Set in the heart of East London’s Limehouse, the once historic location of the capitals China Town, Guardians is an internationally award-winning film made by a close group of old friends. This dark comedy, entirely shot in East London picks on themes of loneliness in London, extortionate London house prices, the rich history of the area and living with weirdos. Filmed in ten days for a strict budget, this witty and sharp feature film was a true labour of love for all involved. BEAST’s Leonie Helm talks to some of the cast and crew about the challenges of making a film this way, finding inspiration in East London, and jockstraps.
Mark A C Brown – Director and screen writer of Guardian’s and East London resident.
Fred Fournier – Editor and producer.
David Whitney – A classically trained actor and stand-up comedian who can be seen every Thursday at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green, who plays principle character Lavender.
Matt Predergast – Actor and principle character in Guardian’s, Carlson.
Chris Spyrides – Actor and token cockney, who plays supporting character Spruce in Guardian’s.
Mike Shephard – Actor, comedian and writer for BBC Radio 4 The News Quiz, plays estate agent Buxton.
So this is clearly a good group of friends, how do you all know each other?
David: Mark and I met through Kayvan Novak, who I worked with on Phone Jacker. He recommended me to Mark, and we did a play called Monkey Feeds The Robot and The Old Red Lion in Islington with Joined Up Writers. Matt Prendegast who is the other principle character in Guardians was in the play as well, as was Chris Fry who plays the barman. That was about fifteen years ago.
Mark: And that group like a rolling stone, gathered more artists.
Chris: I met David in 2007 at the Edinburgh Fringe. Everyone thought David was an arse apart from me. But yeah, met David up there, we drank together a few times and then I met Mark and we made Too Loud.
Mark: Yeah Too Loud which we eventually made in to a short film and took to Cannes. It was a Samuel Becket almost Pinter-esque play about two men not walking their dogs.
Fred: Mark and I met through mutual friends then he slept on my couch for a few months.
Mark: Mike and I met at the Lost Theatre Festival in about 2006. I saw him on the tube and thought ‘he looks like he’s going the same place I’m going’.
Mike: Wearing a suit on a Saturday. A suit, long hair and a cravat, you thought ‘he’s a theatre prick’.
Mark: I suppose what really brought us all together was Tin Can Podcast. We wrote and recorded 100 plays in 2 years between 5 and 15 minutes long. David, Chris, Mike, Matt, pretty much everyone in Guardian’s featured heavily. They were mostly comedy, some dramatic sketches. Quite a lot of the sketches we turned in to short films that went on to success like Beard and Ballad of the Lonely Highwayman, which can be found on the Tin Can Podcast 2010 YouTube channel.
You’ve all known each other for some time and worked with each other on lots of projects and that closeness really comes across in the film. Tell us about Guardian’s in your own words.
David: In theatrical terms you could describe it as a chamber piece, in that it mainly happens all in one setting, which is Marks house, and its mainly about the crucible of what happens in the house.
Mark: Yeah, two men are thrown together through the guardianship housing scheme. They’re both lonely and troubled but in very different ways, and they manage to get themselves in to a spot of bother, all within the history and backdrop of East London. It’s a comedy about being lonely in London which I think a lot of people can relate to. It’s a sad story that is surprisingly funny.
The film is very East London centric, where did the inspiration to focus on the East come from?
Mark: I live in East London and it’s a fascinating place. The house, which actually belongs to my fiancé Victoria who is also in the film, was the backdrop to most of the film and it’s pure East London. It’s 210 years old and has been many things over the years since it was built in 1810 including a doctor’s surgery. East London has been a dark place and I don’t even know if now, with gentrification and new developments it’s starting to get lighter, I’m not sure.
Mike: Yeah we’re seeing communities dying. I still think about the estate agents window close to where I used to live around here, and there’s a street that used to have shops and be a community and now it’s all estate agents!
Mike: Would any of us really like to live in the old east end?
Chris: Well exactly, I don’t want 3 spivs down my street selling watches from the inside of their overcoats every day.
What about some of the east end history and legends mentioned?
David: Well Limehouse was the original China Town.
