The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!
The 4th shooting day was the official start of principal photography and involved seven crew members and three actors. Plan was to shoot on three roofs and one staircase, all together five full scenes. Location was, once again, the Kwun Tong Town Center roofs. Since we collected a great deal of intel during our previous expeditions within those locations we had a strict time schedule to follow and could not allow falling behind. Each scene had a specific spot on the roof to a specific time that would hopefully dodge the patrolling security guards.
[Kwun Tong Town Center area]
We met early in the morning outside the first building and waited until we saw the morning beat guards exiting the building. Then, we went up the roof in small groups of three, not to raise any attention by residing vendors who had their street shops within the house’s entrances. One team started setting up the “Laundry Forest” set on that same roof while I went over to the next roof, together with two actors and both cameramen to shoot the short Tower scene.
In Webisode #1 during this Tower scene you might actually recognize the actors breath and some rain. In fact that day was one of the coldest in this year’s Hong Kong winter and the rain just wouldn’t stop. It was quite a tough situation for cast/crew as well as for the camera equipment. Both held up pretty well 😉
[shooting in freezing rain]
The clock was running and we had to keep going despite the harsh weather. After finishing the Tower scene on schedule we went into one of the stairwells to shoot the Prison scene. This was a bit tricky as it was right the very staircase the mean guard that shooed us away came from the other day. As we set up the scene’s lighting with a couple of LED light panels our line producer set post two floors down, alarming us in case someone would come along. Hence, this situation meant we had to be prepared to flee set with all equipment and props at hand at any times. Luckily we finished this scenes without any disturbance as well, even 30 minutes earlier than planned.
The shooting team returned to the other roof where the set design team almost finished their set-up. As the time was close to the next expected security patrol we wrapped all equipment and left the roof, except our line producer who kept roaming around the building, checking the situation for us. Rest of the team set up a temporary post inside a McDonald’s that was located in the first floor of the very same building. We waited until we got word from our “roof spy” that everything was clear. While waiting one of the production assistants mixed the fake blood for the next scene and I went through the script with the actors.
[mixing “blood” at McDonald’s]
After a 45 minutes break part of the team went back up, only taking the equipment necessary for shoot. During pre-production I prepared a large number of bags for props and equipment. Each SQUATTERTOWN character had a designated bag with his costume, tools, props and accessories. Same for the departments camera and sound. Which means every morning I usually just grabbed the very bags that were labeled and packed for the very day. This system made us very mobile and flexible, there was no unnecessary equipment on the roofs. This thorough planning, of course, also holds the danger that you cannot change or deviate much from your original plan. Improvisation and extensive experiments were not possible. However, the system turned out to be so efficient that we usually had a couple of minutes on each scene where the cameramen could try out some different shots apart from what I had envisioned.
Despite some practical special effects work we were able to wrap the Laundry Forest scene on time and started moving to the next building across the street. In fact we were running quite ahead in schedule and decided to postpone lunch to finish the last two scenes. However, this last location change was also the most risky one of the day. Our line producer and me had visited the building a couple of days before the shoot, trying to find out whether we can get a shooting permission from the residents as most the building is still occupied. As we attempted to go up to the roof we were stopped in the staircase. An unfriendly barber threatened us with calling the police if we not leave immediately. So, we went out, around the building and back into another entrance. Like in most of Hong Kong’s old residential buildings the ground floor is always used by commercial shops. In this building small shops were even located directly inside the entrance areas for staircases. After talking to several shop owners, no one was willing to help us. Finally we found an entrance that was less observed and was leading up directly to the roof. We discovered, that there was an ideal access to the roof away from angry protective shop owners. Only problem, a locked door from the staircase leading to the roof.
So we came up with a tactical strategy. One of us would go through the shops, up the staircase and opens the door of the other staircase from the roof side. That way we could bring up all crew and equipment without anyone ever realizing we were actually up there. The strategy worked and we finished all two remaining scenes. Finally we wrapped our first big shooting day way ahead of schedule. The months long preparations had paid off. No one got hurt, no equipment damaged. It was an exhausting day but a good one. A day that gave me confidence and strength for the two days to come that would be much more demanding.
Just a little note on why we actually were sneaking on all those roofs without shooting permission: During location scouting and pre-production we got in contact with Hong Kong authorities, property developers, residents and even a professional location scout. Usually residents living directly on the roof were all very helpful and open towards our project. We even could shoot in one resident’s yards and his self-build house. Kwun Tong Town Center is supposed to be the biggest urban renewal project in Hong Kong and will change an entire city quarter. The development process already began last year and is actually quite simple. A large number of old building blocks and streets will be demolished to make room for a bunch of shiny tall skyscrapers with large shopping malls. Most the old buildings here already belong to the governmental authority agency. This authority is responsible for moving residents out of their homes, provide compensations and all kinds of related issues. As we started asking the agency for a shooting permission we were told that they have no authority on this issue as there are still residents living in the respective buildings. This message was most surprising since there are barely people left still living on those houses and every door holds an official eviction poster. The residents then told us to contact the property developer. So I pulled quite some strings to get in touch with someone high up at the property company. Their answer was simple: Ask the gov authority! So we went in circles for weeks without a solid result. The relationship between authority agency and property developer is quite complex and hard to define. But fact is, the security guards are paid by the property company. So you can image the bureaucratic mess we found ourselves in. Eventually we followed the advice of the professional location scout: Just go there and shoot, don’t ask for permission.
[official eviction note]
Kwun Tong link collection:
- You can find a short video giving some more visual insight on the three Kwun Tong roof locations here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu0hDHR-OIU
- Official re-development plan details: http://www.ura.org.hk/html/c800000e33e.html
- interactive, crowdsourced multi-media documentation on the re-development process in Kwun Tong: http://www.kwuntongculture.hk/