Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye by Andrew Gunn
Part 2: Pre-Production (January–April 2015)
2015. Paradigm shift. I start the year homeless. Move into my parents’ spare room, live out of a bag. No money, no more laptop, a shitty old phone.
The project I’ve inherited is a period film with 31 pages of script, 47 scenes, 36 locations, nine main characters and no budget. I’m now the director, screenwriter and senior producer. The only department head is costume designer Elizabeth Brown. I want to bury my head in some sand, but it’s January – the beaches are cold and forbidding.
Get to work, sir.
Karl J. Claridge travels up from England for rehearsals with Nima Séne. They’ll play private eye Dick Nicely and femme fatale Brigid Astor. Karl brings his own costume. Karl wears his own costume. A man on the bus compliments his style.
Nima and Karl rehearse. Picture: Andrew Gunn.
Nima hosts a rehearsal with Naomi Miller (Skylar) combined with auditions for gangster Ricky Russo – the last role we need to fill. Alex Della Ciana nails the part and rounds out a cast which includes Eddy MacKenzie and Joe McKenna from my plays at Wee Theaters, plus Tim Harley, Miranda Langley and Colin Cunninghame.
Now we just need a crew to shoot the fucking thing.
Start at the Glasgow Film Crew. Peter J. Stewart, one of the regulars, signs on as post production supervisor. He designs a workflow. He needs to know what camera we’re going to use. We don’t have a camera. We don’t have a cinematographer.
I look for cinematographers. I ask A, who can’t give up Saturdays – and we’d be filming on weekends to work around my nine-to-five office job. B and C are recommended to me. I email them. B loves the script but can’t commit the time. C doesn’t reply. Weeks pass. I chase D. D runs. I ask E. E says he’ll think about it. I find out that C didn’t get my email, would have loved to do it, but can’t. I ask E again. E says he’ll think about it.
Out of the blue Aaron Rivando offers his services. He’s in Glasgow for ten months between Canada and London. He loves film noir. His showreel is stunning. He owns a camera. He’s hired.
Aaron on set. Picture: Kat Abdullah.
I directed the GFC’s 48 Hour Film entry in October 2014. Daiva Ivanauskaitė won our only award, for the stop-motion title sequence – 37 seconds animated in six hours. She has a conscientious attention to detail and understands colour. She agrees to be the art director.
We attend a masterclass hosted by production designer Mark Leese (This is England, God Help the Girl). He talks us through the first ten minutes of Seven in intricate detail. He blows our fucking minds.
Daiva and I talk about the characters. We follow Mark Leese’s guide. Everything comes from character, filtered though place and time. Where are we, when are we and who are these people?
Daiva on the way to a location recce. Picture: Andrew Gunn.
We go through the script line-by-line. It becomes a Jungian analysis of the hero and heroine. It’s the first time I’ve articulated this stuff. It’s invaluable, not just for the art department. This informs the conversations I’ll have with the actors throughout the shoot, and prepares me to speak in shorthand as opposed to rambling, make-it-up-as-you-go drivel.
Tip for directors: when you answer an actor’s question, use one sentence max, and don’t use a sentence when a word will do. Preferably a verb.
Through Pete Stewart we find an editor, Mark Fraser. Mark cut Dropping Off Michael, which has just won the Audience Award at the 2015 Glasgow Short Film Festival. GFC regular Séamus Cogan joins the post team as our colourist.
Polly Petrova and Tom Hemblade agree to tag-team production sound and mix the audio in post. Omiros Vazos will be the script supervisor and digital imaging technician. Emma Leigh Porter signs on as make-up artist. Jo Osborne will handle continuity.
Ryan Pasi, Myke Hall and Graeme Cassels are still involved as producers. Cassels’ time is limited. Ryan Pasi’s day job becomes intense. Ryan brings in Mandy Shannon to cover the workload.
Mandy on set. Picture: Aaron Rivando.
The project has a shared Google Drive. Folders and subfolders for each department. They quickly fill up. Hundreds of photographs – locations, costumes, props, references for colour and lighting. Files – release templates, call sheet templates, every draft of the script.
I buy a laptop and get used to its weight. Construct a master spreadsheet with interlinking tabs for script breakdown, personnel, schedule, budget, props, equipment, costumes and locations. It’s my-brain.xlsx.
Wide-band a calendar. Record everyone’s availability over the next few months. Build the schedule from this. Set production dates. Three shooting blocks ought to do it, 1-5, 8-10 and 23-25 May.
Assign producers their tasks and departments. Actors and art for me, locations and make-up for Mandy, extras and sound for Myke, camera and lighting for Cassels. Ryan will do whatever he can from his day job cell.
Ryan on (another) set.
We walk the streets.
Look for Nicely’s apartment. We can’t afford to build a set with breakaway walls, so we need a large space to accommodate the camera. To light it from outside, we need a ground floor.
Mandy, Daiva and I scout west end tenements. We go up the hill behind Byres Road. Polly lives here, on the second floor. We could shoot in her flat if we had light stands thirty feet tall.
