THE FILM 'FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING' IS INSPIRED BY THE BOOK OF THE SAME NAME WRITTEN BY MARTIN MCGARTLAND. MARTIN MCGARTLAND AND HIS CO-WRITER NICHOLAS DAVIES HAVE NOT AUTHORISED THE ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK AND SOME CHARACTERS AND EVENTS HAVE BEEN FICTIONALISED.
A young man is recruited by Special Branch to infiltrate the brutal and life-threatening high echelons of the IRA terrorist organisation in 1980s Belfast at the height of the northern Irish 'Troubles'. Inspired by the real-life story of informer Martin McGartland.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The wardrobe design is brilliant. Stephanie captured a simple overall look that is period, but holds up in a modern context. One has to pay attention to how a modern audience sees it because sometimes recent period simply looks "bad" when revisited. Stephanie is all about character and she manages to add just the right touch that gives the actors a real sense of who they are. Simple nuance, a coat - the right period jacket, white socks - she pays detailed attention to the character arch so that the wardrobe reflects the changes and growth of the character as we move through the story; The best part is she does it all with such grace, even when the time crunch was sometimes crazy. No matter what, she smiles and that helps make everyone comfortable which is critical for an actor when they are searching for and prepping their character.
When writer and director Kari Skogland first began considering a film version of Martin McGartland's autobiographical account of his days as a British informer in Northern Ireland, she realised that the best way to approach the re-telling was to maintain a neutrality and offer the audience the opportunity to make up their own minds about McGartland's actions.
McGartland's story offered Skogland everything - a spy story, a love story, an internal struggle reflected in the historical conflict - but it was McGartland's journey from small-time cheeky opportunist to top level informant that inspired Canadian filmmaker Skogland to humanise and analyse the man.
Rather than be a straight biographical account of McGartland's experiences, Skogland took snapshots from the book and concentrated on the thriller aspects of the story to heighten the intrigue and pose immediate questions to the audience.
The greatest challenge for Skogland was bringing authenticity to a subject she'd previously known very little about. Telling the story of a man whose choices in life dictate not only his future, but also all of those who come into contact with him is not a new concept, but to set the story against the complexities of the Troubles added another layer to Skogland's screenplay that needed to be absolutely accurate to stay true, not only to McGartland's experiences, but also for many other young men who had found themselves choosing sides during that time.
"I thought I knew something about it and discovered I knew nothing about it. It meant I had to live here for a while to embrace what the cause was, what the fall-out was," says Skogland. "I'm attracted to reaching into very difficult stories that have the nexus of a political agenda blended with the human cost", she says when asked what drew her to tackling this subject. "I tend to resonate toward these minutiae human stories inside greater conflict. So for me it was a dream come true to find the material, and then have the universe conspire that not only makes my story relevant, but that I was going to be able to tell it in its most relevant fashion."
When asked if she feels the time is right now for a story like this to be told she is adamant. "No question," she says. "Not only because this is happening everywhere in the world, so there is universality to it, but in terms of the specific story we're telling. New information is emerging every day that just verifies what we're telling. We have information now that we didn't have even five years ago. So until now you couldn't have told this story with the same amount of authenticity."
"Everybody wanted to tell the story the right way," says Skogland. "My story tries not to take sides. I don't politicise it." Although the backdrop was the IRA conflict during the Troubles, Skogland feels the film's narrative could have played equally well in any comparative conflict. "It could be Iraq or downtown New York," she says. "When two sides start to conflict, right and wrong gets very murky. People lose sight of what they're even fighting for or where they started or where they're going to end up. And so I guess it sort of asks the question at the end of it. At the end of the day, is it worth it? I think everyone gets to a place where they're no longer being either truthful or breaking the law."
When asked what it is like with a director who is still an emerging force, Kingsley gives a thoughtful and lateral response. "I did a very successful film called Sexy Beast and that was with a first time director. I recently did a film with Josh Peck and Mary Kate Olson [The Wackness] with a young director called Jonathan Levine - maybe his second or third film. It's very good to be with people when they're making their first steps. However, let me remind you… every actor on a set is very bravely taking his first steps in a new character. So, all of us are taking baby steps. That's why filming is so beautiful: it equates everything. Suddenly there are no experienced or inexperienced actors. I've never played this character before, therefore we're all coming to something fresh, and that makes it a very democratic level playing field."
