(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 015 May/June 2023)
By Darek Kuźma
Irish DP Kate McCullough ISC assisted director Hettie Macdonald in making the quirky British road movie, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, both food for thought and a feast for the eyes.
Having worked with Macdonald on six episodes of the exceptional mini-series Normal People, McCullough was eager to collaborate with the director again, and the premise of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry – about the eponymous character who goes on a spontaneous trek across the length of England – also caught her imagination.
“I liked the idea of an unassuming retired man going on a journey, into nature, to deliver a message and to sort of atone for his past failures,” says McCullough. “In my own life, if I had to deal with some kind of crisis or trauma, I’d definitely try to walk it out of my system. There is this inherent thing in walking, and the right kind of engagement with the body, that allows you to free-up your mind, to be vulnerable and to find new ways of engaging with the world.”
One sunny morning that promises to turn into yet another routinely plain day for Harold (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton), Harold receives a letter from an old colleague informing him that she is dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, in Northumberland near the Scottish border. Harold is devastated at the news, but when he goes out to post a mindless letter of reply, something tells him to keep walking. And so he walks, from one post box to another, further and further away from his routine life. When a chance encounter at a petrol station makes him think of the journey ahead as an act of faith, he decides to walk the whole distance of almost 500 miles from Kingsbridge on the south coast of Devon to Berwick.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Rachel Joyce – winner of the UK National Book Award for a new writer, and long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker prize – and was adapted for the screen by the author herself.
During prep, Macdonald and McCullough were adamant about shooting on-location as much as possible and went on the road for a week to gauge the full length of the protagonist’s journey, albeit in a car.
“It was a massive task to piece together all the different parts of Harold’s journey”
“We wanted the audience to feel Harold’s journey, experience different parts of England, the beauty of the nature there, and hear the accents that people spoke,” recalls McCullough. “I documented what we were seeing with a stills camera, creating a sort of tapestry of what England has to offer. The idea was to anchor the story in each place, and to lend authenticity to Harold’s encounters, and we spent most of the prep on the road recce’ing for the film.
“Although we produced an album of still photos and paintings for reference, the film was really informed through our recces and building the overall look around what we found. There was no point in trying to push against that. In a sense, it was about curating all those locations.”
The principal photography lasted on the film eight weeks, from September to November 2021, including three weeks of interior work in London. Out of this, shooting on the road took five weeks and saw the crew travelling through the counties of Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Derbyshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland.
Before hitting the road, however, they shot out-of-schedule for a day in the historic city of Bath, Somerset, to capture the energy of its grand Jane Austen Festival that halts Harold’s trek for a few hours.
“It was a massive task to piece together all the different parts of Harold’s journey, as once you find one location, it informs the one previous and the one that follows,” reveals McCullough. “We tried to find clusters of locations to limit the crew moving around. Even so, we still shot in 13 locations, travelling with a small crew, two Transit vans of lighting and grip equipment, and a Luton van carrying the camera gear. It was the most physically and mentally demanding project I’ve been on yet. I guess it needed a bit of blind faith, just like Harold.”
McCullough admits that the logistical challenges of shooting on the road dictated most of the visual and technical choices, including the combo of camera and lenses.
“I chose Sony Venice because of the power of its sensor. I knew I wouldn’t have enough lighting sources for night scenes and would often need to produce clean images in available light, or with practicals or using a small amount of supplementary lighting. This was my third film on Sony Venice and I felt confident with it – it’s become my friend,” she laughs.
Being on the road certainly had an impact on her other tools. “I always like to operate on my films, I love to have a front row seat in a sense, and gain that emotional connection with the characters. But the thing was that Jim Broadbent is 6’2 and I’m 5’10, and I didn’t want to shoot with this sort of upwards angle. Also, budget-wise, the big decision was that we weren’t going to manage a Steadicam.”
As they would be travelling through different types of terrain, this slight visual incongruity could have influenced the viewers’ immersion in the story. “I ended-up using Flowcine GLINK, a high-end gimbal body support system, together with an xSPINE vest, that let me produce smooth walking shots from the right height. This combination gave me enough freedom to travel alongside Jim and capture all those small moments that give the film an additional layer of meaning, and by the end I had a new set of muscles.”
The film was shot using two Sony Venices equipped with Tribe7’s Blackwing7 lenses (using 20.7, 27, 37, 47, 57, 77 and 107mm focal lengths), plus diopters and low-contrast filters.
“I wanted a bit of character to the image, a sort of dreaminess around the edges, so that was not totally objective,” McCullough explains. “The Blackwings come in three tuned sets – Straight, Transient and Expressive – with the Expressives having the most amplified characteristics. As the budget didn’t allow for two different sets of lenses, I chose to stay on Blackwing Ts because of their unique character.”
