Sky’s The Five was created by two of the biggest names in publishing and TV: author Harlan Coben and producer Nicola shindler
With over 60 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben is one of the most high profile thriller writers at work today. Yet despite having 28 page-turning novels to his name such as Tell No One, No Second Chance and Gone for Good, the New Jersey-based author’s work had never – until recently – made it to the small screen.
But he was specifically targeted by Red Production to help them create new drama series The Five for Sky. Red founder Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Queer as Folk) recalls: “We started having conversations with the Sky drama team about how you do a thriller on TV which has the same impact as a thriller you read, where instead of staying up to read the next chapter you have to watch the next episode.”
Red head of development Richard Fee then suggested approaching a thriller writer to help plot such a story, which could then be taken on by a scriptwriter. “We put together a top ten list of writers to work with, and Harlan was at number one,” says Shindler.
So Red approached him via his agent. Within two hours of getting in touch, Coben himself emailed straight back saying he had an idea. ‘Do you want to hear it?’, he asked.
Coben, speaking over the phone from the US, picks up the story: “I had this idea playing in my head, and I was going to write it as a novel, but I always saw it too visually to be a novel.”
He outlined the basics straightaway: a story about four friends, one of whom’s brother goes missing; twenty years later, one of the friends is a policeman and discovers that the young brother’s DNA has been found at a crime scene, suggesting that he is alive.
“That was such a good, gripping start that we said yes straight away,” says Shindler, who then travelled to New York with Fee to meet Coben.
Over the course of a two day visit, Coben talked through the storyline. And Shindler was impressed: “He always knew the ending. He had a brilliant opening, but then he has to know the ending too, otherwise he can’t start writing. It’s really unusual for a writer. Lots of them could learn from that.”
Shindler and Fee came away with a five page document outlining the story. “We then had to turn it into a ten part television series,” adds Shindler.
Danny Brocklehurst (The Driver, Clocking Off) was brought on board to write the script for The Five. The pair clearly got on well: “Danny brought a great sense of pace and a fantastic understanding of how to break things up to tell the story. Our mantra throughout this show was to not make it too timid,” says Coben. For his part, Brocklehurst would read a different book of Coben’s before writing each episode to get a feel for the way he tells stories.
Coben was involved throughout the scriptwriting process. “We would tell him that we have 20 minutes when nothing happens in episode seven, and he would go away and then throw ten ideas at you. It was a great way of working,” says Shindler.
The Five is set in the UK and filmed in and around Liverpool and Cheshire. A fan of British dramas such as Happy Valley, Coben says seeing his story through a foreign lens adds a whole new element to his typically US-based dramas.
Shindler explains that one of the big challenges of producing The Five was its scale. “We have never done ten hours before. And a single story over ten hours is really tough.” The budget was bigger than she is used to, with Sky’s investment topped up by a pre-sale to Canal Plus and backing from distributor StudioCanal, the parent company of Red.
The brief from Sky was to produce a show that would sit well with its American imports. So the production team aimed for a cinematic look to the drama to lend a sense of scale and ambition. “The storytelling is a little bit heightened, certainly in comparison with Happy Valley, and I think you need the visuals to go with that,” notes Shindler.
She credits director Mark Tonderai for creating the cinematic look of the series. Unusually, he directed the entire series – shooting for 127 days between March and October 2015. “It was incredibly difficult for Mark, but it really paid off for us because we had such a single, strong voice on it.” The Five was shot in blocks of two episodes at a time. “We had a two week break between each block where Mark recced for the next block and did a bit of editing. And we were editing while filming. It was like he worked 24 hours a day.”
Looking back, Coben says he enjoyed making the switch from books to TV; he even makes a guest appearance as a waiter in one episode: “I’ve never collaborated in my life as I write novels, but with The Five everyone had their own ideas to add in a positive way.”
The Five is on Sky 1 from April 15th at 9pm
The Five is a ten part drama about four friends, Mark, Pru, Danny and Slade. When they were 12 years old, Mark’s five-year-old brother Jesse was bothering them so they told him to get lost. Jesse ran away. He was never seen again. Twenty years later, Danny - now a detective - learns thatJesse’s DNA has been found at a murder scene.
Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach, Sky
Nicola Shindler, Red Production Co; Harlan Coben; Cameron Roach
Paulo Pandolpho, Celia Haining, John Murphy
c/o Face North VFX
Sports indie Whisper Films has stepped up a gear with its F1 coverage for Channel 4. Tim Dams talks to co-founder Sunil Patel
A good start. That seems to be the verdict of most Formula One fans to Channel 4’s coverage of the sport since it took over from the BBC last month.
Viewers seemed to like C4’s new presenting line up, which includes drivers David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Susie Wolff and Karun Chandhok as well as presenters Steve Jones and Lee McKenzie.
Before the launch, C4 stressed the diversity of its new F1 presenting team, and talked up its history of innovating in sports TV, notably with Test Cricket and the Paralympics. “We have a unique ability to innovate with live sports coverage, and we are going to do the same again with Formula One,” said chief creative officer Jay Hunt.
However, few viewers thought that C4 had reinvented F1 coverage after watching its debut coverage at the Australian Grand Prix. That’s hardly surprising given that sports indie Whisper Films had less than 10 weeks to put together its coverage for C4. The indie won a competitive tender from C4, which picked up free-to-air rights to F1 in December when a cash-strapped BBC pulled out of its deal three years early.
The fact that Whisper is minority owned by C4 through its Growth Fund raised a few eyebrows at the time. However, C4 insists the tender process was properly managed. A C4 insider adds that the Growth Fund was specifically designed to back fledgling indies like Whisper, particularly in markets such as TV sport where barriers to entry are high and the sector is dominated by two players, IMG and Sunset + Vine.
Whisper was launched in 2010 and is run by former BBC Sports producer Sunil Patel, presenter Jake Humphries and former F1 driver David Coulthard.
To date, Whisper’s programming includes films for brands within F1 such as Red Bull, UBS and Shell; short films for the BBC; highlights programming for ITV; and a doc for BBC1, Racing With The Hamiltons: Nic In The Driving Seat. But the F1 contract takes it to a new level. Now employing 25 people, Whisper last year relocated from Ealing Studios to larger premises in Power Road Studios, Chiswick.
Patel says Whisper’s immediate priority for its F1 coverage is to “be credible and deliver the sport”. He adds: “We are not going to take it off into a new direction that is going to upset existing fans.”
“David Coulthard is there week in week out to be your comfort blanket, then we layer around him people who have absolute credibility – whether it be [technical analyst and Formula Asia Championship winner] Karun Chandok, [Williams F1 test driver] Suzie Woolf or [former F1 champion] Alain Prost.”
Looking ahead, Patel says he’s keen for Whisper’s coverage to bring a new audience to F1. “C4 stand for innovation, and that is where we will be pushing.” And that, he explains, is about “how we come on air, how we present the graphics, the talent line up, different voices and different opinions.”
Whisper is limited in how it can present the races as it takes core coverage from a world feed produced by Formula One Management (FOM). So any innovations will take place around the edges of its race coverage, particularly in VTs.
In particular, Patel thinks Whisper lift the production values of its F1 coverage. He praises the BBC’s coverage of F1 (which he used to work on). But he believes that F1 was ‘slightly underloved’ at the BBC, not by the people working on it, but at a wider level where it was seen as an expensive sport to produce for a niche audience.
By contrast, and speaking just before Sky snatched all rights to F1 from 2019, Patel insists that Whisper “has got C4’s backing to really go for it. The channel are really behind us.”
Whisper is shooting features to accompany the races on Sony F5 cameras “to give a Whisper feel” to all packages. The ‘Whisper feel’, he explains, is cinematic, high-end and glossy.
He says such a look is a calling card for Whisper. “In a relatively short space of time, we have created a production company that is well known for producing high end sports content – whether motor sport, American football, tennis or football. Whatever we do, we will do in a cinematic way.”
Other technical innovations have seen the Whisper production team move editing platforms from Final Cut 7 to Adobe Premier Pro. “Premier Pro has more bells and whistles to it. It lends itself to quicker workflows.”
The decision to switch editing platform was taken the day after Whisper won the F1 contract, adding to the challenge of producing the coverage. Says Patel: “We were also covering the Superbowl for BBC2 and BBC1 while setting up what we are doing on Formula 1. It’s been a busy and exiting time…and it’s been challenging.”
