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Interview: Sally Woodward Gentle, Sid Gentle Film

There’s very little, on the surface, that links naturalist Gerald Durrell, novelist Neil Gaiman and thriller writer Len Deighton. Yet Sid Gentle Films is currently juggling three TV dramas based on stories by these three very different writers.

Sid Gentle was launched in 2013 by Sally Woodward Gentle, the former creative director at Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films, with Lee Morris as md and Henrietta Colvin as head of development.  It is backed by global investment firm The Yucaipa Companies.

A whole host of drama indies have launched since then, looking to take advantage of the demand for long form scripted shows. But Sid Gentle has quickly made strong headway in this competitive landscape.

Its very first drama, The Durrells, was a hit for ITV, which promptly commissioned a second series. It starts shooting in August. This month, Sky Arts launched Likely Stories, a four part adaptation of short stories from Neil Gaiman, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the duo responsible for Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth, with an original score by Jarvis Cocker. And in the autumn, Sid Gentle delivers its BBC1 adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS – GB (below), penned by Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Set in Nazi-occupied London, it’s based on the premise that Germany won the Battle of Britain.



At one point, Sid Gentle – which has six full time staff working from its Fitzrovia office – was filming on all three projects at the same time.

As well as being book adaptations, Woodward Gentle says the three dramas are linked in that Sid Gentle has sought “to be completely true to the material.” The Durrells, for example, is “completely authored by Simon Nye” who adapted all of them. “Filming in Corfu, we were in a little bubble – there was no sense we had to do this for an ITV audience. It was about doing it because the material demanded it.”



Sid Gentle made one key change to the book, shifting the focus from Gerald Durrell onto his mother. “Then you have got almost the perfect construct – a woman with four unruly children. They have all got their own individual problems, they bicker like any other family, but deep down they love each other. Then you have stunning Corfu, animals and Simon Nye’s beautiful writing – it sort of works.”

The adaptation of four Neil Gaiman short stories couldn’t be more different. In this era of box set dramas, each is self contained and runs to 22 minutes. But, says Woodward Gentle, they are linked by common themes – human consumption, destructive obsession and psychological cannibalism.



Woodward Gentle was introduced to Gaiman’s short stories by his agent, Mel Kenyon. “I sat and read about 40 – they are extraordinary.” The choice of a single directing team was important too, meaning that Forsyth and Pollard “could realise them as something that has a completeness.” Forsyth and Pollard’s background is as artists, with their work exhibiting at the Tate Gallery and ICA. “They have an amazing aesthetic and incredible attention to detail.”

SS – GB, meanwhile, is still in post. Deighton’s thriller, says Woodward Gentle, is cerebral rather than a big action series. “It is another authored piece – we have one director Philipp Kadelback doing all five hours.” Kadelback is German. “Again we are working with a director who is not really within the British system,” says Woodward Gentle, emphasising how Sid Gentle’s dramas are helmed by slightly left-field choices (The Durrells was directed by Steve Barron, who made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

Woodward Gentle clearly enjoys the freedom that running her own indie entails. She likens it to the early days of Kudos, where she used to work. “You are a tiny little team, you develop stuff you love and think you can sell and you make it to the best of your abilities. Because we are not owned by a distributor and our backers are incredibly in the background, we can do what we believe in.” Likely Stories ‘frankly isn’t going to do anything to our bottom line’. But, she highlights that it has meant working with Gaiman, Forsyth, Pollard and Cocker. “We want to build a reputation for working with really interesting people.”

Looking ahead, Woodward Gentle acknowledges that high broadcaster demand for drama “doesn’t seem to be tapering off at all.” The likes of Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and BBC America have expanded the client base for drama indies. But this, she adds, has led to greater competition. “Lots of people out there are making things and everybody is setting up an indie.” The price of book rights has also gone up, she says. “New contemporary books are really hard to pick up because the competition is massive.” And there is a lot of competition for the best writers.

As for trends, she says TV drama is notoriously cyclical. “There is a complete over development of period material and so there is now a big need for contemporary material.”

CV
Sally Woodward Gentle launched Sid Gentle Films in September 2013.

She was previously creative director of Carnival Films, executive producing Whitechapel, Any Human Heart and Enid.

