In Starz’ historical drama series Becoming Elizabeth, a young Elizabeth I grows up in a world of constant change and flux.
For director Udayan Prasad, the process of capturing that transition onscreen brought its own creative challenges and moments of rapid change. We spoke to Udayan about directing a block of episodes as part of a series, the challenges posed by COVID, and how he negotiates the actor-director relationship. Read the full interview below.
Tell us about how you first became involved with Becoming Elizabeth. What was it that appealed to you about it?
My agent, Charlotte Kelly got a call from The Forge, the production company making Becoming Elizabeth. I knew about The Forge because George Faber who set it up had been responsible for commissioning my first two feature films Brothers In Trouble and My Son The Fanatic. George was an Executive Producer (EP) on the show along with George Ormond, so the chance of renewing the relationship was a definite plus. I also knew something about Becoming Elizabeth's producer, Lisa Osborne. Lisa had worked very closely with Diarmuid Lawrence, with whom I crossed paths when trying to get into drama. Diarmuid had very kindly let me sit in on the rehearsals for Vanity Fair back in the 80s. He was always supportive of fledgling directors and Lisa had written a spot-on obituary of him when he died. So having her as producer was another bonus. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, so you do want to be working with people you have time for.
But of course, finally, the thing that helped me decide to come onboard was the script. Making anything is such hard work and if I can’t pour my heart and soul into something then I tend to say no. You do have to dedicate everything to it and if you don’t believe in it why would the audience? You could do a workmanlike job, but would it have any heart?
The three episodes I was to direct were written by three different writers. They were also the only ones not written by Anya Reiss, the lead writer who was also an EP. They did have a somewhat different feel to the ones she had written, but I knew that Anya would be doing a showrunner’s pass on them to ensure they didn't stand out for the wrong reasons. The great thing from my point of view was that George, Lisa and Anya were receptive to my suggestions or had strong arguments to counter them. The clincher was that they were always willing to engage in a conversation and that, for me, is always an indication that this is going to lead to genuine collaboration.
So, a strong script and good working relationships: would you say those are guiding principles for you when choosing what to work on next?
Those are the main principles, because you do have to spend a lot of time on such projects. Everyone suffers, not least your family, so it had better be worthwhile! You absolutely have to believe in it. And you have to trust the people you work with, you have to have confidence this will be a genuine, open and honest collaboration. There’s nothing worse than having a tiny voice in the back of your mind, saying “Are they really telling me the truth?” That’s a horrible place to be. But that was never a problem in this case: I never had cause to think that games were being played behind my back.
On Becoming Elizabeth you joined a lead director in Justin Chadwick, who directs the first episodes, and were followed by another director in Catherine Moreshead. How much did your paths cross? Was there much opportunity for discussion amongst you about the programme?
The short answer is our paths didn’t cross nearly enough but that’s not particular to Becoming Elizabeth. That’s the standard situation in TV drama. In an ideal world, all of the directors would be chosen before the first block starts shooting. And once all the decisions on visual language along with the general approach to storytelling had been agreed between the lead director and the producers, it would be just great for us all to be in the same room and go through those ideas.
On a project like this, I see myself as the second runner in a relay race – I’m passed the baton, and I’m going to pass it on to someone else. I’d love to at least see that bloody baton before it's in my hand! It really does help to know how much it weighs and what it’s like to carry. But that is all too rare in most cases.
Justin was really open to having those conversations and said I could call him any time I wanted, but he was already shooting by the time I came on board. So it just wasn't possible to sit down and have detailed chats and talk things through simply because he didn't have the time. Actually, you want to be having such conversations with the whole team, not just the lead director, so you have a genuine grasp of things like the cinematographic and design choices. One does talk in detail with the production, costume and make-up designers, but without the lead director and cinematographer present. And I am always aware of their absence during those conversations.
By the time Catherine Moreshead came onboard as director of the third block, I was shooting my episodes. She came to the set and we had whatever conversations we could. But not of the really detailed kind that I hanker for in such situations.
Was there much of a temptation or desire for you to put your own stamp on your episodes, or was your goal more to maintain them as seamless parts of the whole series?
I guess it’s a bit of both. It’s not that I wanted the episodes to look any different, for people to say “Oh, Udayan Prasad directed that”. The point is I need to know what happens in my episodes that might call for an adjustment — nothing major or wholesale — in style. The show is called Becoming Elizabeth, it’s about a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a king who treated her and her mother appallingly. She’s tossed around as in a storm by fate, all the while learning about the world she inhabits. She could become the reigning monarch but at this stage has no interest in occupying the throne. She doesn't really know what she wants, except to stay alive for as long as she possibly can.
