The latest episode of the Directors UK Podcast has arrived!
In this latest episode, director and former Directors UK Board member S.J. Clarkson is joined by fellow director Martin Scorsese to discuss the making of her hit TV drama, Anatomy of a Scandal.
Together they discuss refreshing the portrayal of courtroom dramas, giving a sense of memory and thought, taking visual risks, and the sugary power of Percy Pig sweets!
You can listen and subscribe to the Directors UK Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and other podcast platforms.
You can also read a full transcript of this episode below!
Martin Scorsese: S.J., give us an idea of how you approached a six-part series, why you wanted to do this particular project, and how you keep a voice going across six installments.
S.J. Clarkson: First of all, I think you start it with trepidation, because it’s a massive undertaking. It’s six episodes. And pilot episodes, that’s one thing. But it is becoming en vogue now, this sort of limited series. And what I will say, is it’s kind of like a film, because you have ownership of the whole thing. It’s just a really long film, or two to three films back-to-back. So I think the magnitude of it is overwhelming for sure, but I think you just treat it in exactly the same way you do anything else, in the fact that you’ve got to have a throughline from beginning to end.
Even if you’re just doing a pilot, or you’re coming in doing episodes four and five or whatever, you still have a throughline and a storytelling task ahead of you. So with a six-parter, it’s really about how you keep hold of that throughline. You do need to know where you’re going, and you do need to know how you’re going to pace it, and how you’re going to do the twists and turns — when you’re going to get a peak, when you’re going to get the tension, and how that’s going to land. And like anything, some of it lands where you think it will, other parts don’t, and things get crafted in the edit. And sometimes I’m like, “Well, that didn’t work” and “Oh, I thought that episode was going to be better than that.” And then you start wrestling with it.
But I think in essence, it’s the same. It’s just really bloody daunting, and I didn’t quite realise the magnitude of six until I was in it, and you suddenly get halfway through the shoot and there’s no turning back. Then you’ve shot half of it, and because it wasn’t shot in order, you’ve got bits of every episode but nothing complete. And nothing is complete until that last week, really, when suddenly everything falls into place. There is definitely a level of preparation, yes, and a great team around you — and a brilliant script supervisor who I was blessed to have with Tessa Kimbell — helping me to keep track of those essential shots.
So there’s that, and I think you just have to prep. There was no way I could have done this just winging it. I had to know roughly where we were going. And at least have an essence of how I was going to put each character, each of the sequences — from the house to the courtroom to the legal chambers, and the world outside, the world of Parliament — together. You had to have an idea of how it was going to be cohesive as a whole thing. So, there was a lot of juggling to do. I would definitely say it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but in many ways, when you’ve done all six, it’s the most rewarding. Especially if it does all right.
Martin Scorsese: The problem with many of these things is that each episode has to end at a certain dramatic level.
S.J. Clarkson: On Netflix, yes. I suppose you’ve got six mini films within an overarching film, and the idea of Netflix is you don’t want them to switch over or stop watching. And a lot of that comes from the narrative. A lot of work went into the pre-production of the scripts, in terms of how you were going to nurture the scripts and build those up, because that’s your blueprint. Whether you like it or not, you can just about get away with going on set and not prepping a thing — but you have to craft those scripts. And I was lucky. The one thing that COVID gave us, I suppose, was we had three months of lockdown when we were supposed to be prepping — but everything got stopped. That gave us three months to really work on the scripts. So by the time we started prep, I’d actually had the director’s pass on all of them, with maybe still some stuff to do on the sixth. And it is about crafting those moments. So there were flashbacks in episode five that we moved to three, and it was moving all those things around during that period.
Martin Scorsese: The flashbacks are so important.
S.J. Clarkson: That’s right, but they have to evolve. It reminded me when we did Vinyl together, we had those interstitials. Do you remember? The music, the meta, those moments where you would just go off to walk within someone’s psyche. And this wasn’t dissimilar in that way, in using the flashbacks in some of those moments to take you on the emotional journey of the characters, as opposed to the narrative or the literal journey. Which I think was my overriding hope for the series, to give it something else, other than just this linear narrative.
Martin Scorsese: In the flashbacks, I think you touched upon the actual experience of memory.