Before Carnival, she was the creative director for BBC Drama Production. At the BBC she worked on Tipping the Velvet, Cambridge Spies, Waking the Dead, the first series of the new Dr Who, and The House of Saddam.

Woodward Gentle was formerly managing director of Kudos, executive producing Psychos and overseeing the development of Spooks.



Posted 30 June 2016 by Tim Dams

UK's creative industries are better off in Europe

As voters head to the polls in the referendum, it’s worth reflecting on what a Remain or Leave vote might mean for the UK’s creative industries.

The creative industries have been one of the great success stories of the UK economy in recent years.

Take the studios sector, for example, which has boomed thanks to the growth in big budget international dramas and films shot in the UK.

Studios here have hosted a raft of films and TV shows such as Warner Bros’ upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Netflix’s The Crown or HBO's Game of Thrones, reflecting how the UK has become one of the pre-eminent global production hubs. The picture above, for example, is of Tom Cruise filming The Edge of Tomorrow on the backlot at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios.

International talent and finance has flowed into the UK, coursing through the extensive supply chain that supports production – whether Soho vfx houses or Belfast studios.

Figures show that the UK’s creative economy is growing much faster than its European neighbours. Employment in the UK’s creative industries has risen three times faster than in the EU as a whole, according to Nesta. The UK accounts for 14% of the total EU workforce, but 21% of all creative industry jobs. Clearly, the EU is doing very little to hold back the UK creativity.

In fact, having access to a single market of over 500m people has been a boon. The EU is the largest export market for the UK’s creative industries, totalling 56% of all overseas trade in the sector, according to the Creative Industries Federation. Pact figures, meanwhile, show that Europe accounts for 31% of UK television exports, just behind the lucrative North American market.

Creative industry executives say it is vital that the UK stays in the EU so it can influence regulatory decisions which may have a bearing on future trading. Others point out that EU funding has supported films like The King’s Speech or development organisations like Screen Yorkshire.

Most importantly, though, the UK’s status as a creative hub is enhanced hugely by the free movement of talent, capital and cultural exchange within the EU. The UK is by far the biggest recipient of foreign investment in the EU. We are a bridge to Europe for Hollywood studios, many of whom base their HQs and their biggest films here.

A vote to leave would be unlikely to change all this overnight. But EU markets would likely become harder to access, which would gradually have an impact on the UK creative sector, harming its current status.

Creative hubs are fragile constructions, and there are many competitors looking to steal the UK’s crown. Why put it all at risk on the 23 June?

Posted 22 June 2016 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: IMAX's A Beautiful Planet

IMAX has been taking cinemagoers into space since 1990, with immersive and technically complex films such as Space Station 3D and Hubble 3D. Its latest, A Beautiful Planet 3D, features footage of Earth from space – all shot by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A Beautiful Planet is notable not just for its stunning representation of our world and the effects that humanity has had on it over time. It also marks a new departure for IMAX in how it makes films in space.
For the first time on an IMAX space production, the filmmakers chose to use digital cameras rather than film. The decision was made partly out of necessity as the space trucks used to transport bulky IMAX cameras and film negative had been taken out of service.

So, when work on the film first began in 2012, one of the first jobs was to test and select the right cameras to send into space. DoP James Neihouse says he drew up a shortlist of top digital cameras that he thought might be suitable: the Canon C300, Red Epic, Arri Alexa M and the Sony F65 and put them up against the IMAX film cameras, shooting the same scenes to test their capabilities. He liked the Arri, but it ‘fell off’ the list because it was a 2K camera. The Sony F65 was also dropped, in part because he thought it would be difficult for astronauts to operate.



Neihouse later added Canon’s just launched C500 into the mix. “The uncompressed 4K coming out of the C500 was definitely the clear, hands down winner compared to the 5K uncompressed coming out of the Red,” he says. The C500 was selected, alongside the Canon EOS 1D-C digital SLR cameras, and Canon Cinema Zoom and Prime lenses.

To capture 4K images, the filmmakers paired the C500 with Codex Onboard S Plus Recorders, which hold half a terabyte of data – allowing 30 minutes of recording time on a data pack the size of an iPhone.

This was a vast improvement on previous IMAX space productions. One film reel might weigh 10 pounds and had three minutes of record time. “The most we ever had was eight rolls in a shuttle mission,” says director Toni Myers. “There was no take two with film; the astronauts really had to get it right first time.”


