Part 4: Production Blocks 3-4 of 5 (May–June 2015)
Two week hiatus. The first week is recovery. The second week is BLUE.
The original schedule was three shooting blocks over three long weekends in May. But as they say, the plan is not the battle, the map is not the territory. We ran out of time to solve some of the biggest logistical problems – like, we haven’t found a vintage car yet, we’re still a couple of locations short, we can’t get the right actors together on the same day.
New plan. Five blocks instead of three. One more in May, as planned. A fourth in June and a fifth later on.
More time to solve problems. More wages to boost the budget.
Karl J. Claridge (Dick Nicely) has already booked his journey up from England for the bank holiday weekend. We concentrate on his scenes.
One takes place in a café/diner. Nicely meets Brigid, played by Nima Séne, to show her surveillance pictures. In the script this scene took place in Nicely’s office, but we made the artistic decision to set the scene in a public space. This decision was largely inspired by us running out of time to shoot it in the office set.
We look for suitable cafés. I find Spitfire Espresso in the Merchant City. They have a classy vintage look. They agree to let us film there on a Sunday afternoon. It’s perfect. I take pictures to show Daiva Ivanauskaitė, the art director, and Aaron Rivando, the director of photography.
They say: But it’s BLUE.
The back wall is, indeed, very blue. It’s not in our colour scheme. I think it’s a nice contrast to the rest of the film. Daiva and Aaron are not convinced.
We keep looking. I search after work three days in a row. I ponder alternatives – what about a park bench? The other producers look for suitable cafés all around the city. This one says no, that one says yes but with a month’s notice.
We fail to muster a Plan B. Daiva and producer Mandy Shannon go to Spitfire on a recce. They look at the back wall. They talk about covering it somehow. The owner of the café phones me – Are you guys papering over my wall? I reassure him that we’re not.
Mandy and Daiva consult Séamus Cogan, our colourist. Can you change this blue in post? Yeah, no trouble at all. Aaron is not convinced. In my pictures it’s very blue.
Karl arrives. Sunday arrives. We film in the Arthouse Hotel on Bath Street, in and around their spectacular cage lift. Send the art department ahead to prepare Spitfire Espresso. Join them at 4pm.
Aaron looks at the back wall and says, Oh, that’s not so bad.
After the café scene we need a crane shot next to a bridge. There’s a junction on the south side with five bridges to choose from. The best one is next to a rowdy Celtic pub. Celtic have just, this afternoon, beaten their old enemies Inverness Caley Thistle.
We set up the crane as the sky darkens. The pub gets rowdier. Aaron tries to go inside to use the toilet. There are so many people, he can’t get through the front door.
Punters come out to score taxis and to smoke. Some ask us what we’re doing. Some advise us to fuck off. Some admire Karl’s detective get-up. One guy pisses in a corner. A woman pukes next to our crane.
We escape with our lives. Nobody figures out that our crane operator, Scott Mackay, is from Inverness.
Monday. We shoot under a bridge by the river, a brief moment with Nicely preceding the café scene. It occurs to me that the murky River Clyde would fade beautifully into a close-up of a murky surveillance photo.
5pm. Cross the river to Film City Glasgow. Our green room is a beautiful wood-panel ballroom with an ornate skylight and chandelier. Our location, however, is the men’s room next door.
Sound recordist Tom Hemblade struggles with the automatic urinal flushes, drains and air conditioning. He tells us to turn off our phones. We shoot. His phone rings. The ringtone is his own personal jingle – “For fuck’s sake, why you callin’ on me?”
Block #4 is my all-time favourite experience on any film. I attribute this mainly to first assistant director Simon Price.
Simon joined the crew in pre-production, on the understanding that paid work would take precedence. Within a few months he was working with Giuseppe Tornatore and Stephen Frears. He supervised our preparation on Blocks #1 and #2 and advised the other ADs. He was finally able to come to set on Block #4.
There were other reasons for my enjoyment. In the three weeks since Block #3, I’d had time to watch scenes cut together and to reflect on our work so far. The scheduling was more realistic, based on known factors rather than guesswork. The academic year was over, so the students among our cast and crew were more relaxed. And for Block #4 we had Queen’s Crescent as a unit base, location and second home.
Saturday 13 June, Day #10. We move into the four-storey west end office building where Elizabeth Brown, our costume designer, works during the week. The actors go through make-up and wardrobe, then we go out to film on nearby streets and in the park.
Karl isn’t here for Block #4. We shoot Brigid’s half of the story – Nima’s scenes with Naomi Miller and Tim Harley.
In the evening we go to Mugdock Country Park to fake some grave-digging. There’s a car park with a ditch amidst an island of trees and bushes. From a low angle it looks like the middle of a forest, and the ditch looks like a grave.
We arrive at dusk, ahead of schedule. Almost an hour until it’s dark enough to film. And within two minutes we’re set upon by all of the midges in the West of Scotland.
The grave-digging precedes a scene in Brigid’s car. We haven’t found a 1947-appropriate car yet. I say – It’s a short scene, only one angle, same actors and costumes as the grave-digging. Let’s do it here. When we get the car, we can shoot it again. But if we can’t get the car, we’ve still got the scene.