We go door-to-door. Mandy looks through a front-room window, locks eyes with a student in her pyjamas. It’s Saturday afternoon – she’s just chilling. Mandy charms us into the flat. The student gives us a guided tour, introduces her pet rabbit. Says, No problem – you can shoot here if my flatmates say it’s cool.
Across the road, there’s an old wardrobe lying on somebody’s garden path. We’re not sure if it’s been thrown out or not. We discuss using it for set dressing. We chap the door – no answer. I leave a note with my phone number.
We shop for props. Antiques and bric-a-brac. We score bargains. The owner “rents” me a typewriter – I buy it, but if I bring it back in four weeks he’ll refund 80%. By the time I get it home, I’ve fallen in love. It’s still in my living room.
The props adorn Nicely's desk. Picture: Kat Abdullah.
Days pass. Bad news from Mandy – the student’s flatmates vetoed the shoot. Then good news – she’s seen more flats on the same street, has two offers. Daiva and I go to visit and take measurements.
The wardrobe is still there. So is my note. I chap the door again. Still no answer.
We rehearse. We read through scenes, block, adjust line delivery – but the real work is done afterwards, when we talk about the script, get to know each other, share our intentions and build trust.
My vagabond days come to an end. I move into a pokey one-bedroom flat in Govanhill. No internet for the first six weeks – including the first two shooting blocks.
My phone burns data. Reception in the flat is poor. My data runs dry. My vagabond days resume. I stay late at the office to use the internet. I chase wifi hotspots. I work in cafés. I work on the bus.
Daiva and I talk through the script again and again. She records hours of conversation. We look at one of my favourite paintings – Rainy Night by Charles Burchfield. Warm autumnal colours and inky night. It becomes our colour scheme.
Rainy Night (1929-1930) by Charles Burchfield.
We talk set design. We decide we should probably have that wardrobe.
I call Polly. Can you grab that wardrobe across the street for us please? Polly says, Cool beans. Polly and her flatmate shift the wardrobe up two flights of stairs to their flat.
Daiva catalogues props. Some are used throughout the film – briefcase, handgun, hip flask. Others are only in a single location or scene. Daiva comes up with a plan to collect, store and return every single item. She augments the art department – Diana Dumitrescu, Akvilė Dirmauskaitė, Ailsa Lonsdale, Andrew Campbell, Stacy McEvoy.
I work through my watchlist. Classic noir: The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, In a Lonely Place, The Third Man. Modern noir: Chinatown, Thief, The Grifters, Miller’s Crossing, Seven. Films I always watch before shooting: A Man Escaped, Rear Window, the Bell chapter of Andrei Rublev.
From Andrei Rublev. The final chapter is still the greatest piece of cinema ever made.
Aaron and I talk through the script and build our shot list. Aaron puts together a camera crew – Sam Mwiraguzu, Sefa Ucbas, Scott Mackay from Sync or Swim Productions, GFC stalwart Graham Stevenson on light duty.
Aaron, Graham and Cassels amass gear. Lenses. Slider. Spider dolly. Follow-focus. Shoulder mount. Rigs from Sync or Swim, including a Ronin (like a Steadicam) and a crane. Redhead lights and stands. LEDs. Smoke machine. Sandbags. It’s the biggest equipment stockpile of any GFC film to date.
Polly calls. She’s moving out of her flat. She needs rid of that fucking wardrobe. Do we still want it?
Daiva and I jump in the car, drive over there. We walk up two flights. We carry the wardrobe down two flights. We take it out to my car. We try to fit it in my car.
It’s too big for my car.
We take it back to the house where we found it. We leave it on their garden path.
A Nissan Note: no match for a vintage wardrobe.
Last week of pre-production. Work the day job. Work on the film. Meet the cast and crew. Sleep four hours per night. Caffeine stocks rise. Every day feels like crisis-management. One day there’s no crisis. I get suspicious – somebody’s hiding a problem.
I think I’m drinking too much coffee. More coffee seems to help.
Wednesday 29 April. Leave the office at 5pm. They think I’m going on holiday for ten days. They have no idea I’m making a film.
I take prop photographs of Tim Harley and Joe McKenna in character – to be used in a scene this weekend. I meet with the producers and assistant directors to fine-tune the schedule.
Tim and Joe under surveillance.
Thursday 30 April 2015. Day Zero Minus One.
Myke hires a van. Fills it with camera and lighting gear, props, set dressing and catering. Meets Karl at the train station.
I go to an industrial estate in Govan to collect the gun from Hands On Productions. I go to Boots and print the photographs from last night.
GFC hosts our last pre-production meeting. One crew member has gone AWOL. Another receives a battlefield promotion.
The meeting adjourns at 11pm. I spend a few hours driving people and items from place to place. After one stop I forget to put my headlights back on and get pulled over by the police at a junction.
They question the address on my driving licence – I haven’t switched it to Govanhill yet. They question ownership of the car – it’s in my ex-wife’s name. The car is filled with movie stuff. There’s a replica handgun in the boot.
I’m clearly an idiot so they let me go. I run a few more errands, refill the petrol tank and find myself eating an egg and cress sandwich in the car park of a 24-hour Asda at 3.30am.
It’s Friday 1 May, the first day of principal photography.
Originally published 4 July 2016.
Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye