot.
The fight involves a lamp. We choreograph – Tim Harley, playing husband-under-surveillance Joe Levin, is a martial artist trained in stage combat and takes us through the stunts. We rehearse and get the moves down. We shoot the master – an angle covering the whole sequence – with the Ronin rig, which is like a Steadicam. Take #1 is pretty good. So good, in fact, that I wonder if it’s possible to present the whole fight in an unbroken shot.
We watch and re-watch Take #1 and make adjustments. Then, at the beginning of Take #2, the lamp explodes. The wires are fried – no way we can repair it today. Take #2 is better than Take #1, but we can’t do the unbroken-shot thing again.
We shoot coverage. Break the fight into segments, shoot them one by one. If we can’t use the master, we’ll cut the scene conventionally. I hope we don’t have to do this. I hope the one-take thing works.
Day #5. We start late, around 10.30am. A skeleton crew moves back into my flat, which is still in a shambles from Day #2. We shoot in the stairwell. The real drama unfolds elsewhere – Ryan’s uncle is back in his office and missing an important file. Saturday evening, it was on his desk. Now it’s gone.
Pissing off Ryan’s uncle was in our Top Five Worst Case Scenarios. I phone around. We check our boxes. We check the van. Examine continuity and art department photos from the last two days. Sally Rylett, the production manager, supervised the office breakdown. She goes back there to look around and appease the staff. My parents live near the church hall. I send my mum to see if we accidentally took the folder there and left it lying around.
Film the stairwell scenes. Take a break. Lunchtime jubilation – Sally calls from the office. The folder was in a filing cabinet all along. The staff are appeased.
Location move. Swing, a themed nightclub in the city centre, becomes our 1940s wine bar. We cobble together seven extras. We need a couple more. Daiva and I step up. We shoot the master. It feels strange walking through the scene instead of watching from the perimeter.
After we cut, I go to the monitor. Aaron and Sean are smiling. They show me the playback. In the middle of the scene, one of the extras takes out their iPhone and reads a text. We go again.
Block #1 wraps. Karl travels back to Northamptonshire. We have two days until Block #2, which will focus on the scenes with Nima, Tim and Naomi Miller (as burlesque dancer Skylar). Myke, Daiva and I spend these two days in cars and vans. Return props. Return furniture. Pick up props. Pick up furniture. Run inventories. De-intensify the schedule for Blocks #2 and #3. Push problematic scenes – like anything involving a vintage car – to Blocks #4 and #5.
Day #6. Convene at Nima’s southside flat. She has Venetian blinds, a glass-brick wall, wooden floorboards and a window that opens on to the roof of the shop below. We light the scene from outside, through the blinds. It’s classic noir stuff.
Day #7. Queen’s Crescent in the west end. Home turf – this is where I shot the GFC’s 48 Hour Film seven months ago. It’s a four-storey terrace converted into offices, but with a variety of interior designs. Today we’re in the basement kitchen, which stands in for the apartment owned by Brigid and Joe.
Some modern radiators on the wall. We throw sheets over them. We call this the Radiator Protocol.
While the art department dresses the set, a skeleton crew goes out to the Kelvin Walkway for an exterior scene. This is a scheduling trick we use again and again, shooting low-key outdoor stuff guerilla-style while the day’s main sets are prepared.
Return to Queen’s Crescent. Daiva tells me the kitchen counter is too bare. We need apples. I shrug – looks fine to me. She goes out and buys apples. They’re blood-red. They look fantastic on camera. The counter is unthinkable without them.
Shoot the first scene. Break. The art department re-dress the set for another scene. The rest of us go upstairs to shoot an insert with Nima.
Daiva tells me the kitchen counter is too bare. We need rolls or something. I shrug – looks fine to me. She goes out and buys a bunch of bakery. It looks great. Trust your art director.
We shoot the scene. An intense exchange between Nima and Tim. I get hungry. Our angles change. The bakery is no longer in shot. I eat one of the rolls. Omiros Vazos, our script supervisor, gives me a dirty look. I don’t care – continuity rolls taste better.
This is the last thing we’ll film for a couple of weeks. The weight of directing while simultaneously producing the next item on the schedule has been lifted. I can just direct. It’s a joy working with the actors. We find nuances that weren’t in the script. Aaron frames the shots simply and lets Nima and Tim carry the scene.
Going by the original schedule, we should have shot 70% of the film by now. It’s more like 45%. My fault – I pushed too hard.
Less than half the film – a little demoralising.
Until we see the footage. It’s worth it. Keep going. But ease off the accelerator.
Originally published 8 July 2016.
Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye
Part 1: Script Development (May–December 2014)
Part 2: Pre-Production (January–April 2015)
Part 3: Production Blocks 1-2 of 5 (May 2015)
Part 4: Production Blocks 3-4 of 5 (May–June 2015)
Part 5: Production Block 5 of 5 (July–August 2015)
Part 6: Post-Production (September 2015–January 2018)