Post 1 of 5
Let’s face it, how could I not have responded that way? Here was my thinking at the time; it’s a story set off-world, in a claustrophobic mining outpost, with few characters, so we’d all have a chance to shine in our roles (assuming I won a role), while at the same time spending five days playing in a futuristic studio set and eventually surrounded by cool FX.
What an adventure! I mean... where’s the downside?
Add to that I was child of the Star Wars trilogy (the original please, before it became shit) and adore sci-fi, it was a no-brainer that I’d be applying…
...which I promptly did.
Naturally then, when I received an invite to audition for Moon Miners and the role of Michael Shepherd, the rig’s captain, I was understandably… >ahem< over the moon.
Here’s the thing; there are projects which just hook you when you first learn of them; something about the story, the characters and setting, and/or the where, when and how they’re shooting that just capture your imagination, and grip you in their tantalising vice. You say, “That’s the one for me!” You genuinely feel hungry for it. So it was that “Moon Miners / Terminal / Fracture” was just such a project for me. And, prior to audition day itself, I only got hungrier to get on board, visiting the FXhome forum, learning more about the project and seeing preliminary production designs. I could see the FXhome team and all involved were aiming for a quality product.
So it was that the day of the audition dawned, with a host of actors threading their way Norwich-ward, among them yours truly, at the wheel of a car trundling north for two hours from Hertfordshire, reciting Shepherd’s lines from the selected scenes, consulting the directions to the FXhome offices, and generally praying I’d arrive in time without getting hopelessly lost.
Prayers answered in the affirmative, I arrived a good half hour before time – always advisable for actors; show up early to auditions so’s to allow for unexpected developments and for final preparations… to which I set immediately. That day was beautifully, sharply sunny, and had you been present outside the FXhome offices just before 1pm Saturday 31st May 2008, you’d have peered through the glare to spot a black Renault Clio parked in the otherwise empty car park, containing a man who repeatedly pretended to open and pour water from a bottle while talking to himself.
Actors really can set themselves up for humiliating situations… auditions aside! (If you’ve seen the audition posting on the film forum, you’ll know the scene I was rehearsing.)
Fortunately, the car park was empty and I was free to appear unhinged to my heart’s content... until 1pm, and the big moment.
Lucy Harvey (production manager) was at reception to warmly greet me, and I signed a release form agreeing to my audition being used as part of the “Making of...” video. I think this is an important point worth stressing for filmmakers and actors both.
For filmmakers; the team were so organised on this production, they gave all us actors a timely heads-up of this intention prior to the audition, so we’d be prepared to see the second camera shooting the interview, as well as the actual camera used to shoot the audition piece. That not only demonstrates careful planning on the part of the filmmakers, but due consideration and courtesy is being shown towards prospective cast members.
For actors; you can agree to sign or not to sign such a release; you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. After all, it’s not the contract for the job itself, and any reasonable filmmaker should understand if you decline; you want to control your brand as an actor after all, and don’t want anything unauthorised or detrimental to get out there which may adversely affect it. I signed, but what I did do though when I signed... I scribbled a proviso the footage could be used in the event I was cast. My point being there’s no reason an agreement you’re handed can’t be amended before you sign.
Anyhoo... to the audition...
...and the guy with the chain-saw.
I’ll come to him in a moment.
Lucy led me into the conference room doubling as the casting space. Shaking my hand from behind the desk was Ashley Wing. I could tell immediately he was the director; he wore a beard and a Punisher T-shirt. Ash’s second was Elly Ward, she would read the other parts and would be First AD on set. The man sitting at the side, silently observing all through the lens of a hand-held DV camera and trying very hard to be a fly on the wall, was Simon Jones; the project’s “Making of...” man.
Now I like auditions when you have the chance to connect with the people you could be working with, and I submit it to you that they are the best and most productive auditions filmmakers and actors can have. The process usually involves discussion of the script, the role being tried for and the character’s motivations, history, outlook. Aside from the script reading itself demonstrating whether an actor can actually deliver the goods, this provides a invaluable opportunity for all concerned to ‘click’; to negotiate each others’ psychologies and get a real sense whether they’ll be able to work with the person on the other side of the table for the duration without ending up strangling them.
And I’m pleased to report this was one of those auditions...
...despite the guy with the chain-saw.
Aside from ritual humiliation, it is an actor’s lot to stoically accept that audition conditions may never be exactly be, shall we say... optimal. So it was here. While the FXhome team had done everything humanly possible to make one welcome, comfortable and relaxed, they reckoned without the gardener outside, and his chain-saw.
At least, it might as well have been the chain-saw for all the noise it made.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; no sooner had I walked through the door and began pressing flesh than the gardener kick-started the motor and switched to “turbo”.
