How we made the independent thriller Spears

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Gerard Lough takes us through the filming of his new thriller, Spears, as it gets ready to begin its UK festivals run.

One of the most often uttered phrases by ambitious film directors must be ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’. Certainly, it’s a close runner-up to ‘cut’ and ‘action’. At least that’s what I was thinking as I waited for the sun to come up at 6.30am in Slieve League. If you’re not from Donegal, Ireland, then allow me to set the scene: between you and the ocean stand jagged sea cliffs almost 2,000 feet tall. The scenery will knock you off your feet, problem is so will the wind on a bad day… which is what that day was.

The weather can change on a dime, ruining continuity. Take one is clear, take two is shrouded in mist, then gone on the next take, but back again two takes later. Luke Skywalker chose a place not far away to get respite from the First Order. Or to be literal, these same beautifully barren landscapes served as shooting locations for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and seem a fitting choice for a Master’s exile from the galaxy. In real life, even monks living here in the 5th century found it too tough so they packed up and left for Iceland. I can’t say I blame them.

The thing that encapsulates the filmmaking experience for me is that it’s so easy to type the words EXT. SLIEVE LEAGUE – DAWN – with all the imagery it conjures up in your imagination – but a hell of a lot harder to actually go and put those words on the screen in even a vaguely similar way to what your mind’s eye saw all those months ago. The reality of principal photography may hit a director with all the grace of a garbage truck at 4am. Yet the fact remains that, if you put the work in, it’s there on the screen. The only question is how far are you willing to go?

I went to four countries to make Spears, eager to tell a big story on a global stage, all fired up by the spell of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Florence, Italy immediately presented itself as a filmmaker’s playground. A massive set ready and waiting, even the graffiti looked stylish! To give you an idea of my influences, it was not A Room With A View that inspired me to film there, it was Hannibal.

Problem was, Ridley Scott seemed to have hit all the best locations during his time there so I avoided them as best I could or shot them in a very different style to him. The Florence segment in Spears looks like the most expensive part of the film, but the truth is we didn’t have a thousand extras and a permit to shoot outside the Duomo cathedral. Instead, we rolled with a high-quality but still small enough camera so that we never drew attention to ourselves – we had sod all permission to be there. We operated like a low-key documentary crew and the resulting footage has an electricity as a result. Besides, nobody cared where you pointed a camera in Florence.

They cared in London, though. Certainly in Canary Wharf, a place not too accommodating to indie filmmakers with big ideas. When I lived there in the early noughties, I was so impressed
by the vast dome that covers the entrance to Canary Wharf station, I vowed to put it in a film one day. Same goes for the Paolozzi sculpture outside Pimlico tube station. I’m a man of my word, some would say obsessively so.

Another impressive dome found its way into the film thanks to the Sony Center in the business district of Berlin. Why these places for this film? I don’t know, but they just felt right. Neo noir seemed right for Berlin. The genre takes something very old, such as the hallmarks of 40s noir, and pulls them into the present day with all the problems of modern life that goes with it. As a city, Berlin also has one foot in the past while being an ultra-modern place simultaneously. In a shopping mall you could view the latest Tesla car. Around a corner stood the remains of the Berlin wall, past and future side by side.

What is it about neo noir that attracts film directors like me? You could be uncharitable and just assume I’m a morbid bastard fixated on the dark side of human nature and a society where decency and fairness seem in short supply. It’s more that neo noir allows you to present a more realistic depiction of people and the world. No clear line separates good and evil in my film, like many others from this genre. A neat, happy ending that ties up all loose ends with a simple conclusion is also contrary to this genre and I for one like that. I’m the type that doesn’t want the conclusion of Cutter’s Way spelled out for me. I get to make up my own mind as the end titles roll or just accept it’s a mystery still unsolved… like real life.

As I write this, distributors are sitting down to watch the film and I suspect its ambiguous ending may give them pause. You may side with them when you see it. My defence is the director’s mantra… ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.

Here’s the trailer for the film…

Spears was shown to an audience recently for the first time at a cinema in Donegal for a private cast and crew screening. It will start its film festival run later this year…

Find more from Gerard on Twitter, here.

Find more about the film at its IMBb page, here.

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