January: Happy New Year
Incarcerated and tortured by a sadistic Chinese General on New Year's Day, secret agent Taylor Gable must not disclose secrets vital to national security. How long will he last when the ultimate price becomes too personal?
The first mission in Year of Spies was written by Chris Stone and Stephanie Stone. The writing team wanted to create a claustrophobic pressure cooker of an episode where the tension and threat level kept rising constantly; a desperate power game between hero and villain.
Since 'Blood and Bone China', I've not been away from the world of web series completely, I've being giving guest lectures on web series production at places such as the Raindance Film Festival and at YouTube/Google. I now felt it was the right time to return and produce another series of my own, but not repeat what I had done last time.
'Year of Spies' has been slowly developing since April 2014, based on an idea for a thriller series set over the course year I had back in 2005.
The first episode is very important; it has to set the tone for the rest of the series. Finding the right direction was like trying to feel your way around a dark cave, we made a few wrong turns but I feel we got there in the end.
The actual filming of the episode was a wonderful experience; we had such a great hard-working cast and crew that could have a real laugh together. The shoot took place over two days in an old pottery factory in Stoke-On-Trent and the only real drawback was battling the extreme cold. To be fair, it was Ross who suffered the most being tied to a chair, but we tried to keep him warm with hot water bottles and warm drinks.
I started the post-production on the evening of the first day's shoot so that the actors could see how the scenes were working on the morning of second day and give us all a morale boost.
The cast was made up of incredibly talented actors from the big and small screen, including John Dutton who recently had a scene with Tom Cruise in the Sci-Fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow.
Ross Grant (Last Tango in Halifax, Emmerdale) stars as the captured, charismatic spy Taylor Gable. The performance for the lead required the right mixture of professional calm and personal turmoil when dealing with a near unbeatable situation.
I have never yearned more for a hot water bottle than I did whilst shooting YOS! Being tied to a chair, wearing little more than a cotton shirt, in sub-zero temperatures made for one of the most uncomfortable shoots I've ever experienced - yet it was one of the most satisfying too.
Professionally, I guess I don't fall into the casting bracket of the stereotypical, tough spy-type, so it was a gift that Chris and Steph were willing to take a chance on me. During rehearsals it was very easy to succumb to that stereotype when delivering the character of Taylor, but we decided to back away from that cliche and bring more of my own personality to the role.
I aimed to bring both strength and vulnerability to Taylor by making him more human - a guy you can relate to - who isn't afraid to show emotion when his back's against the wall. Make no mistake, this guy is still tough - don't get on the wrong side of him when he's holding an AK-47!
Allan Law was chosen to play the villainous Sheng, a former military General turned intelligence official in search of a missing agent who has a personal connection to.
A fluent Catonese speaker, Allan translated numerous lines of the script for real authenticity. His foreboding henchman, Dragon, is played by Will Sherratt whose look was inspired by classic silent James Bond henchmen such as Odd Job.
The creative challenge 'Year Of Spies' presented was the need to find the correct balance between the gritty reality of the immediate situation and modernity of the characters with the blend of atmosphere and style that pays homage to the classic spy films.
In the case of General Sheng, who to me sprang out from the page as a 'larger than life' villain, the challenge was to present him as such but imbue him with a plausible reality that allowed him such dramatic flair as a villain.
After shooting was complete, Chris took up the mantle of editor whilst Steph concentrated on colour grading the footage in DaVinci Resolve.
After the edit was complete and special digital effects were added, it was the job of the composer to add to the tone and mood with music. Switzerland based composer Yannick Zenhäusern accepted the mission.
I was very fortunate to be part of this project from the very beginning when it was still just an idea in Chris' head. After I read the first draft of the script, I had a pretty strong vision already how the soundscape and the feeling will have to be.
Since I know and love how Chris is driven by music, I sat down and recorded two tracks. He used them as a source of inspiration and also played it on set when rehearsing to get everybody in the right mood. Finally when the cut was done, we Skyped back and forth because Chris wanted it to sound bigger with more orchestra.
I then did a huge sweeping orchestral composition and sent it to him. I was positively shocked when I woke up the next day to find a message on Facebook, in which Chris stated that he was wrong and the initial two pieces of music fitted perfectly like a miracle. Some more fine tuning and voila!"
Behind the Scenes
The name 'Taylor Gable' comes from the Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. The creators of Superman combined the names of two famous actors 'Kent Taylor' and 'Clark Gable'.
The gun used by General Sheng is a Walther PPK, the gun made famous by James Bond.
The month January is named after Janus, the Roman two-faced God of War. One of the themes of this episode is people being two-faced and having a secret identity.
Huge thanks to everyone who helped in the production of this episode. Thank you to the actors for all of your time and hard work, thank you to fantastic photographer Tony Blake for generously doing our promo photoshoot, thank you to amazing production assistant Mark Barnett for all of your help, thank you to Will Sherratt for bringing his camera along and getting some on set shots for us, thank you to Julie Morrisroe for allowing us to borrow your hourglass, big thanks to Sean Evans for loaning us his katana, thank you to Dave Chatton for the use of his work table and thank you to Stoke-On-Trent City Council and their helpful security guards for access and use of the location.
If you'd like to get involved in Year of Spies in any role, from acting to assisting with production, from providing access to an interesting location to lending props and costumes, from sponsoring an episode to helping spread the word on social media, please get in touch with us, we need your help.