Behind the scenes of Munich: The Edge of War – in pictures

Munich, based on the Robert Harris novel, is a German-British TV 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 leg of shooting.

We started in Liverpool, which was doubling for 1930s London. The historic Liver Building, which stood in for Gotham city in the forthcoming Batman movie, made a very convincing Whitehall. The production later moved south to Amersham in Buckinghamshire where we shot in historic houses used as sets for Chequers and Downing Street.

Liverpool doubled for 1930s London – with the historic Liver building making an impressive substitute for Whitehall
George Mackay running down ‘Whitehall’ [actually the side of the Liver building in Liverpool. The camera is ahead of him on a make shift tricyicle
George Mackay makes sure his young co-star feels at ease
Director Christian Schwochow giving notes to actors on set

At this point in the pandemic, England was in tier four, which made for a strange but fascinating experience. After months shielding in London and seeing barely anyone, it was overwhelming to be near so many other people. Overwhelming and at times bizarre when, after so much isolation, I’d suddenly find myself surrounded by more than 100 masked supporting artists in immaculate 30s period dress.

Extras at the Downing Street set at Elstree Studios. This set is also used with slight period modifications for The Crown

  • Extras at the Downing Street set at Elstree Studios. This set is also used, with slight period modifications, for The Crown. Right: extras on set at Elstree

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

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

Classic cars that are correct to the period are rare. Their owners tend to ‘play’ the drivers in period productions and the cars move between all sorts of different film and TV sets. They aren’t always reliable, though (unsurprising for cars nearly a hundred years old) and the odd scene was held up as the drivers did some quick on-set mechanical repairs

  • Classic cars correct to the period are rare. Their owners tend to ‘play’ the drivers in period productions and the cars move between all sorts of film and TV sets. They aren’t always reliable, though (unsurprising for cars nearly 100 years old) and the odd scene was held up as the drivers did some quick mechanical repairs

A large scene in Liverpool with a snagged barrage balloon. Most of the effect was done with a huge model, but there will be embellishments added in postproduction.
Supporting artist ‘waiters’ watch the barrage balloon

Part of the budget for the production went into Covid protection,now standard on all film and television productions. We formed a giant bubble. Lateral flow tests were administered every other day. PCR tests every three days. Masks were worn and monitors – the so-called “Covid police” – checked that everyone was maintaining protocols and distance.

Covid secure extras playing conservative MPs in the House of Commons
Extras waiting for an elaborate dining scene to start
Extras in Liverpool
Extras in Liverpool
Extras wait outside in masks on the Liverpoool set

The cast, principal actors, and all extras wore masks on set until the final rehearsal and during takes, after which face coverings went back on. Windows and doors were wide open everywhere.

Extras in Liverpool giving the sense that Britain knew war was coming.
Extras in Liverpool giving the sense that Britain knew war was coming.
Extras in Liverpool giving the sense that Britain knew war was coming

The film’s action is mainly set in late summer and early September but we were filming in an unusually cold, frosty late November and December. The interiors were as cold as the exteriors. One particularly frigid day, in a country house with huge open windows and doors, a “creative” decision was made, partly by the poor actors in their 30s suits (with crew in North Facethermals) to the effect that Prime Minister Chamberlain would have had an open fire roaring during his early September cabinet meeting.

Jeremy Irons reading the paper between scenes at Downing Street

The protocols worked and other than the odd heart-stopping false positive lateral flow test, there were no actual cases of Covid during the British leg of filming, despite the large numbers of people involved in some scenes.

The strangest part was what the Covid precautions did to the camaraderie of the production.. For Munich, we routinely worked 10- or 11-hour days as part of a tight crew but then went back to the hotel to eat alone in our rooms.

Supporting artists playing MPs queueing for their Covid-secure lunch while protecting their immaculate costumes.

Even so, it was thrilling to be part of such a large creative group.

As the stills photographer I was with the camera department. All of the active camera crew were German, working under director of photography Frank Lamm. Usually, scenes were shot with two cameras, an “A” and a “B” device. For larger scenes, there were up to four cameras, each one accompanied by a focus puller, a microphone boom holder and a grip to make sure cables were clear .

