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Spooks: from small screen series into big screen event

Spooks: The Greater Good director Bharat Nalluri explains what it takes to turn a long running TV show into a theatrical movie. Jon Creamer reports

Bharat Nalluri was the lead director on Spooks the TV series way back in 2002 and then returned to direct the final episodes of the show in 2011. He then directed the final instalment of the Spooks world, with the theatrical movie out this month.

Why has the movie not happened before?
Every few years we would talk about turning it into a movie. But they wanted it to run as a TV show and no one had the time. Then there was the question of how we would distinguish between the TV show and the movie. I came back to the show right at the end of the final season and shot the last episode. Literally in the car park as we were leaving I said to [Kudos boss] Jane Featherstone ‘there’s always been a movie in this and we should kick start that again.’ We got in a room and started knocking out ideas and it moved fast from there.

Was the development process long?
The world was changing rapidly between 2011 and 2013. The world moved so fast it overtook our scripts. We were keen to capture the zeitgeist that the TV show did at its best.

How do you make it work for both fans of the show and new viewers?
It’s a really fine tightrope to walk: how do you not disenfranchise two sets of people. I genuinely think we’ve cracked it having played it to both audiences. There’s enough stuff in there for the fans to grip into. We also made it in such a way that if you’ve never seen it before it’s not going to ruin your enjoyment.

How do you take a TV series to a movie level?
We always talked in movie terms from the outset on the TV series. I felt the episodes were all little movies – 50 minute thrillers. When I came to Spooks I’d come out of making films and this was my first television, so I’d come with that aesthetic. But on a basic level we went abroad. We always talk about it on the TV show but never quite did it, maybe once. On this we went to Russia and Germany and we told back-stories in a different way. What was great was being able to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. In the TV series you’re leaving threads open across the season.

How does production process change?
The scale is a whole different beast. For an hour of TV we’re shooting 12 days. This was eight weeks – we’re shooting in Berlin and creating Russia. You do an action set piece in half a day on the TV show if you’re lucky. Here you’re spending a week on it. It allows you to spend more time working the drama and working with actors.

London is a big part of the film?
London has always been a huge background to the show and when you’ve suddenly got two months to shoot it and you’ve got movie budgets you can get into places you’ve never been able to get to. As I started this movie my whole family moved to Washington DC so it was a love letter for London and all my favourite places. It was 20 years of locations I’ve wanted to shoot and I managed to splurge them all out in one go.

With so many spy thrillers out there, is it hard to find your own grammar?
In reality we’re a kind of a mutt. When I started doing the show I’d just come back from doing very glossy, sexy studio movies in the US. I came back thinking I’m going to make the show really gritty and dirty and grainy – almost black and white. Then I watched a lot of British television and that’s what it all was, gritty and grainy and real. So I thought let’s make it as cinematic as we can. We shot with three cameras, 5.1 surround sound, we gave it all the texture of a movie. The reason I chose the river as central location is that it was the one place I could find wide landscapes. We upped the editing tempo so there were 650 cuts to the hour instead of the usual 200. We shot 70 pages of script instead of the standard 56 so it felt like it had this forward propulsion. I told the actors never to let up. There was no moment where you sat down and explained it all safely for the audience.

Do you stick to a very solid plan on set?
No, I always find if I plan and make shot lists and storyboards everyone hooks into them and you can’t take advantage of something that’s happening around you. Being super flexible on set usually leads to really interesting stuff. Plus it allows the actors to be flexible. I would never have done that 20 years ago but I haven’t done a shot list for years and years now. The great thing with actors is if you have their confidence, they’ll let you do anything. What you don’t realise as a young director is you can go to them and say ‘this scene’s not working, why is it not working?’ In the early days you’d be terrified they’d see the whites of your eyes and go for your throat but if you do it with confidence it’s a fantastic place to be.

Posted 13 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Direct Action: Toby Haynes on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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

Posted 13 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Election time for TV and film

The licence fee takes centre stage in the manifestos, but other policies will be just as crucial for the creative industries.

The political party’s proposals for the creative industries have not been a particularly major part of the general election campaign.

After all, plans for the film and TV business aren’t a classic vote winner, or particularly a vote loser when it comes to the public at large.

But there are some important points of difference between the parties for the film and TV industry. And there are dangers, and opportunities, for the creative industries whichever flavour of government eventually takes power.

Licence to kill?
Most of the parties’ manifesto commitments are vague but generally surround the very British political obsession with the BBC, its governance and its funding.

The Conservatives have a philosophical dislike of the licence fee, but that’s always offset by a voting public which, while it doesn’t like paying fee, has warm and fuzzy feelings for the BBC brand.