Does he think Skogland is brave to tackle this subject? "I think it's the duty of the filmmaker now to be brave - to hold that mirror up to people and say, 'Do you really see what you're doing?' The advertisers will tell you you're doing one thing and the man who wants to sell you a car will tell you you're doing another thing. The magazine that tells you if you change your hair colour you'll change your life is telling you another thing, but how about occasionally a real mirror to look in to show you what you're really doing? Or what you're really colluding with? Or what you're really ignoring. It is brave - yes."
Kingsley admires Skogland's 'motherly' approach to her cast, but is quick to validate the perception. "She's extremely affectionate towards her actors. She's very caring. Although she'll probably shudder to hear me say this, she has a very developed maternal streak and is therefore guiding her story, the philosophy behind her story, and also guiding all of us to keep within the corridors of our narrative function.
"Like a mosaic, you put all the separate colours together and we'll form this wonderful picture, but that contribution has to remain consistent. I find her immensely encouraging, and clear in what she wants and what she can see from the film," he concludes.
On the politics of the film and the questions Skogland's film throws up Kingsley suggests that there may be an humanitarian message woven throughout. "Perhaps the whole film contains a plea for non-violent conflict resolution," he offers. "That we have to find ways of resolving our conflicts through dialogue, through negotiation, through understanding the other, through give and take. So I guess the film is a cry to people to examine the terrible situations that can develop in countries that are forcefully divided politically like Ireland, India and Pakistan, former Yugoslavia, the Israeli territories and the Palestinian territories; everywhere we see an imposed division; we see terrible violence and chaos."
Skogland is currently one of only a handful of female directors making thrillers in this mould. "It's interesting," she says. "In fact I don't think you could even count them on one hand." But she's very comfortable with the genre. "Directing action is a blast because it's a Rubik's Cube and it's very particular, specific and it's an organisational thing, which is perhaps a female mode; I don't know - a right brain, left-brain thing…"
"But what I like to bring to it - and this is what he [Kingsley] might be referring to in terms of the maternal aspect - is the emotion that goes with that. I don't look for tough guys to be tough. I look for humans to be in extraordinary situations. That's what action ultimately is. So in those extraordinary situations some people are brave and some people aren't. I find it uninteresting to see a movie that's full of nothing but brave people. I like seeing people doing extraordinary things and the unlikeliest person coming apart when they shouldn't, or staying strong when they should. I tend to look for the human side of anybody in any situation."
But does it feel good to be doing what she's doing in delivering this film to international cinema audiences? Skogland laughs. "It feels lonely. No, it feels great. If I can charge forth and open some doors for other women directors coming up the pipeline, then great. I'm happy to be there."
The director spent time in and around Belfast before the production began, embedding herself in the local culture and mixing with the locals. "It was a magical time," she says. "I was embraced by the community and everybody wanted to tell the story the right way, to make sure there was authenticity on both sides." Skogland brought the cast over early too, to introduce and 'acclimatise' them to the area and most importantly the local dialect."
Jim Sturgess had recently finished shooting '21' set in Las Vegas in which he plays a young American. Originally from Surrey, he was determined to master the local accent to enable him to feel he was fully representing the character. "I knew Kevin [Zegers, co-star] was in Belfast a week before I was and then I came and joined him here. And at that point there was nothing planned for us. We didn't have to go and do rehearsals or anything like that. We literally just lived in Belfast. At that point we just integrated with the people and the community. We just went out and went to pubs and clubs and house parties and stuff like that and stuck with the accent all the time, like a hundred percent."
"For me, it took about two months before we started," Zegers remembers. Arriving two months before production began, Zegers spent time with Skogland and immersed himself in the local community. "I got here in September so I was here for six weeks before we started filming. Mostly for the accent because, for me at least, that was the scary bit because I hate it when people can't do accents properly. It really bothers me quite a lot.
