STEPHEN GALLAGHER

Screenwriter and novelist

pages in this section

The Oktober Emails

Despatches from a TV shoot

14 Sept 1997 - Progress report

All's going well. 90% of the main cast is now in place along with about 60% of our key locations. Enough's locked down for me to be able to start breaking down scenes and storyboarding for the individual shots. Well, I call it storyboarding. I can tell what the pictures are meant to be, even if no-one else can.

BT have faffed and screwed up over the phone at the flat, and continue to do so; they disconnected the last number after first assuring me that the account had been transferred into my name, then later telling me it wasn't even registered to that address and it was impossible for me to be making or receiving calls on it. Which, given that they were talking to me on that number at the time, was a bit rich.

As of Monday we relocate the production office from Carnival to Pinewood. Great posing value as long as you don't inspect it too closely; our next production meeting will be in "the art department portakabin". I don't have any numbers yet, but if you ring Pinewood's main switchboard they'll no doubt be able to connect you to "the director's portaloo".

5 October - The last update

This will be my last chance to check or reply to E mail for the next 7 weeks, as the shoot starts next Friday. So this is a big, send-it-to-everybody roundup to let you know what's happening with OKTOBER.

All the cast are now in place and all but 2 or 3 of the locations are fully set. Preparation for the stunts and bangs are well advanced. There's a big stunt fall which we're doing from a building at Woolwich arsenal, but those days don't involve all of the principals. We're doing the dog pens and a choreographed fight scene therein which we're shooting in the tunnels under Camden Market; the set should be interesting, Tompkinson's involved, and his opponent is played by Richard Leaf who had a small but memorable moment in THE FIFTH ELEMENT (he was the alien who kept bulging out of his skin while trying to use Bruce Willis' stolen ID at the spaceport). There's another day when we're building a cabin, running a car into it, and then burning it, which will involve Steve Tompkinson and Maria Lennon. Don't know where that will be yet; our first choice of location was inaccessible for the gear so we're scouting for another. Our stunt supervisor is Peter Diamond, top industry veteran and ex of STAR WARS, RAIDERS, HIGHLANDER etc. There's a whole week at Breakspeare House near Pinewood which we're using for a number of varied interiors, a bit like a mini-studio, so most of the principals pass in and out. Most of the rest of it is fast moves between locations where it might be hard to see too much because the actors are in a small room with a camera and everyone else is 50 yards away.

We're at Woolwich all the week of October 13th. We're in Broadstairs early in the week of October 20th doing exteriors and car-on-beach stuff. The dogs pens scenes are November 5th to 7th. We're in Geneva and Chamonix the week of the 9th, at Breakspeare most of the week of the 16th. We shoot our big finale in a grand house doubling for a Geneva hotel on the 25th/26th/27th November.

Apologies to all for ongoing neglect in the usual level of communications. All the socialising I was planning to do while in London seems to have gone out of the window, entirely because of the length of the days and the need always to be somewhere. About 10 days ago I reached that point where people follow you into the toilet and ask you questions while you pee. That one element apart, I have to say that I'm enjoying every minute of this. Never been so stressed, never had so much fun.

26 October - Three weeks in and counting

When we wrapped at 8 last night I made a spur-of-the moment decision to drive home for a few hours on my rest day, so this is a very brief flyer and, as before, apologies for the round-robin nature of it.

Well, I've been getting it all - lost most of the first day's stuff and had to reshoot, survived a period of ructions with the crew (the sit-down-and-talk-it-through resolution of which has tended to bond us into a unit rather than divide us), delight and disappointments in the cut footage), crisis meetings, trying to keep it all from looking like THE X FILES…

The schedule is terrifying but so far I've kept up with it. Roger Simons, my First AD (the highly professional guy who effectively runs the crew and manages the practicalities of shoot on my behalf) says I'll never do another that's as hard as this; he's done 162 movies and says he's never seen anything like it. I don't know if that means it's a complete baptism of fire, or if he thinks I'll simply never get to do another…

I'm delighted with the cast, who really deliver and endure a lot without complaint; I'd like to give them far more attention than they get, but rehearsal consists of snatched readthroughs in their caravans about 10 minutes before the scene. Tompkinson is first-rate. My director of photography is getting feature-looking results even though he's been given no preparation time - it's look, light, shoot, move on, which puts him under terrible pressure and makes him feel isolated as he pushes for results that no-one else on the floor can see.

