DEAN Road depot echoes, as it always does at this time of day, to the hiss of airbrakes as bin crews return from Scarborough’s streets.
For them its time to knock off; time for a well earned pint. But hidden in a foreboding annex next to the lorry park, work continues apace as a film crew works into the night to produce British cinema’s next blockbuster.
Now you might think a council depot is hardly the most glamorous location for actors such as Exorcist star James D’Arcy, but for the next three weeks it will do very nicely thank you says director Reg Traviss, because tucked away behind the imposing and castellated gatehouse is a Victorian prison. Not only that, it’s in pristine nick.
Traviss asked location managers to scour the country for the right setting to film his adaptation of Ronnie Thompson’s novel, Screwed, which is based on his life as a prison officer.
Traviss wanted the grittiness that could only come from filming in a real jail and not only to make it look authentic on the big screen; it also instils a grim feeling of the place in his actors.
So when Dean Road was discovered, he couldn’t believe his luck. “This place is brilliant because for my style of filming, location is crucial. I was really taken by the originality of the script; it sees prison life through the eyes of a prison officer who has a background in Iraq.
“This is a character study and you can see the transition from one uniform to another. He’s brought personal baggage back from Iraq, his prisoners are violent and the icing on the cake is that his prison is run by corrupt officials.
“The film is very much a journey and I like stories that are journeys; we can all relate to them.” In his book, Thompson reveals a disturbing, hard-hitting account of prison officers, from after-work excesses to dealing with drug-dealers throwing boiling kettles of bleach over each other. And he is quick to defend their reputation. It was a job he was proud of, in truth having left the army after a traumatic spell in Iraq, anything would have been.
But Thompson soon learned of the corruption, the danger and the violence. “Welcome to my world,” he says, as he reveals what really went on behind bars – the times when force was necessary and used, and when it was unnecessary but still used. He exposes the underworld of bent screws, the drugs they traffic, the firms they work for and what they get paid for their sins.
However, this is a fictional prison and co-producer Freddie Hutton Mills points out that while it’s a dark thriller, Screwed is not an exposé. This is a drama and one with what he calls a “respectable budget” to get it right, albeit without a distributor. But then again he thinks that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“You can finish a movie and then look for distribution, but a lot of producers try to get it beforehand which helps with the finances,” he says.
“But doing it this way allows you to cast the film with more freedom. If you had to go with a pre-buy from a distributor there will be a certain number of criteria that go with it, like having to use a certain type of actor or shooting in a particular style.
“If you have full backing without being tied in, you can afford to be more brave with the casting. That’s why we picked James D’Arcy as the lead. He’s only recognised as someone who plays middle-class people, but when he read the script he loved it. As an actor you want different roles and we have the freedom to offer them.” The production office is as insalubrious as the set next door, a jerry-built cabin transformed into a bustling hub of emails, texts and tweets. Here the director’s schedule is turned into reality, with some 60 people working behind the scenes to arrange everything from transport and make-up to shooting schedules and accounting.
First assistant director Dylan Fox Kearney says transporting actors to the set is his biggest headache, and then trying to keep everyone in the right place once they get there. Timings are another problem. There is no allocated time for extra shooting; if a scene takes longer than scheduled, another will have to be foreshortened.
So there are plenty of bitten nails frantically typing on laptops this evening in a busy, noisy, hive of activity. But only 20 metres away is another world, a world of hushed tones. The film set is as disciplined as any real prison and barked orders to stay quiet are disobeyed at peril. Here Traviss is king of the castle and his wish everyone else’s command.
He calls “action!”. The silence is shattered as expletives fill the air and the set explodes into life. Some of the inmates have got out and all hell has broken loose. Alarms wail as wardens leap athletically over railings and down the stairs to give chase. Do they catch the prisoners? You’ll have to wait a few months to find out.
“What goes into the film is already done by the scriptwriters, so for me it’s what will I take from the script,” says Traviss. “Firstly, I turn things and put my own spin on it, then it’s about the way I shoot which puts my own stamp on it. I work in a very cinematic way and I think this film needs to be done like that.
“It could have been a TV movie but for me the best way to make a thriller is to shoot it with cinematic realism. That’s my style.”
The film crew’s presence has Scarborough buzzing, so finding extras or volunteers has been a doddle. There are plenty of residents glad to come along and make cups of tea or become, as one tells me, “general dogsbodies.” After all, it’s not every day you get a chance to rub shoulders with the stars.
Local lad Sean Rowell landed a bit part as a jailbird and it’s a role he can play for real, because Sean gives up his free time to help youngsters who have gone off the rails.
“I was in a short film last year with the same crew and applied when I saw an advert asking for extras,” he says. “Then I got a call from Johnny Lynch, the extras caster, asking if I’d like to be back in it again.”
As an extra, Sean had never been given a speaking part, but that was about to change.
“On the first day we did a scene from four or five angles and we thought we were done. But the director called for me and another lad to continue what we were doing and to add a bit of ad-libbing. Luckily the other extra had done time in Strangeways, so he told me what sort of things we should talk about.
“With Ronnie Thompson being an ex-warden, it means he knows what life is like in prison from one side, but I think it also helps playing alongside people who have seen it from the other side.”
One of the stars of the film is Yorkshire actor Everal Walsh, who plays prison officer Curtis. He is widely respected as a voice actor and has appeared in the likes of Corrie, Emmerdale and Prime Suspect.
“I was excited by the script, there’s been a lot of prison dramas but nothing from a prison officer’s point of view,” he says. “When the opportunity came I wanted to be a part of it because it looks at prison life today, so I think will be really different.
“And we’ve got a good director, he knows what he’s looking for but he’s very relaxed and that makes me feel open to putting my own thoughts forward.”
So if you’re in Scarborough over the next couple of weeks, you might want to vist Dean Road, and who knows lurking amid the bins and refuse lorries you might spot a star or two. And for those who are lucky enough, maybe there’s a bit part to be had in British cinema’s next big blockbuster.
Just don’t expect an early night for a while.