Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Filmmaking and Me: Project Alchemy – Pre-Production

Hey did I tell you the time I was invited to the Batman Begins set? When I met Chris Nolan, Christian Bale and Gary Oldman? When I walked around the Gotham City sets and climbed in the Batmobile? No? Really? You must be the only person left ;)

The weird thing is, on the coach driving us back to London afterwards, the other journalists were compiling notes or chatting amongst themselves about the experience. Not I. I was having a major flashback.

I had just been on set of a multi-million pound production and the thing that struck me about it the most was how intimate it was. They only had a few days to shoot, so most of the production had wound down, but it was a very relaxed atmosphere, with only about twenty or so cast and crew there (or so it seemed). Being in this huge warehouse that was home to the Gotham City sets, it seemed more like a small independent movie as opposed to a multi-million pound production.

And it brought back memories.

In the early part of 1996 Clayton and I decided we needed a decent budget if we were ever going to make anything worthwhile. This was about the same time that the National Lottery Art funds were being released, so we applied for a small grant of £5000. Our intention was to make a short film on 16mm film, which I had been using at film school and Clayton had also been experimenting with. We were following the Robert Rodriguez school of filmmaking after being inspired by his work on ‘El Mariachi’.

It was decided that we would once again revisit ‘The Stranger’. Only this time I was doing an adaptation of my own work. I wanted to keep ‘The Stranger’ safe, so I wrote a 30 minute film based on it, but dropped character names and the vampire angle. Instead of ‘The Stranger’ the lead character was dubbed ‘Nameless’ as he had no memory. The film was about the quest to find out who he was something that along the way reveals him to be far more than he or the audience expected. It was a science fiction thriller with a healthy dose of military conspiracy and genetic tinkering. Themes that were very popular in the new TV show ‘The X-files’ that had recently started airing, something of which we were all fans.

I did several drafts of the script, but in all honesty it could have done with a few more and we send the application form off.

To our absolute astonishment, we were awarded the money.

My primary role was that of Writer/Director, but I was also going to play the role of ‘Nameless’, something with the benefit of hindsight, was probably not the best idea.

Clayton was wearing his producing hat on this one as well as being DP. Everyone else had various crew roles, but it was decided that we were all going to muck in and do what was necessary to get the job done. We’d scheduled a ten day shoot at the end of May/Beginning of June, which was only several short weeks away. Lots of discussions were had, but before anything serious started up. It was time to celebrate.

So Clayton, Darren and I went out to a nightclub. Now Darren frequented nightclubs all the time, but Clayton and I would have much rather had gone to the pub. The main reason for going here though was the possibility of meeting someone who Darren had told us he’d got quite friendly with. Clayton and I knew that was Darren speak, for “I fancy her”. We figured he’d want to brag that we were making a movie to score points, so we thought we’d humour him.

In the car on the way there, Darren gave us the run down on this girl. He didn’t go into much detail. Her name was Nadia, she worked there as the lighting techie and she was possibly up for playing the lead in our movie. That description didn’t exactly fill me with faith. I was expecting an attractive blonde, not too bright with an ego the size of her considerable bust, such was Darren’s taste in women, but we proceeded. After all we were humouring him.

The nightclub was loud and dark and Darren scurried off to find her. He returned to tell us that she’d come and find us when she had a break. I couldn’t help but smile at that. “chances are…” I thought “she’s humouring Darren too.

I think a good hour passed and I was doing quite well at getting smashed. I was in a happy mood and the JDs and Cokes were flowing thick and fast and that was when Darren reappeared with a stunningly attractive brunette. Two things immediately struck me about her….ahem…get your minds out of the gutter. Her dazzling smile and her warm and genuine demeanour, which I’m happy to report she still has to this day.

She was funny, charming and above all genuinely interested in being involved with the project. It turned out she’d had quite a few brushes with showbiz. I think it’s probably an understatement to say she was not what I had expected at all.

I must confess, I really don’t remember much else about that night, except for introducing myself to Nadia twice, which she graciously excused with her usual grace and good nature. Somewhere in there though we exchanged telephone numbers and thus began lots of very long telephone calls, mainly about the project, but soon enough about the life universe and everything. She read the script, loved it and before I knew it, we had our very first cast member, well second if you include me. We were off and running.

In order to keep within our tight budget, I wrote the film around one central location and limited the number characters. As well as ‘Nameless’ who would be played by me and ‘Dr. Diane O’Neil’ played by Nadia, there were three main antagonists. The man that headed up the military initiative known as ‘Project Alchemy’ ‘Stephen Murray’, the Chief Scientist in charge of the ‘Prototypes’ ‘Dr. March’ and the Terminator like ‘Tracker’.

Iain would play ‘Stephen’ something I’m not convinced he was happy with. Iain had no previous acting experience, but I was determined to cast people who could act rather than actors. This whole project was about giving people the chance to do something maybe they hadn’t done before and that seemed in keeping with the whole ethos.

Iain put me in mind of Sean Bean when he read for the role and I loved his cold, detached delivery. He required more nurturing than the others as he wasn’t as confident and my lack of directing experience, I felt I let him down a little in his final performance. Had I been more experienced, I’m sure I could have coaxed an even better performance from him.

Mark took on the role of ‘Tracker’. We briefly entertained the idea of Clayton playing this role, but quickly determined that it would be impractical. Mark would be barely recognisable under the heavy prosthetic makeup and costume that I’d designed and with that came a certain amount of confidence, from someone who again had never performed under these circumstances. We would later cast David Williams in the role of ‘Dr. March’. He was the only member of the cast with extensive acting experience, which would really show in the final result.

I had storyboarded the main action sequences, but had left a lot of the ‘talky’ sequences, of which there were many. The plan was to shoot it in much the same way as we shot ‘Hoods’. This pretty much meant that I had the entire movie in my head, shot by shot. We didn’t even bother with things like call sheets etc. since most people would be camping out next to our main location. We would work for as long as we could, whenever we could. Who needs call sheets, bah!

We had several meetings and rehearsals and I was very happy in the direction we were heading. Who am I kidding, I was ecstatic. I was in my element, passionate, enthusiastic with boundless energy. God I must have been annoying ;)

After one such meeting, Darren had ferried Nadia and I back into town. We dropped her off first and then Darren took me to the bus station. Once Nadia left the car, Darren’s tone turned very serious. He noted how well she and I were getting on. I told him frankly I hadn’t noticed, Nadia got on with everyone. “You won’t try anything on with her will you?” Were the next words out of his mouth. I couldn’t help but laugh at the notion. This was the very definition of punching above my weight as far as I was concerned.

“Don’t be daft” I assured him. “She’s way out of my league. I have absolutely no intention of getting involved with her like that.” Besides everything else she had a boyfriend and I had a pretty vile history when it came to that kind of situation (subject for another blog methinks.) “On top of all that I have a film to make.”

I can honestly say that I meant absolutely every word of that conversation, from the very bottom of my heart. Unfortunately, I had no idea at this time how those words would come back to haunt me, since I also hadn’t realised how much of a crush Darren had now developed over her.

So cast and crew were in place. Money was paid, equipment hired we were ready to begin.

To quote Sam Beckett – no not that one, the other one – “Oh boy!”

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