At the beginning of my work on a feature film called ‘King of Crime’, back in 2016, I wrote a number of blogs about the experience. Now the film has been released, a DVD is on its way, and its cinema run is over, I can post the series of blogs I wrote at the time as a kind of journal. Whilst some of the journal entries will have their original dates at the start, I have extensively rewritten some of the material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but also at the time you don’t always realise what will stay with you most. So each entry is a bit of a mix, written at the time but with a gloss of what happened later.
20th August 2016
I was on the set of ‘King of Crime’ once again yesterday. The first time around I got to blast away on a ‘shooter’. This time, with my fellow ‘heavy’ (Steve Richardson) we got ‘outta’ motor, with a couple of petrol cans, walked into a four million quid ‘gaff’, poured petrol all over the place and torched it! Now that’s a fun day’s work!
I had driven down to Goring-on-Thames, early in the morning, in bright sunshine, which reflected and added to, the good mood I was in. Goring, in deepest Oxfordshire, is an exceptionally pretty location and was certainly a vast aesthetic improvement on the environs of Milton Keynes where my previous day's shoot had been.
The cast and crew were a little frustrated when I arrived, as they’d had a bit of a slow morning, with the ‘get in’. The owners, of the, said ‘gaff’, were a bit lackadaisical in vacating their lovely home, which is called Friar’s Ford Cottage. Then and now, I’ve insisted on calling this house and its grounds, a ‘Mansion’ due to its size. One recent visitor to the house, which doubles as a posh B&B as well as family home, reviewing their stay, said, ‘[It] felt like we were on the set of Downton Abbey’.
The location was well chosen and is meant to indicate that, Marcus King, the film’s central character (played by Mark Wingett) is at the centre of a criminal empire that is both successful and wealthy. It certainly conveys the notion of opulence, and its leafy, luxuriant grounds and stockbroker belt ambience, provide a lightly ironic touch; the King family are more likely after all, to put a belt around someone’s neck than have polite parties on the lawn and chat to the local vicar.
This play, between the genteel and the villainous, provides the viewer with their first visual shock. Only a few minutes into the film, a visitor to the Mansion, Gemma Carter (Francesca Louise White), a putative (long-lost) daughter, is stabbed by Marcus King’s wife, Yvonne. As Claire King, who plays Yvonne explained, ‘I was attracted to the character as she committed a heinous crime even before the opening titles rolled!’ Friars Ford then is no ‘cottage’ (which must be a historical misnomer) but a Victorian Gothic Mansion, whose fictional residents provide the viewer with rather gothic murders from the get-go!
By time we got to my ‘scene’, it was late afternoon, and the light was fading. Given all the delays so far that day and the incidental nature of these shots (i.e. Steve and I lifting petrol cans out of the boot of an Audi, and walking into the mansion) everyone was keen to get a move on. After Nick (the first AD and Second Unit Director) had gone through how he wanted us to move, making the cans look heavier than they actually were etc., we got the sequence in two takes. I’m not sure how long it took to set up the shot, but Steve and I certainly weren’t in front of the camera for more than twenty minutes or so. I can’t say I was disappointed though because I’d got to be on set all day, which I loved.
That’s not to say I felt completely at ease, to begin with. Unlike my first day, in Milton Keynes, there was nobody on set on this occasion whom I knew very well. I was also aware, that although people on a film set may look like they’re not occupied with anything, in particular, this is usually not the case. Actors certainly, may be going over their lines; lighting, sound or camera guys considering quite how to overcome the next set of technical problems or logistics. Someone may be standing around and then suddenly need to dash off, do a bit of emergency make-up or find a prop or any number of unexpected jobs.
During the day, I tried to make myself useful, when and where I could, doing any minor jobs, carrying props, conveying messages, moving objects and even sweeping the gravel on the drive at one point (which had been disturbed by a fast moving car). I was careful not to ‘overstep the mark’ as it were, because everyone there is a professional and has a designated job, from the caterer to the continuity person (in this case Steve’s daughter, Amy Louise Richardson) but on a film of this scale there are not twenty ‘runner’s’ and everyone is working at a pretty furious pace; always working long days but where the hours seem all too short.
