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The Joy of Sets

What if you sent a writer overseas and told him to go to as many movie sets as humanly possible in a week? Would he chat up Cate Blanchett and see Brad Pitt fight in World War II? Would he get cast in a musical? Would he eat an ungodly amount of catering? Yes, to all of the above

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Here we are in mid-July in the hills of Italy,” says Guy Ritchie, staring across a damp and shallow valley, “and it’s decided to piss with rain for the last two weeks.” Technically, it is not mid-July. Also, we are not in Italy. It’s late October at Hankley Common, about 40 miles west of London, where the British director of the Sherlock Holmes films is shooting The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a reboot of the ’60s spy TV show starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

Ritchie, who’s overseeing a fight sequence featuring Cavill’s CIA spy Napoleon Solo and a baddie played by Italian actor Luca Calvani, can’t be surprised by the rain. Prior to my visit to the set, the film’s publicists sent me a flurry of emails along the lines of “Will be muddy!” and “Bring sensible shoes!” As a Brit myself, I would love to dispel the cliché of the dire U.K. weather by waxing lyrical about the way the autumnal sun dapples the browning foliage of the English countryside. But the truth is that the climate tends to meander between three meteorological states: just about to start pissing with rain, just finished pissing with rain, and the ever-popular actually pissing with rain.

I have been sent back to the U.K. because of the vast number of films being shot here these days. In the past couple of years Britain has become the new Hollywood — or at least the new Vancouver. Ron Howard is making the 19th-century whaling epic Heart of the Sea at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden; Kenneth Branagh is directing a live-action version of Cinderella with Cate Blanchett at Pinewood; Nicole Kidman is tearing around London for the kiddie-friendly bear movie Paddington; and in the countryside south of Oxford Brad Pitt is playing a tank commander in David Ayer’s as-yet-untitled WWII drama. Need more proof that a trend is afoot? Johnny Depp is making two films in Britain (the action comedy Mortdecai as well as the fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, costarring Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt). Ridley Scott is shooting the biblical epic Exodus. And next year J.J. Abrams will get rolling on something called Star Wars: Episode VII.

My mission over the next 10 days is to visit as many productions as possible, to find out how the Hollywood elite is dealing with the local customs and climate, and to discover how this influx of major studio movies is affecting homegrown films. On a more personal note, I’m wondering just how much free craft-service food a human being can eat. Spoiler alert: The answer to the last question will be a lot.

I Watch Henry Cavill Take A Beating
Why are major studios shooting so many films in a country as synonymous with rain as it is with tea drinking and Hugh Grant — who, incidentally, also stars in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? There are many answers to that question, including the deep pool of indigenous behind-the-scenes talent, the lack of a language barrier, and London’s reputation as a fine place to hang out. When Armie Hammer arrives on the U.N.C.L.E. set, I ask him what he likes best about shooting in the British capital. “Everything,” he replies. “The culture, the people, the pubs. All of it.” But the main reason Hammer is here is the generous tax-credit system the U.K. government established in 2007 to encourage film production. “All the big American films come here because there’s a fantastic rebate,” says Lionel Wigram, an U.N.C.L.E. producer who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ritchie. Last year Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reimbursed Disney roughly $25 million for shooting the Marvel superhero movies Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy in Britain.

Fortunately, Ritchie has prepared for the weather both cinematically and sartorially. As for the fashion: For reasons never made clear, he and a couple of key crew members are dressed in country tweeds and look like they’re shooting grouse rather than a movie. And as for the filmmaking: The director decided to double down on the damp, ordering up a rain machine and having Calvani’s character savagely attack Cavill’s hero in the midst of what will look to audiences like a sudden Italian summer downpour. And I do mean savagely. You know you’re on a Guy Ritchie set when you hear the directorial instruction “Let’s have him kick him in the bollocks!”

During a break, Ritchie explains that one by-product of the rush to film in the U.K. and its famed studio complexes — notably Pinewood, Shepperton, and Leavesden — is the opportunity it affords directors to rub shoulders with one another in a sort of real-world auteurist version of LinkedIn. “We were on Leavesden and Ron Howard’s there,” recalls Ritchie. “There is no reason why I would necessarily fraternize with other directors.” But? “I made it my neighborly business to stick my nose in his affairs.”

I Defend The Honor Of Pubs
A couple of days after leaving Ritchie, I myself am nosing around Ron Howard’s affairs as he shoots a storm sequence for Heart of the Sea in the water tank at Leavesden’s Studio C. The film is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 best-seller In the Heart of the Sea, which details the remarkable true story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: A massive sperm whale destroys a Nantucket whaling ship, forcing its crew to find out if they can sail tiny boats back to land before they starve to death. My day begins with production designer Mark Tildesley’s tour of the main outdoor set, an impressive re-creation of ye olde Nantucket harbor, followed by a hearty and on-theme meal of fish and chips at a tented canteen. (By the way, if your life goals include weighing 500 pounds, please do consider a career in film. The lunch menu on the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. boasted a choice of braised lamb shanks, sea bream, vegetarian burritos, and a pork Stroganoff so filling I don’t know how I found the room for my cheese and crackers.)

