By Junsui Films | September 2012
The Cinematographer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about the challenges of translating a revered TV series to the big screen, shooting in modern London, and tells us all about his latest film, THE SWEENEY…
Junsui Films: The Sweeney endured a storied stint in development hell before [director] Nick Love finally got the green light for his cinematic adaptation of the seminal ‘70s cop show, at what point did you join the project and what was it that attracted you to the film?
Simon Dennis: I came on board last February when it was initially going ahead that April, yet the project got pushed by six months due to Ray’s [Winstone] commitment to another project. So, I went off and shot other projects, but during those months Nick and me kept in touch, planting seeds. That extra time, which is rare for modest budget movies, turned out to be a blessing as it enabled Nick and me to really bounce around ideas and themes and get ahead of the game.
What attracted me to The Sweeney? The kid in me. It was such an iconic TV show and a real dream project to be a part of. It’s funny, I told Nick that I remembered reading about a Sweeney movie that was in the works a couple years back and said I’d do anything to be a part of it. Luckily enough, me and Nick crossed paths in the corridors of his production company Vertigo in late 2010 when I was prepping another film and things went from there.
JF: What do you think it is that makes The Sweeney so enduring and did you feel any extra pressure translating such a beloved series into a feature film for a new generation?
Like any ground-breaking TV show, it was all about great characters and captivating storylines set against an iconic backdrop. It’s not an easy combination to get right, so yes, there was huge pressure in bringing it up to date as it has such a strong and loyal fan-base. Yet, this was a major and exciting opportunity to shoot and expose the London of today as it should be seen – cool, sexy, forward thinking and modern.
The gritty ‘70s cop show theme has been done so many times over the years that they border on parody and so Nick felt it was important to upgrade everything. The casting of Ben Drew (Plan B) as Carter was an inspired choice, as he very much represents that new generation mentioned within his character in the film, but also through his music and lyrics which gives out a strong moral message. It’s very much about making something of yourself and trying to do the right thing.
JF: How important was it for you to acknowledge the show’s aesthetic roots when establishing your visual style for the film?
For us, the roots were the characters and making sure they stayed in tact and kept loyal. The visual style, however, was very much a clean slate and for the taking as far as Nick and me were concerned as we were dealing with a very different London to the original series, both visually and technologically. Plus you’re talking about a movie adaptation after all, which has a very different language to TV. There were a few scenes and sequences that I felt benefited from being a little ‘raw and gritty’ which I suppose was keeping to the style of the show. The film’s design, however, is a complete upgrade of the original series.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your collaborative and creative process with Nick [Love]; starting from how you guys went about breaking down the script through to your time on set.
It all starts with finding and agreeing on the right overall visual tone. Along with the production designer Morgan Kennedy we researched a lot of cop based movies from Heat to The French Connection. It’s a daunting process as these are seminal films that nail it every time by doing what great cinema does – their own distinct thing.
We soon realised that if we wanted to make The Sweeney work we’d have do our own thing too. So the style, tone and design of the film grew out of what was staring at us from outside the production office window – today’s London. We had a whole city to draw inspiration from and so we drove around many areas of East London, both day and night, picking off parts and architecture that we felt was in ‘Sweeneyland’ as Nick put it. Apart from Sweeney HQ, which was effectively half London, half set in Moorgate, the majority of the film was location based much like the TV series. The time on set was much more about just getting on with the task of shooting what we’d carefully selected.
JF: How challenging was it shooting in the city on such a fast-paced schedule and limited budget, most notably the elaborate final chase sequence through Trafalgar Square?
The biggest challenge was shooting during the winter. Certain days where we were scheduled for just exteriors we were restricted to winter light, 8am until 4pm, which is a huge challenge considering that an average day on set is eleven hours. It was an incredibly fast paced, seven-week (40 day) shoot, yet Nick is extremely focused and prepared, plus after seventeen indie features, I like to think I know how to get the most out of limited hours too.
Nick’s general approach on set is, in a sense, very traditional to how a lot of good directors work. He likes to have the floor with the actors, discuss and block it, then once we know the angles and camera moves we generally shoot the rehearsal, do very quick tweaks if needed and then start shooting the coverage which tended to be very lean and stripped back.
The Trafalgar Square shoot out was the most complicated sequence in the film and required and demanded many, many hours of preparation and planning as we only had a single day (a Sunday) in which to capture it with strictly no gunshot sounds for obvious security reasons, which regular blank firing guns give out. A new type of gun was sourced that gave out muzzle flashes and emptied blank shells yet only clicking noises, which was a blessing as it gave the sequences that extra air of realism that Nick was seeking in camera.
JF: How crucial is it for a DOP to build and develop a sense of trust with actors when working on a film, especially one as physically demanding as The Sweeney?
It’s extremely crucial. With most thriller/action based projects it’s all about a balance of camera movement, synchronised with the actors movement, so you’re constantly in touch with them to refine it and let them know if things are too much or too little.
We had some very experienced actors who have done action before, so there was often a shorthand with them and for those actors who were in new territory there was much more interaction and feedback. You have to remember we had a very modest budget and there was zero room for error with most of the action sequences, so preparation and research was essential. Thankfully I was afforded that time.
JF: As well as The Sweeney you also have A Night In The Woods released this month. What were your experiences lighting an ‘improvised’ horror film on location?
Well, that was much more about giving the technical control to all the actors as it was a found footage project. Those types of projects are all about 100% authenticity, created largely by numerous technical imperfections which goes against everything you’re taught as a DP.
It was very liberating actually, to go out into the wilderness with just a camera, a bag of lenses and a few accessories and work out the story as we went along. I had to teach the actors the basics of camera settings and the lighting was 100% source driven via neon lanterns, LED torches etc. Apart from building a waterproof casing for the camera the footage was captured completely improvised which was both exciting and refreshing.
JF: And finally, what can we expect from Luis Prieto’s remake of Pusher?
A very different one. Much like The Sweeney, Luis decided very early on that we were not going to attempt to replicate the original. They took the storyline and certain key characters and brought them into the London underground where we could start fresh on a new kind of look.
Luis, who’s from Spain, has an extremely precise idea of shots, compositions and the use of colour. There are a lot of colour themes in Pusher that are evoked from the carefully chosen locations. Locations perhaps a UK director might not of chosen. Luis had the blessing of [original director] Nicolas Refn Winding (who was Executive Producer) and so in a way we tried hard to remove ourselves from any similarities to the original photographic style and go at it alone.
The Sweeney is out now and reviewed here.