Mike: Yeah the 1890s to the 1920s Pennyfields was the original China Town. We mention the Chinese opium lords in Guardians but actually we the British were the opium lords, growing the stuff in India and getting the Chinese hooked.
Mark: You’re telling me this now!? Yeah, the film is a tapestry of truth and bullshit. I like the Ratcliffe Highway stuff in Wapping, that’s all true, although I made up Lord Ratcliffe.
Mike: The Ratcliffe Highway murders happened about the same time the house was built in 1810. A couple of families were murdered and potentially the wrong man was caught and died in prison.
David: The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping still has a noose outside to commemorate Execution Dock where pirates and prostitutes were hanged.
Tell us about the characters. Matt’s character seems fairly normal lonely guy, but Lavender seems fairly mysterious.
David: Is he though? We don’t know. He’s flamboyant but it’s up to the audience to tell whether he’s lying or not. He’s just as fucked up as Matt’s character he just deals with it in different way. In a way he is a far sadder character than Matt, he hides it under bravado. He wants a drinking buddy, he wants adventure and adventure needs a companion.
Mike: He needs someone to witness his adventures.
Mark: This is the plot device because David’s character is a massive bullshit artist and that’s the reason the plot unfolds the way it does, because he’s been spouting off down the pub about hidden treasure.
Chris: Spruce (my character) who breaks in to the house because he’s heard Lavender mouthing off about gold, and the only genuine cockney in the film, is more likely to believe the lies Lavender is saying because if someone says they’ve got money, they’ve got money and that’s a definitely a class thing.
Mike: I play a dodgy surreal sort of estate agent/sex party organiser called Buxton who’s fond of a turban and that gets embroiled in the drama.
Guardians is a global multi-award winning feature film, made in under 2 weeks and for a strict budget of about ten grand with all members of cast and crew working on other things at the same time. How on earth did you manage that?
Fred: The first steps were fun but very stressful. Wen you sign your name off to be in charge of £150,000 of equipment for ten days, it’s a lot of risk from a production point of view!
Mark: I had said to David, let’s do it, let’s make a film and I was listening to a podcast where a guy made a film on his phone Tangerine, and I thought well, we’ve got no excuse now.
David: I was on tour doing Two Gentlemen of Verona, and most of the rest of us were away. Mark was on his own with no one to drink with, so he wrote the script.
Fred: We had a lot of stumbling blocks with location prices, like the church we wanted to use, the vicar, who was a lovely man, got back to us and told us that the powers that be have said that they should charge us £500, just for a little bit of filming.
David: It was a case of what can we use for free. I had been involved in films based in Scotland and Scotland is so beautiful so a film crew already has this scenery that they can just point a camera at and it is immediately cinematic. London is immediately cinematic, but somebody will charge you a fortune if you start pointing a camera at it. Apart from the house we filmed a few scenes in the Queens Head, which is where the Queen Mother pulled a pint in that famous photo.
Fred: Suzanne the cinematographer, she spent a whole day pre-lighting the house before we shot. So, we didn’t have to re-set the lights as much for every single scene. Suze put a string of lights all the way up the stairs so we didn’t have to spend hours changing the lighting for every scene.
Challenges of filming
David: The limited budget was probably the biggest challenge. Time is the most expensive thing on a set. You’ve got a crew of 20 odd people who need to be fed, watered and transported around, and on some crazy occasions paid. Time was the most expensive thing.
Mike: Time and prostitutes.
Mark: Time off as well. There wasn’t a single person that wasn’t doing other projects. Scheduling scenes while renting expensive equipment with half a missing crew was difficult.
David: It was a case of only having 2 or 3 goes max at any take. So the 20 minute pub scene, which is really dialogue heavy, was essentially done in 2 takes. We pretty much had to be bang on every time, it was filmed like a piece of theatre.
So no messing up, no pranks?
Chris: We rehearsed. A LOT.
Mike: Yeah, Chris and I would rehearse in another part of the house while filming was going on. The two leads David and Matt were in nearly every scene together so for the rest of us, Chris, Victoria and myself, there was a sense that you had the responsibility to come in as a supporting role and try and bring some energy and not waste everyone’s time. All the crew were living here, any room that wasn’t being filmed in was being lived in.
