‘Good words are better than bad strokes’ [days 5 + 6]

27th April 2012

As I noted earlier, Friday is a really, really busy day. But, on balance, a good one. Closing in on the halfway point of our twelve day schedule, we are perhaps two shots behind. Not bad, really not bad. There are times when the schedule, which determines whether or not we’ll get to the end with all the shots in the can, can seem like the most important thing on a shoot. Sometimes even the only thing. But of course you need to feel confident that what you are achieving on screen is, at some level, good. Which I do, especially after having watched the assembly of 45 minutes of cut scenes from days 1 to 4. This is definitely beginning to come together. So with that sense of confidence (and I hope not complacency) let me offer some thoughts – posted in pieces  – at this stage of the game.

‘What night is this?’

First off, some basics. On day 5 we film the scene we call ‘Portia’s panic’ which in the text is Act II Scene 4. Portia (Adjoa Andoh) instructs Lucius (Simon Manyonda) to run to the Senate House to learn the news. We are using the same market set as the nighttime scenes in Act I with Casca, Cicero and Cassius. Only this time the stalls are open, and bright sunlight – supplied by a couple of really big 18k lamps – streams across the setting. After which we move to the largest area in our location for the Act V Scene 1 parlay between the opposing forces, which we play in a daylit foyer area with a spectacular scissor-lift top shot.

At the end of the day, we are still a small number of shots behind, so we return here for pick-ups on Saturday morning, which is day 6. But the main business of the day is scheduled for the enclosure built by the art department as the back of Caesar’s house. Here, in Act II Scene 2, Caesar and Calphurnia speak together on the morning of the Ides of March and then the conspirators come to take Caesar to the Senate House.

The flats from the walls of Brutus’ orchard on days 2 and 3 have been repurposed and we are using a balcony and staircase that are part of the fabric of the location. Hanging above this space now is a handsome imperial red canopy that hides air conditioning ducts and exposed electrics. Just outside the walls is another really big lamp – a 12k this time – that will serve as the early morning sun. If we can finish off here by wrap at 5.30pm we’ll end week 1 in great shape.

The weather? Heavy showers on Friday, heavier showers on Saturday morning – what more to say? Lunch? A very good beef stir fry on Friday, with fish as one alternative and I-forget-quite-what-vegetarian thingy as the other, with binoche pie (is that how you spell it?) to follow [Later: I’ve since been told that it’s most definitely not how you spell it – it should be ‘banoffee’]. As I write on Saturday the gastronomic pleasures are still to come. What else? Disappointingly, the production office is staffed by those with no interest whatsoever in football, but script supervisor Sylvia Parker is a big Chelsea fan and First AD Kristian Dench is hoping against hope that West Ham might achieve automatic promotion to the Premiership this afternoon – both have requested regular reports to the set as results come in. [Later: at half time it’s not looking good for West Ham]

‘Saw you anything more wonderful?’

So let’s return to the question of quite what we are making here. The more I think about this, the clearer I am that this production is a filmed play. Our Hamlet, also directed by Greg Doran, is also a filmed play, whereas the recent Macbeth, directed by Rupert Goold, is a film from a play. We might even call the latter a low-budget movie. Most films of Shakespeare plays are movies, whether low- or mega-budget productions. But Tony Richardson’s Hamlet (1969) with Nicol Williamson is also a filmed play, as is – and I recognise we’re moving away from Shakespeare here – Laurence Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970).

As I think about it now, there does not seem to be a definitive determination of whether a production is a filmed play or – let’s use the word as shorthand – a movie. There is a good deal of continuity between the two forms, but the filmed play has a stronger focus on the text of the original. Words, words, words are at least as important as, and perhaps more so, than the images. And these words are organised in scenes which often run in the same location at some length. Interiors too are, by and large, privileged over exteriors in the filmed play.

This is not to say that the filmed play inevitably lacks ‘cinematic’ qualities. The tradition of the ‘filmed’ play is dominated by television productions recorded with multiple cameras in the studio and by ‘theatre capture’ versions shot from the stage. For many years there were only rare occasions when film cameras and film production methods were applied to plays. Television was not interested in doing so (for reasons we can explore on another occasion), and in any case could not afford to do so. And the film industry was, understandably, interested in films. The filmed play had no clear place in either tradition.

In recent years, however, new digital cameras and associated technologies allow the creation of screen productions to exceptionally high technical standards on comparatively modest budgets (assuming that talent and other costs are kept under control). So we can produce this Julius Caesar without any compromises to the visuals for a full budget of £550,000. And the flexibility of the technology facilitates a potential shift from the studio to location shooting. All of which would seem to open up a new potential for the filmed play (at least, that’s our contention).

Production, however, is of course only one strand of the story. At least as important to any screen venture are distribution channels and exhibition contexts. Again (until recently anyway) the filmed play was thought to have its home on public service television. But perhaps the radical changes of the past decade – digital channels, DVDs, online, tablets – offer new opportunities for reaching and developing audiences and for generating the revenues to build sustainable processes.

Lots of questions, no obvious answers, but exciting possibilities.

Later still: after a lunch choice of turkey escalope, fish pie or spaghetti with sun-dried tomatoes, we did really well. Despite the disappointment of Southampton being promoted rather than West Ham, Kristian drove the cast and crew through a complex day and we ended up short of just ten lines from Artemidorus (Mark Ebulue), which we can pick up next week. Plus, the pictures and performances looked wonderful.

All this even though the set being miserably cold and miserably wet – everyone was heroic this afternoon. Thanks to one and all – and there’s always the play-offs, Kristian. Sylvia, in contrast, was very happy that Wigan spanked Newcastle 4-0. (If I can’t talk football in the production office, at least I can put it in the blog.)

Previously on the Julius Caesar blog:

‘Whoever knew the heavens threaten so?’, 26 April
‘Peace. Count the clock.’, 25 April
‘When it is lighted, come and call me here’, 24 April
‘Tell us the manner of it’, 23 April
‘Their battles are at hand’, 21 April
‘A very pleasing night to  honest men’, 17 April
‘Be patient till the last’, 12 April
‘Now they are almost on him’, 6 April
‘A mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome’, 2 April
‘Tell us what hath chanced today’, 30 March
‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’, 29 February
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’, 24 November


  1. Karen M says:

    I’m interested in seeing how the filmed version differs from the staged play, which I’m seeing in June. I much preferred the fined version of the To Be Or Not To Be in Hamlet than the stage version.

  2. John Wyver says:

    Thanks, Karen – one of the unique things about this Julius Casar is that it will be (I think) the first time that it’s possible to see a film of a stage production one night and then the next night see the stage production itself (or vice versa). I don’t believe that this has ever been the case with any previous production (although ‘theatre capture’ recordings have run while a stage show is still playing.

    The film is likely to be seen on BBCFour in July or August when the stage production of Julius Caesar will be in Stratford and then in London (after which it goes on a UK tour – see the RSC website for details).

  3. Helene says:

    Great blog today, John. I’m wondering if the decision to make a filmed play versus a film from a play derives from the preference of the director, or the budget? Or other factors?

  4. Paul Tickell says:

    Beneath manager Martinez’s ever affable smile, there lurks a ‘lean and hungry look’. It wasn’t just the quantity by which Wigan beat Newcastle but the ruthlessness of their first half performance which was so gratifying – and from Di Santos there was the pleasure of one of the best goals of the season…

  5. John Wyver says:

    Thanks, Helene – it’s another great question, and one that I’ll try and address in one of the next blogs.

    Paul, what we should really do is turn this into a football blog – I’m sure more people would want to read and comment then.

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