TV DRAMA LEARNS LOW BUDGET AND DOES IT WELL
Britain's latest and remotest filmfest in the Shetland Islands got off to a great start with a screening of BBC 4's drama Reichenbach Falls, a fast-moving drama made by a BBC Scotland team. The TV programme clearly proved that low budget does not exclude high production values - something known to indie filmmakers for a long time - but clearly the message is now getting through to TV drama bosses as well.
The screening, part of the inaugural Screenplay 2007 curated by film critic Mark Kermode within the Shetland Arts Festival, was followed by a question and answer session with the film's creative team, stimulating some engaging exchanges with the floor that ended prematurely at lockup.
Reichenbach Falls, set in Edinburgh, is based on idea by Inspector Rebus' creator, best-selling crime novelist Ian Rankin. It follows the experiences of a psychologically-burdened undercover detective who's chaotic experiences travelling through the dark Jekyll and Hyde crime underworld of the city, echo his alcohol-disorientated and chaotic lifestyle. The drama's title is a homage to the final battle between fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his protagonist Moriarty, with death by fatal fall occurring, not at Reichenbach, but from a high viaduct over a dene in Edinburgh.
There are wholly convincing performances from an excellent cast, with the often addled and confused DI Buchan (Alec Newman), angered at his former best pal Jack Harvey (Alastair Mackenzie) who stole away Buchan's lovely wife Clara (Laura Fraser). After the fatal shooting of Buchan's undercover partner, replacement buddy, streetwise chick DS Sinead Burns (Nina Sosanya), sees through enough of Buchan's obscuring chaos to want to move closer to bosom pal status, whilst trying hard to maintain some buddy-cop cool in her undercover support for Buchan, but chaos always prevails.
The plot, carefully and cleverly woven through Edinburgh by screenwriter James Mavor, is confusing as Buchan's life, with Professor Bell (John Sessions) appearing to know far more than he chooses to tell, about a 19th century body found beneath the school of anatomy. And who is the mysterious moustachioed (albeit wonky!) and urbane Arthur (Richard Wilson) the elderly former resident of Edinburgh, who continually puts in appearances throughout the narrative, until his identity and true purpose are finally revealed.
The film shows uses Auld Reekie's filmic charms exceptionally well, making excellent use of some of the very dramatic locations to be found all over Scotland's capital city, from Calton Hill and the surrounds of the High School to the darkly mysterious tunnels and subterranean streets that lie beneath the Old Town.
This is a testing, but enjoyable film to watch and will certainly keep audiences guessing. It is more engaging and entertaining than the usual mass audience TV drama, which these days apparently even includes soap in the yardstick - perhaps an easy way of boosting drama audience figures. How about good drama instead? It always used to work.
Well River City this isn't; but neither is this one of those pointless"in yer face" dramas from Scotland that national audiences understandably desert in droves. It is unnecessary to scream "Scottish" when people can clearly see that. Nor do audiences need to be brow beaten about Scotland's culture, including issues like a propensity to embrace excessive drinking, or to have Scotland's scenery or the charms of the water of life unsubtly pushed at them from the screen at all times.
Identifying an aroma as "whisky - probably an island malt" within the narrative dialogue is enough, as this film clearly shows. Subliminal scenery works as well for holiday makers as it does for whisky drinkers and has its place within the cultural assets of TV dramas. No-one watching Doctor Who would identify it as being Welsh, but Welsh it certainly is. A whole new Welsh industry in fact. One which is extremely valuable to the local economy. Drama as good as Reichenbach Falls could bring similar benefits to Scotland, but needs to be generic in its focus. It needs to be good drama first and good drama filmed in Scotland second.
The Q&A showed just how revolutionary this production is in comparison to mainstream TV drama. Compared with a typical BBC single feature-length drama made on say 16mm film, this one, on a relatively cheap digital tape format using DVCpro, came in at between one third and one quarter of a conventional TV drama production. All-in the bill was a mere £430,000 - bargain basement league in TV drama budgets. What also needs to be factored into equation is that BBC 4, who commissioned it from the Scottish team, will screen this drama eleven times altogether. If you do the maths, that's quality TV drama at less than £50,000 per screening. That is cheap, really cheap TV drama.
