Published on: 31 March 2023 in Industry

“You have to go for it and not hold back”: Jamie Donoughue on directing A Town Called Malice

Reading time: 22 minutes and 19 seconds

Boasting visual invention, a starry cast and a classic soundtrack, Sky Max’s A Town Called Malice has transported viewers to the Costa Del Sol of the 1980s. We spoke to the series’ lead director Jamie Donoughue about the aforethought that went into directing Malice.

Jamie spoke to us about how he developed a sense of trust with his actors, how he brought the music into the very fabric of the programme, and how he sought to make every element of production a character in its own right, from the camerawork down to the hairstyles.

A Town Called Malice is available to watch on Sky Max now. Read our full interview with Jamie below. 

Let’s start at the beginning – how did you first get into directing? We hear it involves a volcano.

Haha, yes. I started out mainly directing music videos, but my ambition was always to break into TV and film. In 2010 I visited Kosovo to shoot a little commercial for three days, and then the Icelandic volcano erupted. I ended up being stranded there for five weeks! However, it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. The locals took me in, and I learned about their history and the appalling war they had endured. I was so inspired and determined to tell their stories that I knew I had to make a short film about it. I quit the music video scene and over the next four years travelled back and forth learning the language and culture in order that I could write a film that was as honest and representative of the people as possible. I struggled to get any funding, so to raise enough money I also took on a job building garden sheds, so it really did become total passion project. I was very fortunate that when released, the film (Shok) went on to win over 22 international festival awards as was nominated for an Oscar in 2016. I was then lucky enough to sign with my brilliant agent Harriet Pennington Legh (now of Lark Management) and she helped launch my career into TV, starting with The Last Kingdom.

Moving on to A Town Called Malice, how did you first become attached to the project – and what excited you about it?

I was just finishing in post on A Discovery of Witches and the Malice script was sent to me. I had never read anything like it. I thought this is the ultimate challenge and something completely different to what I had done before. It was also a chance to open a show and set the tone, as well as co-exec. Plus it’s Nick Love, a legend whose films I grew up on! 

Once you were attached, how did you go about assembling your main HoDs and collaborators for the show?

Over the years I have built up a team around me of amazing HoDs. It’s sometimes hard for all our diaries to match up but I was lucky with the names I managed to get involved. Firstly, I brought on my DoP Chas Bain who I have shot nearly every project with. We have such a shorthand, and his vast experience of working on Hollywood productions is something I always lean on. My next call is always to Molly Rowe, one of the most incredible costume designers in the industry. We’d worked together on numerous projects, and she is just a genius. Costumes were integral to this show and something Nick Love was very particular about. Luckily, he instantly loved Molly’s vision. My first AD was Richard Harris, we had worked together briefly for some pick up scenes on The Last Kingdom and finally managed to make it happen again. My producer Andy Noble then introduced me to Sophie Slotover in Hair and Make Up and Marcus Wookey, Production Designer. I had not worked with either of them before, but we all had an instant understanding of the vision and collaboration needed to pull off this show. Both did a fantastic job and will definitely be part of my team moving forward. 

Finally, my camera operators were a very key piece of the jigsaw as there was an extremely demanding and creative style needed. I managed to convince Jon Beacham to come onboard as A Camera. I cannot overstate enough how Jon helped shape the feel of this show. His creative instincts, cinematic eye and execution are second to none. When it came to B Camera ops I always hire those that can also light, as I tend to capitalize on 2nd units and leapfrogging sets in order to make the very tight days. In the UK we had Adam Lyons, who I have worked with since my music video days back in Leeds. However, I doubt Adam will be operating for me anymore as he is such a talented DoP in his own right, he has already carved out his own career and is now in such high demand. Finally, when in Tenerife I worked with Leandro Vaz Da Silva who came recommended to me via Fabian Wagner as they had just been shooting House of the Dragon together. Leonardo instantly took up the mantle from Adam and proved to be one of the most accomplished Steadicam operators I’ve ever worked with.

You have an incredible cast of both well-known names and emerging actors. Tell us about the casting process – how did you find your leads Jack Rowan and Tahirah Sharif, and how did you pitch the show to the like of Martha Plimpton, Jason Flemyng and Dougray Scott?

