Exclusive Set Visit Report: A Lonely Place to Die
ReelScotland strays from the beaten track on the trail of new Scottish-set action movie, A Lonely Place to Die, which promises to show the world a side of the country you won't find in the tourist guides...
It's not the sort of sight you expect to see while walking through an otherwise idyllic Highland scene: the figure of a hooded man, brandishing a shotgun which he's swaying from left to right, prowls through bracken and broken branches, midgies swarming around him as he keeps an eye out for something...or someone.
Nearby, behind a moss covered boulder barely four foot high, crouches a young girl not much older than 10 or 11, her clothes and hair soaking wet after a recent encounter with a nearby river. As the girl kneels, staring at the undergrowth around her with eyes full of terror and holding her breath for as long as possible so as not to be heard, she's alerted to a sound from beyond the rock, turning her head to look.
As the man with the gun gets closer, the hunter nearing his prey, the girl backs away from the edge of the boulder, only for a hand to clamp around her mouth from behind...
...at which point director Julian Gilbey shouts cut! and an assorted crew of cameramen, sound engineers and technicians set about rearranging the scene so they can go through it all over again.
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It's a balmy day in June, deep in the Ross-shire countryside near the Highland capital of Inverness. ReelScotland has been invited onto the set of new action thriller, A Lonely Place to Die, to see just what goes into realising the world of a team of rock climbers whose trip has gone very wrong.
For Gilbey, best known as the director of urban-based thrillers Rise of the Footsoldier and Rollin' with the Nines, both of which have found a loyal fan base on DVD in recent years, this move to a rural locale seems a strange one: so why Scotland?
"Why not Scotland? I studied film at university in Scotland and was always surprised more films aren't shot up here: it's the last great wilderness. It's a damned sight more impressive than somewhere like Essex, where I shot my last film, where the most country I could see was in my Land Rover going through Epping Forest.
"The idea for the film from my younger brother: what happens when a group of people find a tube in the ground and a child inside it who's being kept hostage? You could set that film in Hyde Park and spend your time running around London, but that doesn't appeal to me. If you can take that and put it against a stunning backdrop then you have something special. I went through two years of mountaineering training so that I knew what I was doing on screen."
Was it important for Julian's film to be be respectful to the sport at the centre of his film? "Absolutely. We had technical advisors but there's nothing like doing it yourself. You begin to see that Touching the Void is probably the closest we've got to any sense of the truth of rock climbing on film. At the start of Cliffhanger, why did that metal buckle break when it can take the weight of five rhinoceroses? I won't mention the name of the film, but why were people going caving with ice picks?
"Someone like Melissa has done a lot of tough work and doesn't mind getting her hands dirty hanging off the side of cliffs. The cast have risen to the challenge."
Justin is referring to leading lady Melissa George, someone for whom action seems to be second nature: as well as starring in recent sci-fi mind-bender Triangle, she appeared in vampire fantasy 30 Days of Night and JJ Abrams' spy series, Alias.
Today, she's clad in climbing gear and sporting a minor wound to her temple, damage which I'm assured is no more than a convincing make-up job for the sequence being filmed over the course of the day.
What is it about this rather slight woman that has made her the go-to girl for action sequences? "My husband laughs at me and asks me 'why the hell are you the action girl?' I live in New York City and Buenos Aires and don't run in the mountains all the time! I'm strong and resilient being Australian. I was a champion skater, so I have the stability and strength and I can run fast and climb."
What can she say about her role in A Lonely Place to Die? "My character, Alison, is a champion rock climber and she takes a couple of friends with her to Scotland. She's all about precision: at the start you're seeing this great rock climber and she's out there and she's all about rhythm and very methodical, then they find this girl on the mountain and she thinks it's really ruining her trip. She then starts to comes round and becomes stronger than ever, you really see her strength at the end of the film.
"There's lots of running, diving, jumping and cat and mouse. It's an action flick, an adventure film and I find this girl take her to safety, so I have to do rock climbing while carrying her. The climbing aspect has been addictive, when your hand hits that hot rock and you find a natural space to put your hand, it's pretty great."
