Jonathan Paul Green
When faced with the prospect of shooting an ambitious, stunt-packed, three-part thriller, on a “comedy” budget, in the remote Scottish Highlands, I guess you’d be filled either with dread or immense excitement. For me, it was most definitely the latter.
Our shoot was split between real exteriors in Scotland, the forests and other locations around Pinewood Studios, and in the studios themselves. This presented one of our biggest challenges – trying to make it feel like it was all shot in one place.
I had to construct a studio interior to match an exterior bothy on the shores of Loch Katrine, carefully replacing all the windows on location, so that we could blow them out. Meanwhile, we simply could not find the right kind of remote-looking tavern, so we converted a farmhouse in a glen into the fictional Southmuir Arms. The interior we found, somewhat incredulously, several hundred miles away in a real pub near Slough.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was to make a mild river crossing in leafy Iver feel like it was a raging, swollen ford in Perthshire. And then on top of that, recreate the whole thing indoors – including rain, rapids, Landrover and foliage - on the Underwater Stage at Pinewood.
Staging stunts and effects in the remote terrain of Scotland was fraught with difficulty. From transporting a car shell overnight a mile up a single dirt track just to set it on fire, to blowing up a series of landmines, the scripts called for a lot of incredibly dramatic action.
But shooting in Scotland was truly magical. The difficulties were far outweighed by the immense privilege of shooting in incredibly rare, remote locations, against the sheer rugged beauty of the Highland backdrop.
While the cast were to perform many of the stunts themselves, we also had a number of extra prosthetic cast members – including Wendy’s legs, which travelled between London and Scotland. They stayed with us constantly, becoming a much-loved member of the art department team, along with our stuffed toy stunt spaniel.
Producers BBC Comedy; Idiotlamp Productions
Commissioner Shane Allen
Length 3 x 60 minutes
TX 9pm, Saturdays from 27 February, BBC2
Director Jim Field Smith
Writers Jim Field Smith; George Kay
Executive producers Myfanwy Moore; Jim Field Smith; George Kay
Line producer Maria Cooper
Composer Trond Bjerknes
Director of photography Rob Kitzmann
Editor David Webb
Production designer Jonathan Paul Green
Post-house Molinare (picture post and final mix); Bang Post Production (sound editorial); Final Cut (offline edit)
Jim Field Smith
Director / co-writer / executive producer
Making Stag has taught me five things, which I’d like to pass on to any drama writers:
- Never write a show set outdoors.
- Unless it’s The Caribbean.
- “People talking in rooms” is a perfectly acceptable ambition for a show.
- Just because someone says yes to your ridiculous idea, doesn’t mean you should actually go through with it.
- Write a show set in a Caribbean hotel.
There’s a saying in Scotland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. I think five is generous. On the set of Stag, we came up with a saying of our own: “Four seasons in one take”.
The schizophrenic climate of the Trossachs was just one of the many challenges this production posed. But who can I blame?
I’m no Alejandro Iñárritu, but there were times during the scouting process when I would scurry enthusiastically up the side of some Glen or Ben, pause to take in the epic Highland panorama, only to turn around and see the patient but disbelieving faces of my team. “It’s fine!” I would say, “We just walked up here, no problem.”
Of course, I’m conveniently forgetting that right now there’s only five of us, and soon there’ll be closer to fifty. Then there’s the heavy equipment, the lack of roads, toilets or phone signal.
And let’s not forget: that weather. That rain. Not the heavy rain, although there’s plenty of that. I’m talking about the constant, mizzling, permeating dreich that gets into your bones and drains every last millilitre of morale out of your soul.
In fact, this story about a bunch of arrogant Southern idiots being brought to their knees by the forces of nature, was starting to seem autobiographical with every passing moment. It wasn’t long before George Kay and I were ruing the day we’d pitched this preposterous three-parter to Mark Freeland and Shane Allen.
“Sounds great,” they cooed. “Off you pop.” In fact, at every stage of the journey, our absurd plan was met with nothing other than sheer bloody enthusiasm and encouragement. If anything, pushing us to make it bigger, darker, weirder.
Warning bells should have rung when we nipped over the Atlantic to try and drum up some co-production financing but succeeded only in banking a wealth of confused expressions: “You’re going to put yourself through all that pain, and you’re only making three episodes? What’s wrong with you?” came one typical response.
Then we discussed our budget. “That seems a little low, per episode,” drawled another American exec. We gulped and muttered apologetically through our bad teeth: “Erm, that’s the entire series budget”.
So we found ourselves with weeks to go before we started shooting, slashing 20% of our budget, and slicing two weeks off our shoot – just to make it an even more “method” experience.
Besides, what’s the point in having fancy catering if you can’t get it anywhere near the set? That’s what we chuckled to ourselves, daily, as we huddled around a wet sandwich.
Maybe that’s how we got through it all, laughing like demented deniers, screaming in the face of abject discomfort. Actor JJ Feild, half way up a mountain with his shirt off, on the verge of hypothermia, corpsing uncontrollably as Amit Shah gently rubbed Calmex into his nipples.
Christiaan Van Vuuren, the consummate Aussie, buried up to his neck in a muddy pit, merrily ad-libbing extra jokes as the midges threatened to eat his face off. Jim Howick aboard a quad-bike, catching a faceful of explosive debris from a too-close-for-comfort pyrotechnic, and screaming with a mix of pain, fear and shear bloody bravado for an astonishing take that made the final cut.
And our crew, every last one of them, beaming faces peeking out of hoods like a hundred Kenny McCormicks, hand-balling cameras, props, costume bags and tea-urns, twisting ankles and sliding on their arses down 45-degree slopes.
It was these people that took the show by the scruff of its neck, between their teeth, like a mighty lioness with a miserable half-drowned cub, and dumped it on the finish line.
But as we finished our rollercoaster shoot, and I eagerly welcomed the dry, warm embrace of David Webb’s editing suite, another chilling realisation hit me. What’s the point of going through all that grief, if audiences just aren’t going to buy into this show, and its vertiginous peaks and troughs of humour and darkness?
So began the final phase of Frankensteining this show to life. Helped in no small measure by the music of Trond Bjerknes – a man who somehow almost understood the tone of the show better than us – we slowly found a mood, a balance, a rhythm that seemed to make sense of all these bizarre images we had created.