I still feel like a geek amongst pros, but at the end of every day I look at the list of what I set out to get and, with the exception of one shot on one day, I've got it all and with the framing and movement I set out for. Some days that draws me praise, some days the total opposite… I've come to realise that I'm 100% responsible for my own morale and that the trick will be to get all of what I want regardless of pressure or influence or how others try to make me feel about it.

TRIVIA FACT: Julian Fullalove, the production designer, designed the Teletubbies set.

Back to it. Next time we meet, I'll hopefully have a life again and therefore more than this one topic of conversation…

15 November - The survivors club

Just got back after a week's shooting in Geneva and Chamonix and am doing another quick few hours at home.

We're still on schedule after an enormously tough week and two days of near-disaster at our high-altitude location near Chamonix. We took cable car and crew up to the Aiguille du Midi by Mont Blanc, and before we'd even got one shot our grip was on oxygen and had to be taken down to hospital, where he went straight into intensive care. He was followed by our focus puller, half the wardrobe department, our loader, and several others. One crew member was found throwing up in the toilet out of sheer terror of the return journey. One of the props men had to be carried from the top of the building to the terminus after trying to run up stairs with a prop and completely losing it.

I went back up the next day with a reduced crew of the unaffected and lost half of them, as well, including the unit nurse and one of the two local doctors we'd had to call in. We had to pull out at mid-day because of high winds and a chill factor that took the temperature down to minus twenty degrees centigrade in the open, where we were shooting. On the way down, I had to hug one hulking bloke while the wardrobe mistress held his hand because he thought we'd never make the trip and he was going to die.

That was Wednesday. Thursday morning I got to my first location at 8 am and left my last at 2 the next morning after an 18 hour day and a big night shoot on Geneva's main shopping street. The crew did magnificently, way above and beyond the call.

The bottom line is, I brought back everything I went out for. Two and a half weeks to go, and more than two-thirds of the material is in the can. After sticking out for what I wanted I'm now getting less flak as the stuff is cutting together and the intentions behind it are coming visible. Some lessons; I could never be a jobbing director and put this kind of effort into something I didn't believe in. But this is something I can do. The big drawback is that I'm shooting a schedule where all the 'hard' essentials are cut to the bone and what I'll call the 'soft' essentials are excluded completely. By soft essentials I mean things like rehearsal time, preparation, experimentation, pre-lighting; the things that don't show in the bookkeeping. I'm doing my best to shoot the script and not the schedule; and I'm starting to understand what my First said when he told me I'd never do another as tough as this.

Well, hanging in… on the home stretch now. My spirits lifted considerably when I passed the halfway point and I realised I could make it through!

2 December - Wrap and Roll

Main unit shooting on OKTOBER is now complete with just one day of second-unit stuff to be picked up this Thursday. How does it feel? Strange. It was the hardest sustained effort that I've ever put in on anything and sometimes it felt like I was charging ahead into total darkness on a fast motorbike with no lights. Somewhere between managing the primadonnas (of which I was cursed with very few) and bolstering the insecure (ditto, although the latter group were far less of a pain in the arse than the first) I managed to find a way through.

My carefully-prepared storyboards went out of the window after the first week when it became clear that a) I could draw every shot or I could make the movie, but there wasn't enough time to do both, and b) you don't want to lock yourself down that much. I settled instead for an hour's prep each evening for the next day's scenes consisting of tiny thumbnail sketches of each setup and angle with matchstick figures and arrows for movement. This way I had the storytelling, the eyelines, the shot sizes and everything worked out, but it was nothing I couldn't change as the scene developed.

Most of the last couple of weeks' shooting took place in a semiderelict old people's home which gave us several interiors and the space to build a few more, and in the mansion built by Frederick Rothschild for his mistresses (allegedly), doubling for an old Geneva conference hotel. We spent three days on a lakeside shooting in and around a '30s cabin built from scratch by the art department, at the end of which we ran a Jag through the wall and then burned it to the ground. FX had rigged gas bars at the windows which looked like exactly what they were, but when the fabric of the building caught and the whole thing went wildly out of control I got the image that I needed.

Our last day was in Hillingdon hospital and didn't end until 9.15 at night so there was no wrap party, much to the dismay and displeasure of the crew. The producer put a float behind the bar at a pub just outside the hospital gates and those who could went over. Steve Tompkinson presented me with the overcoat he'd worn to thrash around in the sea at Broadstairs and we got pissed and sentimental and swore we'd get up another project together. He's been top news for me and he reckons that OKTOBER has been good news for him. At LWT's press launch last week they gave the show an enormous boost, and last Sunday's People newspaper carried a full-page photo from the set.

