Archive for March, 2012

… or to be more accurate, Not A Review.

There are plenty of excellent reviews out there penned by people with a deeper understanding of Russian history, economics and politics than I can claim to harbour. This is to say, I know about as much about the subject as I do about analytical chemistry (though I am, somehow, familiar with the concept of mass spectronomy and the workings of Orbitrap technology).

What I can offer is a unique vantage point over a slightly disquieting (embarrassingly frightening, to be frank) experience of a Q&A session that left me wondering whether I’d stepped through a looking glass (the glass cage “protecting” Khodorkovsky during his trial, maybe?) and emerged into a thriller of my own.

Enter the protagonists: the audience. Oh, the audience! Due to my late arrival in an already-dark screening room I hadn’t taken in the assortment of spectacular fur-clad women whom I immediately decide are rich Russian exiles. Their striking profiles, an impossible combination of staid and fierce, mark them out against what must be the Lawyers and the Economists, their faces attentive and grave and their apparel very much fur-free.

Then: Cyril Tuschi, director. Upon introduction he smiles a withdrawn, maybe timid sort of greeting. His brief, unassuming way of first addressing the audience shows a preference to answer specific questions: we’ve just seen his work; he doesn’t need to promote or explain it.

The first question comes from a sharp, bald man in a black suit so remarkably lacking in features as to be incongruous. Tuschi has walked the length of the audience on the front row and handed him a microphone.

“Why do you think they haven’t killed him?”

A very good question, in point of fact, as to Khodorkovsky’s wellbein– well, being alive.

As Mr Tuschi works his way towards a hypothetical conclusion, Mr Suit works his way along the wall and towards the front of the audience, stopping a few feet short of Tuschi, his gaze locked on the director since… well, since we saw him picking up the microphone, at the very least. I’m doing some hypothesising of my own as to the nature of this gazing, when its nature becomes suddenly clear: a black object unmistakably identifiable as a gun has sleekly materialised in the Suit’s right hand; it’s pointing at Tuschi, and Tuschi is… walking towards it?

Why yes, he would, as he’s the one who handed it to him. The microphone, that is.

The fool’s shame I feel overrides any sense of relief, and if anything makes me more alert to my neighbours and my surroundings – a state of awareness probably aided by the fact that my heart rate has just enjoyed an impromptu pickup.

But of subtlety, there is very little to follow: a cordially opinionated lady hoards the microphone for a good while, as much for enquiry as personal comment, and proceeds to punctuate any further questions and answers (it’s necessary at this point to remember this is a Q&A) with exclamations that could be mirth and acquiescence as much as fury and disapproval. She’s doing remarkably well without the microphone.

Mr Tuschi, who is also doing remarkably well at being heard with the microphone, has just launched into a captivating and disturbing account of the film’s disappearance in Berlin. Speculation seems unanimous amongst the audience as to the culprits.

Completely unexpectedly yet somehow right on cue, a heavily-accented Russian voice at the very back of the audience, all the more authoritative for its low key and high volume, commands everyone in the room to “stay in your seats, you’re all under arrest!”

The joke won’t be on me, this time, and I patiently wait for something to break the palpable silence. The first uncomfortable chuckles come, I suspect, from the English amongst the crowd, who have rather mastered the art of Pretending Nothing Is Happening. It is soon overtaken by raucous and heartfelt laughter that reaches every corner of the room in different ways: for my share, this will always be the day I realised I don’t quite get Russian humour.

I don’t remember why Tuschi thinks his subject was never killed. I have the vague recollection that he might have admitted having no idea himself. Nor do I recall the exact circumstances of the film’s vanishment in Berlin. But the myriad intrigues depicted, surrounding a black-and-white animation of a character whose only appearance in the flesh fatefully happens in the last few minutes of the film, will leave me with the kind of sensations a film junkie lives to experience.

Perhaps one of the merits of Tuschi’s film is that the above divagations of my galvanised imagination made it possible to write this outlandish review at all: I never realised how drawn into this historical, political, and human work I was until I found myself incessantly pondering the fate of Khodorkovsky, or I felt a sudden and urgent need to devour every Russian history book available, or I mistook a microphone for a gun.

