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Just One More Tweak!

by The Partners: Karen Cherrington, Alan Robinson, John James, Susan James, Neville Withers, Terry Tkachuk

We have to note that the greatest creative achievements of humans are a product of the human brain.

Alice said to the Cheshire cat, "which road should I take?"
And the Cheshire cat said, "where do you want to go?"
And Alice said, "I don't care."
And the Cheshire cat replied, "then it doesn't matter which road you take."

The title card for 'The Exchange'.

If, on the other hand, you do care where you're going, it does matter which road you take. And so my discussions with Alan, our director, begin.

Before pen is put to paper, before my Mac is switched on, we will discuss the type of story that lends itself to the short film.

Location shot taken during shooting.
Still from 'The Exchange'. Sometimes that story comes from an idea, sometimes from something in the news or a feeling or mood that we've experienced. Dreams too can be an inspiration. Yet no matter the genesis, the next few weeks will be spent on refining the core premise of the story. As any student of Stanislavsky will tell you, this throughline is what drives the writer and the protagonist on their quest. Still from 'The Exchange'.
Thought and discussion give way to the treatment stage. The treatment is really nothing more than a short story outlining the characters, narrative viewpoint, basic plot development, the resolution and the underlying mood of the piece. Months of writing lie ahead as the pre-writing moves towards the screenplay proper.
Still from 'The Exchange'. But as any pen jockey knows, writing is about … re-writing. The Exchange underwent many changes. The opening needed something to establish our female characters agents, Eva Gold and Oksana Korchinsky, in a way that was simple and direct.

We therefore introduced a light element when Oksana's assistant, Cezar, breaks into what he thinks is Eva's room only to find a gentleman in the throes of his ablutions. Humour told in images.

Still from 'The Exchange'.
The same is true of dialogue. The perfect movie doesn't have any dialogue so Alan and myself are always striving to make a silent movie. The late Emeric Pressburger set us a challenge, which is burnt into my brain: the very last thing to do when screenwriting is to write dialogue.
Still from 'The Exchange'. Working on a low budget film means there is immediate communication between writer and director so throughout the re-writing I have periodic chats with Alan. The aim is to ensure the story conveys lucidity and emotion without affectation or over-emphasis. Yet an element of caution must be noted - any new ideas added mid-stream can take the story off kilter.

Alan suggests a shot from below the floorboards with agent Gold producing a concealed revolver: A wonderful visual element that with economy, and perhaps a certain amount of sensibility gives a beat to the scene.

Alan reminds me of what a good director concerns himself with: the shots are all we have so the screenplay has to ensure that the character is reaching a goal, that the scene contributes to the story and that the shots support the objectives.

Still from 'The Exchange'.

So much for the craft: What about the art?

If you're honest with the writing, you'll find that it's often fighting back against you too. It's telling you how to write it. With The Exchange I wrote a character in several scenes. It never felt right but I clung to it. The scenes were shot and it wasn't until the editing stage that Alan and myself realised that scenes with the character did not serve the objective of the story. We removed them and immediately had a better film.

Location picture from the shoot.Location shot during shooting.So how many drafts did I write? There were about a dozen written over a six-month period.

The better answer may be this: when my final script is delivered to Alan, I'm too close to the screenplay to say whether the writing is good or bad. All I can say is that I've tried to offer festival audiences and IAC judges the best screenplay as I can. This is the same principle as the throughline - the protagonist comes to the end of his quest.

Working on a shoestring … again

A producer shouldn't have ulcers he should give them - well so Sam Goldwyn said. But this is not Hollywood it's the world of low budget filmmaking.

There's always a sense of excitement, when the Partners gather to embark upon a new project. Alan, John James our technical guru and Neville Withers our driver cum assistant begin by reading through Terry's script together: As non-actors, script reading is always amusing especially as The Exchange features characters with Russian accents! But importantly, the read through gives us the opportunity to discuss the production requirements for the first time.

Still from 'The Exchange'.
In the months that follow production meetings are held: The film is cast, the locations sourced and a shooting schedule drawn up. Working on a shoestring budget means every penny is counted so we think carefully about catering, props and traveling expenses.

We mull over logistical problems: In particular how the character, Oksana, played by Natascha Slasten, would fall from the top of a cliff. By doing recces and carrying out test shots we didn't leave anything to chance.

Still from 'The Exchange'.

As producer, my biggest challenge was trying to co-ordinate everything, to ensure that the actors, crew and locations were all available at the same time. It wasn't always easy. The shooting schedule ran over several months with a cast that had other commitments. Jacky Kent was appearing in panto while Natascha Slasten and Riley Stuart were both contracted to stage plays.