S.J. Clarkson: But what is memory? It doesn’t exist. It’s something that we are recalling. It’s a slipstream. Sometimes you might remember what you saw before you said something, or what was said before you saw it — and therefore, if you’re going back to that, I wanted the sense that we were recalling it, but maybe misremembering it. And especially for Olivia on the stand, when she gets questioned. Suddenly things seem slightly different. So, she turns her head in three different places. It’s very subtle, but she’s never in the same place as the story evolves, because it’s misremembered, because she’s trying to figure out what was what. I don’t think we ever remember memory in completion. It is fragmented. And sometimes you’re reminded of a memory by a photograph, which is a still frame, or you’re reminded by a joke that somebody said, which is oral. And so I thought to play with that — that we’re not that smart. So I think that that was one of the things I really wanted to do to help tell with this story.
Also, there’s a lot of story to tell. And I felt that this was such a personal story, from the minute I read the book. I think what Sarah Vaughan did brilliantly with the book was to dedicate each chapter to a character. So we really got inside the heads and minds of these people. There were certainly questions in the early days about the adaptation, about “could you do an episode by character?” But I don’t think that would have held up. And it wouldn’t have had that wonderful propulsion of narrative that we managed to get.
But what I thought was so rich in the book was the depth we went to with these characters. So the whole concept of it was — for me — to try and find a way into the psychology of each of these characters in their own specific way, but that was still under the cohesive cinematic vocabulary of Anatomy.
So the question was how to get inside it, and how to make that fragmented. And there’s no shortcut to it — you just have to film it all two or three times slightly differently. So to do that we flipped out the lenses, we used this 40mm…they’re great, aren’t they? Well, we actually flipped the element and the optical. It just gave it that distortion around the edge, but you could only focus on the crosshairs. And that’s also just part of that cinematic vocabulary that then you could take, and it was such a great tool. Sometimes we overused it, and Liana Del Giudice, my editor, worked meticulously on the first episode, which really defined the rules of it and the set-up of how to use it. Because you could overuse it and then it felt like a gimmick. It just needed to be enough to bring that haziness, and it just gives you that… it forces you to focus, but it’s also off-focus as well. It’s such a brilliant lens to use, I have to say.
Martin Scorsese: And yet you were able in the six episodes to keep a narrative structure, a story.
S.J. Clarkson: Yes, it was a tightrope across those six episodes. But also what really persuaded me to go that direction was when I knew I faced an awful lot of scenes in a courtroom. And I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a phobia of courtroom dramas, because you’re just like, “We’re just going to be stuck in this room with people cross-examining us, asking us questions.” And at least in America they can stand up and walk around the courtroom, and you can use dramatic licence. You can’t do that in the UK. You’ve just got to stand up and sit down, and wear the wig and the robes and everything else. So it felt like a really useful tool to steam through some of the courtroom stuff that you’ve got to wait through just to get to the right nugget.
It felt like that helped us propel through those, and the overriding sense was to keep this level of propulsion throughout the whole series. I wanted you to feel like: what’s going to happen next and which twist and turn is going to come? So I think it was a really good tool to have, to work within those courtrooms and get away from describing events from one particular perspective. We were able to just cut to it, and in a few very swift cuts, get the story across.
Martin Scorsese: Did you approach each courtroom scene with a different visual idea?
S.J. Clarkson: So there was definitely a bit of that. That scene at the end, because it is just the two of them sat there, for me that was both sides of the scales of justice. It could go either way. They were literally equal in the frame. It was the only time I was symmetrical, I think, in the whole piece. And those two are great, I’ve got to say. Josette was a master class every day, and Michelle Dockery is just… it was extraordinary, holding 44 pages of dialogue in her brain. So your point about the visuals, yes. If you look at it, I made sure that every courtroom scene opened with a developing shot that was different from the last, that focused on whoever was the centre of the scene. So that was whether it’d be James standing trial for the first time, bringing in Olivia, or setting up Kate’s opening statement. There were some developing shots to set the scene and tell the story, so we know where we are, because everybody wants that — but I’m never a fan of establishers. I don’t like them. I don’t like just plonking them in. The wide shot has to say something, right? So I’m like, if it’s just about setting the scene, then let’s find a developing shot – and we did many throughout the series — mainly to contrast the flashes and the memory moments. But there were plenty more lyrical developing shots telling the story and landing on the important moment, or whoever I needed to be with at that time.
