Thursday, September 22, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 2

In December 2010, we convened at Blacks in Soho: my producing partner, the director and myself. The mood was pretty dark. Nearly three years of banging our heads against a brick wall, and all we had to show for it was a stinking headache. We started talking about the way the project was conceived - a low budget thriller that felt like a truly British version of those Hollywood movies we had grown up with. This idea had somehow been lost in the fog of broken promises and seductive offers from across the Atlantic. We knew we had to take Last Passenger back to its roots, slash the budget and make it guerrilla-style.

This created another, altogether different problem: how do you make an action thriller with exploding trains on a fraction of the budget? We knew it could be done, but had to think of something big to convince the money.

The answer was a dummy trailer. After all, movies are sold to audiences on the strength of a 90 second taster full of exciting moments - maybe it would work if we just shot those moments, and showed the buyers and financiers how thrilling the movie was going to look and feel.

A few phone calls secured us a train, courtesy of the Bluebell heritage railway line, but we were on a tight schedule. This was December 2010 and the UK was being hit by some of the worst snowstorms in living memory. But we had a short window until our train disappeared into storage and we knew we had to make it happen, horizontal sleet or no. 

Producers hard at work...
Over the next couple of days we brought together a crack team of cast and crew, all prepared to brave the snow and ice to shoot our little trailer. But first we had to figure out how to turn the lights on.

One thing about producing independent films is that you tend to acquire knowledge and skills that you never thought you’d need. (For example I am currently a member of the ‘Railnuts’ messageboard). I spent a day looking at train circuit diagrams like I knew what they meant, and talking to engineers and generator hire companies, before discovering that train lighting is powered by direct current (rather than alternating current which everything else in the world uses). After some judicious googling we discovered that welding torches are also powered by D.C., and our best bet was to try and hotwire the train to a welder’s generator, and pray for a miracle.

A magnificent sight (and a flare)
The Friday before our Dec 22nd shootdate we headed out to East Grinstead station, trudging through six inches of snow until we found our train parked in a siding. It was a magnificent sight. We were met by an eccentric Australian train engineer from the Bluebell railway, and we hauled our generator to the business end of our class 423 4-VEP slam door train. He immediately disappeared under the train, emerging an hour or so later. He pulled the chord and the motor roared into life. After a brief moment the train lit up like a christmas tree. We were on.

Homemade spark effects from an awesome train dude
The weekend was fraught as preparations were made to get the cast and crew to the site. Props were found: a briefcase, roller skates, torches, fireworks, flares, a plastic dinosaur, an angle grinder and a string of fairy lights – The director’s homemade special effects. The five-strong cast included three professional actor friends, a doctor, a six year old kid from a local drama group and a professional magician. The predicted blizzard mercifully held, and everyone made it to the site. We setup a turbo gas heater in one of the carriages to keep everyone from freezing to death and got on with the shoot. It was an extraordinary feeling to be on-set finally shooting something on this movie, even this little trailer, after all the years of planning and hoping. 

We grabbed pretty much every shot we came to get, and we wrapped just in time for the last train back in to town.

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