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Behind The Scenes of Small Axe – Steve McQueen’s remarkable set of films five original films Including Lovers Rock, Mangrove, and More

Read a little of the behind the scenes with the brilliant artisans behind the creation of Steve McQueen’s remarkable set of films five original films, Small Axe below. 

“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” – Jamaican proverb.

Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, the films each tell a different story involving London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will, despite rampant racism and discrimination. Even though this collection of films is set some decades ago, the stories are as vital and timely today as they were for the West Indian community in London at the time. Small Axe is a celebration of Black joy, beauty, love, friendship, family, music and even food; each one, in its own unique way, conveys hard-won successes, bringing hope and optimism.

The Music –

The music and songs and vibe of the West Indian culture permeates every film and that came down to Ed Baile.

Ed Baile –

This is specific to Lovers Rock which really is wall to wall music, but you can get a sense of his commitment to authenticity  Steve had Janet Kay “Silly Games” in the script from first draft, which I was over the moon to read – it’s such a classic. No one can resist trying (and failing) to hit the high notes.
The approach on set was very natural and fluid… Steve had nurtured the vibe of the room, the comfort for everyone to be loose and free. He didn’t force the moment, he created the space & mood which let the cast create and run with it. That’s a magical scene that hits me every time. It’s over 11 minutes but never feels it (and what other director would be bold enough to let the scene run for 11 minutes?), I’m just swept away by it every time, transported there. We brought Dennis Bovell, lovers rock (and dub) legend and architect of “Silly Games”, in to make a sneaky cameo. His deep booming voice is unmistakable in the crowd and makes that scene all the more special to me. The musical arc of the night was plotted to be a true and natural blues party… from rocksteady, reggae and pop, to the slow dance of lovers rock, then breaking out into the deeper end of the night with big dub tunes like The Revolutionaries, Augustus Pablo & The Aggrovators, Leroy Smart, We The People Band… Again the freedom of the film set is visceral in the final cut, as Steve so masterfully conjured.  Each film has its own musical identity (with crossing points); the popular lovers rock and dub tunes in Lovers Rock, roots reggae & catalogue dives in Alex Wheatle, more soul in Red, White and Blue… they’re each true to their subject and time. Authenticity was hugely important. We wanted viewers of Lovers Rock to feel nostalgia for the blues parties they’d attended in their youth, and to paint the setting in each film with interesting but believable music picks that would excite new fans and spark memories for others. There were plenty of music choices to be made upfront (we often had music playing while the cameras were rolling, and characters singing in various scenes, which all needs to be cleared pre-shoot)… sometimes there’s a scripted track that can’t clear for whatever reason, or is a placeholder awaiting new ideas, so we’d share playlists and work out the right tone for the scene. Later on in post production, it becomes a really fluid, quick turnaround process sharing track ideas with the edit & getting them cleared. The anthology is dense with music, from incidental moments to poignant needle drops, and we built a world of playlists ready to draw ideas from when they were needed. There are always standout scenes when reading a script where you can sense music will play an important role… sometimes it’s not clear yet whether that’ll be original score or a source track, and sometimes it all changes in the edit (maybe lyrics don’t let the scene breathe enough, or the scene plays out at a different pace to your imagination) but the pieces start falling into place from first page turn and gradually evolve as we move through to the final edit. Small Axe had many moments to line music up from script stage. I love Leroy and Lee dancing to Beggar & Co, or the poignancy of Alex Wheatle discovering reggae to The Abyssinians whilst facing a racist attack at school, the whole of Lovers Rock playing out a true blues party, and moments like Frank Crichlow raising a class to celebrate their first night trading as everyone sings “Jean & Dinah” in Mangrove.

The Filming –

Cinematography – Shabier Kirchner –  

DP Shabier Kirchner, who lensed every movie in the Small Axe universe. (Like the Marvel Universe but better.) He grew up in Antigua and is mostly self -taught but super, duper talented. He lensed several shorts and features like Sollers Point and Skate Kitchen and directed and shot, in 16mm, a short film in Antigua, Dadli, which is not to be missed (https://vimeo.com/shabierkirchner). Impressively, he shot the five different films in Small Axe in five different formats and lighting packages, all driven by the storytelling and creative intent each movie.  

Lovers Rock  is fever dream, sodium vapor-lit house party and the camera is both witness and participant. He shot that one digitally on an Alexa Mini, because Shabier and Steve wanted a more contemporary feel and because he didn’t have to cut after 11 minutes or so as he would with film, he could roll the camera for long periods of time, until Steve called cut. That explains he fluid, pulsing feel, right? Mangrove pushed and pulled its 35mm film stock so that the highlights pop, and grain pervades the shadows. And the framing is fantastic – classic McQueen close-ups and long holds to underscore emotion – the clattering colander for instance. A GREAT use of motion too – the camera floating above the Mangrove Nine, panning up as they file into the courtroom landing on a big frieze attached to the side of the building as the last defendant walks in and holding on it – an ancient sculpture that just screams White British Jurisprudence. Red, White and Blue was shot on three-perf 35mm to keep the focus (literally and figuratively) on John Boyega’s face and, as in Mangrove, they liked the texture of film. (Three perf has to do with the amount of negative available; 3-perf and the 4-perf refers to how many perforations of the 35mm film makes a frame. This affects the frame size, the area which is exposed on the negative. Bigger negative = less grain and better detail recorded). They also used 2-perf for Mangrove, which they saw as a Western – this per Shabier – “We wanted that really 70s Western grain texture from that era, but to use the entire negative to be able to keep the Mangrove Nine, that community in one frame against the institutions.     That was something that we kept coming back to, that their defiance was a series of small acts. The idea that if we are unified, we can take down this institution, these injustices, but if we stand alone we stand weaker. That definitely led to us shooting 2-perf 35 mm.” 

