FF2011: 'A Lonely Place to Die'

The Gilbey bros. explain the truth of their Fantastic Fest title

"People with bounce boards? Forget it, we'll just do clouds and sun. Continuity? Forget it. Makeup artists? The widest shots. Costume? One." 'A Lonely Place to Die' director Julian Gilbey on mountain shoots (Image courtesy of Genesis)

If A Lonely Place to Die is many measure, Europe's borderlands are still pretty wild places. The political wilderness thriller may be set in the Scottish Highlands, but the shadow of the Bosnian crisis hangs over it like storm clouds.

The movie gets a broad release on Nov. 11, but writer/director Julian Gilbey and his brother and co-writer Will Gilbey got a boost Monday night when star Sean Harris picked up the award for best actor in a horror feature at the Fantastic Fest Awards. His performance as the menacing Mr Kidd stands as tall and fearsome over the film as the mountains on which it was shot.

The Gilbey brothers sat down before today's screening of their film to swap stories about flying boulders, fearsome climbs, and why Kosovo has become so important to European film makers.

Austin Chronicle: Mountaineering is pretty dangerous, but what made you decide not just to climb a mountain but lug heavy camera gear up there too?

Julian Gilbey: Pre-productionwise, we went up to the Highlands, we trained to climb for this movie, we got pretty proficient at it, and we started hauling cameras and all the rest of it. I think it's preparation, preparation, preparation. We storyboarded the mountaineering sequences, worked out where on the mountains we could do it, but ultimately you've got lug the heavy gear up there, and you've got to have the light gear as well. It's just about planning, about planning your routes and everything else, and having good stunt teams. We didn't have the budget to helicopter everybody up there.

Will Gilbey: In your initial draft, you just don't know anything about it at that stage. So you had them hammering in stakes, which obviously nobody does, because you'd probably be killed burnt alive. But each time you go climbing, you learn something new, like the rope getting caught around his leg. It was something that was happening to me. I was watching my leg go up, but I didn't reach that dangerous fall stage. I went, oo, now I have an idea for the opening scene.

JG: Once we learned how to climb, we rewrote the opening scene completely to make it more realistic.

AC: And then you've got to drag a camera up there as well.

JG: The Red camera is a brick. I that it's one and a half times heavier than a regular 35 mil camera. It gives beautiful images, although it's nowhere near perfect - I hear the new Red Epic's is a lot lighter. At least it's steady, but we realized that one Red, even with a couple of cameras up on the mountain, was not going to be enough on its own. Which is why Williams came up with the idea …

WG: I was shooting 5D as well. There's probably 40, 50 5D scenes in the movie. Every time it's very chaotic in the opening the scene, that was 5D. You can hold it upside down …

JG: You can abseil with a 5D camera.

WG: Getting the crew up there, we actually filmed halfway up a mountain called Buachaille Etive Mòr and everyone suddenly decided they wanted to go up there. It's not that high, it's not that vertigo inducing, but we had four or five people just sat there the whole day, with their backs against the rocks, terrified. Suddenly, everybody was like, oh, I don't need to be up there.

JG: It was really tricky having two camera crews up there.

WG: There was one point where a boulder came down the mountain the size of a TV and glanced off a girl and bounced over a couple of people, and went crashing down the mountain. If it had been ten feet higher up …

JG: Our line producer lost her sense of humor at that point, and said, 'Right, there's too many fucking people on the mountain.' Half of them they came down on the first day all shaken up and said, 'I didn't need to be there, I didn't need to be there,' and Gerry [Toomey, line producer] said, 'You told me you needed to be there. Right, you're not going up tomorrow, you're not going up tomorrow, you're not going up tomorrow.' That was I learned very quickly, that you get bogged down with too much crew, and you have to take the bare essentials up there. People with bounce boards? Forget it, we'll just do clouds and sun. Continuity? Forget it. Makeup artists? The widest shots. Costume? One. You've got to absolutely streamline it because the east face of Buachaille Etive Mòr is a dangerous, dangerous environment. The crew members, they look at the mountain from the car park and they all talk a big game. Put them on the damn thing and they all start to get scared.

WG: There was a definite core group, because on the third day Jules and I went up with a couple of camera assistants, a camera man and the DiT, and we actually climbed a lot higher up the mountain to shoot the stuff on the wall that you see at the start of the movie, but that's all the doubles' stuff you see at the start. There were some quite hardcore guys.

AC: When you're casting, was 'Can you climb' one of the questions you asked?

JG: No, is the short answer. You've always got to cast on acting ability and are they right for the role, and you can train them up accordingly.

WG: They were also fairly athletic people. Alec [Newman] was one who, if you talked to the climbing instructor, he though Alec was the best at it in a short amount of time. He was quite conscientious with his preparation.

AC: The other aspect is the Yugoslavian civil war, which plays a role in the back story for a lot of the characters.

JG: While there have been plenty of other wars, I think that, with the whole Kosovo situation, for me it very much reminds me of the atrocities of World War Two and the genocide of the Nazi regime. I don't think we'd seen it so in our face, such a short plane ride away from the UK, that this utter insane genocide was going on.

AC: That leads to one of the best scenes in the film: The showdown conversation in the pub.

WG: Everyone says that. Between Sean Harris and Karel Roden. A lot of people.

JG: We cowrote the film, but often when we cowrite we're not in front of a typewriter together. So William will be writing one section, I'll be writing another, and we'll go over each other's work. I wrote the first draft of that scene, I showed it to Wills and said, 'What do you think of this?' He said, 'It's shit.' I said, 'Are you going to give me anything more constructive than that?' 'No, not really, it's just shit.' So I got in a real huff, stormed out …

WG: Yeah, he stormed out …

JG: I drove to the library in Henley and for about three hours I just put my computer on and put my headphones on, and I just wrote the scene that probably hasn't changed at all. Not one word. So he thought it was shit, I rewrote it, and now everyone says it's that good.

WG: To give you a compliment, I think it's a masterclass in acting. Karel's one of those actors that, when you watch him doing it, it doesn't seem like he's doing a lot because he's just chilling out. Sean's quite intense before he goes, but Karel's just da-da-da-da-da [clicks fingers] and it's just like a button and you think, 'Well, that was pretty good,' and you watch back on the monitor and your like, 'Wow.'

Fantastic Fest presents A Lonely Place to Die, Wednesday Sept. 28 at 9pm at Alamo South Lamar.

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