Whisper Films CV
Whisper Films was launched by David Coulthard, Sunil Patel, and Jake Humphrey (pictured) in 2010
Patel was previously a producer for BBC Sport where he worked on Euro 2008, Match of the Day, the Olympics, Wimbledon, The Open and Formula 1 coverage. He has also worked at Sky and IMG.
Coulthard is a former Formula 1 racing driver who won 13 Grand Prix during his career. He is now a pundit and commentator for F1.
TV presenter and journalist Jake Humphrey is the presenter of BT Sport football coverage and previously presented BBC Sport’s Formula 1 coverage from 2009-2012.
Three leading DoPs reveal the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to create hits like War and Peace, The Night Manager and The Secret Life of Twins
WAR AND PEACE
(Credits: War and Peace, Peaky Blinders, The Honourable Woman, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death)
You start off wanting to do the edgiest stuff you can do. [Director] Tom Harper and I wanted to reinvent Tolstoy. In the end you realise the real satisfaction is in telling the story in a simple but beautiful way. We set out to do something that would appeal to the BBC1 viewer.
I had six weeks prep which is probably not enough for something as mammoth as War and Peace. But you start where you start – and that’s at the script and we went through it scene by scene, working out what can we do here and what can we do there. You construct an ethos or an approach for connecting to the script visually.
We wanted it to be slightly old fashioned and referential to the old productions. But we also wanted it to be modern and fresh. Visually we wanted a simplicity to it – a Russianness if you like. The simplicity of Russian film is what makes it so special.
The way we lit the series changed as the story got progressively darker. Over time it became slightly grittier, with more contrast, less colour. It started off very colourful, and we eased the colour out.
We started episode one in St Petersberg. At that time, it was the most modern of cities. We wanted it to be glitzy, rich, glistening and very glossy looking.
In the grade, we started off in a direction that was quite Russian and quite dark. But you don’t want to alienate your audience. So, as hesitant as I was to change the look, we did change it, to make it brighter and more accessible.
Colour was really important to the story. I love colour. But in period photography you are slightly limited in your sources, to firelight and candles, so there’s a limited palette of colours. But I was keen, because people had such amazing costumes, to keep the colour in it – and not for it to become de-saturated. Lots of people use de-saturation as a short cut for filmic, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe what is filmic and cinematic can be still colourful.
We used the Alexa XT. We shot using 1970s Kowa anamorphic lenses which we cropped out into 16.9. I like the slight aberration of the anamorphic lens. It gives you a bit of a period look in that things are not entirely faithful and they are slightly different.
We shot most of it at T4 [focal length stop], because I wanted a bit of depth of field. It is very trendy nowadays to shoot very wide open, with a shallow focus. I don’t particularly like that – I find it distracting and gimmicky. And, when you have great actors, you don’t want to miss anything. An actor like Paul Dano likes to bob and weave – he’s a hard actor to keep in shot. It’s that sponteneity that makes him great, so you don’t want to be worried about him being in focus as well.
We shot lots on sticks, a dolly and a gimbal. This helped give a classical feel. We only shot handheld in the battle, just for flexibility. And we shot the Rostov family all handheld, to give them a slightly different edge so they were slightly more bohemian. But it was also about creating a difference. We shot the Bolkonsky’s in their grand palace on a dolly and sticks. For it to be effective you need to chop against something. The Rostovs were meant to be the people we related to more.
The inner life of the characters in the book is the hardest thing to depict. For the most part it was shot single camera, but we did have a second camera, and we were always ready to shoot if we spotted something – such as sky, snow or shadows.
The reason I am a DoP is to photograph what actors can do. It doesn’t matter what distractions or explosions there are. If there is no emotional core there, there is no point.
The job of the DoP is to give the actors the most comfortable environment in which to be able to do what they do. Being an actor has got to be one of the hardest things in the world. Everyone thinks they can be an actor. But when you see what great actors can do, you realise how special it is.
You have got to create an environment where it is as stress free as possible. So on a practical level, you shouldn’t create an environment where an actor can’t move more than three inches without having to be relit. You should light the set and let them walk around. And if they go dark, they go dark.
In my mind there is no division between me, the director, crew and actors; we are one. We are creating something together.
Being a DoP is not just about practical skills. It is about who you have become, why you are that person, and why you decide put your little spin on the visual. Good cinematography is something you feel not necessarily see.
