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A book trailer?! Book Trailers are still a bit of an an unknown entity and yet have manifested, rightly so, into many forms. There appears to be no set formula to them, which is a great thing… no preconceived ideas of what one should be. They’re finding their way in this bewildering world of online content...
This kind of left the door wide open as to what we could try to achieve on film without the risk of leaving people confused as to what this was because, hey, it could be anything! So when Lindsey Fitzharris approached us to create a trailer for her upcoming book, The Butchering Art we jumped at the opportunity. We have been involved with Lindsey’s hugely popular Under The Knife series since it’s inception and so it seemed natural to take an episode up a notch, to evolve it to another level. Where though?
Lindsey’s great talent is to make history utterly accessible, a word that is almost frowned upon in some circles of academia, but history is for everyone, it IS everyone, we all exist today because of it, and continue to exist due to lessons born from it. Unfortunately for me, a love for history was quashed at school - dreary, heavy textbooks from what felt like the 1950’s were dragged out, facts and figures mindlessly recited by rote. A desire to find out more about this incredible, extraordinary past we all share and are connected to, was destroyed. Thank god for authors like Lindsey who are able to shine a bright light back in time, illuminating incredible stories of remarkable people, in glorious Technicolor. In much the same way a filmmaker sets out to reimagine a scene, Lindsey writes in a style that breathes visual life into these distant memories. And so it seemed clear that the best approach for this particular trailer would be this, to bring life back to some of the scenes described brilliantly in the book in the form of a short film.
There were two aspects I was keen to explore, surgery in this time and what I imagined to be Lister’s frustration as he watched patient after patient die for no good reason, at least, no reason understood in the 19th century. I threw together a script and we began…
As the prep started and moved on, the project quickly evolved and ambition took hold. I firmly believe a film maker should turn their hand to everything the art requires to complete. We had a small budget and an even smaller amount of time - a week to prep and a day to shoot. This ambition far outstripped our resources if we were to do this the “proper” way but here’s the thing about filmmaking, it’s make believe. I realised, since first experimenting with an 8mm Sony video camera as a kid, that all you need to do is recreate the image in your head on the screen - it doesn’t matter what’s happening outside that little rectangular box, the set could be held together with sellotape and string for all that anyone knows (and SO much more interesting if it is). As long as you get what’s in the rectangular box inside your head onto the rectangular box on the screen, you’re going in the right direction. Basically, there is no “proper” way to do things in film making. Get the image out. Ed Wood had the right idea.
And so, with that ethos, we were building props out of anything we could find (WC ball floats), tracking down maggots at the local reptile pet shop, running around the National Theatre’s costume department, sourcing wigs and prosthetics and tracking down blood - lots of blood. The blood and costumes had to play nicely together - we stumbled across Pigs Might Fly South blood which was both incredible in its authenticity (two flavours, dark/aged and light/fresh) and extraordinary in it’s ability to come out of the costumes - much to Dom’s great relief!
Both he and I have been lucky enough to be involved in big movies for quite some time and we are able to call on an amazing pool of talent. I approached Gerry Vasbenter to light and photograph the trailer. Gerry is both a remarkable cinematographer and also incredibly fast and adaptable. With only one day to shoot the whole thing, this was going to be vital.
Further crew fell into place, some of whom were discovered through incredible serendipity. While in a MAC makeup store, Lindsey got chatting to one of the sales assistants there, Hayley Ford. They quickly discovered their mutual love for gore and Lindsey mentioned the book trailer, shooting that Sunday - Hayley lit up, proclaiming she has prosthetics experience as a special effects make-up artist and could she come along for the experience? A few days later, Hayley was solely responsible for creating the gruesome, gangrenous leg on our patient. It actually turned out non of this good fortune was unusual on this shoot. Becci Mapes, our hugely talented hair and make-up artist, was also a long time fan of Lindsey’s blog and Instagram feed. Another of Lindsey’s fans, James Dix, had coincidentally contacted her to explain his role as a re-enactor of a surgeon form the Napoleonic era. He came complete with costume and a full set of period surgical tools. We quickly got back to him with the age-old question, can you act?
As the project grew I soon realised that Dom, myself and four or five actors weren’t going to cut it. In the course of a week we had become a mini movie. It became obvious we needed bigger and better space. We discovered SLV Studios, a family run, micro Pinewood in Lambeth with enough kit to make any filmmaker salivate. Utilising the larger of their two studios, we set to work brining back an operating theatre from the 1860’s. Due to the budget and time constraints we relied a lot on suggestion, blacking out the studio and leaving only the props and actors visible, primarily lit by candlelight. This actually honed the scene brilliantly, creating a much more intense setting. The shoot got underway and from that moment, we did not stop.
