Monday, 7 July 2014

Night Owls - 5 Things that Defined the Shoot

Hey Guys,

   I've been meaning to talk about the Night Owls shoot for a while. Or rather, to rave about it. And now that all the behind-the-scenes photos have been released (the final batch coming from Dimitri Yiallourou, who was on set for the full shoot) it seemed like as good a time as ever to say my piece.

   But to stop myself from waxing lyrical for an untold length of time, I've limited myself to only talking about five things. Five things that defined the shoot for me; that I'll always think of when I look back on those two-and-a-bit days in May 2014. And most importantly, five things that you may not be immediately aware of. So enjoy!


1) GLITTER

   One thing that myself and my talented co-writer Tommy Draper tried to do was to work various subtle references to classic literature into the script (as well as one or two not-so-subtle film references which you'll see in the finished film). Amongst these was one Tommy put in during the second or third draft of the script; a reference to The Wizard of Oz.

   Although I won't reveal whether or not Mari (played by Holly Rushbrooke in the final film) decides if there is in fact "no place like home". But in the final scene, we do show her suddenly donning a pair of ruby slippers.
Those glitter shoes! Photo: Elly Lucas

  I was handling the costumes for this film as well as the direction, which seemed easy enough since there was only two characters and I had months of notice. So a beautiful pair of red sequin shoes were ordered well in advance. But then we had to re-cast the part of both Mari and Kent very late on into production, and I was left with a last-minute dash to replace any missing or mis-sized items of clothing a couple of days before the shoot, on top of everything else I had to prepare. Lesson learnt there!

   The petite Holly has aptly petite feet. And, try as I might, I had a very tough time finding red glitter shoes in her size last minute. So I had to buy a pair of red shoes and coat them in glitter myself.

   The result looked fairly ok on camera, but this haphazard approach meant that the shoes were forever 'malting'. Holly couldn't move her feet at all inbetween takes of her feet, for fear of spreading glitter all over the porch. It had been raining overnight and the loose glitter was seriously sticking to the wet stone - we had to wipe it down as best we could inbetween takes.

  And of course this meant that everything which came into contact with these shoes (in spite of my attempts to wrap them up) got coated in glitter too. It would be walked onto set, got stuck to costumes, and even appears on the actors' faces in a couple of takes - although that's one for the eagle-eyed among you to spot! But worst effected was my house, where the 'glitter-bombing' first took place. I officially wrecked (or rather glamorised) our washing up bowl, and I'm still finding bits of red glitter on my own clothes to this day.

   Speaking of "no place like home", this line caused one of the most hilarious bloopers during turnover on the final scene. I'll save that one for the 'making-of', but for now, I want to apologise to my DP Neil. We were laughing so hard that I didn't hear his repeated cries of "is that a cut?!" as his arms started to buckle from the weight of the camera rig!

Neil works his magic - and sets the lighting tone for the shoot. Photo: Elly Lucas

2) PLAYING GOD (with weather and daylight!)

   It's in the title: Night Owls is (mostly) set at night - meaning that all the windows of our beautiful grade one listed location had to be blacked out for the shoot. And with long shoot days and long scenes to shoot inbetween breaks, myself and my crew hardly saw any daylight. Which meant that you'd often see people yawning in the afternoon, and a lot of surprised faces when we checked our watches and saw how early it actually was. It was a truly surreal experience.

Holly in hosepipe rain. Photo: Colin Smith
   We also had to create the impression of constant rain during an otherwise sunny shoot (apart from the one time we wanted to film the sunshine, at which point we had to wait for the real rain to stop. Sod's law). A lot of this will be added into the soundtrack but it did mean that poor Holly had to spend most of the evening on day one soaked by hosepipe water. She was definitely a trooper!

   In one scene, we had to see the early morning sunshine start to appear - so that the scene would seamlessly correspond with the following sunny one outdoors. This affect was a group effort involving a relay team of about five people sending hand signals to Colin, the gaffer, so that he new when to change the lighting. At least, this is the method we settled upon after realising that me bellowing "SUN!!" at the top of my voice somewhat ruined the cosy tone of the scene!

Those all-important-rehearsals, in the garden. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

3) 'WINGING IT'

   I wanted to make this film for years (and Tommy's been encouraging me to make it for years now, too), so I just got my head down and did everything I could to do just that. And with such a busy, roller-coaster ride of a pre-production period, I devoted every moment I could to my preparations, and never really sat back and thought about how big an undertaking it actually was.

   It wasn't until after we'd done a whole day of filming, and were about to start the second day, that I suddenly realised, "oh shit, I've never actually done this before!"

A brief moment of nerves. Photo: Elly Lucas
   True, I've directed plenty of times. But most of these have been smaller projects, with voice over ruling in place of heavy dialogue, and I hadn't directed dialogue since my teenage years. Even then it was for amateur theatre, or films with my best friends in. This was professional actors (one of which is a regular on Emmerdale), with a full crew and thousands of pounds worth of equipment surrounding me. Eep.

   I had a moment of what can only be described as stage fright. I was sitting with my trusty folder, planning today's scenes, and I was suddenly hit by nerves, and doubt (of my own abilities, not anybody else's). But then the rest of my team arrived, and I shelved all of these fears for later, and got the job done.

  The second day left me feeling slightly detached for another reason. A very cute but very loud dog had kept me up most of the night, so I was somewhat sleep deprived (yet again!). Hence my reason for powering on through and taking each moment at a time.

  But there was one point where I shouldn't have 'winged it', and I'm happy to share my mistake here in case you guys learn something from it. Now, usually I'm a stickler for rehearsals, and had done vigorous rehearsals with the original actors together, plus independent rehearsal with each new actor, and I'd done run-throughs for the scenes on day one.

