Rain Machine – Filming The Wolfman in London

On a dry grey day we turned a corner below Lincoln’s Inn Fields and stepped into Victorian London. Before us stood bow-windowed shopfronts displaying a past world’s goods, dusty cobbled streets, a horse carriage stopped by the corner. But it was eerily quiet – a district suddenly abandoned. Reaching the corner, we could see that even the horses had ambled off and left their carts upended or still against the curb.

It’s not uncommon to come across movie-making in the City of London, but it is usually obvious: accompanied by dozens of quick-footed technicians, banks of artificial lighting and diffusion screens, and cables running underfoot leading to lorry-sized generators. If Carey Street had been turned into a movie set, it was difficult to tell where details of the real world ended and the Victorian artifice began. Unless you were imtimately familiar with the street and its facades it was impossible to distinguish between the real old pub, book shop and legal offices and the false equivalents.

From out of a side passage a fellow emerged and cautioned us: ‘Mind how you go. Keep to the left. You wouldn’t want to get wet!’ Then he turned away. This made no sense. As there was little chance of rain, we forged ahead, but vaguely followed the man’s directions on the chance that he was somehow attached to the production, and not simply one of London’s eccentric disposessed. But then an oddly contained shower of rain spattered down just to our right, onto a small tree and a patch of pavement, completely isolated. I looked up and there in the sky was suspended a rain machine.

Victorian London

Victorian gent on mobile phone
Victorian gent on his mobile phone: lunch break during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

It was late lunchtime and the Victorian population had migrated to some side streets. Dozens of Victorian gentlemen in tophats and heavy tweed, sporting extravagent sideburns and moustaches, were standing on pavements and lounging on steps. A group of women bearing bustles and fitted dresses beneath draped coats congregated on a balcony. Many people were still finishing off a stand-up lunch – served from an open-sided marquee – deftly manuevering plastic forks full of chinese noodles and indian curries to their lips from plastic tubs. A group of women had moved on to coffee and their little brimmed hats, perched jauntily above tall pinned coiffures, nodded as they talked. A man in a bowler hat snoozed on a window sill of the London School of Economics, while another sat beside him transfixed by a Stephen King novel. A multitude of other characters stood staring in random directions dealing with mobile phone messages.

Back on Serle Street men in thick wool suits began to lead single and pairs of horses to their coaches and cabs. While hitching them up they quietly whispered sweet re-assurances into their ears. A Black Mariah – a black, horse-drawn cab with bars on its windows – was brought up to the corner just short of the shops by a blue caped policeman. No doubt this was in anticipation of capturing the Wolf Man. By now we had discovered this scene was being filmed for inclusion in The Wolfman, directed by Joe Johnston and including Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving, due for release in early 2009.

Victorian carriage on artificial cobbles
Victorian carriage on artificial cobbles during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

There was a curious spongey feel to the cobble streets. The entire surface under foot and hoof of this Victorian world was pieced together like an enormous jig-saw puzzle of dense foam sections and dusted over with a light gravel. Replacement cobbles were stacked in sheets up by Lincoln's Inn Fields just in case of mishap.

Soon all the Victorian extras began to congregate at different points along the fringes of the two streets in preparation for their crowd entrance. Many of the women held voluminous black umbrellas. Most of these props, like their clothes, were well-used but genuine antiques. A gent in matching green tweed cap, suit and knickerbockers rode up on a large, iron-framed bicycle. One man asked me if his moustaches were straight. A detachment of police officers appeared, in blue-black uniforms and dun-coloured pith helmets, shouldering rifles. Two of them took up guard before the corner shop while the others mingled with a group of well-dressed rogues casually fingering their firearms. Didn’t look like a wolfman stood much of a chance in this part of London. Or did he?

Actors during filming of The Wolfman
Actors waiting for another take during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

The life of an actor – at least an extra on a large-budget film like this – consists in hours of standing around, interspersed by infrequent 30-second spurts of ‘Action!’. And it really is standing around, as sitting down in the expertly draped costumes would throw them into disarray. For the women wearing bustles, having a five-minute sit on the back steps of the nearby Royal Courts of Justice would be impossible! There appears to be a kind of formal posture of restraint actors hold while standing on the sidelines, even when chatting with their colleagues (or eating Chinese take-away). No doubt if hours of professional work has gone into their visual transformation by make-up artists, wardrobe assistants and hair stylists, they don’t want to mess it up by jumping about, making expansive gestures, or rubbing noses and chins.