After lunch, I stand next to Howard at the indoor set’s “video village,” a bank of monitors where visiting journalists are often planted so they can view what is actually being filmed and don’t accidentally wander into a shot or, in this instance, drown. The scene features Chris Hemsworth’s first mate, Owen Chase, and a clutch of other hungry souls being buffeted by fake wind and rain as their boat is shaken around on a remote-control gimbal. While overseeing these highly complex matters via cordless microphone, Howard justifies his nicest-man-in-Hollywood rep by yakking about Guy Ritchie’s neighborly visit. “He said, ‘I’m shooting a bunch of dialogue scenes — I want to be out here shooting your storm.’ I said, ‘Maybe we should swap for a couple of days.'” Howard, who shot Rush in the U.K. as well, believes that filming in a foreign country is beneficial to his creative process. “It pushes me out of my comfort zone,” he says, “which ain’t ever a bad thing.”

When I am ushered into the presence of Thor himself, Hemsworth proves friendly as well. However, the visibly slimmed-down Australian warns that he isn’t quite feeling like himself due to his “s—ty” and steadily decreasing diet — which will eventually drop to 500 calories per day. “It messes with your head,” he says. I decide not to mention the excellence of the fish and chips.

The only other thing I hear even approaching a complaint on the set is from American actor Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), who plays the ship’s captain, George Pollard. Walker, it seems, is less fond of the local hostelries than Armie Hammer. “Why do pubs close at 11:30?” he asks. “It’s ridiculous.” The actor is unmollified by my explanation that many of London’s “boozers” do stay open much later due to a recent relaxation of licensing laws. “Well, point them out to me,” he says. “Because if another old guy with a handlebar mustache takes my beer and tells me ‘We’re closing,’ I’m gonna lose my mind.”

I Become A Star
“We’re going to put ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in our movie,” announces Max Giwa, director of the indie musical Holiday! “Let’s get you some luggage.”

Okay, now this is what I’m talking about. I’ve only just arrived on set, but already Giwa has recognized what Guy Ritchie and Ron Howard did not: I shouldn’t be reporting on movies, I should be in them.

Giwa and codirector Dania Pasquini are filming a sequence that finds star Hannah Arterton (BBC America’s Atlantis) dancing through a section of East London’s ExCel exhibition center. The set has been dressed to resemble the Italian airport at Puglia, and the speakers are blasting Arterton’s prerecorded rendition of the old Madonna hit “Holiday” (one of many ’80s tracks that will pepper the Mamma Mia!-esque venture). This is the first and the biggest sequence in the film, one that involves around 300 extras. And I have just been cast as…Luggage-Dragging Vacationer No. 27. The role is so small that when I catch up with her later in the line for lunch, Arterton is unaware that I was in the scene at all. On the upside, lunch is game pie with root-vegetable mash and green beans followed by lemon cheesecake.

Despite the fine choreography on display, Holiday! is a small production compared with the major-studio-financed behemoths that have set up camp in town. Producer Caroline Levy admits it has been much tougher to secure crew members and equipment over the past few years: “Sometimes if you want a focus puller for a day, you have to phone 40 people.” She adds that the larger films have become “the bread-and-butter” work for many behind-the-scenes folks.

Speaking of money, can I expect to be paid for my own screen debut?

“What time did you did turn up?” says Levy. “Were you here at seven?”

More like 10-ish.

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

Nicole Kidman Frightens Me
People used to laugh when I said Nicole Kidman should play an unhinged taxidermist hell-bent on stuffing an adorable talking bear from Peru and putting him on display at London’s Natural History Museum. But who’s laughing now?

I am at a monitor, watching the Oscar winner play this very role during a night shoot for Paddington. (The film, of course, is adapted from the long-running series of children’s books by Brit author Michael Bond.) The movie is live-action. Well, live-ish action. Paddington himself is nowhere to be seen — the marmalade-sandwich muncher will be CG’d in later and voiced by Colin Firth — which makes Kidman’s deliciously evil performance doubly impressive. She acts with thin air as director Paul King delivers our cuddly hero’s lines.

Kidman: “I’m going to stuff you, bear.”

Paddington: “Stuff me?”

Kidman: “Yes.”

Paddington: “With marmalade?”

Kidman: “No.”

The actress’ imaginative rendering of her dialogue — sometimes big, sometimes oh-so-small — almost makes up for the fact that, as the film’s publicists have told me, I will not actually be speaking with her. One vagary of visiting film sets is the wide discrepancy in the rules. Sometimes journalists can see stars act but not speak with them, or vice versa. While such strictures can be irritating, they’re not entirely unreasonable. Would you want some dude with lemon cheesecake on his face staring at you as you went about your work — or interrupting your coffee break to inquire about your motivation?

