8 and Out

I’m bone weary, barely able to focus. The frontal lobes of my brain are in a knot. A thunderstorm of a headache is making slow progress across my brow before settling in behind my eyes, where it will force jabs of pain out through my tear ducts.

I feel fantastic. The final push of effort has been completed, audio has been tweaked, polished, sweetened and uploaded and we are done for Straight 8 09. Dom has done some fantastic work over the last week in getting the found sound and atmos we’ve gathered into a cohesive whole. The cacophony he’s created all sounds the way I imagined it when I wrote the script for Time Out four score years and ten ago.

We’re quietly proud of what we’ve achieved so far. Now all we have to do is wait and see if we’ve made it into the screenings. And as anyone who’s made a Straight 8 will tell you, that wait is the toughest thing of all about the whole process. We’ll see.

Fist bumps and hugs to everyone that got their film into SFL on time this year. You’ve done something great, and you’re part of the hardcore. You’re film makers in the very purest sense of the word.

Be proud tonight. I am.

Considerations on the shooting of a Straight 8 film.

Wednesday. Early. Pre-sunrise. Alarms go off. Dom and I roll groaning out of bed. Hot, brief showers, tea, a snatched bowl of cereal. Low conversation. Wondering what we’ll forget, what vital thing has slipped through the net of our preparations. Clare, soft murmuring from bed. “Good luck.” I nod, and pull the first of many long, held breaths.

On the road as the sky ruddies and glows. The car is full of lights and camera equipment. Hard cases, full of potential. Soft music and quiet talk, booming down the M4 into the day, towards London. The sun is ahead of us, fiery red. A stop sign that we ignore.

The traffic starts to build as we turn into a quiet Hampstead side street. Kiki is outside, waiting. She has yet more baggage, and it’s a squeeze to get everything in. And we still need to fit one more person amongst the gear.

A half hour later. London Bridge. Dom points out a cafe that is a later location. Looks fine. We make an illegal turn into London Bridge station, ignoring angry hoots from cabbies that have the right to do what we cannot. But here’s Hayley, bright as the dawn, and somehow we find room for her.

The first location is five minutes away. A neat little one-bed flat in a quiet situation. It’s full of light, life and clutter, and perfect for what we need. We start to set up as the owner, a friend of Hayley’s, sleepily gets ready for work. We’ve been going for three hours, and it’s still not half past eight.

A little set dressing, finally a coffee. Kiki in a tartan dressing gown and leopard-skin slippers, with socks. Elsie Tanner’s hot younger sister. We load up, shoot the slate, and start to work through the shot list.

Camera troubles. Even with all three lights blazing in the kitchen, and daylight flooding through, the light meter says we’re under-exposed. Dom fiddles with the controls. We all start to sweat a bit, and it’s not just the heat from the lights.

Not sure what Dom's focussed on here...
Not sure what Dom's focussed on here...

Lewis arrives. Quiet, polite, wearing a fine choice in retro Batman attire. We set him up with another camera, which means there are now more people shooting the making of than the actual film.

Crisis. Dom thinks the camera isn’t turning over. We have between-channel radio and TV noise roaring in the kitchen, and he can’t hear the mechanism. His gut feeling is that it’s not putting film through the gate. A nervous five minutes while he reseats the battery. We have no choice but to reshoot the last two shots. We may have doubled them. There’s no way to be sure. There’s no way of knowing. With the sound on the radio and TV down, we go for the two shots again. Success. The rattle of the mechanism is a benediction.

We move on.

Two grabbed shots on a bus. I’m worried that people will take offence, but no-one even seems to notice that we’ve got a camera out. Lewis slops over Kiki. Kiki backs into a guy’s lap by accident. The look on his face says that he doesn’t mind. Ten minutes after we get on the first bus we’re on another one, heading back to the unit car. The sky is flawless Wedgewood blue. It’s warm and bright. At a quarter to twelve, we’re back in the car and driving into Soho, on the best day of the year so far.

Twelve thirty. Kiki’s office space, deep in the heart of Soho. Fourth floor, bustling with life, and glorious light pouring through a wall of windows. We’ve lugged the redheads and tripods up four flights of stairs, and we don’t need them. It’s fine. It doesn’t matter. Not having to rig lights means we’re done that much more quickly. Hayley and Lewis become set dressing, and Kiki corrals some of her work mates into taking one for the cause. Five shots in forty minutes, then we’re back in the car back to London Bridge.

