Film units – love them? Hate them?

A few weeks back, taking a walk through Crystal Palace Park, I came across a film unit at work. Having spent most of my working life doing exactly what they were doing, I was inevitably drawn to it. I had a word or two with the assistant director, watched a couple of takes of the action, then went on my way.

But it’s not just me, or others such as myself who spent their working lives with film units who are magnetized by their presence. There is something fundamentally fascinating to virtually all and sundry about seeing, out in the open, where normally there are just shops or houses or the usual mundane bits of one’s town, city or rural lane, a knot of people – some in ordinary clothes, others perhaps in those of another age – clustered around under bright lights – people involved in creating a fiction and giving rein in such serious, public fashion to their imagination. A theatre has arrived. A story, another world. Lights, boxes of equipment, a microphone being waved around in the air, strange metal tracks laid down over the pavement, and that extraordinarily compulsive object – the camera. The eye that sees, the eye that records.

There is however, another quite different and relatively common reaction to a film unit working in a public place, especially if that place is a busy main road. At some point, a battered white van or pick-up will go by with a bevy of blokes in overalls,  cigarettes dangling from fingers, hanging out the windows. At the tops of their voices they’ll shout out to you to, “Go and do a proper bloody job!!” And you want to shout back at them and tell them that they wouldn’t like the hours you work and that you’re freelance and that next week there might not even be any work  – but by that time they’ve disappeared behind a bus.

People are often envious of your apparent freedom from routine. But it’s not all it seems. Some years back I was directing a sequence of a film in a factory in Birmingham where they manufactured ammunition for guns. It was mid Friday afternoon. I set up a quite complex shot, talked to the cameraman about the lighting of it, then went off to the factory canteen for a coffee while he arranged his lights.

The canteen, apart from myself, was empty. Until one of the factory employees came in, a man probably in his forties. He’d seen the unit working around the place, and figuring I had some part in it, came over to me and asked what we were doing. I told him. “Oh,” he said. “Interesting life you’ve got then, haven’t you? All I do is press bloody buttons all day.” Then he looked at his watch – “So what time do you knock off then? It’s half three already.” “When we’ve finished,” I said. “So what time’s that?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said – “It depends on how quickly we get done what we’ve got to do.” He was puzzled. “Don’t you have any regular hours then?” “Officially,” I said, “but hardly ever in practice. The job’s got to be done.” “So where are you from?” he asked, as though we might inhabit some part of the world where strange and bizarre things were the norm. “London,” I said. He looked alarmed – “London? You going back to London today? It’s Friday afternoon.” “Yes,” I said, “when we’ve finished.” His puzzlement deepened – “You’re going to be late home then, aren’t you?” “Probably,” I said – “But that’s the way it is.” He thought about that. Then decided he really couldn’t handle it. “Christ,” he said, “I couldn’t be putting up with a job like that! I need to know what time I’m coming in in the morning and what time I’m going home at night.” As he walked away I restrained myself from calling after him that that’s why he was pressing ‘bloody buttons all day’.

It’s one thing to see and be fascinated by a film unit working outside on location, or on a sound stage in a film studio. But it’s quite another to have them working inside your house or your place of work. They are almost limitlessly intrusive. They have to be if they’re going to do the job they’re there to do. Lights and cameras and microphones, tissue paper stuck over all your windows, twenty or more people standing around and an assistant director demanding the budgie be removed so we can have total silence for a take – these things don’t go down very well in the average sitting room or office.

The extended presence of a film unit can also have quite profound effects. It can change lives. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the not-so good. Once, back in the eighties I was directing a corporate film for a very well-known company in their own extremely large and architecturally innovative office block in the north of England. The writer of the film, and on-screen presenter was Sir Huw Wheldon who had been, until fairly recent to that, Director of BBC Television. It involved a big unit working in that same building for four weeks. We were, inevitably, going to cause mayhem. However, the company had, at that time an extraordinarily enlightened CEO who sent a memo to all staff – including those guys in the boiler room – that we were to be given every assistance and that it would be interesting for all the staff – hundreds of them – to see how well or otherwise they coped with serious, daily disruption. That sort of attitude was, in my experience, utterly unique. And it paved the way for a really enjoyable and interesting time for all involved.