The lighting did change subtly for sure, and that was often about whose perspective we were with. So if we were with Sophie, Sienna’s character, up in the public gallery— which is the way it is at the Old Bailey, they have a public gallery— I wanted her to be up there and for it to feel like it’s like theatre. Like it felt like her life was being played out before her.
Each time I was going through a scene, it was like, who’s got the upper hand in this? Especially when it was between Josette and Michelle. The pair of them constantly would one-up, one-down. So which side of the line were we on? I flipped the line a lot in those scenes to keep it moving, often in and out of flashbacks, when people were questioning themselves. Especially Olivia, when she was being questioned. You might come out and she’d be like, “Hold on a minute”, and we’d then jump to the other side of the line. A lot of flipping the line, yes, a lot of flipping the line. I mean, I enjoy doing that. It’s like the old saying: once you know the rules, you can break them. But I think when you know how to handle a line-cross, they are so effective, and they punch things and accentuate moments that you perhaps don’t want to lay on with a trowel. But it just does it for you in quite a subtle manner. So we certainly did that in each scene. And we had the crane shot in there, but as you know, if you get a crane in you’ll be like, “Yay, we’ve got the 40-foot crane, hurrah” and then it takes forever and you’re like, “Get rid of the crane. Stick to the steadicam”.
So there was an awful lot of that. But the one thing I wanted was to shoot in order. And I was so lucky, because in the courtrooms we were shooting in continuity. It was hard — because I actually wanted to pop out and come back in — but because of COVID, we couldn’t. We had to do everything in continuity. So that at least meant that every scene was directly followed on. And you would then know that, well, that particular shot didn’t really work in that moment, because it felt like we were putting the camera ahead of the narrative. Or we were putting the camera ahead of the performance. So then you’d go, “Well, maybe we could use that on this, or we’ve given that one up now, so let’s use that again, because we want to be behind the glass.”
So the beaded glass, for example, we knew we had that in there, and I knew I wanted you to be tracking through this glass and see all these different faces through it. The glass had a beveling at the top and at the sides. So we put that in so that as you track through it, you would see these distortions of the faces, but in real time. Rather like flashbacks in the memory, but now we’re starting to question the real world. And then, obviously towards the end of it, when we realise who Kate is, I started to use the double images of Kate. In fact, throughout the piece, there are often reflections of Kate subtly in there. Which is a nod to the idea that there’s another side to her story. So, even in the Delaunay restaurant, she’s reflected. And wherever she was, we tried to find a reflection of her, and then save that big beveled glass reveal of her once we were hurtling towards the end of episode four.
Martin Scorsese: Shooting in continuity in the courtroom is excellent, that really helps.
S.J. Clarkson: Oh my god, I couldn’t have done it without it, I’m sure.
Martin Scorsese: In designing shots, how do you decide what tool you use to interpret the scene?
S.J. Clarkson: So, with Kate entering the Old Bailey, I think I brought my own fear to the table. “Courtroom, ugh.” And I just didn’t want to alienate people that maybe thought, “Oh, I know what this is going to be. We’re in the courthouse.” Where you cut to the austere white of the courtroom, and then a figure walking towards you, and you go, “Oh, it’s a courtroom drama. What else is on?” So I felt I wanted to punch in hard with it, obviously. But also, Kate’s character is on the move. She doesn’t stop. She is on a mission, because if she stops for a second, all the crap from her past is going to come hurtling towards her and she’ll have a meltdown. So she is someone that keeps going. She knows what her raison d’être in life is: to do these cases. She’s keeping it together. She’s got it all sewn up, or so she believes. So there was this real momentum to her, and also, she’s just succeeded in the case.
So I wanted her to get this punch of momentum, propulsion, but also this deep-rooted sense that she’s waiting to scream. Pent-up, unsettling. We did a lot of research. We talked to a fantastic QC who gave us an awful lot of insight — and she talked about what a pain in the arse it was having to walk from the Old Bailey back to Chambers with all your files. So that’s why they all had flight cases. They all looked like they were going away on holiday.
So, Michelle’s character wanted to come in hard and come in punchy. Those first 90 seconds, you were dragged in and out of the court without thinking about it. The audience are Kate’s character, and in that environment, that’s her environment. Also, when they go there every day, the QCs were saying that they don’t think about the Old Bailey being the magnificent building that it is. The same way we stand on set and just go, “Oh, this is a set.” because you’re just like, “Shit, how many shots do I have to get through today?” And you just forget that majesty. So, I wanted to give a nod that it’s there, but not linger on it, because for her she just literally passes through it every day. Then by contrast there’s the abrupt cut to Sophie’s entrance, which was much softer, was much more elegant, and she was in a much slower world, almost regal, walking through it.
