Your dream of working in the movie business can come true, but you have to start at the bottom.
Working as a Runner on a feature film
About 'Thunderbirds Are Go'
This short story is about my first job on a feature film set. The film was 'Charlie Noades: RIP' a black comedy set in Liverpool, England. Filming was in 2007 but the film was only released in 2011. I wanted to get into films and at the age of fifty was leaving it a bit late, but the production company saw enough in me to take me on as a Runner/Driver. Runner's are the bottom of the film crew heap and have to do all the menial jobs but it was no less exciting for that.
'Thunderbirds Are Go' was published in the book 'Stories from the CIty', a collection of short stories by emerging writers to celebrate Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. This year I had the honour of having two quotes from the story displayed in the new Museum of Liverpool. The quotes were: "What makes Liverpool so special? It can only be the people." and "Look past the shining new towers, the gleaming shopping malls, to see what beats underneath."
Getting into films as a Runner
“Is Thunderbird One free Tony? I just want to have a chat with John about the Runners’ position somewhere quiet.”
“Yeh, go ‘ed Suz, I’m not usin it, but there’s no lecky on. Take this extension lead and I’ll plug yer in.”
I’d come to see North Star Productions about a job in their new feature film, ‘Charlie Noades R.I.P.’; I didn’t think we would be going into orbit for the interview. As it turned out we didn’t slip through a secret panel in the Portakabin and land in the cockpit of a space rocket, the journey was only to a battered old two berth caravan at the far side of their large, gloomy, industrial shed in Vauxhall Road.
“This is Tony Fitz’s office, he’s the Co-Producer, along with his brother Neil, who also wrote the script and is the main actor: not bad for seventy-five quid, is it?”, said Suzy, the Production Manager and Second Assistant Director, as she plugged in the light.
It was all a far cry from the glamour of Hollywood, but this was the face of budget film making in Liverpool.
I squeezed in behind the table trying to remember I was having a job interview and not on a bad holiday in Prestatyn. Suzy started to describe the work and brought me back to the present.
“The hours are long, breakfast at seven and wrap at six-thirty most days. You will be driving John Thompson and he lives in Manchester, so add another three hours to your day. You’ll also be making tea, running errands and helping the 3rd Assistant Director on set. Oh, and the pay is ₤150 a week. Is that okay?” She smiled.
That’s about ₤2 an hour, but hey, this is a chance to work on a feature film, set in Liverpool, my home town, written by a Liverpudlian and with a largely local cast and crew.
“I’ll take it.”
“Welcome to the crew”, handshakes all round.
The Runner has to be prepared to do anything
Filming on the Liverpool streets
I didn’t think I’d get it. Film runners are usually students; youngsters trying to put a first foot on the career ladder, not fifty-year-olds starting a new life. People my age don’t get a second chance: or do they? I want to be a writer, something fulfilling at long last, something to grow on the compost of life’s first half. To do something I’m ready and well qualified for, not just settle for three mornings a week in B&Q. Is that too much to ask?
Is it also too much to ask that a city should re-invent itself? To be re-born from the fertile soil of its own decomposition. Time will tell on both counts, but we have to go for it, there is nothing to be lost and everything to gain.
For my part, the film represented an opportunity to meet other writers, to see first hand how the creative industry works, to have more doors to open, to get my face known.
For Liverpool, its opportunity is Capital of Culture. The chance for the world to see a new face of the city and to dispel old prejudices and reinforce the positives.
Suzy took a chance on me. I don’t know what I did, but whatever it was, gave her the confidence to look further than the chrome dome. She looked past the external and saw something deeper which reassured her I could haul my backside out of bed at ungodly hours, and stand in a muddy scrap yard taking orders and making tea, without feeling it was all beneath a bloke of my maturity.
The same goes for Liverpool. Outsiders have to be able to look past the shining new towers, the gleaming shopping malls, the resplendent – almost gum free – pavements and see what beats underneath. Every city in the world has glittering temples dedicated to the God of shopping. They are only the outward symbols of new life. Birmingham, Newcastle and Bristol also have fine industrial heritages, first class art galleries, outstanding theatres and orchestra’s. So what is it that makes Liverpool different?... It can only be the people. Isn’t that why the government gave us the big prize?
But will we be able reassure the knockers and the doubters. Will investors and commentators be able to take a chance on the Liverpool people? After all, we do have a habit of shooting ourselves in the foot. Just when the Beatles, the comedians and the footy had dragged the city back to the world stage, riots and political problems conspired to drag us down again.
Working with the film crew out on the streets reminded me of the Yin and Yang nature of the contemporary city and its inhabitants. Sent out by Suzy into the wilds of Kirkdale on an errand for honey to sooth her ragged, viral throat, I walked into a battered, third-world grocer’s come off-license and approached the grizzly, aged owner, stooped behind his walls of armoured Perspex. “Do you sell honey?”
