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Direct Action: Toby Haynes on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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13 May 2015

Getting the director involved early on, and letting one director take on a whole series, can transform and elevate drama, says director Toby Haynes who helmed all seven episodes of BBC1 series Jonathan Strange & 
Mr Norrell.

The producers knew they had this bestselling book and they were struggling to get a greenlight. It was [BBC exec] Matthew Read who said ‘why don’t we bring a director who could have something to offer the authorial voice of the piece?’ They had felt it was a bit too BBC2 and not very accessible. Matthew Read bought into making it more universal and more of an immersive audience experience with a director at the forefront of that, not coming in at the end, so the show could be born out of a cinematic vision.
 
My involvement early in the writing process with Peter Harness, the writer, meant we could be so much more daring with the way we tell the story. It’s not just aesthetics that make something feel cinematic, it’s the way we tell the story and the time we spend with our characters as they walk through the streets and live their lives. Being with Peter while he’s writing made sure the scripts had a rigour to them and every scene earned its place and had a point. I could inject the sense of pace I could normally inject in the edit process in the writing process. It meant everything had already gone through a stress test or a run through.

Anything that involved more technical stuff I would get in there early with Peter and make sure what was in the script was achievable and we already had a solution worked out. Sometimes in drama you can read a sequence that is unachievable. When I worked on the Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock, he was originally written to jump off the Shard. We could have done a version of that that involved a lot of green screen but it just wouldn’t have looked very good.

It became a production imperative to have one director. We were block shooting the sets in a particular location so you couldn’t bring in different directors as one day of shooting could mean shooting in all seven episodes, so I made myself indispensable in that way. It was a perfect storm that I took advantage of. It doesn’t happen very often but I hope it happens again. It has changed the way I work. From the stuff I’ve read since I’m less attracted to scripts that are already fully developed.

I’m really trying to fight the image of directors coming in right at the end and pointing the cameras and buggering off again. It’s sometimes quite hard for people to take in what we do, the scale of the job is so colossal.

There was a time when directing was just about coverage. TVs themselves were smaller so it was a close-up medium. Now we’ve all got big flat screens. Just before I did Doctor Who I’d been visiting my mentor David Yates on the Harry Potter set. Then I went to Doctor Who and realised we had pretty much the same kind of equipment – a similar camera with access to wonderful 35mm lenses. We had a dolly and track. For all the big sets and kit on a film like Harry Potter they were still just shooting with one camera one dolly and one grip. The fundamentals are very similar, all it takes is vision and good lighting and a really focused idea of what you need to achieve.

Television has evolved. You can achieve anything so directing it is important again. People are seeing the difference it makes if you have a director as an authorial voice. It only takes looking at Tom Shankland’s work or Peter Kosminsky and what he did with Wolf Hall to see what directors can do over a longer run when they’re given that canvas.

The Cuba Pictures’ series TXs next week on BBC1

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