Extreme filmmaking

Howard J Ford on a near death experience, shooting at height and The Ledge

by Jennie Kermode

Brittany Ashworth in The Ledge
Brittany Ashworth in The Ledge Photo: Signature Entertainment

A lone witness to a shocking crime. A group of young men determined to prevent her from sharing her story. She can’t outpace them on the ground. There’s no-one else around from whom to seek help. She has only one way out: to head straight up the mountain beside them and trust in her superior climbing skills to give her the edge.

This is the set-up for Howard J Ford’s The Ledge, which screened as part of the Frightfest strand at the 2022 Glasgow Film Festival, and if you’ve followed his career to date, you’ll know that you can expect some thrilling action scenes powered by impressive stunt work. When we meet up to discuss the film he begins by thanking me for a review I wrote of one of his previous films, Never Let Go, and pointing to my quote on a poster behind him, though it’s too shiny for me to see it properly. We discuss the interview that I did back then with its star, Angela Dixon, and I mention that she told me that at one point she had been afraid to jump between two roofs, unconvinced that she could make it, and he had decided to prove that it was possible by doing it himself.

Ben Lamb in The Ledge
Ben Lamb in The Ledge Photo: Signature Entertainment

“Yeah,” he says, with a grin. “I don't expect my actors to do anything unless I would at least be prepared to do it. And I try and remain quite a physical person as much as I can. You need it to just get through a movie. But, yes, that's right. I did it. I enjoyed it. I used to love doing it myself, myself and my brother jumping around.”

I wonder how that worked with The Ledge and how much climbing he was doing himself, and if he has a background in climbing.

“I have done a bit of climbing, leading up to this,” he says. “But the thing was that I very nearly died up a mountain myself. This was a snowboarding accident. I had fallen off the side of a mountain, so I was stuck in minus conditions for seven hours with no food or water. It was nothing heroic at all. I was utterly terrified. I've got to say it was terrifying. And I thought I was about to die in a jumbled heap on the ground. I got out of that. That's another long story, because a few weird things happened that led to me getting out of that. So I felt a bit helped because it was really a hopeless situation.

“And so I'd done that. So I wasn't planning to go out any any real mountains for a while. But I did do a bit of the old bouldering at Boulder Brighton and some other places. So I was doing some, bouldering, which is generally an indoor thing, not actually on a boulder, it's a sort of fake climbing wall. I'd done a lot of that but I hadn't done much actual climbing. But Brittany Ashworth, the star of The Ledge, she had done some leading up to it so she got herself in a situation where she could at least understand it. We had some fantastic climbing advisors on set taking us through it, as well.”

Another things that Angela said to me when we did that interview about Never Let Go was that she knows lots of women who are really good at that kind of physical thing but she rarely sees woman like that in films. Is that a disparity which he’s keen to address?

Don't look down
Don't look down Photo: Signature Entertainment

“Yeah, definitely. I love the female driven films and I think traditionally, it's generally been a man who has emerged as the main protagonist, so I think it's great to do movies with female stars. I want to do more actually. In fact, the film I'm doing next, starting next week, and film after that, it's another female-led thriller – another brutal one as well. Do I attract those things or do I put it out there? I don't know.

“Yes, it was important to me. And that's one of the things you know, because whilst I read Tom Boyle’s script and I connected with it because of my near death on the side of the mountain, it's not about my story. And so I was delighted that the proposal already was that it was a female driven thriller, and I wanted to do more of those and I think it's great to see that female strength come through, you know, against some horrible male antagonist. I think we all like to see a bit of that.”

Was it a challenge to cast people who were willing to take the risks this film involves, had the physical skills to do the job and were also capable actors and right for the roles?

“Yes, well, that's a very good point. I mean, with Never Let Go, I already knew Angela was a physical person who could do these things. And when we were casting for The Ledge, we were looking at actors who had that physical ability, absolutely. We had to make a bit of a judgement call, based on what we could find out about the potential cast. And I'd met Brittany about a year, a year and a half, maybe it was more than that even, prior to shooting The Ledge. We'd met and chatted in London. It was just a 30 minute meeting, but that was one of the fastest questions out of my mouth, that whole, you know, physical ability, was she a sporty person.

“Of course one is able to make that judgement to a degree, but she spoke about the sports that she was doing, and that she'd done a bit of climbing, and in fact, she was great, because also, prior to the shoot, in the weeks leading up to it, she was shooting another movie, but on the weekends she was finding moments to go and do climbing, so that was great. And it was really important because being able to act is one thing, being believable in the situation is another.”

Looking up
Looking up Photo: Signature Entertainment

The situation in the story requires all the characters to show a lot of endurance and skill, but it seemed to me that it was going to be harder for the actors some of the time, because, particularly when they're having to give the impression that things are going wrong, and they're not in control.