The on-stage interview was conducted by Amanda Millen, who as the BBC Production Executive for the film, was completely unbiased in her pride at the achievement which the film represents and rightly so. Her familiarity with the product brought out from Reichenbach Falls producer Gaynor Holmes and director John McKay, a great deal of information on how the production moved from script to screen.
McKay is a very experienced TV director, helming shows like the very cinematic (hint, hint BBC!) Saturday tea-time TV action adventure series, Robin Hood. Reichenbach Falls was his feature-length drama debut, but in order to film it on two dollars and fifty cents he had to embrace the Mariachi principles. These were the assets cathartic low budget film director Robert Rodriguez established with his world famous no-budget debut feature El Mariachi. Rodriguez, McKay explained had a camera, a friend with a flashy car, a dog and Mexico at his disposal. So he shot a film using his friend's flashy car, a dog and Mexico.
The substitute for McKay was the Mini-bus principle. He had access to a hired 17-seater Minibus, so he limited his total crew to seventeen. He often works with crews 200-strong. As they were going to film in Edinburgh, he found all his crew in Edinburgh. He looked for experienced film crew who were between regular appointments who all agreed to work for less than normal rate. He ran the possible risk of losing some crew if a more lucrative mainstream film came up, juggling that against the low cost. But losses never happened, so he had the same crew throughout his 18-day shoot.
Producer Gaynor Holmes revealed that an Edinburgh crew was essential to their budget strategy. If film crew are working at locations away from their home base they have to be accommodated in hotels for the duration of the shoot and they also receive a per diem - a daily sum which is to meet out-of-pocket personal expenses. Crew who are local to the location receive neither, dramatically cutting location costs.
Another location cost-cutter was a decision not to film on top of Arthur's Seat, the core of a long dead volcano that dominates the skyline of Edinburgh. The location fee required for this was expensive for the film's cramped budget, but they did need to spend every penny they could on putting value on screen, so it must have been tempting. Instead they opted for the view from Calton Hill, where the location fee charged by Edinburgh City Council, was reasonable for a low budget film. (Historic Scotland and other potential dramatic site owners, please take note! )
The film made best use of this low-cost location by shooting several scenes there. If you don't know Calton Hill then you would possibly never realise it, but this production made multiple uses of it. For backgrounds, dramatic overlooks, architectural detail, a street shot or two and a park bench two-shot.
I was beginning to wonder quite how they had stretched the budget to manage a spectacular helicopter shot high over the lums of Auld Reekie, when Gaynor Holmes revealed all. The director needed an ariel shot, but the producer could not afford it. On the other hand, the film's director of photography had done it all before, from a helicopter as it happened, for another job. Could he perhaps arrange access to some Edinburgh ariel footage at low cost? He could and he did. The director got just the footage he needed, without having to leave the ground.
The crowd shot was another money-saver. Rent-a-crowd, with a lot of walk-on artists in costume, pacing identical routes through a locked-off street (additional costs!!) for every take needed for a scene, was clearly out of the question, so they filmed guerrilla-style, with focus pretty tight on the principal cast, while some of the good folk of Edinburgh wandered about at will through a live film set, completely unaware that their backs were now scheduled to make a TV appearance on BBC 4.
Film crew had to temporarily abandon their high visibility safety clothing, because FILM CREW in big black letters across a fluorescent orange back panel, would certainly give the game away and change passer-by behaviour. No doubt crew not required for a particular shot were re-cycled as passers-by when it was taken. If not, the director missed another good Mariachi principle; casting your film crew is cheaper and fills the screen, while giving you much more control over your walk-ons because the crowd will actually take direction...
The other notable cash dilemma was how to include footage of 19th Century Edinburgh's Resurrectionist period. For those not familiar with Edinburgh's characterful history, the Edinburgh Resurrectionists were Burke and Hare, two low-life villains who satisfied the shortage of cadavers for dissection at Edinburgh's school of anatomy by supplying a few more. Of course the bodies had to be dead before they could be delivered, or they might protest at being treated as mere commodities in trade.