All casting starts with a great casting director, and they don’t come better than Daniel Edwards. We had previously worked together on a Netflix show and I just love his industry knowledge and the way he thinks outside the box. He’s also an annoyingly incredible actor so he’s probably the best person any actor can ask for to read in – I sometimes have to stop myself watching his performance! 
I’m also a big believer in giving opportunity to undiscovered talent. In between projects I run screen acting classes. I therefore always have a bunch of unknown actors in my back pocket. I would constantly bug Daniel about looking at this person or that person. Some casting directors would get annoyed with that, but Daniel is such a champion of new talent he would always oblige.

With Malice the hardest thing about casting was that it was an ensemble. We had a plethora of amazing actors, but we needed to make them a convincing family. In a case like this you sometimes have to lynchpin around one of your leads. After auditioning Jack Rowan early on we knew we had our starting point. The character of Cindy was much harder, and we went through numerous screen tests in order to find the right chemistry. Very late in the game we got word that Tahirah Sharif’s availability had just opened up and we were all very excited. She came straight in for a screen test and nailed it.

We had talked about Jason Flemyng from day one and not only is he an incredible actor, he is probably known as one of the nicest guys in the industry. Dougray Scott was always going to be a long shot, but Nick knew him and reached out. Nick and I met Dougray for lunch in Notting Hill but all the fancy restaurants were fully booked. We ended up in a Pizza Express, started to pitch the project and before the dough balls arrived Dougray had said ‘I’m in!’.

Martha was a genius left field move, an 80’s icon without being too obvious a casting. I wish I could take credit for that one, but it was totally Daniel. With Martha, both Nick and I wrote her a letter asking if she would read the script, this was followed by a zoom call where she was instantly onboard. Our only concern was the accent: as an American could she really land the specific regional London twang? Martha kindly agreed to send us a sample and we were blown away. She was flawless and proved from the outset what a true acting talent we had just snagged. 

Staying with the actors, the series has a very specific tone and requires a very specific energy and performance. How did you communicate what you wanted to your cast? Did you have to earn their trust at all, and what did you do in terms of workshopping, rehearsing and experimenting?

Everything is built on trust between the actors and a director. No more than in this show. I had a very experimental approach when on set, both in how it was shot and how we would elevate the scenes. We agreed from the outset that we wanted grounded performances, but also needed to find where the line was for heighted-ness. I explained that to find that line at times we may have to step over it, and they had to trust me that if I went too far I would pull it back in edit.

I generally run a very open and collaborative set and from that comes a lot of spontaneity. I will plan and always have a structure for scenes, but I’m a big believer in all the elements coming together in the moment – that’s where the magic happens. We all have to be flexible in that moment and let the creativity rule.

I would also have my editor (Chris Roebuck) make constant little teaser reels which the actors could watch. They then began to see the show coming together and really bought into the vision. This was key for me, as at times I asked them to do things that were very outside of their comfort zone. For example, when the character of Alfonso (played by Bruno Sevilla) sings in the car I just dropped that on him in the moment. I said “I’ve got a mad idea, can you learn these lyrics in five minutes.” He said “Yes but I really can’t sing”. I thought that makes it even better. Poor Bruno just went for it, and it ended up being a really iconic character moment in the show for him.

Similarly, when I got the entire cast in for synchronized dance rehearsals on a Sunday morning after a big night out, I know many of actors would have told me exactly where to go - but the cast were always 100% onboard. None more than Daniel Sharman. I remember pitching the idea of him in an 80s music video. I sent him the Kayleigh by Marrillion music video (along with some Robert Tepper music videos for inspiration) and asked him what he thought about trying to recreate that as the opening of episode 3. By the next morning he had created his entire own routine! I seriously loved the dedication of these guys. 

Did you have to build an atmosphere on set that fed into that tone? How do you usually like to set the tone on set?

With any set I am involved in, my number one objective is to create a fun and collaborative atmosphere, and Rich (my 1st AD) was instrumental in achieving this. As we all know, filmmaking and especially TV can be a stressful time with brutal schedules. The majority of our crew were Spanish locals so we also had a language barrier. Luckily music transcends everything, and the soundtrack became a quick and easy way in which everyone could bond.

I also like to empower the crew and let them have a degree of creative input. Everyone knew we were trying to make something unique, and each department was encouraged to push the boundaries. When meeting HoDs or crew members I would always ask “what have you always wanted to do but never could, ‘cos this is the show to do it!”
As with the actors, I would use teasers regularly provided by my editor. They were in essence mini-trailers or music videos, but it gave a real idea of the show and would always raise everyone’s spirits. 