When I mention that Scotland and action films don't usually go together, Melissa, whose family originate from near Glasgow, is quick to stand up for the country: Scotland deserves it! The scenery deserves it: you look at Braveheart and all the great films that have been made here, why not have an action film? It's stunning. And Americans love Scotland."
One refreshing element of the script is that there's no sign of the obligatory romantic subplot so beloved of most Hollywood films. "That's true, though there is one scene where we're playing poker and Ed [Speleers, the film's male lead] ad libs, ˜I knew we should have played snap,' to which I reply, ˜You can't move your hands fast enough,' He just looks at me and says ˜We both know that's not true,' though whether that makes the final cut I don't know!"
Speleers is another actor with something of a pedigree in action films, albeit fantasy action in the shape of 2006's Eragon. Whereas there he fought dragons in a medieval setting, this time around the dangers are far more down-to-Earth.
"My character, Ed, is the youngest of the group and is a bit of a Jack the Lad, a typical kid who wants to wind people up, but then as things progress he has to start thinking quickly and almost becomes the hero of the piece. It's important for the audience to sympathise with him and not make him a real arsehole. He's basically a good person.
"I had no desire to do rock climbing before this film but I did some in pre-production and have really caught the bug. It's my first time in Scotland and I can't believe it's taken me so long to make it up to this country. We were in Glencoe last week, stuck up in the middle of nowhere, and it was beautiful. I had one stunt where I was being dangled by my foot off Glencoe, which was good fun.
"I'm enjoying every moment on this, Julian's full of energy. He's great to work with and he likes intensity. Everyone's really passionate about it, and it helps having a smaller crew, you know each other and work hard for each other to make it as good as you can."
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Back on the mountainside, Julian is still coaxing the best performance from his young actress, Holly Boyd, who plays the near-mute girl at the centre of the drama.
To pull focus or not to pull focus? Should a strand of Holly's hair be tucked behind her ear to show more of her face or would that affect continuity? If the girl has just been pulled from the river, shouldn't her hair be wetter? As a make-up assistant runs on to spray more water onto Holly's hair and face, the director notes that the scene is exactly as he storyboarded it, but it's still a painstaking process to ensure nothing looks unnatural or rushed: this may be low budget but it's certainly not low effort.
The decision is made to go once more for the take, this time the camera watching Stephen McCole's character, Mr Mcrae, moving in the background. Julian notes in passing that he's slowing the camera speed slightly for this sequence, taking it down from 24 frames-per-second to 30. While it will be imperceptible to the audience, it's further evidence of the little details being just as important as the action sequences which will surely be played up in the trailers come release time.
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Later, I catch-up with Stephen, gun now safely to one side. ReelScotland last spoke to him during the promotional tour for Scottish drama Crying with Laughter, a film far removed from his new gig as a hard man sent to the Highlands for his latest assignment. How did he get involved with A Lonely Place to Die?
"I went and met the director and producers around six months ago and we spoke about the characters and which one might suit me best. I auditioned for a couple of parts and they asked which one I wanted to play, so of course I said the stone cold killer, mainly because I haven't played that kind of part before and it always seems to be fun when you watch other people do it.
"You have to underplay everything. There's a fine line between playing that type of character and hamming it up and it's fun walking that tightrope."
I mention to Stephen something Sopranos creator David Chase once noted about the various mafiosa-type characters he'd created: according to Chase, nobody wakes up in the morning and spends the day "evil". He likes to give them toothache or a mortgage that's in the red, something that makes them real.
"That's good, I might steal that actually, give my character an ache in his balls, one that'd make him want to kill people. Nobody else will know that “ see if you can work out the scene I've shot where I didn't have the ache."
Moving on from painful extremities, I ask Stephen whether we could be about to see more action movies filming in Scotland.
"Scottish action movies are few and far between, which is strange when you consider the landscape we offer, we have a lot to work with. Hopefully this will be a little resurgence and tempt other filmmakers to come here and make movies like this."
A Lonely Place to Die will be released in cinemas in early 2011.