BAFTA nominated writer-director-editor Julian Gilbey’s new film, A Lonely Place To Die was a favorite of mine at ActionFest 2011, where it also took home the Jury award for Action Film of the Year. It’s an absolutely thrilling tale of a group of friends pursued by some really bad men while mountaineering in the Scottish Highlands that still doesn’t have distribution in either Europe or the U.S., which perplexes me to no end. Starring Melissa George, a veteran of genre films who has a much wider range as an actress than she normally gets credit for, the film also features a lot of harrowing stunt work on the sides of cliffs. These are real people dangling thousands of feet in the air, and it makes for a riveting set of action sequences and breathless moments. During an informal chat, we talked about some of his previous for-hire work (“That movie was a mess!”) and Clint Eastwood’s high-climbing action epic The Eiger Sanction (“Eastwood was 3,000 feet up the North Face! …No green-screen, where he’s got 3,000 foot below his feet. Tell you what, Eastwood’s got balls, man!”) The morning after the film’s world premiere I sat down with Julian for a rather long discussion about shooting in the mountains, working with Melissa George, and his career so far. An all-around great guy to chat with, here is the full interview with Julian with minor omissions, mostly on the part of myself, because I just got in the way, honestly.
California Literary Review: Your new film is set in the Scottish Highlands; what were the difficulties as a filmmaker of shooting there, and how did the cast and crew come together to make that happen?
Julian Gilbey: We had enough time to go and location scout the movie. We were initially gonna shoot it in August of 2009. I’m very glad we didn’t because I don’t think there was a single day of sun – there were about three days of sun, no joke, in that part of Western Scotland – it was the worst weather ever. So we moved to Spring 2010, and you’re still rolling the dice and you have to get lucky with the weather, and on the whole, we got lucky. Especially with the mountain days, we had to have a really flexible schedule, so that, you know, you’re not wasting your time and, for example, filming a card game or people in a house on a beautiful sunny day, which we did. As far as getting the crew and stuff up there, I think you have to lead by example. I like to think of myself sometimes as a bit of a Method director, so what the characters are gonna do, I wanna do. Now, when I say “method”, I don’t mean with the kidnapping, no, no – that’s more the fictional side of things! No, it was with the climbing and the mountaineering. … Now that’s not to say we didn’t have quite a lot of wingeing for the opening sequence up the mountain, and you know, the crew got scared, and a rock almost fell on somebody; that’s just bad luck, and mountains are not a safe environment.
CLR: Right, it’s gonna happen…
JG: And what we learned from that one day when we overpacked and overloaded the mountain, subsequent days, we were like, “He doesn’t need to go, he doesn’t need to go, he doesn’t need to go.” You’ve gotta get up there with a skeleton crew, you know.
CLR: So after that day, how many people would go up on the mountain?
JG: Oh, after that, an absolute skeleton crew, so no more than twenty people. There’s just no need. You’re not bouncing lights, or using reflectors and stuff; you want to capture the natural light as much as possible.
CLR: Melissa George stars in your movie; she’s made a name here in the U.S. in In Treatment, some other televison roles, but also a lot of genre fare. What was it like working with here, what was she like on set, and how much of the climbing did she want to do versus how much she actually did?
JG: First thing about Melissa is that she – I just had to tell her, “Look, this is not a horror movie; this is an action-adventure thriller,” because I think that she was just – what she didn’t want to do was be the scream queen. And she’s done a couple of very successful horror movies. …You know, she lives in New York and she got involved in a few climbing walls there, and there she climbed to, I think 5.10 as an American grade, which is about hard to very severe in the UK, which is a good grade to get to on a top rope, and then she came over to the UK. I can’t tell you she did all the climbing, because she didn’t, but she did do a hell of a lot. Because we were able to put safety ropes on her, and then subsequently digitally erase them out, so we were able to put her in more perilous situations than perhaps you could’ve put an actor in ten or fifteen years ago, where, you know, you’d have a close-up, and she’d be standing on the ground in the parking lot or whatever, and you’d be holding a rock up. So no, the answer is, she did everything I wanted her to do with the climbing sequences, and then she would offer to do other things, but I’d say, “This is the point where Belinda,” her stunt double, who she got on really, really well with, “needs to step in.” Belinda would step in with all the big falls and the high falls. Melissa was incredibly professional, and I have to say that in six and a half weeks of working with her, she did not fluff a single line. I’ve never seen that. She never fluffed a single line, and I never did more than three takes. She was an utter professional, but really very charming, down to earth and really sweet. And a lot of fun to work with.
CLR: Your previous film was Rise of the Footsoldier, and your one before that [was] Rollin’ With The Nines, which does not have distribution here in the U.S., but for which you were nominated for a BAFTA. How do you approach, as a filmmaker, shooting action sequences like the final chase sequence through the city in your new film, versus the football fights or the more overt violent acts in something like Rise of the Footsoldier?
