Cut and print: tales of the celluloid city

Merseyside has blazed a trail in attracting film-makers seeking a convenient lookalike for Moscow, Dublin, London, even New York. Now other councils have stars in their eyes. Ryan Gilbey reports
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The Independent Culture
Last month, the Liverpool Film Office took a trip to the United States, to the only trade fair in the world for film commissions, those strange bodies that liaise between the movie world's demands ("We need to close down the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's only for three nights") and the real world ("Er, OK - give us $300,000").

At this year's fair, in Burbank, California, the LFO watched representatives of Hollywood's top studios troop over to their stand. They wanted to know what it would mean to shoot their picture in Liverpool. Costs, locations,labour agreements, catering, can they park on the double yellow lines, can the museums/city hall/public lavatories be kept open after hours ... And they wanted to know about the Beatles, too.

"They're Beatles obsessed," says Helen Bingham, head of the LFO. "The people who are old enough to be making decisions now were of ripe pop music age in the Sixties. They have a real attraction to the city.

"That's something we've got that other British commissions haven't. People hear of the Central England Screen Commission and think, `Where's that?' Liverpool has already sold itself."

Actually, it's not been quite that easy, though Liverpool has a head start when it comes to offering a pick 'n' mix to celluloid movers and shakers.

This is largely due to its architectural diversity. The LFObrochure markets Liverpool as a city of many faces. Belgravia is conjured out of the affluent areas around Falkner Square, Cannes from the docks on a sunny day. In one still, the Liverpool Museum and its surrounding area are transformed into Moscow with the help of a few extras in Russian army costumes. This adaptability meant that Liverpool was up on the screen long before the LFO was actually established, in films such as Yanks (1979), Chariots of Fire (1981) and Yentl (1983).

Still, no one thought to harness the possible financial benefits until Letter to Brezhnev (1985), a film that traded less in the city's architectural richness than in its notorious economic and urban decay.

The film's international success convinced the city council that film had financial possibilities worth investigating. Letter to Brezhnev led the council to invest in the 1989 BBC drama The Man from the Pru. There was a proviso, however: local people had to be employed on the crew.

It was this realisation - that a film office could encourage employment as well as attracting revenue - that brought the LFO into being in 1989. "It made sense," says Paul Mingard, the LFO's first appointment (job title: liaison officer). "Initially, all the film companies imported everything from somewhere else. Costumes, props, even horses and food. The food usually came up from London. They'd even bring in their own security people from London. A bit tactless, really, shutting down someone's street and having East Enders telling local people to move on. The first job was to compile a directory of local resources."

Mr Mingard says the office was the first of its type in the UK. Certainly, he had never done anything like it. "The closest was community arts work. Before that, I did a PhD and drove a forklift truck," he says.

He can still remember his first executive decision. "The BBC was shooting the period drama Parnell and the Woman and the shot - an overhead shot - was of a couple walking through park gates. When the cameraman got up on the crane, he saw that two signboards announcing the park's opening and closing times were in the way. So I told them to cut down the signs with a hacksaw. It was nerve-racking. All I could think was, can I justify this? Of course, I got the company to agree to pay for the replacement signs."

Under Mr Mingard, the LFO helped to organise locations and facilities for The Hunt for Red October, Let Him Have It and Backbeat, along with hundreds of commercials, student films and videos. Its television successes include Hearts and Minds and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

"We closed down part of central Liverpool for Young Indiana Jones," Mr Mingard says. "It was the first time we'd done that. It was supposed to be the Easter Uprising in 1916 Dublin. We re-created the pitched battle in O'Connell Street. Well, you know the old saying about Liverpool being the second capital of Ireland.

"For Let Him Have It, we spoke to the housing department because the director wanted to blow up a house. We moved the neighbours out to hotels, stuck tape on everyone's windows, warned the entire area what was going to happen, and the crew proceeded with a controlled explosion. There were flames and a lot of noise and it was going well, very spectacular, when someone walked past, in shot. This person went to the telephone box and rang the Army and the police and the bomb squad and told them Saddam Hussein had launched a strike on Liverpool. Half an hour later, the location was swarming with men in uniform.

"It was worth it, though. We got faxes from all over the world when the film was released, asking how it was done, and did we really blow up part of Liverpool."

Two years ago, 55 film and television productions were shot in Liverpool. Last year it was 67, bringing in a profit of £6m and creating an estimated 144 jobs for locals. This is apart from such extras as the 1,400 bed-nights notched up by the cast and crew of In the Name of the Father at the Liverpool Moat House. (They also drank the hotel dry of Guinness.)

For the new Welsh film Brad Against Hitler, the boardroom of the Adelphi Hotel became Hitler's office. The hotel's car park was also the setting for a shoot-out, in which Nazi blood was liberally spilt on the walls. "We've got nice photos of that," says Helen Bingham.

But Liverpool's main role remains as a stand-in for London, for much the same reason that Toronto often doubles for New York: the logistics of filming in the capital can be too difficult. In New York, Terry Gilliam's filming of The Fisher King was constantly foiled by residents who, disgruntled at having sections of their city closed off, would call the fire brigade out to locations where they knew that shooting was under way.

In Liverpool, the LFO acts as intermediary between film-makers and the public. "Some film-makers used to come here thinking they were very important," says Mr Mingard. "They'd want to shut the town centre for a week and stop the traffic. We'd talk them round and they'd find they could get the scene and we only had to hold up the traffic for 10 minutes."

The LFO discusses with a film's location manager exactly where and when filming will take place. Residents have been generally accepting, and crews thoughtful; the most anyone has complained about is the noise of a generator at night. The LFO issues forms that crews must complete and post, at least a fortnight before shooting, to residents of thearea in which they intend to film.

When streets are cordoned off, as was the case last year for filming on Prime Suspect 4, all the LFO can reasonably do is request co-operation from residents, asking that cars are parked out of sight and that people use different routes to reach their homes.

This month, Liverpool will have visitors from the major production company Morgan Creek (responsible for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). They are looking for locations for two new films, the thriller Incognito, and a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, to which Sharon Stone is currently attached. Helen Bingham took the script for the former and compiled a scene-by-scene breakdown of the different locations required, to illustrate precisely how flexible the city is to film-makers' needs. The producers were flabbergasted; their picture, an international thriller, is set practically everywhere in the world, bar Liverpool.

"They wanted some shabby New York backstreets. Well, that was easy; we found those in the business sector of Liverpool, where there are all these huge white buildings that we photographed from the backstreets behind them. Then they needed Amsterdam, which was a bit more tricky. We took some pictures up at Chester Canal, which was a bit of a cheat. It looked good in the photo, though."

Could London have a share of the pie? "I can't see how," she laughs. "Since the GLC, you've got 35 local authorities in London, none of whom ever chats to one another. It would be a logistical nightmare. And red lines! Red lines! Can you imagine? I mean, we don't even have clamps."

The LFO expects 1995 profits to be up 50 per cent on last year, bringing in a total of £9m. But Paul Mingard suggests that the lasting benefits may be in morale and confidence. "Imagine - you see your city, this derided place, up there on the screen, again and again, and it tells you Liverpool is special. It tells you you are special. It tells you that faith in this city is justified."