Saturday, June 22, 2013


About making a film In The Dark.
by Frank Kelly
All photos by Fiaz Farrelly.

Derelict is a dark crime thriller, it tells the story of a group of desperate men who kidnap a bank manager and his family. One of them takes the manager away to rob the bank. The other stay behind, we stay with them for the next hour and a half. It should be simple, sit and wait, but as they start getting on another's nerves, tension rise and when they realise their is someone else in the building, watching them, things become very complicated.

The film was shot in Ireland, for a budget of €7000 over 7 night in a filthy 200 year-old abandoned mill. Frank Kelly directed a cast of eight and crew of eight through a week a high tension and pigeon droppings. You can see the film now by renting or buying at Distrify:
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DP John Lawlor (left) and Director Frank Kelly (right) discuss the next shot.
John Lawlor was the first person on the project, he came on a year before we shot. We've been friends long before we ever worked together. John was a down hill mountain biker, who competed at international level. When he retired from competitive racing he picked up a camera and started filming races. Later teaming up with california based Clay Porter the two would start creating documentaries together, including 3 Minutes Gaps and the forth coming Wont Back Down, about the life of Steve Pete, the sport's most successful rider. For me, John was the only choice to shoot this film. I wanted a documentary style, and I wanted someone with an eye for movement and someone who had the strength and stamina to shoot a feature in 7 days. Having someone with such energy, and a having a close friend on set, really made my job a lot easier.

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Steve Gunn as Davey-boy has some tea in between takes.
This was a difficult night. We were shooting a rape scene. With dark material everyone's a little bit nervous about it, a little bit freaked out by it, but we're also professionals and we all know it's not gratuitous, it's serving the story. Steve is an actor who breaks the scene up into beats, he looks at the mechanics of a scene first and then brings the emotion. I found that very helpful, especially in this scene, it took the focus off what we were shooting, made it a bit more mechanical, at least when blocking. But in the end you have to bring the emotion to it, it has to be truthful and between himself and Elaine Reddy, who played the victim, we got there.

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Director Frank Kelly adjusts the light.
I designed the lighting set up myself. We played in one large room at the top of a 200 year-old mill. It was cold and dirty and suited the film perfectly. I decided early on that the kidnappers have scoped this place, they've set up the lights and they've made a safe hold for themselves. Being painters, they have workers lights, so that what I used to light the main area, then off to the sides I lit the dark space with shaded 150 watt tungsten bulbs, which gave a very stark direct light. It was quite a theatre like set up, set the lights, play under them. But it lead to problems, shadows on the walls if we moved in front of them, which we did a lot because it was hand-held and we were following actors around. Then lighting continuity on characters was a problem, when cross shooting you would have one face in shadow and the other washed out. So there was quite a lot of tweaking involved. But in no-budget filmmaking you do what you can with what you have!

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I Bless This Gun - Gerry Shanahan as Daniel.
I've worked with Gerry on three films, he always delivers. He was also armorer on the film. On films of this scale everyone will work several jobs, usually you leave the actors to the acting and not distract them, but when armorers were looking for silly money to rent weapons Gerry stepped up with his collection of blank firing weapons. They made quite a bang! 

In the first draft the gang were all crocks, despicable people. Producer Elliot Kotek suggested making them regular guys, down on their luck, looking to make a quick buck. I liked that idea, so went with it. There were several more drafts and I landed somewhere in the middle. But Gerry as Daniel, remains the regular guy, in way over his head.

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Catherine Wrigglesworth as Louise.
Catherine came highly recommended from a director friend, Jason Figgis, he had worked with her on his version of A Christmas Carol he had just completed and a film entitled Railway Children. I met with her and really like her energy so cast her without rehearsing her.

It was a case of bring your own costume, so when she pulled out leopard skin pjs and polar bear boots I knew she was going to bring that energy into the character! Both of the women had to sit tied to the chairs for the entire week. Because of the way I shot, all handheld, long takes and following the characters around the room, they would always be somewhere in shot, even if sometimes the edit doesn't show it, so they had to remain seated for the duration. It was a tough week for them.

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Actor Michael Bates as J talks through a shot with Frank and John.
John and I were shoulder to shoulder for the entire movie. I like to be beside the camera and right up looking at the actors faces, rather than at the monitor, though I will of course check the shot. This was the climax of the film we were preparing for here. It was extremely tough because it involved all the cast, several weapons and a lot of back and forth between the characters. All the dynamics that had been created individually were all now landing in a group. So it was tough for all of us to keep that balance. Plus, this was the first thing we shot, before we'd found our rhythm. We were all ready for bed at mid-night, but still shot to 6am. Emotions were high that night and I wondered at the end of it if I hadn't bitten off more than I could chew.