Simon says, Okay, you’ve got 45 minutes.
Do we send producer Myke Hall to Milngavie, a few miles away, to buy midge repellent? We only have two cars. If Myke goes, there won’t be enough space for the rest of us to hide. And even if he goes, will he find a shop open this late?
The midges are relentless. We send Myke to Milngavie.
The rest of us tuck our trousers into our socks and our sleeves into our gloves. We wrap scarves, jackets and spare clothes around our heads. Only our eyes are visible. The midges still find a way in.
We talk through the scene, move around the car park to find a suitable spot. We realise that whenever we move, it takes the swarm around two minutes to catch up. This gives us An Edge.
We find our spot – a wooden bridge over the ditch. Set up the camera and position Tom with his sound kit. Block the scene with Nima and Naomi. Then we all run away.
Nima and Naomi hide in the car. The rest of us wait across the car park. The midges find us and begin to feast. We endure. We become profane. We’re being eaten alive. When we can’t take any more, Simon shouts – First positions!
Nima and Naomi run to the bridge. Aaron and I crouch behind the camera. Tom finds his spot. We shoot the scene. Cut. Run away. Wait for the midges to follow us. Then we go back for Take #2. We get the scene in three takes.
While the camera’s running, Nima and Naomi display no sign of discomfort. In this moment they are goddesses.
Myke returns with midge repellent, which has little effect but gives us something to do until it’s dark enough to shoot the next scene.
We wrap shortly after 10pm. I drop some people off in the city centre and head south to return the car to my ex-wife. While I drive, something bugs me. Not midges. I park outside a 24-hour Asda to think. I’ve been doing this a lot lately.
Eventually I realise what it is – tomorrow’s first scene is a pile of shit.
It was the last thing I wrote – an addition to the shooting script prompted by a question from Nima. She raised a good point – Brigid hadn’t been pushed close enough to the brink to explain her subsequent actions. I added a scene to crank up the tension. But the writing was rushed and the point of the scene was unclear.
Day #11. I rewrite the scene. Scribble new dialogue on the bus, type it up at Queen’s Crescent, print copies for the actors. Email Mark Fraser, the editor, so he doesn’t wonder why our rushes don’t match the fucking script.
We shoot next to Great Western Road. Traffic drowns out the new dialogue. We’ll have to loop it in post. Good thing I wrote it down.
Our next scene is set backstage at a nightclub. We booked Scottish Youth Theatre. The booking was lost. Improvise. Turn the basement of Queen’s Crescent into a nightclub corridor. Red light sells it. Fashion a stage curtain from Elizabeth’s spare costume fabric.
We plan a sequence shot, pulling Nima from the stage to the dressing room, where she sees Naomi and Alex Della Ciana (as Ricky Russo Jr) in a tryst. We auditioned Alex with this scene. I kept the blocking loose and noticed that the actors formed a triangle with shifting points.
Sequence shots are tricky. The attraction is that you can shoot the whole scene in one go. Of course it looks spectacular, so you talk yourself out of coverage and then when you get to the edit, you wish you could cut into the scene (for a close-up, for timing) but you didn’t get the footage.
There are advantages, though. Sequence shots can draw you into a scene and build suspense by delaying the cut. They also showcase actors’ body language and movement, which is important here.
We build the set around the blocking. Standing mirrors open out the tight space. The set is designed to reveal a progression of colours. Tom and I hide, contorted, on the floor behind the door – filling the only two cubic metres of room space that the camera won’t see.
We shoot seven takes. Watch the playback several times over. Look for crew and equipment at the edges of frame. Look for telling reflections and shadows. We adjust the blocking. We adjust the path of the camera. Take #7 is The One.
On Monday I go back to work and compile reports, or whatever it is I do, in a sort of daze. Tonight we film the Sixty Steps scene, our action/suspense finale.
5pm. I hurry home. Re-watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin and its most famous homage from The Untouchables. Jump on another bus, high-tail it to Queen’s Crescent.
Simon, Aaron and I talk through the scene. There are issues. We don’t have a generator so we can only use a couple of LEDs to augment the street lighting. Outdoor use of a prop firearm requires police supervision, and I can only afford the officer for the minimum five-and-a-half-hour slot, so there’s a time limit. Naomi, who appears at the end of the scene, is only available at the beginning of the night. We’ll be shooting from shortly after dusk until 3am. The scene is supposed to take place just before dawn.
I decide to shoot the scene roughly backwards. Then, when the scene is cut together, the sky will appear to get lighter, and Naomi will be wrapped by midnight.
We take our shot list, turn it upside down. That’s our plan. We go out to shoot.
It’s a great night. This is my favourite kind of scene – minimal dialogue, a mix of character and action, and practical problem-solving. It’s fast-paced, it’s ruthlessly efficient, it’s borderline paramilitary. Simon keeps us in a creative bubble. I get to spend almost all of my time with the actors.
Tim finds the scene emotionally wrenching. He does a great job. When we’re done, Nima and I give him a hug.