The golden hour is a term used by film-folk to describe that window – at sunset or sunrise – where the sky turns heavenly pink, providing the ideal level of darkness (in camera) to replicate night, while keeping the camera functions optimal. It's also used when filmmakers want to capture the skyline at its most profound or magical. In fact, so much so that the other commonly used term to describe it is the magic hour. It's a little like capturing lightning in a bottle when it's acheived and makes filmmakers everywhere scramble desperately to literally 'bottle it': a manic scramble on the ground to capture that perfect confluence in the sky.
As a writer/director you come to realise the planning of a production can go a long way into determining the success or failure of the shoot itself. So you try to do your due diligence in getting the best pieces possible to make up your 'grand' puzzle - from locations to props to costumes etc .. This extends to building a team who are willing and capable, yeah, but, equally, who'll contribute to cultivating the vibe needed to be as efficient yet harmonious as possible. As a friend of mine put it: to be able to "whistle while you work". Now, there are a lot of factors that go into this deceptively straight forward concept. The director and DOP's relationship can be a tricky thing to balance for starters, as not being on the same page can have strenuous time-wasting consequences.
Truthully, in regards to ticking the relevant boxes on virtual no-budget projects such as The Urban Chronicles, beggars, ultimately, can't be choosers. Interviewing helps, sure, but at the end of the day, when it's two thirty in the morning and everybody's tired, that's often when you find out what's working, and what's not. An advantage of doing multiple episodes is potentially gaining returnees, likely back for a number of reasons, top of that list being understanding and respect based on shared experiences on the ground. These are, with luck, now baked into the relationships as they move forward.
And so for episode 5 my returnees were Daniel Read (DOP), Angeline Hadman (1st A.D.) and, of course, myself. The four new members of the crew were Majiec Londo – sound recordist; Alessandra Bellini – camera assistant, Derick Ogole – production assistant and Wiktoria Deero – make up artist. Of the four new members Derick was the only one I'd previously known, the others found via online posts etc..
It's been explained by some who read it that the subject matter for episode 5 is somewhat controversial, and this manifested as a real world obstacle during the search for our two leads.
The year of 2020 had, most people would agree, been an unconventional one, and I found myself looking for actors at the peak of lockdown. I felt the impact of this immediately as the number of interested parties was lower than previous episodes. This was compounded by the scripts aforementioned subject matter, leading to initially interested candidates eventually 'ghosting' the project completely.
The turnout to the auditions was, as a result, quite a small affair, despite casting the net wider than ever before.
Usually when casting for actors you try to keep an open mind, despite pinning hopes on a select few based on their showreels. This doesn't always play out but does provide at least a starting point (on who to look out for) to some degree.
Normally when selecting a candidate, it pays - even if they're great on the day - to evaluate the audition footage and reflect. Perhaps it was the circumstances creating less confidence in myself – that I'd struggle to fill another audition – or perhaps, as I've come to look at it, it was that sometimes in auditions a kind of alchemy happens, when things just, gel – what they call in the business, chemistry. What I witnessed between actors Ashley Lloyd Shaw and Liam Akpan was - for myself as well as Angeline Hadman (assisting on camera) – such a moment.
Against experience-based logic, I consequently offered them the parts on the spot.
For episode 4 we had an eight man crew – by no means a large number, yet a step up from previous episodes to be sure. As mentioned in a previous blog (for Episode 3), more people were added to the working crew on realising what we actually needed to function (sort of) optimally. For episode 5 we were one man short of our ideal number, which meant Dan, Angeline and myself had to add-in on our duties. Angeline, as a result, was assigned the role of 1st AD, on top of her previous one assisting me with storyboards. It was a role she Impressively took to like a fish to water.
As with previous episodes, there are always unforeseen 'traps' and 'fires' to put out, no matter how much you prepare. In episode 5 this occurred in two significant ways:
The first was a seemingly straight forward scenario, as I tried to secure a key location (a forrest area) in Epping via their council. What started as a routine inquiry and booking, turned into a months-long back and forth of emails, organisational redirections, even more forms, as well as an ever-increasing price tag. All this for three hours in an Epping Forrest car park. Past experience taught me to allow additional time to secure the required locations, and yet, despite this, securing the forrest went all the way to the wire, risking our film dates and pushing me over budget from the outset.