THE NIGHT MANAGER
(Credits: The Night Manager, The British, Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent)
When I read the initial scripts, I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition they portrayed. The images that presented themselves in my head were no short of spectacular.
I have been fortunate to work with [director] Susanne [Bier] on a few projects prior to The Night Manager. We have a well-earned creative trust in one another.
Our art director, Tom Burton, had done some initial groundwork on the locations. We began collaborating on the scripts, which set us on a location hunt through Europe for roughly six weeks of conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas. I continuously fed this information back to Susanne for some consensus as her knowledge of Europe and its nooks and crannies is so profound. The puzzle slowly started to come together. The journey through Europe was visually so important to grasp the atmosphere of these locations and then to translate them into the script. It gave me a good sense of where this film should live cinematically.
Being a DOP is a bit like being a chameleon. Each project is so different from the next and you continually have to re-invent yourself. Initially, everyone interprets a script differently and I like to just listen and draw from that. It’s a very interesting exercise to do. You will be amazed how different people visualise things. The art is to take from that what you can and interpret it in your own way visually, draw from your experience and with collaboration put it on the screen.
My approach right from the outset was to treat The Night Manager as a feature film and to try to service the ambition and scale that the scripts deserved. Trying to fit the complex nature of the scripts into a schedule and then realising our budget was not without its challenges.
At the outset I was concerned about the pitfalls of lighting and photographing (operating a camera) such a huge and complex script. I was always aware not to fall into that trap of compromising the look and feel of the show “just to get it done”; actually in hindsight, it put me inside the story, it put me into our amazing casts’ every action, nuance and subtlety that they so brilliantly portray.
I use both Alexa and Red. For me it is about what you want to achieve out of the script and what it demands. The Night Manager was so diverse and vast I really enjoyed using the Red Dragon. There is a certain ‘organicness’ that is created by this camera that I felt would be great for the story. I have had a great relationship with the camera. I can shoot in very low light with the Dragon sensor. I know how the pictures work and how to work them in post -production. We ran two cameras most of the time to get that “off angle” that is so appealing.
There were so many different worlds in the scripts that it presented me with the opportunity to treat each location with a different look and feel. It came down to how the lighting should work, how the camera should move and how the relationships between the characters developed.
It was important to us not to be contrived but to rather find the subtlety in our approach of TNM. All the creatives were on board with this concept.
Zermatt, London, Devon, Cairo, Istanbul and Mallorca all are so diverse from one another. We doubled Morocco for Cairo due to the present instability in Cairo and Mallorca for Istanbul for schedule purposes. The logistics involved were a constant challenge.
One of our major challenges was our demanding schedule, which was in constant flux due to the mere logistics involved. There was a lot of improvisation that took place and changes were constant, it was demanding on all the assistant directors involved to make our seemingly impossible schedule work. I think when we finally reached Mallorca there was a huge sense of relief amongst everyone.
THE SECRET LIFE OF TWINS
(Credits: The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants)
In The Secret Life of Twins, we were looking at identical twins, so any location that was evocative of symmetry was key to us. We looked for those mirror opposites on locations. More than any shoot I have done, my response on Twins was more to shape that it was to lighting.
We decided not to use handheld. I love handheld – you can be very responsive and the camera can be anywhere you want it to be. But what one has to sign up for with handheld is its visual signature, the camera’s point of view and presence in every image. For the audience it is not invisible or neutral. It is why someone like David Fincher doesn’t like handheld – he loves camera movement but he doesn’t want the heavy-handed signature of handheld.
I used a fairly obscure set of Russian lenses, Lumatech Illumina. I discovered them through a commercial I’d done. They are extraordinary, and flare like hell. They were perfect for Twins, but I haven’t used them since. They hit the right note for that project.
Over the last five years I have increasingly, and now almost exclusively, used the Red Epic – its most recent manifestation being the Weapon and the Dragon prior to that. I like the ergonomics of the small camera. I think Arri have now got there with the Mini, which is a brilliant camera too.
I love shooting in Raw. With my background as a stills photographer I have existed in the world of Raw colour space for a long time, and I can’t go back. I just think with a 16bit colour space – even if I ‘bake’ a look in for a given project – that Raw is always there as a sort of negative. You have enormous latitude that you can retain in post if you want but also throw away if you don’t want to.