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“By virtue of suspense of disbelief we hope the audience is not distracted to such a degree that the object of viewing a film becomes a game of ‘spot that location’.”

Michael Harm boasts a remarkable collection of film and television productions in his portfolio as location manager. He’s worked with Woody Allen on more than one occasion, was present for two instalments of the colossal Harry Potter franchise, oversaw Brad Pitt’s zombie followers in Glasgow last September – and his current project (all will be revealed!) is certain to draw much attention to itself upon release.

To say the role of a location manager is complex is more than just a slight euphemism. Michael talks about some of the challenges he faced on the particularly large set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in the particularly popular location that is Greenwich Old Royal Naval College, whose characteristic domes have featured in just short of 50 films and series to date including The King’s Speech, The Duchess, and both of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.

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Can you explain the role of a location manager?

The power of the moving image as a narrative medium, whether captured on 35mm film for cinema or digitally for television, is that unlike theatre, it places the audience at the focus of the action, and takes them to the locations where the drama unfolds, whether in the front room of a detached suburban house, on the high altar of a Gothic cathedral, at sea, underwater or in space. Most adults will know that it is not really space, but there are some that do not know that it is not really the Gulf of Aqaba in Lawrence of Arabia but Spain; it is not the Normandy beaches in Saving Private Ryan but County Wexford’s Curracloe Beach in Ireland.

In a film, the scenery and settings in which the actors speak their lines and play their parts are ‘acting’ also; they make a contribution to the storytelling process because more often than not, the scenery and buildings are not, in reality, what they are pretending to be in the film.

There are creative reasons for this as well practical and financial. No221B Baker Street today is almost impossible to use as a location for Sherlock Holmes not only because it does not quite look how people expect it to appear but also it is situated on one of the busiest traffic routes in that part of London. For security reasons, you cannot film in Heathrow Airport or the Bank of England. For cost reasons you cannot transport actors and a film crew to the summit of Mount Kilamanjaro. In all these cases, you have to find a substitute that not only credibly depicts the original but also enhances the audiences’ visual experience.

The job of the Locations Manager, therefore, is twofold: it is to find the right scenery, settings and buildings to meet the requirements of the director, production designer and producer. Then once these locations have been approved and selected, it is to manage the process of making them available for use by the production.

What kind of artistic challenges does it present using a popular, widely recognisable filming location?

It is up to the designer and art department to create with set dressing and, with more budget available, set building, a world that uses the existing buildings cleverly and creatively in such a way that we don’t recognise them as having been used before. There is the added advantage of the now widely used visual effects. What that department requires in the end frame is a Green (or Blue) field in which they can key in another image – this being another filmed piece digitally created from photographs or drawn images – either real art or computer graphically created.

At Greenwich this is a useful option as the buildings are so unique and recognisable. Even though the Christopher Wren style of architecture is by design Georgian (which we can find in a plethora of existing buildings in London: the Bank of England, Mansion House, The Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain etc) the layout of Greenwich buildings, the distinctive columns by the Painted Hall and the Chapel all lend it to be recognised… unless we add, by means of Blue Screen Visual Effects (or some clever set build pieces) a different world every time.

I would lie if I said I didn’t recognise Greenwich in each of the aforementioned films, but, by virtue of the ‘suspense of disbelief’ each and every film tries to create, we hope the audience is not distracted to such a degree that the object of viewing a film becomes a game of ‘spot that location’.

The Old Royal Naval College is home to the University of Greenwich; were you expecting any particular incidents in such surroundings?

When working on any picture the producer [and publicity] are very keen to keep the project under wraps and have full control of how and when any information is released to the press. The more well known the artists involved, the greater the interest for press photographers. It is a bit of a cat and mouse game to try to keep the paps off the set. As we have paid for the location with a location fee, we try to get exclusive rights for shooting in any medium for that period: this makes any other company or person in breach of copyright when they do record images on the day we are working there. For the production company, students and others using the site are a big concern as mobile phone pictures or videos are easily uploaded onto the internet. Once these images get out, there is no stopping them from being copied and spread out.