In the car, Kiki regales us with stories from the one-woman show she’s writing. The story about the guy with curvature of the spine, and his weird take on improvisational cinema. How she refused a big offer from Coronation Street. And she frets about Natasha Richardson, critically injured in a silly little ski-ing accident that would claim her life the following day. She and Hayley talk agents, while I scribble on my shooting script, and hope to god the timings hold.

A bit of physical direction
A bit of physical direction

Two o’clock, and we’re back on the street in London Bridge. The cafe location Dom found was almost empty, so we scoot up the road a little to a smaller place where punters are queueing out of the door. Two shots, and we can only fit Kiki and Dom in there. This is where timings start to go awry. I can’t count Dom in or out, and have to take his reports on how long the trigger was going on faith. But it’s exactly what I was seeing as I was writing it, so no complaints.

We have lunch at the original cafe location, and try not to flag. Cheeky Kiki eats the sandwich she bought down the road in there, but no-one seems to mind. Or even notice.

We move on.

We piece together the buildup to the “Time Out”, a nested series of zooms and closeups, in a cut-through at the back of Guy’s hospital. It’s perfect. Quiet, but with enough passing traffic that we get some great passer-by reactions when we finally direct Kiki to go loopy. She does a brilliant job, whooping and hollering, flapping her jacket behind her like a Batman cape. The second shot, grabbed while she runs through a busy courtyard, is absolutely priceless. Kiki is breathless and blushing, but it’s good stuff and we all know it.

She's a star, I tell ya. A STAR.
She's a star, I tell ya. A STAR.

Then to the final location, for the shocking conclusion to the tale. A cut just under a railway bridge hard by London Bridge station. We devise a jittery, single-shot way of making it look like the unit car is heading for Kiki at speed. Hayley, behind the wheel, does a great job of looking scared out of her mind as she accelerates up the alleyway at twenty miles an hour. It looks scary, and I’m viewing it from a very safe position. This one is seriously rehearsed, of course. Killing the lead actress would not make a good end to the day.

One quick shock reaction (helped along by Lewis barking at Kiki at the right moment) and we’re done. There’s a question over the counter on the camera now, which could be reading anything from thirty seconds to a minute.

It’s not even that. We run four seconds of black, and Dom thinks he feels the film run out. Which could be something of an issue, as we have a shot to go. We run the camera anyway, but I don’t think we got it. Maybe a flash. Maybe a couple of frames. There’s no way to be sure. There’s no way of knowing.

And that was it. Pictures done. We quietly de-convene. There are no histrionics, which is always the way with these things. Everyone’s just a bit too tired to make much of a fuss.

Hayley strikes set, and we drop Kiki back to her dogs in Hampstead. Then a quiet beer and a debrief with Dom and Lewis in a pub near Paddington. Turns out Lewis is a major horror buff, which leads to a bit of a geek out, and an internal promise to introduce him to the Sick Puppy crowd. Then home, to Clare. Thinking I might sleep. Knowing I wouldn’t. It had been a day filled with adventure, improvisation, triumph and possible disaster but by god we’d done it. We had a film in the camera.

We have just over a week to deliver the sound, and then the painful part of the process. The long wait while we find out if we’ve made it, if it’s good enough, if it came out. We won’t know until the middle of May. So we wait. And we wonder, and we remember an amazing, inspiring day. From me, Dom, Kiki, Hayley and Lewis, it’s so long, so far.

The story continues in May…

(all pics taken by Lewis Shelbourne. Nice work, that man.)

The full Flickr set of Lewis’ photos taken on the day is up and available here. A truthful document of a crazy day.

Updatarama

Its the portability of 8mm that I love, you know...

Things are moving swiftly. Thus I must do the same. Briefly, then.

Shooting on OUT TIME will be at some point early next week. We have screened our test roll of neg. Hooray! It’s in focus! Hooray! The centre’s where it should be!

We are meeting Kiki, our actress tomorrow, and have just had a very successful chat with Hayley, supporting actress and first AD, which may have solved the last of our location issues. Things are falling into place.