In the doc world, I live on Angenieux zoom lenses. I use the Optimas, the shorter zooms. I am not really a fan of zoom lenses as lots of DoPs aren’t – with good reason. But Angenieux are the exception to that – they are every bit as good as the prime lenses I like. I’m also not sure any lens flares as beautifully.
When it comes to primes, my go to lenses are Master Primes. I would definitely point to Emmanuel Lubezki’s sensational work at the moment. His current style has a lot to do with the wide Master Primes he is using. I love what he is doing. I look at The Revenant, that very close up, close focus, extreme wide angle work – and don’t think he could do it on any other lens other than Master Primes. The lack of distortion and extreme geometry in them allows you to get very close to someone without distorting them in a way that some wide angles do. In many ways, I think they are the most naturalistic of lenses.
A lot of lensed have too much ‘lens’ in them. Vintage anamorphics are perhaps the most distinctive case of that. To my taste there is possibly too much anamorphic at the moment. I love using them on promos or fashion pieces. But for drama or something more ‘real world’, I find the ‘lens’ in them often too much with their horizontal flares and barrelling. I often find it too heavy handed a signature and it can take me out of the piece.
Channel 4 CEO David Abraham tells Tim Dams that privatising the broadcaster would damage the UK’s creative economy
Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham has run the broadcaster since 2010. From the depths of the credit crunch, he has steered C4 through a period of change that culminated last month in it winning the Channel of the Year prize at the Broadcast Awards.
Against this background, the government is weighing up options for C4, including privatisation, in a move that could raise £1bn. Abraham was interviewed on stage by Televisual editor Tim Dams at last month’s Broadcast Video Expo.
Given such a challenging TV landscape, isn’t the government right to seek a buyer for C4? “I have worked all my life in the private sector. Private ownership produces great media. But I am also a believer in what people describe in the UK as a special landscape where we have a mixed ecology – a BBC funded by the licence fee, Sky by subscription, and commercial broadcasters with public service licences like ITV, C4 and C5. In the case of C4, the model is set in stone, in government legislation. We have a remit and it is pretty specific: it says we should operate as a partnership broadcaster – we shouldn’t have inhouse production and should be a stimulant to the independent production sector. So all of the revenue we make from advertising gets spent with 100s of companies. We raise money in the private sector and spend it in the private sector, but spend in a way that helps both the creative economy of the UK and stimulates the viewer…To put Channel 4 News on for an hour at 7pm is not a commercial decision.”
What would happen if C4 went into private ownership? “If we were fully privately owned, [the new owners] would probably stick to the things we do for a while. But, in the end, to improve our profitability – which we would be obliged to do by our shareholders – we would probably look to slice away at that over time. That has been the history of how public service licences have been gamed over time. If you go back to ITV 25 years ago they had a much more onerous public service licence than today.”
You’ve said that a privatised C4 would have to cut costs to deliver profit margins of over 20%? “It is not just the amount of spend, it is how we spend it. Our breakout shows have often been the result of being able to stick with an idea through thick and thin and see it grow. We can afford to be a little bit more patient than you normally would do.”
What would the impact on indie production be? “Some analysts have said that of the £600m or so we spend, there are about 19,000 jobs connected to the work that C4 does. You have to assume that quite a significant proportion of the jobs would be at risk if we cut our budgets back. ITV work with less than 100 production companies, we work with over 300. You can see how we would have to change our behavior.”
Where are we in the process now? “C4 exists as a statutory corporation through primary legislation. So if the government gets to the point where it feels it is the right thing to do, there would have to be a debate in parliament, a vote and undoubtedly it would go through the Lords. We’re quite early in the process.”
But has C4 a long-term future on its own, given the changing viewing habits of younger viewers? “In a good way, that is what keeps us awake at night. The performance of the business over the last 20 years in responding to various changes has been quite good. We were very early on with digital channels: Film4 and E4 went ahead of the ITV and BBC digital channels. We have a very similar overall share today that we had 20 years ago. More recently what we have done is focused on the central question, which is really one of disintermediation... I was determined that we went on a journey to connect to individual viewers. When you go to All4, you are invited to register. That gives us a great relationship to more viewer behavior, and allows us to personalise what you are watching. We are seeing very strong growth in demand for online video because we have quality video and also have first class data. We now have 13m people in the UK registered with us.”