The second unit, consisting of B-camera operator Seamus Murphy and remote head operator Calvin Day, also used Angénieux zooms (22-60mm T3, 45-135mm T3). The whole package was provided by One Stop Films.
Anathema to her usual approach, McCullough says she had to relinquish some control due to the constant state of flux associated with each of the phases of Harold’s arduous trek as well as a plethora of characters he meets on his way to Berwick-upon-Tweed.
“We had this basic LUT that made the skin tones more healthy and filmic-looking, and which also toned the greens down. But there were so many variables, different weathers, colours, textures, that I had decided to embrace each location for what it was and left smoothing the continuity down for the grade,” she says. The DI was done at Goldcrest with colourist Sara Buxton whose experience was also invaluable during the addition of a number of subtle VFX shots throughout the film.
One of the film’s underlying messages is that we need to appreciate the simple joys of life and learn to trust in others. And because of the nature of the shoot and her documentary background, McCullough wanted to interfere as little as possible.
“Most exteriors were shot with available light. We sometimes used a lamp or two to add some character where we wanted it, or when the sun wouldn’t come through the clouds, but I didn’t want to stylise the organic look of the locations,” she says.
“My gaffer, Carolina Schmidtholstein, convinced me to use Lightbridge’s CRLS reflector system. It’s quite new, but we were lucky that Jono Smith and Jason Clare from Reflectric, the company that supplied the package, were keen to share their knowledge and decided to come on-board as sparks.”
For interiors Schmidtholstein used Dedolight PB70 parallel beam lights, in combination with CRLS reflectors. “They were brilliant in small scenes, like a conversation at a train station or a café. We had a stackable 230V Instagrid batteries (from Greenkit) and 5Kva from Voltstack, but you could plug them into available local power and have great results.”
Pat McEnally at Greenkit supplied the rest of the lighting package, including Litepanels’ Gemini and Astera Helios Tubes. Skylight provided the helium balloons on dailies.
“I wanted a flexible mix of LED lights so to have options when shooting interiors, but they were also great on night exteriors,” McCullough adds.
During his trek, Harold becomes a media celebrity and finds himself surrounded by dozens of folks travelling with tents and sleeping bags.
“We shot one of the campfire sequences on a football pitch and enhanced the fire and existing lamps with CRLS, Geminis and Helios tubes. Knowing the power of Sony Venice’s sensor, I was confident I could keep the lighting on the road to a minimum.”
Lighting-wise, the most challenging scene was the chance encounter at a petrol station, which was actually shot at two different locations.
“We shot the exteriors on the road, so I needed a very strong sun coming through the windows, but we didn’t have the resources to rig huge lamps,” McCullough recalls. “We were shooting in London at the end of November, so I had to plan for night-for-day. We hired helium balloons that we put in the forecourt of the station to produce a kind of soft ambient daylight. I was nervous whether people would buy into it, but once we started, the balloons turned out to be a perfect solution.”
This pivotal encounter pushes Harold to believe his journey is an act of faith, and through walking the whole distance he will help his friend recover from her illness. Most importantly, the pilgrimage forces him to contemplate his past failures and confront his inner demons.
As Harold walks through roads and fields and towns, Macdonald used flashbacks to help the audience connect to him on a deeper level.
“There is a kind of angularity to the deep grief Harold is dealing with. I didn’t want soft, cosy light in the flashbacks, but hard shapes, moments of visual discomfort, moments he’d much rather have forgotten,” McCullough says. “Hettie and I discussed the idea of the intensity of human memories and decided to use frontal ‘flash’ lighting. The images needed to burn into the audience. I lit the scenes like I normally would, then attached a small Dedo lamp to the camera. It wasn’t the most comfortable of rigs for both myself and the actors, but I’m glad we persisted as the flashbacks have this intensity and focus that set them apart from the present-day journey. It was important because those scenes sort of connect the film’s numerous layers.”
All-in-all, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is as much a quirky, feel-good road movie as it is an intimate drama about the fragility of human existence, as well as being a journey of self-discovery and redemption. McCullough is very pleased with the result and the experience as it is also her first British feature.
“I’ve never worked with a female gaffer before, and Carolina Schmidtholstein was phenomenal”
“I made a short in the UK years ago, just before I went to study in the Łódź Film School, but it was different back then obviously. Shooting The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry was interesting to see how things are done now, and it was great to work with excellent and diverse crews. I’ve never worked with a female gaffer before and Carolina Schmidtholstein was phenomenal,” she marvels. “I hope to shoot more films in the UK, especially since I pretty much recce’d all of the country for Harold!”