So the manifesto pledge this time from the Tories is that the licence fee will be frozen, at least until Charter renewal, but not frozen out. The Conservatives also want to top slice the BBC’s income to pay for the roll out of super fast broadband continuing the top slicing they began in 2010 to pay for the World Service and Jeremy Hunt’s Local TV experiment.

And it’s the Tory’s antipathy to the licence fee that could be the biggest challenge for the TV sector. Whether a BBC staffer or an independent producer, it’s the BBC’s spending power for new programmes that stimulates the unique commissioning ecology of the UK and is a big part of what has allowed the growth of independent TV businesses and their success internationally.

Indie trade body Pact, while often at odds with the BBC when it comes to issues of in-house versus indie production guarantees and rights retention, sees the preservation of the licence fee as a big concern. “The licence fee tied to inflation at the next settlement with no top-slicing for non-TV use,” will be crucial, says chief exec John McVay.

The Labour Party’s manifesto is somewhat vague on the issue, stating that the BBC “makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life, and we will ensure that it continues to do so while delivering value for money.” A comment that suggests support for the funding model, but says little about what level the licence fee should be set at. The Liberal Democrats state that they want a licence fee that “does not rise faster than inflation,” leaving a glimmer of hope that the fee could at least rise with inflation if they have any say in it.

The SNP has plenty to say about the BBC, pushing for responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland to move from Westminster to Edinburgh. It’s also after a greater share of the licence fee to be transferred to BBC Scotland and it wants a bigger say in Charter Renewal and BBC governance for the Scottish government.

And it’s the BBC’s governance that concerns the other parties too, and its rivals. Commercial broadcaster trade body Coba’s executive director Adam Minns says: “it’s in the long term interests of the BBC that there is robust and transparent oversight that is independent and beyond reproach. If that is a dedicated body, then it needs greater independence, greater powers and possibly greater resources than the current model.” That will be up for grabs when the next government comes in.

Four sale?
Channel 4 crops up in the manifestos too with pledges from both Labour and the Lib Dems to halt any sell off of the publicly owned broadcaster. There’s nothing on the issue from the Conservatives in their manifesto, but plans for a sale were drawn up by the Conservatives in 2014 (but blocked by Business Secretary Vince Cable). A Conservative government without a Liberal Democrat partner to block it would mean a sell off could be tempting as the broadcaster could be expected to bag an estimated £1bn plus for the Treasury.

What a relief
But while the Conservative led coalition has posed threats to television with its licence fee antipathy, many of its moves in the creative industries have been undoubtedly helpful.

Firstly, the coalition government listened to the tax credit campaign from the animation industry and responded admirably. Tax credits for animation production have transformed the UK industry, turning it from a business that seemed to be slowly dying away as production and rights drifted to territories with more favourable tax regimes, into an industry with a bright future. Animation production spend rose from £46m in 2011 to £51.7m in the first year of the tax credit, 2013-14 – a rise of 11%.

High-end drama, a genre that was similarly losing out to foreign competitors as productions headed abroad to take advantage of financial incentives, was given a similar boost, as was film tax relief. Televisual’s Film 40 report in this issue gives some indication of the transformation of the industry as US and international productions increasingly bring their big budget shoots to a newly enlivened UK.

Specifically, tax incentives for film, high-end TV shows and children’s TV have all been given a boost in the pre election budget. Film tax relief has been increased to 25% on all qualifying expenditure. Previously the 25% rate applied for the first £20m of qualifying expenditure and then 20% afterwards. Now the 25% rate applies across the board.

The same budget also brought in changes to high-end television tax relief. The minimum UK expenditure requirement changed from 25% to 10% and the cultural test for television will be revised to reflect previous changes to Film tax relief. The changes have been brought in to allow projects shooting outside the UK to bring just their VFX, post and secondary shoot work to the UK.

The tax relief on live action children’s television production has begun too and will mirror that for animation with the relief available at a rate of 25% on qualifying production expenditure. Live action kids TV has other challenges to face, but the new rules will give some welcome respite.

What the manifestos say

Promise to freeze the licence fee at least until Charter Renewal and have plans for more ’top slicing’ to pay for super fast broadband.

Will ensure the BBC “continues to make a vital contribution to the richness of UK cultural life while delivering value for money.” Also pledges not to privatise C4.

Liberal Democrats
Will not let licence fee rise higher than inflation, and pledge to keep C4 in public ownership. Will maintain funding to BBC World Service and Welsh language broadcasters.

Want responsibility for Scottish broadcasting to devolve to Holyrood. Want more of the licence fee for BBC Scotland

Want to reduce the licence fee substantially and stop it being a criminal offence not to pay.

Will get rid of the licence fee and fund the BBC through direct taxation.

