How does filming Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes differ from, say, your early work for Guns and Roses?
Quite a lot because rock n roll has loud kinetic music, dramatic lighting, people jumping up and down and a lot of smoke, so you get away with a lot because of the action whereas opera is a lot more formal.
Peter Grimes is a fantastic very creative production anyway so we obviously didn’t want to inject anything into the stage show but the cinema is different from going to see it in the theatre. My job was to bring what I know in film-making to the table.
The ENO were amazing in soothing the way, we were able to up the lighting, put cameras in the chorus boxes and in the pit and wings, and also use a hand-held and a dolly to get close ups and different angles. Usually people just film the stage, so there’s much more camera movement, direction and film language… it’s a different approach to filming staged opera. You also have to try and not spoil the experience of those in the opera house so you have to tread carefully and plot everything out… it’s a constant process of refining.
You must have got to know the opera inside out, every musical note, every movement…
You get to a point where you think ‘can my brain ingest any more?’ It’s a bit like cramming for a Latin exam. I religiously had to do homework every night for a month. There are ways of doing things which I know really well, I’m efficient, but this was a whole new way of working just because of stuff I had to figure out.
How do you prepare for filming a dramatic performance that is over three hours long and screened live in the cinemas? There’s no second chance is there, you only get one shot at getting it right?
It’s a massive pre-prod process, I did more prep work than on anything else I’ve done before, including a movie. It’s a totally immersive experience.
Peter Grimes was a revival – it’s not like a West End show that goes on every night – there were only ten shows because of the toll it takes on singers’ voices. I saw most of the shows and had a static camera, and I’d break the footage down, do frame grabs and take notes, then work out all the movements with the score editor and switcher.
Actually they’re more than just scorers. Judith reads classical scores but she breaks everything down against the score in the sense of who is sitting where, where they are on stage, when to cover that person, it’s a really complicated job. The score (see in Related Content) should be displayed in a historical archive, put in a cabinet, it’s a complete work of art in itself.
And Hilary, the switcher, is editing as we’re screening live. Along with my producer they are phenomenally professional. So Judith is reading the score and I am pre-empting the next camera move. It’s tricky.
Basically the cameraman and Hilary are listening to what Judith is saying like ‘6 bars to go and Elenor comes in left, 5 bars and Peter is centre stage’ and so on – everything is timed with bars of music because nobody has time to look at a stop watch. Everyone is listening to Jude’s instructions from the score.. so my most efficient way of working at that point is to make sure that all the cameras are not only getting the stuff we’d planned but also moving on the dolly, breathing on the zooms, and in that way I’m feeding the cut.
Everyone including all the cameramen are steeped in filming classical music and have worked on stuff at the Royal Opera House – they have worked on all the big shows from theatre, rock n roll, pop concerts at 02 – and they stay in the arena because they are good at it, my producer knows who’s good and who to get. There was a guy who was controlling what we call the Furio which is a remote dolly head that was moving across the stage and that guy was one of the best I have ever worked with.
Everything is planned with military precision, but there’s some fluidity too, it’s a moveable feast. Sometimes the guys would see something which was magical happening, perhaps it was Peter Grimes in the foreground with Eleanor in the background out of focus, so we’d switch the focus – that’s the kind of next level you can’t prep for, the cameramen were always looking for artistic shots.
How do you see your directing of opera films evolving?
There’s lots of radical things I want to do but you can’t do them all at once, it’s small steps but I’m sure someone like Terry Gilliam will be up for building little props that have cameras in them and use Go Pros, to slowly but surely change the experience of watching an opera on stage in cinematic surround.
It rejuvenates you when you do something completely different, with a different skill set. it makes you feel 21 again, just out of college, I can’t wait to do more.
Will you be focussing on shooting live performances from now on?
You work so hard for three or four weeks that when it’s over it’s almost like a bereavement. You think fuckin’hell what do I do with my day and of course I’ve got other stuff to do now.
It could be amazing doing this (operas) over the next ten years. I like doing different things whether it’s commercials, short films or rock n roll, and a new movie which I’m very close to getting the money on.
It’s a small independent movie called Boogie Man, it’s about a 17 year old Asian boy who is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever so I’m mixing up Bhangra with disco music, it’s really fun.
Did you dream about the opera at all?
I did afterwards, not before. It was the strangest thing. Two days after the screening I was humming one of the tunes and the lines from it and woke up and thought oh it’s still all there, I’m still processing it.
It’s now a couple of months on from filming Peter Grimes and you’re now in pre-prod for the live screening of Terry Gilliam’s Cellini as well as working on your next movie. Is there anything else on your agenda?
Ha. The varied life of a director! Right now I’m in riot torn Ukraine filming a short film/music video for the World Cup.
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