After an hour and a half of positioning and adjusting cameras and prepping the scene everybody is asked to get ready for a run-through. Someone yells out, ‘Action!’, and suddenly a busy, crowded Victorian street corner bursts into life. Women intent on shopping walk briskly through the scene. Men intent on business stride in every direction.A stream of horses pulling a variety of coaches full of passengers pass one another. The high-riding cyclist in his flat cap weaves through the apparent melee. In 30 seconds it’s all over. And everyone slowly goes back to their starting point to await the next take. For this scene, this literally has been a ‘dry-run’. When the cameras actually roll, it will be chucking rain.

Victorian policeman on Black Mariah
Victorian policeman driving a Black Mariah during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

Another forty-five minutes is then invested in exploring alternative camera movements and micro-positioning. One camera is a static behemoth planted below an enormous black umbrella marked ‘Panavision’, with a couple of technicians and a cameraman in attendance. Another camera, with its own team, is mounted on a telescopic boom that swings and rises in gentle arcs. This camera can be remotely swivelled to any viewing position with smooth, electronic ease. All the images from the cameras are fed back to a low, open-sided tent stuffed full of monitors and digital equipment. If cameras are the eyes of a production, then this tent represents it brain, for it is here that the director spends most of his time: analysing, evaluating and making those split-second artistic decisions that will generally make or break a film. But for gawkers like ourselves, it was especially satisfying when the director emerged from the tent, pushed back his baseball cap, wandered into the Victorian street and peered at the scene through a large viewing lens hung on a chain around his neck. He directed someone to hang a dark cloth over a small but distracting street sign high up on the building facade, then retreated to the tent. You only see this sort of thing in the ... er ... movies!

From under the tent the director guided a coach and horses around the corner of the street to stop just past the shop door. This simple scene was then played out four times and each time the entire Victorian population was set in motion. Each time the coach stopped in a slightly different position and its occupants were directed to climb out and configure themselves in alternative positions before the doorway. In response, the swinging boom camera tracked their movements in a slightly different manner.

The Rain Machine

Rain machine for filming The Wolfman
Rain machine used during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

After another forty minutes of fine-tuning the camera set-up, someone yelled out, ‘Here comes the rain’. Someone else cried out, ‘This is the rain!’ And the ‘thsssssssssss’ of compressed water beginning to flow rose from the expanding hoses that fed the rain machine.

The rain machine was an enormous rectangle of pipework – probably the quarter size of a football pitch – suspended in the sky about ten stories up by the single arm of a massive crane. It took the pumped water about thirty seconds to reach the propeller heads. The propellers then scattered the water as rain at each corner and two midpoints of the rectangle. The spray quickly grew from a light shower into a heavy summer rain. And the rain drops were nice, fat, luscious ones. Much better than ordinary rain, really, for this was rain that looked good on film!

‘Action!’

Victorian policemen guarding shop
Victorian policemen guarding shop during the filming of 'The Wolfman'

The Victorian city streets again burst into life, this time under a downpour, and the choreographed confusion began. Men atop carriages pulled in their chins to face the deluge. Women huddled beneath their floating brollies and picked their way through the traffic across streaming cobbles. Horse flanks grew shiny. Woolen coats became sodden. Through the storm a coach smartly pulled up to the curb just past the corner. A firm hand opened its door and a deeply concerned man and his colleague stepped out. Policemen in blue-black uniforms appeared at their sides, armed and prepared. The leading man’s knuckles rose to the shop’s wooden door ... and rapped against it ...

‘Cut! Thank you!’

And as miraculously as the summer shower appeared, it slowly started to fade. All the pretty women, with their fashionable bustles wet, and the top-hatted men with their moustaches damp, retreated to the edge of the curiously spongey cobblestones to await the next take.

Jim Batty
Jim Batty Image Library

 


Text and photographs copyright © 2008 by Jim Batty. All rights reserved.
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Emily Blunt in rain filming The Wolfman
Artificial rain: Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt) entering her shop in 'The Wolfman" while rain machine lets loose
Victorian carriage, driver and horses
Victorian carriage, driver and horses: prepping a street scene during the filming of 'The Wolfman'
Jim Batty Image Library

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