Meanwhile, this Friday sees the first preview screening of the Cambridge Super 8 Festival, and we are honoured that Code Grey has been chosen as one of the featured films. Any members of The Readership that find themselves at a loose end and anywhere near The Portland Arms in Cambridge should get themselves in there and give the film some love.

 Code Grey will be screened as part of the Festival proper on Friday May 1st, and Clive and I will both be there. Come and find us and say hi. If you mention X&HT, then I will be quietly and happily flabberghasted. 

Code Grey’s screening at the Chelsea Arts Club is just the icing on top of the pork pie. They’re feeding us and everything, doncha know. Not with iced pork pies, I hope…

Life During And Beyond Straight 8

We move on apace, slipping into the final stages of planning before a long day of shooting. Time is, as it inevitably does with Straight 8, slipping away. The final day for submission of pictures is three weeks away.

Here’s where we stand. Script, pretty much there. It needs more of a conclusive breakdown to create a proper shooting script, which I’ve started and will finish this week. Dom will be on recce duty, hunting out locations. We have finished casting, and have two fantastic, talented actors on board that will push us to do our best. We have a tentative shooting date two weeks hence. We are, I think, as set as we can be at this stage.

So, of course, I’m twitchy. This is always the point in proceedings where something happens. Usually, a key member of staff will drop out. If we’re unlucky, everyone will drop out. All we can do is plan and plan and hope for the best, and plan again for the emergency that I’m certain is just round the corner. These films are such small things, but they can really take over your life. A disaster now will echo in your bones and your soul.

Let’s talk about Code Grey. Last year’s Straight 8 has only gone and got itself a life outside the compound. We have a screening at the Chelsea Arts Club on the 16th, along with artists and other film-makers as part of their monthly film night. This is a huge bump to the ego for Clive and I, and we shall struggle to contain the swelling of our heads. We even get fed as part of the deal.

And ***BREAKING NEWS***, Readership. Code Grey has been picked up as part of the Cambridge Super 8 Festival in May. This is of course very good news, as it was submitted without the Straight 8 wrapper. It’s a short film in it’s own right, and doing really well. This bodes well for the Hungarian Film Festival too, which also had a DVD from me. Next job is to see if we can get it into a mainstream festival. The way we’re rolling at the moment, I think we can do it. It’s just a shame we’re a bit late for Cannes this year…

Some Oscar Thoughts

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…now that I’ve had a bit of time to think about it.

1. Slumdog absolutely deserved every award. Rewarding Danny Boyle’s style of lean, sharp film-making is a very good move, and the smartest thing Oscar’s done in quite a while. That being said, typically the award did not go to his best movie. If you want to know what I’m talking about, set your plusbox to BBC1 at 11:25 tonight.

2. Actually, the other big Brit victory of the night also won for work that will not be remembered as her best. I mean, seriously, why Kate Winslet should get the Golden Dwarf for The Reader instead of Little Children is beyond me.

3. This seems be be pretty symptomatic of the Oscar selection process as a whole, though. Witness Sean Penn’s Best Actor nod for Harvey Milk. This matches the preference of the committee for roles that are either impersonations or, if you’ll excuse the Tropic Thunderism, “half-retard.” This year seems to be better than past events. For example, the 2005 awards featured three biopic roles, with Philip Seymour Hoffman winning for his portrayal of Truman Capote. Even so, two impersonations out of five this year.

4. And I’ll get shit for saying this, but Heath Ledger’s posthumous award may have been deserved, but to my mind he was better in Brokeback Mountain. Oscar once again rewards the right person for the wrong role. Good to see a superhero movie getting a thumbs-up in something other than a technical award, though.

5. And don’t get me started on the whole Best Animated Film gulag, either. Wall-E had a ton more invention, heart and sheer joy than Benjamin Button or The Reader. Or Milk. Or Frost/Nixon.

6. In other words, business as usual at the Oscars this year. Hugh Jackman looks like he might have a gig for life, though. Much to Jon Stewart’s discomfort…

A Waste Of Time?

hollywontI spent a pleasant, calm Sunday finishing off Code Grey, the short Super 8 film I directed earlier in the year. Audio, titles and the all-important final shot that didn’t make the original cut are all in place, and there are DVDs in my bag, ready to go off to 8mm festivals in Cambridge and Hungary.

