At the weekend I travelled up to Nottingham for a Cautionary Tale recce with producer Sophia Ramcharan, writer Steve Deery and production designer Amy Nicholson. (I am directing.) We visited Newstead Abbey, a historic house that was once home to Lord Byron – a fitting setting for a film about authors, especially since I had earlier decided that the lead character’s idol would be Mary Shelley, a friend of Byron’s. The staff and local council had been extremely helpful and had already hosted an initial recce by Sophia and her assistant.
We were looking for a gothic cottage overlooking a lake. The abbey’s grounds contain two cottages and two lakes. Unfortunately neither cottage overlooks either lake. The offices overlook one of the lakes, but only from the first and second floors, ruling out any lights or cameras pointing into the room from outside, which I felt were critical to the look and storyline.
We viewed the gatekeeper’s cottage, a beautiful little gothic edifice that has been abandoned inside for many years. A number of problems were immediately obvious. Firstly, a busy main road was a stone’s throw away, threatening the aural illusion of a period setting. Secondly, vehicles entering the grounds (which are open to the public) pass immediately outside the cottage. Thirdly, none of the rooms were particularly big. Fourthly, the least small of the rooms looked out on the tarmac drive and a speed limit sign, with trees beyond.
On the plus side, the architecture was everything I had hoped for both inside and out, with stained glass in the interior doors, and vaulted windows. Its abandonment also meant that potentially we could modify it however we wanted without inconveniencing anyone.
Next we viewed the rose gardener’s cottage on the opposite side of the grounds. This is larger and also abandoned inside, to the extent that the first floor has been declared unsafe. The living room presents a blank slate, but didn’t capture my imagination or Amy’s the way the gatehouse had.
The surroundings are also problematic. They are clearly a formal garden on a country estate, whereas our fictional cottage is supposed to be isolated. Speaking of isolation, the gardener’s cottage is in a very quiet location, but its lack of a functioning mains supply means a noisy generator would have to be employed to run the lights.
We moved on to look at the lakes. The smaller one initally seemed more appropriate, but unlike its larger counterpart it lacks for a suitably dramatic point at which to stage the film’s climax. I began to realise that characters could be seen leaving the gatekeeper’s cottage and disappearing into the trees opposite it, before emerging from the (entirely different) trees next to the lake. Such is the cheated geography often required in filmmaking.
We returned to the gatehouse, now analysing it in much more detail. Could the drive be framed out? Was it possible to shoot the house from amongst the trees without seeing the park gates? Could the speed limit sign be temporarily removed? Could the necessary interior action be staged in the relatively confined space? What was the widest shot I could get in there with my widest lense? Could the radiators be removed or would they have to be covered? What about the seventies fireplace? How much of the kitchen – which we wanted to avoid dressing – would be seen when the door was open?
Having answered as many of these questions as we could, we departed for a production meeting. Later, Amy and I agreed how the interior would be laid out. Then, on the train home, I drafted a shotlist, which for me is the ultimate test of whether a location will work. The results are reassuring, but nevertheless we have given ourselves a week to find alternatives to Newstead Abbey, in case there is an even better location out there somewhere.