Neihouse and Myers spent about 25 hours over the course of nine months to a year training each astronaut how to use the kit at the Johnson Flight Centre in Houston. The astronauts were quick to master the particular filmmaking techniques needed for IMAX and 3D, particularly around framing, composition and shot length. Says Myers: “They are astronauts! They are very talented and work it out for themselves.”

The longer recording capabilities of the digital cameras meant that the pressure was off astronauts to deliver ‘performances’ needed in the time-limited days of film. The old IMAX film cameras were also incredibly noisy, and distracting to astronauts. “They sounded like a lawnmower,” says Myers.

The digital footage, adds Neihouse, is a lot more natural and relaxed – like a fly on the wall documentary. “It gives you a better look into what life is like on the Space Station,” he says. The better light sensitivity of the digital cameras also allowed the crew to capture nighttime scenes that were hard to shoot on film. “It totally opened up that night world to us, with stars, cities at night, lightning and other phenomena you see at night like Aurora,” says Myers.







Before the launch, Myers and Neihouse provided the astronauts with a shot list of 100 to 150 targets, and they were also given the freedom to shoot what they saw. They could downlink footage to Earth via the Space Station’s satellite communications system, allowing Myers and Neihouse to review it – and provide direction. Says Myers: “I could then do a PowerPoint and take screen grabs, put arrows all over it, and say, ‘Don’t do this, do that,’ and send it back to them.” One common mistake that needed ironing out was the tendency of the astronauts to shoot their images upright, as if on Earth, and not to take advantage of zero gravity – which viewers want to experience for themselves on screen.

The cameras spent some 15 months on board the ISS. The astronauts had a busy schedule of experiments and maintenance to carry out, so the majority of footage and still photography was shot during their personal time on nights and weekends. In total, they captured 250,000 still photos and between 10 and 12 terabytes of footage.

This was digitally remastered for IMAX screens, where A Beautiful Planet should play for many years to come, says Neihouse. “The reason IMAX films stay around so long in theatres is people go back and they see new things in the frame…I saw A Beautiful Planet about fifteen times before I realized there were two orange space-alien stuffed toys in one scene.”

Details
Presented in IMAX 3D, A Beautiful Planet was filmed by astronauts on the International Space Station, and depicts the impact humans have had on Earth over time - from the bright lights of big cities to the deforestation of Madagascar and the oil and gas flares in the Gulf of New Mexico. “I wanted to reach a new generation of school kids with an appreciation of how complex, beautiful and fragile the planet really is,” says producer and director Toni Myers.

Producer, director, editor and writer
Toni Myers
DoP and astronaut trainer
James Neihouse
Executive producer
Graeme Ferguson
Co-producer
Judy Carroll
Space operations consultant
Marsha Ivins
Music
Micky Erbe
Sound design
Peter Thillaye
Cameras
Canon C500, Canon EOS 1D-C
Lenses
Canon Cinema Zoom and Primes
Media recorders
Codex Onboard S Plus

A Beautiful Planet is in IMAX cinemas now

Posted 21 June 2016 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Swim the Channel

A health scare prompted Steph Keelan to realise a long-delayed ambition of making a documentary. Directed and produced with Emma Harpin, Swim the Channel was entirely self funded - and has just been picked up by BBC4.

Here Keelan (pictured left), who is the director of hire and crewing firm S+O Media, explains how she and Harpin (right) made the film.

Tell us about Swim the Channel?
It’s about the swimmers and volunteers found along the Kent coastline from May to September working together to attempt their dream of swimming the English Channel. It’s about what pushes ordinary people to exceed their limits. Everyone on that coast is searching for something within. There’s an appeal to that. More people have climbed Everest than have swum from England and France.

Where did the idea come from?
I was training in Morocco on my fortieth birthday for the London Marathon (a mid life crisis). Mike Oram, the pilot in the film, was staying in the same hotel. He gave me a grilling every morning about my training methods, and how I was putting physical fitness above mental strength. We got talking and I couldn’t shake the visual image of him navigating the swimmers to France barking their truth at them along the way. The line he said that hooked me was, ‘It’s as hard for me as it is for the swimmer but I do it with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich’. When running the marathon the only voice in my head was Mike’s and I nailed it!   He tells it how it is - spending a season filming a community of Oram’s suddenly became appealing.