I’m well ahead of the curve according to some people. A survey quoted in the BECTU journal “Stage, Sound and Screen” from the UK Film Council has stated that well over half of the low-to-no budget films listed as being in production in this country never get completed, and of those that do, an even smaller percentage get any kind of distribution deal, let alone make any money back. With this in mind, the idea of working for deferred payment becomes something of a sick joke. If the film you’re working on is never likely to make any money, then neither are you.

The issue of health and safety also gets a mention. Or rather, the lack of it on set does. Low-to-no works because the film-makers use a stripped down crew, often comprised of enthusiastic amateurs or students, and shoot in a hurry. There will be no dedicated health and safety officer on set, and often no-one with any idea of what to do if there was an accident.

The conclusion reached by the BECTU scribes was that this kind of film-making is a dangerous and expensive waste of time, which exploits the crew and serves no decent artistic purpose.
Which is fair comment in a lot of cases. Sturgeon’s Law applies more accurately to films than anything else.

To relate this argument back to my own experience, there was a crew of nine on Code Grey, and no proper safety officer. But we were in a controlled area. I did a safety talk before we started, and I made damned sure my crew was working safely at all times. No-one got paid, but that was expressly set out at the start. Everyone was fed and watered, and the biggest chunk of the budget was parking for the DOPs estate car.

There is an absolutely valid point to be made about this part of the market having it’s risks, but then the film business was and remains a home to hustlers, crooks and idiots. If a kid that wants to make movies can gain experience through being on low-to-no sets, then that should be encouraged, even if the lesson learned from that experience is that you swear never work on a set like that again.

This sector of the market isn’t going away, and it’s frequently the first step on the ladder for a lot of talented film-makers. The desire to get out there and make something regardless of the technical limitations should me applauded. It’s how acclaimed directors like Shane Meadows and Robert Rodriguez got their start. If this one’s rubbish, so what. Try again. Next time, do better. Learn from your mistakes, but above all, learn.

Code Grey is my third film shot on super 8, and it’s infinitely better than my first. See, I’m taking my own advice.

No Solace

 

Schocking.
Michael Gillette's brilliant covers for Penguin's new release of the Bond stories. Click on the pic for more...

Christmas party season is upon us, and mine was last Thursday. Not doing Friday, thanks, the potential for alcoholic disaster is waaay too high. The company I work for has been heavily involved in the Bond film this year, so of course the party was Bond themed. Kudos to the girl who dressed up as Blofeld’s cat. She must have been roasting in all that white fur.

 
There was a casino, a singer doing her best Shirley Bassey (very good, incidentally) and a fine time was had by all. Vodka martinis were conspicuous by their absence, but then things can get messy enough with the crowd I work with if you just feed them beer and wine, so probably best avoided.
This, with a clunk and a screech of thematic gears, leads me onto the real point of the post – the most recent Bond film. I’ve been a fan of Bond for as long as I can remember. I still remember going as a family to see The Spy Who Loved Me, and feeling strangely squirmy at the sight of Barbara Bach (I was 10) and every Bond since has been a big deal for me.
So to see all the invention and daring of Casino Royale wiped away in favour of a lumpen, dour Bourne rip off sticks in the craw for me. The direction was confused at best, being frenetically paced and yet painfully slow. The editing was done by a ten year old after four bags of Haribo Starmix. I didn’t have a problem with the characters. I always thought Daniel Craig was a brave and clever choice as Bond, my feelings for Judi Dench approach those I have for Helen Mirren, and I’ve been a fan of Matthieu Almaric for ages.

However, the two most interesting characters were badly wasted. Felix Leiter, caught in the jaws of his governments corrupt foreign policy, should have been the moral heart of the film. Jeffrey Wright could have nailed that. Instead, he was barely a B-plot.
The biggest crime was that committed on Gemma Artertons character, Agent Fields. Her Schoolmarm Gone Wild demeanour woke the film up and gave it a shake and a snog just when it was needed the most.
***SPOILER ALERT***

To see her killed off in the most cynical nod to Bond history I’ve ever seen, offscreen and utterly pointlessly,  left a very nasty taste. Even the mystery of her first name was only resolved in the credits. I can only assume that her role was cut down to trim the already short duration of the movie. It’s a real shame. She, and the audience, deserved better.
I felt a bit cheated, frankly. I’m certainly no stick-in-the-mud about what should and should not be part of the story (really, don’t get me started on the whole idea of canon) but at what point was it decided that Bond films couldn’t be fun any more?

