Richard filming The Gigolos
Freelancing For TV
The show for which Richard began directing the VT shoots was a topical news programme called Stuff the Week, which began in 1997 and ran for eleven episodes. “I only did that for about two months but that was enough. Between that and making The Gigolos, which was my first film, I basically did TV comedy entertainment as a director and a producer.
So I’d got out and produce reports and did that for The Eleven O’Clock Show. I worked on the first series and did a report with Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G on practically the first day I started. That was his big break because he went straight into his own series for Channel 4. I’d left by the time Ricky Gervais joined the show, but I once directed him to the toilet! So I did a whole lot of jobs like that.
“I was a post-production director on two series of Ruby Wax’s show for BBC2, where I supervised the edit of the show recordings. We’d get two hours of show delivered and have to turn it into 40 minutes, so that’s a very high-profile thing to do.
“But although it was high-profile, it was working as a jobbing director and, at that point, I knew that what I was interested in was making films. Working in TV was a way of getting paid, honing my skills and meeting people. When we were making a series for Sky for the millennium night, for example, I met Craig Cotterill, who has edited both the films we’ve done.”
Making The Gigolos
In 2004 Richard made the brave move of starting his own film production company together with his brother, Tony. They called the company Punk Cinema Limited, the name referring to the punk ethos of independence and direct action rather than any particular style or musical content. Having previously worked in PR and marketing, Tony took on the management of the business, leaving Richard free to concentrate on making the films. Punk Cinema’s first release, The Gigolos followed soon after, receiving its premiere at the AFI FEST in November 2005.
The leading actors in the film, Sacha Tarter and Trevor Sather, came up with the idea and developed it further with Richard. Despite carefully planning the scenes in advance, most of the dialogue was improvised by the performers while the camera rolled, the intention being to acquire a documentary-like feel. The female leads were played by Susannah York, Sian Phillips, Angela Pleasence and Anna Massey, who all readily agreed to the improvised way of working. Much of the filming was done ‘guerrilla style’; taking advantage of London’s streets and architecture. For this to be possible, Richard only used a small crew, who could move quickly and respond to on-the-spot changes. Richard explains how it all started.
“The reason for doing it was entirely, as all the best things to do with film are, to do with the story. I’d already made a TV pilot called The Big Idea with Sasha and Trevor and I thought they were great and had a real rapport. But the project floundered in TV commissioning and I’d already had lots of experience of that so I said to them ‘While TV commissioners decided to do nothing with it, if you have got an idea that we can turn into a film then lets do it.’ And we very quickly came upon the idea of doing something about gigolos where Sasha is a gigolo and Trevor is his assistant, they end up having to swap places and are forced to re-evaluate what they mean to each other.”
Despite working hard to develop the overall story line, Richard encouraged Sacha and Trevor to push ahead without a script. He explains why.
“We thought that if it was too formal and scripted it would just feel like a cheap film so we went for an almost documentary style. We also wanted it to be improvised so that it would make the audience feel as though they were voyeurs, getting a glimpse of this tantalising world that was just out of reach. It opens in a very odd, voyeuristic way, so you feel like you have stumbled on the lives of these two guys.
“I also thought that if the stars of the film are totally unknown and I have never made a film before, then it’s not going to make a lot of difference if we haven’t got a script.”
Choosing The Kit
To shoot The Gigolos, Richard chose the Super 16 film format, which has effectively superseded 16mm and is often used as a cheaper alternative to 35mm. His camera was an Arri SR2 fitted with a zoom lens (rather than a selection of prime lenses with fixed focal lengths), generally set to the equivalent of a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. Everything was shot with the single Arri SR2 and zoom lens.
“I took the decision to shoot with a zoom because there was a benefit in terms of cost – taking out a zoom is cheaper than hiring a complete set of primes. Also, with such a small crew, it was unreasonable to expect my camera assistant, Rab Harling, to be changing lenses on each shot – he already had enough on his plate as focus puller and clapper loader.
“The creative justification for shooting entirely with a zoom was that it allowed me to pick the shot sizes without changing the set-up. In other words, we could run long takes and I could direct the film in camera, without stopping and starting the actors. Because The Gigolos was improvised I needed the camera and sound departments to be as unobtrusive as possible.
“We didn’t alter the camera shutter angle; everything we did to achieve the feel of a documentary was through lensing and lighting, or the absence of it.
“We chose 16mm rather than 35mm because the stock and kit were cheaper, the camera was smaller and more portable, and chiefly because 16mm magazines run for 11 minutes, as opposed to five minutes on 35mm. Running long takes was dictated by the actors improvising, and needing time to find the heart of each scene through their performance.”
