Today is an off day for the crew of The Reel Britain. We had planned to spend it shooting exteriors, but alas, the weather has not cooperated. I have a severe cold, so I have been ordered by our director and the rest of the crew to stay home convalescing, no doubt out of concern that my voice (which at this point sounds like that of an alcoholic chain-smoking tranny) and pallid complexion might scare away our upcoming interviewees. So with this enforced break in the action, I thought now might be a good time to tell you about our red carpet experiences over the past few days.
First up, on Thursday, was the red carpet for “The Invisible Woman,” held at the Odeon West End. Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes and adapted by “Shame” scribe Abi Morgan from the book by Claire Tomalin, the film is about Charles Dickens affair’ with a much younger woman, played by Felicity Jones. We had been approved the day before to cover this red carpet, so I had time to prepare questions in advance and review them with our director, Seraphina. She would wield the camera while I conducted the interviews. It created a slight dilemma, however, as we had a sit-down interview already scheduled during the same time frame with Jon S. Baird, director of the brilliant “Filth,” which manages to be simultaneously delightful and harrowing. This interview also presented a bit of a technical challenge, as it was the one we had designated to be live streamed. We decided to split into two units, with Seraphina and I attending the red carpet for 12 Years, and our producer Sherie and executive producer Rachael handling the Baird interview and live stream. While this had us all feeling understandably jittery, we needn’t have worried— Sherie and Rachael handled it like pros. “Improvise, adapt, and overcome”: a mantra often used by the U.S. Marine Corps, but that is just as applicable, as it turns out, to filmmaking.
When we arrived for the red carpet, we were somewhat confused by the fact there are actually two Odeon theaters less than a block apart— Odeon Leicester Square and Odeon West End. I was reminded of “Best in Show,” when Parker Posey’s character describes meeting her future husband: “We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.”
Once we got the locations sorted, we proceeded to the media check-in. This begins typically about an hour and a half prior to arrival of the talent. Following check-in, each outlet is assigned a spot inside the press pen; the better-known organizations get prime positions closer to the beginning of the carpet. Being fairly low-profile (but nonetheless thankful for the opportunity to participate), we were near the end of the line. Prior to the arrival of the talent, a representative from the company managing the event will ask which attendees you would like to interview; the standard answer is “Everyone we can,” with the understanding our wish might not be fulfilled. But we were still able to interview producer Gaby Tana, original author Claire Tomalin, screenwriter Abi Morgan (a personal heroine of mine), and supporting actor Tom Hollander. To ensure the proceedings are conducted in a timely fashion, a press minder will politely pull at your sleeve to indicate your time with a particular interviewee is up. By the time Ralph made his way to us, those of us at the end of the line had been grouped into clusters of three outlets apiece and each allowed one question. Or that was the plan, anyway. We had been told by a kind gentleman from BBC Radio that generally, journalists at U.K. red carpets are more collaborative than their competitive U.S. counterparts, and that it was generally considered sporting to allow colleagues to share the sound from your interview, as long as their mics (hopefully) stayed out of frame. Well, as luck would have it, we were clustered with the one outlet that proved the exception to that rule. Ralph walked up and stood in front of me, as I was at the center of our little cluster; the journalist to my right asked the first question, and then, as I opened my mouth to take my turn to speak, the journalist to my left asked a question, followed by another, and then another. First lesson of the press pen: Don’t hesitate. If an attendee positions themselves in front of you, seize that moment immediately, or you will lose it.
Despite that, however, we still got in some great questions about the British film industry and its particular challenges and advantages, which hopefully will make it into the final cut of our film. The next day was scheduled to be a day off, with no interviews planned. We had applied to cover the red carpet for “12 Years a Slave,” which has already received considerable Oscar buzz, but were told demand was so high we shouldn’t expect to be approved. I had begun to feel under the weather the day before, with a sore throat and runny nose, so I was glad for the opportunity to rest (and rest I did, for ten hours, like the dead). I was awakened, however, by a gentle tug of my foot. It was Seraphina: “Carrie, wake up! We got 12 Years a Slave and we have to be there in two and a half hours!” This, obviously, left little time to get ready, aside from my frantic attempts to make myself presentable.
With scant time to prepare, Seraphina and I decided most of my questions from the day prior could feasibly be used for this event as well, though unlike with “The Invisible Woman,” we hadn’t been informed in advance who would actually be there. After check in, however, tip sheets were distributed with the names and photos of those in attendance: director Steve McQueen (whom we had fervently hoped to book for a sit-down interview), actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and… Benedict Cumberbatch. Upon sighting that last name and photo, Seraphina and I looked at each other incredulously. Neither of us had even considered the possibility he might be there; we had both assumed he was too busy and too high-profile. We then set about considering potential questions for each person; generally because you’re not guaranteed more than one question, you want to lead with your best, but have at least two follow-up questions prepared as well. Benedict ended up being a late cancellation, but we were very pleased to get in two questions with Steve McQueen, three with Lupita, and one with Chiwetel, all of whom gave exceedingly gracious and thoughtful answers.
The next night was the red carpet for “Only Lovers Left Alive,” with producer Jeremy Thomas and actor Tom Hiddleston scheduled to attend. Seraphina was out scouting exteriors, so this time Rachael handled the camera while I interviewed and Sherie managed producing duties. I woke up feeling like death; thus many prayers were said for my voice to hold up. And for me not to sneeze or snot on anyone wearing a suit. It’s typical for the talent to be fashionably late, and in this case they were even more fashionable than usual. Tom’s arrival was signaled by the deafening squee of the fans across the red carpet, who turned out to be quite a well-behaved lot—no pushing or shoving that I observed. Jeremy proceeded to the photographers’ pen at the end of the carpet and then entered the theater, forgoing interviews, perhaps to give the media and fans more time with Tom, who as expected was in great demand. This time we were positioned closer to the middle of the press pen, but were still clustered with one other outlet—the lovely folks from XTV (xtvonline.co.uk) of the University of Exeter, who provided us with great company and conversation while we waited. I got in our one question for Tom, shared audio with the XTV folks, and then we packed up to meet Seraphina for dinner. Easy peasy, nothin’ to it, right?
Several times during this trip people have commended my “bravery” for stepping up to conduct red carpet interviews. I suppose it could be a little intimidating, but only if you let it. I am fortunate for the perspective provided by my usual job, as a 911 dispatcher. From it I’ve learned to separate myself from my emotions in order to focus on the task at hand. Adrenaline can be useful, but fear is not. I am reminded of a lesson from one of my favorite movies, Albert Brooks’ oft-overlooked “Defending Your Life”: That one of the primary tasks of our little human lives is to master fear, and that we cannot truly live until we have done so. I also believe we always have a choice of perspective. Either we can be frightened by a new challenge to the point of paralysis, or excited by the opportunity.
Of course, it also helps that I have been fortunate to work on this project with women of such amazing intelligence and enthusiasm. Their commitment continually inspires me to contribute the same. There’s no way I would even think of letting them down. I am also aware that our backers have invested their own money and interest in this project. I have a duty to them as well, to see that their faith is well-founded. Come hell or high water (a very real possibility this rainy Sunday), that obligation will be met.
Publicist, The Reel Britain