“Here we are in mid-July in the hills of Italy,” says Guy Ritchie, staring across a damp and shallow valley, “and it’s decided to piss with rain for the last two weeks.” Technically, it is not mid-July. Also, we are not in Italy. It’s late October at Hankley Common, about 40 miles west of London, where the British director of the Sherlock Holmes films is shooting The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a reboot of the ’60s spy TV show starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.
Ritchie, who’s overseeing a fight sequence featuring Cavill’s CIA spy Napoleon Solo and a baddie played by Italian actor Luca Calvani, can’t be surprised by the rain. Prior to my visit to the set, the film’s publicists sent me a flurry of emails along the lines of “Will be muddy!” and “Bring sensible shoes!” As a Brit myself, I would love to dispel the cliché of the dire U.K. weather by waxing lyrical about the way the autumnal sun dapples the browning foliage of the English countryside. But the truth is that the climate tends to meander between three meteorological states: just about to start pissing with rain, just finished pissing with rain, and the ever-popular actually pissing with rain.
I watch Henry Cavill take a beating
Why are major studios shooting so many films in a country as synonymous with rain as it is with tea drinking and Hugh Grant — who, incidentally, also stars in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? There are many answers to that question, including the deep pool of indigenous behind-the-scenes talent, the lack of a language barrier, and London’s reputation as a fine place to hang out. When Armie Hammer arrives on the U.N.C.L.E. set, I ask him what he likes best about shooting in the British capital. “Everything,” he replies. “The culture, the people, the pubs. All of it.” But the main reason Hammer is here is the generous tax-credit system the U.K. government established in 2007 to encourage film production. “All the big American films come here because there’s a fantastic rebate,” says Lionel Wigram, an U.N.C.L.E. producer who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ritchie. Last year Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reimbursed Disney roughly $25 million for shooting the Marvel superhero movies Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy in Britain.
Fortunately, Ritchie has prepared for the weather both cinematically and sartorially. As for the fashion: For reasons never made clear, he and a couple of key crew members are dressed in country tweeds and look like they’re shooting grouse rather than a movie. And as for the filmmaking: The director decided to double down on the damp, ordering up a rain machine and having Calvani’s character savagely attack Cavill’s hero in the midst of what will look to audiences like a sudden Italian summer downpour. And I do mean savagely. You know you’re on a Guy Ritchie set when you hear the directorial instruction “Let’s have him kick him in the bollocks!”
During a break, Ritchie explains that one by-product of the rush to film in the U.K. and its famed studio complexes — notably Pinewood, Shepperton, and Leavesden — is the opportunity it affords directors to rub shoulders with one another in a sort of real-world auteurist version of LinkedIn. “We were on Leavesden and Ron Howard’s there,” recalls Ritchie. “There is no reason why I would necessarily fraternize with other directors.” But? “I made it my neighborly business to stick my nose in his affairs.”