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Friday, 18 April 2014

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The dark side of life on Cumbria university's film and TV course

Who is the man in the black leather trenchcoat and the gasmask? Why are his footsteps echoing through this dark warehouse?

Hammer horror feature photo

The answers make you sorry you asked.

At the end of a corridor he lifts up a sheet. A hooded figure is shaking with fear in the chair he’s tied to.

The masked man prowls around his victim and rummages through a toolbox before selecting a hammer.

When he brings it down on his victim’s knees the scream is so strong you can feel it.

“Cut!”

This, mercifully, is fantasy. Scene one of LED, a short film being shot in Carlisle by University of Cumbria students.

The encounter between vigilante and victim was written and made by two final-year film and TV production students. It stars two drama students.

Films are made every year on the acclaimed film and TV production course, which has just over 100 students. Last year The Guardian ranked it ninth out of 89 in the UK.

“It’s very much a hands-on course,” says course leader Michael Mitchell.

“Straight away the students are writing and making documentaries and music videos. We encourage them to do a little bit of everything.”

In recent years undergraduate productions by final-year students have ranged from a documentary about the Polish resistance to a drama starring Clare Grogan of Gregory’s Girl and Altered Images fame and James McPherson from Taggart.

Says Michael Mitchell: “One of the girls on the course, her grandmother was in the Polish resistance in the Second World War.

“She hadn’t known until her grandmother died. She went to Poland to explore her grandmother’s past and to look at the resistance movement.

“The drama with Clare Grogan and James McPherson was about a man coming to terms with the death of his wife. It was filmed mainly in Carlisle.”

Students are encouraged to contact any professional actors they want to work with.

They have to agree their film’s budget and raise the money themselves. Each person involved will contribute, usually about £50-100.

Attracting well-known actors is not always as daunting as it may seem, says Michael.

“It’s always about negotiation. Often the high-calibre actors are the least likely to ask for a fee. They don’t do it for the money, they do it to help out.

“And actors know that in five or 10 years, these students will be producers and directors. It’s a chance for them to get to know new talent.”

If the subjects tackled by the class of 2012 are any guide to the next generation of filmmakers, cinema-goers can expect dark times in years ahead.

As well as LED, this year’s themes also include Jack the Ripper and a psychological thriller about a man trapped in his own head.

“This year it has been quite dark,” agrees Michael.

But he does not feel this is a long-term trend. “Last year it was the opposite. We had several rites-of-passage pieces.

“It’s just like the real industry. Things work in cycles. We encourage first and second years to work with third years on their films. A first-year student watching third years making a horror film probably won’t want to make a horror film when they graduate because they’ll want to do their own thing.”

LED was written by Jack Pass and directed by him and Michael Miller. So why are they embracing the dark side? “It is easier to write a dark piece than a comedy,” says Michael Miller. “But the trick is to make it different.”

“We gave the actors the gist of what we wanted them to do,” says Jack. “A lot of it is improvised. We’ve been stuck in our own world of torture and woe. A lot of woe.”

The actors are Mark McLellan and John Irvine. Mark is ‘Torturer’. John is ‘Victim’. These words describe their characters pretty well.

The feeling that Mark and John are fine actors is enhanced when filming stops and a chasm opens between them and their roles.

‘Torturer’ twirls his hammer in the style of Fred Astaire with a cane.

When he’s this jolly the black face paint – designed to emphasise his eyes – makes him seem like a Black and White Minstrel.

“People say ‘You’re so big and scary!’,” says Mark.

“But I don’t see it. All my girlfriends say ‘You’re so cuddly!’”

At the sound of ‘Cut!’ Jack too is transformed. The energy that went into shaking and screaming is channelled into goofing around.

“It’s not often you get the chance to be tied up in a warehouse,” he observes.

“It’s a scary thing to do. They say ‘Be uneasy and breathe heavily’. I’m already doing that when I’m tied up with a bag on my head.

“The screaming is quite taxing on your throat. I’m rehearsing for a musical as well. I went back today and went for the high notes. They’re not there any more!”

LED was filmed in the cavernous surroundings of Box Clever self-storage warehouse on Kingstown Industrial Estate.

Michael discovered it on the internet after other locations proved unsuitable.

He is keen to thank Box Clever manager Paul Swailes, who gave his time and his premises for no reward other than to help the students.

Paul is a film fan who used to work for a studio in New York and was an extra in several films, including Just Cause starring Sean Connery.

He stayed at work until nearly midnight last Monday when the crew filmed a scene which proved rather unsettling.

“It drove me crazy listening to the screams, to be honest,” says Paul.

“They were playing a nursery rhyme in the background at one point.

“It was quite creepy.

“When this place closes up for business it’s pretty quiet so you can scream your heart out and no one will hear.”

This is low-budget film-making at its lowest. LED’s original budget of £100 has been smashed. Michael reckons the cost could spiral all the way to... £200.

The team made their own blood from recipes on the internet.

Their version includes syrup, flour and food colouring.

Blood has an important role. “At the base of the film is a torture scene for someone who’s done something very wrong,” says Michael.

“There are elements of suspense behind it that make it more than a gruesome torture scene.

“I know it sounds gruesome but it has been quite tastefully done.”

LED and the other undergraduate short films will be premiered at the university’s Brampton Road campus in June.

The end of the course is not the end of the story.

Michael Mitchell says: “Many of our graduates are working in television, in editing, in art departments.

“We do have a good success rate. Two recent graduates are working on Strictly Come Dancing. Another is at MTV.”

Last year one graduate, Anthony Scattergood from Whitehaven, was employed as a sound recordist and editor on a United Nations project about farming in Rwanda.

There are many ways of working in film and television.

Most of them involve long hours and not nearly as much glamour as the screen would have us believe.

“But film’s ability to deceive is powerful and seductive.”

Michael Miller requests one more take for ‘Torturer’ and ‘Victim’.

There’s the camera. There are the microphones. There are the cans of Monster Energy caffeine drink which have fuelled the shoot.

Torturer and victim have just been throwing a ball to each other between takes, for goodness sake. This is all illusion.

But when the screaming starts, it still feels real.

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