Munich, based on the Robert Harris novel, is a German-British television production that was filmed in Germany and subsequently in England in late 2020. I was invited to join the crew as an on-set stills photographer for the UK shooting section.
We started in Liverpool, which was a doubling for 1930s London. The historic Liver Building, which stood for Gotham city in the upcoming Batman movie, made a very compelling Whitehall. Production later moved south to Amersham, Buckinghamshire, where we recorded in historic houses that were used as scenery for Checkers and Downing Street.
At this point in the pandemic, England were at level four, making it a strange but fascinating experience. After several months of screening in London and barely seeing anyone, it was overwhelming to be near so many other people. Overwhelming and at times bizarre, when after so much isolation I suddenly found myself surrounded by more than 100 masked supporting artists in immaculate 30s period dress.
The streets of Liverpool were almost completely deserted, which meant that the period details, classic cars and authentic costumes created a convincing illusion.
Part of the budget for the production went to Covid protection, which is now standard on all film and TV productions. We formed a giant bubble. Lateral flow tests were administered every other day. PCR test every three days. Masks were worn, and monitors – the so-called “Covid police” – checked that everyone kept records and distance.
The cast, main actors and all extras wore masks on the set until the final rehearsal and during filming, after which the face covering went on again. Windows and doors stood wide open everywhere.
The action of the film takes place primarily in late summer and early September, but we filmed in an unusually cold, frosty end of November and December. The interior was as cold as the exterior. On a particularly cold day, in a country house with large open windows and doors, a “creative” decision was made, in part, by the poor actors in their 30s suits (with crew in the North Face and thermals) that Prime Minister Chamberlain would have had an open fire roaring during his cabinet meeting in early September.
The protocols worked, and apart from the strange cardiac arrest false positive lateral flow test, there were no actual cases of Covid during the British filming, despite the large number of people involved in some scenes.
The strangest part was what the Covid precautions did to the camaraderie of production. For Munich, we routinely worked 10- or 11-hour days as part of a tight crew, but then headed back to the hotel to eat alone in our rooms.
Still, it was exciting to be a part of such a large creative group.
As a stills photographer, I was in the camera department. All the active camera crews were German and worked under photography director Frank Lamm. Usually, scenes were recorded with two cameras, an “A” and a “B” device. For larger scenes, there were up to four cameras, each accompanied by a focus puller, a microphone boom holder, and a grip to ensure cables were clear.
As a still photographer, I often tried to shoot during rehearsals before each shot, but this was not always possible. Actors like to have the set-up ready and quiet, the better to communicate with the director. That meant too much of the filming I recorded during the actual filming. This meant that I tried to fit myself as discreetly, respectfully and silently as possible into a room near the camera so as not to be shot. That meant I had to hold on to the right side of the boom holder so I could squat next to their chest [their work means they have their arms above their head and are close to the actors]. It’s a great place, but very tight, and as a stills photographer I had to remember that I was the least important part of any shot. If I messed up, got in the way of someone or distracted an actor, I would be the easiest person to start the set.
I enjoy the challenge of getting the balance between being intrusive enough to get close to the action I want to photograph, while being discreet and diplomatic enough to be allowed to do this by the rest of the crew.
There was one big challenge in working with the German camera team. While incredibly accommodating, Frank and the other film photographer, Niv, Camera B, along with German director Christian, tended to make very quick decisions, often after rehearsal, about what the shooting would look like. They spoke in German, which means that we non-German-speaking members of the crew had to try to figure out where it was safe to stand. The nightmare would be to stand in the way of an actor or, god forbid, ruin an entire shot by ending up in shots.
The closest I came to disturbing a scene was when we were filming in the freezing fog trying to shoot a late summer scene in Downing Street. I misunderstood the German and found myself almost right under Jeremy Irons’ feet. I threw myself under a rhododendron bush and almost got away with it.
The producer from Munich, Andrew Eaton, was also the original producer of The Crown, and there are similarities in the attention to detail of the period and the degree of truth achieved with props and costumes. Especially in scenes set in the secretaries’ offices under Whitehall (recorded in an impressive and desolate bank in central Liverpool).
I went on the set when everyone was broken for lunch, and apart from the strange piece of duct tape and the persistent bad smell of theatrical herbal cigarettes, the illusion was total. One could really have been in a government office in the 30s. Every letter on every desk was addressed and franked realistically. The letterhead in the drawers was correct for the period. The calendars on desktops were set to the correct date. It’s remarkable how much work goes into this, just to create a compelling and absorbing re-creation – so actors and audiences “feel” it. Really remarkable.
The production used Rochdale City Hall, a building chosen by Hitler to be sent to Germany brick by brick in the event of a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, as a replacement for the Palace of Westminster. Rows of green benches full of picturesque supporting artists were dressed and made up to be the MPs on the Tory benches, reinforced with green screens that would help the visual FX team deploy the rest of the famous chamber.
I’m not often on film, but I always love it when I am. Being involved in a production of this magnitude during the extreme strangeness of a pandemic made it even more memorable.