Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Film Shoot: Cleopatra in Northumberland

Between 11 and 19 Oct 2012, the shooting of a short film, Cinelove (working title), directed by Josephine Halbert, took place in Haltwhistle and Belsay Hall in Northumberland, in the North East of England. Josephine Halbert also wrote and produced the film (which will be about 15 minutes long), and the shooting of the film was organised in collaboration with Newcastle based co-producer and production manager Jack Tarling.

Charlotte Quita Jones and Rhodri Miles as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963)

On 12 and 19 October, I was kindly allowed to go on the film shoot to observe, take some photos and write about it for this blog. I had never been on a film shoot before, and I enjoyed the experience very much: the variety of people present amazed me, but also the shoot felt like a place where a lot of contradictory emotions met - fear, happiness, nervousness, seriousness and excitement – making it all feel very special.

Aiste Gramantaite

One of the 1st people that I met on the shoot was the Lithuanian lead actress, Aiste Gramantaite. She seemed really excited to be there, and explained that she felt a bit like the main character that she played in the film – walking around wide-eyed in awe of what was happening to her, and of the set that was around her.

Aiste Gramantaite
 Aiste finished her MA in acting a year ago, after doing a BA in journalism and media. She was interested in acting, but never thought that it was possible to go on an MA in acting without having studied acting before -“it wouldn’t be possible in Lithuania”. However, following someone’s advice, she applied and got onto an MA in acting in London. She loved the course, and has worked hard since she graduated at getting experience in varied roles. This is her first experience in a lead role in such a well-funded film, and she is beaming with happiness.

She is really friendly and enthusiastically tells me about the film, which surprises me as I thought that actors would be too stressed to chat!

A scene in the lush garden of Belsay Hall

The Plot, the Set

Cinelove is set in Rome, in 1962, and takes place on the set of the film shoot of Cleopatra, the 1963 film directed by Joseph Mankievicz – one of the most expensive films in the history of cinema. Cinelove tells the story of Sofia (played by Aiste Gramantaite), a young woman who goes on the set to deliver a parcel for the actress ElizabethTaylor, and who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up working as an assistant for the star. Everything is marvellous and new to her, and she ends up having an affair with one of the Italian assistants in the film.

The set of Cinelove is very impressive – it is a replica of parts of the set of Cleopatra, so it includes Egyptian furniture, a massive golden sphinx, a few golden panthers, and some old cinema lights and cameras. The design team has worked hard to find all the right furniture and they even made some of it, like a gorgeous white Egyptian seat with a little cat/dog/interesting creature on each arm.

Detail of the Egyptian seat made for the film

The cast

The Italian assistant with whom the main character, Sofia, falls in love, is played by Cesare Taurasi, a British actor with Italian parents. He explains that he believes to be the only “Cesare Taurasi” in the world – not a common name! He’s very friendly and doesn’t seem stressed about the shoot. When the camera is rolling he concentrates, but otherwise he’s relaxed and happy to chat.

Cesare Taurasi

Many actors play the roles of the real actors from Cleopatra. Charlotte Quita Jones plays Elizabeth Taylor, and with her makeup and her gorgeous pink dress, she looks disturbingly like the real Liz. Beautiful and star-like. The costume designer, Rachel McWha, made that wonderful pink gown herself. Rhodri Miles plays Richard Burton, and Donald Sinclair plays Joseph Mankievicz.

Charlotte Quita Jones as Elizabeth Taylor
The crew

While each scene is being shot, the costume designers and the make-up artists look at the monitor, a screen that shows what is in front of the camera, to check that the actors’ make up and costumes are fine and that they are the same from one take to the next.

The lighting design and the electricity are in the hands of a team of 3 electricians – a gaffer (Dan Chaytor), a best girl (Ileana Cardy) and a spark (Kev Todd). Ileana is apparently the only woman in the UK to have this job: “I don’t know any other British woman who has this job” - she says - “and I don’t understand why, as it's a great job to have. I love it!”

