Diary of a producer, part 2 [updated]

8th December 2012

For yesterday’s post I scribbled some notes about our filming this week for the research project Shakespearean London Theatres. With a company of nine actors we have been staging scenes from four early modern plays and filming both the rehearsals and the scenes themselves. It’s been fairly stressful and at the same time a lot of fun, and it has been particularly interesting to see (and hear) how words that may seem to a degree impenetrable on the page make perfect sense when spoken. All of this is one strand of six short films, to be completed next March, that will also feature contributions from academics and elements of archive material. Read on for further notes from Thursday, Friday and today.

Thursday

Today we are back in the south London studio to film the opening of Thomas Middleton (that’s him above) and William Rowley’s A Fair Quarrel. First performed in 1617, this is the latest of the plays from which we are taking scenes and its selection is partly because of its association with the company of boy actors known as Beeston’s Boys. But it also gives us the chance to shoot some sword-play, and fight director Renny Krupinski joins us for the day. Through the morning he takes four of our actors through the moves of two separate short clashes.

We want to give each of the main scenes a different quality on screen, and today’s will most likely be the most distinctive. We have the suggestions of a set in the shape of four doors but surrounding them is a ‘green screen’ onto which we will later key images and probably also elements of text. For the moment, however, setting and lighting the screen gives us endless trouble. Compounding the problems is the news that the actress who is at the centre of the scene to be rehearsed tomorrow and filmed on Saturday has had to withdraw because of her mother’s illness.

Added to which, while we have the swords that we need we do not have scabbards, which have proved far harder to find than we expected. The main source for prop weapons will only hire out scabbarbs and swords together – and they want to charge for one such pair more than the total that we have already paid for all of our swords. Improvisation is the order of the day here, with our resourceful wardrobe supervisor Gemma Bedeau running up some simple belt-clasps which can hold the naked epées.

Perhaps most problematic of all, we have been relying on a local café for lunches. But I fail to take menu requests in time, and when we do finally get to this orders are backed up and the dishes are inordinately late in reaching us. Good humour is just about maintained all round. But the fights are looking good and once everyone is fed we set to to film our six minutes or so of drama between 2.37pm and the cut-off time of 6pm.

Via their agents, I try several possibles for the re-casting of our actress, and then – having taken recommendations from the existing cast – several more. Most are working, although I also encounter one agent who is not prepared even to put the idea to his client, dismissing my offer (supposedly because the videos will be made available online) as beneath consideration. Finally, mid-afternoon, we get lucky (and as it turns out, extremely lucky, since our replacement is wonderful) and hastily e-mail off a script and a letter of agreement.

The shoot meanwhile ticks along, the pace speeding up as we approach the dealine and our willingness to live with problems or small imperfections increasing. In fact, by this point the actors are well drilled and we get both the fights and some fine performances. It’s a good job this is a comedy, since the laughs help dissipate the tension of what is definitely our most difficult day. We wrap at 6.05pm, happy enough, and very aware of another crew anxiously waiting to take over the sound stage for their overnight get-in.

Friday

Compared with yesterday, today is a doddle. We have set the time aside to rehearse a scene from Eastward Ho!, a city comedy written by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston. And as a rehearsal space we have been fortunate enough to find free time at Alford House in Lambeth. This is a youth club but also the location for three large halls oft frequented by rehearsals for musicals, plays and pantos. Fortunately for us the pantos have all gone on stage now, and we have the place to ourselves for the day.

I am particularly pleased to be here because Alford House is the location for Karel Reisz’s Free Cinema documentary We are the Lambeth Boys (1959). This is a remarkable portait of what we would now call youth culture from a world that has almost entirely disappeared – as you can see from this BFI extract (although Alford House doesn’t feature here).

Through the day James works with the cast to refine the scene at the start of Act I Scene 2 in which Gertrude, the aspiring but essentially vulgar daughter of goldsmith Touchstone, is waiting on her lover knight Sir Petronel. The references as the cast works over words written nearly four hundred years ago are Rihanna and TOWIE, Beyoncé and bling. The scene as it emerges is also laugh-out-loud funny.

We are devoting more time to rehearse this because tomorrow we will have just five hours in our chosen location, The Old Hall in Lincoln’s Inn. And the reason for that is the per-hour cost of the Hall which, although not unreasonable in the run of these things, pushes hard at the edges of our budget. Five hours is as much as we can afford and so we need to make the most of every minute.

Even so, because our actress playing Gertrude only stepped into the role last night, the costume on order from the National Theatre stores for her role (and which is pivotal for the comedy) has had to be changed because of different measurements. Which means that we cannot take delivery of it until late in the afternoon, and the cast get only an hour or so to become familiar with it. Fingers crossed – yet again – that it will all be alright in the morning.

The day, however, is sufficiently relaxed that we can also record two interviews for the project, with Professor Gabriel Egan, principal investigator for Shakespearean London Theatres, and Dr Lucy Munro from Keele University. Gabriel gives us a fascinating overview of theatre in London from 1580 to the early years of the seventeenth century, and Lucy talks wonderfully well about the underrated playwright John Lyly. Our plan is to film a scene from Lyly’s Sapho and Phao but the logistics for this are particularly complex and it will have to wait until the new year.