At the beginning of my block, Elizabeth isn't the young woman she was at the start of Episode 1. She has changed; gained some wisdom. So I have to ask myself whether there is a need to adjust the visual language. Should we alter the lighting, the framing to convey, however subtly, a character who has become more mature. And in the course of the three episodes I am directing, what happens to Elizabeth; how does she continue to change? And when I pass the baton to Catherine for the last two episodes of this series she will make her choices as to how to convey the next phase of Elizabeth's life.
I love what Justin did. I thought the approach he took with his cinematographer, Adolpho Veloso, was really bold. They chose to use only light from flames for night scenes and the camera was always handheld. I thought that was extremely appropriate for the Elizabeth we first meet and indeed for the unstable world in which she lives. Over the course of our three episodes, we gently changed some of those things. As Elizabeth became more confident, more mature, the camera tended to become steadier. We also made some changes to the lighting. For the first nine years of my life I grew up in India. I was born there and lived in a community that had no electricity so all the light we had inside our houses came, as it did for the Tudors, from flames. But I also knew that at night, even when there’s no moon, you can see at least some of what is outside. So, we made the decision to add ambient light to the windows. That didn’t fundamentally alter anything. Our aim was simply to build on what Justin and his team had so skilfully established.
I had my own DoP because while Justin was shooting his episodes, Adolpho was not available to be with me for prep. That’s the norm in the UK; each director has their own DoP, 1st AD, Script Supervisor and Editor. And those people tend to come and leave with the director. Others – production design, costume design, make-up, lighting crews, gaffers and so on – stay for all of the episodes in any series.
This isn’t your first period drama – tell us about the approach to capturing period detail in Becoming Elizabeth, did it differ to previous programmes you’ve worked on?
Personally I don’t think there should be any difference in approach between period and contemporary. You have just as much research to do, whatever the period. Even if a story is set in the here and now, you’re not simply reflecting the 21st century, you’re creating the world of the story and that has its own rules. It might look very close to "reality", but it doesn’t have to.
Of course, CGI and technology generally mean that you can do things that simply weren't possible in television when I started. In my first period drama, 102 Boulevard Hausmann which was set in late 19th century Paris, we couldn’t paint in buildings or take skyscrapers and other incongruities out in the way you can now. We just didn't have the wherewithal. However, in Becoming Elizabeth, we used Cardiff Castle walls to do some hanging scenes and changed the present-day cityscape into 16th century Norfolk countryside.
With regard to camera, there used to be this idea that you couldn’t have it handheld in period pieces; that was the preserve of post-Second World War dramas. Fortunately that idiotic notion had been chucked out of the window by Justin and Adolpho long before I came onboard.
Coming into a series three episodes in, you may have a situation where the actors are more deeply acquainted with their characters than you are. How does this effect the director/actor relationship? Does the process of giving notes become more of a back and forth?
The regular actors do know their characters far better than the second and subsequent directors simply because they’ve already lived them; in my case for three episodes. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t ask them why they’re doing something the way they are doing it. If it seems inconsistent with what is in the script, I have to ask them why. As far as I am concerned, actors are collaborators in the process as important as anyone behind the camera. And the best actors I’ve worked with have brought ideas that have undoubtedly improved the work. The most important thing is to establish trust as quickly as possible. That simply won't happen if you come in and start telling them what to do without listening to what they have to say.
The cast on Becoming Elizabeth were terrific, I loved working with them. What made things even better was the support I got from my producers who ensured I had time for rehearsals. As we were still in the middle of the pandemic these sessions had to take place over Zoom. But we managed to go through all the major scenes in the block establishing facts, motives, trajectories etc. That was invaluable, not least because the actors sense that you have some understanding of their processes and are interested in their ideas about the things they can bring to the table. Then, when you’re shooting, you can make suggestions that aren’t coming out of left field for them.
The stupidest thing, in my opinion, is to not have time for rehearsals - no matter if you are the lead or tenth director. For one thing it means expensive time is not being wasted on set dealing with the basics.
A lack of rehearsal time is a pretty consistent problem among directors. How do you make sure you have it?
Just ask for it! In fact, insist on it. Any intelligent producer will realise that giving the cast and director even a relatively short period of time together before shooting starts will increase the chances of getting the show in on schedule and therefore budget. Fortunately for me, Lisa Osbourn and George Ormond knew that already.
Remarkably, Becoming Elizabeth was shot during lockdown – how did this affect production for you?
Well - you couldn’t be with anyone! Okay, that’s not quite true, but you know what I mean. If you’re not in the same room with all your team, how are you going to have the chats and asides, from which terrific ideas come often, while making a cup of tea? Not having that contact is difficult. But I have to say what we had was better than nothing; Zoom was a saviour. The other thing Zoom did was to force you to be succinct. You didn't have time to chew the cud in the usual way. It was a bit of a pain, but there were positives.