The A camera crew with cinematographer Frank Lamm seated.
First assistant director Finn McGrath. The first ‘ad’ is one of the most important people on set, making sure every scene is running to time and that everyone is exactly where they should be and doing what they should be so that the director and the cast can have the right space and atmosphere to do their work

  • First assistant director Finn McGrath. The first AD is one of the most important people on set, making sure every scene is running to time and that everyone is exactly where they should be so that the director and cast can have the right space and atmosphere to do their work

As a stills photographer, I would often try to shoot during rehearsals before each take, but this wasn’t always possible. Actors like to have the set clear and quiet, the better to communicate with the director. That meant for much of the filming I was shooting during the actual take. This entailed trying to fit myself as unobtrusively, respectfully and noiselessly as possible into a space near the camera so as not to be in shot. This meant keeping to the right side of the boom holder so I could crouch next to their chest [their work means they have their arms above their head and are close to the actors. It’s a good spot but a very tight one and, as the stills photographer, I had to remember I was the least important part of any take. If I messedup, got in someone’s way, or distracted an actor, the I’d be the the easiest person to kick off the set.

George Mackay and Jessica Brown-Findlay
George MacKay
Jessica Brown-Findlay playing Pamela Legat
Aidan Hennessy playing a young Arthur Legat
George MacKay smoking
George Mackay in a scene where his voice was needed for another actor’s shot but he didn’t need to be on camera. He decided to “hide” behind a desk do he could give the other actor what they needed but remain out of shot himself

I enjoy the challenge of getting the balance between being pushy enough to edge 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 playing Pamela Legat
George Mackay as Hugh Legat and Abigail Cruttenden as Anne Chamberlain chatting during a break between takes

There was one big challenge of working with the German camera crew. While they were incredibly welcoming, Frank and the other cinematographer, Niv, operating camera B, along with German director Christian, tended to make very quick decisions, often after the rehearsal, about what the shot would look like. They spoke in German, meaning we non-German-speaking members of the crew had to try to work out where was safe to stand. The nightmare would be being standing in some actor’s way or, God forbid, ruining a whole take by ending up in shot.

A scene in what was supposed to be the 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 exceptionally powerful light high on a crane to replicate the afternoon summer sun. The effect was a remarkable trompe l’oeil

  • A scene in what was supposed to be the 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 exceptionally powerful light high on a crane to replicate the afternoon summer sun The effect was a remarkable trompe l’oeil.

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

The closest I came to disrupting a scene was when we were filming in the freezing fog trying to shoot a late-summer, Downing Street garden scene. I misunderstood the German and nearly found myself directly under Jeremy Irons’s feet. I threw myself under a rhododendron bush and just about got away with it.

The producer of Munich, Andrew Eaton, was also the original producer of The Crown and there are similarities in the attention to period detail and the degree of veracity achieved with props and costumes. Particularly in scenes set in the secretaries’ offices under Whitehall (filmed in an imposing and deserted bank in central Liverpool).

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

  • In restaurant scenes, there were real chefs providing period-correct meals for the extras to pretend to eat. Likewise, the newspapers they were reading were all perfect reproductions, as were the period posters.

I walked on the set when everyone had broken for lunch and, apart from the odd piece of gaffer tape and the lingering foul smell of theatrical herbal cigarettes, the illusion was total. One really could have been in a 30s government office. Every letter on every desk was addressed and franked realistically. The stationery in drawers was correct to the period. The calendars on desks were set to the correct date. It’s remarkable how much work goes in to this just to create a convincing and absorbing recreation – so that the actors and audience “feel” it. Truly remarkable.

George MacKay in Rochester town hall which was used as the Palace of Westminster

The production used Rochester town hall, a building chosen by Hitler to be shipped to Germany brick by brick in the event of a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, as a substitute for the Palace of Westminster. Rows of green benches full of picture-perfect supporting artists were dressed and made up to be the MPs on the Tory benches, augmented with green screens that would help the visual FX team insert the rest of the famous chamber.

At the wrap on the last day of filming, I shot the camera crew with signs from the prop department on the steps of No 10

I’m not often on film sets, but I always love it when I am. To be involved with a production of this size during the extreme strangeness of a pandemic made it all the more memorable.

The Guardian

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