Over the weeks Zegers' Belfast accent improved until he knew he'd mastered it. "If I go out to a pub in Belfast now I don't get a second look. You just carry yourself differently; you speak differently. There's just a very specific Belfast way. You know based on the way people look at you whether you're one of them or not. When I got here I was very clearly this American guy who'd come in and they just knew it the second they saw me. It scared the crap out of me and I was really curious to see how I'd respond. Not only getting the accent and all the research done but also to create a character that I was proud of. That's been the challenge for me."
Sturgess also worked hard to bring as much authenticity to his character through mastering the strong Belfast accent. "I realise now how important a voice is to a person's personality because it's completely changed mine," he says. "That was one of the most important things for me when I thought, "How am I going to come at this? How am I going to tackle it?" I just had to find this thing that all people from Northern Ireland seem to have which is this incredible love for life, this incredible wit and quirkiness."
Sturgess and Zegers had previously met at the Toronto Film Festival where Sturgess was starring in Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. "I saw him at a party; I generally don't do this, but I went up to him and said, 'I really liked you in this film', I thought the film was really well done." When Zegers discovered Sturgess was to play McGartland they bonded the moment Sturgess arrived in Belfast.
"When I found out he was doing it we sort of immediately went out the first night he got here and had this kind of relationship that's very brotherly," recalls Zegers. "It wasn't initially written in the script. It was less a friendship. It adds a sort of lightness to the script that they bicker and fight. So the fact that I found out Jim was doing it, I was even more drawn to it."
McGartland's story attracted Sturgess for many reasons. The honesty of the story seems to be foremost on his mind when he talks about the role. "The honesty comes from the situation really and from the city and these people. You can't get a lot more honest than these people." What is important to Sturgess is for the audience to understand the reluctance of people to have ended up entering into the escalation of violence that occurred over the 30 years.
From his time spent in Belfast he has spoken at length with many locals who have been at pains to let him know that not everyone was, or is, naturally politically driven, more, that it was a result of circumstance that so many were directly affected by the conflict. "They were just normal people wanting to get on with their lives," Sturgess remembers. "And like everything, there's always so many different sides. It's not just as black and white as that. It was such a murky time and so difficult to know what was right and what was wrong. I think that's important for my character. He really doesn't quite know what he's doing. He doesn't quite know which way to turn. He believes these people from the IRA are his community and it weighs on his mind. But at the same time, he totally disagrees with parts of it - the violence, the death and torture."
Sturgess's early encounters with the Troubles were, like so many across the UK, through the media coverage at the time. "As a kid growing up I remember certain things about IRA bombings and stuff like that, but I never really knew what was going on. So it was definitely an opportunity to dive into that world and find out for myself what happened."
THE LOOK AND LOCATIONS
The film is set from the late 80s into the early 90s. The production took the crew to a number of locations that had formerly been IRA strongholds, where neighbourhoods had experienced a great deal of turmoil and violence since the beginning of the 70's.
There were natural concerns that the subject matter of the film would stir emotion amongst locals and the production, and Skogland was particularly keen to make sure the actors and crew remained low-key and respectful at all times. But ultimately, news leaked of filming and residents began to suspect that the filmmakers were focussing on a controversial figure.
"We totally relied on being guided by the location scouts who had been well briefed by the production - particularly by Eve Stewart, our brilliant Production Designer, who had gone on ahead to Belfast with the scouts to concentrate on places that creatively offered enough scale and scope to recreate the setting," says the film's producer Peter La Terriere. "Our scouts had worked on a number of films shot in and around Belfast before, so they were able to find the perfect position for us to shoot exterior scenes that looked and felt like the late 80s but could also be managed well enough to allow us some freedom."
One particular area in which the production shot - The Short Strand - was very close to the dividing wall and one would imagine, held raw memories, but La Terriere insists that there was positive cooperation from the locals.
"Although there were a couple of neighbourhoods that were less keen to be involved, the majority of communities greeted us warmly and were incredibly supportive to the crew descending on them. They knew what was going on. They knew we were making a film about McGartland and yet they were still very willing to cooperate."