The second 'fire' is an age-old nemesis for every filmmaker at some stage or another: the weather. The story for episode 5 primarily takes place in a moving van at night, which itself posed interesting filmmaking challenges. It was decided after much head scratching that the best way to achieve this 'effect' – as filming real time on-road was not ultimately viable – would be to film against a projector at night; having people shake the van and wave lights to aide the illusion. This meant finding ourselves a space big enough to hold the van, camera equipment, various stands flags and lights plus, actors and crew – no easy task.
After further head scratching and a few false dawns, we were fortunate enough (via executive producer Craig Ramos-Stovin) to land a farm house – courtesy of his parents Jane and Dave – that had enough land out front to accommodate our needs.
With Epping Forrest car park locked we were finally good to go. The dates (set a few months prior) that we decided upon were a couple of days from the final two weekends of August, 2020. These were strategically chosen as it was necessary for us, weather-wise, to stay on the right side of Summer.
Part of my personal process as a director is to try to include rehearsals. There are a couple of reasons for this but the primary one on Urban Chronicles was to save ourselves valuable time on shoot days. The rehearsals evolved organically over four weeks as the actors and myself progressed the material, and our bond, along the way.
Leading up to the shoot and with the prep taken care of, I had many reasons to feel quietly optimistic. The first day of filming can often be daunting, no matter who you are, yet assembling the team for the first time went smoothly and without incident. This extended to the rest of the first weekend, despite having to rejig our schedule somewhat. The second weekend seemed like a straighht forward prospect on paper, having only to film at our remaining location at Jane and Dave's. In our minds, it was plane sailing – at least from a scheduling stand-point.
The following Tuesday I checked the weather report, as is procedure when filming outdoors. It reported a severe storm would arrive and stick around over the two evenings we'd be filming. Angeline, Dan and myself spent the following days rechecking various weather reports as, in England at least, the weather (within a 5 to 7 day period) can often radically shift. As the days drew on it became clear the reports were correct from the start.
As a contingency we endeavoured to push the shoot back a week. Not everyone could make it and, with camera insurance and van rental already paid for, it left little choice but to work with the weekend we had, however we could.
Angeline and I spent the eve of the shoot searching hard for alternative solutions to avoid the storm, the most obvious being indoor studio-type spaces. It became evident this too would not be viable, as a) the given timeframe to book was super-narrow, and b) the studio prices were astronomical, regardless.
Out of ideas I called some friends late that night and one suggested an outdoor tent, or gazebo. This seemed viable, though with the clock continuing to run down, the timeframe was an increasing issue.
Angeline and I hit the floor running bright and early the next morning, as we seperately continued searching social media for tent and gazebo hires. The first businesses contacted set the tone with clear and disheartening 'no's'. A couple of places later offered a glimmer of hope, yet made it clear the last minute aspect of the potential transaction would impact the price.
The next issue was ensuring the gazebo in question could 'house' the contents of our production (including the van, projector, camera, lights, stands, flags, cast and crew). A back and forth took place between Dan, Angeline and myself to figure out gazebo dimensions in relation to our film 'stuff'. Our calculations determined hiring the gazebo in question would be too much of a risk, which took us back to square one.
Crazily by midday, and still very much in gazebo-search-mode, the plan to film was still a go: the idea being to film between the storm if need be. Angeline and I had to make our way to Brixton to pick up additional equipment, yet still hadn't solved what was now a massive elephant in the room.
Just before leaving for Brixton, I happened upon a company that rented even bigger gazebos. A nervous back and forth – centering around their schedule, the super-tight timeframe plus the fact that that size a gazebo would require additional manpower – took place, spanning from me leaving my flat all the way across town to Brixton, before they finally agreed that they could manage it.
There was still the question of - a) whether the gazebo would fit at the farm house, given the extra size, and b) if it could adequately house the ep 5 production contents, even if it did.
The next few hours were a blur of activity, as Angeline and I rushed from Brixton (to collect multiple flags and stands) then back across town to Perivale, to get the hired van. From there, back to Angeline's, around Harelsden, to load the van with additional production contents (costumes, props, snacks, beverages, stands etc), fetching our one and only production assistant, Derick, along the way. Having spent the majority of our day on the road and with no time for breaks or real food, the three of us made our way to the shoot.