David – Yeah Matt and I rehearsed in the Flask in Highgate, in the beer garden, basically doing free shows for drinkers that didn’t ask.
But as you’re all old friends I imagine the urge to mess around was quite strong?
David: With the time constraints we couldn’t mess around as much as we would have naturally done. I mean, I did hide every jockstrap I used somewhere around the house, but not during scenes, every take was too precious. But you are right, it is definitely within our characters to be as disrespectful as possible to each other.
Chris: There was one scene at the end which I struggled to get through because Mike was being too fucking funny. Mike is trying to diffuse a tense situation with some Bhangra dancing and that was fucking difficult. It was his improvisational lyrical flow, ‘Look at me I’m bigger that Jay-Z’.
Mark: No one knew he was going to do that.
Mark: That’s the one scene where 90% of the cast are in near the end.
David: That’s our hateful eight moment.
Any major mishaps?
Fred: I would like to say nothing got broken.
Mark: The fucking toilet did
David: I claim no responsibility for that.
Mark: One of them could have been him.
How did Hattie Hayridge of Red Dwarf get involved?
David: I was doing a stand-up comedy gig in Guernsey of all places and Hattie was on the bill too. We got on very well exploring Nazi tunnels.
Mark: The Fox Lady was the only part not specifically written for anyone in particular.
David: Hattie turned up at a comedy gig of mine in Kings X and said she’d do the movie. I was legging it to another gig in Epsom on the blower to Mark yelling ‘Hattie Hayridge of Red Dwarf said yes!’.
The film has been extremely successful on the international awards circuit hasn’t it?
Mark: We got more than we thought we would, we were really surprised. David and I put a lot of stock in this film, we did to America for it and we did go to Genre Blast in Virginia.
David: Yeah at the Alamo Draft House, which is the best cinema chain in America, owned by Quentin Tarantino. We were on a double bill with Steven King’s IT.
I hear Brenda Blethyn is a fan?
David: Yeah she is a patron of the Ramsgate Film Festival, where we won Best Screenplay.
Mark: That was a great festival, and Brenda loved the film. We were just having a drink and she came over and quoted my own film back at me. The line that Mike uses to describe the house as being like Helen Mirren; ‘210 years old and still worth a punt’.
David: Often when you go to these festivals and you’re nominated and you meet the judges, you realise they haven’t even watched the film. But at Ramsgate they were talking to us about it, quoting it, they all had a genuine love of independent film making.
Mark: We’d all been to some bullshit festivals and this one just had such a welcoming atmosphere.
David: Also as the film was loosely inspired by Withnail and I, having the award presented by Paul McGann was a somewhat poetic.
How has making your own feature film affected your lives?
Mike: It’s given me the confidence to wear a turban in public again and I have a new love of Frankfurters. I’m not a classically trained actor and prop work is hard, so to be able to handle a sausage on screen was a big deal for me. I am now probably one of the greatest Frankfurter actors of my generation.
Mark: Contrary to what Mike just said it has made us be taken a lot more seriously. I would say to anyone wanting to make a film, just do it.
David: It’s pretty amazing, not wanting to sound soppy, to make something with pretty much our entire friendship group, bar a few. It was an amazing thing, it makes sense for me and Matt to be doing 14 hour days as we’re in every scene, but we had runners doing the same. #
Fred: It gave me a lot of confidence, making and achieving a feature film. As a person it made me grow, and you all helped. I’m more sure of myself now.
And what’s next?
Mark: My next film Limpet is in the pipelines, most of the Guardian’s team will be moving on to do Limpet. Keep checking our website for Braine Hownd Films and our social media for updates on that. We’re in talks to get Guardian’s out to the public.
Fred: I’ve just worked on Aeronauts in post-production which will be released later this year starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Mike: I’m currently writing for The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4.
David: A Portrait of the Artist Angus Fairhurst is a film I was involved in which is now doing the festival circuit. I regularly gig up in comedy clubs up and down the country, check out my website for dates. And I run the new act night every Thursday at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green.
Chris: I’m in Proper Flan, which is a short comedy which will be out later this year on Vimeo and YouTube.
Screening at the TT Liquor Bar on 12 June
Keep an eye on guardiansfilm.co.uk for any upcoming screenings and info.