For the past three weeks I’ve been working on a film set. I could tell you more about the film but I’d have to kill you and more importantly, I wouldn’t work on one again. So you’ll have to wait and see about that.
What was impressed upon me was a) how much standing around there is, watching events over which you have no control whatsoever and b) how artificial story-telling actually is.
Inconsistencies in film have always annoyed me. I loved Anthropoid, the story of how two Czech agents were dropped back into their own country by SOE to try to assassinate Heydrich. Which they accidentally managed to do in real life, thanks to nobody being able to get hold of penicillin at the time. It was a great film, tense, exciting, even right up to the end, despite knowing all too sadly how it was going to end (Non-Spoiler Alert: They Get Killed. Along with about 2,000 presumably less photogenic people, when the SS predictably threw a strop after Hitler’s best mate got offed in the street).
But there was this Thing. More a McMuffin than a McGuffin, a silly, irritating detail that bugged me watching it and bugs me now. The two agents parachute in. They land and go to a house. It’s not what you’d call a safe house. There’s a fight. There wasn’t a fight. That’s not what really irritated me. One of the people in the house runs away. The agents let him. That wasn’t what really irritated me either. They steal a truck and drive it to Prague.
So far, this mission is not going well, fairly obviously. They’ve been spotted and someone knows exactly where and when they dropped into enemy territory. You can guarantee he’s going straight to the Gestapo, because there’s been a fight and there’s the detail of a dead body to account for if he doesn’t. So far, so rubbish.
They drive the truck straight into the middle of Prague to their safe house. Just to make sure everyone thinks they’re stupid they leave it in the street with the lights on.
Come on. You don’t even do that going to Tesco, let alone if you’re a spy on a secret assassination mission.
But in films you do, apparently. It conveys urgency.
I went on set in the next scene, just to see what it was like. Fiction. A wonderful thing. An old truck repair building had been kitted out as a hospital. It was a future dystopian sci-fi, and the fact that no hospital has had iron beds like those for the past fifty years has nothing to do with anything. That’s what dystopia looks like, so get used to it.
The smoke bothered me. I couldn’t see where it was coming from so I told the Assistant Director, quietly, so as not to cause a panic, but something was obviously about to go on fire. I felt like Corporal Jones when I was told no, it’s smoke from a smoke machine. It lends depth. It gives the pictures a texture and solidity that otherwise they’d lack. Which makes some kind of sense once you know about it.
They didn’t tell me about Film Rope™ though.
I thought I was going to be able to help when the call went out for rope. The actress had to walk down to the beach and find a boat tied up at the waters edge.
We have water. A boat. An actress. But nothing, somehow, to tie it up with. I found this quite hard to believe, given there’s a six knot tide that rips down the river there and a boat that isn’t tied up isn’t going to be there for very long.
“It’s ok, I’ve got some rope. You can borrow it if you like. In the boot of my car.”
For reasons that were never made clear, my car gets a lot of attention on set. The producer assumed it belonged to someone from the BFI meaning that the set was being inspected. Someone else wants to buy it, even though I hadn’t actually thought of selling it. It’s just a nice old convertible Saab that people assume I’ve had since it was new, so long ago that it’s on the verge of officially making the career transition from Old Car to Classic. I got the new rope I’d bought for my boat out of the car.
OMG! You hero! You saviour! You…… WHAT IS THIS?
Well, it’s rope.
No it’s not.
Er, honestly it is.
It’s the wrong stuff.
It’s blue polypropelene rope. It’s not the best, but it’s more than adequate for tying a dinghy up for half an hour. How big is this boat, anyway?
Not the point, apparently. It’s not Film Rope™.
FilmRope™ is hemp. It’s dark sandy coloured. It’s hairy. Blue poly rope isn’t any of those things. It doesn’t look like FilmRope™.
I say: But this is a future dystopian sci-fi film. Nobody uses hemp rope now, let alone in the future.
And that isn’t the point. They do in films. FilmRope™ is the way rope looks then, now and in the dystopian future, as it was in the beginning, as it is now and as it will be for ever and ever amen. It’s fillums, innit? That’s what rope looks like, not what rope is. Everyone knows that.
We spent a happy afternoon trailling around Woodbridge before we found sisal rope, cheaper than hemp at a modest 85p per metre. It looks like hemp. It looks like FilmRope™.
And in a film, that’s all that matters.