Why did you self fund?
I had always wanted to work in documentaries but with two children and a cameraman husband it didn’t seem a feasible work/life balance. So I worked at facilitating the TV gold of others until a health scare prompted me to get off my arse and make the film I’d always wanted to. Emma is a photographer, fellow mother and friend who was keen to share the journey with us and so off we went.

What was the budget?
There was no budget plan. We knew we had to immerse ourselves into the swimming community to gain their trust so we had to film every weekend and at every swimming event. As a result the costs spiralled but the access was priceless. We were incredibly lucky to have S+O’s shelves of kit and amazing crew who gave their time and talent so generously. Envy Post were also amazing; they got behind the project and supported us seeing the film through to the finish.



Damon Albarn contributed the music. How did he get involved?
Emma had been a friend of Damon and his partner Suzi for fifteen years. Emma got talking to Damon about the film and he offered his musical services. Still can’t quite believe it really. He worked alongside Suzi Winstanley and Michael Smith. We can’t thank them enough for their time and creative input.

What kit did you use?
We used the Canon C300. Olly Wiggins, the DoP, wanted to create a strong cinematic look so we shot primarily with a fixed 35mm lens. The camera was light, robust, and shot in C Log, the footage graded beautifully.

Coming from a hire background, what did you learn about reality of producing and directing?
I had a background in production prior to setting up S+O with Olly and I love my job. But it was great to reconnect to a story from start to finish. As a TV facilities house we are very aware that every day we shoot is the culmination of months of hard work and prep for our clients. It was nice not to hand the baby back for a change! The edit was an incredible experience, we worked with Alex Fry and the process was dynamic and frustrating in equal measure - a form of alchemy.



Greatest challenge of making the film?
Resources, juggling childcare and the day job, and up to twenty hours at a time without sleep on a boat. Luckily most filming was at weekends but it did escalate to seven day weeks pretty quickly.

What do you wish you’d known when you started out - and what did you learn along the way?
We learned that syncing sound is everything! And never stop the flow of what is happening in front of camera as you can forgive the odd sound glitch or camera wobble but you can never recreate what happens before your eyes.  

Tips for somebody wanting to self fund their own film?
Make sure you are clear from the onset of what you’re trying to achieve to avoid costly mistakes, and where possible shoot a taster and get funding to test the idea works. Be fiercely passionate about your subject as there will be challenges along the way that will break you. Without a true love for the story you’re trying to tell you’re going to suffer.

How did you sell it to BBC4?
We contacted Storyville and they were gracious enough to watch it and offer us a slot with BBC4. We’re delighted and can’t wait for TX.

Swim the Channel airs soon on BBC4


Posted 09 June 2016 by Tim Dams

From Aardman to Working Title: the UK's top film producers

Want to know who are the top 40 film producers in the UK? Or the leading directors of photography?

Then have a look at The Film 40, Televisual’s comprehensive report on the UK film industry which is now available to read in full – and for free – in our reports and surveys section.



First published in the magazine in May, the Film 40 lists and profiles the UK’s most influential film producers. From Aardman through to Working Title, they are producers with a track record of creative and financial success in the film industry.



The report also showcases the leading film studios, such as Pinewood and Warner Bros Leavesden, which are hosting increasing numbers of big budget Hollywood shoots. 



There’s also a ranking of the UK’s top ten directors of photography, as well as an overview of Soho’s busy film vfx sector.

Tim Dams, Editor

Posted 07 June 2016 by Tim Dams

Interview: Anthony Horowitz on New Blood

A prolific writer with credits including Stormbreaker and Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz tells Tim Dams about his latest New Blood

New Blood is your first BBC drama – how did it come about? I have been an ITV writer for a very, very long time. About 80% of my work has been for ITV. But I began conversations with [former BBC head of drama] Ben Stephenson and mentioned to him that I had a new crime format. He was very interested, particularly as he was looking for material that would play younger, for an audience in their twenties and thirties. I sent Ben the first script on Monday for New Blood, and by Friday he had commissioned it.

Why didn’t you take it to ITV? For a long time I have argued that the three breaks in an hour of ITV drama makes it extremely difficult for a writer to maintain any degree of emotional honesty. Or just to keep the narrative rolling. I have long wanted the purity of the BBC1 hour.