In the unexpected-bonus department, however, I am allowed to roam through the empty Natural History Museum at night. It hosts an amazing collection of exhibits, including some famous dinosaur skeletons. Although nothing comes to life (that’s right, kids — Ben Stiller is a big fat liar), I am invited to look around the specimen room, which is definitely not part of the usual tour and houses a ghoulish collection of animals pickled in alcohol or formaldehyde. So while I’m not able to remove “Interview Nicole Kidman” from my bucket list, I can cross off “Get up close to a 30-foot-long squid.”

I Inspect The Troops
For my next set I am back outdoors, and once again the weather is playing cruel tricks. The film in question is the untitled WWII movie starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Only a few days earlier, Britain was slammed by a deadly storm. But by the time I arrive on the set, which is located in a big field close to the town of Watlington, the sun is shining on the film’s whacking great Sherman tank. “It’s a f—ing nightmare,” says writer-director David Ayer. “I didn’t come to Britain for the sun!”

Ayer has a sense of humor. “All my movies are about people in cars,” he says. (He wrote The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, and End of Watch, the last of which he also directed.) “This is just another road-trip movie — where the method of transport’s a little more aggressive.” But the filmmaker is also a U.S. Navy veteran, determined to make his tale of a five-man American tank crew in Germany as realistically grim as possible. Production designer Andrew Menzies has painstakingly strived for authenticity, down to blemishing Pitt’s tank with verisimilitudinous crap, including boxes of rations and chunks of rubble. “It is designed crap,” says Menzies, smiling. “Planned crap.”

The only thing threatening Ayer’s war-is-hell vista is that big yellow ball in the sky. Fortunately, like Ritchie he has a contingency plan for the scene he is about to shoot, a heated argument among the soldiers. Nearby, some crew folks clutch two oversize white screens, ready to fulfill the most fabulously insane-sounding direction Ayer is ever likely to make: “Destroy the sun!!!

My Carriage Awaits
Throughout my time in London I’ve been trying to wrangle an invitation to the set of Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella. The timing of set visits is dependent on numerous factors, including the temperament of the actors and the nature of the scenes being filmed. I was unable to get on the set of the Jude Law-starring submarine movie Black Sea because of the technically difficult nature of the sequences being shot, for instance, and I couldn’t visit another film (which shall remain nameless) because the lead actress had a scene wearing nothing but her undies.

The outing to Cinderella is greenlit so late that I arrive at Pinewood en route to Heathrow, clutching my luggage and clad in comfy traveling attire. All of which explains — if not necessarily excuses — the fact that I meet three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell wearing ragged jeans and a Kris Kristofferson T-shirt that, like the country icon himself, is deeply wrinkled. The immaculately dressed Powell avoids commenting on my fashion deficiencies, opting instead to talk me through the creation of the Swarovski-made glass slipper that Lily James’ Cinderella will leave behind at the film’s pivotal ball scene. Legendary production designer Dante Ferretti leads me through the jaw-dropping ballroom set; then Cate Blanchett, who plays the stepmom, good-humoredly complains about the version of Cinderella that her 5-year-old son brought home from school. “I was very excited, waiting to get to my part, and the wicked stepmother wasn’t even in it,” says the actress. “I said, ‘This is only half the story!'”

Alas, the clock is about to strike midnight on my U.K. trip, and I must rush to catch the plane back to America before my taxi becomes a pumpkin. (My own transformation into something resembling a large rotund vegetable is completed by the full turkey dinner and banana-and-toffee pie dispensed by the Cinderella craft-services team.) It is time to bid adieu to Ron and Chris, Brad and Shia, Henry and Armie and, like a certain Peruvian bear, pick up my suitcase for the journey to my adopted home. Then again, the Irish government has just announced that it is upping its tax credits to 32 percent for film productions. Pint of Guinness, anyone?


Shooting in London — and Coming Soon

Untitled Brad Pitt Movie, Due Nov. 14, 2014
David Ayer directs Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and Logan Lerman in a drama about an American tank crew in Germany during the final phase of World War II.

Cinderella, Due March 13, 2015
Six decades after Disney’s animated classic, Kenneth Branagh is directing a live-action update starring Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as her stepmother.

Holiday!, Release Date TBD
Hannah Arterton plays a woman who travels to Italy to see her sister and gets a major surprise in this ’80s-hit-filled Mamma Mia!-style musical costarring Leona Lewis.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Release Date TBD
In director Guy Ritchie’s reboot of the spy show, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) team up to take on a secret crime organization.

Paddington, Due Dec. 12, 2014
A lovable talking bear (voiced by Colin Firth) emigrates from Peru to Britain, where he encounters both the Brown family (led by Hugh Bonneville) and a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) determined to stuff him.

Heart of the Sea, Release Date TBD
In Ron Howard’s 19th-century-set movie, Chris Hemsworth leads a crew of sailors who must battle the elements — and extreme hunger — after a whale destroys their ship in the South Pacific.