Posted 06 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Paul Abbott on No Offence and writing as a team

Writer Paul Abbott tells Jon Creamer about finding the tone for No Offence and the right way to make writers work together

With credits under his belt like Shameless, State of Play, Clocking Off and Touching Evil, you wouldn’t expect Paul Abbott to get ‘stuck’.

But his latest drama series, the dark and funny No Offence that centres on a group of CID officers in Manchester, proved to be a tough one to birth.

The idea was solid, says Abbott. “I wanted to write a jet black comedy cop show” but the trouble was getting the tone right: “That’s taken ten years,” he says. The difficulty was finding a way between comedy and drama that wasn’t “comedy drama.”

His initial drafts “came out like garbage. It was too fat and it was too vulgar. It was like fly trap paper. You just got stuck in policing stuff or stuck in a comedy riff.” And even when he started working on it with a team of writers “the comedy thing got in the way. We were getting cop lines then gags, cop lines then gags. Even up to draft three or four. These things have to come together.”

It wasn’t that the comedy wasn’t working in itself, he says. “They’d be brilliant gags that we all laughed at and said we can’t wait to make this. Then a week later we’re all saying ‘it doesn’t actually say anything. The gags are just there to inform the audience that it’s a comedy.’”

Getting it right “took ages, we cut it to absolute ribbons” and, he says, the team found that as they played the characters straighter and straighter “the funnier it got.”

The trick of it was also to keep the best of a police procedural too. “I thought we need to abduct the crime addicted audience and give them a really good time somewhere else” but while doing that ensure “you’re not disappointing them on the procedural.” And that became an imperative. “If we’d done a really good sophisticated piece of funny stuff that we were all really satisfied with but then the scripts were just hanging like broken arms, there’s nothing for those people. You’ve lied to them.”

Peppered throughout his description of the creative process is the word “we.” Abbott is a big proponent of team writing and it’s a process he’s been honing since his days on Children’s Hospital and Coronation Street at the beginning of his career. His indie Abbottvision, which he set up in 2008, is formed around a writers’ studio. “About eight years ago I bought a house next door to the house I lived in. When I got divorced I moved in.” He turned the place into a writing studio where a team can spend a few days working together. “The writers get treated like kings when they’re there,” he says. But the physical proximity forces them to collaborate too. “It’s creative Stalinism. You have to drag these people in. They don’t want to leave their little boxes. You have to purposefully engineer the communitarianism of it.”

And he does that both at the Manchester studio and his house in France. “That is ace. It’s like a little psychiatric unit, all fenced off.” But to make the team writing system really work, it needs a few days for the barriers to break down. “All writers meet around tables. They go to hotels for a night but half of that is getting there and feeling uncomfortable about having to talk to people about your work intensively. Then you only get five hours of legitimate traction out of it.”

The real magic comes after a few days when the team doesn’t even realise they’re working, he says. “Everybody thinks they’ve finished work when they leave the table. But all they’ve done at the table is colour in the vowels of their own name on a pad. The minute you move them in to a big room where they can flop back on a sofa and you bring in coffee and cakes they all start singing like canaries. It’s fantastic to watch. They start to work because 
they’re relaxed,”

The process is about breaking down the writerly ego. “Writers don’t share. But it’s the wrong job for competitiveness.” Ideas are one thing but “nobody can take your voice away from you and you can’t nick somebody else’s voice.”

It’s also about forcing people to be “smart” rather than “smart arse”. “Using your intelligence as a weapon is a bad habit in this industry. You’ve got to knock it out of people,” he says. “A lot of people in the industry are so foul, so horrible to each other. They’re so busy trying to look intelligent that their emotional intelligence is void. They’re writing smart in a way that’s not convincing.” And in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of the audience.

The key, he says, is to interrogate the writing again and again. “It’s rude to get it right first time. You’ve got to test it left right and centre” and not go down route one. Too many people make telly in a way that they think telly looks rather than how life looks, he says. And too much is written “right on the nose. It’s so literal and there’s no mischief to the storytelling. It doesn’t have to come out like sausages. The minute it works people leave it alone but the minute it works is the moment you should start creatively writing it.”

Paul Abbott set up his own drama indie Abbott Vision in 2008. He has created, written and produced a huge run of successful dramas since his beginnings as a script editor and writer on Coronation Street. He created Children’s Ward with Kay Mellor and went on to write Linda Green, Clocking Off, thriller State of Play (subsequently remade as a movie), Touching Evil, Exile, Hit and Miss, Shameless and latterly No Offence. He has won three Baftas alongside a straining mantelpiece full of RTS, Emmy, British Comedy and Writers’ Guild awards.

Posted 05 May 2015 by Jon Creamer
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