Lauren and I have been buddies now for a few years. Ever since we worked together for the first time on Café Mirage we have created a bond. Since Café Mirage we spoke about her narrative directional debut A Ghastly Murder. We also worked on my new short film Fade and she recommended me as director for a feature film which is still in development stage.
From the initial conversation Lauren had a big passion for A Ghastly Murder. She went to town on the planning and preparation for the film. Her background is primarily documentaries, confessing herself as a “doc girl”. That medium isn’t my strong suit, but it was interesting to learn Lauren’s history. I think having my heavy narrative experience was good support to this project.
I was on board right away. For the excellent work Lauren did on Café Mirage, it is important to give back to other filmmakers. Independent film is a strong community, the life blood of the industry. I am writer/director by trade and the area I want to specialise in, but working on other people’s projects even if it means taking on another job title is important too. Assistant directing and production management I can do, a way to offer a hand to the community.
Lauren’s dedication to Ghastly’s authenticity was admirable. From the beginning this was a period piece shot in the film noir genre. It had to be true to the Victorian era based in the East End of London, as the story takes place around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. This took a lot of meticulous planning where Lauren and I scouted out locations that still had the true Victorian streets, buildings and architecture. It wasn’t easy to create a believable low budget short film of that era. But the process was fun because we discovered location gems at that stage of production.
The costume and production design was obviously going to play a massive role to the believability of the film. Lauren purchased dozens of props and costumes from online sources that were original to the Victorian times, 100% authentic. They boosted the film’s production value. This reminded me of when I started making short films where I would purchase all the props and costumes with my own money. Total passion and commitment. It’s expensive but things sometimes move faster that way, especially in independent film when you are building a portfolio.
The casting of the lead character Jackie was one of the first tasks on the list. Lauren and I spoke about this at the same time we were scouting the locations. Coming off the back of Café Mirage, I was impressed with Billie Vee who played one of the smaller roles in the film. After reading the script for Ghastly I had a strong feeling Billie would be right for the role of Jackie. We conducted the casting process, but in the end Lauren felt the same. Billie had all the attributes to fit the character. We were pleased she accepted the role.
Ghastly began pre production around late 2019 and continued into early 2020 with a plan to shoot around spring 2020. The process was working well, we managed to lock-in the key members of crew and the casting process was moving along. There was a good level of commitment and passion for the project from both departments. The locations had been agreed, the budget secured. But then – COVID! Like the rest of the world, this was something none of us expected and obviously scuppered principle photography plans. At the very beginning of the pandemic when things were still early, my personal instinct was to continue with business as usual. But as things became even more uncertain, it was unwise to shoot for the safety of everyone, so we had to shut the project down. I felt bad for Lauren because she had put so much hard work into the project to get to shooting stage for it all to be put on hold. This would create further obstacles such as rebooting the shoot at a later stage, starting it all again with the potential of losing team members due to schedule conflicts and things like that. Plus no-one knew how long the pandemic would last. So at that moment in time the project was officially shelved – but not discarded.
Café Mirage kept me occupied during the pandemic as the film was in post production. The pandemic taught the industry a lot about post production and how it can be completed entirely digitally. I literally never had an in-person editing session with the editor. There were video sharing softwares where the director and editor could leave notes in real time whilst watching the film at the same time. It was neat stuff. Also the sound design could be completed entirely digitally too. With the correct environment and recording applications on smartphones, it is surprising what you can accomplish. Smartphones are game changes this day in age. In all it was amazing to get the film over the line even if it was a humanly detached way of working.
Coming out the back of the pandemic, Café Mirage was being submitted to festivals and had its premier at Paris Independent Film Festival. I used the bulk of the tax relief I received from Café Mirage to make Fade. When Fade was in pre production, Lauren and I started talks to get A Ghastly Murder back into production again. It was going to be a busy shooting schedule because we were going to shoot Fade and Ghastly pretty much back to back.
When pre production properly started for the second time with Ghastly, it was a good thing all the costumes and props were pretty much covered. It was just a case of crewing and casting up. Thankfully Billie was still on board, as was Ross Townsend playing another character. We lost the rest of the crew and cast we had before the pandemic, so we had to rehire and fortunately found amazing professionals like the DOP Joshua Black. I actually worked with Joshua on another short film My Grandson Charlotte a few years back where I was the production manager and Joshua was the gaffer. It was great to see Joshua move up the ranks to DOP, he has high quality work that stood out during the selection process.
We found further professionals like the make up artist Taina, Cale on sound and Falco on assistant camera duties where he was very kind to recommended his colleagues, Rory and Louise who were straight out of top accredited film schools and brought their high level of training to set. It was a pleasure to work with and watch their youthful skills. Myself having worked in film for roughly thirteen years, it was refreshing to see new, highly skilled talent enter the game and smash it. Emma returned for stills photography, this was the third time I had worked with her, becoming a regular collaborator.