Being on set, of course, I also got to see the guts of the filmmaking process in action. To the many who like to watch what’s up on screen, but aren’t too interested how it got there, a day on set would be pretty tedious. Most of the day, after all, is not taken up with actually shooting scenes but with preparing to shoot scenes. Timing, preparation, technical precision and logistics all need to be in place to allow any ‘magic’ to explode onto the screen.
Awareness of such technicalities can also be important for the screen actor. I was lucky enough to spend two days on the set of a film called ‘Genius’, with Colin Firth, a few years ago (I’m in one shot of the completed movie, behind Firth, smoking a cigarette, out of focus!) and that was quite educational. We were inside a cramped, 1930s railway carriage, so I got to overhear many of the conversations between the director, Michael Grandage, the cinematographer, Ben Davis, and Firth. What struck me most, was how aware Firth was about what was happening technically, and certainly in terms of what type of shot was being composed by Davis.
On one occasion, for example, after a brief tête-à-tête, Firth carefully rearranged the angle of the book he was reading (he was playing the literary editor Max Perkins) which made all the difference to Davis. By contrast, when I was acting in a scene with Nina Wadia and Danny Ashok, on a film called ‘Finding Fatimah’, I was very distracted by the ‘marks’ (small sandbags) on the floor, put there to ‘help’ me stand in the right place. I also had no idea whether I was in close-up, long-shot or whatever! Film acting is much more of a technical process than I had ever imagined and that’s coming from someone who has always loved hearing about the behind-the-camera stories of films and filmmakers.
There is also the idea that you hear from people, that screen actors have it a bit easier than stage actors because they can do lines over and over again. The reality, for most film actors and certainly for the actors further down the cast list or on smaller budget films, is that the actor has to try and get it ‘spot on’ first time and every time. A stage actor can afford, though it’s not the ideal, to take a while to ‘warm-up’ an audience. If she or he has a poor first scene, but afterwards is magnificent, the audience will pretty much forgive and forget that opening scene. It’s also amazing how often audience members do not notice a missed cue or a mangled line on stage (none of which is usually recorded for posterity). Naturally, that is not the case with film. Consistency is vital. There is no ‘warm-up’ time, the scene you’re shooting may be the final scene, the most emotional scene, the scene most crucial to the plot and so on.
The film actor, in addition, often does not have the rehearsal time that stage actors get. On a film, what money there is, is spent in shooting the film, not in rehearsing it. So it can actually be the case, that technical problems for the crew (most often lighting and sound) can be a boon for the screen actor, giving them a chance to try a move, action or line differently.
Chatting to one of Linda Dunscombe’s co-producers, James Welling, he was telling me how the project had been on the boil for around four or five years, almost got greenlighted a year or two ago but fell through at the last minute. Which reminded me how tough the film business is and how well Linda and Peter (her husband, an associate producer on the film) and everyone else have done to get the project up and running in the first place.
I spent a long time on the stairs of the mansion, talking to James, whilst various set-ups and scenes were shot around us. James, the owner of a string of restaurants, is also passionate about films. We talked a fair bit about our favourite movies, music and film-lore in general. One of his main concerns, on the day, was how many good, well-known songs they were going to be able to afford for the film. The rights people for one famous track (he told me much later) were asking for £30,000 to use just four seconds of the song. Unsurprisingly, James never took them up on the offer!
Sitting on that rather grand stairway, with Mark, Claire and Chris Ellison (who plays their butler, the kind of butler who’s not too fussed by corpses in the courtyard) floating about and talking movies to one of the producers on the film, felt like quite a privileged spot to be in (especially as originally I was only supposed to be on the film for one day). As we were on location, not on a studio set, lighting and space were particular problems, and so there were a lot of false starts. Nick was calling for ‘Quiet on the set’ frequently, as other actors and crew, were hanging around in the kitchen not far from the hallway.
