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‘Boiling Point was the most exhilarating film I’ve ever worked on’

For Stephen Graham, ­Boiling Point was “a hell of an experience”.

“Without fail, it’s the most exhilarating array of emotions I’ve ever felt on a film set in my life.”

Coming from an actor who has worked with legendary director Martin Scorsese on The Irishman, Boardwalk Empire and Gangs of New York, this is quite a statement.

When you see it, though, it’s easy to understand why. Set in real time, Boiling Point follows 80 anxiety-drenched minutes in the life of restaurant chef Andy Jones, and is expanded from a 22-minute short Graham made with director and co-writer Philip ­Barantini in 2019, which was filmed in one single take.

That meant no cuts, no pauses, no retakes, as the camera follows Graham’s chef through a hellish night in his swish restaurant.

“It’s high energy from the from the word ‘go’, and it doesn’t stop,” says Barantini, who met Graham two decades ago when they were both part of the cast of Band of Brothers. For the feature, he decided to adopt the same one-take strategy.

Barantini’s movie is not the first to employ this bravura film-making method. Sebastian Schipper’s melodrama Victoria (2015) masterfully pulled it off, careering around Berlin on one chaotic night, while the more sedate Russian Ark (2002) toured us through the Hermitage Museum.

The Oscar-winning Birdman (2014) and Sam Mendes’ astonishing First World War drama 1917 (2019) also gave the illusion of a single-take movie (though in reality both used multiple shots stitched together).

Stephen Graham in Boiling Point, directed by Philip Barantini (Photo: Piers McCarthy)

Boiling Point, however, is the real deal. Shot at Jones & Sons restaurant in Dalston, east London, the film plunges viewers into a buzzy restaurant on the busiest night of the year.

With his home life collapsing around him, Graham’s Andy is running late when he arrives to find a visit from the health and safety inspector and, later, a slimy TV chef (Jason ­Flemyng) from his past dining with an influential food critic (Lourdes Faberes).

“This is absolute crisis point,” explains Vinette Robinson, the Bradford-born actress who plays Andy’s trusted senior chef Carly.

Between forgetting to fill in the daily food orders to overlooking a customer’s allergy concerns, every moment builds incrementally until the proverbial pot boils over.

She’s careful to point out that Andy isn’t hapless. “He wouldn’t have got to where he is, if he was always at that breaking point.”

Only gradually does it become clear that Andy’s a functioning alcoholic/drug addict, a portrait that came from Barantini’s first-hand experience.

“I’ve got no shame in saying I’m six years sober now,” he says. “And I did go down a really dark path when I was in working in kitchens. The character that Stephen is loosely based on is me, and people that I’ve worked with.”

One chef that he knew, existing on a diet of booze, cocaine, and long hours, collapsed from a stroke midway through a service.

Little details from Barantini’s past seeped their way into the narrative, like the water bottle Andy is constantly sipping from – a way of disguising hard liquor.

“That’s from a true, real situation, when Phil used to work in the catering industry,” says Graham.

“One of his head chefs used to do that same kind of thing. None of them realised until one of them grabbed his bottle and had a sip of what they thought was water.”

Perhaps Boiling Point’s real achievement is to focus audience attention on Andy’s breakdown rather than the fact Barantini’s movie is a one-take masterstroke. Yet, it’s hard not to marvel at Graham and Robinson (who both studied with top chefs, learning the art of arranging food on dishes) “plating up” in real time. There’s very little fakery going on.

“It’s not like Big Nigel from props has come along and just put the plate there for you all done up,” laughs Graham.

Vinette Robinson and Stephen Graham in Boiling Point (Photo: Piers McCarthy/Christian Black)

After five-day rehearsal periods for both the actors playing the front-of-house and kitchen staff, Barantini’s team shot four complete takes, although initially eight were planned across four nights. The first two were more like dress rehearsals, as they all found their collective groove.

“It’s a real marriage of theatre and film doing the one take. Except with theatre, you get four to six weeks’ rehearsal at least,” says Robinson.

Such was the precision needed – every mark, every action, every line – Robinson used crib sheets stuck inside a fridge door, so she could remind herself of what was coming next when she was off camera.

Graham remembers kicking a rogue bin out of the way to stop the cameraman tripping over.

“No one wants to be that person that drops the plate or forgets the lines,” he says. “But the amount of energy that’s in that room is amazing. And it’s tangible. You’re all helping each other.”

Yet just two days into production, an unwanted decision had to be made. “After the third take, they told us that the next take would be the last,” says Robinson. “Because of Covid.”

With the virus hitting its first wave in the UK, film productions – along with everything else – began shutting down.

“We were one of the only ones left and we were getting people who were very nervous,” remembers Barantini. Some cast and crew quit. “There were lots of people in a very enclosed space,” adds Robinson.

“It just became untenable.”

While the fourth and final attempt “was technically perfect”, says Barantini, “the performances were really flat because everyone was knackered.”

It didn’t matter: Take three was the one. Technical issues aside – unwanted shadows and reflections, and a clock telling the incorrect time, all of which were fixed in postproduction – it was flawless.

“I was just really pleased we got something because there’s another version of that where the take didn’t work and we didn’t get a film,” says Robinson. “It’d never have been done again. We wouldn’t come back.”

Rightly, the film has been recognised at the recent British Independent Film Awards, with nine nominations. Robinson won Best Supporting Actress, beating Dame Judi Dench and Tilda Swinton, while the sound team and cinematographer Matthew Lewis’s dexterous camerawork were also rewarded.

Meanwhile, Carolyn McLeod won Best Casting. This delights Graham, whose Matriarch Productions – set up with his actress-wife Hannah Walters, who also features in the film – is involved behind-the-scenes in Boiling Point.

“You look at our cast,” he says. “I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a diverse cast. All different ethnicities. What we really wanted to do was try to get a true, authentic representation of a working London kitchen. I’m very proud of that.”

It’s a fine showcase for up-and-coming actors too, like Daniel Larkai, who featured in the original short, and reprises his role as prep chef Jake. “There’s lots of great young talent and new actors who we haven’t seen before,” says Robinson.

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If anything points to Boiling Point’s success, it’s just how well the film captures the busy-busy hub that is a restaurant. Watching the movie feels like you’re a paying customer, observing the staff go about their business.

Barantini still remembers a Q&A for the film when it premiered at the Karlovy Vary festival last July. “[One audience member said], ‘So were they real chefs, the guys who were with Stephen?’ I’m like, ‘No, but that’s the best compliment I could ever get.’”

Boiling Point opens in cinemas on Friday



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