I felt utterly deflated as I left the cinema, in the same way as I felt after walking out of the third Bourne movie. That was a good idea run into the ground. This was a pointless sweeping up and recycling of the remains. Bond films should be better than that, carving their own path, fantasies in their way, cruel but always with an ending that made you felt that the villain had been defeated, and there was one last rotten pun to come before the credits rolled.
I’ll be watching Goldfinger this Christmas Day. Now there’s a Bond movie.

scans_daily: Star Wars Tales

I seem to be bumping into a Wired interview with Leland Chee at Lucasfilm in my feeds an awful lot today.

Leland is the keeper of the Star Wars archive, and the man with all the information on the ever-expanding SW universe at his fingertips – or more accurately, on a massive Filemaker database called the Holocron, after a Jedi data-storage device.

More importantly, he’s the guy that decides what is and isn’t canon in that universe. Subject to a George Lucas brainfart, of course.

Which makes the discovery of this little gem on LJ so frakkin’ sweeet. Totally uncanon, hugely funny. Star Wars humour can often be clunky at best and downright juvenile at times, so it’s a joy to run up against this strip, which manages to be hilarious, elegantly written and subtly satiric.

Which, much as I hate to say it as a loooong time SW geek, is not praise you can often aim at the franchise itself…

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Designing the Death Star, a task loaded with pitfalls...
via Sore Eyes.

A Momentary Escape From A Non-existent Summer

I spent the morning sweeping up leaves and digging up spuds from our dreadfully neglected vegetable patch, in weather chilly and wet enough to need a hoody. This is autumnal activity. It’s early September, and I’ve seen no decent sun this year at all. I’ll take any escape from this seemingly endless dull grey procession of dark, dismal days.

(Regular readers may recall me griping in similar fashion this time last year.)

Which was why I was so drawn to Julien Bocabeille’s Oktapodi. A sharp, bold little tale of octopi in love, I enjoyed the beautiful blues and bright sun of the Grecian setting as much as the story and animation. And it is very funny and well made.

(Via /film.)

Hoody Horror

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I was chatting to my good buddy and fellow-traveller Clive the other night about his reaction to this year’s Frightfest. One film he picked out for particular opprobrium was Eden Lake, a Brit horror where the enemy are a gang of twelve-year-old boys.

The phrase he used was “Daily Mail horror.”

It’s starting to look like feral children will be the next big thing in horror. Apart from Eden Lake, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers has just appeared in cinemas, which owes a fair debt to French shocker Them.

One thing all three share is a strong connection to exploitation cinema. Both The Strangers and Them claim to be “based on true events”. Based is a very loose term, and any claim that either film is a true representation of society today (which is something The Fail will jump all over, hence Clive’s displeasure) should be laughed and pointed at until it picks up it’s ball and goes home in a huff. Exploitation cinema has always taken the easy path to getting people into the picturehouse – grab a headline or two, wrap it in a hysterical plotline and get it out fast. This time next year there’ll be a spate of child abduction horrors, and of course again the papers will carry on the symbiotic relationship, and we’ll be told that this is a symptom of a sick and collapsing society.

Just like the hippies and bikers in the sixties, the teddy boys in the 50s, the jazzers in the 30s, gangsters in the 20s, and so on and so forth. We always fear that which we cannot understand, and that’s what crappy papers like the Daily Fail, and crappy horrors like Eden Lake are counting on in the quest for a fast profit.

What bothers me more is the appearance of Thomas Turgoose, who’s been a revelation in Shane Meadow’s This Is England and the new Somers Town. Both these films are a purer and more accurate representation of British youth than any number of cheap exploitationers or hysterical op-eds. Having him and the wonderful Kelly Reilly in the cast give the film a gravitas that it doesn’t really deserve.

As a horror film, it works just fine. As an indictment of British youth, it’s up there with Village of The Damned in the realism stakes.