As production neared my original role of 1st assistant director was upgraded to production manager because the amount of tasks my role took-on was definitely heading into production management territory. I mentioned this to Lauren and she was happy to upgrade my title. One of the biggest challenges for me during pre production was the transportation and logistics. Because the film was to be shot mainly outside at night, the schedule required nights shoots (which I was personally excited about, I love the thrill of night shoots). This meant we needed a transportation vehicle that could manoeuvre the majority of the cast and crew around from location to location. This wasn’t easy because the large van/minibuses I targeted were either out of our budget or not available. We did eventually manage to find a 10 seater people carrier which I was to manage. But it still wasn’t enough to cater for the entire team, so we had to delegate transportation duties to other cast and crew with vehicles which had its own challenges because everyone had different call times.
When we started shooting, the first night was probably the most challenging as first days usually are because you are just finding the flow of things. The unit base was far from the best; a box of a place so small we had no choice but to congregate into the corridors. The fact it rained didn’t help and the parking permit restrictions in the area was a headache. Already the stress levels were high, but if you can make it through these early storms, a smooth and happy shoot awaits. We started day one shooting in the streets of East London. Ambitious work due to public crowd control. I could tell Lauren was getting frustrated and I did my best to ease this off her shoulders so she could focus on directing. Once we made it through that we finished the night shoot off with a kill scene. It was creative work and I was glad to be apart of it.
Even though day one was partly successful due to achieving (the most important aspect of any shoot) the captured footage, the production schedule and logistics was very tough. Being the head of this department I really had to up my game for day two. I felt the team demanded this and I believe I rose to it. As tough as things get on shoots I have a good quality in fight back, this has got me through all the projects I have worked on, mine and other peoples. Day two I was in an hour early at the unit base to get shit done, sort things out so when everyone arrived they knew what they were doing and when. Lauren was pleased. A new confidence and order was set for the day. I felt the team respected this. Shooting-wise was more night shoots which certainly had its own set of demanding challenges. This time we were in a real Victorian street in Deptford. More crowd control required mainly from the local neighbours. After this, we shot in a nearby alley which was where prostitutes in the Victorian days actually worked. A curious neighbour we spoke to on the night said it was called “whore alley” back in those days. This was another cold, demanding night shoot, the longest of the schedule, but was so much fun making it.
Day three was an interior filming day at traditional Victorian locations: The Ten Bells pub in Shoreditch and The Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn. Both locations were exceptional for the production value. It really drew you into the time period. There was a good team vibe on this day. But as usually the case with ambitious shoots on tight schedules, shooting ran way over than expected at the museum. The pressure was eased with the reassurance from the location contact that an extension to the hours was fine, no problem! But that didn’t reflect in the additional charge in the invoice later on! There wasn’t much we could do about that.
The final day four was an additional day added to the schedule. Originally the shoot was scheduled for three days, but the ambitiousness of the film across all departments definitely required a four day shoot, there was no way it could be done in three days. We also suffered a huge setback on one of the days where the act of god wasn’t on our side and rained torrentially, forcing us to shut the shoot down. It was really bad luck, it was out of our hands. I felt for Lauren because the cost of the film just kept growing and growing. Obstacles are thrown at you from every angle on a shoot. But we cracked on with the final day and shot in a church graveyard in Beckenham, Kent, a location I secured and then finished up in Westminster. The graveyard was such a powerful location, it definitely produced some of the best shots of the movie. The actors Billie and Ross delivered awesome work in a killer setting. The smoke machine we hired took the filming at the graveyard to another level.
The last stretch in the schedule was filming on the streets of Westminster. The shots we achieved were gorgeous, it made you appreciate the benefits of filming in the UK. It was cold and late, wrapping at around 4am. A fantastic team effort. I worked with skilled people and learned a lot. You are always learning on every shoot no matter how experienced you are. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet, I had to make sure I got the principle cast taken home, the equipment rentals back to the studio (which thankfully were still open and communicating at the hour!) and the van dropped back all before 8am so we didn’t incur an extra days charge on the van. I was so tired I almost fell asleep at the wheel, twice! But I made it in time.
Having gone through Fade and now Ghastly, I was ready to take a break for sure. This project was a testament to the ups and downs of filmmaking and how it can take years to get a film through production, Ghastly happened to get through a pandemic. It reminds you of why you love the profession in the first place; you wouldn’t go through all this trouble if you didn’t love it, and I certainly do. I can add a period piece to my portfolio as production manager, a secondary job away from my speciality as writer/director. Since wrap the film was released late 2022 and has had huge success, being officially selected to international festivals and winning countless awards. This is the best possible start for Lauren’s narrative directing career, straight out of the blocks and racing ahead, and at time of writing the selections and awards are still coming in.