Shooting a feature film in 7 days is an intense experience, one which I would not hasten to repeat. We had a week of rehearsal before hand and looking back now, if I could change one thing, I would probably have made the rehearsal time shoot time and spent more time blocking and rehearsing on set, so we weren't so rushed. The thing about shooting a feature in 7 days is that, yes, you have a feature film in the can in just one week, but you don't get to spend the time you might need on certain scenes. My advice, if you can, push for more time on set. Spend an extra month getting the money you need to rent the space and equipment, because when you're in the edit, you'd pay more if you could go back and get the coverage you missed.

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Setting up the final shot.
Luckily this shot doesn't give anything away! But it gives a good idea of the space we were working in. It was dusty, cold at night, muggy in the day. It smelled bad. The day before we filled 35 refuse sacks with pigeon droppings, as well as a few dead pigeons. We didn't realise, but in the windows, which were blocked up, there had been placed sacks of droppings from a previous clean up. So when the sun came out in the day it would bake the contents and omit the most fowl odour you can image. This pungent, stale, old sock smell would permeate the air! It was bad. But I supposed it all leant itself to the discomfort the characters were supposed to be feeling.

Otherwise it was a great space to work in, it was perfect for the film and brought with it a great deal of atmosphere and production value. When you're shooting on such a low budget you really have to find clever ways to elevate the film. One thing I find where a lot of low/no-budget films fall down on is production design. People tend to just film where they can, in their own apartment, in a space a friend of a friend has access to. But you have to ask yourself, does it fit the character? does it make sense in the story? and does it look good on camera? Elevate your film where you can. Go the extra mile, even if that means literally walking an extra mile to get to a better location. Always ask yourself, Is this the best I can do?

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Elaine Reddy as Mom, Kate and Catherine Wrigglesworth as daughter, Louise.
As I mentioned, Elaine and Catherine were tied up to the entire shoot. Elaine showed me her arms at the end of the shoot, they were covered in bruises from the chair. I know it was tough for them, and Elaine was called on to perform some highly emotional scenes, often after having been sitting for hours! The schedule chopped and changed so much. So the experience for both of them was a lot of waiting and sitting around and then suddenly being called on to scream and shout. But I think it went that way for everyone. 

Patrick O'Donnell for example, came in at the last minute when the actor playing Tone had to pull out. The other actor had been on the project for months and we had lengthy discussion about the character. He was working stunts on Asterix 3, which ran over, so he was forced to pull out. Steve Gunn actually suggested Pat, he came in on day 3 of rehearsal, and arrived on set on the Sunday, expecting to have a relaxed day of blocking, but instead got handed 30 pages and told to learn them we were shooting in 2 hours! He pulled it off. 

Michael Bates, who plays the lead character of J, booked a job in the middle of the shoot, so I pushed in back to the Sunday and forward to the Saturday. But Michael still came to set, he would go shoot his commercial, then drive 50 miles to our set and shoot through the night. That's how committed everyone was to the project.

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The AM - Michael Bates, Gerry Shanahan and Steve Gunn in between takes.
Yes, Steve is in there, if you look under the white blanket in centre shot. While everyone was committed, people still got tired. This shot was taken at 3am. We were all upstairs shooting, I seldom saw the break room, the actors probably saw too much of it. By that I mean there was a lot of hanging around, not that they were taking it easy! Here Michael has finished up, he's relaxing with a coffee, Steve and Gerry are waiting to be called. I felt terrible all the time leaving the guys wait, and knowing that hours were drifting by. But I also knew I had no choice. I just had to concentrate and focus on what was right in front of me. That's all you can do as a director. As Oliver Stone said "You make a movie an inch at a time." It's so true. And on shoots like this, take Steve's lead, grab some shut eye whenver you can!

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The stage.
In the centre of this shot we see what the whole story is about, a sack of cash (actually it was a sack of movie magazines! I could find fake cash. And we certainly did have real cash.). I would often come up here on my own, just to go over the script. When the cast and crew weren't there it suddenly became a very quiet, even dead, space. But there was something creepy about it and I had nightmares long after the shoot about it. In the dream I would go up to get something I'd forgotten and suddenly the lights would go out. I would be plunged into darkness, and there would be this presence, a feeling I wasn't alone. One night a week after the shoot was done, while still asleep, I reached out and turned the bedside lamp on. My wife asked me what I was doing, I answered "We need more light for the shot," and went back to sleep.

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