Commentary: 'Seattle' battles real as can be
Three camera crews shot in thick of action"Seattle" story: First time filmmakers tend to start their careers with movies that tell small personal stories, but that's not always the case.
Consider, for instance, Stuart Townsend, an actor best known for films like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" opposite Sean Connery and "Head in the Clouds" opposite Charlize Theron. For his writing and directorial debut Townsend, a native of Dublin, Ireland, chose to make the highly ambitious action drama "Battle in Seattle," whose gripping police versus protestors set pieces would have posed big challenges even for an old-hand at directing.
"Seattle" opens Sept. 19 in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. and Sept. 26 in six other key markets including Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago via Redwood Palms Pictures. It will expand to additional cities in the coming weeks. "Seattle's" official website actually invites moviegoers to bring the film to their cities by clicking on a "demand it" button that will enable them to "mobilize a theater takeover in your area."
The film focuses on one of the most incendiary political uprisings in recent American history -- five days of rioting in Seattle in 1999 as demonstrators protesting the World Trade Organization's meeting there were overcome by a massive show of police force.
Written and directed by Townsend, "Seattle" was produced by Townsend, Kirk Shaw (Insight Film Studios), Maxime Remillard (Remstar Corp.) and Mary Aloe (Proud Mary Ent.). It was executive produced by Michael A. DiManno, R. Scott Reid and Julien Remillard and by Vanessa Pereira. Starring are Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Andre Benjamin, Channing Tatum and Michelle Rodriguez.
The onscreen battles in "Seattle" were staged and filmed so vividly by Townsend that we have a sharp sense of exactly how it would have been like to be there protesting or, worse yet, to have become innocently swept up into the crowds filling those downtown streets just as the police descended with their teargas and truncheons. After enjoying an early look at "Seattle," I was glad to be able to ask Townsend about the making of the film.
"I started researching it in 2002," he told me. "It actually came from a book I was reading by Anita Roddick called 'Take it Personally.' It was a book on globalization and there was an essay in the book by Paul Hawkins about the battle in Seattle. Paul's a great writer. He really put me on the streets of Seattle in his essay. Instantly, I was like, 'This is an amazing event. Why don't I remember this?' I vaguely remembered it, but the account and description he gave was really amazing. I was already interested in trade and globalization and the issues that people were fighting against so I started researching it on the Internet and I was just blown away by what happened at this event."
When I observed that first time directors often start out by making a small personal film that's interesting but not a huge project to mount, Townsend replied, "I think they are the smart ones. I wish the film had been two guys in a room like 'My Dinner With Andre' or something. But this was the story that really got me so I thought, 'Why not? Let's see if we can try to do this.' The story kind of came together and I was able to write a script. I didn't even know if I could do that, but the story really spoke to me and thus began the process of trying to get it financed and cast."
It helped that Townsend had had considerable experience acting in films: "So I wasn't really fresh to it. I didn't know if I could direct, but I had been on movie sets for 10 years so I understood how the crew works. It doesn't necessarily mean you can direct, but at least it wasn't (something) completely out of the blue."
Raising the money to make the picture was challenging, but Townsend came up with a good idea about how to convey the essence of the story and how very visual the film would be. "There were three documentaries made about the event," he said, "so I cut some footage together from those documentaries and made a 15 minute film that was sort of a visual aid to the script. That helped a lot (because) financiers could actually see the visual potential for the film."
His own background as an actor came in handy directing the film's actors, Townsend noted, "because I'm not afraid of them. I understand the process that they're looking for. What I realized for the first time ever being on the other side of the camera was that the actors are quite separate to the crew in a sense. You know, the crew does all the grunt work and we produce the film, but those guys (the actors) come on and they're kind of like the magic. I suddenly realized that if I'd never worked with an actor before it would be kind of intimidating, but luckily I have worked with actors all my life."
Although he would have liked to rehearse with his actors, he noted, "We didn't have any time for rehearsal. We shot the whole thing in 29 days. So there was no time to mess around and I think that actually helped because it was just full of energy and I think it translated onto the screen."