JG: It’s all about planning, planning, planning. You know, with a lower budget you never have the time, so you can never turn up on set and say, “Okay guys, what should we do today?” You have to go there with a very fixed plan, a very fixed idea, and it’s all sort of very broken up. The real fun starts to come in the editing room; it all starts with these bits and snippets. You just prepare meticulously and have a really good stunt coordinator. We had a young stunt coordinator – only forty-four years old – Jamie Edgell, whose first role was in Braveheart, where, you know, a lot of Scottish like to think “Oh you terrible English in that movie” and blah blah blah, but you know, Jamie for example played loads of English soldiers, loads of Scottish soldiers; he probably died twenty times in every battle… The Devil’s Drop sequences, where Melissa’s going down the cliff, is in Ben Nevis, where the village in Braveheart was set. You just have to prepare ahead of time. Prepare.
CLR: What made you want to switch gears from street drama to something like this?
JG: I’m a country boy at heart. I really am. I live two hours outside of London in a nice little village. I was at University in Scotland in the 90s and I love the Scottish Highlands, and I wanted to get out of the city. I really wanted to change the environment. I never said I want to make a movie in the city. The last part of Rise of the Footsoldier is all in the woods and snow in Essex, and it was out in the woods and in the middle of nowhere, and loved that. And I wanted a kind of really nice, barren, wonderfully big canvas on which to shoot. I get fed up filming in towns quite quickly.
CLR: Something I’ve found that British directors do very well with their action or horror films, is that they take that desolation and isolation and make it absolutely harrowing to watch. Not just with mountain climbing, but also with Neil Marshall’s cave film The Descent, which really has its most nerve-racking parts before any of the monsters show up. Do you think that has anything to do with any ideas British people have about themselves?
JG: I think you have a look at what your environment entails. Neil Marshall clearly has a love affair with Scotland, and I can see exactly why. It’s beautiful, epic scenery. I’m going mountaineering in the Alps this summer, and that’s where I really want to put a camera. Oh my God: white, jagged, 14,000 foot mountains; it’s stunning. To get a movie made, you know, whatever you say, the British film industry’s a flipping cottage industry. I think we could have set our film in London in Hyde Park and it would’ve worked to some degree, but you know, I love films like Deadly Pursuit – that wasn’t called that over here, it was called Shoot to Kill or something like that, with Tom Berenger – or Southern Comfort with the beautiful scenery and stuff. And each film you just take it as it comes, which, I don’t know if that’s the answer to your question…
CLR: One thing I thought the film did very well was play around with what you expect to happen, or undercutting expectations, even after you’ve set up the next part of it. I’m thinking here, for example, of Melissa waking up, or the hunters. What did you set out to do in regards to the specific rules of the genre?
JG: William [his brother and co-writer/editor] and I, we sat together and we thought, okay, how can we get jumps, how can we make things different? Obviously, we’re playing towards quite a classic structure – chronological, happens over a short period of time – and all we were doing was thinking about what would you not expect to happen. Like when the house burns down and we cut to black for five seconds and I can feel the disappointment in the audience – and then BANG! – but let’s not give too much away. We wanted to keep you on your toes, so even though you think, “Oh, I’ve seen this type of film, I know what’s gonna happen,” we can still give you as many surprises as possible.
CLR: Earlier [before the interview] we were talking about distribution and you brought up the British film industry being a sort of cottage industry that doesn’t really have the apparatus that Hollywood has of forcing people to take its product. What do you see as the good things about that, or the bad things about it? Do you wish there was more open distribution?
JG: Well, it’s not just the UK, but it’s US films. Like I was just watching Winter’s Bone the other day, which gets a small art-house release. And then I’m walking the other day and I see loads of posters everywhere for a Brendan Fraser film called Furry Vengeance with computer-generated, “hilarious” talking animals and I think, “That’s gonna out-do everything” because they carpet-bomb it; they napalm-bomb the advertising campaigns. Michael Bay and his Transformers and stuff; you know, there’s not anywhere you can look and see a talking robot come July. All over Oxford Street, everywhere you look, the farthest corner of Northern Scotland, and there’ll be a flipping Transformer poster. Ultimately, UK films can’t compete with that. The only thing you can do is make a really good film, and then rely on the word-of-mouth. Because you can’t fool the people. If you’ve got a big Hollywood movie with a big advertising campaign that isn’t any good, it’ll do well opening weekend and then it’ll drop off, because you can’t fool people. And if you do a good film, a film you think people will like, people are the best advertising you can find. But nowadays, unlike thirty years ago, a film has a kind of endless life, and that can only be a good thing.
CLR: What else do you have knocking around? Anything else you’re working on?
JG: I’ve got a couple of scripts I’m working on, and I’m waiting to see how this film does, and I’m currently training because this summer I’m going to the Alps for a sort-of charity climb; the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Dent de Jaman, just to say that’s not the North face of the Eiger – I’m not good enough or brave enough – it’s the Eastern ridge of the Eiger, which is still a classic Alpine climb. And then what I really want to do is finish up a couple of scripts this Autumn and be in the driver’s seat around this time next year, so about April next year, I’ll be down in Cornwall with the beautiful, hopefully, weather and that’s the script I want to do, so we’ll see where that goes.