By Oliver Webb
Will Gilbey’s feature directorial debut Jericho Ridge follows Deputy Tabby Temple (excellently portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird) after she becomes trapped in a remote Sheriff’s office. Masterfully captured by DP Ruairí O’Brien, Jericho Ridge is boosted by a strong ensemble cast including Michael Socha, Olivia Chenery, Solly McLeod and Zack Morris. I spoke with director Will Gilbey about his background as an editor, directing his first feature, shooting in Kosovo and which part of the filmmaking process he enjoys most.
What was the experience like watching the film with an audience?
Will Gilbey: It’s really fun watching it with an audience. It’s my first feature, but to actually sit down and watch it with an audience. The first time was Galway, but the first ten minutes are a terror. When the audience started responding to the film it became more transcendent and it was a really fun experience. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Do you plan on doing more directing?
Will Gilbey: Absolutely. I’ve written two more scripts. One is set in New York and is a very fast paced twisty-turny noir crime thriller, which I was trying to get made before Jericho Ridge. I got close a couple of times, but it didn’t quite happen. There is something about Jericho Ridge that was just potentially more appealing to investors. It’s set in one location and a complicated leading character and a simple idea. It’s also more action packed. There’s another script I’ve written which I’m really excited about. It’s an absolutely crazy balls to the wall, Mexico set, buddy-action cartel movie. It will hopefully have some of the coolest set pieces you have seen in the last decade. It will cost considerably more than Jericho Ridge, but keeping the budget low and a hell of a lot less than most action stuff that comes out these days.
When you were writing Jericho Ridge did you know you’d be directing?
Will Gilbey: Yes. Editing jobs were a by product of waiting to do this and turned into a career. I’ve always wanted to be doing this and I wanted to write something that I felt I could direct as well and something that I felt I could do my best with. There’s not many characters in Jericho Ridge. I’ve also edited a lot of first-time director’s films and so I’ve sort of seen some of the mistakes that they’ve made. Too many locations, too many characters and not enough time. You’ve got 60 locations in a film that you are shooting in 20 days, for example. So, I thought if we stick in one place, we could actually focus on getting this good and going into the depth of the characters and making the action cool.
Has your work as an editor informed your work as a director?
Will Gilbey: Yes, it really did. In some ways, in terms of transitions between scenes and economy. The script was 90 pages I think because I knew that we were going to have a compressed time frame and it was a low budget film. I’ve edited films where you end up with 40 minutes of edited deleted scenes, which is like two weeks of your schedule that end up on the cutting room floor. I reckon in Jericho Ridge there are maybe five or six shot set ups that I did with Ruairi that aren’t in the film, possibly not even that many. There are no deleted scenes. That I think is bringing the editing head to directing, is just figuring out what you need and not wasting time.
Did the story evolve at all as you were shooting?
Will Gilbey: We deleted one scene early on. We couldn’t quite find the location for it. It was one of those things that could have been cut for pacing and we couldn’t quite find the right location to make it work in Kosovo. Also, once we got into the edit, it was trying to get the audience into the action and tension as quickly as we could. So, we made a good call there. I did a lot of work on the script and had a few drafts. It evolved during that process and some things weren’t the same as I’d originally written them. The character Earl Macready that Michael Socha plays wasn’t in the original script, for example. His character is someone that came along afterwards. I’m a firm believer in sticking to the script and if you put the work in ahead of time you are not struggling around figuring out what to do. Christopher McQuarrie does that effectively when making the Mission Impossible films, but to me that sounds like a bit of an anxiety nightmare and I don’t know how you do that with that pressure.
What were your initial conversations with DP Ruairi O’Brien about the look of the film?
Will Gilbey: Ruairi comes with a lot of ideas. He came on quite late and we ended up with only three weeks of prep, which was very, very compressed. So, we had to do our build and try to do as much rehearsal as possible. We were trying to figure out the look and having lots of conversations about that. What does daytime look like? What do night exteriors look like? I always wanted to shoot 2.39:1 cinemascope widescreen. But we both seemed to be on the same page and Ruairi is very good. He came out to Kosovo and realised we don’t have all the money in the world for lighting and there wasn’t one complaint. It was just about utilizing what we had to make it as good as it could possibly be. We did as much work beforehand as possible. He’s a fantastic collaborator. I really can’t wait and hope to work with him again.
Were there any films that inspired Jericho Ridge?
Will Gilbey: I would say quite a few. One of the things I did as an editor was pick say 30 movies and just go through them and pluck out shots that I thought would inspire me in terms of camera movement, colour, blocking, whatever it might be. Then I built maybe 20 minute sequences just from shots and would be watching them on a loop. That was just for inspiration essentially, but that was from many different references and movies. I could also show the special effects team my references so they would know what I wanted certain shots to look like. To communicate and to inspire which was quite useful.
