Friday 3 March 2017

The Chamber (UK 2016: Dir Ben Parker) plus interview with the director

Films set entirely in one location are always risky ventures, in terms of audience attention, drama and sheer credibility (Andrew Martin’s 2015 movie Capsule, I’m looking at you) – The Chamber’s action takes place within the confines of a micro submarine. One tiny space. Several overwrought characters. Let the mayhem commence.

A three person US team board a small submersible craft positioned just off North Korea and commandeer the vessel, asking the Swedish captain, level headed Mats, to take them down into the depths, with a view to identifying and possibly recovering a sunken vessel as part of a top secret mission. Predictably things go wrong and the craft ends up trapped and leaking water. The US team have the additional problem that the boat from which they’ve been despatched has been taken over by the North Koreans and all radio contact lost. Who will and how will they survive?

I really wasn’t sure about The Chamber at first. It kept reminding me of other movies – some of Johannes Roberts’ sprang to mind – and I didn’t think there would be enough to sustain my interest. But the film won me over with the strength of the acting alone - the script's not the star here. As the leader of the US team, UK actress Charlotte Salt is extremely effective, her struggles to maintain command (and retain her American accent) in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds extremely believable.

Credit also to James McCardle in the ‘I’m-going-to-do-it-my-way' role, a character we’ve seen in a million disaster movies previously. In fact the whole thing felt like the final reel of such a film where, after all the destruction has taken place, a small band of survivors must strategise to achieve their escape. Only there’s no carnage or smashed buildings in The Chamber. Just four people in a vessel smaller than my box room trying to hold it together.

The sense of increasing panic and claustrophobia is very accurately depicted, and the ensemble playing ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels - there's no redemptive third act here either. It's a film of some power, despite its meagre resources. 

Perhaps The Chamber's only drawback is the rather dirgey score by ‘Manic Street Preachers' lead singer James Dean Bradfield, providing his first movie soundtrack. I’m sure they were pleased to have him on board – the film was made in Wales by a Welsh production company, so he was perhaps an obvious choice – but I confess that it took me out of the flick on occasion. But it's a very small gripe in an otherwise outstanding movie.

Charlotte Salt - overcoming the odds
This is writer and director Ben Parker’s first feature, so I took the opportunity to talk to him about The Chamber:

DEoL: Ben, this is your debut feature, and you chose quite a bold set up with the tiny submersible setup and a small cast. I thought it was quite risky at first, although I ended up loving the film. Why this choice for your first movie?

BP: I liked it for that exact reason - it's a bold set up. I'd written a number of screenplays, ranging in budgets and had always felt this would need a certain amount to get it done. After the short film, Shifter, which the producers I worked with on, that showed me how much could be achieved with a smaller budget. We looked at The Chamber and thought, 'yeah, it's bold and challenging to do on a budget less than a million but let's do it.' Those aspects that seem challenging and difficult, ultimately (hopefully) make it more interesting to the audience and certainly more interesting for me do work on.

One of the things I especially liked about this film, as my debut (although only realising this after the film was made), was that the process of making it was raw and hands on and not too reliant on CG. My heroes growing up were people like Carpenter, Scorsese, James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, all these guys that graduated from the school of Roger Corman. To aim high on a smaller budget, to me, felt very much like the school of Corman. Solving creative problems in a practical way, on set, with a small amount of money and a lot of ingenuity. I loved that.

DEoL: The acting is uniformly great - how long did it take you to cast, and how 'method' did you get the actors to be when auditioning? Did you get them to shut themselves in small spaces?

BP: Casting was vital. We had a fantastic casting director in Kirsty Kinnear and she and I looked at a number of people. Casting is always going to be difficult as a first time director. People didn't know me or what I could do, but the short films helped. It also helped, I think, that I had written the script, actors could see, on the page, what I was going for. When we met with actors, there were discussions about the things they'd be expected to 'endure'. But they all read the script. I don't think you can read that and think 'Oh, I'm sure the water and claustrophobia will be added in post.' They knew it was going to be gruelling and tough. It was part of the deal. I made sure I asked if they could swim and didn't have a problem with small spaces (and they were all probably a lot better than I was on that count). But ultimately, you can't workshop, or audition the situation until it gets to the real deal on set. When you've been cooped up in that small sub and the water comes flooding in... it's really only in that moment you're going to test your mettle. And not just the cast but the crew too. We all were put to our limits of endurance but we were all there for each other too. It was a lovely family to be part of.

DEoL: One of the things that's noticeable is that it all feel like it could have been shot in a single take. How long was the shoot, and how well did the actors cope with the confined set?

Ben Parker
BP: Man, I would've died if it was a single take. But I hear what you're saying. I think, in script form, the majority of the film could've been one very long scene, but we were cautious about this. We wanted to keep the tension, keep the action going for as long as possible, but you have to have breathers for the audience. Watching the fantastic Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (which I think is actually all one take), you can see that, even in this, you have to give the audience moments to be able to breathe and take a beat. We used a little bit of humour to break the tension sometimes and a couple of time jumps to allow things to calm. But yeah, a lot of it is full tilt boogie into the pressure cooker.

This was how we filmed it also. We did it all in 22 days and, for the majority, filmed the film in chronological order, which allowed the cast to really get into character. As the tensions fray and the water comes in, the cast were able to feed off that vibe for real. But again, all the crew were in the same situation - small space, water, tension. It was a hell of a feat to pull off in such a small space of time and I give credit to the producers and our great crew for getting things done. Special credit should go to the Director of Photography, Ben Pritchard. He developed new and unique ways of getting us camera movement, angles and just the coverage we needed in a very small amount of time. Honestly, without his own personal ingenuity on camera setups, we definitely would've gone over schedule.

DEoL: When preparing to shoot, did you have to make lots of compromises between, say, your initial vision and what came out on screen?

BP: We didn't. Which I find amazing. I think it's partly down to the fact that on writing the script, I knew it was going to be contained and stay within the confines of the submarine. And then partly down to the great producers, Paul Higgins and Jen Handorf. These guys ensured that I got what I needed to get the script to screen. Even a helicopter, which I felt sure was going to get cut. From my perspective as writer to director, I think there were a couple of things that I changed when we got into that space and into the water. Just in terms of shots not being the best they could be on set. I see that as a good thing though. If you're being too precious, you're not going to see the possible better scenario that could present if you have a little creative play with shots, scenes...even the action.

DEoL: People from Wales are presumably delighted to see films made in their country. What do you think they'll make of this one as it feels 'transatlantic' and could have been made anywhere?

BP: Obviously, a film mostly set inside a submarine, yes, could be filmed anywhere. But really, this film couldn't have been made outside of the great crew and locations we got with Wales. The short turnaround time and the fantastic production was down to the support we got from people like Film Wales and the Welsh crew. And even James Dean Bradfield is Welsh. Had we not been in Wales, James might have never read the script and the film would've been robbed of an amazing score. Working with James on the music was a dream come true and I can't wait to get my hands on the LP of the score.

Thanks for answering these Ben and good luck with the film!

A version of this review and interview originally appeared on the website 

No comments:

Post a Comment