"Our biggest problem bizarrely was the windows on many of the houses. Because the majority of houses had PVC window frames, we found it very hard to source houses where the original frames were still in situ. On one occasion, we had found the perfect house to shoot the interiors but the double glazing was too prominent in the shots, so the window literally had to be removed and a single pane window put in its place."
The production also hired a couple of ex-military advisors to help co-ordinate the street scenes where McGartland comes across the soldiers and a chase ensues. Sturgess recalls a specific day shooting in Belfast when he realised news of the film and its storyline finally reached the local community. "We were shooting in some estate in Belfast and there were kids coming up to me saying, 'My Dad knew a tout', or 'His dad used to be an informer' and they were all just kids aged ten who were completely aware of what a tout is."
"Some guy threw a stone at my head. It just bounced off and I turned around and there was this kid, he must have been 16/17, and he was shouting, 'Fuckin' tout', 'Grass' and all this. He was only kind of joking, but you could still feel there was a lot of tension and a lot of animosity towards people who really went against their own community and gave the British intelligence information."
"So I've been swinging back and forth feeling as guilty as hell about what I'm supposed to be playing and feeling very uncomfortable in these communities. Then I go and speak to people from the other side and they're telling me that this information saved lives and how important it was. So you start feeling good about yourself. I [was] constantly diving back and forth between these different emotions.
"When Kevin [Zegers] and I were first here, we were integrated with a couple of guys who had connections in the IRA, and they gave me shit just to wind me up. And all good fun, but it does really hit home how real it was for these people."
Other historical landmarks lent themselves well to the crew. "The Titanic Drawing Rooms were the setting for a key meeting between Fergus and Martin, home of the original Titanic design offices and building yard," recalls La Terriere. "There was also a period pub called The Front Page in Donegal Street, central Belfast, where we staged the explosion. It was quite small, and having 30 extras, cast and a police raid, all squeezing into this tiny pub was a real challenge for us. Especially as at the same time, we had our special effects guys rigging up explosives to blow the front doors out."
For the love scene between Sturgess and Press, the roof of the famous Europa Hotal was converted to enable the crew and the actors to position themselves in front of the large illuminated sign. "It was very wet and cold on top of Europa Hotel for the sex scene," say La Terriere. "And I remember it being extremely windy. Not at all the place one would consider having sex. But on film, it looks fantastic thanks to our brilliant DOP Jonathan Freeman."
When looking at the overall visual style of the film, Skogland wanted to pepper each scene with subtle references to the characters, the time and place as well as the overt period in which the story was set.
"We had several visual themes running through the picture," explains Skogland. "For example: the door theme. We have pivotal moments with Martin closing one door and moving to a next stage symbolically as well as physically. Scenes are even played at doors - one love scene is half in/half out, symbolising his state with his girlfriend and family. We also had a touch of red in almost every scene, somewhere you'll see a rose or a sign or something. It represented the blood and every meaning of it - the blood of lineage, spilled blood.
"All these ideas are really for us to have things to focus the production design on and Eve Stewart and her team were amazing at building in these themes in subtle ways. Eve has an amazing eye, and to keep the period true, she scoured garage and estate sales. Her sense of design is wonderful and eclectic without ever drawing attention. She paints every scene so our colour and design pallet is integrated in a painterly fashion and laid out for me to see. It is a terrific way to work because it comes from an emotional place which is of course what every scene is ultimately expressing."
Renowned Casting Director John Hubbard was brought in to help the producers secure the best possible cast for the budget. Skogland began the process by bringing Kingsley to the table.
"Kari came to us with Sir Ben, which was an enormous help in getting other potential cast on board," says producer La Terriere. "Jim Sturgess had just done Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, and he had a relatively small part in Justin Chadwick's The Other Boleyn Girl and would have been risky had it not been for Sony talking him up about the upcoming '21'. The timing was perfect and 50 Dead Men Walking then moved forward very quickly with him and Kevin Zegers on board." Read more
THE ART OF ADAPTATION