On location to the remarkable Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge. This space is an incredible artefact in its own right - a museum of itself to all intents and purposes. Hidden away through a nondescript door (and a lot of scaffolding at the time of the shoot), one discovers a very narrow spiral staircase leading into this extraordinary space. Of course, it wasn’t without challenges - we had to be very careful with our equipment due to the historically important nature of the place. Getting it all up the stairs involved the whole crew and cast but once in and set up, the camera rolled and Alexander Tol (Lister) and Perry Jaques (James) got underway performing so brilliantly their roles. The collective audience, sitting at the back row of the stands fell to complete silence, enraptured - it was suddenly all too easy to imagine this extraordinary operating theatre and the people who worked in it, alive again.
We finally took to the streets of Westminster.. A sleep deprived, sugar high circus troupe of Victorians, film makers and authors. We were running very late and the sun had well and truly set. The street I had scouted and fallen in love with just four days previously was no longer an option. It was now fully dark and nothing here was illuminated. For whatever reason, not a single house had its lights on and the beautiful old church at the end of the road, the centrepiece for my moon to microscope shot was in darkness. This is the thing with making movies, you need to be able to adapt and get over disappointment quickly. There was a second street I had as a plan B and so we kicked into action. My most joyous memory of the entire shoot was in this moment. Having asked everyone to move to the other location, I ran ahead to get the van. While jumping in, I looked up to see all my actors and the few extras we had mustered, walking across a Victorian street in full Victorian costume. There were no cars in sight, the street lamps in this part of town are old gas lamps and, apart from these Victorians, the streets were empty. I was back in time and it was wonderful - history was alive!
Spurred on, we took to work on our plan B street and began a very quick rehearsal - in total silence. In fact, everything from this moment on had to be totally silent - we were later than our allotted time and as a result, no noise. We had got so far and could certainly not afford to reshoot, so silence it was. Incredibly though, despite the occasional curtain twitch, we managed to get the bare bones of what was needed to make the scene without any interruption. It’s always worth thinking, as a director, what you need to make the scene work once you get to the cutting rooms. The very minimum of shots required (and it’s actually a lot less then you’d perhaps first imagine). Get those out the way and then get creative with your more ambitious stuff. This was a life saving approach as the scene worked, not as elaborately as it was originally conceived in my head, but it conveyed enough to complete the story.
We wrapped an exhausting but hugely productive day late that night. There really is nothing as exciting as shooting a film but what does come close is the (usually) more relaxed period that follows. That of cutting an crafting the work you acquired during the shoot.
Emanuele Correani took the incredible sound he recorded on set and threw together a fantastic soundtrack. So much of the surgery was going to rely on this sound to ratchet up the tension. Nothing is as important on a shoot as recording good sound. This, of all places, is where filmmakers slip up the most. You can never replicate perfectly sound that has been taken then and there, in the actual location with the actual actors in the moment that the scene is shot. Give your sound recordist the time they need, the increase in quality of the overall film due to well recorded sound can not be overstated!
Having got the cut and soundtrack into a good place we turned to the music. This is always tricky with low to no money. It tends to be the case that one lays down a piece of score from another movie as a temp track. Something to cut to and in my case, write to. This serves its purpose well as scaffolding for the film's structure but has a danger, one that few are immune to, of familiarity. One falls head over heals in love with the temp score. Wrenching it out and replacing it with something new is like pulling out a particularly stubborn molar. So much pain but, of course, for the best of the film. I am very fortunate to know the insanely talented composer, Stephen Metcalfe. Stephen works on the biggest musicals in the West End as orchestrator and was able to compose, specifically for the trailer, a piece of music that not only replaced my temp but far surpassed it in terms of quality and suitability for the moment in the story it covers. Film making is all about collaboration which is intrinsically the most exciting part of this art form - you get to commission original work across many disciplines and see this work, that stands alone in it’s own right, slot together to create something much larger.
The final shot in the film was actually the very first shot I conceived when Lindsey approached us. The moon to microscope. Aaron Chavda at Warner Brothers in LA was able to take my idea and turn it into and incredible work of art in its own right. Again, that thing of commissioning work. No other art calls for the talent of so many creative people to melt together to create one piece.
The Butchering Art Trailer has been an opportunity to explore. It is that perfect cocktail of amazing patronage, creative freedom and a great exercise in just getting on and shooting something. Hopefully it serves it’s purpose well as a promotional tool for the book, but also stands happily in it’s own right as a short film and just maybe, as a test piece for something bigger…
The Butchering Art is available now from anywhere you can buy a book