What spurred you to write New Blood? My interest is what it is like to be 20 - 25 years old in London. And that is what gives this show its freshness. The leads are not those slow middle-aged problem-carrying detectives you see so often on TV. They get drunk, they bicycle everywhere, they are always asking for a pay rise, they cling to their jobs by their fingernails. The show has got that smile to it, which I think has been missing from British television.

So it’s not a dark, grungy show? I am slightly wary of more battered women, more chopped up women, more kidnapped children – all that stuff. I want something that makes me smile but which has the same danger, and the same excitement.

What kind of shows would you compare it to? People have talked about Spooks, Starsky and Hutch. I often mention Lethal Weapon because that gives you an idea of the bromance at the heart of it, and the banter and the fun – in a dangerous and quite violent world. The action is a little heightened. At the end of episode three, the two boys are chased through a London hotel by two chamber maids with AK-47 machine guns. They get to the roof and realise the only way out is to jump off the roof down into the swimming pool below.

Tell us about the casting? It’s brave of the BBC to launch a major 9pm show with two unknowns who are carrying the whole thing on their shoulders.
I wanted the boys to be outsiders. I didn’t want them to be British – Anglo-Saxon white British. That puts them into too much of a mould: what school they went too, what class their parents were. So I thought I would go Eastern European and Iranian.

And it’s in London?  We shot a lot in East London. London is very much a third character. The London you see is cosmopolitan and multinational. It is very now – London with all its energy.

What’s the climate like for TV writers now? The atmosphere has changed while I have been a writer. It is now a fantastic time to be a TV writer. If I asked someone in the street five years ago to name half a dozen TV writers, they wouldn’t be able to name one. But now names like Sally Wainwright, Jed Mercurio or Vince Gilligan are household names because television has become authored.
Television has become what literature was 20 years ago – it’s a hotbed of new ideas and people trying to do original things rather than making tired formats. Now you can watch shows like Breaking Bad, The Good Wife or The Night Manager. 20 years ago it wasn’t like that – TV has come of age.
 
You’ve written over 40 novels as well as plays and TV screenplays. How do you fit it all in?  It boils down to no social life! That’s not true entirely. But I love writing – I adore storytelling – I love the whole business. I work very, very long hours. So does Jill. Sometimes we will sit together in our Clerkenwell home and it will be 11.30 on a Friday night and we are both at our desks doing stuff.. I think being married to the producer creates an environment where work comes  first. It always does. My children know this as well. Work comes first – that is the rule in the family.

Which medium do you enjoy most – plays, TV or novels?  Probably TV – I love the collaboration, the excitement, the speed. I love the fact that a TV page has got fewer words on it than a page of a novel. There’s more white space, so less to do! What excites me is that Ben and Mark are going to be stars in six months time. And they are so nice, and they have been such fun to work with. You don’t get that with a book.

DETAILS
Newcomers Mark Strepan (The Mill) and Ben Tavassoli (No Offence) star in Horowitz’s new BBC1 investigative drama, New Blood.

The 7x60-series is produced by Eleventh Hour Films (Safe House, Foyle’s War, Vexed), which is run by Horowitz’s wife Jill Green.

Directed by Anthony Philipson (Cuffs, Our Girl) New Blood portrays modern London through the eyes of two outsiders – one Polish/British and the other Iranian/British.

Strepan and Tavassoli play the roles of junior investigators working at the Serious Fraud Office and the police. Brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases, they come up against the uber rich and powerful – corporations, individuals, governments and the new breed of criminals who hide behind legitimate facades and are guarded by lawyers.

The series producer is Eve Gutierrez.

New Blood is available on the iPlayer now and airs on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday 9th June

Posted 03 June 2016 by Tim Dams

The art of: exec producing Britain's Got Talent

Britain's Got Talent executive producer Amelia Brown on the art of producing ITV's Britain's Got Talent.

"We start with casting.
The casting team are key and each year the team gets bigger. Casting gets harder and harder.
 
The key thing you don’t want to lose from BGT is undiscovered talent – and undiscovered talent is hard to find. In the earlier series, people turned up for television shows in their masses and queued up. Now, people still want to audition but they just need a little bit more encouragement.
 