I also got to talk to Peter Dunscombe at various times, at lunch and during breaks, and the headaches for him and Linda seemed many and complex. Peter is a very calm and a gently spoken person, so the various stresses of his and Linda’s position wouldn’t necessarily come across immediately. Indeed, part of their role is too not seem ‘stressed’ and to keep everyone happy if possible. The truth, however, is that they were not only producing a project very close to their hearts, and into which they had personally invested heavily, but they were providing employment for a lot of people. That is quite a responsibility and a pretty taxing position to be in. So, yes, everybody loves to be on a film set, but behind the scenes, a lot of (often unseen) work has gone into making this kind of project function smoothly.
One memorable moment that I didn’t see as such but overheard, was when a scene was being shot, in an office off the hallway, with Mark Wingett and Rachael Bright (who plays a very tough cookie, called Jessica Slade, in the film). Marcus King has just discovered, that his ‘consigliere’ and best friend, Jimmy Tate (Greg Tanner), has had a long-term affair with his wife. He tells Jessica, who has delivered the news that ‘This is the ultimate betrayal’.
To begin with, Mark said his line quietly and gravely, but then surprised everyone, on the next take, by exploding with anger when he delivered the line. This sounded not only more dramatic and effective but drew, I expect, a natural response of surprise from Rachael and added a bit of extra frisson to the scene. This was the take used in the final cut of the film, though I have to say I now, I wonder if the quieter, more internally driven delivery, whilst less ‘dramatic’, might have been more effective in the context of the story. (I say that with hindsight, not having seen the other takes, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair of me to make that judgement).
Incidentally, though, it reminded me of watching Colin Firth on camera, often looking, to those on set, as if he’d done nothing much in a shot. On seeing the same take on the final film, you see how subtle the acting was, and how misleading any interpretation of the acting can be if you’re watching from the sidelines (or indeed just listening on a stairway!).
Chris Ellison, as I mentioned was also on set, which will add a nice little twist for all those who watched ‘The Bill’ as I did, way back when. Chris played Detective Inspector Burnside to Mark’s Detective Constable Jim Carver, i.e. he was his boss in the series, and so the role reversal is quite neat I think. Oddly, the only conversation I recall with Chris during the day was on the benefits of yoga. There is a lot of time to kill on a film set, so you often end up talking of all kinds of random things, on a film called ‘Finding Fatimah’ (a Muslim rom-com) I once had a long conversation about the benefits of marijuana and what my favourite top ten films were with Wahab Sheikh and Danny Ashok ( I can’t recall their favourites now, but I think Danny liked ‘Goodfellas’ as much as I did!)
Speaking of random conversations: toward the end of the day I also had a nice chat to Claire King, and all I can say is that I’m now much better informed on the world of horses than I was before! I had had no idea she was previously an amateur horse jockey! But along with acting, perhaps before acting, it seems to be her passion in life. (Although, after that day, I didn’t really chat to her again, that first conversation, endeared me to her a little, as my Mum always loved horses).
You forget more than you remember about such days, but I do also remember how friendly everyone was and I had a few conversations with Matt Gambell, who didn’t put on any ‘airs and graces’ because he was the director of the film. From what I could see, Matt and Tom Anderson, his cinematographer, are very much a team. Matt told me, at some point, that he felt the two of them generally thought along the same lines and had the same filmic reference points. This seems like a very positive thing for the film.
There are always tensions on film sets, and it is probably no different here, but I have been on at least one set where the rivalry and deliberate obstructiveness of some members of the crew was obvious and excruciating. They say a happy set does not necessarily produce a good film, but I can see no reason why an unhappy one is more likely to produce a better one (and in my experience, it didn’t).
A lot of the crew are young but rather than being a disadvantage this seems to have brought a real excitement and joy to the set. Combined with the younger crew are some very experienced older filmmakers, such as, for instance, Nick (a director in his own right) and Claire Nixon, Head of the Makeup Department, and Roger Cutting (great name given his job), the sound recordist, all of whom add a real wealth of knowledge and a gravitas to proceedings.
From my ‘view from the stairs’, I must say, it looks like everyone is making a rather good job of things so far, it’s a happy set, and it will be fun to see the finished project on the big screen someday!