Think of Yorkshire-made films and what springs to mind? The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Brassed Off perhaps; classics synonymous with northern grit, humour and hope in the face of adversity.
However, there’s a new breed of locally-made movies which should give Hollywood a run for its money in the months and years to come.
In June 2018 the screening of a new sci-fi movie took place. Solis looks like it was made for several million dollars, and could have been filmed on a soundstage in California. Except it’s a micro-budgeted British epic which was shot on our doorstep in Yorkshire.
I’ve been following the film from its first day of shooting in freezing, rural Bubwith at the end of 2016, to this cast and crew screening where, due to an early start, I look like one of The Walking Dead. The fact it stars Steven Ogg, one of the bad guys from that hit zombie-bashing saga, is a major bonus.
The movie is an edge-of-the-seat thriller concerning Troy Holloway, an American astronaut on a collision course with the sun. Not only was it filmed in Yorkshire, but many of the (very) special effects were created at Viridian FX in York. A few days following our screening, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Solis generates glowing reviews.
For writer/director Carl Strathie and his partner/producer Charlette Kilby (who has a cameo), it’s the result of years of planning to get his vision on screen.
Since Solis’ success however, they have not been resting on their laurels. Carl’s in the process of editing Transience, aka The Encounter, a 1980s-set project in which a Philadelphia family has a close encounter and come to terms with a terrible loss. That’s also been shot at Goldfinch Studios in Bubwith. It’s a handy commute for Vincent Regan, an actor more at home in Beverley than Beverly Hills.
When we sit down for a chat, there’s the usual explanation about where I’m from. My default setting is to assume actors are not going to not have a clue where Howden is. ‘Mark Addy would know where Howden is. He’s just down the road in Market Weighton,’ smiles Vincent. ‘Anna Maxwell Martin is in Beverley. Eleanor Tomlinson is Beverley.’ I know we’re in a region bursting with creative talent, but to hear it from a man who’s starred in multi-million dollar epics like Snow White and the Huntsman is a reminder of how lucky we are.
When Yorkshire’s not turning out world-class actors, it’s drawing them in for costume and domestic dramas. And, as you will have gathered, occasionally it doubles for outer space and the United States.
So, how has the star of 300 and Troy found working on Transience?
‘It’s been great,’ he explains after wrapping for the day. ‘I haven’t been working on it as full time as the other guys; I’ve been on it two weeks or so out of the five weeks.’ Shooting any sci-fi film in this neck of the woods is bound to be an odd experience, but when the region is doubling for Philadelphia, it has that extra degree of ‘unusual’.
‘It’s been quite surreal doing an eighties, American genre movie in the middle of Yorkshire,’ explains Vincent, who plays Morgan, the eldest of the Anderson family. ‘He lost his wife Martha, a few years back,’ explains the 53-year-old actor, writer and director. ‘He’s quite a simple guy. Not ‘simple’ as in intellectually simple. He knows himself; he’s not a very showy kind of guy or anything like that. He thinks a lot, and basically he’s a car mechanic. At the beginning of this bizarre adventure, he goes out with the rest of his family and…’
At that point we veer into spoiler territory, so I steer the chat into a safer area. ‘He bookends the movie,’ explains Vincent. ‘I’m a cameo in this; I don’t do any of the heavy lifting. But he’s a really interesting character; really nice to play.’
Vincent adds, ‘There’s two genres that pull together in this film really nicely. There is the science fiction element, and then there is the human story of a missing child and the two genres push together well.’
Transience taps into a fear that dominates the minds of most parents and guardians. ‘The whole idea of missing children, abduction, is massive right now, in TV and in film, and it ‘feels’ that paranoia that we have about protecting our children. And it works really well.
‘Carl manages to get the balance right. When I read it I thought, “Oh, I didn’t expect that!” in the script, so I hope the audience have the same kind of, “Oh wow!” when they see it at the cinema.’
Vincent is happy to be back on home turf just a few days after appearing in a Gallic project. ‘I was doing a French film last week. That was weird; acting in French with a dog was a bit challenging.’ He adds, ‘It’s my new sideline; I used to be doing gangster movies, but I’m doing French movies now. Because I did one last year as well.
‘As regards to what I’m doing now, I’m finishing this off, doing some writing and just trying to keep out of trouble really. Living in East Yorkshire it’s quite easy to keep out of trouble. There’s not lots to do here,’ he smiles.
Vincent heads off for a well-earned rest, but it’s not long before I’m joined by another two famous faces from the day’s shoot: Breaking Bad veteran Laura Fraser, and Sightseers’ co-writer/star Alice Lowe.
I wonder how Laura, who plays the long-suffering Olivia, has found working on the movie.‘It’s really interesting in terms of special effects,’ explains the Glasgow-born star. ‘I don’t think I’ve done a film with this many special effects, ever.
