Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

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.

Liverpool doubled for 1930s London - with the historic Liver building as an impressive replacement for Whitehall
George MacKay runs down 'Whitehall' - actually the Liver Building in Liverpool.  The camera is in front of him on a makeshift tricycle
George Mackay makes sure his young teammate feels comfortable
Director Christian Schwochow gives notes to actors on the set

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.

Optional on Downing Street in Elstree Studios.  This set is also used with small period changes to The Crown

  • Optional on Downing Street in Elstree Studios. This set is also used, with small period changes, for The Crown. Right: extras on the set on Elstree

Extras on the set at Elstree Studios
Extras on the set at Elstree Studios

The streets of Liverpool were almost completely deserted, which meant that the period details, classic cars and authentic costumes created a convincing illusion.

Classic cars that are correct for the period are rare.  Their owners tend to 'play' the drivers in time-typical productions, and the cars move between all sorts of different film and television sets.  However, they are not always reliable (not surprisingly for cars that are almost a hundred years old), and the strange scene was stopped when the drivers made some quick mechanical repairs on the spot.

  • Classic cars correct for the period are rare. Their owners tend to ‘play’ the drivers in period productions, and the cars move between all kinds of film and television sets. However, they are not always reliable (not surprisingly for cars that are almost 100 years old), and the strange scene was stopped when the drivers made some quick mechanical repairs

A big stage in Liverpool with a balloon.  Most of the effect was done with a giant model, but embellishments will be added in the post production.
Support artist 'servants' see the barrage balloon

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.

Covid secures extras playing conservative MPs in the House of Commons
Extras are waiting for an extensive dining scene to begin
Extras in Liverpool
Extras in Liverpool
Extras are waiting outside in stitches on the Liverpool set

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.

Extras in Liverpool that give the impression that Britain knew the war was on its way.
Extras in Liverpool that give the impression that Britain knew the war was on its way.
Extras in Liverpool that give the impression that Britain knew the war was on its way

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.

Jeremy Irons reads the newspaper between the scenes in Downing Street

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.

Support artists playing MPs queuing for their Covid-safe lunch while protecting their immaculate costumes.

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.

The A-camera team with film photographer Frank Lamm seated.
First Assistant Director Finn McGrath.  The first 'commercial' is one of the most important people on the set, making sure that each scene runs on time and that everyone is exactly where they need to be and does what they need to be so the director and cast can get the right space and atmosphere to do their job

  • First Assistant Director Finn McGrath. The first AD is one of the most important people on the set, making sure that each scene runs on time and that everyone is exactly where they need to be so that the director and cast can have the right space and atmosphere to perform their work

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.

George Mackay and Jessica Brown-Findlay
George MacKay
Jessica Brown-Findlay plays Pamela Legat
Aidan Hennessy plays a young Arthur Legate
George MacKay smokes
George Mackay in a scene where his voice was needed for another actor's shot, but he did not have to be in the camera.  He decided to

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.

Director Christian Schwochow and George MacKay
Jessica Brown-Findlay plays Pamela Legat
George Mackay as Hugh Legat and Abigail Cruttenden as Anne Chamberlain chatting during a break between recordings

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.

A scene in what was supposed to be Downing Street Garden in late summer.  it was actually -1C with a thick fog and heavy frost.  Gardeners from the crew had planted summer flowers and roses, and Frank used an unusually bright light high on a crane to copy the afternoon summer sun.  The effect was a remarkable trompe l'oeil

  • A scene in what was supposed to be Downing Street Garden in late summer. It was actually -1C with a thick fog and heavy frost. Gardeners from the crew had planted summer flowers and roses, and Frank used an unusually bright light high on a crane to recreate the afternoon summer sun. The effect was a remarkable trompe l’oeil.

It was incredibly cold and uncomfortable for the actors to spend hour after hour in their light, seasonally inappropriate costumes.

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).

Anjli Mohindra plays Joan Menzies in the artful sets representing the secretary pool at Downing Street
Attention to detail, in restaurant scenes there were real chefs who delivered the period correctly [in keeping with actual menus from the period from similar establishments] meals for the extras to pretend to eat!  Likewise, the newspapers they read were all perfect reproductions
Extras in Liverpool and period poster reproductions

  • In restaurant scenes, there were real chefs who provided period-correct meals that the extras could pretend to eat. Likewise, the newspapers they read were all perfect reproductions, just like the period posters.

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.

George MacKay in Rochdale City Hall, which was used as the Palace of Westminster

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.

Wrapping up on the last day of filming, I shot the camera crew with signs from the props department on the stairs to No. 10

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.

This article was edited January 14, 2022. The text and caption of an earlier version misidentified Rochdale City Hall as “Rochester City Hall”.

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