What percentage of C4 revenues come from online? “It’s getting towards 10% of our total revenue. We have already been through one revolution. About a third of our revenue comes from our digital channels, which didn’t exist at the beginning. So we have gone through three big stages of evolution; one was analogue single channel to portfolio; second was digital catch up services; and now All4 as a data-driven multiplatform service.”
1984 Begins career at ad agency Benton and Bowles, going on to found St Lukes 2001 General manager of Discovery UK 2005 President of TLC at Discovery USA 2007 CEO of UKTV 2010 CEO of Channel 4
On US ownership of UK TV companies: “In America you can’t own a big media asset unless you are an American citizen. They are quite happy to protect their own assets, but we are a smaller country with a more open market”
On BBC3’s move online: “We believe in a flexi-linear future. To make shows famous, you are often best off putting them on a terrestrial channel to get people to sample them.”
On commissioning: “Genres don’t operate in silos any more. Our genre teams share ideas at early stages together. Some of most distinctive shows have been the result of counterintuitive choices between genres.
Abraham was speaking at BVE in a session arranged by industry charity the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF)
The Ones Below is a British thriller with a very European aesthetic. Producer Nikki Parrott tells Tim Dams about the making of the film
Billed as a dark, modern fairy tale, The Ones Below sees the lives of two couples become fatally intertwined. Both couples, who live in flats in the same London building, are expecting their first child. The pregnancies initially bring the couples together, but everything changes after a tragic accident throws the couples into a nightmare and a reign of psychological terror begins.
The Ones Below is the directorial film debut of David Farr, a Royal Shakespeare Company director and screenwriter of TV dramas The Night Manager and Spooks, and feature hit Hanna.
The project dates back to 2012, when Farr began to develop his first feature for BBC Films and Cuba Pictures, the production arm of his agency Curtis Brown. About that time, Farr approached Tigerlily producer Nikki Parrott, a long-term collaborator, to produce his short film Cool Box.
This short, which is similar in terms of characters and story, became a test run for the feature, helping to reassure backers that Farr could make the transition to film director. “It’s about a woman who ended up putting her child in the fridge. There’s a theme running through this…” jokes Parrott.
Farr then sent Parrott his screenplay for The Ones Below. From the short, she says she knew Farr could direct for the screen and had a strong vision. But once she picked up the screenplay, Parrott says she couldn’t put is down. “It was a real page turner.”
Funding, says Parrott, was relatively easy to secure because of the strength of the script, as well as strong relationships with the BBC (which had recently produced Cuba’s London Road) and the BFI, which had backed another Tigerlilly production Remainder. Protagonist boarded as the sales company, while Icon Films pre-bought UK rights.
Additionally, financiers Head Gear Film cash flowed the tax credit. In total, the budget was £2.2m. “We came in on schedule and under budget,” notes Parrott, who says she was always aware of the need to save extra money for post, just in case.
Farr delivered his script in September 2013, and the film was shot for seven weeks the following September. It was a contained shoot, with six weeks spent on location at a large house in Highbury. Production designer Francesca Di Mottola transformed the house to look like two flats, so the audience could believe that one couple lived above, the other below.
The look of the two flats was all-important, dictated by the contrast between the two different couples. The flat below was designed to look nouveau riche, with strong yellows and blues – slightly inspired by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Upstairs was more cultural and shambolic with a very ‘Farrow and Ball’ look.
In terms of overall look, the reference point was European film rather than British film, adds Parrott, particularly for DoP Ed Rutherford, who lit and shot The Ones Below using an Arri Alexa. Meanwhile, Di Mottola brought ‘a European style’ to the film. “Because she is from Italy, she saw things in a different light and it wasn’t jaded. That is what gives it such a different feel to some other British films.”
Farr’s theatre background is also key in the look. Parrott describes how Farr frames shots as if they were on a stage, paying attention to where characters and objects are placed and the spaces between them.