As [Pirates of the Caribbean] was such a complicated sequence with 40 carriages and 70 horses, and up to 350 crew and 500 extras on the set at any one time, we had a health and safety obligation to close off the area in which we filmed. A film this size and with this fame attracts huge interest. This is absolutely normal and we are very much used to this. We find that the vast majority of the public understand why you cannot give them the freedom to walk around our sets and shoot images of the stars.

It was a huge challenge to be able to communicate all the diversions to visitors trying to find their way around a very large film set. However there were no incidents to speak of and we can say pulled it off without a glitch. We can generally measure a successful shoot by the simple token that we can ever return and show our faces again!

Find a complete list of Michael’s work and filmography on IMDb

Leave a comment below if you would like to invite Michael to give us a more in-depth interview!

“Personally, I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey.”

Olly Lambert is a London-based, Grierson Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, also Journalist of the Year as awarded by the Foreign Press Association in 2007. His latest film, My Child The Rioter, aired on BBC2 on 31st January 2012.

The following interview took place in January 2011. His insight and advice are just as pertinent and useful now as then.

His top tip? Setting yourself a 10 minute window each morning browsing through broadsheets spotting stories that make great documentary material. (I’ve dutifully practised every day and the fun hasn’t worn off, though I have learned to become more selective: a student arrested during a bulldozer getaway after hurling a puppy at a bunch of Hell’s Angels might be the best headline of the decade, but it stops there.)

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Walking down the corridors at Uncle studios in Soho’s Livonia Street, I feel nearly as nervous as when I first approached documentary filmmaker Olly Lambert to ask him for an interview. But as I finally locate his editing suite, I’m greeted by a multitude of screens and a director who smiles as warmly as after the Q&A where he noticed my “loitering with intent”. Any remaining apprehensions are dispelled as he leads the way towards a comfortable set of sofas slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the desks, and offers me a cup of tea and a very affable “How can I help?”

The edits he has overseen as series director are the final cuts for Series 3 of The Family, which aired on Channel 4 throughout November and December [2010]. The seven-part documentary follows the story of the Adesinas, a Nigerian family living in Hackney, through a system of fixed cameras – the rig – installed in their home for a period of eight weeks. I marvel at the logistics involved:  28 cameras, 40 microphones, resulting in 4000 hours of raw footage. And The Family is not the only documentary to be currently produced following that format: “Virtually every editing suite in this building is a rig show.” Cameras are being installed in hotels, modelling agencies, A&E departments – and curiously, in a house full of dwarves doing a pantomime. Still, despite the creative nature of the projects being commissioned, he doesn’t think the rig is the “silver bullet”.

He explains that while this system affords an omnipotent, multiple-angle view over a scene that may capture moments a cameraman couldn’t, he’s wary of the paradox between director and subject:

“I find it allows people to perform in a slightly unnatural way, that wouldn’t happen if there were a cameraman present. It’s definitely double-edged. I think what will happen in a year or two is the rig will become just one more weapon in an armoury of how to film documentaries. In a strange way it’s been one of the most unrewarding experiences ever as a director.”

If he has any misgivings about his latest project, it’s because he’s got his own armoury of accredited films to run it against. Since his 2001 directorial debut Four Weeks to Find A Girlfriend which saw him nominated for a Grierson Award, he’s been commissioned to direct documentary after documentary, scooping up another nomination in the process for Sky1’s Ross Kemp: Middle East. A surprising path, it may seem, for someone who originally studied English with the intention of becoming a theatre director. “There were no plans for it. I got a job as a runner at a company called Middlemarch and thought, I absolutely loved it, I’ll go for this.” He worked his way up from being a runner, researcher, and assistant producer, and has been working as a freelance director ever since. Is he surprised at the turn his career has taken? “Personally I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey,” he candidly asserts. “Filmmaking is a tremendous passport into people’s lives, it gives you access to the world in a way you wouldn’t normally have.”

