The West Midlands city offers a great variety of filming locations, is easily accessible and considerably cheaper to film in than London.
Last year Birmingham hosted The Girl with All the Gifts (pictured right and below), a film offering a twist on the zombie genre set partly in a post-apocalyptic London. Creative England was one of the movie’s key financiers through its West Midlands production fund, which is mainly backed by the EU.
Camille Gatin was a producer on The Girl with All the Gifts. “We had all the locations that we were looking for that were perfect for our film and we had this financing opportunity, so it all came together at the right time,” she tells The Knowledge.
The production team used locations including the Dudley Guest Hospital, the Powergen site in Shirley, Cannock Chase, Church Street and Colmore Row, as well as parts of nearby Stoke-on-Trent. Central Birmingham doubled for central London with the aid of significant digital effects for wider shots.
Gatin says that filming in Central London is expensive. “Unless you’re doing a Tom Cruise or a Steven Spielberg movie, you can’t get central London locked out.”
In the case of The Girl with All the Gifts, Gatin and her team needed empty streets to portray zombie-infected, demolished streets of a once-thriving capital.
“This has been done wonderfully in 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle’s seminal 2002 zombie movie) and we had no interest in doing a copy of the film,” Gatin says. “There was just no point doing London landmarks all over again.
“We wanted to do something different and that was our own thing, and [so] our approach was slightly different. We were just looking for a city centre that had a combination of Victorian architecture and modern architecture, just to show that we were in a modern city centre, and Birmingham has that.” Gatin was uncertain about available local crew and production services before coming to the region. However, she ended up mostly hiring locally.
“It is definitely an industry in development,” she says. “I’m really hoping that the Steven Spielberg film (Ready Player One) would boost up further development because there is absolutely no reason why there shouldn’t be a thriving region.”
Birmingham is building on its existing TV appeal. Renowned filmmaker Stephen Poliakoff made his BBC mini series Dancing on the Edge in the city in 2011.
Speaking to The Knowledge, location manager Harriet Lawrence says that Birmingham “has some great and very diverse locations, all within easy reach of each other. It’s very compact but offers several different types of looks. I loved the fact we could walk from our hotels to the main locations most days.”
In 2012, the BBC returned to Birmingham with the acclaimed police drama Line of Duty, which filmed its first season in the city’s famous Jewellery Quarter, utilising cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and old pubs.
The production team built a police station inside the former Birmingham Municipal Bank, which has an old banking hall with 15-metre-high ceilings and expansive vaults. It’s a popular location that’s appeared before in We Are The Freaks, Hustle, Toast, Survivors and The Game. The building was also utilised to create the headquarters of the British Crime Agency in recent low-budget British thriller Monochrome, while higher-profile action movie Spooks: The Greater Good was inspired enough to include a specific scene written for the vaults location.
Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham – a free service run through Birmingham City Council as part of its Film Charter – tells The Knowledge that the city’s main appeal is in its great variety of accessible locations, as well as its relative proximity to London.
Campbell describes Birmingham’s Centenary Square, the Bullring, the Selfridges building and Victoria Square as among the city’s most popular filming locations.
Birmingham has a variety of modern and Victorian architecture, especially in the Colmore Business District in the city centre, which makes the region an easy double for London in films including The Girl with All the Gifts and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
Spielberg’s Ready Player One is perhaps the highest-profile production to film in Birmingham in recent years, and in fact doubled the city for a dystopian Ohio in the American mid-west. The famous filmmaker worked on location in Birmingham for two weeks, shooting in Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter, while St John’s Ambulance premises were used as the United Postal Service and the Telephone House in Newhall Street transformed into an American high school. The production used Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in north London as its production base for much of its shooting schedule.
Campbell describes Film Birmingham as a one-stop-shop that offers producers assistance with permissions, locations and crew hires. Birmingham City Council can provide cheaper parking and other local discounts. However, while there is no regional production fund available through local authorities in Birmingham or the West Midlands, films and high-end TV shows can benefit from the UK’s generous tax credit programme.