Martin Scorsese: I think some of the best moments are just shots of James sleeping, and Sophie is looking at him.
S.J. Clarkson: Yes, but that’s just it. She’s questioning him throughout that. Sienna was the heartbeat of the series. I mean quite literally, in that scene in the living room when he tells her about the affair, and they’re sat there. I wanted her with the pictures of the family on her side, because she is there defending the family, and meanwhile there are storm clouds coming in down his side of the frame. So, it was like this storm was coming into this house and into this beautiful world. And while we were recording that scene, I could hear Sienna’s heartbeat from her radio mic, and I was like, ‘That’s a heartbeat.’ It was coming through. Literally, her heart was racing during this scene, she was so in the moment.
Martin Scorsese: There’s something on the track.
S.J. Clarkson: Yes, that’s her heartbeat, that’s Sienna’s heartbeat. I left it in. I didn’t loop it. I just left it, because, while the quality wasn’t perfect, there was something to it that was just undeniable about the emotion and the truth. Incredibly powerful. Yes, well, look, that’s Sienna. She’s phenomenal in it. I mean in many ways, we would each day go, “What happened yesterday?” And I was like, “Well you found out he had an affair”, “Okay but what happened today?’ “Well, you kind found out he had an affair but that was in the news.” So everything was incremental, right.
Martin Scorsese: She keeps looking at the guy, and he’s sleeping in the bed, and then later just with the two kids, oh my god…
S.J. Clarkson: Heartbreaking. Because they were the perfect family. I mean it was her world, that’s what she wanted. I thought it was important for that character to see her agency in it. To see the fact that she’d bought into that lifestyle. That’s what she wanted, and she turned a blind eye, and now it was undeniable, she could no longer turn her back on it: she had to confront who this man is.
Martin Scorsese: The in-laws, when she goes to the in-laws.
S.J. Clarkson: Don’t we all love Tuppence? The brilliant Phoebe, I mean she’s honestly so good, that was such a brilliant scene and I’m so glad we got that in there. That was a great scene in the book, that I remembered. It’s funny isn’t it when you adapt a book, there are those things that really kind of speak to you, there are those moments. And the Tuppence one was one I remember: I remember the cheating at Monopoly, really, I was like, he got applauded for cheating at Monopoly. He was allowed to make up cards, you know?
Martin Scorsese: Well he’s teaching the kids, he’s teaching. That’s okay, teach the kids, but don’t applaud that you cheated!
S.J. Clarkson: And they did and it’s all funny “They cheated, yay!” And you go, “Oh my god this is quite horrifying.” And god bless Sienna in that moment, kind of laughing along but thinking, “Oh my god. I’m just wanting to run.”
Martin Scorsese: What is he teaching the kids, oh my god.
S.J. Clarkson: So in terms of that, I do choreograph a lot before I get there. I tend to go back on the set as much as I can, or on the location and really start beating it out and thinking about it and I have a great team around me who all stand in for characters. But, I like to figure out where it’s going to go, because I don’t think those shots you can just do on the day, I think you have to think about them. Things change on the day, things tweak, but you have a rough idea of what you’re doing — and I’ll be honest, some of them I was doing not on the hoof but sort of, the morning of. I’d come in, or I’d stay late, and I knew I wanted to do a developing shot and be with James and then hand off to her and then whip back to him for the reaction or whatever, but I didn’t quite know how I was going to land it. But the wonderful thing about doing six episodes is you are repeating on these sets again and again and again, so it’s almost like you get another go. You get to try something else, so by the time I’d finished on that white house set, I’d shot every corner of it. I mean it had been meticulously designed in that way, because we couldn’t find a double fronted Regency house, so it didn’t really exist. But I needed both sides of it because I needed James to have his corner and the corridor that separated him from the rest of the family. We couldn’t find that, and again COVID helped us because we were looking for a location — and then with all those rules it was like: we’ve just got to build this. So, we lucked out, and that became literally our home for a few months.
But with those developing shots, you would be able to think about how we move through that area and that space, at what speed, at what pace, when to whip off. I don’t think we did much melding of takes. It was the take that I chose, and for whatever flaws there were, I would go, ‘But that take is the right take because of X.’ I tended not to do any of those fused together.