We go to them more these days. We used to do a few days of producers’ auditions in Manchester and London, but we now have lots of smaller days in smaller towns.
 
It becomes a bit of a numbers game to ensure you have enough great auditions. We will see about 300 acts during the judges’ auditions, but only a proportion of those will make it to air.
 
A love of the show is the key skillset and personality trait that I look for in everybody who works on BGT.
It sounds simple, but you would be amazed at how many people come in for interview and haven’t watched the show. It drives me bonkers.
 
We try to bring staff up through the ranks. People quickly become very highly qualified on BGT. You pre-record, you film live, you do live shows, you do the edit – so it sort of ticks every telly box in one show. So you then want to nurture the staff and want them to stay – they become very key to the show in the following years.
 
About 250-300 people work on the show if you count everybody from myself to researchers, lighting, rigging, editors, and producers. There’s about 30 in the key editorial team, and 30 in the edit.
 
The biggest challenge during filming is that all the acts have different requirements. A magic act may have fire or want to hang from the rafters, whereas a dog needs to have licences and may not like the lights, and then you have a kids’ choir who come with all the licensing requirements you have with children. Each act has its own set of rules. There is a researcher role called the fixer and that is exactly what they will do all day.
 
The audition shows take place over 10 or 11 days. We are there from about 4pm for the matinee performance and then there’s an evening performance. There are two different audiences.
 
My motto, which drives everyone mad, is I want options when it comes to the edit. The team film from 8-9am until midnight. We tend to film everything that moves at all times. There is definitely a few thousand hours of footage to get through.
 
The edit begins as we start filming. We have a marvellous system called the Montage Project and a whole edit system now where we pull together everything and organise it.
 
It is all about labelling. You have to be quite thorough and anal about labelling. Every contestant will have a list of every checkpoint that gets filmed – their arrival, their audition, their interview, their secondary interview, their leaving shot. And all that needs to go into a bin and needs to get organised. That is your starting block. If it is not organised straight out of the blocks, then you have got a problem.
 
We grade the acts we like most as we go along. So we will give everyone a grade from A to C. I write notes on what I like about them, and what I don’t like about them. Those notes and the series producer’s notes get used in the edit.
 
We then rough cut the stories, and from that decide who we want to go in which show and then start posting the shows together in the edit.
 
The edit is my favourite bit.
It is where it comes to life. I think we have got the best editors in the business.
 
Organisation is key. Then it becomes about the producers; I bang on about this a lot but they need to watch everything. It’s difficult because we film so much. But woe betide if we get to a point and I ask a question about whether something is there - and they don’t know the answer. Because for me the devil is in the detail - you will find bits of reality that we filmed with a contestant where they are far more relaxed chatting to their mum that will show their personality much more than an interview question with a producer. All those little pieces are the gems now, and is how the edit has changed over the past six years. Those bits can make or break a story.
 
This show is run by WhatsApp. It is a great way for monitoring stories. We set up all the producers, the series producers and myself on a WhatsApp group. It helps us to keep up with changes, and means that everyone has got the information at the same time and knows what is happening. If something happens at the judging desk - say Simon is in bad mood or Alesha has said no to a load of kids - that is something we need to pick up on so it will go on the WhatsApp group.
 
You have to have a love of people and a love of storytelling. It sounds a bit vague, but if you don’t have those two things then you are on the wrong show.
 
Your management skills need to be good. The team is massive. Everyone works very long hours, they are on their feet a lot and they spend a lot of time together because we’re away. So keeping the team happy is key.
 
It is a massive show but you don’t want any member of the team to feel like they are just a cog in a machine. Everyone needs to know that their role is important, because if someone doesn’t do well in their jobs then everything does fall in like a house of cards.
 
The thing that keeps me awake at night is worrying that we don’t find new talent, thankfully 10 years in that hasn’t happened so far."

This interview is taken from an April 2016 Televisual feature on the art of producing entertainment TV shows.
 
 
 


Posted 12 May 2016 by Tim Dams

Shooting John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

The latest in a line of stylish John le Carre thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, Our Kind of Traitor stands out for a number of reasons.

It’s not just that the big themes of the story – about international money laundering and the impact of Russian money on British society – are particularly resonant in light of the Panama Papers revelations.