True to his professed curiosity, his films focus exclusively on human subjects, from traffic wardens in London to tea-selling boys in Gaza. He doesn’t feel, he muses, that he’s found his voice as a documentary-maker, and instead defines himself only as interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His passion for the mundane colliding with the terrifyingly unfamiliar is such that in 2003, while filming in Kuwait for Channel 4’s science department, he abandoned the commissioned project to focus instead on the humanitarian disaster taking place, resulting in the critically-acclaimed Festival favourite Battle Hospital – a “much, much more interesting story” than the restrictive subject of medicinal practice in war zones. “Luckily, being in the desert, I didn’t have an executive producer breathing down my neck,” he confides. “But the story is kind of, you know, the king. Without a story, you haven’t got a documentary.” He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard’s son, who told him over a drink one day: “If a story’s good, you can shoot it on toilet paper.”

And what does he make of aspiring filmmakers’ current trend of using online platforms such as YouTube to publish their work? “It’s kind of a huge positive, that anyone can make a film for under a thousand pounds. The sooner you make your mistakes the better. But that’s a red herring because films are not made with gadgets and buttons, they’re made with ideas and relationships.” He ponders ways of standing out when so many hopefuls are walking around with cameras and competition is fiercer than ever. The way he did it, he offers, with a hint of unapologetic brazenness, was to pester directors on a daily basis for an opportunity to work alongside them. “And also,” he stresses, “you’ve got to start fine-tuning your antennae for what is a good story. There’s a handful of people I keep an eye on, thinking, ‘They’re gonna make it,’ and the way they mark themselves out is they’re the people who are thinking all the time, ‘Where’s the story, where’s the story?’”

So what’s the next story for him?

“What I’m dying to do next is go completely the other way and do something that has far less managerial roles, far less expectation. We’re all a bit knocked today because we found out the third episode only got 700 000 viewers, which is tiny for a 9 o’clock Channel 4 slot.” He gloomily surmises the reason behind poor ratings might be the show is up against I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here.

But if he seems disheartened by audiences’ attitude, he certainly won’t be losing interest in the people who compose them anytime soon. “You’re only a good director if you are extremely human and sensitive to people’s stories, to what the difference is between what they might present and the reality underneath. It’s the most important part of the job, I think, to be human.”

For more information about Olly’s films or to contact him visit www.ollylambert.com

This film is VERY high up on my current list of must-sees. Expect a review shortly (after I’ve managed to see it and, of course, allocated the necessary “digestion” time any screening and 12 mochas entail); in the meantime, enjoy the trailer if you haven’t yet had the opportunity.

This week’s highlights:

  • 28th March @ Curzon Soho: Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life + Q&A with Werner Herzog

The acclaimed director offers us his observations on capital punishment in his latest documentary, as part of Curzon DocDays and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Tonight’s Q&A session predictably sold out weeks ago but you can find more information here. Further screenings to be announced shortly.

  •   29th, 30th, 31st March @ BFI: Jobriath A.D.

A highlight of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, BFI’s Brian Robinson calls it “a hymn to the enigmatic, cult glam rocker Jobriath, ‘I am the true fairy of rock’.” Full trailer and tickets available here.

  • 31st March @ BFI: Future Film Programme

A collection of shorts by young filmmakers aged 15-25 as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. More details to be revealed shortly and tickets available here.

  • Once Upon A Time In Anatolia @ Curzon Cinemas

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 5 star-rated film had me sold before I even read any of the reviews: the mere image of a group of 12 men including police, doctor and murder suspect, set against a desert landscape bodes well for the element of poetry percolating this thriller. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is still screening at Curzons Soho and Chelsea.

For full programmes and details:
26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
Human Rights Watch Film Festival – London

Coming up:

  • 12th April @ Curzon Soho: This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi 2011)

… should be celebrated and understood.”

– Anthony Minghella

While I believe the above quote is self-explanatory and self-sufficient in most film-related discussions, as a student commonly rebuked for employing “overblown language” of course I had to go and divagate, digress, and indulge in elaborate drivel – before interrupting myself halfway through, thus remaining loyal to my student condition.