Martin Scorsese: I remember you’re not very fond of watching rushes?
S.J. Clarkson: No. I don’t like watching rushes. You remember? I just don’t, I think the thing for me is: I’ve seen it. And I’ve spent 12, 13 takes watching it that day, and I feel I’ve got it — and then you go and watch the rushes and you’re like, “Fuck, oh no, shit, that’s not, oh god.” And then I just feel depressed for the day and then I’m like, “Well I want to reshoot that”. On the first day, are you smoking crack? We’re not going back to that set. And so I watch it when I feel like. It’s not that I never do, I sort of just have this love-hate relationship with them.
Martin Scorsese: Me too. But I come from the ancient world where we didn’t have video assist, so I was dependent on my DoP, my operator, who would turn to me and say: that’s the one. And then we’d sit in rushes and see.
S.J. Clarkson: Hoping! Well Life on Mars was on film so I have one experience of that really, where you did watch the rushes because it was on film. Back in the day with film you used to watch them, because the video assist was useless wasn’t it?
Martin Scorsese: Yes.
S.J. Clarkson: It was this fuzzy thing that you barely could see.
Martin Scorsese: Now it’s amazing. I mean I still have problems with the amount of time it takes, however I do find that in the last stages of editing we find that take nine — that I had as a second best or a third best — that’s the one we use. Mainly because of the way the whole film is shaped.
S.J. Clarkson: True, but do you mark them? Because I tend to circle them. Say, for example, we do sort of anything between 7 and sometimes 13 takes on the steadicam, and some are really obvious — you’re like “we’re not going to use any of that”.
Martin Scorsese: I do “preferred” and my “double preferred” then every now and they say, is there a “triple preferred”? And I say I don’t think so.
S.J. Clarkson: Exactly, I’ll have that one, and that one, and that one. But I do watch. If it’s a one-r sometimes I’ll get seduced into watching it again — but then you do often see the things that you didn’t like.
Martin Scorsese: Now though, I must say that it’s an extraordinary time, because if a hand is here and it should be here, well there is CGI.
S.J. Clarkson: Well there is that. We didn’t have so much of that on our budget, but yes there is.
Martin Scorsese: Oh yes of course, I tend to think, there is CGI, up to a point, which is the money.
S.J. Clarkson: Exactly. Anything’s possible — except when your team go, uh no we can’t do that.
Martin Scorsese: Yes, when I look at them, and ask ‘Is it? No, can’t have it, okay fine”. But no, it’s much ado, as you really have to absorb it in a way: thinking of a scene particularly and the way you have it. Your scripting, your pre-production and your preparation I should say — that’s really understanding or learning the philosophy of the shot. What the shot should be, what the morality of the shot really is. “I need to go from her to him, and I have to lose her visually.” That’s a major decision. It isn’t just shooting a two-shot, a single, and another single, you know?
S.J. Clarkson: It’s a big decision, and sometimes the actors get in, and then they act it, and you go, “Oh fuck, oh he’s now doing it like that, and I wasn’t expecting that — so I now can’t lose it now.” And sometimes you get there and you go “This isn’t going to hold”. I think when you do plan for a developing shot, especially if it’s a one-r, I think you always have to trust your gut and go, “Does it hold?” Because they don’t always. You could have a great idea and then sometimes, you go “well it works up until that point but then we need to do a 180 flip”, or follow them, or find a new in, and make it the beginning of a scene.
But yes, you have to almost work backwards. Say, for example, when we were in the white house and they needed to go and open the door to Chris Clarke. I needed Rupert to be first out the door and Sienna second, so that then meant that Sienna needed to be the other side of the counter, but she was initially the other side because the steadicam was over here instead of over here — so then we realised that I was trying to do one and a half turns, but we could only actually do a 3/4 turn. So then you say, “Okay, well you take the plate to there, and you do that because I need you back facing each other for the moment about the PTA. So you have to be looking at each other and noticing each other, you haven’t been paying attention to each other until this moment, so that has to be when you stop. And then the doorbell goes.” So, you can start off with a good idea but then you could run it dry — so it’s often thinking “Where do I need this shot to end, and how can I start on one person with a certain emotion, play the scene, and then end on the other person — or someone else in the scene — having changed our opinion of the perspective.” That to me is why a one-r is worth doing.
