It was early (7am). It was cold (0 degrees). It was the 1960’s (well, on set anyway). This was my first day shadowing the director of BBC period drama ‘George Gently’, which was being filmed in Ireland. As I arrived at base, I was quickly warmed up by a welcoming reception from the cast and crew. A healthy breakfast of porridge and soya milk (offset by less healthy – but very tasty – sausages) further built my anticipation.
I was bussed with the crew down to the set: a captivating disused mill beside a fast-flowing river. Vintage cars added to the aesthetic landscape. There I met up with director Ciaran Donnelly, whom I was delighted to have the opportunity to shadow. I think the episode of ‘The Tudors’ for which he won the 2009 Directing IFTA was one of the finest episodes of television drama I’ve ever seen.
Ciaran started the day with establishing shots of Chief Inspector Gently (Martin Shaw) and Detective Sergeant Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) arriving at the mill. After getting coverage of this shot, three boys with toy guns joined the cast. They had to run through the mill shooting each other. They performed very well, but it was interesting to see how filming children requires a different approach from the director and 1st AD.
Cups of hot ginseng kept the team pepped up while shooting the exteriors. Later the cast expanded to include more featured characters and a group of extras. I really felt for them on the chilly afternoon, since their costumes were light. I paid close attention to the staging and shots that Ciaran chose to ensure coverage. These scenes involved more hands-on directing of the actors, which I enjoyed watching.
During a break in filming, I had a wonderful conversation with Martin Shaw. A consummate professional, he put in an excellent performance during the shoot, despite acute back pain. He shared with me personal stories of how his son got his break in directing and we had a lengthy discussion about the fantastic collaboration that can happen between directors and actors during rehearsal time.
The following Monday, I arrived on set, enthused about spending a second day on this exciting production. I was greeted like a member of the crew (thanks for that!) The production crew were refreshed after catching up on sleep over the weekend – and full of craic after catching up on their social lives at a Saturday night party.
The scenes that day were all interiors in attractive locations. One room contained a dozen vintage red milling machines. Another featured wooden beams throughout, which looked fabulous when semi-obscured by smoke. However, the compactness of the locations created challenges in terms of laying tracks and selecting camera angles. I was very impressed with the crew, who good-humouredly lugged heavy tracks, dollies and lights up five flights of stairs.
Much of the day’s shoot centred on a hanging. I learned that it requires 30% more setup time to film a stunt. It was exciting to see it being staged and filmed. One of the key responsibilities of a director is to get the job done on schedule. The stunt hanging put the production under time pressure, and Ciaran efficiently stepped the filming up a gear – with the cooperation of the very professional cast and crew – only going four minutes over schedule.
The benefits of the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland (SDGI) Mentoring Programme go far beyond observing the process of filming drama. The opportunity for the emerging director to ask questions of and seek advice from the mentor adds significant value to the process. I am extremely grateful to Ciaran who – despite the challenges the shoot presented – was generous with his time and forthcoming with advice. I am also grateful to the superb cast and crew who made me very welcome and to Claire, Liz and Birch (in abstentia) at SDGI for this progressive mentoring initiative.