The following is a mini-essay, unfinished as promised, the only justification for its publishing being the hope that it conveys something of my passion for film and may entice you to read this blog, and also to bear in mind some of the questions I have left purposefully unanswered.

If you’re not much of a reader, there’s always the trailers in the main section of the blog, and nice little bullet point updates too.

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A cliché one commonly encounters in reviews is that of a film, a show, or even a meal in a high-end restaurant delivering “an assault on the senses”. In a certain measure, that’s the very definition of film: a succession of images, sounds, dialogue, flashes of colour, light and shapes, close-ups of facial expressions, music; fast-paced or slow-paced but always deliberately timed to a narrative; things which may be real or unreal, but that we choose to completely immerse ourselves into during the time of one screening in a dark cinema room.

Despite the contemporary availability of films in various formats, a theatre remains the quintessential venue to explore film as it offers a premise which both in its design and concept enhances the experience and draws attention to the depth of any cinematic endeavour.

One becomes strangely aware of one’s body in a cinema. Through the stillness of our being and the absence of any voluntary movement, every subtle change and reaction we go through becomes heightened. A minute drop in body temperature; a rhythmic alteration in our heartbeat; a slight tension in the muscles; a near-imperceptible shiver running on the surface of the skin: all of these sensations alert us to the mind-set we find ourselves in, and during this whole time our brain is unconsciously making the link between identifiable emotions and the physical reactions for which it sent the signals in the first place.

Therefore cinema becomes a physiological experience, one where we exist and understand our state of being through the physical manifestations we endure as well as our usual array of reasoned assessments and interpretations.

One doesn’t passively watch cinema. Our brains are functioning at every level, whether emotional or intellectual, as they do in everyday life when we’re the actors of our own scene. But with the absence of all other distraction allowing for undivided attention, coupled with a stronger sensory input than usual at a faster pace than usual, they’re functioning at a peak level of intensity with a direct effect on the way we respond to the narrative as it unfolds. What may take days or years in our own life may be assimilated in minutes in film, thanks to a scene or even a shot of particular resonance, so that we may find ourselves weeping for a character almost immediately after first encountering them – whereas this would scarcely happen in real life.

And yet lending emotions to a film is a practiced exercise. As a receptive observer with no control over the narrative and as such unequivocally subjected to the sensations and emotions triggered, it can be an almost violent experience we may at first wish to distance ourselves from, by reminding ourselves that the protagonist is a separate entity with whom we bear no connection. In doing this and successfully detaching ourselves from the subject, we may then stop guarding ourselves against certain emotions we wouldn’t usually let overwhelm us. We don’t censor, repress, or steer away from us feelings which we as individuals may not know how to cope with or choose not to expose ourselves to. From the safety of a cinema seat, we abandon ourselves to vicarious living, and gain insight and experience through the portrayal of another character’s life.

It doesn’t take much such practice, though, to realise it is ultimately ourselves that we project onto the screen. This is true of the actor, the script-writer or the director, as much as of the audience. While there may be obvious reasons for the former category’s involvement, the audience’s takes a different form. Irrelevant of how much distance we may choose to keep between ourselves and the events depicted in a film, our two predominant senses — sight and hearing — are stimulated throughout, so that our brain processes and categorises information in its habitual way, anchoring a moment within a precise context and meaning. This allows us to recall a particular scene as a memory lived — effectively appropriating a snippet of somebody else’s history and making it a part of our own.

Much in the same way we gain experience from our own memories, the memory of a powerful scene, because it epitomises a particular condition or embodies a universal theme, can become a strong reference point from which we can draw indirect experience or construct a scenario of expectations and possibilities in a given situation before reacting accordingly. And so cinema becomes an integrant part of, and has a direct influence on, one’s own assessments, perceptions, and the resulting decisions, all of which are core elements of our very identity.

But the most basic principles of philosophy teach us that borrowed memories are not the only means of identifying with the other and by extension ourselves. We learn to know the other better so we may make sense of our own being. And what better premise to engage in such exploration than one where the characters appear to us in all their rawness, both deeply intimate and yet resolutely impenetrable?