Or almost all. For it had some unintended side-effects. Some members of staff had been delegated to help the unit in whatever way was necessary. This involved our working with those people quite closely for the whole four weeks. The inevitable happened. One member of the unit became a lot more involved with one of the employees than either her husband or his wife was prepared to tolerate. I heard, some weeks after we’d packed our bags and left that both marriages had, as a result, broken up.

One member of staff allocated to us was a man who worked in a quite lowly capacity in the maintenance department. He was seconded to us as a general guide and helper. He was a great guy and a really enthusiastic worker. Nothing was too much trouble for him and it wasn’t long before he was being given quite a lot of responsibility – far more than in the normal course of his daily work. He rose to it and become an important, integral part of the unit. He had a whale of a time.

Then towards the end of the shoot we held an ‘end of picture’ party to which all those who’d helped us, plus their wives, husbands, girl/boy friends etc were invited. During the course of the shindig, the wife of the above man came up to me and said, “I don’t know what you’ve done to my Alan – usually it’s so hard to get him out of bed in the morning to go to work I have to virtually drag the bedclothes off him. These last four weeks he’s been up with the lark and out the door with a big smile on his face!” It was really good to hear how our presence had so brightened up his life.

That, however, was not the end of it. On the morning of the day we were due to leave – a Friday – I happened to be walking through the maintenance area in the basement with the same man, Alan. Contrary to his usual bright-eyed demeanour, he had a real hangdog expression. “What’s the matter?” I asked him. “Are you OK?” “No,” he said, “I’m not. I’ve had a really wonderful time since you lot have been here. Now it’s back to normal. You know what my first job is when we come in on Monday morning? Change a light bulb in the first floor ladies’ loo.”

I felt for him. For the previous four weeks, he’d never known – virtually from one minute to the next – what he was going to be asked to do. Every day, often every hour, was different. But now, and from here on in, an interminable period of the predictable and humdrum was all he could see ahead of him. Who knows, did his experience with us spur him eventually to break out of what he now saw as a straight-jacket? I’ve no idea. If he wanted to, I hope for his and his wife’s sake that he did. But it’s never as easy as that.

Film units, to the outsider, are often a breath of the intangible and exciting. They’re a theatre, they’re a story, they’re a flight of the imagination; they don’t conform to the rules we’ve learned to live by and which so often pin us to the earth. They’re will-o’-the-wisp. They’re here, they’re gone. A circus that comes to town, brightens people’s lives up for a brief moment – or alternatively turns them painfully over or even ruins them – then leaves for somewhere else. For those unfortunate latter ones, they won’t want to see another film unit ever again. But for those whose lives they’ve touched with some sort of magic, they leave behind a sense that something almost delightfully child-like has gone with them.

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About besonian

Writer, photographer, film director
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4 Responses to Film units – love them? Hate them?

  1. Dean says:

    Vancouver is the land of film units. Have seen several since I arrived. Have posted my last adventures with one on FB. You are right they are quite alluring. dx

  2. Catherine Grace says:

    I’ll never forget working with a film crew at Parents for Children, they were filming a child who needed an adoptive family. What amazing people skills the camera and sound guys had – they were fantastic. The producer was very unhappy when I said no, he could not sit in on my session with the child, he would have to trust his crew. He sat on the floor outside the door with his ear to the door I think! And the results were great.

    • besonian says:

      Thank you Catherine. You’re right – with the best film units the level of pure craft expertise and professionalism is genuinely uplifting. Your comment makes me think it worth blogging soon about just that. When I first went into the business – the sheer skill of some of the people who had spent their working lives in the feature business in this country and the US was just one of the things which made me, as a young man, want to emulate them. I wanted one day to be as good as they were.

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