A Town Called Malice is very striking visually. How did you set about establishing a look for the series – what were your inspirations?

With a show like Malice we quickly realised you have to go for it and not hold back. It had to be big and unashamedly bold. A lot of the time in filming we want to avoid the audience being conscious of the style and camera moves, but with this I wanted to do the complete opposite. Malice is the sort of show where the audience is ‘in on the joke’ and I wanted that to permeate across all areas. I would regularly describe the camera, the clothes, the hair, make-up and production design as ‘characters’ in their own right. Each should have ‘a voice’ on screen.

My inspiration for the look came from a number of sources. I watched a lot of old 80’s music videos, editing techniques and shots, but tried to find ways to evolve them with more of a cinematic twist.

As opposed to specific films I was inspired more by a comic book approach, with quirky moves and unique transitions that gave a real style, whilst aiding the extremely quick-paced nature of the show.  

Were there any particular cameras/lenses that you knew you had to chase down to achieve the right aesthetic?

From the outset Chas and I talked about shooting anamorphic as we wanted that true cinematic feel. It’s not a direction Sky usually go in for TV, but to their credit they understood that it would be a really great way to define the show. We initially wanted to use a vintage lens to achieve the most authentic look but we decided on Cookes. This was a practical decision made by Chas as he understood we were on an island where equipment was at a premium and replacements were not a quick option. 
We decided to shoot with a pair of Sony Venice cameras at 4K 4:3 2x anamorphic squeeze for a 2.39:1 - kindly provided by the amazing Movietech. We also created a set of custom LUTs for the UK and Spain which could be transferable between blocks. Each was named after an iconic 80’s car. In the end our go to became the ‘Golf GTI’. 

Tell us about some of the creative ways you played with the form – and did you have to do much persuading to let you experiment?

I was extremely grateful that I was given complete freedom to experiment from Paul Gilbert (Exec Producer) and Nick Love. We had an agreement that whatever I did, I would always get a ‘safe version’ but as the show went on, we found the moments and quirks that worked and just committed to them. I knew pace and transitions were key and tried to do as much in-camera as I could. Early on I let the camera get ahead of the action by whip-panning away, leaving our actors to reveal something purposefully to the audience. We experimented with breaking the fourth wall, initially with the obligatory ‘look’ to camera, but this soon evolved. There was a point when one of the actors had to walk past camera, but it was an extremely tight space. I told him just to ‘push the camera out of the way’ which we ended up using to transition us into the next scene.

I knew music was going to form the bedrock of the show and I wanted the ability to be able to cut to the beat. Because of this I embraced a very linear style of solid, confident and deliberate camera moves which all stopped hard. At times I would even play certain tracks on set in so that we had a natural rhythm to match to. This was very demanding on the grips and operators, but I feel was worth it to define the show. 

Music is absolutely central to A Town Called Malice. From cutting to the beat, miming to lyrics, to even a music video pastiche in episode three, tell us about how you sought to make it more than just incidental to the series.

It wasn’t until my first recce to Tenerife where Nick and I drove the Island and he blasted out one of his classic playlists. For me that is where it truly clicked, and I understood that music was the soul of the show and not an afterthought in edit.

Everything had to feel in sync and part of the fabric. The music drove the action and the action drove the music. I used a mixture of non-diegetic and diegetic music, constantly moving between the two. I would then let the characters interact with the music, whether that be by singing or turning the radio on and off. I took this to the next level whereby I wanted the music, sound effects and score to all work in synergy. We would take stems from the needle drop tracks and use them for sound effects, or let them form the basis of the impending score. For example, in episode one when Cindy drops the payphone receiver, the dial beeps begin to time into the next music track. Similarly, the score used in the ending shootout strips itself back down to evolve into Sunday Girl by Blondie playing on the car radio. Whether or not the audience consciously realises this I don’t know, but I do feel it really helped to create a unique, immersive watching experience. 

What was the most challenging scene to direct, and how did you tackle it?

Everyday threw up a different challenge but I guess the nightclub scenes were the toughest. Because of availability, we only had the set for a couple of days and there must have been a week’s work to complete. We had a huge live performance, synchronized dance numbers as well as the ending of episode 2 to shoot. On top of that we had over a hundred extras where all communication had to go through translators. Normally we would have requested a day or so to pre-light but again this was not possible.  