There’s a lovely moment captured in the audition posting on the FXhome project forum; throughout my audition that saw is heard whining away. At one point though while Ash and I are chatting it pitches up a notch, gets even louder, and Elly can be seen looking beyond the camera and out the window, her expression a disbelieving, unambiguous “WTF...?” I’d understand if the guy had been valiantly holding off unspeakable hordes of undead, hungry for our warm living flesh. But no; he was only trimming the lawn... and to within an inch of its life by the sounds of it.
Nonetheless, like pros, we soldiered on. What else can you do in situations like that? Looking back, I mentally had to compartmentalise the noise, set it to one side, and focus on the audition and our discussion about Shepherd and the project. In this way, though Bruce Campbell was slicing and dicing outside, it turned out the audition went extremely well. Ash and I clicked, and we found common ground for Shepherd and my approach to him. Not only did I feel pleased walking out the door at the end of it, Brucie aside, I felt in a small way I didn’t want the audition to end.
That I counted as a good sign.
You’ll understand then when I write I spent the entirety of the return trip grinning like an idiot and praying, “Please, please please, let me get it...”
You can’t say I’m not keen.
Another sign things have gone your way is when one of the production team contact you after the audition. You don’t get a confirmation you’ve won the role, not yet. They just ask you something about yourself or whether you do some-such. Can you drive? Can you rub your tummy and pat your head? Have you ever thrown yourself in front of train? How do you feel about free-fall parachuting? Y’know... that sort of thing. Get a query like that, and between the lines, the message is, “you’re in the running baby!”
The query I received from Lucy the week following the audition was that Ash wanted Shepherd to be bearded, and was wondering a) if I’d be willing to grow a beard for the shoot, b) could I grow a beard in time for the shoot, and c) if I had any pictures of me bearded?
Well of course I was going to say yes! (Most actors do say yes, whatever the question... then furiously hit the books / train / do whatever needs doing to prove it.)
Fortunately I in fact did possess photos of when I was bearded, pony-tailed and looking faintly like an ageing rock star past his prime. These I duly forwarded to Lucy and Ash for consideration, with a note saying something along the lines that the sooner I knew if I had won Shepherd, the more time I’d have to grow the beard. Not the subtlest of hints to give me the gig, I admit.
It was the following week, I got the call from Lucy. Ash had decided.
I was Captain Michael Shepherd.
It is my belief that what sets out the smoother running productions from the more chaotic is the application of the mantra, “Preparation, preparation, preparation”. Of the many things I greatly appreciated about Fracture, was the fact as much time as could practically be allowed had been granted to the project, so’s to allow the various departments, crew and cast, to prepare what was needed, and themselves, in order to deliver.
For my part, I spent June 2008 preparing to play Shepherd.
I had around twenty days to grow the beard. I loved this part of preparation... all it involved was me letting myself go on my personal grooming; not shaving and allowing my hair to grow. This part of the process has been documented in a video diary I kept for the production. I don’t know whether that will ever be released, but in it I do let on that my then girlfriend - now my wife - was not happy with Ash that I was getting increasingly stubbly! To her my cheeks were first sandpaper, then porcupine spines. Quite a metamorphosis!
Other ways I prepared were physical and mental. I exercise anyway, but I started treating my exercise as a regime Shepherd kept in order to maintain a measure of fitness and discipline in the restricted, claustrophobic and dangerous environment of the mining rig. At the same time, while I jogged, I used the opportunity to run my lines, and not just those of the script. Simon Jones had written video diary monologues for all characters which he hoped we could shoot at the same time as the film itself, with the aim of them being supplementary material for the final DVD. While ultimately the monologues were never shot due to time constraints, for me they did help add back-story to the movie’s filmed narrative, and the psychological undercurrents and fractures (no pun intended) between the crew on the rig.
Then there was the mental aspect, which if anything is the most important aspect of preparation. I wanted to get into Shepherd’s head, know how he thought. Ash was always open to discuss our characters, and he and I had a valuable email exchange about Michael Shepherd’s history and psychology. This allowed me to list for the character his experiences, knowledge, foibles and depths which – even though they would never be revealed in the film – informed how I approached and performed the role. Crystallising the character is essential for both director and actor, which, when coupled with rehearsal – another vital component – nails the emotional direction of the character, the scene, and as a consequence, the film as a whole. Not only that, it enables shooting to progress more smoothly and swiftly on the day, as the actors can arrive on set ready to go, while the director can deal with any other creative or technical issues which arise.
