A Handy 8-Step Guide To Shooting A London Thriller

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From The Lodger to Luther, camera crews have been ubiquitous on London’s streets for a century. There’s barely an alley or alcove that hasn’t hosted a foot chase, even Dominic Toretto has raced its mysteriously traffic-free streets, and we’re one more helicopter shot of The Shard away from hitting ourselves over the head with a truncheon. The question is, then, how do you show audiences a fresh side of the Old Smoke? We thought we’d ask John Crowley, the man behind legal thriller Closed Circuit, for some tips. As he tells Empire: “I’m totally in love with this city.”

Rule one of setting a film in London? No red buses, punk rockers or establishing shots of Buckingham Palace.

“The choice was to free ourselves of the red buses and the picture-postcard side of London. It’s a fascinating city and it reflects back at you what you perceive in it. It’s not possible to get one comprehensive view of it: it’s multi-faceted. As a filmmaker, the thing that interested me is the growing number of cameras in the town. That’s what drew me to this project.”

Infused with the spirit of Alan Pakula, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet’s ‘70s conspiracy pieces, Closed Circuit plugs into a lesser-known side of the city encompassing the intelligence and legal worlds.

“28 Days Later is a great London movie, and Defence Of The Realm is another great London movie. Which films have got London wrong? Well, I won’t slag off another filmmaker, but we should be making a lot more films here than we are and I’m not entirely sure why that is. Why people stopped figuring out how to shoot London in an interesting way. It’s an amazingly photogenic city but for some reason that hasn’t always been [translated to the screen].”

Pairing up Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall as a pair of Special Advocates called on to defend a terrorism suspect and unwittingly uncovering a Sydney Pollack-like conspiracy in the process – Three Days Of The Pigeon? – Closed Circuit is the handiwork of English screenwriter Steven Knight, the man behind David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and director of Hummingbird (pictured left with Jason Statham).

“Steve Knight is very good at identifying a certain world within a recognisable world that we already know well. He did that very well with Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and he does the same thing with this: offering a glimpse of the legal system’s inner workings, which is actually quite different to the way TV dramas depict it. I thought it would be fascinating to capture the old, dark burnished wood quality of that world and its rituals rubbing up against the surveillance capital.”

A be-wigged wonderland, the legal kingdom of Lincoln’s Inn is the film’s heartland. Forget Mr Jaggers and Judge John Deed, though. Crowley set out to show the secretive world in all its arcane glory and legal chicanery. It was an easier task than getting anywhere near the yet-more byzantine world of MI5.

“Lincoln’s Inn is this self-contained world. You literally cross a threshold and you’re in a different world – you could be in Oxford or Cambridge. It has its own rules and rituals. The idea of special advocates is, in itself, an interesting and rather Kafkaesque subsection of the legal system. The idea of being a daytripper in the legal system was appealing to me. It’s one of the great things about being a filmmaker: you’re allowed to drop into a world, have a look around and report back.

“With the MI5 scenes, we did shoot an exterior of (MI5 HQ) Thames House from the river but ended up not using it. They’re not going to let you near the place. They won’t accept any reaching out from filmmakers. How do you contact them? ‘Freephone-SPOOKS’, I guess**. Apparently they giggle to themselves at every attempt to portray them in fiction.”

As the title suggests, Closed Circuit is set against a backdrop of Britain’s quote-unquote surveillance culture. There are half a million CCTV cameras in London, asserts a key character in the film, a figure Crowley cannot confirm or deny...

“I don’t know who’s going to go out and count them! What’s true is that their exponential rise over the last 15 years has been astonishing. Most people accept that when you walk five minutes across the centre of London, you’ll be photographed every which way, and, aside from a few media commentators, there hasn’t been much hue and cry about it. Whether that’s because people haven’t noticed or they feel safer because of it and don’t mind a perceived drop in their civil liberties... that’s an interesting question. We wanted to have a distinction between our surveillance footage and the rest of the film, so we shot on film and then covered everything digitally for the CCTV footage.

John Crowley, the Cork-born director who discovered Andrew Garfield for Boy A and last directed Michael Caine comedy-drama Is Anybody There?, has lived in London for the past 16 years and directed several plays in the West End. He brought in Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Sin Nombre’s DP, to shoot the film.

“I chose Adriano because he was a complete outsider and had never shot here. I wanted someone who was even more of an outsider than me by my side. One of the models we had for it was Michael Clayton, in terms of its quality and steeliness. There it was a corporate world with a degree of paranoia; here I wanted a recognisable London with a slight edge of paranoia. I didn’t want the look to be too heightened. We chose to shot on film because we felt that would capture tones and colours most suitably, but there were so many different types of London within the film which hopefully knit together: the river; the legal world; the Turkish immigrants; the world of the prison. They’re all jostling next to each other, but they all feel of a piece."

Like the eerily abandoned London of 28 Days Later, Closed Circuit opens with a seemingly abandoned Westminster as Eric Bana’s lawyer sculls serenely down the Thames. If it looks simple on screen, the shoot was a different matter.

“We were on the river at dawn and had to off it by 10.30am before the tourist boats starting coming up and down the river. There was a little jiggery-pokery getting Eric Bana in a boat on the Thames because [the river authorities] wouldn’t allow it. But I probably shouldn’t tell you that! There’d been a drowning the year before and they were all over us. Our camera boat also drifted close to the Houses Of Parliament at one point and a security boat came tearing over. We barely managed [to get all the shots] before all those Thames pleasure cruisers arrived."

You know those movie chase scenes where someone runs into Green Park tube and comes out in Shoreditch, before opening a door and appearing in Oxford? Oddly annoying, right? Happily, Crowley was adamant that there’d be no Mr Benn geography in Closed Circuit... as much as possible, at least.

“There were a few decisions that were a little ‘ish’ but we tried to be as true as possible to the geography. Maybe in the edit when you need to lose a little bit [of travel], the film has to take on its own logic and you have to trust it. People will go, “Hang on!” but there’s nothing you can do. You have to be true to the spirit of it rather than being literally true. It’s not a documentary.”

Closed Circuit is out now