We tackled it by shooting the big set up first with all the supporting artists. This was so as the day progressed, we could thin out the crowd and have a more controlled environment. But of course, everything takes longer than you think and on the second day it was clear we would not complete. At that point I scrapped a lot of the pre-planned crane shots and re blocked all scenes in order that they could be covered in minimal shots with Steadicam. The B Cam would then roam and pick us up emergency cutaways to get us out of trouble in the edit. In the end, we had twenty minutes to shoot the final scene which included two pages of dialogue and a lip sync to camera. I decided to go for it and run the entire thing in a oner, with a brief repo in the middle. I explained to the actors and to Leandro (our cam op) that we had two, maximum three goes at this. Luckily everyone realised what was a stake and really stepped up. We nailed it first time and even managed to get another for safety.

Looking back, earlier in my career I probably would not have had the knowledge to foresee what was going to happen and the confidence to throw everything out of the window, re-block and change the shooting style in order to make the day. I’m glad I did, as this time it worked out, but I have amazing actors and operators to thank for that! 

You brought your editor into the process early on. Tell us about how you made that work, and to what extent episodes found their shape in the edit.

If possible, I always try to involve my editor at an early stage. When I did my short, I had my editor on set but in TV that is rarely possible. However, we would speak everyday discussing the previous day’s rushes and Chris would send me experimental cuts. For me this way of working is extremely beneficial. It ensures we have everything we need and can be proactive if not. It helps to define a clear style during the shooting process, and also means that we hit the ground running with a really solid assembly to build from when we properly go into post. It’s essentially a time saving, creative and insurance thing.

Saying that, a huge amount of the style was found in the edit, especially with the first episode which set the template for the show. Chris approached the pacing and cutting like a music video, and we constantly looked for original ways to define the show. I had always had the idea of making the anamorphic blanking interactive, including closing the bars to end a scene, and them changing colour depending on the emotional tone. For example, after the gunshot, they take on a blood red which slowly fades out as our hero leaves the crime scene.  

We were very lucky as we were allowed an entire week just to experiment. After submitting the first cut the note back was: “It’s at 60%, make it 100%!” From there we pushed with split scenes and ramps, but also created unique ‘Malicisms’ such as the day to night beat-cuts which I like to refer to as ‘turning the lights out’. We even sourced an old 80s pull string bathroom light sound to accompany the transition.

However, what underpinned it all was Chris’ incredible sound mixing skills. His choice of temp music, sound effects and needle-dropped tracks really gave a clear direction for the entire show.

After your block, episodes were directed by the fantastic Joasia Goldyn and Sean Spencer.  As lead director, how were you able to communicate and collaborate together on the series?

I had seen both Joasia and Sean’s work and knew they were extremely talented and that the show was in good hands. However, I was keen that the only way the show could work was as a true collaboration. There had to be scope for each of them to evolve the show and put their own stamp on it. Joasia and I had dinner on a number of occasions and Sean and I spoke on Zoom. We discussed what was working for them, what they could embrace, as well as the practical challenges of the shoot. Both Joasia and Sean were extremely well-prepped and are highly creative and as such the transitions felt very seamless. Even in the edit we would regularly swap cuts and go for dinner to discuss the process. It really was a team effort, and I’m grateful for them both being on board. 

You also had the fantastic director Kelly Holmes on board as part of a placement with Directors UK. Tell us about what the placement involved, and why you decided to provide one on the series?

I know first-hand how hard it is to get opportunities and break into the industry, so I have always been an advocate for providing on-set experience. For me all the schooling and theory in the world means nothing unless you can get on a real set. Andy, our producer, and I talked early on about how we wanted to create a scheme which did more than a couple of days of shadowing. We wanted to give the full experience of what is required of a director in television and show; it is so much more than that just shooting the project. The script meetings, pitching, crewing, planning and politics are all just as key. We also wanted someone to gain a real credit that could further their career. We worked closely with Directors UK who fantastically shortlisted a huge amount of applicants. In the end we chose Kelly based on her accomplished shorts and passion in her interview. Kelly came on board early in pre-production and was present throughout the entire shoot in both the UK and Tenerife. She also directed some 2nd Unit scenes towards the end of the block, giving her a broadcast credit.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently directing the finale of the new Dr Who. It’s a totally different job to Malice, but equally as exciting and challenging. 

A Town Called Malice is available to watch now on Sky Max.

Stills: Lily Duffield 

Banner image: Sky Max. 

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