Saturday

On then to Lincoln’s Inn and an early call of 8am. We are waiting outside as the inns of court clock strikes the hour and we are let in to the Old Hall. This is a wonderful space, built around 1490 and subsequently enlarged and graced with a wooden screen most likely designed by Inigo Jones. The Lincoln’s Inn website describes it as ‘one of the finest buildings in London… small but beautifully proportioned and executed’. I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing, and it is a privilege to spend the morning here.

Not that we have too much time for architectural appreciation. Each hour here costs what each of our actors is earning for their week’s work. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but it is the way of the world. So we have to make the most of every minute. Beneath the hall is a crypt where wardrobe and make-up quickly establish themselves, and our first actors are prepped. Taking great care not to scratch the immaculate wooden floor (I have been warned several times about this), we bring in the modest furniture that – along with the screen – forms the setting for our scene.

There is, however, an unanticipated problem. I visited the hall many months ago and knew that it was perfect for today’s shoot. Photographs online confirmed this. But neither my visit nor the photography took place in mid-December, and although as requested all of the tables and chairs have been removed, slap bank in the middle of the screen is a finely decorated Christmas tree. Fortuituously, the tree is mounted on a small rubber-wheeled trolley, and we are able to roll it very gingerly to one side. Our last act before leaving will be return it to its position – and hopefully no-one will know the difference (unless they read this blog, of course).

While everything is readied, with one of our cast I make a foray to Fleet Street to find coffees, teas and OJ. Ten minutes shy of nine we are ready to shoot – or almost. A key on-screen item has been left behind and we need to conjure up a replacement. I am assured that this will take ‘five minutes’, then ‘another three minutes’, then ‘just five minutes more’. Time on a shoot can have a strange way of warping.

While we wait for this, we are able to shoot some cutaways, but by the time we are ready to film the first master wide we are 45 minutes in arrears of when I had planned. This too is not unusual, but constantly telling oneself that this is the case rarely improves things. Nonetheless we eventually turn over – and the scene plays beautifully. Spoken by a group of skilled players, the language of 1608 has an immediacy and a freshness that is instantly engaging.

Now let me give you a piece of advice. If you have only a short time to film a scene, do not choose one that involves the elaborate dressing of your lead actress in a seventeenth century petticoat, bustle and gown. Not only is this tricky in itself but re-setting the costume between each take occupies what can feel like an eternity. The gags are good, however, and the scene begins to reveal many of its subtleties about class and consumption.

The next problem is one familiar to anyone who has tried to record any audio anywhere in London: a helicopter. For a time it seems to be right above us, and this means that we are entirely unable to capture any dialogue. When it finally moves off the sound of a ticking clock in our space is particularly noticeable, but perhaps that is just because we are all even more aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Had we but world enough and time we would plan out every master shot and each cut-in, we would plot them on a continuity sheet, and we would record several takes of each one. As it is, we are grateful to our cast when they deliver a fine performance each time, and we scramble onwards to the next set-up. Is this ideal as a way of filming a scene of drama? No. Is it realistic given our resources – and more importantly will we achieve something that communicates the richness of the relationships, the complexities of meanings and the crude wit of four centuries past? Yes (at least I think so).

We press on – and on, taking our chances with whether we have all the coverage an editor will eventually demand (I’ll roll out this blog to explain). Amidst all of the barely suppressed concern I am aware that this is a very funny play – and that what we have here is a company (and a director) capable of delivering a fine production of the whole. Anyone interested in bank-rolling the whole piece?

Atop the Inigo Jones screen is an exquisite clock that appears to be running a few minutes slow, at least when compared with all of our iPhones. So it is this that we take our cue from, and we film our final shot just as it ticks past 1pm. We just have time for a wildtrack of a fragment of dialogue, the sound recording of several slaps and what’s called ‘room tone’ (the sound of silence in a space, which helps the editor cover cuts).

We are given a short period of grace for the actors to disrobe, for the transfer of the digital rushes from the camera cards to my laptop, and for general tidying up. And of course for the rolling back of the Christmas tree. We are clear some thirty minutes later and it’s off for a celebratory pizza and glass of red.

Thanks for all their hard work over the past week to our company of actors: Nathalie Armin, Philip Cumbus, Daniel Flynn, John Hopkins, Bella Heesom, Lisa McGrillis (who stepped in at the last minute), Adrian Schiller, Kate Sissons, Edwin Thomas and Rachel Winters.

Thanks also to Daniel Haggett and Mark Warmington (lighting camera), Sam Howson and Nick Walker (sound), Hannah Spice (wardrobe), rigger Chris Gough, Gemma Bedeau (wardrobe), Jo Drake and Pauline Cox (make-up), Renny Krupinski (fight director), the indefatigible Todd Macdonald from Illumiantions (DIT, second camera, stills and more) and most especially to our stage director James Wallace.

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