Martin Scorsese: It’s writing the shots and it’s really choreography, it’s like music. It becomes so technical.
S.J. Clarkson: It is.
Martin Scorsese: You have a good team with you, saying we could push the person in there and move it this way. I had a few like that on this picture too. Over the years it’s been interesting, especially knowing when to stop.
S.J. Clarkson: When to stop, when to know you’ve had a good thing and stop it now.
Martin Scorsese: It’s an extraordinary thing. You had rehearsals in the courtroom, how the hell did you work on that?
S.J. Clarkson: Well, it was a lot, it’s almost PTSD thinking about it. But we would sit down, and I tend not to want to really rehearse it in the way that I think one might a play. We would read the scene, sat down, anywhere. Michelle would always want to pretty much sit where she did in the scene, but Rupert rarely sat in the dock, he’d often sit next to me on the jury bench when we’re reading it through. And the lovely Jonathan Coy, who played our judge, would be up there and we would just read the scene through. Not really acting it, just read it through. And then we’d say “Well, okay, what’s the scene about? Where’s the turning points? Who has the upper hand? How do you feel when this moment happens?” And we would just start to pace it in that way, and really wrestle with the dialogue and make sure there wasn’t anything… because no matter how well it’s written you’re going to get to the day and there’s going to be things that are overwritten or it’s not working, or it’s not landing, or sometimes you need to tweak something.
So we’d go through all of those. Melissa was there, our writer, and would also go all through all of those. And then we’d just leave it, and I’d leave them with notes: “Okay I think you have to come out of the blocks hard, I think you have to come out punching, and I think you take it much slower.” Because, again, you want to get that dynamic in a court room. If everybody comes out at speed, trying to make the court room interesting, you’re lost. Because then you’ve set a pace that you can’t get away from. So, it was about playing with the tone and then figuring out how we would do the flashbacks — because obviously we would shoot the scene and then we’d do all the intricate flashbacks later. Most of them were match frames, so we had to have an image-switcher so we could literally put them on the same lens and match their faces, so that all the head turns completely matched.
Martin Scorsese: That worked beautifully. In a picture that is four and a half hours, there’s so many characters and they’re different ages, and yet you were able to come up with this thing where the faces match into a flashback. Which really works, especially in recognition. This is done purely with digital?
S.J. Clarkson: No, we did it all in camera. They were match framed. We’d get the image switcher that the DIT would put on, and then we would literally slide between. So you had to pick which was your master, and then you just switch between them, and then it was literally a match frame. Sometimes we’d have to match on a different lens though. So we’d have to then marry that, and then literally cut it: I’d literally shoot it for the edit in which to cut it, and know where the head turn was. And the toughest thing for the cast was understanding that the head turns were more dramatic. Because they’re in the court room, they’re literally in a court room, and I’m asking them to sort of snap their head back, and they’re like, “this feels really weird”.
Some of it we were doing before we’d shot the other side of it, or the lead-in side of it. That was the toughest thing. So for example Rupert, when he’s having his cross-examination, he realises about June 23rd and he’s thinking “Fuck, I lied on the phone call” and he looks up when he realises — that was shot in the first week, and we didn’t get to the court room until two and a half months later. So, I did that and it wasn’t the frame that I really wanted, but we were running out of time. I needed the look, and I was like, just get it on the Steadicam. There was supposed to be a nice push in on that, we didn’t get it. It was just like, that’ll do. So sometimes you just get away with it, right?
But I had to meticulously go through and go “Okay: use of head turns, use of action”. It was always about matching an action. I mean look, if you go back to The Graduate, Mike Nichols, he did it brilliantly, with the scene in the swimming pool. He jumps up onto the lilo, and then he’s on top of Anne Bancroft, and then he hears the voice and looks up and he’s back in the pool, right? There are 3 or 4 cuts together that just take you into his mind about where he is. So it was looking at that: how you can make an action cut move in, and cut you into the next thing. We would rehearse and shoot the courtroom, pretty standardly, once we got our developing shot out of the way, again fairly standardly. And then during the court room scenes I’d call out what they were seeing, or thinking or saying, and then we’d come back in and we’d go in and pick up all those match frames, and whips and pans. Sort of after the main body of the scene was done.
Martin Scorsese: It’s wonderful. How do you keep up the energy of the actors in there?
