Crime stories are always informed by where they’re set. Their often bleak surroundings feed into the drama, infecting everything from character to atmosphere. Think the derelict London Docklands of The Long Good Friday or the brutalist buildings of Get Carter’s Newcastle. To director Justin Edgar’s mind, Birmingham hasn’t been fully exploited for its gritty backdrops, but he’s looking to change all that with his upcoming Birmingham set crime drama The Marker.
‘I’ve always thought Birmingham makes a great backdrop for crime thrillers,’ says Edgar, speaking just a few weeks after the end of principal photography. ‘It’s got the urban nature, the diversity – there are something like 180 languages spoken in Birmingham – plus some great locations. I’m a big fan of the TV show Gangsters from the 1970s, which is one of the few dramas set in Birmingham, and I wanted to do something a bit like that. Derek Raymond had Soho and Raymond Chandler had California. For me, Birmingham makes the perfect backdrop.’
Considering Edgar’s last three films - Large, Special People and We Are The Freaks - were all fairly broad comedies, seeing the Handsworth born director shift to the crime genre might seem a little incongruous, but Edgar actually dabbled with crime fiction back in 2005, his short film The Ends winning a top award at the 2005 Raindance Film Festival. The Marker is Edgar’s delayed return to a genre he’s always had a passion for, casting Frederick Schmidt as a man imprisoned for manslaughter when he accidentally kills a young woman. In prison, he’s haunted by the ghost of his victim, and upon release sets out to find out what happened to the daughter of the woman he killed.
Birmingham is only rarely used as a filming location for high profile projects, and even when it is, it’s often used as a stand-in for another city (see Hustle or Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge). The Marker has filmed almost entirely in the city, although it’s safe to say that the film’s spiritual home is the city’s bustling suburb of Digbeth. ‘Digbeth is such a unique place. Unlike places like the Manchester’s Northern Quarter or Shoreditch in London, it hasn’t been gentrified. It’s retained its edge. I mean, a week after we finished shooting there a guy was shot dead there. It still has this dark edge to it.’
Cast and crew went further afield for the prison scenes, specifically Shrewsbury Prison, a deserted prison decommissioned two years ago. ‘They use it now for things like live zombie apocalypse events, but we managed to get a couple of days there. I wanted everybody to get a sense of feeling incarcerated, so we didn’t actually leave across those two days. We even slept there, I shared a cell with the director of photography. It was a prison where they used to hang people, so there were some very creepy corners in the place.’
Birmingham’s complex immigrant history informs the story too.
Alongside Schmidt, Edgar has cast a Romanian actress who flew in from Bucharest to make The Marker (‘I wanted to use Ana’s character to look at the immigrant experience within the city’), plus two gangster characters take their cues from the city’s extensive Irish links. ‘We’re tapping into the Irish side of the city with the characters of the Doyle brothers, one of whom is a former Lord Mayor of Birmingham, the other a criminal, kind of like the Bulger brothers from Boston. It seems quite believable that can happen in a big city like Birmingham, where you can have two completely different extremes within one Irish family.’
It’s notable that Edgar has been using a lot of crew from the Midlands, partly a requisite for the funding that the film has received and partly because Edgar wants to utilise local talent who haven’t fled down to London. That’s been the case on all of his films, and The Marker is no exception. The script supervisor, the production manager, nearly all the heads of department - all Midlands based, and that also extends to the actors.
‘There’s a great local pool of actors who haven’t moved down the M1. Ian Brooker is a regular in The Archers who lives in Sutton Coldfield and plays the prison governor. Simon Lowe was in my very first film Large, and I’ve given him a really nasty character to play, something he doesn’t normally get to do. I like casting people who didn’t look like regular criminal actors. Simon looks quite innocuous, a normal bloke.’
The most notable name in the cast is John Hannah, a well known face from blockbusters like The Mummy and acclaimed TV series such as Spartacus and Damages, alongside the Golden Globe nominated actress Cathy Tyson. When asked how he managed to get them involved, Edgar declares that ‘it’s all about the script, because they’re certainly not doing it for the money, nor the chance to spend two weeks in Birmingham in the middle of winter!’
The Marker sees Edgar and his production company 104 Films continuing their commitment to working with disabled people, ten disabled trainees being given the chance to shadow the post production team. Edgar’s 104 Films partner Alex Usborne is also behind Notes On Blindness, a new feature released this July based on the audio diaries of John Hull, a former professor at the University of Birmingham who went completely blind. Premiered earlier this year at Sundance, it’s another notable notch in the cap for a relatively small company making some impressive waves.
And they need to make those waves, because projects like The Marker and Notes On Blindness take years to birth. The Marker is only Edgar’s fourth feature in the space of fifteen years, although judging by previous gaps between projects, things might be speeding up. A touch.
‘I made my debut Large in 2001,’ remembers Edgar, ‘then it took six years to make Special People, then another five years to do We Are The Freaks, then four years to get to The Marker. It’s just crazy how long it takes. It’s hard to choose the next project, to decide what to devote so much of your life to. I’ll probably be 50 by the time we get round to the next film!’
The Marker will be released in 2017. See www.104films.com for more information.