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Set report: Pressure

Danny Huston, Matthew Goode and Joe Cole just wrapped the shoot at Pinewood Studios and in Scotland on underwater thriller Pressure, which is directed by Ron Scalpello and sold by Embankment Films. Screen visited the set to take a first look.

“Claustrophobia. Paranoia. Four men. Incarceration. Survival.” These are the words director Ron Scalpello uses to describe his follow up to last year’s prison set thriller Offender

Pressure centres on four deep sea divers who become trapped in their saturation bell at the bottom of the ocean off the Kenyan coast. Based on an original story by Louis Baxter, the script was written by Alan McKenna and Paul Staheli.

Origins and influences

Producer Jason Newmark set up Bigscope Films together with Laurie Cook to “produce low budget, high-concept genre movies.”

Newmark explains: “Laurie and I sat down and worked out what kind of films we wanted to make. We hired a researcher called Louis Baxter and Pressure is actually based on a story by Baxter. They then approached writer Paul Staheli with Baxter’s treatment who wrote a first draft of the script.

Having previously worked with McKenna and Scalpello on urban drama Here Comes The Summer, which had Studiocanal attached but unfortunately failed to complete financing, Newmark approached them for Pressure as he was keen to get “a director’s voice”.

With Scalpello tied up in another project, McKenna ended up as the sole writer on Pressure creating the second and subsequent drafts, an opportunity he truly relished: “What I liked about it was the survival aspect of it and it felt to me very much like a horror, but a true horror […] a psychological horror.”

After Jason approached him, McKenna set about conducting meticulous research, including meeting several saturation divers. They gave him plenty of ideas for how the plot could develop as they all knew someone who had been in a similar situation as the characters in Pressure

Despite the involvement of various script writers, the period from McKenna taking over to the first day of shooting on August 19 was about 11 months, a surprisingly quick turn-around for a feature film.

The script of Pressure is reminiscent of films such as Solaris and Apollo 13, with its setting in an environment that offers no escape for its protagonists. And surprisingly, as McKenna reveals, even Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours served as an influence as “what I thought was really interesting about Simon Beaufoy’s script was, he went into more impressionistic worlds in James Franco’s character’s head. He took us to those places that he was thinking about and I tried to do that in this a bit, although not in the same way.”

Scalpello adds that what attracted him to the project was that it’s a “great story, full of suspense” but at the same time not too niche as “on one level it was working as a genre movie and I think what we are trying to achieve with it is not Tony Scott, but also not European art cinema. We wanted to be a bit more expressive with it and more expansive.”

McKenna admits that they were keen to keep a masculinity to the film, even harping back to 70s movies, such as The French Connection. And while there is no direct comparison, McKenna is fascinated by the masculine world [of those kinds of films] and contemplates that “we sometimes shy away from that now and always put pretty people in [films].”

Despite the lack of female characters in Pressure, they insist that there is femininity in the film, “in the surroundings, the sea is almost female”, McKenna points out and also in the exploration of their relationships with their partners. They are “all somehow pining for their women”, ventures Huston.

The cast

Huston as well as Goode were first choices for the project and Huston reveals that he usually approaches a film from a story point and not the role necessarily. What attracted him in this instance was Scalpello’s debut directorial effort as well as Pressure’s script. “What was fascinating about the script was that it struggles with the concept of faith and logic, and it has this wonderful, sort of quest about it. […] And there’s something cosmic about the story.”

Starring alongside Danny Huston, Matthew Goode and McKenna is Joe Cole, who made his big screen debut in Scalpello’s directorial debut Offender. Scalpello mentions that Cole was “in his mind” pretty early. Cole relished the chance to re-team with him as “he’s very bold, thinks about every detail and visually, I just knew he’d create something that we’ll want to watch on the screen”.

And because they had worked together before, Cole says: “he [Scalpello] knows he can push me to the limits”, which meant that Cole, overseen by stunt co-coordinator and co-producer Nick Chopping, performed the majority of the stunts himself for the underwater scenes, which were shot on Pinewood’s underwater stage. “I ended up doing 90% of the stuff, which was partly down to the fact that Ron knows I can”.

Scalpello concedes, coming from Offender, where he worked with a lot of “untrained actors” that he had to adjust his directing style, which was a learning curve. While in Offender he could be “quite forceful, strong and very vocal”, working with trained actors on the set of Pressure he learned to “stand back and observe what they’re offering up”.

He adds: “it’s almost like you’re a football coach, you’ve got to stand in the tactical area and let them play […] and resist the urge to go in there and get your vision of it.”

Funding

The film’s relatively quick realisation was helped by Embankment coming on board “very, very early on” from the treatment stage according to Newmark. And as a result of Embankment’s enthusiasm, Newmark felt confident to invest “a modest amount from the company [Bigscope] to develop it further”.  As the shoot required a week on the underwater stage and two weeks on a dry stage with Pinewood offering all those facilities, they seemed a perfect partner.

Pressure just finished its Pinewood (and Aberdeen) shoot and Pinewood Group’s Steve Christian points out that with the Studio being immensely busy, Pressure [with a budget below $5m) was the “smallest film on the lot by a significant way” at the time.

Thus, it presents one of a number of low-budget projects that have recently shot at the Buckinghamshire-located studios, which also included Belle, Dom Hemingway and Our Robot Overlords. It forms part of the Studio’s commitment to “produce four films a year, which are each budgeted between two and four million,” as Christian revealed to Screen in May. However, speaking to him earlier this month he adds: “we probably exceeded our four a year for the last 12 months and are looking somewhere between six or seven projects”.

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