This is a funny story about Lovers Rock:  

We finished shooting Mangrove and we had a two week break where the crew had two weeks down, and I had one week down, during the Notting Hill Carnival. 

Steve and I hadn’t really spoken about Lovers Rock. We had scouted the house, we had scouted a lot of the locations based on what was in the script and based on what the Art Department presented, but we never spoke about a visual language up. Steve would call me in and he’d be like, “Mate, you need to come in on Monday on this day. We’ll talk about it.” I had gone to Notting Hill Carnival the day before and I was kind of like, fuck, man. It was a Bank Holiday weekend. Monday was off and Steve called me in on a fucking Monday, after Carnival. I’m going to be so mashup. But I was like, fuck it, I’m going to go anyway. 

I went to Notting Hill Carnival and it was the first time I’d been to Carnival outside of the West Indies. I was just so used to going to Carnival in Trinidad and Antigua It was 2.2 million people, the second biggest carnival in the world next to Rio, crammed into these small streets in London and it was just hot and it was sweaty, and it was just so many West Indian people, and so many black people just fully expressing themselves and the love for each other, and the love for the culture. We danced and we grinded on each other. Went to a house party afterwards and the house party was bathed in the craziest light and it was just like… The next morning I had woken up and I was, obviously, still drunk from the night before. 

I walked in to see Steve and Steve took one good look at me and he was like, “You were at mashup last night, weren’t you?” And I like, “Yeah, man. I was.” He’s like, “I can smell the booze coming off of you.” And I was like, “But Steve, listen… ” I proceeded to tell him about the energy of yesterday and last night and what I had experienced. The whole birth of Lovers Rock was that conversation, and we were like, how do we transform that feeling and literal intoxication visually?

The Costume Design –

Jackie Durran (1917, Little Women, Beauty & The Beast) Sinead Kidao and Lisa Duncan had divvied up the films because they were so complex, with so many characters and locations, the prep on each so massive, it would have been impossible for one person to do all of it.

Jackie Durran on Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock gave me the opportunity to recreate a part of the 70s/80s music scene I had never seen represented in a drama – most of the familiar photographs and any films have shown the wider world of the reggae sound system, so when I read the script and spoke to Steve, we saw an opportunity to do something new. It was a female centric scene and for costume it was the women’s style that made it so interesting. It was a modest but dressy, aspirational look – it’s not a look that has been re-appropriated over time – going back to it and recreating it was like a discovery.” A lot of these dresses were handmade. Everyone back in the day got patterns and made their clothes. A lot of those dresses you see in Lovers Rock were handmade just as many of the dresses that women wore to these Blues Parties were handmade. Everyone wanted to be unique. No one wanted to have the same dresses as everyone else. And the guys wore their double-breasted blazers and the gold buttons – they had to come SHARP, to dance and attract the ladies. Durran meticulously created not just the costumes but the excitement and sexuality of young people on their night out.

Lisa Duncan on Mangrove – 

Lisa Duncan’s wardrobe a (ChimericaBeen So Long) allowed the actors to inhabit their characters from the outside in With each black turtleneck or brightly colored frock, Duncan armed the cast with the ability to channel that period in palpable ways. Don’t believe me, this is what Shaun Parkes who plays the main character Frank Crichlow says “The most important thing for me is the idea that Lisa really cares about the truth. When you’re wearing these clothes it’s just another way, a helpful, useful tip, to get into character. It’s very helpful.”  She had a personal relationship to the West Indian immigrant storyline  My mother came from Portugal and my father from the Caribbean, so many of the characters reminded me of family members, like my grandmother and her friends and aunts,” she adds. “I used that a lot in the design and was able to pull from family photographs in my research and to ask stories about how they dressed and what they remembered from that time.” Duncan also turned to book, video and photographic research. She and her team rented some of the clothes and accessories, purchased at vintage markets and had others made to create multiple ensembles for what turned out to be quite a sizable cast. For instance, when she put together Jones-LeCointe’s look for Wright, she went for practical pieces that reflected the time and worked for Wright’s frame.  Additionally, Duncan had a giant number of costumes to find in terms of the scale of this film as we had a large ensemble and many extras. Lisa and her assistant scoured every charity shop and eBay for original pieces, for the principals but also key background players.

Kidao on Red, White & Blue and Education – https://www.sineadkidao.com/about

I found so many great photographs of the period that were perfect and enabled me to show the world I wanted to represent. I looked at books, film, TV footage, and also went to libraries to find some archive material. Production had been working on it for 10 years so we were also given access to their research material. My family emigrated from the Caribbean to England in the 1960’s so I was also lucky to able to add family photographs. I talked to my parents about what they wore then. I vividly remember my Dad wearing a chambray denim trouser suit my mother made for him in the 1970s. It was similar to the one I had made for Darcus, which was a replica of the one he wore in some of the footage of the time. My grandmother lived in London at this time and my first memories of her were in the 1970s. Looking back on the photographs she was still wearing the same 1960’s styles then. I spent all of the holidays with her growing up and this whole world felt very familiar to me. I based some of the costumes on her and other family members and friends. One of Altheia’s dresses was even made from some fabric that was given to me by my mother in law, it had lain in her mother’s sewing box unused for decades.  I did do some sketches for the costumes I had made, so I could send them to the makers to work from. My two episodes were connected using many of the same actors so I worked on them both at the same time. The Trial ended up being filmed first because of the availability of the court location. We concentrated on researching the court gowns and fitting the actors first for those scenes alongside our Mangrove 9.


Small Axe is on Amazon Prime currently, and more info can be found here – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3464896/

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