There was still the question, once erected, of whether the gazebo could actually house the production, and I spent the entirety of the journey discussing this with Craig, Dan and the gazebo hire guys, who arrived at the farm house before us and were more than a little concerned. As producer/director the buck ultimately stopped with me, and I requested they wait until my arrival before making a final decision about putting the gazebo up.
Upon arrival, myself and Angeline quickly joined Craig, Dan and the hire guys. Looking at the landmass it remained unclear whether the Gazebo would do the job asked of it, with differing opinions between us not providing a clear or obvious path forward: It was evident there was no clear cut answer and that the only way to ultimately know would be to erect it. It was around 8pm at this stage and to add to our dilemma, the rain, that had long threatened and the cause of all our aggravation, had yet to materialise, making it feel like the gazebo idea was, while well intentioned, an expensive folly.
With all these variables in the air, I ultimately decided to give the hire guys the go ahead to erect the gazebo. The rationale being better to have it there, just in case, than not; essentially deciding to suck up the way-out-of-my-budget added expense, on the off chance.
This turned out to be a good idea in at least one regard, as literally minutes after giving the go ahead it started to rain. "Well, we'll at the very least have shelter, even if the gazebo turns out to be too small", was the 'nervous' logic I provided. By this time the rest of the cast and crew had arrived and were mulling about waiting for direction. I gathered everyone together and requested they stick around to see if we could work within the gazebo, which, according to the hire guys, would be up by 10/10:30pm.
Now, I've been on enough shoots to know that things can go pear-shaped quickly when plans shift too drastically, and certainly this situation (considering the threat of an incoming storm) could have been such a scenario. The fact it didn't was likely down to Angeline and I doing a decent job of keeping everyone informed about potential changes throughout the week.
As the clouds drastically darkened and the rain chucked thick and fast, It became obvious our initial plan of shooting between 'storm breaks' was totally off the table; that it would be the gazebo, or nothing at all.
The next couple of hours were spent waiting under Jane and Dave's open-tent in their back garden, where production snacks and beverages were set up. The addition of continuous gusts to the heavy rain seemed at this stage par-for-the-course, as cast and crew wiled away their time nattering and munching; though I had at least one eye on the clock at all times.
Just before 10pm I decided I couldn't wait any longer and headed to the front garden to see how the gazebo was progressing. The one hundred or so meter walk was a trepidatious one, as I could see from outside only the roof was to be added for full completion, meaning I'd know for certain upon arrival.
As I entered I was shocked at just how much space there was; the landmass the hire guys had indicated – for me at least – not giving a true illustration of the size. Massive relief washed over me as I headed back to inform the team and, just like that, we were back.
The very next moments were spent pushing hard to get the show back on the road.
Considering it was now 10 ish, it was amazing to me that, from the beginning of the week till that moment, with all the weather reports the dead-ends and the ambiguity, it had taken all that time for Dan, Angeline and – myself especially – to finally breath a sigh of relief, as – in regards to the weekend's shoot going ahead despite the insane non-summer conditions – we'd finally achieved certainty.
One of the ways pre planning comes into its own is allowing the brain to accept in the past problems that may arise in the present, by giving said brain ample time to accept. We had factored that things would run later, given the question marks surrounding the days shoot, and so by the time we were getting ready to film (between 10:30/11pm) we knew that, with a really strong effort, our schedule would still be achievable.
There's a sports term that I'd often hear tennis players use when they would get into a groove for an extended passage of play, feeling in those moments they could do no wrong. They would call it 'the purple patch'. That term came to mind that evening as, even though the day had been very long up until that point, the hours virtually flew by in a high energy, focused yet fun creative bubble. We, as a team, had hit our purple patch.
As a director I think I definitely learned something important on each episode; often-times in the very harshest of ways. Episode 5 felt like the culmination of everything I'd learned to that point.
You can have so much on your mind as a producer/director that you can literally forget to stop, for at least a second, and smell the roses – to remind yourself you get to do something you truly love and to enjoy being in the moment.
For episode 5 we worked really hard but we also, as a collective, enjoyed the moment. I enjoyed the moment. And I made sure to breathe it in and remind myself how lucky I am. The lesson I learned on this one was that getting through tough 'passages of play' can make you as a team stronger, that it's okay to enjoy what you do as well as being focused - that you, as a team CAN literally whistle while you work.