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On set report: Best Laid Plans

December 2010

STEPHEN Graham is laying in bed with his eyes closed while a dozen members of the film crew fuss around him.
The actor, last in Nottingham to star in Shane Meadows’ This Is England as the terrifying racist skinhead Combo, looks like he’s catching up on a bit of sleep. He may be thinking about the scene. It‘s hard to tell.
First assistant director Amanda Neal, stood at the end of the bed, shouts “turn over”. Behind me someone responds “turning” and everyone falls silent.
Graham shuffles in the bed then opens his eyes, as if waking from a restless sleep. The whole scene, number 472, lasts 45 seconds.
They do it half a dozen more times until director David Blair seems happy and they move.
Scene 142 finds Graham shouting at a lighting stand. “If you do that again, you’ll be in real trouble,” he barks.
He’s supposed to be bawling at co-star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje but he’s off set today so he has to make do with a piece of camera equipment.
He tries it three more times then we’re done. It’s time for lunch.
I’ve been here for two hours and witnessed what will likely be a minute of the finished film.
We’re two floors above the Tesco Metro in Station Street. The rooms in this sparse and dusty Victorian building have been the HQ for the cast and crew of Best Laid Plans for the past five weeks.
It’s also the setting for the flat shared by lifelong friends Danny (Graham) and Joseph (Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Danny owes money to a crime boss and he enrolls Joseph to engage in a bare-knuckle fighting tournament in order to win the money to pay him off. But Joseph has a mental age of a seven-year-old and doesn’t understand why his friend is making him do this. 
“It’s a love story,” says Graham, after lunch, with a hot menthol drink under his nose to stave off the effects of a cold.
“It’s a film about two friends.”
And how does Danny’s character compare to Combo?
“They’re miles apart. Danny’s one of these poor people who keeps getting everything wrong. He’s got great intentions but he’s a bit of a fantasist.”
Combo reappeared in This Is England 86 but only very briefly. Why was that?
“I was a bit apprehensive about doing the TV show at first,” says Graham.
“But Shane explained how we could flip it round and show a completely different side to his character. Show the humanity. That was the idea.”
The shoot over the past five weeks has included the streets of Carlton and Sneinton, by the river near Trent Bridge and at Nottingham Contemporary.
Most of the interiors have been shot in Station Street. As well as the bedroom there’s a set for the kitchen/lounge and a bathroom with a grubby lemon suite and porn magazines, with titles such as Naughty Brits, strewn across the floor.

“I don’t mind,” smirks Graham of the unglamorous setting.
“We’ve had no caravans, no Winnebagos or anything like that but the budget’s not there.”
No one is able to tell me exactly what the budget is but it’s likely to be a modest few million.
“With the Film Council closing it’s not easy to get films made in England,” says Graham, his accent as Scouse as can be.
“You take the rough with the smooth,” he adds.
“A few months ago I was in Hawaii, sitting on a beach with me missus and kids. I was going to work for a few hours then coming back for a swim in the sea.”
He was there to film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.
“They’re fantastic to work with. I worked with Johnny before on Public Enemies. I’d consider him a friend. I think it was him who threw my name in the hat for Pirates.
“And Penelope, she’s lovely as well. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve worked with some great people, Leo DiCaprio, Michael Sheen...”
The latter was for The Damned United, in which he played Billy Bremner. Next year, he’ll be seen on the big screen alongside Avatar star Sam Worthington in The Fields and Colin Firth in a remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The 37-year-old has come a long way from the bit parts in Coronation Street, Heartbeat and The Bill, before his big break in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch a decade ago.
A year later he was in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers then Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio. This year the director called him back for the big budget US drama Boardwalk Empire to play Al Capone.
His co-stars in Best Laid Plans are BAFTA winner Maxine Peake (Shameless, Red Riding, Early Doors), David O’Hara (The Departed) and Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has appeared in GI Joe, The Mummy Returns and The Bourne Identity but is probably best known for playing Mr Eko in Lost. 
Peake and O’Hara had already finished their part and Akinnuoye-Agbaje isn’t around today, having to fly to Berlin at the last minute to attend to his sick father.
I’m told that he’s been staying in character while on set. It’s a method thing. Which is interesting, considering the 6’2 43-year-old is playing a man with the mind of a seven-year-old.
Writer Chris Green is here, though. The former medical insurance salesman based the story, his debut script, loosely on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men.
“I read the book and saw the parallels between 1920s depression hit America and where I’m from in Salford,” he says.
“It’s always been depression there since the docks closed down in the seventies,” he laughs.
“I just thought it’d be interesting to drop those two characters in to a city like Manchester or Nottingham to see how they’d survive.”
It’s dark but still comical, he says.
“I was influenced by Boys From The Blackstuff, that sort of dark humour. So Danny and Joseph do still have fun, despite the dire circumstances they find themselves in.”
With him is his teenage daughter, who won’t be able to see the finished film as it’ll likely get an 18 certificate because of the violence and strong language.
He was around for the fight scenes filmed last week in the basement of an unfinished office block in Brook Street in the city centre.
“Seeing Adewale as Joseph being beaten up in the cage, looking lost and forlorn and desperate was quite upsetting,” he admits.

It was only this year that he finally quit his job to write full time. All five of his scripts have been picked up to be turned in to feature films.
“I can’t wait to roll up in Leicester Square for the premiere,” he beams.
Director David Blair says the violence is necessary to tell the story but doesn’t think it’s what the film will be known for.
“I don’t want people to be too preoccupied by the fighting,” he says.
“It’s not Sam Peckinpah. At the heart of it are the relationships between Stephen and Adewale and between Stephen and Maxine.
“I don’t want it to be seen as a gangster film. Although, one of my sons asked me, when I told him what the film was about, asked me if Danny Dyer was in it,” he laughs.
He’s not.
The Scottish director was shown the script for Best Laid Plans by Stephen Graham, who he’d worked with on BBC1’s The Street. He also directed Maxine Peake in Jimmy McGovern’s series of dramas, for which he won a BAFTA.
“They’re not necessarily easy to work with,” he admits.
“But all that matters is that they’re good.”
The decision to film in Nottingham was a financial one, thanks to co-funding by Nottingham-based screen commission EM Media. But with schedules running from 9am to 7pm each day, Blair hasn’t had much of a chance to take in the city. Although he did catch up with an old friend, Nottingham writer Stephen Lowe, for a drink.
“It was first time I’d seen him in 13 years, when we were working on something together. We may well revive it, in fact.”
He adds: “An average for any film is 60 to 70 hours a week. Unfortunately the European labour laws don’t apply to us.”

Best Laid Plans is scheduled for release in June.

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