So it was the week of the shoot arrived, with cast and crew assembling from all over the country - and beyond, with the addition of Nils Crone from Sweden - the Saturday before we started shooting. I’d come up by train the night before, to stay the week at the University of East Anglia not far from FXhome and the set, along with many of the cast and crew. This was a great idea of the production to put us up there, as at the end of the day it allowed us to bond and build a sense of family.
Saturday would be a day of introductory meetings, followed by - for the actors at least - costume fittings, make-up tests, and rehearsals with Ash.
First though, we were shown round the set. The FXhome team had hired a workshop unit adjacent to their offices, and had spent the past four weeks building the set. We’d seen the time-lapse footage on the forum, but it was only once we stood within the set was it clear just how far it had come. While the art department were still feverishly working on completing it prior to shooting on Monday (by the end of which time Josh would be wired from a combination of caffeine and lack of sleep), it was certainly exciting to be wandering through what would be our world for five days, and which – for our characters – had been home for almost two years. On reflection - and I can only speak for myself with the limited green-screen experience I’ve had - I believe the physical presence of the facility we could interact with that week, offers definite advantages to an actor in realising their character. I think it certainly aided my own performance anyway.
After that, we went through the schedule. What can I say about the costume fitting? That was a wonderful moment. I’d seen what Shepherd’s gear would look like, but actually putting it on, literally slipping into Shepherd’s boots, putting his dog-tags over my head (a nice touch; they’d even been stamped with his name on one tag, and mine on the other), then having Ash take a look at all three of us... I tell you, I felt a sense of arrival for me, for Shepherd. I felt only disappointment having to get out of the gear, knowing I’d have to wait ‘til Monday to slip into it again. I wish now we could have worn our costume during rehearsals.
Speaking of which, with the cast now assembled and fitted, we worked on the final piece of the jigsaw; rehearsal.
I’ve already said that rehearsal is a vital component of preparation, and it was useful and necessary we did so here. Though I’d seen Kate’s and Russell’s auditions posted with mine on the FX film forum, I didn’t know them and this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to meet and work the scenes with them. We needed to look like a small group of people who’d lived and worked with each other a good long while. So we ran through the script with Ash. Our rehearsal space was – curiously and for reasons I can’t now recall – a small square of grass lawn outside the FXhome offices. (The set certainly wasn’t ready for rehearsal; it remained a building site practically until the first shot was set up Monday morning, and it’s likely the FXhome office was being kitted out specially to handle the short-term requirements of the shoot, “the talent” therefore would only be in the way.) Good thing it didn’t rain. So we worked through Saturday and Sunday, honing the scenes and clarifying the performances to Ash’s satisfaction. As for Kate and Russ, they were a friendly and talented pair, professional and good fun to work with. By the end of rehearsals I knew we were going to have fun during the shoot.
So it was that, duly prepped and partied (Josh having treated us to meals out the weekend nights), Monday dawned, and Michael Shepherd was called to set.
The industrial unit we shot in was quite large. Nonetheless, once you cram in one mining-rig-room-with-corridor film set, with a green room relaxation space one side of it, and the equipment and make-up areas the other side, plus all kinds of set dressing detritus on a third, that large space suddenly feels pretty darned cramped. Add to that we were shooting in late June, with the lights set-up and burning, it was cramped and warm. This was to be pretty much the norm throughout the week, aside from times the freight doors were raised and much required light and air were allowed to circulate during breaks.
Still, I arrived on-set much impressed with all the last-minute magic the - by now very bleary-eyed - art department had wrought on the set over the weekend. Monitors ran graphics, working lights glowed atmospherically, the space looked dirty and industrial (look; genuine grease and grime, kids!). With the addition of Chris Jones’ (the DoP’s) lighting, I almost expected to hear the deep bass thrum of generators, pumps and engines.
The first set-ups of the shoot required first a wide, then a close-up of Shepherd; sitting at the table, carving chunks from an apple and chewing, while he stared at the door and brooded over Cameron and Rachel. Ash did a number of takes for each set-up, and each must have lasted at least a minute. To this day I still don’t know why he needed quite so many takes, and I wish he hadn’t at the time, as by the end of it I was reaching my apple tolerance threshold. I must have devoured six or seven of the things in the space of a couple of hours before we were done and Russ and Kate were called to set for the scene where Shepherd gives Cameron and Rachel his short congratulatory speech. I was close to physically gagging at the sight of another apple. Maybe Ash was punishing me for something I said... As I noted on the “Making of...” at the time, that morning I certainly got my fibre for the week. But I don’t recall touching another apple for the rest of the shoot... apart from one time. (More about that later.)
