It’s the day after the shoot of the Sick Puppie’s second Straight 8 film, “Code Grey,” a tale of bombs, valour and colour blindness. I’m comprehensively knackered. Everything that doesn’t ache is numb. But the emotion that I feel the most today is contentment. We’ve done it. We pulled together a crew of astonishing talents, who inspired us to work at the top of our game, and over the course of a thirteen-hour shooting day helped us to create something of which we’re going to be insanely proud.
7:30, Saturday March 15th. Meard St, in London’s ever-salacious Soho, a snarl of streets and tiny alleyways that I have worked in for 17 years. Soho Images is a film lab right in the heart of this maze of sleaze and glamour, and it was our central location for our short film.
I’m the co-writer and director this time round. I’ll be first man on set, and last man out.
Soon after, the rest of the crew begin to arrive. Steve Cartwright, third head of the mythical triple-headed dog that symbolises the creed and humour of The Sick Puppies is next on. He’s our sound man, on-set photographer and the creator of The Bomb. This is the principal prop of the film, the maguffin, the driving force of the film. It’s an elaborate construct of sprayed cardboard, old circuit boards, LEDs, and a payload of marzipan. It looks – well, worryingly convincing. So much so that Steve’s had to contact London Underground for a permit, just in case he gets stopped and searched on the way to the location. Cos that would be awful. In a funny way.
Next up, our star, the mighty Clive Ashenden. My creative partner. The Hardy to my Laurel. The Louise to my Thelma. The actor in this one. He’s been taking acting lessons, and on the strength of today’s performance, they’re working out rather nicely. Clive is developing the most expressive brow in movie history, which is kind of useful, as we end up focussing on that brow rather a lot. He has the police uniform, the bulletproof vest, the tight cop crop (which worryingly, suits him rather well), and soon, courtesy of Sophie Lilliard, our make-up artist, the look of a man who has just wrestled a number 25 bus into submission. In other words, he’s a goddam action hero.
Next through the doors is our DoP, Flemming Jetmar. Flemming stepped in to help us out when our original choice of cameraperson couldn’t make it, and he’s an absolute star. He works incredibly hard, and gives us lighting setups and camera angles to die for throughout the day. Flemming’s used to complex and expensive commercials shoots, and for him to give us two full Saturdays of his time on our crappy little Super 8 movie, transporting his own rig and taking a quick snatched lunch on the run is … a miracle, frankly.
As Flemming begins to rig lights in the stupidly confined space of our primary location, a crawlspace behind equipment racking that can’t be any wider than three feet at it’s thickest point, other members of the crew start to appear. Simon Aitken, who’s taking a break from the editing on his first feature, the vampire thriller Blood and Roses to help us out with a behind the scenes doco. He’s followed closely by Sophie, who had worked with him on Blood and Roses. For the most part, they would be sitting around today, watching DVDs on my laptop and waiting for the call from the set. But when they were needed, they were invaluable, and I can’t wait to see what Simon does with the behind-the-scenes footage. The camera always seemed to be there when a moment of starry flouncedom or directorial wibble took place.
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Afo Kuti, Nick Scott and Fiona Brownlie make up the balance of the team. Fi and Nick are old hands at Straight 8, and Nick’s The Other Half has been gathering plaudits far and wide. He’s taking a break this year to help out we lesser mortals. In fact the following day he and Fiona will be working on her Straight 8 short, the Kung Fu epic Kung Faux. Afo has been working on his own short film Junction for a while now, and I’ve promised to help him with the colour grade once he has a locked cut. For today, he’s mine, the organisational heart of the shoot. Whip-cracker, set mover, go-getter.
The film is a three-act piece, bookended by sections in the crawlspace. These will be the slow grind points of the day, as they require the most careful lighting to get absolutely right. Worse, due to the Straight8 methodology of filming everything in camera, in sequence, we have to reset and relight on every single shot. We drag through the shot list slowly, slowly, finally completing the first block at 2PM, 90 minutes behind schedule. We’re all a little spaced, spending a lot of time in an incredibly cramped and hot space. But the images look fantastic, and we remain positive, jokey and focussed.
We have one exterior location, on Berwick St Market, for our large vegetable sequence. Afo sweet-talks a market trader into letting us film by his stall, and all we have to do is buy a bag of red peppers and two comedy cabbages. It’s not quite guerilla film-making – we’re a little too exposed for that – but we’re out and back in within 45 minutes, which is a significant hike in shot-to-time ratio.
In fact, the next two set-ups run very smoothly, and I start to hope for an on-schedule finish. Although there are still a lot of lighting changes, simply not being squashed behind hot racks makes one hell of a difference to morale. Also, grub from the local greasy spoon brings succour and no small amount of saturated fat to our tired bodies. By 5 we’re ready to get back in character, and disarm the goddamn bomb.
The latter part of the day goes slowly, as tiredness sinks it’s rubbery teeth into us. The final sequence has a lot of extreme close-up work that requires intense concentration and exhaustive precision from Flemming and Clive. A spike in workload just when we all could have used a break. The remains of the shot list are nibbled at far too slowly. One three-second closeup takes almost an hour to light and frame. Through it all, the method remains intact. Rehearse, rehearse, and go only when you feel it’s right. There’s one chance to get this right. Any screw-ups are part of the film. I’m yelling out the second count as the camera purrs, praying to St. Tula that the maths are right, that the footage counter doesn’t lie, that everything fits.
It turns out that St. Tula has an oblique sense of humour when it comes to Super 8 film-making, or maybe it’s just joint hallucination at the end of a very long day. Anyhow. At one point we started stretching out the count, as it looks like we have surplus film. And suddenly, two shots before the end, the footage counter drops to zero. We squeeze out one last shot, but the ten seconds of whiteout we’d planned to drop at the end had to be – well, dropped. Or shrunk significantly. When I open the camera to expose the tail end of the film, I was confronted by the EXPOSED sign. The ending would not be what we had imagined.
Musing on this as we were packing away, Nick is suddenly struck by a memory. Kodak had scrimped on the footage of Tri-X when they had started offering it as a film stock again for the 8mm gauge. We had calculated for 3 minutes and 20 seconds of footage. Kodak had shorted us by 5 seconds. Too late to worry about it now. We had everything we’d shot, and we weren’t getting any more. It was almost (with apologies to the Saint of Film) Zen moviemaking. Although to be frank, I’d never been so stressed at a project that reeks of the need to be laissez-faire.
It’s half past eight by the time we pack the last of Flemming’s gear into his estate, and everyone is long gone. Other projects, other plans. The post-wrap drink we’d plan evolves into a quick pint at a local drinkery, Clive and I the only participants, barely able to string together a sentence through exhaustion. An anti-climax, sure. But nonetheless, an ending.
So, now, we’re done. I have an exposed roll of Kodak Tri-X, a sound file that’ll probably need yet more tweaks to have even the faintest chance of matching pictures, and absolutely no idea if it’s any good, or if we’ve misjudged focus, or exposure levels, or performance, or even if people will get the general premise. But we’ve done our utmost. We know it’s good. The talent and skill was certainly there, and there were even points in the day when I truly felt like a director, that I was sort of halfway in control of this rollercoaster, this circus, this carcrash. Let’s just hope everyone else agrees.