So last week, I did two things for the first time. Firstly, I worked on a genuine medieval-style fantasy set for the first time (not including my 16-year-old self's attempt at fantasy-comedy, The Lord of the Things). This is something I wanted to do ever since I first saw Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 00s, and decided that was what I wanted to do with my life.
As I got older, I found smaller dreams to be more accessible - drama films and short fantasies were easier to achieve. I've said to people, "I'll make a proper fantasy film in 20 years", which I've been saying unchanged for at least a decade without getting closer to my goal. But with Ren, and her previous film Born Of Hope, inspirational director Kate Madison has made such dreams a reality, today. And walking onto the Ren set - created inside a disused factory near Cambridge - made my inner child dance with delight.
Ren is an exquisite project, a web series of the highest quality in spite of its low budget, and I expect to see it on sites such as Netflix in the near future, without a doubt. See the teaser trailer below for an example of its calibre:
So when DOP (and my frequent collaborator) Neil Oseman invited me onto the Ren set, I had the opportunity to do something else for the first time. You see, from graduating university more than four years ago, I have worked constantly in 'leading' crew roles - editing promotional films, heading the Art Department, and even Producing & Directing. Unlike most people, I didn't work my way up the power chain from the bottom level. Meaning, I have never been a Production Assistant - commonly known as a 'Runner'.
But I have used runners before, and happily ordered coffees from them without a second thought, which goes against my number one Director rule of 'Never ask someone to do something you're not willing to do yourself'. So working on Ren gave me the opportunity to correct that error on my part.
So what did I learn about the humble but vital role of Production Assistant from an inside view? Well, the main surprise was how little I ended up on set during filming. There are always a million jobs which need doing behind the scenes, and Production Assistants are often hidden away helping things run properly. I was always kept busy, which was great, often doing set decorating and making bits of costume (under Production Designer Amanda Stekly and Costume Designer Miriam Spring Davies respectively, both of whom were an absolute joy to work for).
And the few times I did make it onto set - which looked absolutely stunning - I found myself at a bit of a loose end. Ren was such a well-oiled machine that every job was being attended to, and I was in danger of getting in the way of the fast-moving, busy crew.
The other thing I learnt about Production Assistants is how multi-talented they need to be. Because of my Art Department background, tasks such as painting thatched roofs and sewing cloaks came naturally (to an extent), but these tasks were also asked of Production Assistants who were completely new to film.
|Sanding wood on the Ren set. Photo: Kevin Hudson|
Production Assistants have to have incredible short-term memories. When you do a drinks run, if more than four or five people put in an order, it can be tricky to remember how many sugars go with which crewmember. And when you're asked to go and fetch something - such as scissors - you need to remember where it is, and you need to find it, amongst the many rooms and mountains of props. This is something I failed at - more than once I went back to person who'd sent me away, and asked where the item was that they wanted! But the other, more experienced Production Assistants seemed to have a photographic memory of where things were. It was like they were wizards!
When I've used Runners before, I've grown accustomed to calling breaks when myself and the core crew wanted them, and to discovering tables full of food waiting for us. But of course, for every table of food, there's a group of people rushing round making sure it's ready for when the director is. So, as a Production Assistant on the Ren set, I had to help cook - including the dreaded onion-chopping - and I had to clean the mountain of pots left over when other people went back to set. It wasn't my favourite job, but still an important cog of the larger filmmaking machine.
So, what have I taken away from all this? Well, for one thing I'm lucky that my first experience of Running was on the Ren set, because everyone was so lovely - and surprisingly humble. They made me feel very welcome, and constantly showed their gratitude for my work (and everyone else's). They weren't in any way elitist; Kate broke rank constantly by helping to paint the set, and she personally picked me up from the station. And I often saw the producers getting their hands dirty by cooking and doing the washing up themselves. Like I said, a seriously lovely team.
And I've learnt to respect the Production Assistants more on my own projects. When you're on the 'core crew', it's easy to keep going through long hours and late nights, sometimes even working through lunch, because you're passionately involved in the story. A Production Assistant often comes late into the project, and sometimes they haven't even read the script. So, as a director, you need to support your Production Assistants, and kindly push them, if you expect the same dedication. That's what I need to do in the future.
So let me take the time to praise the people who have been Production Assistants under me as Producer or Director over the years: Kurtis Baker, Paul Baker, Laura Cann, Tommy Draper, Steve Giller, Laura Iles, Stephanie Murphy, Kevin Nightingale, Maria-Luisa Piliero, Ellie Ragdale, Freddie Saddington, Sam Tansley and Dimitri Yiallourou. Round of applause. You are the unsung heroes behind my work.
p.s. Find out more about the great Ren, and the amazingly talented team, via their website and Facebook page. Thankyou to Kate and Neil for giving me the opportunity to be part of your family for four days. I can't wait to see the finished result.