With so many action set-pieces to shoot it's impressive that as a first-time director Townsend was able to keep to such a fast schedule. "Well, we had two cameras at all times and then three cameras on the big days," he pointed out, "and sometimes I'd be directing three scenes simultaneously -- just running from moment to moment. And it was also November in Vancouver and Seattle so we only had seven or eight hours of daylight so sometimes we'd just do a 'running buffet' kind of (catering) thing and shoot straight through. It was crazy, but it was very exciting."
Asked about filming the battles between the police and protesters, Townsend told me, "What I was trying to (do) was make the audience feel what it's like to be in a riot. A lot of accomplishing that feeling of being on the streets was because of Barry Ackroyd's camerawork. (Ackroyd was BAFTA-nominated in 2007 for shooting 'United 93.') I'd worked with him as an actor twice before (in the 1997 drama 'Under the Skin' and the 1999 drama 'The Escort') and I just think he's really talented.
"We shot in 16mm instead of 35mm (in part because of better) mobility instead of HD with all the wires and, also, it's got a grain to it that would complement cutting it together with the Beta SP video footage of the real documentary (material)."
Looking back at the challenges of production, he recalled, "There were definitely tough moments (like) when we had the biggest rain storm in Vancouver's history in November and when we had the biggest snow storm in Vancouver's history. You kind of work around rain, but (with) snow you're fucked. We arrived on set one morning to about an inch of snow and we waited three hours to see what we could do and it just kept snowing. We eventually had snow for three days. We managed to only lose one day, which was good."
When they were filming the key action sequences there were three camera teams in the field. "The camera crew (was) encouraged to really treat it as a documentary when we said 'action.' Obviously (they'd be) following the lead actor, but if there was something more interesting going on (they were told to) go with it. Meanwhile, the actors, because we were using long lenses and we were in the middle of big action stuff, found it very liberating because they didn't feel the camera crew around them at all. So they felt they were allowed to just sort of be in the scene. It has that feeling of being on the street because, I think, the actors felt liberated and with the cameramen the focus wasn't an issue. Like, if you pull out of focus, it's fine -- just pull back in focus. But 'there are no mistakes' was the mantra.' Some mistakes are the best, you know."
Early in the film Townsend has two actors hanging from a crane way above downtown Seattle as they're hanging a protest banner from it. It's a scene that looks like it was particularly dangerous to do. "It's a good scene to ask about," he agreed. "First off, we were told that insurance-wise we couldn't have actors 300 feet up on a crane. But I found all this real footage (from the 1999 event, itself) so what we decided to do was to put our actors 10 stories high on a car park and put them on a 15 foot crane rig like a crane arm and then we would shoot them on the crane arm. In the film, any of the wide shots is actually the real footage of the real activists doing that on the day."
The night before shooting it, he recalled, "one of the biggest storms in Vancouver's history was threatening to arrive and we didn't know what to do. We were almost going to do it inside on CGI, but that wouldn't work. We didn't have time and it was coming up to Christmas and the actors weren't available. We also had to match the real footage, which was a gray sky. The pressure was on. It was our last day of shooting. We turned up praying for this storm not to arrive and, luckily, it didn't and we managed to get the scene done and inter-cut it with all the real footage. We managed to just scrape by."
Now with his first film behind him, Townsend's looking forward to directing again. "I really enjoyed the process," he said. "I don't want to be waiting around for acting opportunities because they're just so few and far between. Creating my own stuff and just to feel passionate about something you're doing is rare and feels good."
On the other hand, he's definitely not eager to write another screenplay: "That wasn't my favorite part and I don't really think of myself as a writer. I wouldn't mind writing with somebody, but I never would want to do it alone again. It wasn't much fun. It's (lonely but also) it's a lengthy process. It took me six months to write the script and a year and a half to research it. And then it took me a year and a half to rewrite it. I don't want to spend another four years doing that."
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