Ileana Cardy, Best Girl
On the last day of the shoot, on 19 Oct, a steadicam specialist is present to film a scene on a vespa: it’s Andy Johnson. He shoots while sitting on a special bike ridden by someone else, and follows a beautiful 1960s Vespa ridden by Aiste Gramantaite and Cesare Taurasi. He used to live in Newcastle but has now moved to London for work reasons.

He talks with passion about the beauty of steadicam shots, about that great shot through a nightculb's kitchen in Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese), about how much he loves operating the machine despite the heavy weight, and about what a steadicam shot can add to a scene.

Preparing for the steadicam shot with Andy Johnson

The sound recordist on the film is Andy Ludbrook, who won the award for best Post Production at the Royal Television Society in 2012. He enthusiastically talks about how much he likes recording sound, and how he enjoys the post-production work too. He is full of interesting stories about the old Tyne Tees Television studios. He is also in a band, The Agency, and you can listen to their latest album here.

Andy Ludbrook


Adding to this already eclectic mix of people, on 12 Oct, an interesting group is on set: about 20 men dressed up as Romans! They are not just extras dressed up as Romans - they do this all year-round. They are The Antonine Guard, a Roman Living History Society based in Scotland. They wear the exact same clothes as the 6th Roman Legion, the legion that conquered Egypt at the time of Cleopatra. I speak to John Richardson, who created the Antonine Guard, and who proudly explains that in his society, all the Roman clothes and military items that are used have been proven to exist. They look excited and happy in their Roman clothes, and certainly make everybody smile.

The Antonine Guard
A dancer

In the continuous interesting mix of people on the shoot, a bit later that day, two 20 year-old men from Gateshead arrive: it is Martin Bagnal and Sam Irwin. They are in a boy band, Raw, and Sam Irwin is also a dancer (his professional facebook profile is here).  In the makeup room, he shows a few hat tricks with his cap and everyone seems impressed.

Sam Irwin

Later, on set, with the camera pointed towards him, he improvises an Egyptian inspired hip-hop dance. As he improvises in front of the camera rolling with precious 35mm, everyone holds their breath, not a noise is heard, no-one talks, everyone’s attention is focussed, time seems to stop – and magic seems to happen.

With 35mm being so expensive, every time the camera is rolling, it feels like a big risk is being taken – and even more so in that scene, when the dancer is improvising and that no-one knows what to expect. The scene seems to go perfectly well though, and as soon as the 1st AD shouts “cut”, people look at each and smile. Sighs of relief. Josephine Halbert seems really happy and congratulates the dancer.

Sam Irwin


In general, a sense of magic is definitely floating on the shoot. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling, and it reminds me of the fascinating power that is generally associated with cinema. Although I have often felt this fascination as an audience member, I suddenly feel like I have discovered another aspect of it – the kind of emotions that you get when the camera is rolling. Fear, excitement and intense emotion all at the same time.

Charlotte Quita Jones

In that sense, the film shoot seems to be a mix of many contradictory feelings: tension (because everyone is aware that time is limited, and that a certain number of scenes have to be shot every day); happiness about meeting new people(most people didn't know each other before the shoot and seem excited about working together); a sense of adventure (about working on a demanding project without really knowing what the finished product will be); the need for concentration and rigor (as every member of the crew has to make sure that each scene goes smoothly), and an equally strong sense of creativity – as at the end of the day, the aim of this big team and production machine is to make art, to realise someone’s vision, and to share emotions with audiences.

I can’t help but noticing, and also enjoying, this contradictory idea that rigor is needed to make someone’s imagination come true, that a tight sense of organisation is essential to make surreal visions come to life, as if adulthood and childhood were clashing and found a way of working together.

Charlotte Quita Jones and Rhodri Miles as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

After the last scene has been shot, the production manager, Jack Tarling, and the production co-ordinator, Gerry Maguire, seem very tired - but they are happy. They open some bottles of champagne and offer them to everyone. Josephine Halbert gets a big bunch of flowers. She says that she’s in a bit of daze, but that she’s really happy about how the shoot went. A few good nights of sleep, and the post-production work can begin!

Group photography after the last scene has been shot: Rachel McWha, Lisa O'Grady, Jack Tarling, Charlotte Quita Jones, Cesare  Taurasi, Josephine Halbert, Gerry Maguire (from left to right).

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