“You're absolutely right,” he says. “That was a huge challenge for the actors, particularly Brittany, who was on literally on that little ledge, and whilst that particular part wouldn't necessarily be thousands of feet up, it was actually at a dangerous height. Absolutely. So we did have to have some safety ropes and things like that, but actually, it was very challenging. And not only that, but you can't just go out there all day. It's actually physically demanding for her even when we're doing a face close up. The other thing is that the communication between us was actually quite difficult, because, you know, I can't float in the air and get close up and chat. We were at some physical distance between each other as well.

“I think those elements were frustrating for both of us to have to deal with. She was dealing with the logic of the performance of the moment by moment, I was trying to piece together what shot went with what, we were having our own frustrations but we managed it together and she's done a fantastic job.

A lot of climbing films get sent my way so I know people, for instance, put GoPros on drones and things like that, to do some of that kind of photography, but I wondered what techniques were used here.

“It was absolutely a challenge,” he responds. “We shot the film in Serbia – it’s set in the Italian Dolomites. And we had this huge crane, this monstrous thing that was incredible, too get all those camera moves, because the camera has to go up or down, you know, down and under, and all of these kind of moves. And so we would have to mount this huge crane arm and and that took a while, so I could only move it certain amount of times a day because it took a long time and a lot of people and that had to be mounted. The actors had already got a tough enough job to be on the side of the mountain, but this huge crane arm which is mounted in a place which, you think, well, just five feet over and they're on the mountain as well. It was a bit precarious.

A place to rest
A place to rest Photo: Signature Entertainment

“The other thing was that there was a real danger of rocks falling off the side of the mountain onto any crew member or cast member. There was a real danger of that happening at any time so we had to be very, very careful. So mainly we used the huge crane arm but we did use some drone shots as well. And then there were times when we were able to get to a point where we could we could be alongside somewhere else and film the actors, but mainly the huge crane – that was a lifesaver.”

So how long did they have to shoot for to get all that to work?

“We actually shot the ledge within 19 days, which was really not a lot of days. I would have loved another five days, I’ve got to be honest with you, but one has to work with what they’ve got, and what the budget can take. We shot this during this during the pandemic as well. So we all felt lucky to get out to Serbia while they were still flying. So, yeah, I would have loved more time, because to be honest with you, I would say for every ten shots you can do at ground level, I reckon you could get about three at height, with all the logistics that go into it. Yeah, so more time would have been great, but we did what we could in the time.”

So getting back to the acting side of it, how did he go about casting the four guys in the group? Because the group dynamic there has to work as well.

“Yeah, it does. “We wanted it to be believable that these guys would come on holiday, at least one last last holiday, with Joshua, played by Ben Lamb. He did a great job as Joshua as it gradually unfolds, that he is a pretty psychotic guy with some pretty dark things that have happened in the past. But yes, we did want to create a dynamic between the group, we actually had a casting director, but because at the time, we couldn't necessarily do face to face auditions. And over time as the project got moved, the cast got changed. And so we would get self tapes, and we cast some of the movie like that. And we would get these videos or stills of people and say, ‘Well, these guys kind of go together, you know, they'd be believable as a pack of guys.’

Waiting on the ledge
Waiting on the ledge

“One thing I liked about Tom Boyle’s script also was that it wasn't just action and killing and all that, you know, there was this backstory about the guys that gradually unfolded. That sort of circle of friendship and bro code or whatever it is that they had going was gradually falling apart, crumbling like the rocks under their feet. The relationship was, was falling apart. Dark secret starts to emerge about some horrible thing that they've done in the past.

“We wanted people to think that there was going to be a hero amongst that group, but I won't give away too much. But, yeah, all the actors did did an amazing job, and it was not an easy film to make. We were in situations that I think were concerning people. Everyone is fine. But, you know, they say 'don't make a film in the snow,' and I'm going to tell you, don't make one at height.”

Like some other filmmakers working during the height of the pandemic, he found that isolation helped to strengthen the bonds between cast and crew members. He’s particularly keen to express his enthusiasm for the Serbian on-set caterers, who did a lot to boost morale. And it’s clearly a good feeling, now, to have been picked up by this festival.

“I'm really excited about Frightfest,” he says. “I've never been to Glasgow actually, but I love Frightfest. The London crowd is great. And, you know, without these guys and girls, we can't make our films, there is no audience, so I relish the chance to come and meet them, see them in person and thank them for checking out the film. Also to sit down in a crowded room, have the lights go down and see it on the big screen with the energy of the crowd. I really love that.”

It’s a tight turn-around for him as he’s starting the shoot on his next film just two days after the screening.

“We're filming really early on Monday morning and it's a movie called Russian roulette. It’s a brutal thriller, and I’d say it's a little bit like Se7en meets Saw. There's a really fantastic script. We’ve got some really exciting cast as well. And then after that I'm doing another film with the team behind The Ledge, another female driven thriller that's to be announced soon. It’s a crazy busy year. I need a vacation.” He laughs. “Not in the mountains.”

The Ledge is available on digital platforms from 14 March and on DVD from 21 March.

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