About the Production
51 Degrees began life as an open project: a chance to capitalise on a revolutionary piece of technology and an opportunity to advance a budding filmmaking partnership. When Moritz von Zeddelmann (Damon) first approached writer/director Grigorij Richters, determined to work together, the canvas was blank, with Richters determined to take advantage of his new equipment: ‘I had had my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera for a few months and thought, I’ve got to do something with this camera because it’s just too good to be true.’
Richters was keen to stretch beyond his usual interests for this project. During the research stage, Richters was inspired by a BBC documentary called Asteroids: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which explores the threats posed by asteroids to our planet. The programme proved to be an extremely unsettling experience for Richters: ‘In the past I had never had any interests in asteroids but after watching this documentary, I couldn’t sleep for days. It was terrifying.’ He had found the subject for his new film.
The project began in 2010 with the original intention of keeping the production short – no longer than three months – and using a small crew of no more than 10 people. Two years on, the production is drawing to a close with a cast and crew of more than 2,500 people.
Richters chose to develop the story and the central character of Damon gradually, through rehearsal and improvisation. When they started shooting in the spring of 2010, Moritz von Zeddelmann recalls being armed with only a ‘25 page script with no dialogue and a massive 70 page biography of Damon.’ Richters’ intention was to allow Zeddelmann to grow into the character organically while the story developed around him. ‘It was a discovery process. We were trying to find the story as we went along. It was painting by doing’, says Richters.
Many of the actors have remarked on this particular aspect of Richters’ directorial style and his penchant for improvisation. Steve Nallon (Prof. Richards) found the process to be extremely liberating on a creative front: ‘Greg has a fascinating way of working,’ says Nallon, ‘We would prepare for each scene by talking it through with Greg and the other actors to get a general idea of what the scene is about, then develop ‘lamp-post’ moments along the way that you have to get to but Greg leaves the actual dialogue to the actors themselves. It’s somewhere between the ultra-naturalism that you get with someone like Ken Loach and the controlled realism of a more traditional, commercial movie.’
To prepare for the central role of Damon, Zeddelmann submerged himself in the character: ‘I wanted to make Damon as authentic as possible since I had to rely on him totally in all my improvisations. So after consulting with Greg, I decided to stay in character for the duration of the shoot. In order to never break character, we even told the crew that my actual name was Damon. I buried myself in asteroid research and tried to build up as many layers to Damon as I possibly could. I wouldn't call it method acting, I was just trying to survive and give the best performance I could on set.’
The shoot itself was guerrilla filmmaking at its purest. In order to keep costs down whilst maintaining the frantic, vérité style of the film, Richters decided to employ a skeleton crew with himself and his Director of Photography, James Kinsman, serving as cameramen. Richters and his team tore through London shooting quickly and efficiently in and around many of the capital’s most famous landmarks, including Tower Bridge, Waterloo Train Station and Piccadilly Circus. The production team attempted to secure as many permits to film on real locations as possible but, as is the case with many independent film productions, other recourses were occasionally necessary. As Zeddelmann recalls, ‘It was absolutely wild. I don't think that there is another word to describe it. There were days when I thought that I wouldn’t live to grow old. But in the end, I believe that’s the magic of this movie.’
Stephen Barker, the film’s Post-Production Supervisor, also believes that this approach has ultimately worked in their favour, ‘I think the crew used the guerrilla filmmaking format very well. The scenes and locations shot in high profile parts of London are very impressive. In fact it reminds me of something Shekhar Kapur once told me of how in some ways he preferred 'gorilla film making' to the more structured and scheduled method of shooting.’
At one point during the shoot, Richters and his team were filming outside the US Embassy near Oxford Street. While they were setting up, a member of the embassy personnel called the police to alert them of a man wearing a suspicious backpack and holding an object resembling a grenade. Six police officers turned up and Richters had to explain what they were doing. No charges were made but one police officer did offer the director his script.
One of the most precarious incidents of the production occurred during filming at King’s Reach Tower, an abandoned skyscraper on London’s South Bank. The location serves as the setting for the final scene in which Damon climbs up to the roof of a skyscraper to watch the asteroid descend on the city. The location was perfect: at one-hundred and eleven metres, King’s Reach Tower looms above everything on the south side of the river and gazes over the heart of central London. However, shooting at this panoramic location involved an element of risk. As Richters explains, ‘At the moment it’s all boarded up. It’s completely empty. Homeless people and drug addicts use it as a squat. There are stories of people getting raped inside. The police apparently never enter because it’s too dangerous.’
The original plan was to climb the Tower in the middle of the night with a team of 14 people, including 6 extras and a van full of equipment. However, while the team were setting up on the ground floor, a security guard spotted the sound recordist, Jassim Jaffer, standing outside the building beside a step-ladder with a heavy backpack bursting with mysterious wires and technical equipment.
Within a matter of minutes, a London Metropolitan counter-terrorism unit had arrived and surrounded the production team. Producer Alex Souabni recalls the confusion and panic: ‘There were sirens and headlights pointed at us. They were shouting, telling us to put our hands on the wall.’ The police unit performed a strip search on the crew members and found a set of handcuff keys and $10,000 in cash in Richters’ wallet. Naturally, it was only prop money. After the dust settled, the situation was explained and the production team was told to leave the premises.
Undeterred, Richters returned to the tower at 4am, accompanied only by his DoP and leading man. They climbed the building’s thirty-one storeys with nothing but their iPhones to light the way. They finally reached the roof half an hour before sunrise. As Zeddelmann recalls, ‘It was an amazing view up there. We managed to shoot everything we needed and headed back down. We put on our reflective vests so that we looked like construction workers and walked straight out of the front door with all of our ‘measuring equipment.’’
The largest scene of the film, in which the news of the asteroid’s imminent collision with Earth is broadcast on the screens atop Piccadilly Circus in front of thousands of panicked onlookers, proved to be one of the most logistically and technically challenging scenes of the whole production.
The producers had obtained a permit to film with 200 extras, but an open casting call ended up attracting more than 1,000 extras. As filming got underway, more people gathered and the numbers swelled to over 2,000, making it one of the largest film productions to shoot at Piccadilly Circus. With extras blocking off all the roads, Piccadilly Circus gradually came to a standstill. Westminster City Council turned up and threatened to shut the production down if Richters and his team failed to rein in their extras and allow vehicles to pass through.
For such a low-budget production, the film succeeded in attracting some of the most talented people in the industry, including Greg Powell and Marc Hutchings who served on the film as Stunt Coordinator and Visual Effects Supervisor respectively. Powell has performed and coordinated stunts on some of the very best Hollywood blockbusters, such as the James Bond, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. Hutchings has similarly proven to be at the very vanguard of visual effects in recent years having worked on a diverse range of films, which include Fantastic Mr Fox, X-Men: First Class, Immortals as well as the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Powell was persuaded to joinh the production after Richters and Souabni met with him and made an impassioned pitch of their ideas for the stunt sequences. ‘For a young director, he seemed to be very knowledgeable’, Powell notes, ‘He knew exactly what he wanted when we turned up on location. At the same time, he was very open-minded and wanted to listen to all of my suggestions.’
51 Degrees has achieved things its producers could never have dreamed of when they first embarked on it in 2010. What began as a personal story about one filmmaker’s relation to his own craft grew to become the story of a city and the cosmic forces beyond our command. ‘The film has become it’s own entity’, says Richters, ‘It really became a huge part of my life. But in my eyes it will never be finished, not until I die.’