Death: The High Cost of Filming

The comic book Death: The High Cost of Living is a spin-off miniseries from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. The premise is that every so often, Death, personified by a young Goth woman, lives as a human for a day, so she won’t forget what it’s like, thereby keeping in touch with her compassion. In this story, she does so in the guise of the teenage girl Didi, who guides a suicidal young man on a journey of self-discovery. I recommend it.

For years, there has been talk of a movie version of the story, and Neil Gaiman wrote a script for it. The location was moved from New York to London, and a prologue was added, set in a Tibetan monastery. Then, due to various circumstances, it didn’t happen. My feeling is that this would never have been allowed to be the film that it should be. I believe that it would work best as a drama in which the relationships are central, but when you’re dealing with Neil Gaiman, the Sandman universe and DC (Grim! Gritty! Snyder Cut!) you’re not going to get that. Even so, perhaps with the success of the faux-indie Joker film, there’s room for a small Death film. A small film would be less of an investment, less of a risk: it wouldn’t have to draw in the numbers of a Superman/Batman tentpole movie to break even.

In Gaiman’s comic and script, the location is London, not the US, where the comic was published. I propose to make it even easier to film the thing: bring it to Belfast. The city is very accessible and ‘film friendly‘, has the Titanic Studios and outdoors locations to fit every need. Northern Ireland is also brimming with talent, its crews veterans of Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, and its acting luminaries famous the world over. Here’s an outline of what Death: the High Cost of Living could look like, if made in Belfast.

THE PEOPLE

Writer/Director: Ash Clarke. Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway is set against the background of the Magdalen Laundries, but focuses on the psychological trauma rather than the body horror of demonic possession. I’d trust her to deliver a taut thriller, but put the emotional journey of its protagonists to the fore. As director of the retro-radio play group Wireless Mystery Theatre, she also shows a mastery of style and whimsy.

Juvenile leads. For the roles of the teenagers Didi and Sexton, unknowns could be cast; we’ve been impressed by shows by the Bruiser theatre school, as well as the Theatre at the Mill Summer Youth Musical Group. Belfast is brimming with up and coming talent waiting to be tapped. The role of Billy should go to a disabled teen.

The Eremite. We used Michael Smiley as our template for the hungry spectral horseman, the Fear Gorta, in our horror story for the Christmas anthology Underneath the Tree. Originally a comedian, his haggard and lugubrious appearance would be perfect for the Eremite. But Lalor Roddy of The Devil’s Doorway would also be very effective in the role, if Aislinn would want to bring him with her. Alternatively, ‘Ma’ could bring ‘Da’ from Give My Head Peace, with Tim McGarry playing against type.

Mad Hetty. A much-beloved and long-running satirical series in Northern Ireland is Give My Head Peace. Its matriarch, commonly known as ‘Ma’, would be a shoo-in for this ‘wiser than she looks, and far, far older’ homeless woman. Veteran actress Olivia Nash may be short in statue, but she’s got a range from light comedy to depth and power.

Mrs. Robbins. She has known Deedee all her life, and knows her big secret. Belfast is a very white city, and no obvious candidate springs to mind. This has been somewhat of a problem across the isle, as also highlighted by Irish/American actress Ruth Negga. Perhaps she’d be available for a cameo?

Foxglove. Belfast has a thriving LGBTQ+ community, which is at the forefront of what’s going on in arts. Is there a queer musician, not necessarily lesbian, who can play (and play as) Foxglove? Surely!

Death. A small but pivotal role, Death, as an adult, appears at the end of the story to take away the dying Didi. Someone’s needed who really lights up the screen, with an almost unearthly beauty. Saoirse Ronan’s career has leapt since she played a vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, but perhaps she could be persuaded to come to the ‘auld sod’ for a few days of filming.

THE LOCATIONS

Belfast is rich in locations suitable for filming. Despite destructive development plans and a general disregard for our built heritage, enough of the ‘old city’ has survived to, in combination with some of our more modern landmarks, form a backdrop for Didi and Sexton’s spiritual journey.

The story begins in a somewhat uninspiring apartment block. There’s a somewhat out of place building in East Belfast, bordering a park and lower buildings, which would be perfect for outside shots. Alternatively, one of the ‘Manhattan on the Lagan’ high-rise buildings that have sprung up in recent years will add a contrast to the more ‘old build’ of the further story.

We first meet Mad Hetty underneath a bridge. I suggest the railway bridge between the Albert Bridge and the Queen’s Bridge, with its nice Victorian brickwork. Alternatively, the underneath of the Albert Bridge and just besides the station would offer a great ‘All ye who enter here’, new-build on either side notwithstanding.

We’ve got the lovely Victorian St George’s Market, a construction of brick and cast iron framework, which would be a really nice location to set part of the action in, like the chase, and Foxglove’s concert. Traders for the Friday market set up their stalls on Thursdays, so it’d be efficient to film establishing shots on the evening and perhaps after the Friday market’s close. Stallholders might be willing to appear as themselves. A small section of the building might be used outside of market days to set up a limited number of stalls for closer shots, and the market does have live music; though Foxglove’s may skew more folk-rock than ‘pop your lid’ rock.

Alternatively, for the club in which Foxglove plays, why not showcase our own Black Box, with the crooked Hill Street that leads up to it, and the lovely alleys running off Hill Street?

For the conclusion of the film we don’t have to travel far. While Belfast doesn’t have any big fountains that I am aware of, there is a Victorian water fountain on Custom House Square, surrounded by Edwardian era buildings, with a modern water feature on the square, and the leaning Albert Clock tower in the background on one side, and the Harland and Wolf cranes lurking on the other side. It’s at spitting distance from St George’s Market. Crossing the road from the fountain, on the harbour’s edge, is the Big Fish, which may also be a a good anchoring point with visual flair.

If this location isn’t suitable because of the traffic noise, then Buoy Park is a good substitute, with its big, colourful buoys and St Anne’s Cathedral as backdrop.

CONCLUDING

A Death film done like this would elect to use abundant local talent and amenities to tell a story, rather than simply throwing money at it. It’s a way of working that’s brought us countless classic B-movie thrillers, like those produced by Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie) and the Hammer studios. Words cost nothing more than a writer’s time behind their computer, so this is where it should start. You need craftspeople who know what they’re doing. Hammer Studios understood this, and many of their recycled and small sets are doubled in value by expert lighting and camera work; when David Lynch directed The Elephant Man, cinematographer Terence Fisher came out of retirement to shoot it in black and white. Shoot it well, so you don’t have to fix it in post with layers of filters. Actors should be given the space before shooting to explore their roles and find the nuances in their characters: it’s an ensemble piece at heart, and they’ll need to carry the viewer’s emotional journey.

I think it can be done. It can be made into something very special, magical and emotional, and it can be made in Belfast.