“There are a lot of tracking shots but the simpler shots were often the best ones,” notes Parrott of the cinematography. Farr concurs: “We’ve used handheld photography in moments where it is really appropriate, where there are moments of terrific anxiety and a desire to get somewhere. Then there are a lot of other scenes that are quite withheld and quite restrained, where the camera is quite wide and we let the space do more of the work. It’s a mixture in that sense...Often in film when you see a big space and then something really tight, it helps create that feeling of anxiety.”
Editor Chris Wyatt, meanwhile, began assembling the film during the shoot, with Farr popping over several times a week to look at scenes. “It was great – Chris could tell us what we needed more of, and David could see how it was going and how the characters were developing.” Parrott calls Wyatt “one of the most amazing editors I have ever worked with”. Evidently, he helped Farr “squeeze and squeeze and squeeze the film like a cloth” until it was wrung like a tight thriller (the run time is an economic 92 mins). Whole scenes were pulled out of the film, including one car chase which served to introduce the audience to the psycho tendencies of the David Morrissey character.
A few test screenings helped inform the tighter final edit too. Says Parrott: “We realised that we didn’t have to tell everyone all the time what is happening – they like to work it out for themselves.” Post was completed at Molinare (“they were great and really supportive”, says Parrott), with the final edit delivered in May 2015. Since then, it has played at the Toronto, London and Berlin film festivals ahead of its UK release this month.
Looking back, Parrott says the toughest time for her as a producer was at the very beginning, in pre-production. It’s then that the film looks all set to happen, but could still fall apart. “The pressure of that is really scary. You have got people working to you – and you have to keep the whole thing going. As a producer, you have to believe – if you don’t, no one else will believe for you.”
The Ones Below is released on March 11
Details Cast Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore, David Morrissey, Laura Birn
Production companies Cuba Pictures in assoc with Tigerlily Films
Writer director David Farr
Producer Nikki Parrott
Exec producers Dixie Linder, Nick Marston, Ben Hall, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke and Nigel Williams
Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier on the making of a very British John le Carre thriller
Danish director Susanne Bier’s films include Dogme 95 feature Open Hearts, After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire and In a Better World, which won her an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. The Night Manager is her first TV drama.
The Night Manager is the first TV adaptation of a John le Carre novel in 20 years, and is an updated version of his 1993 spy story about organized modern crime. It follows a British hotelier (Tom Hiddleston) who is recruited by an an intelligence agent (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of a charismatic arms dealer (Hugh Laurie).
Why have you made the move from film to TV?
There is so much amazing writing in television now, and as a director you want to be where the great writing is. Also, for me to have six hours as opposed to less than two hours is a lot of fun. It means all the minor characters can become really interesting, and so have their own small trajectory.
Which do you find easier – film or TV?
You can’t really say one is easier than other. The Night Manager has been shot the same was as you would shoot a film. You don’t do a first second and third episode. You do everything – one day you will do a scene from episode five, then a scene from episode two. So it is about keeping that overview of the whole thing and making sure that each character at various points fits into where they are set in the story.
How did you come direct The Night Manager?
I told my agent that I was interested in television. Then I got to read the first episode of this. And I loved it. Three days after I read the first episode I was on Skype with Stephen Garrett, the executive producer.
I felt that when I read it, I really got the characters. The series is really a play between how attractive do you want to make this world of evil, personified by Hugh Laurie, and how borderline Tom Hiddleston is going to be. Is he going to venture in and become an agent of evil, as opposed to being the agent of doing the right thing which he sets out to be. I wanted to explore that play between those two worlds.
Did you see it as a character study first?
I do see it as a thriller, but I see it as a thriller with quite compelling and complex characters. Which I think is what John Le Carre does so well. He’s a thriller writer – but the psychology is at all times surprising.
How involved has John Le Carre been?
Very. He has written scenes, and notes. The one thing is that we didn’t want to let him down. We have set it in a different location from the book and at a different time. David Farr also wrote the two last episodes, which are not in the book. We recreated a different version of it but wanted to stay completely true to the core of the book.
Was it challenging to direct such a British project?
I find the texture of the Britishness exciting and compelling. Some years ago there was British director making a Swedish film and I just remember thinking it was one of the most Swedish films I have ever seen. It became a love story to Sweden in a different way to how a Swedish director would have done it. And I do like to think there is a parallel.
You filmed in Morocco, Eygpt, Switzerland, Majorca, London and Devon. How was that?