‘Other times it’s tricky because it’s all about the effects. And then you think, ‘well, it doesn’t really matter what I do because it’s all about that,’ she laughs.
Laura continues: ‘Then there’s other scenes where it is really emotionally wrought. You do feel a bit depleted, no matter whether you’ve really committed and you are ‘feeling it’, or whether you are just getting into it. The overall atmosphere is… I suppose not depressing… upsetting. Yeah.’
For Alice Lowe, making Transience has been a little more tense than previous films such as cop comedy Hot Fuzz and her Nuts in May-style black comedy Sightseers. ‘I guess it’s quite claustrophobic being on it, because we’re just in one house really. So the set is quite small,’ she explains.
Having clambered onto the set myself (with the grace of an elephant on roller skates), I’ll agree. I tell her the downbeat mood I experienced during a previous set visit felt like smoke leaving the set as I chatted to cast members Mel Raido, Grant Masters and Sid Phoenix. It proves to be an apt metaphor.
‘They are literally filling it with smoke,’ explains Alice, who plays Arlene. ‘It’s quite a claustrophobic family drama really; everything is about tension and about a pervading sadness.
‘Yeah, it’s very atmospheric, and because it’s practical effects everywhere, we are experiencing a lot of what the characters are seeing. Very little of it will be done in post [production]. If there is a light, you’re actually going to see that light.’ Sound plays a key part in any movie and the director has been keen to add that extra audio sensation for his cast.
‘Because much of it is all about sound design, so there’s all these noises he’s found and he plays them as loud as he can on set. That stuff’s quite good.
‘Carl put on some sound effects, and it sounded like an earthquake; the whole set was shaking. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. We knew some stuff that was going to happen, but I didn’t know the cupboards were going to to be rattling. And it was cool. It was like being on the set of Poltergeist or something. It was like being on a ghost train.’
Alice is no stranger to life behind the camera, having starred in and directed black comedy Prevenge while several months pregnant. It must have been quite a juggling act.
‘Yeah, it was a really enjoyable experience from beginning to end,’ she explains. ‘It was so nice to be able to implement a lot of ideas I’ve had about directing for a long time.’
In case you didn’t know, Alice has been in some of the most memorable British projects of the past few years, including Kill List, The World’s End and Adult Life Skills. Transience is the film which could thrust her into the mainstream American market, a field Laura Fraser knows only too well.
Since becoming a familiar face on BBC fantasy drama Neverwhere in 1996, Laura has been courted by some of the world’s biggest productions. She gave a memorable turn in Anthony Hopkins vehicle Titus, and filming Transience was a dream compared to some of the problems she encountered on that Italian job.
‘That was really mad,’ she recalls. ‘We went two months over schedule; went through about five directors of photography. It was one of most chaotic productions at Cinecitta [film studios] in Rome. It was like, “Wow, we get to be in Rome for another two months!”’ she laughs. ‘God, I would appreciate it so much more now.’
‘That’s always the way, isn’t it?’ agrees Alice. ‘With your first job, especially if it’s a nice job, you kind of get a bit bored. And then you kind of have a job where everyone is a bit weird. And you realise how lucky you were.’
Filmmaking usually involves shooting the movie, and then a year publicising it afterwards. Little wonder some thespians get a bit bored of their own work, until the dust has settled and they can view it with a fresh pair of eyes. Such is the case with Sightseers, part of which was shot at Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire.
‘For two years I was promoting that film around the world, and you get sick of talking about it,’ says Alice. ‘I’ve got a real fondness for it, but there was a time when I thought, “I cannot watch this film anymore! I’ve seen it 40 times,” or whatever it was. I could watch it again now, but with Prevenge – No! It’s too soon.’
Laura agrees. ‘I don’t ever enjoy doing press for the job, but then a few years pass and then it’s lovely to talk about it. [It’s like] “Thanks for asking me!”’ she giggles.
‘You also have a little more nostalgia about it,’ adds Alice. ‘You’re a lot more relaxed, so you can talk a lot more honestly about it. You’re not worried that you’re going to get fired.’
Thankfully there were no such problems with Solis. Alice’s performance is crucial to the film’s success, even if she was brought in at the 11th hour.
‘I came onto Solis after it had finished,’ she explains. After it had been pretty much edited. It still had the effects and post-production to do. ‘I met Carl and Charlette, the producer, at a film festival, and they said, “Would you come and finish the film off?”’
Alice plays Commander Roberts, a lone voice in the galactic darkness who helps Troy Holloway through a very bad day. As two-handed dramas go, it’s pretty unforgettable.
With Solis attracting a growing fanbase and Transience/The Encounter also expected to wow the movie-going masses, safe to say that when it comes to making universal movies in God’s own country, the (Yorkshire) sky’s not just the limit.
Images courtesy of Goldfinch Studios. Thanks also to Vincent Regan, Alice Lowe, Laura Fraser, and the crew of Solis and Transience