Good planning was essential and a contingency, a must - there were occasions when someone couldn't make the shoot at the last minute, or the weather was against us, so it was important to have a back-up plan to make good use of the people and time.

Filming fast and efficiently was part of the job. We had an opening car chase to establish our lead actors - Jacky Kent playing Eva and Natascha playing Oksana. We had to complete the shoot in a matter of hours before the traffic built up around the streets of west London.

The toughest task though wasn't logistical it was emotional. I had to tell a key actor that his character was being cut. This wasn't an easy decision for us to make. We'd spent a lot of time shooting the scenes and the actor had given his all. But, during the editing process, it became apparent that the film worked better without the sub plot. Thankfully, the actor took the news graciously.

Still from 'The Exchange'.
Alan always supports me. He's very calm and knows just where to put the camera. It was a close two-shot at The Holy Cross church in Greenford and Alan took Cezar, Oksana's assistant, to one side before the take. "Here Riley. If you take one step closer to the church organ they'll get a much better look at you on the screen."

We do take film making seriously but we don't take ourselves too seriously - there are no egos. There's often a lot of banter but we work hard and we also have fun. We believe that good filmmaking should be a collaboration so there's no need for me to give anyone ulcers!

After the screening for actors, crew and friends I asked Alan why he decided to shoot in black and white. "Well …" he said after a pause …"it just felt right." It is one of those undefined things with good directors; film magic happens … and that makes all the months of hard work worthwhile!

Still from 'The Exchange'.

Alan is a man of few words

I've noticed over the years that when I'm involved on a project with the Partners team, there'll always be some incident during the filming that will stick in my mind. The Exchange is no exception.

According to the filming schedule we would be filming interiors at a flat at Chalfont St Peter, North West London. The following weekend we would be at the Devil's Punchbowl near Hindhead, Surrey. The Punchbowl location was critical not because it was visually stunning but because it was the climactic scene between agents Gold and Korchinsky. However, one of our support actors was indisposed so we had to switch the two filming days.

Location shot taken during the shoot.As driver I ensured we set off for Hindhead in good time. Only this morning the rain turned torrential on the M25 with visibility down to a few yards. Arriving at the Punchbowl we linked up with Jacky in the main car park. It was then we struck a problem. Although John and Alan had done a previous reccé to find a small car park near the location, they couldn't remember how to get there!

After two false trails they eventually found the car park, where we waited in our cars while the rain pattered down. Eventually the rain eased off enough for us to assemble around the "chuck wagon" (John's car) for tea and biscuits. The rain stopped at last and we all picked up various items of equipment, umbrellas and necessary props then headed to the location.

Fortunately, the rain held off for the rest of the afternoon and I see something that is worth mentioning: Alan never seems to give too much direction to the actors and with few words, somehow manages to create the right atmosphere for filming.

You are not always at your best at 7.30 in the morning, but the following Sunday, filming interiors at Chalfont St Peter was underway. As you can guess, not one drop of rain fell.

Sounds exciting

As the soundman and 'technical guru' life is never dull when working with Partners. One minute you're trying to work out how a particular effect can be achieved or how all the equipment can be packed into your vehicle along with the catering requirements. The next minute you're on location running cables, ensuring sound - the correct sound - is reaching the camera. Often I find myself having to keep actors and crew waiting while a problem is rectified.

On other occasions there's asking the director to delay a take whilst you wait for a plane to pass or a noisy motorbike to disappear into the distance. Often it's, "Could we do one more take for sound please but with the mic' in shot so that we get a good clean recording?" Fortunately Alan is very understanding and my requests are invariably fulfilled.

Still from 'The Exchange'.
Credits for actors in 'The Exchange'.

Everything that we do, our goal, is to achieve the very best film that we can. At a production meeting we will often ask "but what does that do for the film, will it be seen on screen and will it make for a better film?"

I'm sure you must have watched a film or television programme and thought "what a great team work in that office, I wish I worked in an office like that". Well working on a Partners film is a bit like that.

The production credits for 'The Exchange'.

Still from 'The Exchange'. Teamwork, for me, is where we come from. We have always been lucky to work with great actors in some lovely locations meeting some fantastic people along the way.

From Terry writing our script, Alan directing, Karen producing, Neville doing his logistics or me, John taking care of the sound, we are a team: The Partners team.

And now just one more tweak . . .

Location picture showing a scene being filmed.
- The Partners Team
The Exchange won a 5-Star Award and an Imagem Music prize at BIAFF 2011

Watch the trailer in Bijou BIAFF 2011 and visit Terry Tkachuk's website.

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Page updated on 01 October 2011
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