Thank goodness, also, that both Starz and The Forge were very much on the ball as far as COVID precautions were concerned. They set aside a substantial budget to deal with any curve balls the pandemic threw at the production. Some people did get COVID, and when that happened it had quite an impact. But without the systems that had been put in place, the results would have been disastrous. I had a case where an actor, cast specifically for my block and who had tested negative five times prior to their first shoot day, tested positive on that day. We immediately had to do all kinds of calculations about who had been in touch with them - how close and for how long exactly. Everyone who had spent a total of fifteen minutes or more with them at a distance of less than two meters had to immediately self-isolate for two weeks. Luckily they had been in just one short scene that day and none of the crew had crossed the threshold. But the other cast members in the scene did, and that led to major changes of the schedule. We’re not talking about going from one set to another in a studio here. We’re talking about stately homes and castles; locations that cost huge sums of money. The owners weren't going to simply say "No problem. Come back when you can and we won't charge any extra." I'm pretty sure they were rubbing their hands with glee! After all, they had lost a lot of revenue because of the pandemic as tourists were banned from visiting such places. It was a massive problem, but I actually think the way the production dealt with it was brilliant. We filled those two weeks without losing a single day’s shoot and brought the block in on time!
To an extent it wouldn't be wrong to say that occasionally COVID actually helped. The historic buildings we filmed in were closed to the public and that made them available to us in a way that wouldn't have been possible with tourism in full flow. It didn’t make it any cheaper, but it did make it easier than it would have been to swap dates.
Which sequence in your episodes was the most challenging, and how did you capture it?
I don’t know really; I loved the fact that they all had their own very particular challenges! Honestly, the stuff I worried most about was what seemed to be mundane. Things like going from A to B in what is meant to be a single space but which is actually made up of several locations. The sort of thing that should be straightforward but you’re having to do it in three or more different locations over a matter of weeks, rather than in a matter of hours or at most a day.
So, somebody gets off a carriage, enters a palace then goes up some steps. That is one location. Then they come through a door, up some more steps and down a corridor. That is the second location. Then they come through an anteroom – yet another location - before meeting the person they have come to see on a set in the studio. Making sure that whole journey is completely seamless, is what I actually found myself worrying most about.
The bigger stuff, the beheadings, the hangings - you know that's going to be challenging, but it’s great fun to do. The beheading of Thomas Seymour in Episode 6 is incredibly gory, and we did all sorts of things in post to ensure it delivered all it needed to and more. But you’re also worrying about whether it looks crowded enough. Is the audience going to notice that there there really should be more people there? In the end I thought it worked, and it looked horrible. And that’s always rather perversely satisfying.
There was also a very brutal cockfight sequence. I’m a lifelong vegetarian, and I don’t want any animal or living thing to suffer simply because I’m making a TV drama. So, the challenge was to ensure the cockerels didn't get hurt and the sequence delivered what it needed to deliver.
Returning to your relay analogy, when you’re directing are you considering who you’re handing that baton to? Do you think about the approach leading into the episodes of the director following you?
Yes I do. Obviously, there comes a point where once you’re shooting you just have to think about whatever it is you are shooting. But I need to know — and the actors need to know — not just where the block is going to end but what happens next. I also need to know at least something about the scenes in future blocks. If, for example, I’m choosing a new location I need to make sure that it works not just for my scenes but also any scenes that might come in future blocks. Otherwise the next director could well be hamstrung.
Tell us about post-production – what was your experience of that?
I started my career in the film industry as an assistant editor. I love it. And the post-production on Becoming Elizabeth was a complete delight. To start with, it was a relief to see we had succeeded in building on the form and tone set by Justin but in a way that was seamless. As for the process itself Martin Brinkler, my wonderful editor, and I would put something together before the producers came in and gave us their comments. It was a really good experience. Of course there were differences of opinion - there always are - but I can't think of an instance where, together, we didn't find a good solution.
I love every part of the directing process. I have no preferences between prep, the actual shoot and post. I love working with the crew and the cast. Post-production is a completely different beast but just as satisfying, especially when there aren't too many bones of contention! I can well imagine there would be times where differences of opinion are irreconcilable, but in a situation similar to mine vis-a-vis Becoming Elizabeth, you have to remember you’re the second runner in a relay race. You are not in charge of the team. You don’t have final cut. So you say your piece and leave it there. All you can do is try and persuade whoever does have final cut to see things from your point of view.
What are your plans for the future – do you have any new projects lined up?
I have two projects in development. The first, a mini series, I have developed with the screenwriter Simon Block (The Windermere Children, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall) and which Derek Wax (The Rig, Humans, Capital) is producing. That is also period but set in the latter half of the 20th century. Derek and I are also developing another period piece, this time set in 18th century London.
Udayan Prasad is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates. Becoming Elizabeth is available to watch now on Starz.
Director photo: Nick Briggs