Did you have any rehearsal time with the actors?
Will Gilbey: I had some rehearsal time with Nikki Amuka-Bird, who plays the lead, but we only had a few days. She was very prepared and intuitive. For the rest of the cast, we might have had a little bit here and there, but obviously what a film schedule is like, everybody is coming out at different times. That also impacted how we shot it because obviously you are shooting in one location. We built the Sheriff’s office you see in the film in a national park called Germia National Park just outside the studio in Kosovo. Then you go to the backdoor with the cells and the evidence vault is all a warehouse in a studio.
What were the challenges of setting the film in the confined space of the police station?
Will Gilbey: The challenge is how to keep it visually interesting throughout the film. There are different visual looks throughout. We are constantly trying to evolve our look as much as possible. It was also unbelievably cold and obviously you are building a temporary structure so there is no insulation in it. It was -12 degrees when we were outside shooting nights. We weren’t shooting in order either and with a film like Jericho Ridge you are smashing the hell out of the locations every day. Windows and computers being smashed in the police station for example, but because of actors schedules we had to take it apart and put it back together each time. We started shooting it in February and it got very cold very quickly and there is snow all around the sheriff’s office, which then of course melted off. So, we had to figure out how to deal with that on the fly which was challenging and there was a lot of VFX snow painting. The VFX snow was pretty flawless, but there was quite a lot of that. It was a challenging shoot and we shot over a period of 25 days. It was supposed to be 28 days, but we deleted one of our scenes and we lost an actor for a day due to illness which was another day and then we got our permit pulled and we lost a day there, so I had to shoot two days worth of shots in one night which was very challenging moving at that sort of speed, while trying to maintain the quality of the rest of the film.
When was it decided to shoot in Kosovo?
Will Gilbey: Surprisingly late on. We are the first international production to ever shoot a feature in Kosovo. We were looking all round the world at how to shoot this and once Covid hit we needed a place that would open up where we could film it. Eventually, one of our producers, Harvey Ascott, for about the last ten or 12 years has been going to Kosovo out of interest in the country. He’s been taking commercials and music videos out there and he produced a short film, Shok out there which was nominated for an Oscar. Through that process he met the cream of the production team out there. He was one of the few people in England at the time and taking a film out there and working within that environment. Now, since our shoot they have had a tax break go through which I think is 30%, so I imagine as the place opens up it will get better and better and the local crews will become more experienced. It should have been there the whole time really and it can absolutely double for Washington state.
We went location scouting in Winnipeg, Canada in November 2019, with the view to do pre-production in March in 2020 in Canada. Obviously Covid got in the way of that, so we spent years trying to get this together.
Did you have a close dialogue with editor, Sarah Peczek?
Will Gilbey: Sarah and I had a very close dialogue. As an editor, I have always liked a director who is very involved in the process. I’ve never enjoyed people who come in at the end of the week and give you notes. I like to be sat in there every day working with Sarah. I thought to myself from the outset that I’m an editor and so I want to edit my own movie. Then I started working with Sarah and started to really enjoy it. She was coming at this with a whole different head on her and coming up with ideas that I never would have thought of. She’s very talented in her own right. It’s your first film and so you are quite vulnerable and you’ve got lots of demons in your head, so I’d much rather be collaborating with someone and bringing two heads to the same problem. When I get the next film up and running I will do the exact same thing, which is not something I would have predicted.
What was the overall experience like directing your first feature?
Will Gilbey: I think on day two or three I remember looking at the monitor and thinking I’ll never do this again, but like anything I guess you get over your head a bit and you start to enjoy the process. There’s a lot of pressure on your first one, but I absolutely ended up loving it. It’s really fun. I couldn’t have had a better time. I enjoyed the post-production as well, which is where I’m usually more comfortable as it’s where I have more experience, but I really enjoyed the shoot. One of the most important things I’ve realised is casting. I’ve edited many films of mixed quality and the ones that are super challenging and difficult are the ones which weren’t cast properly. Nikki delivered an excellent performance. I also really appreciate people not just picking out a director in reviews. Let’s talk about the editing, acting and cinematography and everybody should be included. The rest of the cast was fantastic and really fun to work with. We had a bunch of really committed people. Get the right script and the right cast and you are most of the way there.
Which part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy most?
Will Gilbey: I want to be on set. It’s just such an adventure and so much fun. I’ve just started writing a horror movie and I’m really enjoying it. Directing is also the most stressful and it’s a bit terrifying, but when it is going right it vastly exceeds what you ever dreamt of or thought of in your head. It’s a hell of an experience and a hell of a feeling.