Slightly surprisingly, according to Richard, the filming method did not use an excessive amount of film. He attributes this economy of tape to having developed an efficient way of shooting improvised performances when working with Sacha and Trevor on previous projects.
“To put it another way,” says Richard, “we’d learned how to communicate.”
One problem Richard faced by using a single camera, was ensuring that the various set-ups covering a scene from different angles matched up in the edit. Richard effectively solved the problem by directing the film, as he puts it, “in camera,” making note of the edit points as he went along.
“Because we spent no more than a day on each scene, it was relatively easy to keep track of the continuity. However, there remained an element of chance as to whether sequences would cut together, much as there might be in a documentary. Since we were trying to make a drama in a documentary style, it was a chance we were prepared to take.”
A very significant portion of The Gigolos is shot at night and in awkward situations where lighting setups were not possible. Aware of the potential difficulties beforehand, Richard chose his film stock to achieve the best results in the conditions.
“If you haven’t got enough light you can’t shoot with either film or digital. You can’t make light out of nothing. But it also depends on speed of the film and whether you are shooting on 16 or 35mm. We shot everything on the same stock of 500T which is tungsten and very, very fast. When we were shooting in daylight it was colour corrected by placing filters in front of the lens, rather than sorting it out in the grade later on. So we did as much as possible on location.
“You also need a bit of ND – neutral density – in there if you are shooting with fast night-time stock during the day. In effect you have to cheat the conditions. But we had a very cheap deal on that particular stock and not enough money to buy any slower daytime stock. So we were shooting the whole thing on the same stock which gives it a very grainy documentary feel.
“The film was processed and copied to tape in a best light pass. In other words, without being colour graded. The tapes were then digitised, the movie edited, and only when the picture was locked did we return to the original negative to grade, or finesse, the image.”
The making of a film usually involves a great number of people, but The Gigolos was shot using a very small crew indeed. Apart from Richard and the actors taking part, the only people involved during filming were the camera assistant, sound recordist and two production assistants. This approach was rather necessary given that so many of the scenes were shot on London streets, guerrilla style, or filmed inside moving vehicles in which there was barely any room.
“I lit and shot it myself because I thought that I had probably got enough experience from TV and those BBC training manuals. I thought that if I followed the manuals I’d probably be fine. Almost all of it was shot with the camera on the shoulder, because that’s what the story dictated. Because it is improvised, we never quite knew what the cast would do. It was almost like working without a set, so nowhere was entirely out of bounds. It wouldn’t be a case of ‘Action,’ the line being delivered and then ‘Cut. Let’s do the line again a different way.’ We did long takes and allowed the actors to discover a different meaning to the scene on film. But I knew it wouldn’t be a waste because I’d done the pilots with Sacha and Trevor and had confidence that they wouldn’t dry up and would at least deliver something that was entertaining.”
As for Richard’s quartet of veteran actresses, it turns out that they all relished the chance to demonstrate their improvisation skills. “I don’t think they thought twice about it because they improvise a lot when they are training to be actors. I’m not even sure if it was a challenge for them, actually. And when you are shooting a film it is not something you often get asked to do, so it was unusual and they loved the idea.”
Another notable characteristic of The Gigolos is the high percentage of sync sound used in the final mix; the sync sound being the audio recorded on set or location at the same time as filming. Overdubbing (known as ADR) is preferred in certain circumstances because it offers more control over the balance between distracting incidental noise and dialogue. When ADR is used, Foley sound artists are hired to fabricate incidental noises such as the opening of doors and car engine noise, whilst the actors re-record their lines in a studio. The whole lot is later mixed together for best effect.
Richard: “A lot of the sound for The Gigolos that you hear on the film is the sync sound, because that was the sort of effect that we were after. That was recorded by the sound recordist, Mike Hasler, who worked on his own. I can’t remember what he used but I guess it was probably DAT.
“It was a good recording so we did very little ADR, which is unusual. Only a handful of lines were done that way. It was literally two or three lines. If you don’t ADR the dialogue then you can’t really divorce the dialogue from the background noise and you’ve got to work with the mix you’ve got. The dialogue is in effect locked to the background noise.
“But it was a conscious decision that contributed to the documentary feel. It’s almost as if you’ve stumbled upon the lives of these people. I think we probably cut the picture around the sound in a lot of places, which was a very weird way to do it. So if there’s a siren going off, subconsciously we’d edited around the sound.
“It was mixed by a fantastic re-recording mixer called Martin Jensen who was Oscar nominated for The King’s Speech this year, so he’s a top guy and that’s also why the sound is as good as it is.”