Writer-director Julian Gilbey talks about respecting the unforgiving environment of the Scottish Highlands while filming A Lonely Place To Die as well as the day a boulder dislodged and nearly harmed a lot of the crew. He also discusses how the research for the film encouraged him to become a keen climber and tackle the Eiger mountain in the Alps for charity following the shoot.
How was shooting in the Scottish Highlands? Was it unforgiving at times?
Julian Gilbey: Yeah, unforgiving landscape, absolutely, and you have to get lucky. On a low to medium budget film, you have to get a bit lucky with the weather. What we can't afford to do is hang around for 15 weeks putting everybody up in 5-star hotel rooms and just having everybody on stand-by, helicopters on stand-by, like Ryan's Daughter. I mean, they shot that in Ireland and the whole thing is Disney blue skies and I think they lost about 60 days to weather where they've just got [Sarah Miles] and everybody else just in hotels - "Not shooting today..." We can't do that. So, we had to get lucky and May-June 2010 was good weather, August wasn't too bad, so it was an unforgiving environment being a little bit forgiving to us maybe for braving it in the first place.
But it threw in a reminder with the boulder that narrowly missed hitting any of the crew...
Julian Gilbey: Unfortunately, and I've just come back from the Alps and it happens there, but you knock pieces of rock off. The problem was there were too many people on the mountain. A crew member knocked a boulder off the size of a small television and it rolled through the crew. Had it hit any of the crew, it had built up enough speed to do serious damage. It was like a bomb going off in Piccadilly.... everyone was just terrified. I wasn't because I've seen these films before. But that was when we said: "Right, there's too many crew up here, there's too many of them sitting around saying they're essential, when they weren't essential..." They were sitting there doing nothing, so we streamlined it. Whoever went back up the mountain the next day, or for the next few days, if they weren't absolutely essential they weren't going anywhere near it and they got the day off. It's a very, very, very serious environment. And that mountain, Buachaille Etive Mor, had killed two people in an avalanche that February, it had killed three people in avalanche the previous winter. And OK, we weren't in avalanche-risk territory but that mountain has killed repeatedly, so it has to be taken incredibly seriously.
Were you keen to allow the actors to do as many of their own stunts as they could? Melissa George said she did a lot of hers...
Julian Gilbey: She did as many of her stunts, as did all the actors, as their insurance company would allow. But as you've got to understand at some stage they're not allowed to do everything. Melissa was very physical and she did an incredible job. I think a lot of people are noticing that. But for some of the incredibly high falls we will replace her with Belinda McGinley at that point because nobody in the world does all their own stunts - Steve McQueen did not do that motorcycle jump. He would tell you he did, but he didn't. Melissa did a good amount of her own stunts, Ed [Speleers] did a good amount of his stunts, but I can't sit here and take it all away from the stunt crew. They definitely played their part.
You also became a proficient climber, didn't you?
Julian Gilbey: One thing about this movie is that I really wanted to put the method director hat on. I trained to climb for two years for this movie because I didn't want to be shooting a subject I didn't know that much about. It also taught me how to shoot the things better. Funnily enough, when all the actors went and left, I still had unfinished business. I had trained up to this incredibly high standard and there's a mountain the movie that Melissa wanted to climb, the Eiger, and I thought: "That's what I'm going to do." So, I've just come back from the Alps having climbed the Eiger and the Matterhorn for Cancer Research UK. The Eiger is Clint Eastwood's mountain from, you know, The Eiger Sanction, and I was standing on the top of it three weeks ago and I was thinking to myself: "An idea... a research of a movie led me here and it led me to stand on top of this place." To me, it felt like the closing of a chapter. I say that but I still had to get back down off the mountain! Don't stand on the summit and think you've done it, because you really haven't done it... you've got to get back down again [laughs]!
How was working with Melissa?
Julian Gilbey: I really enjoyed working with her. She took it very, very seriously and also when it came to the character of Alison in the script, it could have potentially been a bit bleaker because, I think, a mountaineer is a selfish person and I think Melissa brought a warmth to Alison, which she knew she wasn't going to bring to it straight away. It was one of those characters that sort of warms up. She's not the natural mother of the group - Kate McGowan is. So, I really, really enjoyed working with her. She took it deadly serious and I don't think she fluffed a single line. Ed only fluffed a couple. But she didn't fluff a single line and I've said this in a few interviews, I've never seen it before and I may never, ever see it again. I think even Al Pacino might have fluffed a line before, but she didn't - not one!
How much did you learn about yourself as a person and as a filmmaker through making this?
Julian Gilbey: I think more than anything you have to be a different director to different actors. Some are more sensitive than others... for some it's just like hanging around with your brother and mucking around, others are very different. So, that's one thing I noticed, as well as how different people reacted to different environments and different situations. What did I learn about myself? God, it's a tough one. Technically, this was a hugely tough shoot. But also I don't think you ever do stop learning, especially from a technical point of view. As a person, God... I'm probably selfish, impatient but I've probably always been those things, or so I'm told. I don't know that they're necessarily going to go away. I shall try to be a better person but I guess you never stop learning about things really.
What's been your favourite or most surprising reaction to the film so far?
Julian Gilbey: We've seen it at Frightfest and Fantasia. I think it's nice to watch... some reactions I totally expect; I know where people are going to jump but I don't necessarily know where people are going to laugh or cheer. It's funny, different places around the world differ. Where people in England laugh over some jokes like the Fred West one, or the Christian Bale gag... both sides of the pond laugh at the Christian Bale line, but they don't know who Fred West is in the States. Obviously, he's a hugely loved celebrity over here - he joked sarcastically! - but in the US they're like: "Who's he?" And Melissa, when she first read the script, and that throwaway line comes up, she had to Google Fred West and then said: "Oh my God, how could you put that monster in the movie?"" I was like: "Well, it's a throwaway line!"
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Kaleidoscope Entertainment