It’s also that, unusually for a Le Carre story, the adaptation plays like a road movie. One thinks of Le Carre in terms of dark interiors and alleyways and old fashioned Britain. But Our Kind of Traitor is based very much in the contemporary world, and saw the production team constantly on the go during the 10 week shoot, filming in Finland, the UK, Paris, the French Alps, Bern and Marrakech.

This was a key challenge for Gail Egan of Potboiler Productions, who produced the film with Le Carre’s sons, Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell of The Ink Factory. Potboiler enjoys a long-standing relationship with Le Carre, having previously produced The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man.



Scriptwriter Hossein Amini boarded the project before the book was even published in 2010, working closely with Le Carre on the first couple of drafts. “His books are tricky adaptations. They deal with complex subjects and have lots of characters, all of them with journeys of their own,” says Egan, who secured backing from Film4 and StudioCanal for the film.

From the outset, Egan says the overriding ambition of the production team was to be true to the essence of the book so it appeals to Le Carre core fans, while doing so in an entertaining way.

Susanna White was hired as director for Our Kind of Traitor, impressing Egan and her partners for the different genres she has previously tackled on screen – from Generation Kill to Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang to Parade’s End.



White says she ‘campaigned’ to get the job after reading the script. “It just works as a strong thriller in quite an un-Le Carre way – in some ways it is more of a Hitchcockian thriller than a traditional Le Carre.”

She was also drawn by the emotional core of the story – a tale of a modern marriage between Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris’ characters, and how McGregor is won over by the magnetism of Russian mafia insider Dima (Stellan Skarsgard). “For me as a director, it flexes lots of muscles because I had done action and cgi in Generation Kill, but what I love about Le Carre is the depth of characterisation.”

White emphasises two key challenges in making the film: its technical complexity and the need to achieve emotional depth while making sure the complex plot was told at pace.



Both of these were exacerbated by the fact that the crew was always on the move, even shooting scenes while they were moving from location to location. “We got on the Eurostar to Paris, and packed our bags in one carriage and were shooting a scene in another carriage for real. There the pressure on me as director  is not to let on to the actors how stressed I am – to make them feel calm and that they have all the time in the world to achieve their ideal performance.”

The look of the film was particularly important to White, who says she fought to get as many dramatic locations into the movie as she could. For example, it was initially mooted to film a key Russian exterior using snow effects in Windsor. “It was crucial to me that we opened the movie with these big Russian landscapes…to give that sense of scale. I didn’t give up until we were allowed to shoot for two days in Finland for that.” Many scenes are also shot from the air to compound the sense of scale and movement.



Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was also a key part of the production team, helping to create the rich visual world of the film. Dod Mantle, whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, worked with multiple, sometimes hidden cameras to capture the fast-moving, cosmopolitan world of Our Kind of Traitor.

“An awful lot of this film is moving,” he says. “I had to structure and package my equipment and to minimalise the stuff I use, including the lenses, because we had to move so often so fast, so quickly and in such small spaces.” His kit list included the Alexa XT and Canon C500 (see opposite for full kit).

Post production, acknowledges White, took “quite a long time” – some ten months in all, and also involved a number of pick ups. “Thrillers are very hard to do – you just have to keep it moving and can’t let people question things too long. It was all about finding the right balance between giving depth to the characters and keeping Le Carre’s complex plot moving forward.”

Our Kind of Traitor is released on May 13

Details
Based on the John Le Carre book, Our Kind of Traitor is the story of an English couple who befriend a charismatic Russian, who unknown to them is a key money launderer for the Russian mafia. When he asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, they get caught in a dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics.

Director Susanna White
Script Hossein Amini
Producers Gail Egan, Stephen Cornwell and Simon Cornwell
Co-producer Jane Frazer
Production designer Sarah Greenwood
DoP Anthony Dod Mantle
Cameras and lenses Alexa XT with Leica Summichrom C lenses; Canon C500 with Leica Summichrom C lenses; and Canon K35 vintage primes; Indiecam 2K with C mount lenses; Phantom Highspeed with Canon K35 mm vintage primes.
Editors Tariq Anwar, Lucia Zucchetti
Grading Goldcrest
Sound Halo
Vfx One of Us
Cast Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, 
Naomie Harris


Posted 11 May 2016 by Tim Dams
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