For ITVX drama, Litvinenko, the edit was by David Webb at Final Cut, with sound design by Patch Rowland and the team at Machine, Final Cut’s sister company. Here they explain how the edit and sound design brought the ITV Studios, Tiger Aspect, Livedrop Media drama to life.
Bringing the story of the poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko to life was an exercise in restraint. The aim for both the production and post-production teams was to create an historically accurate account of real-life events without over-dramatizing them.
The first episode – composed principally of police interviews from a hospital bed – asks a lot of the audience, eschewing the usual tropes of the genre and relying instead upon a compelling and transformative performance by David Tennant in the lead role. The dialogue, dramatised and abridged in part but often taken verbatim from the original interview transcripts, provides all of the dramatic pivots in the episode.
Working closely with Litvinenko’s widow Marina, writer George Kay and Director Jim Field-Smith felt a huge weight of responsibility to faithfully bring this story to life. A story that quickly becomes embroiled in international politics, but which is, at heart, the story of a devastated family grieving the death of a family member. The post-production team shared this ambition and felt duty-bound to present the story as truthfully as possible. To let the remarkable story unfold on-screen as it actually happened and allow the performances to draw the viewer in.
Having previously worked with David Tennant on Netfilx Drama Criminal, Director Jim Field Smith and editor David Webb were well used to working with long takes and engaging performances. But the commitment that Tennant brought to the role exceeded expectations. Pretty much every take was usable in its entirety. A five min dialogue scene delivered in a wide shot could act perfectly as a simple tableau. Consequently, every cut becomes motivated by dramatic intent, and not by necessity.
The staging and production design were accurate to the original events: from the brand of car that Inspector Clive Timmons drives (a Porsche 911); to the name of the Gate Attendant at SO15: “Good morning, Floppy!”; and the use of the NEALS recorder in the interview scenes. A side-by-side comparison of the now iconic photo of Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed and the publicity photos of David Tennant, shows the lengths that the production team went to maintain documentary authenticity.
With the stage set by the production, the job of the post-production team was to let the performances breathe and subtly enhance the dramatic arc of each episode. Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of lauded Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, was brought on board to compose the soundtrack. Using old Russian synths to create drones that emulate the sine waves of alpha emitters and layering strings into the mix brought a unique sound to the piece.
Sound design by Stephen Griffiths and Blair Jollands and mix by Patch Rowland and Kath Pollard at machine, sensitively incorporated the score into the soundscape, using sfx and atmos beds to subliminally signal the progress of Litvinenko’s deteriorating health – a challenging and delicate job given the intentionally faltering vocal performance of David Tenant. In the first interview, Litvinenko is standing, his vocal delivery forthright and only slightly faltering. The room atmos is composed of late-night sirens and a sparsely populated UCH. Then each time we revisit the hospital, the soundscape subtly changes in conjunction with the performance.
As the performance becomes frail and the vocal delivery more hesitant, the atmos beds of bleeping heart monitors and hospital equipment become more insistent, demanding that the viewer literally lean in to hear what is being said. Consequently, the gaps in the sound beds become an important narrative tool, allowing the viewer to process new information before proceeding with events.
The first episode culminates with a metaphorical call to arms by Litvinenko’s Lawyer Alex Goldfarb to the gathered press outside University College Hospital. With dialogue taken from the actual statement prepared by Litvinenko prior to his death, what seems like hyperbole is ultimately a horribly prescient forewarning of unfolding international events.
Litvinenko is available to stream on ITVX.
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