These resurrectionists feature indirectly within the story and period filming is naturally more costly than contemporary filming because it needs period sets, or sets dressed in period detail, locked off sets and actors in period costume. Research of library film showed a BBC documentary had featured the resurrectionists more than 20 years ago using period enactment, so there was a perfect source of period footage which was easily accessed and far cheaper than trying to recreate body snatchers and then filming them.
There are two or three areas where the film slips and lets itself down on the big screen. One is pace. Not pace of the narrative, though it is often justifiably fast. The edit may well be good on the small screen, but the rapidity of cuts - hundreds of them - between frames which can work flawlessly on a small TV screen can become bewildering on a cinema screen, where a much slower pace is needed. The destination it was commissioned for was television, so that excuses he slightly bewildering pace rapid cutting creates on the big screen, but since films of this quality have big screen potential, this ought to be taken into account in the edit suite.
Sound is often problematic in films. In low budget, greenhorn directors often neglect sound completely, not realising how unlistenable their pictures are going to become, but it is usually a problem of recording sound. Pictures can look beautiful with crisp focus, wonderful chrominance and luminance and perfect exposure; but if your film sounds crap, it is crap. The sound on Reichenbach Falls is a very long way from being crap, but this is not a cinema mix, so there are times when sound mixed for small TV speakers is a struggle to listen to coming from speakers that have to fill a large auditorium, something the director himself admits he had not realised could become a problem for even a good TV soundmix, when instead, it was coming off DVD and digitally projected, with sound feeding large cinema speakers.
Finally we met something that was much more jarring and one we meet far too often in low budget work. To some extent you can forgive TV pros for getting it wrong because they were working with small, light Panasonic DVCpro cameras instead of big bulky shoulder-held digibeta TV cameras, or weighty 16mm film cameras. Those cameras are heavy and it is possible to keep them very steady and balanced on the shoulder. Lightweight pro cameras are featherweight in comparison and even with electronic steady-shot active while shooting, it is very difficult to hold any shot steady without the use of some sort of artificial steady system to keep things unwavering.
The result of freely held camera on the big screen is like being on the fringes of a large earth movement. The world on screen moves. There seems no reason why the world on screen should need to move, so why is it? The camera has not been set on a tripod; that is why the world on screen is moving. No matter how steady the camera operator thinks they are holding the shot, their bodies are moving. When they breathe, when muscles get fatigued from holding free camera, when their attention wanders for a split second, when the wind blows; all these things can produce a softly wavering camera, even on a TV screen. Once you blow that TV picture up to cinema screen size, the picture is much, much bigger than you are. It is then a very different story. You can make an audience begin to feel nauseous. Like people who have just crossed the harbour bar in a small boat, now out on nicely rolling ocean, they can feel sick.
Again this is something the director had been previously unaware of, but sometimes there was a requirement for a camera to move, swinging in an arc inside a small area. Next time you can be assured he will investigate camera steady systems, which often come with their own operator. If this exceeds the carrying capacity of the crew bus, it is also possible to use a low-cost steady system which you can keep in your pocket; the ubiquitous string-bag steady. But when shopping with the bag afterwards, don't forget the holes you cut in the strings to accommodate the camera lens, or you may lose some groceries before you get home. The alternative is to always, always, use a tripod. For the camera, not the shopping that is.
It is refreshing to find a seasoned TV director who has open minded enough to use techniques that are now coming up to the industry from below where the really tough action actually lies. Techniques that enable a fresh approach to how we bring things to the screen, but also, how we can make these things look really good, without breaking the bank to do it. These are exactly the sort of low-cost production methods that director Ken Russell, whose work is specially featured in the Shetland festival, has been teaching himself with a camcorder for years. The word is spreading.
The team behind Reichenbach Falls admitted that creatively, it was a good thing to be involved in. They are understandably proud of their achievement, but they all said they never wanted to make another low budget feature like this again. I have some news for them. It has been heard before and it usually turns out to be untrue. There is a filmmaking contagion that, despite causing great pain and suffering, gets right under the skin of low budget filmmakers and makes liars of them all. Welcome to the pain and the pleasure that is the low budget filmmaking zone. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with next.