S.J. Clarkson: Well, you might have heard that Michelle Dockery is rather partial to Percy Pigs. They are these little things from Marks and Spencer in London. Don’t know if you’ve ever been there — maybe when you are in town. You’d probably hate them, I don’t know, you might not. But they’re these little raspberry flavoured, marshmallow-y chewy… they’re grim. But they’re Michelle’s favourite thing, so I used to chuck some Percy Pigs at her or hide them under her lectern, just to keep her going, get the sugar levels up. She was great, she was fantastic. And then of course Sienna wanted them, so we were lobbing them up to her. Obviously all COVID safe, by the way, they were all in packets and everything else.
Martin Scorsese: I’ll try it on De Niro when I work with him again.
S.J. Clarkson: I’ll tell you what, I’ll send you some Percy Pigs. Try them on De Niro, I think he’s going to love it. I think you’ll get a lot more out of him, honestly. You’ll see a change. That’s it, I’m sending them to you. We’re getting you Percy Pigs. My assistant’s on it already, being shipped to you as we speak. Yes, they definitely had some Percy Pigs. So there was that.
Martin Scorsese: The Libertines flashbacks were remarkable. It does have the lineage of a horror film.
S.J. Clarkson: Pretty horrific, their behaviour, isn’t it really?
Martin Scorsese: The edges of the frame, you feel everything’s going to go out of control. It’s hard to look at.
S.J. Clarkson: We shot that first Libertine scene, which actually comes in episode two, quite early on. That was at Shepperton, in one of Netflix’s offices which was a wooden old office at Shepperton, which we took over and obviously re-dressed with all our stuff, all that champagne. But those boys were great, and it was really interesting seeing this young generation so hesitant to be like that actually, which was quite encouraging. They were sort of shy, you know, and then they got completely into it. But they were awkward about being so boyish and gross and disgusting. It’s disgusting, but you laugh at it, because they’re just being obnoxious aren’t they?
Martin Scorsese: Yes, but it’s scary.
S.J. Clarkson: Yes, you wouldn’t want to walk into that room I’ll tell you that. And that’s what the waitress is there for, to show how that would be horrific.
Martin Scorsese: That guy ends up being killed. Where were those scenes shot by the way?
S.J. Clarkson: The cloisters were actually at Winchester College. We shot a lot in Oxford, we were about a week in Oxford. I liked the description in the book that they were just in the Libertines common room, and he fell out the window. I just felt that being on the top of the clock tower — time, passage of time — just gave it a little bit more cinematic bite. And also that fall, there was no denying you were dead. You knew he wasn’t going to survive it. So, that was all shot at Winchester College, and then we kind of merged it. We would shoot Winchester sections of it, and then they would run around a corner, and they’d be running through Oxford, and then they’d run back to a different part of Winchester. Those needed an awful lot of work, but the cloisters for the rape at the end of episode four was also Winchester.
Martin Scorsese: It feels gothic. Little bit of Hammer film in there.
S.J. Clarkson: Little bit. Try to please everybody, give everybody a bit of something.
Martin Scorsese: How did you do the casting? The cast is so extraordinary.
S.J. Clarkson: Well I mean they make it, really. I lucked out. I’d been wanting to work with Sienna for years, and this felt like a really good one for us. We’d been circling each other and I saw her do The Girl, which was the one about Hitchcock’s The Birds — it was the HBO one. It sort of got buried because it was the same time as there was a movie of it, but she was fantastic in it, I thought she was phenomenal. And I just approached her, and I’m sure you feel this, once you get De Niro or DiCaprio or whatever — you know where the film’s rooted then. You’ve got to get that one that helps you know where the film kind of sits.
And so I got her. And then I’d always, always, thought about Rupert to play James. I loved him in The Young Victoria, and Homeland, he’s phenomenal. I always saw him in The Young Victoria where he’s so charming and likeable but can also be tough and can exude that privilege. I had to put in quite a lot of persuasion for him to do it, probably three 2-3 hour Zooms, because you know, not many men run at playing an accused rapist, but he understood what I wanted to do with it. And when I talked to him about it I explained that James would get to a place at the end of episode one where he would feel like the accusation of rape was a gut punch. I said I really wanted to realise that literally.
Martin Scorsese: I had a question from Sasha in the audience. What was the idea behind the visual style and effects when key characters experience moments of stress and surprise, for example when the MP learns he’s been accused of rape? Which by the way is totally unexpected.