It was challenging. But the main thing, as a director, is that I want to get the basic story telling right and I want the basic characters to be fascinating. It was a big project, but one of most fun things I have ever done.
What was it like dealing with the BBC and AMC?
Before we started I was a bit concerned. Would it be two major forces, giving contradictory notes. But this particular project seems to be one of those miraculous situations where everyone involved basically wanted the same thing.
Which camera did you use?
A Red. I think it has quite a cinematic look. There is a whole new audience of television viewers who demand a look which is more cinematic, sensuous and more adventurous. Television viewers are used to visuals having a real impact.
What are you proudest of when you view the finished series?
What I am really proud of, and what was the true challenge of this piece, is the fact that you watch the whole thing and you still want to hang out with the worst man in the world. That is sort of the trick of whole thing.
Details Produced by The Ink Factory for BBC1 and AMC Executive producers
Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Garrett, David Farr and Polly Hill Producer Rob Bullock Director Susanne Bier Script David Farr Production designer Tom Burton DoP Mike Snyman Line producer Matthew Patnick Editor Ben Lester Post supervisor Elaine Waugh Colourist Jet Omoshebi Online editor Rob Cooper VFX Blue Bolt Sound recordist Aitor Berenguer Re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff Music Victor Reyes
The Survivalist, Stephen Fingleton's first feature length film, earned a Bafta nomination earlier this month for outstanding debut.
Shot in Northern Ireland, it’s a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a time of starvation, where the Survivalist (Martin McCann) lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in forest protecting his crop and cabin from intruders with his shotgun and improvised traps. But everything changes when a starving woman and her teenage daughter ask to share his secluded shelter.
After its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Indiewire cited cinematographer Damien Elliot’s “patient tracking shots”, “exquisite framing strategies”, and “incredibly textured green-and-brown palettes of the outdoor landscape,” for helping to create the film’s suspense.
Elliott used the Arri Alexa Plus as the main camera for The Survivalist. Many of the film’s scenes are shot in a dark cabin, lit with practical light such as a stove fire and oil lamps.
“I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to use a lot of the lighting tools you’d normally have, so you’re relying more on the camera: you have to use the best, and I feel that’s the Alexa,” says Elliott, who explains that the camera “really allowed us to use some very low light levels.” He adds that in hindsight the new, compact Alexa Mini would have been perfect for the film.
Elliott also used a Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.7k version) for some smaller scenes done in a documentary style, and for some very tight spaces in the cabin set. “The Blackmagic Cinema Camera performed surprisingly well, although I never used it as a B-Camera against the Alexa, that would have been an unfair competition, and would have stood out in the edit.”
Most of the film was shot on two Angenieux Optimo zooms: the 15-40mm and 45-120mm. “I would say that a good half was on the 45-120. After the tests Stephen chose the 45mm focal length as a sort of standard lens, it was a good call. These lenses are so good, really amazing, and with a doubler the longer lens became a 90-240 (obviously there is a stop loss, but we only went that long in daylight so it wasn’t an issue). Having all that range in a compact form was a real benefit....We also had a set of Zeiss SuperSpeeds which we only used on the Blackmagic, and for some flashback scenes, and they worked great – a very different look.“
The edit for the film began on location, where editor Mark Towns and his assistant spent five weeks with their suite set up in a two-berth caravan. Goldcrest carried out the majority of the post in London, but the grade was done in Goldcrest New York by “an amazing colourist” John Dowdell, who Elliott describes as a “legend” in grading and timing.
Asked for his advice on what film-makers should do when planning for a shoot, Elliott’s opinion is straightforward. “It’s just the old adage of test, test, test. The cheapest (and least stressful) place to try anything out is before you go to shoot. We only did one day of camera test in our principal location but it was so valuable, just seeing the main actor in the environment, and seeing how the forest read on camera. It really gave myself and Stephen a sort of head start in visualising certain scenes, angles and focal lengths.”
But he warns against getting too obsessed with technology. “The one thing that can really get in the way of filmmaking is the camera itself. We often get so obsessed with the camera, and sometimes it takes precedence. You have to not let it lead you. You always have to consider it to be just a tool, like all those other tools of the process. Occasionally we wished for a smaller, less intrusive camera, particularly during emotional scenes.”
The Survivalist is in cinemas from Friday 12 February