Once my stint was done that day, I hung round, viewing what was captured on the large, widescreen TV or at Justin Heaseman’s computer back at the FXhome office, into which he download the rushes. The kit was great; a RED camera with great lenses and a gizmo which gave the footage a “film” look without the need for digital jiggery-pokery. Forget the acting, the resulting shots looked amazing. Of course, with the acting the footage looked awesome...
Through the week it became apparent that all the preparation and thought which had gone into the shoot was paying off. We were getting terrific footage. What most impressed me was how we very quickly slipped into gear, and while the shoot was very relaxed (when not required, a number of us could be found frequently playing GTA Liberty City on the FXhome office’s PS3), that meant no loss in commitment or professionalism. All the time through the week, the sense of family grew, as regularly Josh would treat us to nights out to dinner or to beers on FXhome. One night after the shooting day, a large number of us congregated back at the FXhome office, and enjoyed Chinese take-out and beer, whilst the movie Sunshine played on the office widescreen TV via the PS3.
We even had time to mess around a little.
Come Wednesday and mid-shoot, all the scenes in the main room were complete, and the set was to be re-dressed to become the recreation room. Justin was compiling a blooper reel for the wrap party, and I’d had an idea about another bit of material that could be contributed. I discussed it with him, Russ, Kate and Chris Jones, who quickly agreed. Once the final shot of the scene had been recorded, Justin called Ash back to the office on some pretence about the edit for the movie, while back on set, we got to work.
Chris quickly set up a frame to match my opening brooding and apple-eating sequence, Russ and Kate gathered what as required, and we re-shot it. So it was that, come the night of the wrap party, Ash was surprised to see among the bloopers, perfectly legitimate footage of Shepherd eating an apple, just as scripted. And so the reel played. We’d cut away to another blooper, then back to Shepherd, still slicing and munching the apple. Another blooper, then back to Shepherd, who, without batting an eyelid, switches from an apple to a biscuit, then a sandwich... crisps... a cake. And so on... All this done completely, broodingly deadpan... until I finally lost it. There was only so much I could take after all. But the result was ridiculously hilarious and well worth the look on Ash’s face.
Then there was a corridor scene when, in the script, just after Shepherd has left Cameron and Rachel to go for a bit of wander round the rig one last time, an explosion occurs. The two rush out to the corridor and find it - and the way Shepherd has gone - blocked. Rachel calls out to Shepherd, dismayed and concerned for him. As shot it was all rightly tense and dramatic... until - unscripted - Shepherd rushes up behind and joins them looking at the carnage with equal concern on his face.
What, can I say? I saw the opportunity and took it.
Yes... good times indeed.
But, alas, all good things must come to an end.
Chris Jones has a number of behind the scenes shots of the Fracture shoot. One shows the green room table with its food and drink, brought outside from the industrial unit, with the cast and crew sitting, lounging round it during the Friday lunch break, under the midday sun. None of us look happy in that shot. I remember that picture being taken, and I felt no joy at the time. It had been a great week; I felt I’d produced good work with a great cast and crew. Unsurprising then in those circumstances you don’t want that kind of experience to end. I certainly didn’t.
The final shot was clapped Friday afternoon. Everyone had gathered on set to see it filmed. The shot was a close-up of tampered electronics that Russ’ character discovers in the escape pod. The camera rolled, sound was up to speed. Ash called “Action!” The take was played out by Russ... Ash called “Cut!” A number of us shouted out, urging Ash to “Call it! Call it!”
‘Alright, alright’ Ash replied. He gave the moment its deserved pregnant pause, before calling: ‘That’s a wrap.’
Cheers. Laughter. Hugs. The popping of champagne. The bitter-sweet knowledge the job is now done... but has been done well at least. By that stage my time as Shepherd had already ended; I’d completed the pod scene with Kate that morning. Still, I’d remained in costume... y’know... just in case. With wrap being called however, I had to accept my own short space adventure was now over. I had to take the costume off for the last time, step out of Shepherd's boots, and with them, Shepherd himself.
Two years on, I count myself very fortunate having been involved in something so special as “Moon Miners” as was, “Terminal” as it ended up being during the shoot, and finally “Fracture” as it now is titled. I’m proud of the project, and of the work I did on it. My performance as Shepherd still graces my showreel, and right now I see no reason to replace it with new footage of another project, and a different role. I may well have to one day, but I like what I did on a project I liked working on, and it’ll stay as long as I feel it should.
I’m pleased to have worked with everyone involved, and - seeing their other projects they’ve worked on since the summer of 2008 - been pleased for their achievements. Not so secretly I’ve said it would be great to get the family together again, maybe for a feature. Whether it’s set in the same universe with the same characters as Fracture, it doesn’t really matter. Just so the family can get back together. Just so we can, y’know... have another adventure.
© 21st August 2010 Julian Boote