S.J. Clarkson: That very moment. That’s right, you want to get to that place at that point where you’re with James. I hoped you would get to the place where you’re with James and for him it felt like that: he’d just ‘fessed up to this affair, he’s kind of gone through the hell hole that was the press, and his wife’s forgiven him, and now, boom.
How do you articulate a story cinematically? I felt that at the end of every episode we had the opportunity to do some cinematic punctuation, that was both visual but represented that character’s psychological moment. So for him it was a gut punch, for Sienna at the end of episode two, she thought it was just an affair, and now she’s seen this beautiful Olivia Litton talking about the affair and the fact that she’s still in love with him. And suddenly for her she’s falling down the rabbit hole. And she knows that lift because she’s been to Parliament, we’ve seen it in episode one. She would imagine what it was like in there, she’s now imagining her version of that event. And she’s out of control, she’s in there and she wants to confront it, but she can’t — which is why I put her in the lift, where she’s just free falling, as her life hangs in the balance now in this trial. I wanted to have a sort of performance with the Old Bailey.
So it always came from the narrative and psychological perspective of each character, but with the intent of where the story was going. But I just felt that — again, maybe it was my fear of a court room drama — I just wanted to give these cinematic flourishes that punctuated through the general narrative.
Martin Scorsese: I have another question about the end of each episode, but you’ve just answered that really.
S.J. Clarkson: Well, also if they’re really bad you could just cut them out without really worrying, know what I mean? It didn’t make a big hole in the movie, right? The end of it is the end of it, if it didn’t work, and they were pretentious, then you know... But it felt like they fell into place. Some of them were slightly different than the intention was. Actually ,the one at the end of episode three, I went a step too far and it was raining inside their room at the end, and it was just one layer too many. So I did it once without the rain as you do, for safety. It’s like that thing that you were saying, when do you know it’s too much? I was watching it and I was like, oh no, this is bad. I’ve just made a mistake. So always shoot the safety if you can, because I’m glad I did, because it just didn’t work.
Martin Scorsese: These are emotional and psychological impressions that you’re visualising. A dream state.
S.J. Clarkson: Exactly, taking you out of reality.
Martin Scorsese: How did you approach the dreams? She hits him in the head with a rock in one.
S.J. Clarkson: I think that one was the most stylised in terms of lighting. I think you open the first five seconds or so, thinking it’s real, but then the minute she sits up and there’s smoke I think you’re going, “we’re in a dream”. I was slightly worried that we had visions, memory and dreams, you suddenly had all of these things. How do you differentiate? That’s, I think, the only dream in it unless I’m mistaken. I think the only dream was in the top of episode four with Sienna, so I think stylistically we made that feel very much dreamlike, fantasy, whereas the others were more, “I’m remembering being there, it’s a bit hazy but it’s a real world” you know?
Martin Scorsese: Did you storyboard, or was it figured out on the day?
S.J. Clarkson: Bit of both. I mean, I do storyboard. I do scribbles. So for example, the shot in episode one where she goes to sleep but they’re not asleep, they’re both lying there awake — and then we cut to James’ POV but it’s the morning, and we sort of pivot and twist and come around and wake up as the sun comes up. That one was boarded, as it were. “I want the camera at 90 degrees, and then we’re going to do the turn around like that.” Then there are other moments, especially with the match frames, that were literally scribbled on a post-it and stuck in the script. Because my nugget to everyone is — especially in TV where the scripts change a lot — if you draw on a little post-it you can just pull it out and stick it on the next page. So, I was able to take my little post-its of story boards and go, “I want it to look like this”. Or again, my script supervisor would have pictures of it to show us if it changed. So, I would definitely do that, but in terms of the developing shots, you can’t really storyboard a developing shot. You’ll be there forever, it’s not going to look good. The best thing to do is get to the space, or create a similar space that you want to use. Use your phone, if necessary. In fact I did one this morning with a stunt rehearsal: you just follow around with the phone and get the idea of how it’s working, what you need to do.
Martin Scorsese: It’s wonderful.
S.J. Clarkson: Thank you so much, and I can’t thank you enough for doing this. It’s been a while since I saw you last, but I’m so grateful. Marty’s been such a champion of mine, and I can’t thank you enough for the support you’ve given me since our time on Vinyl together. Good times!
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