  At the start of day two, we did the aforementioned porch scene (with those shoes). It was a simple scene, just a few lines and one main piece of movement. I am guilty of being complacent, and just assuming the actors could play it out for camera straight away. But of course, these actors hadn't met each other until the shoot, and all my laziness got me was confused looks and mild irritation during the take. 

  Needless to say, for the following scene, we had a lengthy rehearsal in a separate room while the camera crew prepared the set. And it's a corner I will never try and cut again!
 
Directing Holly Rushbrooke on set. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou


4) LEARNING TO LET THINGS GO

   Any filmmaker (or at least any filmmaker who cares about their project) will strive for 'personal perfection' - to get what they see on screen as close to the image in their head as possible. Occasionally this makes us closed off to every suggestion of change, even if it's for the better; a common trait which can be known as 'babying'.  Not only does this mean we may miss out on potential improvements for the piece, but it also makes us less able to accept criticism from peers, possible buyers or even critics. Which can only lead to misery.

   There were lots of things along the way which diverted from my original vision. Due to monetary constraints, we couldn't have the original location we wanted, instead accepting one which we could get for free and - again due to costs, amongst other things - we weren't able to change the location when we did get it. Meaning in a set where a man dwells in a darkened, 'crumbling' house - surrounded by books, wooden furniture and anything else which looked old-fashioned and autumnal-coloured on camera... we had to have bright yellow walls.

  And, as a frequent set designer as well as a director, you can only imagine how much that niggled away at the back of my mind throughout pre-production.

  For a while, this seemed like the worst thing about the production; the only thing that was stopping it from being in sync with the 'perfect' vision in my head. But then we lost one of the actors. Followed by the other.

  Both of these actors have become friends of mine. I knew that they could do amazing work, through their previous work (some of which I was involved in first-hand) and through hours of rehearsal time for this. They had built up an amazing chemistry together and I was looking forward to bringing what was now 'our vision' to life.

With Jonny on set. Photo: Dan Lord
  What's more, both actors loved the project. Neither wanted to leave the project - particularly after all their hard work - and it was so sad when they both had to do so due to conflicting engagements.

   When we lost the first actor, then we had a new 'worst case scenario'. I was teetering on the edge of pulling the project for fear of it dying a death, held on course only by my producers' calm words, and the fact that so many people had supported the project and put their money into the pot. And then when the second actor left, it was definitely too late to get off the train; the locations, crew and equipment were all booked, we certainly couldn't afford to get them all again if we cancelled everything, and we would lose the money spent in the process if we did. We had no choice but to re-cast both parts.

   But losing such vital parts of my original vision helped me to see it more objectively. I just had to get it done, get all the pieces into place quick, no matter if it didn't match what was in my head quite as closely as before. And you know what? I think this made me a better Director; more so than ever before, it felt like a project which everyone put together, in spite of the odds, and it meant that I had to be open minded. Because what had been in my closed mind was partly gone, and I didn't have any more time to wallow.

   And of course, Holly and new male lead Jonny McPherson were amazing. They brought something completely original to the parts, having come in so freshly, and had a different but equally great chemistry to that of the previous actors. And because I was forced to have an open mind, I could now observe these new interpretations, and help weave the best characters for these actors, in this situation. They may not be the two characters exactly as I saw them when I started, but it doesn't matter. They might even be better.

   What's more, it certainly made the yellow walls seem like less of a disaster. We even worked a line into the script just before shooting which pointed a knowing finger at how superficial I'd been about them.

Our 'film family' gets a visit from BBC Radio Derby's Andy Potter. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou
  5) FAMILY

   This is something I've mentioned before, but truly a point at the heart of what made the Night Owls shoot such a special one.

   There's a group of people I call my 'film family' because I work with them so frequently and so well (including Neil, Tommy and Chris Newman - although Chris wasn't available to join us for this one - amongst a couple of others), and I got to have most of those people on set with me. Plus there were people I've worked with a few times, such as Richard Winter and Charlotte Price, and it was lovely to have them back on set with us. Combining all this with the fact that the producers brought their own frequent collaborators onto the pot, meant that there was a lovely warm feeling of friendship and familiarity floating round the set. And newcomers such as sound recordist Adam Fletcher, the behind-the-scenes team, and of course the actors, fitted into this dynamic really well.

   This sense of family was made all the more poignant by the fact that our actual families got involved with the project too. Tommy's wife Sam Draper, my Mum Joy, and my Grandma Margaret, all spent days baking and making fresh food towards the catering. Mine and Anya's Dads did a few back-and-forths with the pieces of set dressing. And the owner of the location we shot in - and also stayed in - was my very own Godmother, Helen Kirk. She (and her lovely family) made us all feel extremely welcome, helping to enhance the happy and relaxed atmosphere on set. Needless to say, by the end of the shoot, she had at least two more honorary god children!

The producers and cast with Helen (middle) & Emily Kirk. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

   So those are my thoughts on one of the most lovely and creatively satisfying shoots to date. I only hope that the finished footage will encapsulate all of these elements (and looking through it, I certainly think that it will do). 

   The only two people who had less-than-happy experiences on set were Neil and Holly; the former being 'forced' to shoot the entire film handheld, to create the warm and gentle movement of popular indie features (until his back nearly gave up), and the latter, who as I said was made to stand under hose-pipe rain, in the dark, for hours (needless to say her performance is very convincing, particularly with her trembling, dripping hands). And yes, I am guilty of pushing both methods of torture on these people. But hopefully their shining work will make up for it.

   And besides, what are film families for, if not to suffer through hardships together (and to make one another endure such hardships in the first place!)


Sophie


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