He looks at me with suspicious eyes, “honey?… we don't do that mate.”
“Do you know where I might get some?” I ask, with a lost-cause demeanor.
He turned his dispirited gaze towards his elderly assistant stacking groceries behind the Perspex, “Sheila, de ye kno where ye get honey? … an done say freakin bees!”
I could be wrong, but it would be a shame to lose that kind of shopping experience in favour of the standardised, sterile, faceless, global blandness, which is the hallmark of present-day emporia. They may be considered ugly, but these small shops and the people who scratch a living from them are bastions of old Liverpool; like gold nuggets in the shale of dereliction.
But even in the old badlands, lying in the shadow of the bright World Heritage lights, there are seeds of optimism.
Witness the group of young apprentice lads walking along Vauxhall Road, chips in hand, curiosity at the ready, all muddy boots and attitude.
“Hey mate, are yez makin a fi-lm?” bellows a fresh faced artisan.
The four-kilowatt arc lights flooding the Glass House pub from the pavement outside are a dead giveaway.
“Yes mate but you’ve got to keep it down while they’re rollin inside.”
“Alright mate”, still at full volume. “De yez want any extras?”
“No mate, we’re all sorted”, I said quietly, hoping this would move him on. But he wasn’t to be put off that easily.
“This face is gonna be famous y’know”, pointing with both hands to his impudent mug, repleat with rosy cheeks, shaved hair and wing-nut ears glowing brightly in the chill November air.
“What, on Crimewatch”, I suggest, as his mates crack-up.
“Arh eh mate, don't be like that. I’m gonna be a star one day”, not realising he already was.
Learning from the stars
I often came across this buoyant attitude while we were filming. As a city, we’ve been in the gutter for a long time now, but we’ve never stopped wanting to be a star.
This aspirational mind-set could be found in among the cast and crew as well. As I’ve already described, the money in film’s isn’t great. Only the visible peak of the creative industry iceberg is comfortably well off. But that doesn’t deter the unseen underwater masses from wanting to climb the slippery slope. These people are not just the X-Factor wannabe rejects, they have genuine talent and ability. Many are hiding their creative lights under the bushel of make-ends-meet going nowhere jobs. It’s the Culture Capital wind of change that is blowing hope and opportunity in their direction.
Take Ray, for example. Driving his Council Road Sweeper down Prescot Road but thinking, ‘I can do better than this’. Throws it all in to enrol on a Film Production degree course at Edge Hill University. “I wanna write me own stuff”, he says confidently, “an I’ve got loads of ideas.”
He’s not the only one.
Martin, the minibus driver, spits through his teeth as we make tea for the actors in a grubby scrap yard and asks me, “hey fella, are yeh gonna come to the premier of me new fi-lm?” He drives a scrap-yard cheating, beat-up old Escort and wears a coat with gaffer-taped rips. The ear flaps on his fleecy hat give him the look of a down-at-heel Deputy Dawg, but he’s making films! And he’s drumming-up sponsors, booking venues, writing scripts, operating the camera, selling tickets and making the tea.
Jonathon, another Edge Hill student bunking off college to learn in the real world classroom. He badgers Tony Fitz’ to let him film backstage; making clips for the DVD. The crew dub him ‘Duracell’, not just because of his bright ginger locks but because he never stops talking or moving. Jokingly I ask him if he’s taken his Ritalin today. “I used to take that stuff,” he confesses openly. Some kids would use an A.D.H.D. diagnosis to claim extra benefit and sit-off all day smoking skunk. But he’s busy writing a synopsis for a film about his life in care homes, as well as organising open mic DJ nights and making pop promo video’s.
Its not just the dreamers on the bottom rung who are pulling out all the creative stops. The Fitzmaurice brothers are already well up the ladder of success, but still have to fight to make their own dreams happen in a city with great locations and a talented workforce. Even with a cracking script, a quality cast and an experienced crew, it has taken them six years to tempt investors to provide the funding. With Capital of Culture looming it was shit or bust; the film had to be done whether the money was there or not. To make it happen everyone worked at a fraction of their normal fees and were happy to pull their tripes out for the cause. Tony, particularly set a challenging example. You won’t find many Producers who will stay up all night building sets and the next day be speaking to investors one minute and mopping the toilets the next. Such effort deserves success. Who knows if it will come: you can only do your best, then wait to see if others perceive your worth.
As the corks popped at the wrap party, I sipped champagne from a polystyrene cup and knew I had done a good job. North Star’s faith in me had been repaid. They took a chance and put aside age and experience preconceptions and it all turned out fine.
I had taken a first important step towards re-inventing myself. Likewise, Capital of Culture will be a huge leap for a city on the cusp of re-birth and a massive opportunity for the outside world to see through the old stereotypes to the gold that lies beneath.
Thunderbirds are go!