It isn't over yet. There were three days of second-unit filming I was scheduled to do this week, but after looking at a rough cut of the first episode I decided I didn't want to go back and shoot extras skiing about in the landscape, however spectacular the landscape might be, while the main character was doing his stuff unobserved and offscreen; so I pressed to do some more action stuff in the tunnels under not-so-glamorous Camden instead, announcing my plan just at the moment when the designer and production manager were returning from Switzerland having slogged and slaved to find the perfect piste locations with ideal access. I got my way and it's the right thing to do. Scenery doesn't carry the story. I'm persuading myself to have no conscience, as pissing people off and spending money seem to be part of the job description.

Transmission has been moved forward to February, which is a much better slot than the original April one - April wasn't bad but the colder and darker the nights, the more viewers you tend to get. I'll just have to cross my fingers and hope that if the Queen Mother gets pneumonia and croaks, she manages to time it with a bit of consideration vis-a-vis the impact on the schedules. I'll probably drop her a note.

I'm going into the cutting rooms on Friday to run the editor's first rough assembly on all three episodes, and then I'll get the chance to give my notes to someone else. It'll make a change not to be on the receiving end for once. We're cutting on Lightworks, so everything's digital and manipulable. The downside to it is that you never get a print to project on a big screen. Although it's shot on Super 16, titles and grading and any opticals are all done on tape.

I'm hoping between now and Christmas to reinsert myself into society. Until the next one.

21 December 1997 - The Return of the Native

OKTOBER's first episode has passed ITV inspection with very little scathe, apart from one shot that their compliance officer made me take out. The compliance officer is a lawyer who looks at everything with regard to rules of taste, decency etc. Apparently I can blow a guy's brains out in shot, but I can't have the brains splattering onto the face of another character right in front of him. Other than that, the major-league whinges that I was braced for didn't happen.

I must be doing something wrong.

The episode contains a close recreation of a Preston SF group barbecue in all but name.

23 January 1998 - Post Production

This will probably be the last of these round-robin notes. I know I said I'd be back into normal society by Christmas, but I'm still living out of a suitcase and seeing more of late-night motorways than is good for a person. Episodes 1 and 2 are cut and locked - ie, no more changes to be made to picture, so there's a definitive version to which the soundtrack and the score can now be laid - and 3 is in mid-cut. I've come home for a few days in order to let the editor get on with carrying out the notes, and then we'll pick up and continue on Monday.

I've grown used to seeing it in this rough form - crude, ungraded picture, sound levels all over the place - but I'm curious to see how I'll feel about it after the telecine transfer and final sound mix raise the quality level. I've spent weeks dealing with the output of the Lightworks desk which, magical tool though it is (a virtual cutting room with every tedious operation reduced to the click of a mouse), makes every shot look like those pirate copies of ET that went around in the early 70s. At the moment it's a complete but ragged patchwork, like an unhealed tattoo.

The titles design people came in a couple of weeks ago and, having been briefed that I envisaged something very classic and simple, presented an extravaganza of melting faces with the words shooting in from every angle in weird typefaces. Everybody got glassily polite and I restated the brief. The second meeting went a lot better and we're on the right lines now. Plain white on black, with just a hint of a burning-in effect on the main title.

Transmission dates appear to be changing yet again… after pressing for Feb 24th ITV decided that Feb 19th would be even better, overlooking the fact that episode 1 couldn't be ready for delivery in time. The last I heard, both dates had fallen through because of this and it was back to April again; April 2nd, but don't take it as gospel.

It's been a ride and I've learned a lot. Like: even the most experienced advice can be wrong. You'll take the blame for all mistakes, so make sure they're your own. Stick to your guns about eyelines and how they'll cut together - others may know the rules but they don't know what you're working towards. The director's chair is where you leave your coat. Just because your camera operator thinks a scene is boring, that doesn't mean it is. If he thinks it's interesting, that probably means you'll have to cut the camera move off the head of the shot. On-set morale is as good as your caterers. The Arriflex camera is a lousy design for handheld work. The moment you say Steadicam, you lose an hour while they set it up. The first assistant director is your life-support. Buy new thermal underwear and wear your oldest clothes - the set may be pristine but lunch will be on the far side of a muddy field. Animals and children are a doddle to work with compared to anything that floats. There's no such thing as a simple little scene inside a car - they're bastards to light and shoot.