Since 1999, I’ve shot many of my own films. So when it comes to kit I’m daunted by how quickly cameras and edit software become obsolete. After last week’s trip to Edinburgh I made a decision that for most filmmakers would be perverse: I scrapped every single shot, bit the bullet and bought a Blackmagic 4K Production Camera, the same model used by George Cameron Geddes when we shot the interiors of Erica’s house last November. I also acquired a set of lenses and enough outboard battery power to withstand long exterior shoots.
In a way I feel I’m betraying my younger self because when I made my first feature film, “One Life Stand” (2000) it was shot on a Sony VX1000E on the basis that if the story and the performances were good enough, the means of acquisition was irrelevant. In interviews I was quoted as saying, “I’d have shot on Sellotape just to get the story told”. Since then I’ve owned numerous cameras but not only did my latest cost roughly half of what my trusty Sony did, it also boasts a much better image. If it’s possible to make something beautiful without having to rob a bank then why wouldn’t you?
After a few camera tests, I return to Edinburgh to play déjà vu. I arrive at Morningside, shoot several views of Blackford Pond in rare Spring sunshine then move to Cluny Gardens where I’m soon challenged by a large male, 40s, brown sweatshirt and displaying latent violence. His opening gambit – “Who are you and why are you filming here?” “Who are you?” I counter, thanking myself for omitting the customary Glaswegian nominative before swiftly diverting him. “See that house?” I point across the street to Erica’s former home and unroll the story. The man’s demeanour suddenly shifts. Turns out he knew my late mother-in-law and by the end of our conversation not only is he assuaged but tells me that Erica would be ‘very proud’ of my efforts.
From Morningside I make the short trip to The King’s Buildings, University of Edinburgh. The previous week I had shot exteriors of the old Zoology Department where Erica worked in the late 1950s. The building, completed in 1929, features a set of oval plaques sculpted by Phyllis Bone, depicting animals representing each zoogeographical region of the planet. Known now as the Ashworth Laboratories, the building houses part of the National Collection of Natural Sciences and whose staff have kindly granted me permission to shoot interiors in April. Today, a grey, nippy Friday, I grab some shots and make my getaway.
Opting for an overnight stay in Leith, I’m awake at 5.30am, up by 6, discouraged by the brooding sky and spitting rain. Checking the online weather forecast I get two different versions; fair and change. Do I stay or go? By 7.00am I’m walking along the shoreline at Portobello, fathoming which shots are necessary for this episode. It’s less a case of slavish actuality and more an evocation of Erica’s reminiscences.
In a letter to her parents in the summer of 1959 Erica wrote of how she joined the local sailing club; roughly at the same time, a happy time, her love for Dr. Thomas was beginning to blossom. Walking on the empty beach my own fleeting memories of this place take hold: playing pinball at Noble’s Amusements, finding a clutch of starfish on the beach and how the Turkish Baths offered respite when my central heating packed in. How quickly the years pass.
After a decent breakfast I watch the skies: fast moving clouds bode well. By the time I pack the kit, the sun is shining so I return to Portobello to shoot the key images that reflect Erica’s state of mind. Arriving at the promenade I’m met by a massive rainbow spanning the Firth, a psychedelic bridge. A good omen? Despite sudden shifts in the light and wind the shots come quickly. One thing I know about filming in Scotland – you can’t buy the weather. Ever.
After a couple of detours to possible locations, I return to my – and Erica’s – old home at Regent Terrace, Calton Hill where I manage to capture – crucially – the bare lime trees lining the street, shots that otherwise would have to wait another year. Judging by what’s been shot I feel justified. I also know that in two days I shot 286 set-ups, unimaginable had I been working with a conventional crew and reminding me of the line from the Springsteen song, “Valentine’s Day”– he travels fastest who travels alone. It’s not the ideal way of making a film but it’s the only route available to me, so will have to suffice.
The photograph, a view of Portobello Beach and the Firth of Forth was taken by me around 2006 as I sat in my car in the rain.