Monday morning, three weeks before the start of principal photography on Julius Caesar. Six of the crew meet in bright sunshine outside a Northern Line station. We have come to recce the location which is a ten-minute walk away. There are pavement introductions, the first stage in a process that is fascinating and – if we’ve made even one or two great choices – rewarding. A team of around thirty forms for a brief, intensive period of production. At the wrap they scatter, perhaps to work together in the future, perhaps never to meet again. This morning there is subdued excitement, a sense of potential and perhaps a trace of nerves (those are mine). The walk allows us to talk about jobs just finished and acquaintances from other shoots. Then we are at the chain-link gate behind which is our modern-day ‘Rome’.
Ever since our first collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and director Greg Doran – on Macbeth, back in 1999 – we have sought out a single location for filming. The place – like the Roundhouse for that Macbeth, like the abandoned seminary in Mill Hill for Hamlet and like the tunnels of Welbeck Abbey for Macbeth in 2009 – needs to be evocative but not specific (the quality Greg calls ‘vivid neutrality’), and they must have a selection of spaces that we can make our own. We need variety but we also need – to make the budget and the schedule work – to remain in one place, and not to have to move on very second day.
Each time, including this one, we have considered filming in sets on a sound stage, which would offer numerous advantages of control and (comparative) comfort. But the indefinable qualities of a world from the real world, the opportunities for depth and distance in a shot, the texture of a floor, the atmosphere of a room, have each time said to us location, location, location. So in January and February, at the suggestion of agencies who specialise in this sort of thing, I toured abandoned warehouses in the Isle of Dogs and mouldering industrial spaces in Millwall. What you are waiting for is the moment when you walk through a door and think, ‘This must be the place’.
There was an hour or so when the old News International offices in Wapping came onto the books of a location agency. Even before a visit we thought that might well be the place for our modern-day African ‘Rome’. But sadly the possibility was withdrawn before we could jump in a taxi. Instead, I found an abandoned shopping mall that in the gloom of a January afternoon I liked a lot. A week or so later I went back with Greg, who was equally enthusiastic. We were then delighted when the owners accepted the location fee that our budget allowed us to offer.
I returned with our production designer and art director, and then once more with a Health and Safety expert to undertake a general risk assessment. The avoidance of accidents has to be one of the key priorities for any filming – there is no sense that this can be what Mark Antony describes just after the death of Caesar as ‘a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome’.
Two months on from the first visit and I am walking around thinking about camera angles and where to park the three-ways and whether there is any water and which scenes are to be shot where and whether there are too many planes going over for decent sound and if we can bring in a tower for exterior lighting and which doors we can open for cable runs. And, yes, what to do about the pigeons. As previously mentioned a number of pigeons have made the location their home – and their toilet – and we need to find a humane way to keep them away for the duration. All suggestions welcome.
At this stage, Greg – who is back in south London starting the second week of rehearsals with the cast – is clear where he wants to shoot certain scenes. Some of these choices – there is one that is already known to us all as ‘the grungy kitchen’ – need comparatively little production design and art department dressing. But there are others that will need temporary walls to be built and furniture brought in and distinctive electrical sockets to be covered with ones like those in use in Africa. What was once a food court (above) will be transformed into a back street at night (in the rain!) where Casca will encounter first Cicero (‘Why are you breathless, and why stare so?’) and then Cassius (‘Whoever knew the heavens menace so?’). The ‘Cheesy Crack and Chilli Dogg” sign is unlikely to survive.
Then there are still one or two scenes which we don’t know quite where to situate. And one that we thought we had sorted has its space ruled out by Director of Photography Steve Lawes as just too tiny and too inaccessible. Overall, the felicitous discoveries this morning outweigh the identified problems – and the latter we have a fortnight to solve before we arrive to prep on the morning of Monday 16 April. Except that, with Easter coming up, it’s more like nine days. Still, it seems that while we have been walking around our contract negotiations with the BBC have been successfully concluded. We can – perhaps – sign our production agreement tomorrow. Now it’s real.
Previously on the Julius Caesar blog: